National Writing Project

Archive of the Authors and Issues Online Conference with Jeffrey Wilhelm and Tanya Baker

By: NWP Staff
Publication: www.nwp.org
Date: October 2004

Summary: In March 2003, the NWP Teacher Inquiry Communities (TIC) Network hosted this online conference with Jeffrey Wilhelm and Tanya Baker, which focused on many facets of teacher inquiry.

 

In March 2003, the NWP Teacher Inquiry Communities (TIC) Network hosted this online conference with Jeffrey Wilhelm and Tanya Baker, which focused on many facets of teacher inquiry.

Jeffrey Wilhelm, former director of the University of Maine Writing Project, is currently associate professor of English and Education at Boise State University, Idaho. Tanya Baker is currently a co-director of the University of Maine Writing Project.

In addition to the featured authors, special thanks go to Ruth Devlin, Southern Nevada Writing Project; Ann Dobie, Louisiana Writing Project State Network; Cathie English, Nebraska Writing Project; and Rochelle Ramay, Northern California Writing Project for helping to make the event special.

The Conference
The online conference ranged over a wide variety of topics, and we invite you to read the authors' introductory remarks and a summary of the discussions that ensued. Conversations about these topics continue in the Teacher Inquiry Communities Network Discussion Forum.

While this archive is not interactive, it is a rich resource of teachers' voices, and there are many possible ways to use it. Below are a few suggestions.

  • Print out the discussion of a particular topic for extended discussion with your teacher-research community.
  • Include sections of the archive in summer institute readings.
  • Encourage teacher-consultants to continue to add to the topics on the TIC discussion forum as a continuity project.
  • Access the resources that were available during the discussion.

Please note that the online conference involved many participants and was in the form of a lively dialogue. What we have attempted to do in this archive is to summarize the main ideas of each topic/discussion and convey some sense of the diversity of viewpoints.

Thank you for visiting.

Index of Topics
The following topics were posted to the Authors and Issues Online Conference by the authors with the assistance of the conference facilitation team. Click on a topic to read the introductory remarks from the authors on each subject, followed by a summary of the ensuing discussion.

  1. What Is Teacher Research?
  2. What Forms of Teacher Research Do You Use in Your Classroom or Site?
  3. How Do You Capture Imagination in Learning?
  4. How Does Teacher Research Lead to Curriculum Development?
  5. Teacher Research and Political Activism
  6. Teacher Research and Working for Equity
  7. Building Different Kinds of Support Communities

Resources
Follow this link for a list of resources used during the conference.


What Is Teacher Research?

Authors' Introductory Remarks:
To us, teacher research is founded on our belief that teachers are professionals whose knowledge is grounded in the authority of their personal and shared experiences and practices. What allows us to use our professional experience to teach more effectively, to build and share professional knowledge, and even to engage in political debate is our level of reflectivity about what we do and how we could do it differently.

To us, teacher research is a cover term for reflective practice, for the penchant to understand the why's, how's and what's of our teaching. It is a way of always looking for better ways to teach based on the data and feedback we get from our interactions with our students. Teacher research, as Charles Kettering asserts, is the "tomorrow mind."

"Research is a high-hat word that scares a lot of people. It needn't. It's rather simple. Essentially research is nothing but a state of mind . . . a friendly, welcoming attitude toward change . . . going out to look for change instead of waiting for it to come. Research is an effort to do things better and not to be caught asleep at the switch. It is the problem-solving mind as contrasted with the let-well-enough-alone mind. It is the tomorrow mind instead of the yesterday mind." (Charles Kettering, in Boyd, 1961)

This obviously provides us with a wide range of possible ways to be teacher-researchers (TRs). Let's get the discussion going by sharing what we do that we consider teacher research. You might want to float some definitions of your own, argue, or agree with what we've written here. Or you might want to offer specific activities that could be considered teacher research, i.e., ways in which we come to understand our own practice, our students, and ways of making learning richer.

Summary of Discussion:
The question posed by the title of this initial topic of the Wilhelm-Baker online conference - What Is Teacher Research? - generated, not surprisingly, numerous definitions. As the conversation proceeded, the responses dealt with related issues such as support structures, dissemination, purpose, and process.

Definitions
The participants said that teacher research is

  • reflective practice, a way of looking for better means of gathering data and getting feedback through interactions with students
  • both private reflective practice and more systematic data collection and presentation of findings
  • an ongoing search for how to reach kids
  • a way to develop the researcher's own capacities
  • a process of effecting change (which is especially important in teaching - the change profession)
  • a way of life that involves maintaining an inquiry stance
  • a process that makes the stories told about our classrooms more complex, thereby leading to deeper understanding of the issues
  • a way of breaking down teacher isolation by putting professionals who are interested in solving problems in touch with each other
  • a concern for individual contexts and individual students
  • a way of making the teacher's case to the public.

Support Structures
Research has traditionally been thought of as a solitary quest, but it is actually enhanced by the support of others. One can do teacher research alone, but it is more powerful when it takes place in the context of a group.

Two significant questions were posed and briefly answered regarding support structures:

Question 1: Recognizing that support structures tend to shape the form of the research activity, how can we build better structures for both discovery and public engagement in teacher research?

Answer: Certainly the National Writing Project provides strong support for professional learning communities to flourish. Its internal structures can be used to facilitate research.

Question 2: How can teachers foster a community of researchers?

Answer: It helps to show one's own enthusiasm and passion for research. Diplomacy, humility, and genuine openness help, too.

Dissemination
Today the need is greater than ever for valid, concrete ways for teachers to tell their stories to a wide audience. They need to make a better case for the work they do so that they can play a larger role in shaping policies that affect them. For example, by making classroom stories more complex through documentation and observation, teachers can acquire evidence to confront the simplicity of test scores. In the same way, research can counter outside mandates of all sorts.

Research can persuade nonteachers, because it is powerful to say, "Our research demonstrates that . . . and compels us to believe that. . . ." Reports of teacher research are convincing because they have the authority of real practice and reflect a deep understanding of what teachers know to be true about students' work. Data are especially convincing when they are accompanied by passion.

Many teachers are intimidated by the idea of sharing. They are afraid of being exposed as incompetent, and they worry about job security. Their concerns are justified to some extent because moving into the public domain places greater demands on how they conduct and present research. A wider audience requires that the researcher maintain the highest standards for his/her work. The better the individual efforts and the more accurate the body of knowledge assembled, the more likely it is that teachers can overturn ill-conceived views.

Ways to disseminate research include the following:

  • presenting at local meetings - e.g., school board meetings
  • presenting at national conferences - e.g., NCTE
  • publishing in local newsletters and journals
  • publishing in national journals (Publication at the local level can lead directly to being noticed on the national level.)
  • publishing in online journals
  • creating legislative action committees at each site to write to senators and others
  • writing op-ed pieces
  • taking part in teacher-research conferences (Maine holds one connected with the Professional Development Network Schools; Philadelphia holds a Teacher Research Day in conjunction with the Ethnography Forum; the International Conference on Teacher Research (ICTR) is held yearly, generally after the American Educational Research Association meeting; and Louisiana has collaborative regional meetings with the Louisiana Department of Education Division of Professional Development in the Office of Quality Educators.).

Purpose
Teacher-researchers try to effect change in students, themselves, and the wider social world.

They acknowledge that students are people worthy of careful attention, worthy of being included in conversations and negotiations. Teacher-researchers thereby give students a voice they might not otherwise have. Teacher-researchers seek to cultivate change in student awareness by collecting data so that they can think more effectively about what students have written and what they have done in response. Finally, through research teachers can demonstrate that students have achieved significant learning

Teacher-researchers also seek to improve their own practice. Not content to be told by others what research counts and what they need to do, teachers who participate in research work against those forces and for participation in defining their profession.

In the long run, increased awareness of students and classrooms can empower teachers to change what is happening in their schools and beyond.

Process
The process of carrying out teacher research is fairly simple. It may begin with observing some irritating classroom behavior that, when seen as data, becomes interesting. It involves asking questions such as: What do I notice? What does it mean? What do I want to do about it?

It queries why certain practices have not worked or have not worked well. Teacher-researchers collect data from their own classrooms by taking notes, doing reflective writing, and making observations. To make it easier to recall small things that happen during the course of a day, some TRs jot them down in a notebook kept handy. Finally, teacher research involves suspending a push for solutions and taking the time just to see what is there.

The process benefits when the researcher has a friendly, welcoming attitude toward change.

What Forms of Teacher Research Do You Use in Your Classroom or Site?

Authors' Introductory Remarks:
Most of our teacher-research projects, whether they were daylong exercises or longer term inquiries, began with an observation about our students, a nagging or wondering, or a critical incident that we wanted to explain, understand, or replicate. In other words, our teacher inquiries all seem to be embedded in actual teaching and learning events (or non-events).

Teachers often turn to teacher research as a natural way to consider and understand classroom issues better, in a way that fits into the classroom assessment and instructional routines without becoming extra work (because who needs extra work?).

Jeff: Once I have a wondering, I then try to find, adapt, or invent methods of inquiry to help me address the issue at hand in a way that is instructive to students, helpful to me, and isn't something extra to heap on my already full plate.

For example, when I was doing my You Gotta Be the Book studies, I was searching for a way to understand what my better and poorer readers were doing and not doing as they read. I experimented with think-alouds, visualization strategies, and enactment/drama techniques as ways to assess what students were doing as they read. But I quickly learned that think-alouds could also be a powerful tool for intervening to help students take on new stances and strategies used by more expert readers.

What techniques do you have for providing a window into how your students think, feel, problem-solve, or read? What instructional possibilities do these techniques provide? Has anyone used think-alouds or other techniques with particular populations like beginning readers or ELL students? What did you learn?

Tanya: The teacher inquiries that resulted in Strategic Reading began for me with a talk given by Michael Smith at the Maine Writing Project summer institute in 1997. I was literally thunderstruck as Michael explained different theoretical orientations toward teaching, and I realized that I was practicing a theory that I didn't believe in. This led me to do theoretical reflection about my beliefs and bottom lines as a teacher, and how I could enact these. I guess I would call this theoretical research. It also led me to try new kinds of interventions like using inquiry frames for my units, providing frontloading instruction, sequencing activities, and using drama and symbolic story representation. As I inquired into the effects of these techniques on my students, their attitudes, and performances, I also found myself inquiring into how using new techniques affected me as the teacher. I guess you could call this intervention research. I used student talk, work artifacts, and a reflective journal to help me see and understand what was happening.

What incidents have shocked you into wanting to research an issue? What kinds of topics are you investigating, and what ways are you finding to investigate these issues? Or what topics do you want to investigate, and how can this online community help you find appropriate methods? What other forms do you think teacher research can take that we haven't mentioned?

Discussion Summary:

Although there are many different types of teacher research being carried out in the classrooms of National Writing Project teachers, the responses to the question posed in the title of this discussion - What Forms of Teacher Research Do You Use in Your Classroom or Site? - suggest that teachers' definitions of research, as well as their purposes, topics, processes, tools, and means of reporting have deep commonalties. The following are to be found among them.

Definition
Research is a way to promote thoughtfulness that leads to deeper understanding. Engaging in research is similar to solving puzzles and answering riddles. It lends itself well to community efforts.

Qualitative research attends to context and the individuals and relationships present in it. It involves examining the interactions of the individuals within a setting to see how it supports or hinders one's work. The qualitative approach is particularly helpful to teachers because it explains students and learning in conceptualized ways.

Purpose
The purposes behind doing research are many and varied, ranging from informally raising questions about classroom practice to building an informed curriculum, developing a community of reflective teachers, and trying to learn more about students that one can't easily reach. In the field of literacy instruction, research often emerges from questioning basic assumptions.

Topics
There are as many topics for research as there are researchers, but those cited in this discussion include examining how identities are built in the discursive classroom, ways in which writing takes place in classrooms at different grade levels, why able students are sometimes withdrawn from school and studies, what the impact of young adult literature is on student interest and writing fluency, how longer school days affect student performance in afternoon classes, even how time in schools should be organized in general. Other TRs reported research designed to find better methodologies for student instruction, provide understanding of student interests and concerns, discover ways to facilitate classroom discussions that include reluctant students, and turn up strategies to demonstrate and nurture students' critical thinking skills.

Process
Although the process is rarely as neatly sequenced as the steps listed below would suggest, at some point most teacher-research projects go through the following stages, and the TR usually has some of the following attitudes:

  • Many research projects begin with observations about students, a nagging or wondering, or a critical incident that needs to be understood or replicated. The beginnings are rooted in actual teaching and learning events.
  • When collecting data, the TR is aware that one can't necessarily believe what one sees or what informants report.
  • To make a thorough analysis, the TR steps back, trying to make the familiar strange.
  • Revision proceeds as the work progresses.
  • Communication involves publication for and presentations to others who are interested.

Tools
The TR invents or adapts known methods of inquiry to address a problem in ways that are instructive to students and efficient for the teacher. In addition to the traditional tools of research, TRs in this discussion reported using student talk, classroom artifacts, reflective journals, videotapes of students, and student reports of what they were doing and thinking while involved in activities such as designing hypermedia or engaging in dramatic or symbolic story representation.

Wilhelm sometimes tapes spoken protocols, then transcribes and codes them. Additional approaches involve observation, shadowing, think-aloud protocols, inquiry frames, frontloaded instruction, sequencing activities, teacher self-reflection, and comparisons of successful and unsuccessful students. Some TRs mentioned following the development of a group of students at different grade levels, holding video conferences, collecting writing samples, making notes about successful students and not-so-successful students, closely observing a designated problem student, holding interviews, and using formal assessments. Others reported creating inventories, rankings, and profile responses.

Any method requires taking the time to understand the problem fully.

Publication
Venues for publishing teacher research include journals and a wide variety of nonprint contexts. Often a single research project can be reported in more than a single journal or presentation. Examples of the many possibilities for publication include the following:

  • Research Journals: Research in the Teaching of English
  • Practitioner Journals: Voices from the Middle, English Journal, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Reading Teacher
  • Nonprint presentations: Research team meetings, faculty meetings, school board meetings, district conferences, inservice days, NWP meetings and other national conferences, op-ed pieces, video presentations, and planning meetings - e.g., for creating a writing curriculum.

Please see the TIC website for a more complete list of print and electronic publishing suggestions.

How Do You Capture Imagination in Learning?

Authors' Introductory Remarks:
Although I can see that you are all extraordinarily interested in defining teacher research, we received an intriguing suggestion from Cindy Ballanger that I hope you all will find interesting and important, too. She wants to know if anyone wants to talk about imagination in learning. She is particularly interested in science, but would love to chat on this topic "from any angle." The topic caught my attention as a reading teacher, because imagination is so absolutely critical to the reading process. Still, it certainly doesn't come up anywhere in the National Reading Panel's report, which has defined the components of reading so narrowly (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension... and one other thing I've lost). We know in our classrooms that students must do so much more to become engaged readers. Those of you who know Jeff's work are saying, I'm sure, "You've got to be the book." And that's it exactly, isn't it? How can you be the book without imagination? Your responsibility as a reader is to build a story world in your mind, to believe, at least on one level, in the characters and to care about their motives, their intentions, their actions, and the consequences for them. You have to imagine the author and what s/he might be saying to you as a reader through this text. These are the imaginings of engaged readers.

How do we capture that in our classrooms? How do we make it visible for students who have never been engaged? And how do we tell other people interested in education how central to learning the imagination is. We try to address some of these questions, at least as they pertain to reading, in Strategic Reading. There we write about strategies that I learned from Jeff and then adapted to use in my own classroom. Strategies like drama (or enactment) and SSR (symbolic story representation) move the internal processes of reading outside of the reader and make them visual to others. Students can learn how readers use their imaginations, and can try out using their own in scaffolded ways in the classroom. How are you capturing imagination in learning in your classrooms?

Discussion Summary:

An imagination is more important than knowledge.
-Albert Einstein

The teacher-researchers who joined the conversation about imagination were in agreement about its importance in the learning process. They cited its significance in reading, writing, science, research, and learning in general.

Imagination is difficult to talk about since it has no physical properties. One can see it only in the behavior of the person exercising it. It is, for example, observable in young children who, in their play, go about connecting, disconnecting, naming and renaming things in surprising ways in order to learn the world.

The discussants noted that in the classroom imagination is probably less captured than freed. One participant spoke of it as a process that frees you from assumed connections, relationships, inferences, and implications to explore uncharted territories. Other participants pointed out that imagination is often stimulated by questions that push one to look beyond an assumed and comfortable picture of the world toward other horizons. It sometimes begins with disbelief. That is, when students are confronted with a reality that stretches their credulity, they must try to imagine what seems impossible or unreasonable to them. On occasion it is created by curiosity. Wanting to learn about something makes one challenge assumptions, speculate, and form hypotheses. Those occasions in which the cultural code or convention is not appropriate for expressing an idea provide particularly rich opportunities for imagination to emerge. For example, when Jeffrey Wilhelm and Tanya Baker ask students to shift conventions, to use a different vocabulary, students must call on imagination to do so.

Acknowledging that simply telling students to use their imagination as they write will not work, teachers often turn to questions to awaken it. They ask speculative ones such as What if? or Why might this be so? or What if it were otherwise? What would happen if? The discussants noted that the element of play is inherent in such queries, leading them to comment on the effectiveness of teaching strategies that incorporate the sense of playing - e.g, simulations, improvisations, and drama. Questions and playful activities push students to look for possibilities that move them beyond their known world and toward the unknown. Students are often encouraged to create their own questions, just as teachers ask themselves about their teaching. Both are surprised that after carrying questions around in their heads for a while, they sometimes arrive unexpectedly at answers.

Teacher research (as opposed to more formal research designs that ignore the context in which learning takes place) is well suited to inquiring into the nature and quality of students' experience, attitudes, feelings, and imagination as they learn. (A typical research question, one that arose in the course of this discussion, is: Why do some students thrive when they are engaged in imaginative thinking, but others feel uncomfortable, and a few even grow resentful?) TRs use various methods to collect data. Case studies, for example, can provide information that shows imagination to be critical to learning. Documenting what students say and write can also lead to understanding what part imagination plays in their learning. The best research shows how and what students have learned and shows teachers how they can help students to grow and develop in positive ways. Drama, according to Wilhelm, fits this description because it provides data about students' experiences and is also a tool for helping students to read, learn, imagine, inquire and be ethical human beings.

How Does Teacher Research Lead to Curriculum Development?

Authors' Introductory Remarks:
Nancy Devine suggested that we explore the topic of teacher research in curriculum development. Since many teachers feel strongly that the choice of reading materials and curriculum topics makes a difference in the way students engage in learning, she raises a good question. Is it the curriculum that's important? What effect does curriculum have on equity issues? What is curriculum? James Beane says it is the totality of what we do in school. What experiences have teacher-researchers had in documenting curriculum development?

Discussion Summary:

The discussion generated by this topic - How Does Teacher Research Lead to Curriculum Development? - was spirited and probing, containing greater diversity of opinion than other conversations. Most of the talk revolved around three questions: What is the curriculum? Who is responsible for curriculum development? How can research affect the curriculum?

What is the curriculum?
Jeff Wilhelm began by quoting James Beane to the effect that how we teach something and the context in which we teach it tend to be more important to student learning than what we teach. Such a definition makes everything about school meaningful: homeroom, extracurricular activities, scheduling, and so on. Other participants broadened this view, asserting that curriculum is what happens between students and teachers in their classroom communities. Such a "lived" curriculum involves personal relationships that emerge as teachers and students engage with each other to share and create learning, making the distinction between what we teach and how we teach it artificial. It can be an expression of the art that is teaching, or it can be an expression of the values that are transmitted unintentionally.

Wilhelm pointed out that the word curriculum comes from the Latin for "racecourse," but suggested that from this perspective, perhaps a better metaphor is "a path where students and teachers discover and create their own way." There were objections that a lived curriculum is a compromise between lesson planning and reality. Spur-of-the-moment activities, some pointed out, can be powerful, but building a curriculum around them can lead to neglect of the official curriculum of the district. Serendipity is not enough to make an effective curriculum.

Another group of participants held that curriculum is what is taught, the knowledge base appropriate for the age levels addressed. It differs from instruction, which is how a subject is taught, involving delivery methods, materials, time, and classroom management. It is here that research can be particularly helpful, by evaluating which strategies are most effective for which circumstances and with which students. (One person commented that current trends suggest that assessment is why we teach.)

A third group felt that a curriculum is a framework, a group of skills and knowledge that students need to negotiate through inquiry, critical thinking, and the generation of concerns in response to a text. Answering objections that a curriculum of inquiry could mean not dealing with a distinct body of knowledge that students are expected to acquire, the advocates of this viewpoint answered that there must be content and perspectives to inquire into. There has to be something to study. It's desirable to have a balance between encouraging imagination, creating together with students, and developing a body of knowledge and skills that students should learn.

Who is responsible for curriculum development?
The role of the teacher and the teacher-researcher in building curriculum is not entirely clear. Research would imply that teachers discover new knowledge, but it is not necessarily the teacher's responsibility to import that knowledge into the classroom. School policy, determined and agreed upon by society through its appropriate boards, generally establishes what should be taught - the curriculum.

Some participants argued that allowing teachers to fashion curriculum would be problematic in any case, since they don't necessarily share a common vision of what should be taught, and questionable if used as a political soapbox.

Because teachers are hired to teach an official school curriculum that is fairly clear and non-negotiable, some participants argued that no teacher has the right to change it arbitrarily. It is his/her role to carry out the accepted curriculum in effective ways. Nevertheless, others pointed out, teachers cannot ignore their responsibility for what is taught. As they are the final arbiters of what actually happens in classrooms, and are accountable for it, they must at least think about why they teach certain skills and bodies of knowledge and try to understand their significance. Doing so can lead to an ethical struggle. If they do not understand what they are doing (and, it was implied, why they are asked to do it) and cannot develop an understanding of it, they must make a decision about whether to continue teaching it. This does not mean refusing to teach what they don't agree with, but refusing to teach what they don't understand. An alternative action when ideas or concerns seem to be underrepresented in the curriculum, or when policies seem wrong, is to become active on decision-making committees or go back to those who made the decisions and petition for change.

Textbooks are powerful forces in developing curricula, giving Texas and California, the biggest textbook purchasers, significant influence well beyond their borders. Texts legitimate and restrict what knowledge and authors are taught. Some discussants questioned whether there is a hidden curriculum being perpetuated by a publishing consortium.

How can research affect the curriculum?
Despite objections to teacher involvement in curriculum development, it often grows out of teacher-research projects. Collaborative research with a goal can have an impact on what is taught. Some specific strategies that TRs can use to collect data that lead to change include the following:

  • Solicit students as co-researchers by asking them how they are learning and listen to their suggestions for classroom change.
  • Plan for serendipity by learning as much as possible, so that when the right moment for pursuing the unplanned lesson arrives, you are prepared for it.
  • Find support, such as the National Writing Project, which provides a community of inquiry that empowers TRs to make investigations and to understand the significance of the process. In it, teachers listen to each other. Why can't schools also be communities of inquiry in which teachers negotiate curriculum with students and learn with them rather than deciding for and teaching at them?
  • Learn from failures as well as successes. All innovations and risks result in powerful learning. The only way not to be successful is by being critical and not trying anything new.
  • Change the view of administrators that curricular improvement lies in finding the right programs. Help them to understand that improvement grows out of the professional development of teachers.
  • Form study groups to develop curricular units or to choose textbooks.

Teacher Research and Political Activism

Authors' Introductory Remarks:
A participant suggested a new focus topic and wrote:
"We could add a section on teacher research and political activism. I've seen several comments indicating or expressing frustration and even anger about meddling in the classroom by non-educators, and the need to address these interferences (including mandated standardized testing) with good data - both qualitative and quantitative."

All right, your wish is granted. One insight I emphasize to my own preservice teaching students is that all teaching is political. We might think that we can close our doors and kill our own snakes, but, in fact, what we do in the classroom is hugely influenced by what is going on politically in the cultures in which we live and work (department, school, system, state, nation, and so on). And what we do in the classroom is always a decision: to do one thing and not another, to emphasize or highlight a particular process or idea and not another, to read a particular text and not a different one, to assess in a particular way. Each of these decisions is political and theoretical in nature. It makes a statement about what we believe about teaching and learning, about accountability and assessment, about where the authority for teaching truly lies, about the role of students and their interests in learning, and a host of other things.

Teacher research is a political move that asserts that learning happens in a particular context and is influenced by the people who operate in that context. How we choose to share our research is another kind of political move - or how we choose not to share. Because not doing something is doing something (though we may have great reasons for not doing it), and not making a decision is another form of decision.

In what ways do we think teacher research is or could be political? What are its political implications? Its possible political influence? The costs and benefits of making our classrooms and teacher inquiries more overtly political?

Please weigh in! It is going to appear that I [Tanya] wrote these astute remarks concerning the politics of teaching and teacher research, but I must confess I am only posting them for my now offline compatriot [Jeff]. I urge you also to weigh in!

Discussion Summary:

The discussion of Teacher Research and Political Activism proceeded on the assumption that because classrooms are influenced by the political context in which they exist, and because every classroom decision privileges one idea or process over another, then all teaching is political. The political aspects of teaching involve issues of authority, power, assessment, roles, and more.

Another assumption implicit throughout the Wilhelm-Baker discussions is that one of the primary purposes of teacher research is to effect change based on the best available data. That makes teacher research a political act. Publishing that research is another. The participants reported several ways to engage in political activism.

Individual actions can include meeting with a legislator and speaking at meetings. These occasions are most effective when the parties try to understand one another and when they use a common vocabulary. Sometimes an individual's actions are influenced by the cultural context in which those actions are performed. For example, teachers noted that rural schools are less overtly politicized than those in larger communities. In communities where everyone knows one another, a political act is likely to be personal and subtle, but it can be powerful. When teachers work together in political acts, the results are even more dynamic.

Although research projects often grow out of defensiveness - for example, in response to outsiders, who were defined as those who feel qualified to decide policy for educational insiders - they are more compellingly reported as description. By recounting the lessons learned in one's own classroom, using student work as evidence of what is going on, the TR can create an authoritative argument. It is a show-and-tell approach that can help to inform the public and change other teachers. Classroom data - the research base - give the teacher power that ideas alone do not provide. The most valuable research presentations, those that get attention, are concrete and objective.

Political activism may deal with almost any issue in education: contracts, administrative decisions, curriculum, and school calendars, as well as with significant social themes.

In general, the participants agreed on the value of publishing research. They recognized that TRs need a body of writing on which to draw, and that can happen only if researchers share their work. Publication should take place in multiple venues: national publications, local ones, online journals, and as presentations at conferences and meetings. As a prelude to publication, teachers can form reflective groups that meet on a regular basis. Acknowledging that students are a highly significant group of policymakers, some participants called for increased publication of student writing. It was also noted that research need not be formally published or presented for it to be political. Doing research at all makes a political statement about the professionalism of teachers.

For those who grow frustrated with the slow pace of change, there was the reassurance that political activism doesn't have to change the world, only small pieces of it again and again. As Jeff Wilhelm says: Eat your elephant one bite at a time.

Teacher Research and Working for Equity

Authors' Introductory Remarks:
A topic that has come up on our suggestion list involves teacher research and working for equity. As just one example, someone mentioned that gender seems to have slipped off everyone's radar screen as an equity issue.

Of course, this is of great interest to me. The issue of boys and literacy has been nagging at me for many years, since I taught remedial reading and found those courses filled with boys. It continued on to my work in an EEN (exceptional educational needs) house, where nearly all the labeled students were boys. And, of course, the standardized data shows that boys significantly underachieve girls on all literacy measures - with the exception of workplace literacy - in forty-two countries where data is available.

Some thirty years ago a lot of attention was given to girls' relative underachievement in science and math. The salutary effects of the attention this issue received have led to the closing of this gap. As a father of two daughters and a teacher of young women, I am grateful for the research that brought this problem to our attention, and even more so to the intervention research that ensued. Boys are now underachieving girls in literacy at a rate much worse than girls' underachievement in science and math. I contend that when we see a group struggling - any group at all (or any individual for that matter) - we have an obligation as teachers to try to understand why and to try to assist. I think teacher research can help with both of these challenges.

There is a huge amount of data on gender and literacy, but almost all of that data is quantitative, and therefore doesn't explain individual kids and situations. It doesn't explain why boys underperform girls or what we might do about it. Contextualized, qualitative research - teacher research - can address all of these issues.

When my coresearcher Michael Smith and I set out to study the issue of boys and literacy, we took the teacher-researcher stance. And we also used the standard of a teacher in our data analysis: in other words, we wanted our research to matter to teachers. And so, we wrote about themes that were salient enough that we knew teachers could use them to usefully think about boys and to inform their teaching of boys. We hope we achieved that in our book on our study, Reading Don't Fix No Chevys.

One of the things we found in that study was that boys valued competence and appearing competent above all else. This means, as one boy said, "that I'd rather say reading is stupid than maybe look like I might be stupid." We found that many boys expressed resistance to literacy not because they were resistant to literacy qua literacy, but because they were resistant to appearing incompetent. Another finding concerning equity involved the African American boys in our study. These boys generally loved to rap, do beats, design head kerchiefs and tags, and even do church talks. No boys from other ethnic groups discussed any of these literate activities. But all of these activities were marginalized by the schools that these boys attended.

Now, if you value competence above all else, and the literate activities you are competent in are marginalized, then you cannot bring any home resources to school literacy. You are in a double bind. This seems to me to be a huge equity challenge identified by our research.

Perhaps those of you who know our study might want to discuss these or other implications here, or critique aspects of the study. Or perhaps participants might want to discuss how teacher research can help us perceive other inequities in the classroom that we might otherwise miss. Another idea is to discuss other kinds of inequities or marginalized groups that teacher research might help us to address.

I have enjoyed all of the conversations so far, and am very much looking forward to what you'll have to say about this one.

Discussion Summary:

A teacher does not have to look far to identify issues of equity in his/her classroom, as they exist wherever there are mixtures of race, gender, class, economic backgrounds, ethnicity, and age. What is the role of the TR seeking to do research into equity in education? Acknowledging that a classroom teacher can all too easily impose his/her own viewpoint or force an opinion, the discussants whose comments are summarized here generally agreed that any teacher who sees students struggling has an obligation to try to understand the problem causing the struggle and find a solution to it.

Gender differences in literacy are among the best documented classroom equity issues. According to Jeff Wilhelm, the importance to boys of appearing to be competent, often coupled with classroom marginalization of home or cultural literacy activities, creates resistance to reading and writing. Overcoming that negative stance requires beginning where the students are, then nudging them toward greater breadth of thinking and feeling. How to connect school and family literacies, then, appears to be a promising area of research.

Several groups have already begun programs that address these needs. The Project Outreach group at Sabal Palms Writing Project, for example, has begun work on bringing family and school literacies together through events at which family members write and read their pieces (in Spanish or English) along with the children and teachers. The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia runs a family science program that supports girls learning science. The discussants expressed interest in undertaking similar projects at other sites.

Building Different Kinds of Support Communities

Authors' Introductory Remarks:
During our previous threads of discussion, Robert Brooke asked the following questions:

  • What kinds of support communities really help us get at the "discovery" and "change" parts of teacher research?
  • How do we go about building these support networks?

He goes on to mention three tasks for these types of structures. They need to:

  • keep us meeting, writing, and believing in the good of what we do
  • give us access to public forums (oral and written)
  • help us through the difficult moments in our thinking, inquiry, and writing processes.

This seems to me to be a profoundly important topic, and one that might serve as a fitting way to "set the task before us" and to consider how to take what we have learned here forward into our teaching lives. Obviously, being a part of NWP, the Teacher Inquiry Communities Network, or your local site's teacher-research community are all formal ways to help meet these needs. Informally, I use personal structures such as setting aside daily time to take notes, and periodically meeting and talking about current inquiries with friends and colleagues. (See Brenda Power's Taking Note for many great ideas for creating personal incentives and structural supports for teacher research.)

I find it tremendously important to work with other people - either as full partners in a research or writing project, or as support people who provide feedback and guidance. Interestingly, John Arnold's research on middle school teams found that small teams (particularly of two people) were the most effective in supporting innovative practices, curriculum integration, and change.

I also like to work in pairs on teacher-research projects. I worked very closely with Brian Edmiston on the Imagining to Learn studies. He was a university professor and I was a classroom teacher. I thought the different perspectives and opportunities we brought to the table were helpful. I did the hypermedia design and hypermedia reading studies reported in Hyperlearning with my long-time team-teaching partner Paul Friedemann, with some help from Julie Erickson, who was at the University of Wisconsin. It was fabulous to work with Paul: we taught together and could compare notes daily, adjust our practices, and immediately apply what we were learning, as well as use it for long-range planning and presentations to the school board. I think my collaboration with Paul was the most successful in terms of enacting local change. We sponsored family nights, at which kids would present their learning artifacts through video and hypermedia documents, and would explain how these artifacts showed their learning - their meeting of state standards and so forth. We would invite the school board, and this was great public relation for us and our school, and it helped us to get equipment. Julie also got her dissertation research out of these projects, so it is another example of a university-school collaboration.

Tanya has been my best collaborator in Maine. We've worked both as coresearchers and as helpers to each other's individual projects. She has been hugely helpful to me in every project I have done in Maine.

When I first contemplated the research on boys, I was wary of doing it alone. I thought the topic provocative and very big. I spent nearly a year convincing Michael Smith to do it with me. Michael is the consummate researcher (winner of both the qualitative and quantitative researcher of the year awards from the American Education Research Association), and the study might never have gotten done without him. It certainly would not have been as good.

I also find it important to have deadlines and another person to be accountable to. It is so easy to put off the work unless there is presentation date, a publication submission deadline, and another human being to whom you are committed. All of these things are important. So that's my experience.

What other structures, support groups, or networks do people find important in fulfilling the needs that Robert Brooke addressed? I look forward to hearing from you all, as this is where the rubber really hits the road.

Discussion Summary:

The title of this discussion topic - Building Different Kinds of Support Communities - assumes that it is important for a teacher-researcher to have support. The TRs who participated agreed with that premise, pointing out that teaching is both an isolated and isolating profession that discourages reflection, discussion, and growth. By offering impetus, guidance, and support, a community can increase a busy teacher's commitment to research and writing. The postings to this topic also make it evident that support communities can take many forms but have some processes in common.

Tasks for Support Communities
An effective support community has at least three major duties. It should

  • keep the group meeting, writing, and believing in the importance of its work
  • provide access to public forums, both oral and written
  • help group members through the difficult moments of thinking, inquiry, and writing.

Types of Support Communities

  • Personal disciplines involve regularly setting aside time to take notes or talk with colleagues about current projects.
  • John Arnold's study shows that small research groups are most effective in supporting innovative practices, curriculum integration, and change.
  • A group may be only a pair of researchers. Even a community of one can provide a critical friend, a reader of rough drafts, an open ear.
  • Reading a professional article and meeting to discuss it with colleagues is an easy-to-manage and nonthreatening form of professional inquiry.
  • Mentoring is one of the most effective forms of professional support. The mentor can work with an individual or with a group that meets on a regular basis. (He/she also brings new voices and talent into the profession. They, in turn, have an obligation to serve as mentors to those who come after them.) A good mentor can provide the person or group being mentored with:
    • awareness of professional opportunities
    • support, encouragement, and confidence
    • a nudge to keep going
    • introduction to a wider professional community
    • professional knowledge and experience
    • a model of how to facilitate and negotiate research directions.
  • Researchers do not have to collaborate on the same question. They can pursue different projects and still share the energy and supportiveness of the process.
  • Online support groups are becoming more numerous, this conference dialogue and its summary being examples.

Suggestions/Ideas for Establishing and Maintaining Support Communities
In general:

  1. Build accountability into the process: have deadlines or another person to whom everyone is responsible. Some groups have a commitment check several days before meeting, and at least 50 percent of the group must be prepared to participate or the meeting is canceled.
  2. Provide a public forum that brings the research into a wider social world. For example, present research at inservice programs, at family nights, even possibly at an open-mic session at a coffeehouse.
  3. Once the first two phases are established, get guidance from those who can help move the research from a general presentation to a fully developed project for a targeted audience. For example, turn it into a book.
  4. NWP sites can survey themselves to determine if they are prepared to carry out these three stages of development. Do they have sufficient individual commitment for research and writing groups? Adequate opportunities for public forums? Access to key people and materials needed to create a product?
  5. Create a support community for teachers by establishing a mentoring program for all new teachers in a school

In addition:

  1. To experience positive growth, take on a significant and challenging, even scary, project with others.
  2. Appoint a facilitator who announces meetings. A pyramid scheme would have the facilitator contact five people who contact five more.
  3. Let the group negotiate an agenda.
  4. Allow people to attend even if they are not fully prepared. Downplay guilt.
  5. Serve good food and drink.
  6. Volunteer emotional and/or professional support for a colleague who needs help.
  7. Use the support community to work for changes at the local level among school board members, parents, and schools.

Addendum
A digression from the topic of support communities led to a discussion of how to work with reluctant readers, particularly boys, who form the larger group of students who reject reading. Jeff Wilhelm touched briefly on some of the research findings reported in his several books, including the concept of "flow" experience, Czikszentmihalyi's term for that state of mind in which a person is totally immersed in the experience of living and loses any sense of time.

Resources

Articles and Discussions

An Interview with Jeff Wilhelm (2003)
Ruth Devlin, co-chair of the TIC Network, interviews author Jeff Wilhelm.

Reaching Reluctant Readers and Learners: A Forum for Teachers Hosted by Dr Jeffrey Wilhelm
An English Classroom Forum on the Discover website of the Tasmanian Department of Education.

Getting Kids into the Reading Game: You Gotta Know the Rules (NCTE)
This Voices in the Middle article 8 (4) is available free to NCTE members; the abstract is available online for non-members.

Books and Excerpt Suggestions

(Excerpts used during online forum with permission of the publishers.)

Book Excerpts and Books

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