Getting Dialogical with Professor Bob Fecho from the English Education Program
This past fall, Bob Fecho, formerly a professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia, joined the faculty in the English Education program at Teachers College. Prof. Fecho is not only distinguished in the study of language, identity and sociocultural perspectives in secondary classrooms, but has decades of firsthand experience with his own students.
After graduating from Pennsylvania State University, Prof. Fecho taught almost exclusively in African-American working class and working poor neighborhoods for his entire 24-year teaching career in North and West Philadelphia. He became involved with the Philadelphia Writing Project after connecting with Susan Lytle, Prof. Emerita of Education in the program of Reading/Writing/Literacy at Penn’s Graduate School of Education, who ran the project at the time. Soon after, he began to look at his own classroom as a teacher researcher.
Those already familiar with Prof. Fecho may know him from his “Research in Practice” course which tasked students to inquire into their own teaching practices. Students, some of whom were practicing teachers and others who were full-time students, focused on issues in their own classrooms, assessed them, and broke these issues down into systematic and intentional inquiries.
“This whole idea of looking qualitatively at their classrooms has been an eye-opener for many of them to see there are ways to do research that are more descriptive than quantitatively evaluative,” he said.
Prof. Fecho credits his attraction to studying English to a love of language. “One of the things I connect it to is my dad, who worked in a factory all his life and didn’t graduate high school. But he loved language. He was always a punster; he liked to play with language,” he said. Through this gentle yet playful relationship with language, he learned that language can be a malleable, living thing. “When I look back on it, I think it gave me the sense that language is flexible. So yes, there are rules about language but those rules are really only guidelines of language,” said Prof. Fecho. It was this interest in language that drew him to the perspectives of his urban students about language and particularly to issues related to dialect and standard English.
Prof. Fecho’s latest project, Dialoguing across Cultures, Identities, and Learning: Crosscurrents and Complexities in Literacy Classrooms, is almost an experiment in itself, as he and a colleague from the University of Texas, El Paso are writing a new text using dialogical methods. “Neither of us has really written this way before, where one of us will write part of a chapter, really just a few pages of it, and then we’ll send it to the other person.” he said. The two continue to send the text back and forth inserting notes, playing with the content and making adjustments until they feel satisfied with the to and fro dance.
“So it’s become this really great way of writing — not the most efficient way of writing — but we’re educating each other in the process and we’re both learning from this. It really is a dialogue that’s going on in creating these chapters, so it’s been a lot of fun and very interesting.”
One of Prof. Fecho’s more recent book projects is a text entitled, Teaching for the Students: Habits of Heart, Mind, and Practice in the Engaged Classroom (2011). “It’s geared for teachers who position themselves as dialogical teachers and suggests ways they can do it,” says Prof. Fecho. It also asks teachers to assess what they already do in their own classrooms and practices they still might be able to accomplish with their students.
This Spring, Prof. Fecho is teaching the literary theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and linguist who is famous for writing about language and the way language operates. In his course, Prof. Fecho delves into such questions as, “If language operates this way, what does that mean for classrooms and how we teach English in classrooms?”
A second course focuses on his current Dialoging Across Cultures book, and delves into culture and literacy in the classroom. “We try to complicate the idea of culture and move it beyond just the idea of race and ethnicity,” he said. “In some ways, due to the history and current political situations in the United States, race and ethnicity figure large in people’s minds when they think about culture. However, we’re multicultural beings dialoguing in multicultural contexts, so cultures transact in our lives in complex ways.” The course looks at the implications our embodiment as cultural beings has on our classrooms.
When he’s not digging into European crime fiction or chatting through FaceTime with his granddaughter, Maeve, Prof. Fecho plays folk music on guitar and watches movies.
Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a second year M.A. student in the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.