Jones, K. (2020). Preservice teacher commognitive conflict around poetic discourse in digital spaces and implications for equitable teaching. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 20(4).

Preservice Teacher Commognitive Conflict Around Poetic Discourse in Digital Spaces and Implications for Equitable Teaching

by Karis Jones, New York University


This study used the commognitive framework (Sfard, 2009) to study the learning of preservice teachers in a collaborative digital environment, examining a case of commognitive conflict around using informal and multimodal representations to discuss poetry as opposed to formal academic English. The analysis shows the complexity of power relationships around language use in collectively owned online spaces and the difficulty of shifting the leading discourse when teachers step back and allow students to drive digital discussions.

“All poets, all writers are political. They either maintain the status quo, or they say, ‘Something’s wrong, let’s change it for the better.’” (Sanchez, 1999)


As the field of higher education goes through a paradigm shift due to COVID-19 and the mass digitalization of instruction, many teacher educators will need to start engaging with digital contexts for poetry. This situation gives provides an opportunity like never before to broaden instructional practices by embracing the affordances of digital spaces. However, the US is also in the midst of a national reckoning with the racist ideologies baked into its educational systems, and teaching antiracist ideologies is essential as teachers work to dismantle societal inequities.

The objective of this study was to examine shifts in classroom discourses during a hybrid (physical and digital) poetry course that I taught to undergraduate English preservice teachers. Over the course of this class, I noticed a conflict as several PSTs resisted using informal and multimodal discourses to analyze poetry, despite course aims and instructional guidance. This study addressed the difficult but important task of helping preservice teachers make critical language shifts in participatory digital poetry spaces.

Problems With Standard Language Ideology in Education

A problematic language belief often reproduced in preservice  teacher education is the standard language ideology: “a bias toward an abstracted, idealized, homogenous spoken language which is imposed and maintained by dominant bloc institutions” (Lippi-Green, 2011, p. 64). In the field of education (and elsewhere) is a pervasive idea of a consensus around what counts as “proper” English and the belief that other dialects or uses are objectively wrong or worse (Bacon, 2017). This ideology leads to dehumanizing practices such as what Baker-Bell (2020) called anti-Black linguistic racism: “linguistic violence, persecution, dehumanization, and marginalization that Black Language-speakers experience in schools and in everyday life” (p. 12).

This idea stands in opposition to the position that language and literacies are culturally and socially situated (Street, 1984) and that different discourses — or ways of thinking, using language, and acting within a particular community — are appropriate for different contexts and communities (Gee, 1989). Sociocultural stances on language reject the idea that one form of language is inherently superior to another but acknowledges that certain discourses have more socially constructed power than others.

Specifically, standard language ideologies — and the accompanying positioning of academic language as culturally neutral — pervade English education and are especially harmful when teachers exclusively assess students based on hegemonic conceptions of standard English, even though their students do not use that discourse on a daily basis (Baker-Bell, 2019; Johnson, 2018; Ladson-Billings, 1995; McMurtry, 2018). Language varieties viewed as nonstandard are often unfairly seen as wrong or less valuable in the classroom due to inequitable hierarchies of language based on race (Inoue, 2015). In instruction, these ideologies surface when teachers require classroom communication to happen using dominant discourses of academic English, correcting or chastising students when they draw on cultural or informal dialects that are perceived as having less symbolic capital (Fairbanks & Ariail, 2006).

Because language and identity are inextricably linked, critical educators insist that English discussions and assignments should have space for students to express themselves in their own vernaculars and dialects, often examining rap or spoken word poetry as key spaces for this sort of expression (Blackburn & Stern, 2000; Desai & Marsh, 2005; Smitherman, 2004). The inappropriate use of standard English by teachers to correct student voice in poetry assignments has been closely examined by Kirkland (2019) as a problematic act of erasure and silencing. He called teachers to move away from teaching standard language and instead consider new forms of language and literacies, including digital social contexts:

Rather than restricting ELA to conventions of yesterday, we would do better to let it expand by embracing the evolution of texts, texts that come to us with their own histories and grammars — sometimes similar to the traditional forms of print that currently dominate English classrooms and sometimes vastly different. (Kirkland, 2013b, p. 46)

Instead of teaching only standardized language, Kirkland (2013b) called educators to “New English Education,” which expands subject matter from traditional canonical works and standard English to “socially, politically, and culturally relevant” (p. 42) texts and languages. Many preservice teachers need to learn that language — including poetry but also poetic thinking and analysis — can happen in discourses and modalities other than written standard academic English.

Teaching Poetry in Digital Environments

In response to teachers’ difficulties with helping students discuss the nuances of poetry (Hughes, 2007), several studies can be found in the literature on the benefits of preservice  teachers’ (PSTs) learning and teaching poetry in digital environments, often asynchronous online discussion platforms. As Hughes and Dymoke (2009) aptly pointed out,

Poetry is embedded in the rhythms of everyday life through lyrics, tweets and text messages, through street talk, protest rallying calls, football songs and advertising jingles and … it is performed at slams, open-mike events and broadcast on YouTube and accessed through websites like the Poetry Archive ( … Poetry is a playful, multimodal living medium rather than one which should be stranded forever on the printed page. (p. 93)

Multiple studies find that online spaces allow PSTs opportunities to explore the multimodal possibilities of poetry, such as linking to YouTube videos, using programs to rearrange words in poems, or experimenting with pairing text and visuals, as well as to discuss collaboratively poetry’s complexities in iterative and networked ways (Dredger et al., 2017; Dymoke, 2016; Dymoke & Hughes, 2009; Hughes & Dymoke, 2011). Researchers are especially interested in how online environments allow English PSTs opportunities to engage with poetry in a more participatory way, permitting them to challenge and expand their understandings of language and literacies.

Specifically, Dredger et al. (2017) considered the ways that PSTs in wiki spaces have the chance to develop four dispositions of New Literacies (Knobel & Lankshear, 2007) through writing and analyzing poetry: participation over publishing, distributed expertise, sharing over ownership, and experimentation over normalization. These studies explore the many affordances of digital spaces and make a convincing case for why poetry as a “playful, multimodal living medium” (Hughes & Dymoke, 2009, p. 93) flourishes so well there. However, these studies often explore the benefits of technology and digital spaces without considering the ways technology is socially shaped and can allow the reproduction of social inequalities along cultural, racial, and gendered lines (boyd, 2014; Kirkland & Shange, 2010). Though examples of student discourse in these studies give examples of informal student writing, such as breaking away from standard capitalization and punctuation or using slang and textual emoticons, the use of this informal and multimodal language is not explicitly studied.

Thus, this paper reports the examination of a learning objective that has not often been addressed: the ways PSTs may struggle to embrace the possibilities of digital spaces because of deficit-oriented language ideologies. To engage with poetic discourses through more informal dialects and modalities, students have first to move away from textual communication in standard academic English.

From a critical perspective, this shift in thinking is important for PSTs to practice, as teachers perpetuating standard language ideologies in classroom spaces can alienate and marginalize students with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds (Farr et al., 2010; Kirkland, 2013a). Learning to see the value in thinking outside of standard language discourses is essential for PSTs to support more equitable pedagogies centering language variation.

Theoretical Framework

As I considered this problem of practice — a clash in discourses, primarily on my digital classroom platform — I searched for a theoretical lens that would help me arrive at practically applicable results. With this aim in mind, I found myself dissatisfied with frameworks used by other researchers examining how PSTs learn through digital poetic discourses, as these frameworks focused on what individuals learned instead of how individuals learned.

For instance, Dredger et al. (2017) drew on New Literacies and Cognitive Flexibility Theory to examine PST knowledge acquisition and shifting attitudes toward using new digital tools, while Dymoke and Hughes (2011) used frameworks that focused on how PSTs developed pedagogical knowledge.

Although these studies examined student participation in online platforms, they theorized learning as individual acquisition as opposed to changing participation structures (Sfard, 1998). Additionally, these frameworks that focused on knowledge acquisition were not able to account for the ways that power hierarchies around language restricted participation in informal and multimodal discourses and, thus, constrained particular types of pedagogical knowledge acquisition, an equity concern that was both clear in the literature and the emerging data analyses. These concerns led me to Sfard’s (2007) commognitive framework for learning.

Sfard (2007) asked educators to examine both the “how” and the “what” of learning, with the goal of providing “truly insightful advice to those who try to improve teaching and learning” (p. 566). In this framework, the portmanteau of “cognitive” and “communicative” acknowledges the inherently dialogical nature of internalized language (Vygotsky, 1978), positioning learning as a transformation in discourse. In other words, this lens allows examination of the development of external — and subsequently internal — disciplinary discourses by examining how people learn to talk to others in certain disciplinary ways (communicating) to internalize those discursive practices for themselves (thinking). When using this framework, shifts in thinking happening through shifts in external discourse can be examined.

Sfard (2007) argued that the main opportunities for learning happen through what she called commognitive conflict: the clashing of discourses due to differences in metalevel rules. These conflicts arise from the introduction of incommensurable discourses, which cannot be resolved by shared external rules but must instead be resolved through “making sense of other people’s thinking (and thus talking) about this world” (p. 575).

For example, Sfard (2007) provided a case of two students saying that a shape with three sides is not a triangle because it is “too thin,” which is not a satisfactory answer to their teacher. The teacher shows these students her identification routine of counting the sides of a triangle and asks the students to participate with her. It becomes clear that they have not internalized this metarule for shape identification when they subsequently dismiss a square as not being a rectangle because it is “short.”

In these interactions, the teacher and students’ discourses reveal that they have different rules for being able to identify shapes, and they cannot come to a consensus about whose discourse is right. The students’ rules for naming shapes (that a shape’s dimensions determine what it is called) is incommensurable with the teacher’s rule for naming shapes (that a shape is named based on its number of sides). The way these rules emerge is revealed and becomes clear in the way they talk to each other, as well as the way a conflict in their rules appears through their inability to achieve consensus about how to name shapes.

In this class I taught, I had a similar conflict with my students. I continually noted that my PSTs were not taking advantage of the affordances of our digital platform but were instead relying on long textual posts in standard English. Similarly to the teacher Sfard (2007) described, I found that merely instructing students to participate in different ways on this platform was not yielding the changes I wanted to see.

The commognitive framework suggests that shifting metarules in discourse is difficult, and that to see how disciplinary learning is happening, educators must closely examine student discourses to see the ways that they shift (or do not shift). This examination most often happens through interactions with others — in moments when participants realize that they are working from different sets of assumptions and then work to shift their discourse to what Sfard (2007) called the “leading discourse.” This terminology allows researchers to focus in on conflicts in power between competing discourses, uniquely allowing an examination of the ways these discursive power differentials affect learning.

This framework originates from the intersection of the field of learning sciences and the discipline of mathematics education, and it is often used to examine mathematical or scientific learning closely by looking at changes in students’ discourses. Though several literacy scholars cite ideas from Sfard’s work, no studies have examined using the commognitive framework to examine shifts in disciplinary English conversations, perhaps because of the framework’s association with studying technical discourses with clear metarules.

The commognitive framework itself is not discipline specific and can be applied in any case where people are learning discourses, as all discourses follow certain rules. It also is helpful for shifting understanding and assessment of learning, which Kirkland (2013b) said is vital for reframing English education: “[New English Education] insists on new ELA assessment models capable of ‘illustrating’ (as opposed to measuring) what students have learned” (p. 42).

In these uncertain times many educators find themselves transitioning to digital environments and must continue developing ways to think about equitable digital discourses and how to achieve them in our classrooms. That reconsideration may mean turning to less familiar frameworks that allow a better examination of how power is at work in digital spaces.

In this study there was a clear conflict around the rules for using language for discussing and analyzing poetry in digital spaces. Identifying this site of commognitive conflict allowed me to analyze how students shifted (or what prevented students from shifting) to new and more equitable disciplinary discourses.

Research Questions

To achieve its practical goals, this framework required three foci for empirical studies on learning: (a) the object of learning, (b) the process of learning, and (c) the outcome of learning. In this study, I took up the exact three questions Sfard (2007) said studies must answer and applied them to this case:

  1. In the case under study, what kind of change was supposed to occur as a result of learning?
  2. How did the PSTs and the teacher work toward this change?
  3. Has the expected change occurred?

Data Sources and Methods

Context, Participants, and Positionality

This study centered around the learning activities of a hybrid (physical and digital) undergraduate education course at a large urban private college. In this class, 12 undergraduate PSTs (all participant names are pseudonyms) preparing to be English educators were expected to engage in informal discussions on Slack (an online workspace) to prepare for in-person discussion of various poems. Based on a beginning-of-class survey, PST participants represented a range of intersectional cultural and linguistic identities, as nine of 12 (75%) PSTs used multiple languages for speaking or writing (including English, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French, and German ), with three of 12 (25%) identifying as monolingual English speakers. Eight of 12 (58.3%) PSTs identified as native English speakers, including one student who noted that Korean was his first language growing up but that he was currently better at English. 

Eight of 12 (66%) PSTs said that they had engaged with poetry on digital platforms before this class (including generally finding poems on webpages or Instagram, as well as specifically following Button Poetry on Facebook, watching YouTube slam poets, or browsing Amazon poets bestseller lists). During this semester, one student published a collection of poems through Amazon’s self-publishing services.

As the instructor of this class as well as the researcher, it was important for me to reflect on my positionality in relation to my PSTs. I am a young white woman who has frequently used digital platforms for engaging in my own personal literacies. I make a point to be immersed in various digital contexts for poetry, both through engaging with official platforms that distribute published poetry (like Button Poetry on Instagram or on Twitter), as well as widely popular InstaPoets like Rupi Kaur, and I have shared my own poetry on such social media platforms.

My teaching experience has always been in diverse, urban settings, and I have experience firsthand the harmful divides between (culturally relevant) digital pedagogies and typical English classroom instruction.  Having studied the affordances of digital and social media platforms as well as culturally relevant pedagogies in my doctoral studies, I have taken the lead on integrating equity-focused digital literacies into multiple undergraduate PST literacy courses. I strive to use my personal and teaching experiences to support PSTs in building equitable pedagogies and critically examining the connections between texts, tools and talk (as recommended in Philip & Garcia, 2013), as well as to break down harmful standard ideologies in academic settings (as described in Flores & Rosa, 2015).

As someone who grew up with the privilege of using home discourses that aligned with discourses valued in educational spaces, however, I recognize the importance of viewing my poetic experiences and preferences through a critical lens. I must continually interrogate how I perceive language to disrupt incorrect and inequitable educational hierarchies and, instead, celebrate the linguistic capital of historically marginalized students (Bourdieu, 1989; Yosso, 2005). One of my goals in this class is to help (often white) academically successful PSTs at this private university critically interrogate their language ideologies so as to not reproduce linguistic racism in their future pedagogies (as recommended by Baker-Bell, 2017).

Instructional Routines and Data Sources

The class followed the following instructional routine in Slack: Before each session, the PSTs would discuss multiple poems in multiple threads, with each posted separately in a shared digital space. To accomplish this, I created Slack channels (a separate digital space that could be assigned a specific purposes) for a topical discussion and posted directions for the channel with approximately four to 10 poems. PSTs would then respond to the poems and each other with written comments, emoji reactions, and multimedia responses. Slack allows for posting links or uploading pictures, and I also integrated the Slack application gifly, which allows users to integrate gifs from an online library.

In the general reading and annotation guidelines for posting, PSTs were instructed to comment on several of the posted poems for each topic, with an emphasis on the exploratory and collaborative nature of the postings. I encouraged PSTs to use hashtags for annotation to help organize ideas across the course as well as surface topics of interest. One affordance of Slack is its search feature, which allows users to search words, phrases, or user content across multiple threads.

PSTs were provided with a list of hashtags they might choose from, categorized by content, structure and analysis, and connections (see appendix). Weekly assignments often included specific guiding questions as well as suggestions for particular hashtags that PSTs might use to explore literary devices or thematic topics. An example assignment follows:

Welcome to the realm of metaphysical poetry where #conceits reign supreme! Keep an eye out for #irony and #paradoxes – what exactly are the poets trying to say and why are they saying it the way that they do? I’m also anticipating some strong feelings about #gender and #male gaze.

I continually positioned Slack as a place of informal discussion and generative posting, and PSTs were frequently reminded they could experiment with modalities and language.

In this course, I frequently posted on Slack in an official way (assignments and links to related content), as well as informally (comments on student posts, pictures, memes, and gifs in unofficial channels), and I read all student biweekly discussions on the assigned poems. However, consistent with Dennen’s (2005) recommendations that instructors can best encourage student participation in online spaces by being present without dominating discussion, I rarely posted textual comments in poetic analysis threads, instead being present by responding with emojis on posts and incorporating ideas and questions from PSTs’ Slack conversations into in-person instruction.

At the end of the class, PSTs participated in a 25-minute video-recorded group conversation to elicit reflections on their developing understandings of poetry and their experiences participating in literary discussions on Slack. Data sources for this study included all student and instructor Slack postings over the course of 15 weeks on 31 public channels (with 24 focused on biweekly literary analysis), as well as a transcription of the final in-class conversation.

Data Analysis

My analysis focuses on a case of commognitive conflict — or a clash in communication due to irreconcilable discursive metalevel rules — that implicitly shaped Slack conversations throughout the semester and was explicitly discussed in the class’s final in-person conversation. I found many possibilities for examining departures from rule-governed conversational norms in the class’s Slack conversations, such as uses of informal English dialects (including modern idioms and chat speak), multimodalities (such as pictures and gifs), and conventions around capitalization and punctuation. However, this commognitive analysis specifically centered around the class’s use of hashtagging for literary analysis.

Hashtagging was selected as a site of study because hashtags were integral to most Slack assignments’ instructional guidance, as well as cited as a source of conflict in the final class discussion. Also, all postings related to hashtags were clearly defined and traceable through a Slack-wide search of the term “#”.

The first research question (What kind of change was supposed to occur as a result of learning?) is theoretically focused and was answered through an exploration of norms for hashtagging in this context as presented in the literature. Following Sfard’s (2007) model, I provide definitions of the two conflicting discourses (standard language ideology vs. New English Education practices) as well as the metarules present in each one (see Table 1).

Table 1   Old and New Meta-Rules for Shifting Literacies Dispositions

CategoryUnderlying IdeologyDefinition
Old Meta-RuleStandard language ideology“the idea that there exists a definable, agreed-upon set of conventions for ‘proper’ use of spoken and written English. Through this mythology, divergences from these conventions are framed as improper” (Bacon, 2017, p. 343)
New Meta-RuleNew English Education“an orientation to English studies inclusive of the many varieties of language (i.e., Englishes), texts and modalities of literacy that represent societal shifts” (Kirkland, 2013, p. 42).

The second question (How did the PSTs and the teacher work toward this change?) was addressed through an analysis of PSTs’ hashtag practices in Slack postings, with hashtag use coded across all Slack channels. Over the course of the semester, I collected 378 snippets of discourse containing student hashtags across 24 channels dedicated to literary analysis. Hashtags were not counted multiple times if the same hashtag appeared more than once in an individual post. Some groups of hashtags were counted as one instance if they were clearly part of one utterance (e.g., #Confidence #Is #Key). One student’s hashtag uses were not included because she dropped the course. In one post a student used two hashtags instead of @s to tag other participants, which was dropped as irrelevant.

Based on a priori categories emerging in the literature (Shapp, 2014), these instances of hashtag use were coded based on (a) use of hashtags and (b) syntactic placements of hashtags. The first aspect, use of student hashtags, was coded using Shapp’s taxonomy of “tag hashtags,” used for organizing content by topic, and “commentary hashtags,” used for personal or communal evaluations of content. These hashtags were further organized in more specific categories emerging from the instructional suggestions for hashtag use: content, structure and analysis, and thematic connections and interpretations (see Table 2).

Table 2    Coding Scheme for Student Uses of Hashtags

CategoryCodeDefinitionInstances of Hashtag Use Example
Tag HashtagsContentUnderstanding the content/word choice of the poem23Like several other people here, I find the use of #Christ quite intriguing.
Structure & AnalysisIdentifying/analyzing literary or structural elements300I can definitely see the melancholy #tone in the poem
Commentary HashtagsThematic Connections & InterpretationsMaking thematic connections and personal interpretations53and with movements comes liveliness meaning it is not #lifeless

Another key feature of hashtagging was their syntactic variation. Shapp (2014) defined two categories of hashtags: those placed within the sentence itself and those appended outside of the sentence, frequently at the end.

The last question (Has the expected change occurred?) was considered through a commognitive analysis of classroom discourse in and around Slack, tracing the adherence to old and new metadiscursive rules in the class’s uses of hashtagging in the Slack and their final recorded discussion about their Slack participation.


Object of Learning

In this class, I expected PSTs discourses on Slack to use “many varieties of language (i.e., Englishes), texts and modalities of literacy” (Kirkland, 2013b, p. 42). In other words, I looked for them to shift from using only standard written language to trying out various literacies more informally and flexibly (see Table 1).

One of the key activities where PSTs were expected to develop these discourses was the communal negotiation of hashtagging in Slack discussions. In informal digitally networked spaces, hashtags can often serve as organizational tools, categorizing information in socially relevant ways: “the hashtag serves as a marker to guide the reader to the presence of new, relevant, or unexpected information” (Gleason, 2016, p. 39). Studies of young adults’ New Literacy practices on Twitter have shown that teens can create hashtags to express identity, participate in memes, use humor, and share relevant information.

Over time hashtagging practices can be used for complex social and literary ends, such as orienting within a community, mobilizing others to participate in activities or collaborative narratives, and engaging in reflective emergence, linking the personal with the public in ways that lead to larger societal critiques (Gleason, 2018). Richardson and Ragland (2018) pointed out some of the culturally relevant language uses of hashtagging, arguing that Black Twitter uses hashtags and other social media practices to celebrate Black language and create dominant spaces where standard English and codeswitching is not required.

Process of Learning

Instruction and Hashtag Coding

As the semester progressed, I expected that students would have the chance to play with discourse and learn new disciplinary metarules through their hashtagging practices. To this end, I provided guidance in several places on the Slack describing how students could shift their practices. In the general guidelines for class postings, I explicitly noted that over the course of the semester I expected the class to shift away from instructor-provided hashtags to more personally relevant and communally developed hashtags. Though PSTs were both provided with specific ideas for hashtags in most weekly assignments (see appendix), the use of these instructor-provided hashtags was not enforced, and PSTs were continually encouraged to repurpose, transform, or create new hashtags aligned with their personal or analytic interests.

To examine the process of learning, I coded the class’s hashtag use for both use of hashtags and syntactic placement of hashtags (Shapp, 2014). I organized my examination of tag and commentary hashtags around the categories I had provided for students at the beginning of the semester (see Table 2).

As I coded the use of hashtags using these categories, I noticed some key differences between the original suggestions and how the students used them. The student hashtags in the content category were exclusively used to tag words or quotes from the poem. PSTs did not use any of the instructor-generated hashtags for collaboratively making sense of the content (e.g., #question, #paraphrase, #discussion).

For structure and analysis, PSTs incorporated both instructor-suggested literary and structural elements and also generated their own based on elements they observed (e.g., #enjambment). For the thematic connections and interpretations category, none of the instructor-suggested text-connections tags were used (e.g., #Text-to-Self), though some of the weekly topical hashtag suggestions were taken up (e.g., #gender). In coding hashtag use for its placement, I found that students in this course were more likely to use syntactic inclusion than syntactic exclusion (see Table 3)

Table 3   Coding Scheme for Syntactic Placement of Hashtags

CodeDefinitionInstances of Hashtag Use in Class SlackExample
Syntactic inclusionHashtag used as an identifier within a sentence348The blue guitar #symbolizes imagination
Syntactic exclusionHashtag used as a tag after a sentence28There's a strength to the speaker, who knows no obstruction and who understands her worth. #empowering

Evidence of Old Metarule in Hashtag Practices

Over the course of the semester, hashtags use was most frequently aligned with rules of standard English practice, as evidenced by inconsistent individual and group hashtagging practices as well as a lack of discursive purpose for the hashtags in many posts. Throughout the semester, students most frequently used tag hashtags that were syntactically included in the sentence.

This combination of hashtagging practices frequently resulted in posts that used standard English that incorporated hashtags only to mark disciplinary language. In other cases, the use of hashtags was made discursively superfluous by other standard language practices. Consider the following excerpt from one of Willow’s[a] posts in the 2nd week: “I really like Bria’s point about the guitar creating a new reality. It seems to connect to how Candy mentioned the changing #perspective and how Nina noticed the change in #point of view.”

Though this sort of attributional language would be appropriate for a formal posting, it inefficiently used the affordances of this digital context. Through a New English Educational lens, it might be more appropriate to write the post like so: “I like @Bria’s point about the guitar creating a new reality, connects with the changing #perspective #POV @Candy @Nina.” Although this reworking may not follow standard grammatical conventions, it is more succinct and more clearly organizes whom she is talking to and what she is talking about across posts.

This same problem with the purpose of hashtags occurred as PSTs transformed hashtags into different parts of speech in order to both use standard academic language and keep the syntactic inclusion of the hashtag in the post, such as in this post by Nina: “This poem reminds me a great deal of the chain-mail poem of last week, in that the poet has given the poem a disturbing, #personified power, capable of violence.”

Though the adjective form of #personified makes for a more complex, academic-sounding sentence while still marking the key concept suggested by the instructor, it does not work for organizing concepts across the thread through the search feature (a global search of #personification will not catch the hashtag #personified). These sorts of practices adhered to the letter of the assignment (using hashtags) but did not show a shift in the way PSTs used language.

When two discourses are in conflict, Sfard (2007) pointed out that “the process of change may be ineffective if the interlocutors do not agree on which of these initial discourses should be regarded as setting the standards” (p. 606). She also noted that deciding which discursive rules should be the community standard is a matter of power relationships, which is not as simple as a teacher telling the class how to communicate: “Leadership in discourse is supposed to be attained through agreement rather than means of imposition” (p. 606). Therefore, though I could set guidelines for the assignment and encourage students to change how they participated, it was up to the students to decide how (or in some cases, whether) they would take up these new discursive practices.

Evidence of New Metarule in Hashtag Practices

Throughout the course of the semester, several instances emerged of hashtagging that more closely aligned with language practices of New English Education, where students engaged with more productive and contextually appropriate uses of hashtags, as outlined by Gleason (2018), including using hashtags to create humorous responses, orient within our discourse community, and mobilize others to respond to their ideas.

For instance, PSTs used syntactically included hashtags for humorous purposes. Tracy used a hashtag playfully to justify a connection she made (“I assume that all poems about eagles are actually about the United States because #symbolism”), drawing on an established discourse pattern from internet memes, “because ___ (noun)”. Many of these creative moments were associated with syntactically excluded hashtags. PSTs transformed instructor-provided hashtags by adding question marks to invite further comment to their application of themes (e.g., #societal critique?) or adding extra words for humorous effect, like Nova did: “Are the words in the shape of a penis??? Oh my goodness. #literal imagery.” This creativity of hashtag use was also visible in channels that were not positioned for literary analysis, such as one student posting “that’s against TOS #reported” in the #open-mic channel in response to a student’s playfully derogatory comment about another classmate.

Diamond, a young Caribbean woman who reported speaking Creole at home, was particularly innovative with her use of hashtags within these literary analysis channels. In one post, she used hashtags with words from the poem to provide evidence of a claim (#Greenskin #DribbleOfMud #GreenPod #WetLeaves, as well as #TransformationsAreNotForever). In another post, her series of original hashtags did multiple analytic steps, paraphrasing evidence from the piece (#NoHumanInterctionBetweenTheCharcters), noting an emerging central idea (#DisconnectedFromTheReality), and finally making a symbolic interpretation (#Owls=Gentle #Hawks=Aggressive).

Finally, through the transformation of instructor hashtags or creation of original hashtags, PSTs used hashtags to invite others into conversations around particular ideas and create more collaborative interpretations. For instance, in the 3rd week of class, Tracy used a syntactically excluded hashtags and the social media abbreviation “amirite”: “I really like the line about ‘kingdoms of black and white’ which I take to be touching on the colors of the black text contrasted against the white page #metaphors amirite?”

Diamond referenced Tracy’s evidence as well as her hashtag in a later post:

…The poet #Contrasts/#Conceite Jennys #black and #white world in the first stanza. The mother asks herself a question and then answers “why do I lie to you? Why do I read you tales in which birds speak the truth” #Metaphor for why does she lie to the child by allowing oversimplified fairy-tale values to seem real when she knows that one day Jenny will have to live in the adult world…. She wants to expose her daughter to the truth without taking away her innocence but realizes that in fact #IgnoranceIsBliss.

Using flexible informal language, Diamond addressed Tracy’s idea of the black and white imagery and built on the disciplinary hashtag #metaphor, adding her own layer of meaning with the interpretive hashtag #IgnoranceIsBliss.

Outcome of Learning

Did students shift their discourses in a way that followed New English Education practices? The answer is a qualified yes. As the term progressed, the number of hashtags being used by the class declined (see Figure 1).  However, a close analysis of how these hashtags were used suggests that this was a productive discursive shift. The proliferation of hashtags in the first half of the class often represented PSTs dutifully trying to follow instructor suggestions for hashtags without varying the formality of their language. As the class continued, many PSTs stopped using hashtags in that way.

Figure 1   Instances of Student Hashtag Use Per Assignment

Instead, when PSTs did use hashtags later in the semester, they used them in a way that more closely aligned with New English Education metarules, incorporating hashtags for contextually appropriate collaborative interpretive work. In a key Slack conversation from the end of the semester centered around Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman,” Zhen began with the hashtags #imagery and #repetition, which were both immediately taken up and expanded by Nina and Sarah in the subsequent two posts.

Sarah used and then tied together the concepts represented by these hashtags with a new disciplinary hashtag of #theme:

In terms of #imagery, I liked “A hive of honey bees” metaphorically expressing men being attracted to her…. The same #theme goes on repeatedly, along with the stanza “Cause I’m a woman…. That’s me” to exude her proud and positive attitude towards her body and herself. #repetition

Diamond and Frank took up this concept to dive deeper into the thematic meaning of the poem, with Diamond even placing particular emphasis on her thematic interpretation at the end of the post by separating out each word with its own hashtag (#Confidence #Is #Key). Making a key collaborative move, Frank took up one of Diamond’s original thematic hashtags about #Confidence in order to add his own interpretations: “I agree with Diamond that #Confidence is the key to this poem…” Though Diamond made many interesting and creative hashtags that made sophisticated literary moves, this instance is the only one where someone else took up one of her hashtags and integrated it into their literary analysis.

Diamond also used a hashtag to label an image as a metaphor and quickly described the comparison through the parenthetical: “Not only will the swarm of bees #metaphor (men) see the beauty in you but eventually everyone else will too.” Frank created his own hashtags, creatively integrating the title of the poem as the hashtag #Phenomenal-Woman as well as playing with the instructor suggested hashtag of #gender in the sentence “that sort of #gender-positivity is just phenomenal.”

As seen in Table 3, there was a spike in hashtags for Assignment 14 as PSTs transformed #gender in productive ways to examine related ideas like #gender identity, #gender swap, #gender-inequality, gender #privilege, and Frank’s hashtag #gender-positivity. Thus, through this hashtag, Frank entered into a larger class conversation not just centered around one poem but stretching across the poems to analyze larger thematic patterns.

Though the use of hashtags was more complex and purposeful in this thread, many of the same academic English practices still occurred from the first thread. This struggle between discursive norms continued until the last day of class. On that day, I facilitated a metadiscursive discussion around what students felt like they had learned about poetry and poetic discourses. In this discussion, the tensions between standard language ideologies and New English Education emerged as a topic for discussion.

InstructorI kind of wanted to go back to… the things that we wrote [on Slack] ended up being like very formal and academic, even though we said they were informal, like they were somewhat informal, but what are your thoughts on that, like how come it became so academic?
Nina It's so hard to shake, because we're still like under the impression that, this is the first time we've met you, if this was like a different teacher that we had a bit longer, we might have been more casual, but like we were like, we want to impress her [class laughs] or like we gotta sound like we know what we're talking about, we aren't really prepared for somebody to be like, have fun, we're like, excuse me?
InstructorHow, yeah, go ahead.
Willow I would say that, I think part of it is also making a point, like when you read a poem you want to make a point about it, you want to make some kind of assessment even if it’s just noting like a motif or whatever, but even just saying, like, “Oh, I'm recognizing this pattern throughout the poem. I think it might refer to this,” is already going to take a paragraph. Like, in order to make that point it’s gotta take more time and so, like, having a literary discussion where you’re trying to confine your comments to, like, one or two sentences feels like you're not saying anything. You'd end up just saying, like, “He talks about suns a lot in this,” and it’s, like, cool, but that doesn't feel like I'm saying anything yet. I don't think it was necessarily a problem of, like, I think part of that is the problem of, like, trying to, trying to like appear smart and not being able to shake the formality of it, but I also think a big part of it was just, that’s how you're always going to discuss a poem. It’s the proper way to do it, usually.
 [Tracy laughs, turns to whisper to Candy]
Instructor Thoughts, reactions. You’re laughing, I don't know?
TracyI just think it’s interesting that you say, like, proper, because you were just, like, the way I was just, like, talking to Candy, but I think it’s just, like, interesting because Slack's not a proper way to discuss, so like, yeah.
Willow Yeah, I guess maybe I mean effective, like it, it works better if it just, like, it works better to say, like, this is what I think, this is why I think, and this is where I see it, and that's just going to take longer. But yeah, proper is a silly word.
FrankI think like, at least personally speaking and this is something that I still feel, even coming to the end of the course, like, I feel like there is like a bit of a sense of formality to poetry, I think, like, with more modern poetry it kind of goes away but just, traditionally, like the history behind poetry as a medium, I feel like there's a strong sense of, like, formality to it, that like, particularly toward the beginning, you know, when you're trying to write responses to these works, it just feels wrong to, like, respond to one of these poems with, like, a bunch of emojis or something. It just, I feel like kind of like what Willow was saying, I feel like I need to have a justified and, you know, like, thought-out response to these works given the background of the genre.

Students grappled with the power of standard language in academic spaces. For example, Nina said, “We gotta sound like we know what we’re talking about,” and Willow added, “I think part of that is the problem of, like, trying to, trying to, like, appear smart and not being able to shake the formality of it.” Frank described his preference for formality: “It just feels wrong to, like, respond to one of these poems with, like, a bunch of emojis or something.”

Students began by drawing on the metarules of standard academic English, with Willow implying that one superior form of language exists for conducting poetic analysis: “That’s how you’re always going to discuss a poem. It’s the proper way to do it, usually.” However, this claim was challenged by Tracy, who pointed out that Slack is not supposed to be a “proper” context for discussion.

This exchange reveals a shift in the leading discourse of the class. In this key moment, Willow accepted Tracy’s justification that Slack is not a proper way to discuss. She backtracked from her original previous position, citing the length and content of the post as what is most important instead of the type of language and admitting, “Yeah, proper is a silly word.” Here, she shifted to arguing from the metarules of New English instead of standard language ideologies, showing that she was learning how to communicate within the rules of this new discourse.

Willow particularly struggled with using hashtags in our Slack discourses, as she explained in this final class discussion:

I didn’t like the hashtags either, I never figured out how to actually go back and look at the hashtags, so it didn’t help me, like, look at themes across poems and it felt like I was putting something in, like, I was trying to think about how I use a specific word that I probably wouldn’t use but, like, [used] because I needed to use it for the hashtag.

However, in Assignment 14 Willow used a parenthetical hashtag to connect poems succinctly together across the Slack using the social media abbreviation #tbt (standing for “throwback Thursday” or “throwback to”) to “throwback to” a poem in a previous week:

The shift with the literal change in presentation cues us in that, yes, his Will (#tbt to Sonnet 135) is about sex and masturbation and all that jazz, but it’s also about some form of identity – it’s a joke, but it’s also a real part of him that he embraces and loves.

These conversations showed evidence of PSTs embracing New English Education metarules. In our final class conversation, multiple PSTs advocated for informal and multimodal discourse for poetry analysis, noting that that it “served a different function,” allowing for “a more causal way to grow,” and that informal and multimodal responses were “fun,” “valuable,” “interesting,” and added to the “community feel.”

In conclusion, though the class was unable to fully resolve to use one set of metarules in Slack during the duration of this course, the use of informal discursive practices on Slack clearly introduced a commognitive conflict and led to explicit conversations around metalinguistic rules and expectations. To answer the research question, we do see some cases where the expected change occurred and the discourses of New English Education became the leading discourse for this class. However, it also appears that students were still in the midst of this commognitive conflict even on the last day of class.

Discussion and Implications

Educators are called to recognize the situated, cultural, and multimodal nature of New Literacies and the changing role of teacher from dispensers of knowledge to facilitators of learning. Digital spaces clearly support participatory learning and are lauded for supporting the learning of poetry and related New Literacies dispositions. However, without critical attention, digital spaces can easily reproduce societal ideologies.

In fact, one insight gleaned from the commognitive framework is that the participatory nature of digital environments may make it difficult for certain groups of PSTs to break out of more formal academic discourse patterns, especially those who have been particularly successful in classroom spaces undergirded by standard language ideologies. For instance, Frank, Nina, and Willow — the main three who voiced objections to using informal language for poetic analysis and often posted long responses using standard academic English — all identified as native English speakers and were white or Asian-presenting, thus more likely to be from backgrounds that valued and reproduced assumptions of standardized language use.

The struggle with this ideology in literary discussion was especially striking for several reasons. First, I continually positioned this ongoing Slack assignment as informal. Even though PSTs had 15 weeks to practice New English Education in analytic contexts and though hashtags were one of the few practices I strongly encouraged, PSTs relatively infrequently stepped outside of standard English to use them.

Second, the lack of uptake was unique to these particular analytic Slack assignments. PSTs regularly practiced using informal language or playing with languages and modalities when writing poetry or posting in other less official threads;, such as those titled #random or #open-mic. Also, Diamond, a PST with a Caribbean heritage, regularly used hashtags in creative ways in the literary analysis channels; however, her hashtags were rarely taken up and her more informal hashtagging practices were rarely emulated by other students.

Usefulness of the Commognitive Framework

As Sfard (2009) argued, for commognitive conflicts to be resolved at the class level, “…all the participants need to be unanimous, if only tacitly, about at least three basic aspects of the communicational process: the leading discourse, their own respective roles, and the nature of the expected change” (p. 606). In this online space, figuring out the leading discourse and negotiating power became much more complex due to the distributed ownership of classroom discursive norms.

In this less hierarchical space, where I intentionally stepped back, PSTs had the prerogative to use discourses the way they wanted to, including avoiding certain discourses. PSTs continually circumvented informal and multimodal discourse, as evidenced by their variable use of hashtags on Slack.

Sfard (2009) argued that interlocutors facing conflicting discourses can only agree on a leading discourse if “the discourse… [is] valued (e.g., because being an insider to this discourse is considered to be socially advantageous)” (p. 606). When PSTs command a dominant discourse that is perceived to have considerable social power, they may be reluctant to accept the new metadiscursive rules perceived as societally less valuable.

The commognitive framework is particularly helpful for thinking about learning poetry in digital spaces because it examines learning at the classroom level. Though previous studies of poetry learning describe the participatory possibilities of digital poetry communities, they have exclusively conceptualized learning as individual acquisition, making claims about how preservice  teachers build pedagogical content knowledge and develop New Literacies dispositions (Dredger et al., 2017) or how they have developed their individual poetry-writing skills and practiced giving feedback (Hughes & Dymoke, 2011).

In contrast, the commognitive framework shifts focus to participation and reveals the fine-grained development of new discursive metarules, uncovering “hidden strata of learning-teaching processes” and allowing researchers to “draw novel conclusions about conditions for learning and then to follow the nontrivial pedagogical implications of these conclusions” (Sfard, 2007, p. 611).

Pedagogical Takeaways

Pedagogically, the instructor’s introduction of this commognitive conflict to the class by presenting alternative types of discourse for poetic discussions appears useful. However, it was clearly not enough to ask PSTs continually to shift their metadiscursive rules. Instructors can establish the value of these diverse language practices by more deliberately modeling New English Education practices in their own online linguistic practices, especially showing how it can be used for performing analytic disciplinary work.

For instance, I could have used more variable hashtagging practices in the assignment posts themselves or hashtag suggestions, such as more commentary hashtags or hashtags related to students’ identities. Also, instructors might consider facilitating multiple metalevel conversations about the value of less formal and multimodal poetic discourses, especially regarding the implications for equitable teaching. PSTs may be more willing to try discourses if they have a clear grasp of its purpose and value, as opposed to feeling like they just “needed to use it” (as Willow said in our focus group conversation).

Instructors might even lead PSTs in a reflective critical discourse analysis (Warburton, 2016) of their own language practices in these online participatory spaces, guiding them to examine critically their own classroom discourse practices: Which discourses win out (have more power) and why? What does that show about the group’s values? What are the consequences?

Finally, because language aligning with New English Education must be valued at the group level in order to be accepted as the leading discourse, instructors may need to describe explicitly the possibilities for New English Education language practices, especially if the practices need to be collectively taken up to work. For instance, instead of suggesting that PSTs use particular hashtags, I might have encouraged that PSTs practice specific innovative hashtag practices, like orienting, mobilizing, or reflective emergence (as in Gleason, 2018). Also, when historically marginalized students like Diamond are using hashtags (or other New English Education linguistic practices in creative ways), it might be useful for the instructor either to explicitly praise these literacy practices to the class or to model how to collaboratively engage with and emulate these practices.

In this time of increased digital learning, as educators must study and assess how students learn through discourse on online discussion platforms, especially as participatory spaces make it easy for the leading discourse to slide back into dominant discourses, even despite explicit teacher instruction and student uptake. More research needs to be done to study how these sorts of instructional shifts might support PSTs’ discursive transformation as well as how they might take these ideas up in their postgraduate teaching practices.


[a] This student’s pseudonym is female and I use she/her pronouns because that is how she currently identifies and how she asked to be identified in this paper. The student gave permission to note that for the duration of this course, she used he/him pronouns and presented as male


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Reading and Annotation Guidelines for Posting on Slack

When making a post, you may draw on some of these annotation tags to guide your discussion or add your own. These are general analysis tags; you may also have requirements tied to specific tags which will be posted week by week. These tags are intended to help us sort our online discussion both to guide class discussion based on your interests and for you to easily navigate for your papers. We will be developing these tags together throughout the semester, which means that we may update them or develop new ones. Remember that these discussions are intended to be formative and collaborative, meaning that you should push yourself to explore new concepts and not worry about getting something “wrong.” We want to be supportive in helping each other develop new and deeper understandings of the poems we’re reading.


#[word] – Use this tag to discuss a particular word, what it means, etymology (I like, connotations, double meanings, etc.

Related: #[phrase], #[stanza number]

#question – Use this tag to ask a question about something you wonder or don’t understand

#paraphrase – Use this tag to put a particularly tricky section into your own words

#discussion – Use this tag to flag a passage or question for class discussion

Structure and Analysis

#author/#background info – Use this tag to discuss any outside information you may have needed to search to understand the poem in context

#genre – Use this tag to discuss features of genre in relation to this poem

#theme – Use this tag to explore the messages of the poem; though themes should be non-cliched complete sentences, you can use this tag to tease out and discuss thematic ideas as well

#motif – Use this tag to discuss images, sounds, actions, etc. that have symbolic significance

#symbol – Use this tag to discuss symbols and their importance

#imagery – Use this tag to discuss images and what they might mean

#allusion – Use this tag to point out if a poem is alluding to another work and the significance

#language/#figurative language – Use this tag to discuss specific language or figurative language devices and their meaning

#tone – Use this tag to discuss the mood of the poem; be sure to provide specific examples of words that catch your attention

#rhythm/#rhyme – Use this tag to discuss the rhythm or rhyme of the poem and its significance

#pattern – Use this poem to discuss any patterns you see that might be important


#Text-to-Self: Explain how you reacted/connected to this poem (memes, pictures, stories, etc.)

#Text-to-Text: Connect to another poem we’ve read (#[poem title]) or any other text (link us), explain your connection

#Text-to-World: Connect to something relevant, link us

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