Forms of engagement: Toward a language for the ethical significance of classroom literacy practices

Alice Lesnick, University of Pennsylvania


This study explores the ethical significance of students' literacy practices in two secondary English classrooms—an eighth grade, inclusive Language Arts/Social Studies class in an urban public middle school and a twelfth grade English class in a suburban private girls' school. In contrast to traditional interpretations of the ethical domain which take the individual as the primary unit of analysis, this study argues for an exploration of the constellation of relationships through which students participate in literacy practices. Such an expanded view of the ethical domain challenges the image of the classroom as solely an assembly of individuals acting autonomously and establishes literature as more than a source of role models or moral precepts. Using the literatures on critical and feminist educational praxis, classroom-based literacy research, and narrative and aesthetic experiences and drawing on ethnographic methods (including participant observation, interviews, and review of student writing), this study is a hybrid of the ethnographic and grounded theory approaches within qualitative research. Both of these research traditions support the two dimensions of the study's focus: the ethical sense students made through relationships with texts, one another, and people (actual and fictional) represented by texts (others' and their own); and the sense I as a researcher made of the ethical import of these relationships. Students positioned and recognized themselves and others, and they enacted responsibilities and possibilities, within the context of relationships created through the following forms of engagement: evaluating, distancing, empathizing, affiliating, disclosing, and resisting. These findings indicate that constructing meaning through literacy practices entails the negotiation and re-negotiation of relationships that contribute to students' and teachers' recognition of and participation in the ethical domain. One of the salient conclusions of the study is that the ways in which students envision and enact such relationships vary with the participant structures dominant within classrooms.

Subject Area

Language arts

Recommended Citation

Lesnick, Alice, "Forms of engagement: Toward a language for the ethical significance of classroom literacy practices" (1999). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9926161.