Mini-Inquiries: Changing Classroom Instruction One Lesson at a Time
By: Cindy O'Donnell-Allen
Date: September 22, 2011
Summary: When a small group of language arts teachers from the Tar River Writing Project in North Carolina noticed that some students seemed less engaged in their classes, they decided to study their own practices, question their assumptions, and work systematically to change their teaching.
Teachers know that the best way to change what's not working in their classrooms and in education more generally is to investigate what we know, what we think we know, and what we still need to know. – Tar River Writing Project website
When a small group of language arts teachers from the Tar River Writing Project in North Carolina noticed that some students seemed less engaged in their classes, they decided to follow the advice on their Writing Project website. They began studying their own practice, questioning their assumptions, and working systematically to change their teaching.
The group's initial interest in classroom research rapidly blossomed into a full-blown inquiry into local educational equity issues. That's when the site decided to form Leadership for Equity, Excellence, Achievement, and Partnership in 21st Century Classrooms—LEEAP—a continuity program to support teacher-consultants who wanted to conduct teacher research related to equity in their classrooms.
Coming to Terms with Equity
The starting point for the teacher-consultants' collective inquiry was exploring what the oft-used term equity really meant to them personally and professionally, and then determining how this term played out in their teaching practice.
"We spent our first year and a half reviewing research, studying, and thinking together," explained Stephanie West-Puckett, Tar River Writing Project teacher-consultant and co-facilitator of LEAPP along with Danielle Lewis Ange. "We wanted to understand, what is equity? What does that mean to us? How is it related to outcomes and the way we teach?"
The group met bimonthly to discuss publications like NWP's Working Toward Equity and to reflect on their own teacher research projects. Several teachers created digital pieces exploring what equity meant to them and published them on the LEAPP blog .
We wanted to understand, what is equity? What does that mean to us? How is it related to outcomes and the way we teach?
Invigorated by all they were learning together, the LEAPP teachers soon realized that inquiry-oriented inservice would be a natural extension of their work. Securing a mini-grant from NWP's Teacher Inquiry Communities Network allowed them to enact their vision.
In June 2009, they convened a three-day writing retreat in Lake Gaston, VA, to draft a proposal to offer yearlong embedded teacher research institutes at local school districts. The teacher-consultants began creating materials, selecting readings and protocols for the inservice, developing promotional materials, and adding content to a Wetpaint wiki that would serve as a virtual hub for the team and their teacher participants.
The grant proved to be well spent when Tar River formed an inservice partnership with Northeast Elementary School in Beaufort County School District in rural eastern North Carolina where LEAPP co-coordinator Danielle Lewis Ange teaches eighth grade. Inspired by the conversations Lewis Ange was having with her colleagues related to her own teacher research, the school agreed to pilot an embedded teacher research institute in 2009-2010 to look at issues related to equity.
"LEAPP allowed me to move into other spaces as an educator," Ange said. "I became more involved with the inner workings of my school, not just what is happening in my eighth-grade classroom."
On teacher workdays and early release days throughout the year, Tar River Writing Project teacher-consultants helped seven teachers from various subject areas work through an inquiry process. Like LEAPP, the group discussed selections from Working Toward Equity as well as reading What Works?: A Practical Guide for Teacher Research by Elisabeth Chiseri-Strater and Bonnie Sunstein. Participating teachers explored the concept of educational equity through dialogic journals (PDF) and teacher body biographies and experimented with various Web 2.0 tools.
Because the school is located about an hour and a half from East Carolina University, Tar River's sponsoring institution, establishing a wiki was also a must. The virtual space allowed teacher consultants and the teacher research institute participants to engage in threaded discussions between meetings, and also served as a digital archive for photos, teaching videos, and digital narratives.
Early on, the group made the decision to keep the wiki private so that teachers would have an authentic space to post the "back-end work and very raw conversations" that are often part of teacher inquiry, West-Puckett said.
Midway through the year, the new teacher researchers shared their works-in-progress with participants at the Eastern Region Best Practices Conference, a regional meeting for inservice teachers.
Small Changes Make a Big Difference
Year two of the embedded institute brought about small changes. North Elementary teachers used teacher research methods to investigate questions about their practice and to use knowledge of their classrooms to improve students' learning. To make the research process more accessible, teachers engaged in a "mini-inquiry" model that implemented in four cycles throughout the year. Each mini-inquiry cycle begins when a Tar River teacher-consultant presents a teaching demonstration that features an innovative instructional strategy related to participating teachers' questions and interests.
Tar River teacher-consultants surveyed participating teachers at the beginning of the school year and helped them formulate questions about their teaching practices. With the participating teachers' questions in mind, the Tar River teacher research community had a couple of questions of their own. What might happen if teacher-consultants created anchor lessons around the topics and then supported this new cohort of teacher researchers in a shared inquiry focus?
To find out, the Tar River team asked teacher-consultants to develop anchor lessons in response to the questions raised by the participating teachers. The anchor lessons were shared during the teacher research institute meetings.
According to West-Puckett, this approach has not only provided a great opportunity for the Tar River Writing Project to involve more teacher-consultants in inservice work, but it has also served as a strong form of continuity for teacher-consultants themselves because it has given them "a space for their own thinking about strategies they're already using successfully in their classroom."
The questioning of successful practices helps teacher-consultants to build a theory of action out of their practice and then use their theories of action to engage in professional dialogues with other teachers.
After each anchor lesson, students provide feedback to the teachers. After students debrief with the all the teachers, the dialogue with the teacher-consultant continues. Teachers pose questions and discuss how they might adapt the strategies in their own classroom practices. They then try the strategy in their own classrooms, reflect on the experience, and create a small e-portfolio that includes an adapted lesson plan, student samples, and written reflections.
Their research artifacts are posted to a public Wordpress site where teachers can share their findings beyond the school. At the next meeting, teachers examine the data and develop reflections describing how the teaching demonstration informed their instruction, how their adapted lesson went, and what they felt the impact was for their students.
Throughout the inquiry cycle, Tar River teacher-consultants and teachers from the first cohort mentor the new teacher researchers, providing support and encouragement and answering questions about teacher research both in person and virtually through their wiki and Wordpress site.
Keeping Equity at the Center
To maintain an emphasis on equity in the mini-inquiries, West-Puckett said that teacher-consultants encourage participants to focus especially on students who are underachieving. "We ask them to identify who is having issues with a particular skill and why? How do we bring student voices into the conversation?"
These questions have served as a powerful lens through which teachers can investigate their practice in the particular area that is the focus of a mini-inquiry. The questions also help uncover teachers' assumptions and hidden biases regarding student performance.
How do we bring student voices into the conversation?
During one mini-inquiry cycle on reading in the content areas, a teacher speculated that her African-American male students' reluctance to read aloud was rooted in issues of reading comprehension. After the teaching demonstration and the debriefing, however, she decided to try a new approach that might engage her students more fully and allow them to take advantage of the oral skills they often demonstrated.
She posed a question: "What might happen if, rather than expecting students to engage in a cold reading of the novel they were studying, I created a week of lessons to help students select scenes from the novel, cast characters, adapt language and setting, and then write and perform scenes using a reader's theater format?"
The teacher created her week of lessons, observed students' interactions during class, studied their work, and reflected on the process in her teaching journal. At the end of the mini-inquiry, she was amazed. Her students were more engaged and their oral skills, already strong, had improved when she asked them to work with the text in more appropriate ways.
The Tar River teacher-consultants find promise in their mini-inquiry model and hope to replicate it with other schools and districts in their service area.
"Mini-inquiries are a good way to wade into inquiry and get your feet wet," West-Puckett said. "Teacher research can be overwhelming, and teachers sometimes think, 'I have so many problems. Where do I focus?' But looking at one very small aspect of their teaching makes it manageable. Making a small change isn't that frightening."
Watch Digital Stories Exploring Equity
For more, watch this series of digital stories, created by LEEAP Team co-directors Danielle Lewis and Stephanie West-Puckett, which trace the history of their equity work in their classrooms, schools, and region.