Finding Commonalities and Making Change through Teacher Research: A Conversation with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project Teacher Research Group
In this conversation from Spring 2015, facilitator Alexis Jones talks with members of the Eastern Michigan Writing Project Teacher Research Group about their work together.
The group describes themselves as K-college teachers who are committed to inquiring into their teaching, and says “Most of all, we are committed to changing our practice: to puzzling out what we can do better to help our students' learning and putting into action what we discover.”
As group member Cathy Fleischer explains, an important goal of the group is for each educator to have an individual question that comes out of their context of their own classroom. In their work at monthly meetings and between, members talk, question, investigate, and share, teaching each other how to do teacher research and supporting each other as they learn to gather data, analyze data, and then use that data to make change.
This conversation provides a glimpse into the back-and-forth of their process, into their individual research projects, and into the myriad ways they feel teacher research has strengthened their teaching and learning and benefited their students. Group members emphasize the value of their collaborative inquiry, and talk about how it gives them the confidence to go forward and face difficult conversations outside the classroom. As one teacher concludes, “I feel like my voice is amplified, when I know that I’m not speaking just for me.”
As the group's 2012 inaugural blog explains, membership in the group changes over time. Group members interviewed for this conversation include the following:
Cathy Fleischer, Eastern Michigan University
Jessica DeYoung Kander—Eastern Michigan University
Karen Hoffman -Livonia Emerson Middle School
Lisa Eddy, Adrian High School
Ellen Daniel -Ann Arbor Scarlett Middle School
Tracy Anderson - Ann Arbor Community High School
Listen to the audio clip or read the transcript below.
ALEXIS JONES: All right, so let’s get started, and I’d love for anybody who’d like to begin to tell us about the work of your team regarding teacher inquiry into your practice. This could be any meaningful activities that you’ve had, any resources that guided your work, anything you’ve produced as part of your work. Who’d like to get started?
CATHY FLEISCHER: Do you guys mind if I take that one, to get us started? And then you guys can go ahead? So our work has surrounded an ongoing teacher research group, that we’ve had going for 12 or 13 years. And only in the last few years have we connected that to NCLE. So our teacher research group has Kindergarten through college teachers, mostly from Southeastern Michigan, and they all are teacher consultants from our local National Writing Project sites, the Eastern Michigan Writing Project. So that’s part of our writing project work, after people have been through that we offer them the opportunity to join this group and be part of a teacher research group.
One of the unique things about our group is that our teachers are all in different sites. Some are in elementary school, some are in middle; some are in high school; some are at college level. Some people have been in this group for many many years. Lisa, who’s here today, is one of them. But other people have joined more recently, have been a part of this for a year or two. So that’s, I think, one of the interesting things about this is that people are in different places in their teacher research journey.
I think it’s important to know that part of the goal of our group, so one of the things that we try to do in this group is to have each teacher have an individual teacher research question that comes out of the context of their own classroom. It will differ, depending on what they’re most interested in pursuing, the real question they have about teaching and learning in their classroom.
So in this group, we take time to try to develop a question, we work and teach each other how to actually do teacher research, we have a couple of texts that we ask new people to look at on the way there. One is the Art of Classroom Inquiry by Hubbard and Power, and the other is a book What Works, by Strater and Sunstein—which are really good, basic, how-to on teacher research. So then we support each other as we learn how to gather data in different ways, or how to analyze data, and then how to use that data to make change.
So we meet about once a month. We meet at my house. There’s about 14 of us in the group right now. And we sit around and talk about our research. People write research memos; we have an ongoing Google site where people can post their research memos; people can post notes from the meeting; people respond to people’s research memos both in person at our meeting and online. And a typical meeting would involve somebody bringing in a piece of data that they want us to look at and talk about. Or somebody will bring in just a report on where they are in their research. Or somebody will bring in, this is where I am, and this is what I notice, but I’m really confused, and I don’t know what to do next, so how can you help me do it? So that I think is a kind of a summary of what we do with these kinds of meetings.
And then we try to get together for usually two or three days in the summer for teachers when they’re out of school time, to have a moment to be able to really look back and reflect on what they accomplished during the year, and maybe try to write something out about it for publication, or to write something that will help them change how they teach the next year, or will help them come to a more refined teacher research question or a new teacher research question.
ALEXIS JONES: Wonderful.
CATHY FLEISCHER: Did I cover it, you guys, or is there anything you’d want to add to that?
LISA EDDY: One thing that I wanted to mention is that oftentimes what comes out of our work is that we make presentations in our home districts, or we’ve presented at MCTE and NCTE. People are involved in other work, advocating in different ways, like with speaking to the legislature and going to meet Congresspeople and talk about issues, things like that.
ALEXIS JONES: OK. So in an advocacy role as well as a professional development role.
LISA EDDY: Yes.
CATHY FLEISCHER: This is Cathy. We’ve made that kind of an underlying part of our work. And sometimes it means just working with other teachers in your school, to help them understand things a little bit differently. Sometimes Lisa, for example, is working with another person in the group, sort of across schools, in their rural districts, to meet together and talk together and figure out what they can do in their particular area. So it’s both research, but also the connection of research to advocacy issues, and making change both in our own classrooms and at a wider level.
ALEXIS JONES: Wow, that sounds . . . Please go ahead.
TRACY ANDERSON: OK, so this is Tracy Anderson, and I just want to chime in that I also use teacher research with my student teacher a lot, and I think in terms of thinking about teacher preparation and—for example, we’re doing a lot of research around students and their editing process around student-to-teacher assignments versus student-to-peer assignments. And doing Google polls and things like that to look at—basically, all of the assignments that we look at I try to go at with a teacher research lens of trying to get students feeling, from the very beginning, their achievement, and then trying to measure that later on. So I think that teacher research definitely puts me into the mindset of collecting data to inform my teaching and the practice.
CATHY FLEISCHER: And Alexis, that’s Tracy Anderson, who wasn’t here when we first introduced.
ALEXIS JONES: Yes, thank you.
ELLEN DANIEL: Hi, guys, it’s Ellen, I hope you didn’t start recording yet.
ALEXIS JONES: We did, but join in.
ELLEN DANIEL: My car was frozen over. So I’m Ellen Daniel, and I just got home from a frozen, snowy commute.
ALEXIS JONES: OK, let me actually continue with those thoughts and—tell me a little bit about what ways your work as a team has influenced you professionally. We’re talking teacher inquiry here, so what kinds of new insights have you gained from this work? In what ways has it changed your practice, your level of performance?
Anybody’s welcome to chime in, but I think I’d especially like to hear from some of the classroom teachers that are out there.
LISA EDDY: This is Lisa, and one of the biggest ways that this work has influenced me in the classroom and meetings in my home district is that it’s given me the confidence to talk about what I know and know that I know I what I’m talking about. And to advocate for literacy practices that are good for students, and will help them as whole human beings.
ALEXIS JONES: That’s great, that’s great.
KAREN HOFFMAN: I’d piggyback on what Lisa said. I think one of the major ways for me . . . I did teacher research way back when and then I was part of the group and then I got away, but I think that validation that what I am doing does matter, and that I do know what I’m talking about, like Lisa said. Because in this day and age of media-bashing, and statistics, and standardized testing, you lose sight of that, and you can very easily feel like a failure, and like we don’t know anything and we’re afraid to speak up. So I really think it validates what we do as classroom teachers.
TRACY ANDERSON: This is Tracy Anderson. And I think that teacher research validates what I do as a teacher, but it completely changes my mind frame of how I deal with curriculum and think about pedagogy. So for example, yesterday, we were talking about—we were going into a unit of teaching Night, we were going to put some big questions up onto large sheets of paper, and then have people go around and make comments in response to the questions on the large sheets of paper, and then have other people respond to the questions.
And then we started thinking about how else we could do that, and how we could set that up on a computer with a Google doc, and then use the comment function so that people could be commenting in, and then really trying to figure out what are the benefits, the pros and the cons, for doing that exercise both of those ways. And we opted to do it the second way on the computer and setting it up just because we thought the level of engagement would be higher and all of these things. But we were going to do a poll with the kids before, to gather information really quickly from them. So I think that that mindset of teacher research is always there in every single thing that I do in the classroom. And really me questioning, why am I doing it this way, and what are other ways that I could do it, and what would the effect be?
JESSICA DEYOUNG KANDER: This is Jessica. I wanted to kind of follow up on that. Also for me, I’ve found that it kind of gives me the opportunity to kind of open up to my students and invite them into that process as well, allowing them to recognize that inquiry has an important place in the classroom. And allowing them to kind of take some risks in their own learning when they see that I’m taking risks in my teaching.
So I’ve found that letting them know that I’m going through this process as well has given me a little more authority with students in terms of their willingness to take risks and try out things in the classroom.
ELLEN DANIEL: I also think—this is Ellen —as a classroom teacher, there’s not a lot afforded to us in terms of being required or being expected to be reflective about our practice. And the teacher research group provides not only the framework and the structure for that, but also gives us the opportunity to really think deliberately about our practice in ways that I think would be possible to do on one’s own, but would be much more challenging. You might not have that regular opportunity to explain why you’re doing or why you’re thinking or how you’re thinking, and that seems to be a really key feature of the kind of work that teacher research allows us to do.
CATHY FLEISCHER: This is Cathy. You know, one of the things that I’m finding interesting about everybody’s responses here—which I love, by the way; they’re wonderful— I’m so noting that what everyone is responding to in this question has to do with their habits of mind and stances as a professional. And nobody really talked about specifically, this question led me to this kind of change in what I do as a teacher. And I think that’s really interesting, right, because you all have different questions, and there’s different things that you’ve been looking at, like Jessica, you’ve really learned a lot about how you teach in a large lecture group in a different way, and how you’ve done things for that. Or Tracy, you’ve learned a lot about what happens when you open up the revising process to [students’] peers. So that’s all really interesting things, too.
So I don’t know, Alexis, if it’s useful to you or not, to hear what some of their questions are? Or this other thing that they’re talking about, these stances or these habits of mind are what you’re looking for in that question?
ALEXIS JONES: Actually, I mean, all of this information is incredibly helpful. I really think that what we’re trying to get at is how this has influenced you, not just how this has changed your practice, but all of this, the confidence, validation, changing your mind about pedagogy, all of this stuff is also incredibly important.
I would actually be interested to hear what people’s research questions were, if you wouldn’t mind sharing some of those.
TRACY ANDERSON: This is Tracy and I can share that my research question is about students and their writing and the revision and editing process, but also what it is that makes their writing matter, so that they end up doing revision on it.
So I did research looking at students when they did what I would call a student-to-teacher assignment that has that limited audience, and then I do a newspaper, where students do peer editing all of the time. I interviewed people about how many drafts they do and how that writing process differs when it’s going out to their peers. And what I found out, and why I love teacher research, is that I think the answer is one thing, and I find out that it’s a different thing. And the different thing that I found out that really mattered was not that their writing was going out to an audience, it was that their writing was going out to an audience and their peers were going to spend time responding to their work and thinking about their work.
So it made it really clear to me that it can’t just be that their work is for an audience, it’s that peer response and that amount of time that goes into peer response talking about one student’s writing has to be an essential part of the curriculum and the class. Because students’ revisions went from one revision to twelve revisions. You know, it was eight revisions, and then it was five more revisions after all the comments came in from their peers. So it was significant.
ALEXIS JONES: Interesting, thank you for sharing that. Anybody else?
LISA EDDY: This is Lisa, and one research question that I’ve looked at, because I’ve been doing this awhile, recently, was what role does mentoring play in writing instruction. That led me in a number of directions. One was that I wrote an article about the process of using mentor texts for students to learn how to compose essays for the International Baccalaureate Exams. They’re all different types of literary analysis papers; it’s a literature course.
And I have also been teaching a long time, so I wanted to look at mentoring in my own practice, and I did a lot of interviewing, and I’ve also done a lot of making connections between former students who are in the world doing something and then connecting them to my classroom as a whole or particular students, to come back to the classroom and mentor those who sit in the chairs where they once sat.
And one of the most interesting things that happened while I was looking at this question was a former student of mine earned her Masters of Fine Arts in poetry and has been coming back to visit my class to do poetry lessons, but also took a position mentoring at-risk teen girl writers who are trying to go to college, like the first person in their family to go to college. They are writers and she is mentoring a girl in that program.
ALEXIS JONES: Very exciting. Thank you for sharing that. Is there anybody else that wants to chime in?
JESSICA DEYOUNG KANDER: What I’ve been looking at over the last several years seems to have an overarching theme of looking at sustainability in terms of my own practice and making my class load manageable while still maintaining student learning. And I’ve looked at that in a couple of different ways.
I started out by looking at the assessments that I was using in the classroom and what would happen if I moved my college literature courses to a portfolio assessment system rather than a test-based assessment system. And that actually did help me move towards making that change in most of my classes. And connecting it to the class outcomes that I expected of the students. And a lot of this came from the feedback the students were giving me themselves. That they felt like what was happening in the class didn’t necessarily match what they were being asked to do as their final assessment. Through a series of surveys and interviews I was able to make the changes and kind of track what was happening with the changes.
More recently I’ve been looking at some group-based competitions in the class, which has been interesting for me since I’m not a competitive person, and it’s a little counterintuitive to my own teaching philosophy. So I’m looking at what happens, when, and why. What I’ve been noticing over the last several years, these group-based competitions in my classes have been working incredibly well, kind of anecdotally, and I want to look at why exactly they are working well, and then down the road, hopefully, what I might be able to do to adapt them into my other classes where I’m not doing the same type of group-based competition.
ALEXIS JONES: OK, thank you. Maybe one more person?
KAREN HOFFMAN: Mine this year is looking at what happens when at-risk readers and writers self-monitor their own writing. So I’m using some metacognition strategies to get them writing, and then using strategies such as visualizing, predicting, and inferring in their writing about their reading.
ALEXIS JONES: Very neat. Thank you very much for sharing, that’s going to be very helpful for people who check out this audio and this transcript. I’d be interested in moving on to find out what your thoughts are about the toughest obstacle that gets in the way of your work together. What do you think about that?
Many voices: Time. Yes, time. And in Michigan, sometimes weather.
CATHY FLEISCHER: One of the things that I’ve noticed working with groups like this, that’s so amazing, is you can just tell from the different questions that they have, how people are just going in such different directions. The context of each of their classrooms is so different, some are in rural, some are in more urban, some are in middle, some are in high school—it’s all over the place. Some work with really at-risk kids; some work with kids who aren’t at risk at all.
People are working in such different areas, and you’d think an obstacle to that could be that the other teachers in the group don’t really have an understanding, so it’s like a series of individual people presenting. But I think what’s happened over the years is the development of really listening, really caring about each other, really understanding each other and having a safe place, and starting to see the connections that happen across these very different settings with very different questions. And how much is the same for teachers, no matter where you teach and what is going on, so we’re finding these moments of commonality.
The thing that is amazing about this is we are coming together in person to do this. And I think that that’s where an obstacle gets in the way. As they said, in the winter sometimes it’s hard to get together. When these teachers are doing these jobs that are a bazillion hours a week, to then add in once a month to have a two-hour time for meeting, I think the typical cry we hear at the meeting is somebody saying, I really wasn’t going to come tonight, I was really tired, and I was really discouraged, and this was going on and that was going on, but I knew if I got there I’d feel better afterwards. So sometimes it’s just getting over that hump? You know, people travel long distances, there are a couple people in the group who travel about an hour to get to these meetings, and so it requires so much on the part of these teachers to get past that hump and to say I’m going to go, I’m going to talk.
We tried to do this online; we do have certain parts online, but there’s nothing that substitutes for the being together, talking together part of it. So what is the benefit of ours is also the obstacle and the struggle in some ways, it’s finding the time to all be together and to do this discussion.
KAREN HOFFMAN: And I do think being together makes a difference. If it was online, I don’t think I would stay with the group. There’s an accountability to looking at somebody face-to-face, not in a bad way, but it makes me want to be there for the people, because it is face-to-face.
And to add to the time thing, I have to say one of the reasons I think it works is because Cathy—she could run a Board meeting really well, I think, because in the kindest way possible, some of the other committees and things I’ve been on, I enjoy sharing with people, but sometimes it seems like we never get to the task at hand, and so we share a lot, and we learn a lot from each other. But Cathy is always good about pulling us back to teacher research, and then, as individuals, pulling us back to our research question and what we’re going to do next. So without her or someone doing that, I think that the time, the precious time that we have, wouldn’t be used as effectively.
ALEXIS JONES: Very interesting
TRACY ANDERSON: I just wanted to add in too that Cathy, the meeting starts on time and ends on time so that it helps I think to use that time effectively. And for example on Thursday, my daughter has an orchestra concert, and I was like, I’m going to go to the orchestra concert and leave and go to research group and on the way there I was like, Why am I going? Because I was coming in late. But then I got there, and even though the work wasn’t focused on me, other people talking about their research, and being able to make a suggestion, then the next day I found myself actually implementing the suggestions that other people were giving to other people, it kind of pulled me back to the research. I keep coming back, and that mode of questioning, that really, I’m heading towards 20 years of teaching and I look at it and I’m like, I have 10 years left to find out the answers to the questions I don’t know the answers of. It keeps that sustainability for me as a teacher, to be trying to figure out teaching and learning better. And that keeps me active in teaching.
ALEXIS JONES: That’s so good to hear. One of my questions was going to be, how does this collaboration enable these outcomes, how did it enable this learning and these changing mindsets that you’ve all described. You’ve just done a beautiful job of describing how that works. So, thank you.
I’d love to ask you what role, if any, has the National Center for Literacy Education, any stakeholder organizations, and/or the Exchange site—have any of those played a role in your work together?
CATHY FLEISCHER: I’ll tell sort of a funny story about it. So a few years ago, when a few NCLE people asked us if we’d be willing to record, video record, videotape our meetings for a year, I got really excited about this because I thought this would be so much fun. It’d be great, so everybody agreed, we had a good discussion about what it might mean to get our faces out there and do something about it. So we set the video up every meeting, we had a safe word, you know, when we wanted the video turned off. We did all that kind of stuff. I think what was interesting is, over doing that, it wasn’t necessarily that the video was important or anything, but trying to come together to summarize what it is we do and turn them into blogs for NCLE, I think has been pretty cool.
Because even though it’s hard to get people to blog, because everybody is so busy, it really has helped to sustain what it is that we do, crystallize what we do, you know, put it into easy words for other people to understand. And when new people come to the group now, we send them to that blog. We say, you know, you want to learn about teacher research, read what we wrote up there, because that’s going to really help you, as a newcomer into the group.
So I think that’s one way that being a part of the Exchange has worked. You know, we’re sort of a different group than most of the ones on the Exchange, and we’re very aware of that. But I think it helped, it helped focus us a little bit, when we first became a part of it and started thinking about blog writing for the Exchange.
JESSICA DEYOUNG KANDER: I think that it also helped us be a little bit more aware of our position as advocates for teachers and for teacher research. What this kind of notion of going public and what that meant for all of us on different levels. And our involvement in all these different organizations has allowed us to, as Cathy said, crystallize what that really means and what that really looks like. And that we all kind of seem to have that in the back of our heads, as we’re thinking about all of our individual questions, some of which are really very personal to our classrooms and to our own personal practice. But allowing us to keep in the back of our heads, you know, there’s this wider public as well who perhaps we’re speaking to.
ALEXIS JONES: Wonderful. Thank you very much for sharing that. It really does make a difference when you have to try to assemble your thoughts into a cohesive blog post, just to describe what you’re doing. You’ve shared some wonderful, wonderful things here, I was wondering if there was anything that anybody in the group would like to share, before we wrap things up today? Anything about how your students have reacted to this, anything about how your work has contributed to a wider audience, anything else that you’d like to add?
This is a story that Kris Gideon who’s a member of our group has written about and talked about at conferences and stuff, which I think is really interesting. One of the things that she says being a teacher researcher does for her, is it makes public to parents, as well as to students, what she does, and how teaching is more than just going in and teaching. You know, from the beginning of telling her students, as Jessica mentioned this earlier, to going in and telling students, hey, I’m doing research, it sets a different tone in the classroom. It sets the tone of I’m a learner too, we’re all learners. But then she says, when she gets the permission slips for students to sign, and because they’re minors to take home for their parents to sign, the parents start to know immediately, that this is what a teacher does. A teacher doesn’t just teach from 8 to 3. What this teacher does is also research what’s going on in order to become a better teacher. And she talks about how this has really changed her relationship with the community, both the students and the parents, really understanding the levels of what teachers actually do in the world.
TRACY ANDERSON: Just adding to that a little bit, is that I think I start off in my classes, and on the first day I have students write me a letter, just telling me whatever they want to tell me about them. What they need, who they are, about what they like, what they don’t like. And they are interested that I am interested in knowing about them outside the scope of the classroom. And I think that teacher research does that exact same thing. It says to them that I’m interested in their stories. I’m trying to figure out what makes their work good.
In asking that question and in asking those questions about revision and when they revise and how they revise and why they revise, they actually end up doing more revision, probably, because I’m interested in their revision process, so therefore they become interested in their revision process. So I think teacher research in itself can elevate the achievement of both students and teacher inside of the classroom. And I also think that it takes care of discipline issues, in a way, because it puts the teacher on the level of being a learner. And the teacher’s teacher is actually the students. So it kind of flips those roles in an interesting way that I don’t think students are usually used to. But they’re the ones that hold the answer for us.
ALEXIS JONES: Very interesting. I like how you put that.
KAREN HOFFMAN: I do too. My students absolutely love it when I include them in the teacher research. It makes them feel important. They’re so used to having things done to them, so for them to be put in a position of authority, you know better than anybody else what’s going to work, what’s not, and it seems to create a more interactive classroom for me as well.
LISA EDDY: I’ve had students for a few years who know that I’m a researcher, and so they’ll ask, what am I researching, and could they be interviewed. They want to participate, and they love to see when an article comes out, or when we do presentations, I’ll show them the book, like Oh this is when I presented with my friends from teacher research. And they love that, and they’re excited about it.
ELLEN DANIEL: One other thing I’d want to mention about our group, is that it gives us the confidence to go forward, conversations with parents, with colleagues, with policymakers, those kinds of things, that might not be quite so easy to tackle if we didn’t have the constant back and forth that we experience through teacher research.
And that we have a knowledge base that comes from knowing other teachers are doing the same kinds of work, engaged in the same kinds of reflective practice, and thinking about the same kinds of ways to improve their teaching and learning in their classrooms. So that for me is a big piece, too. I feel like my voice is amplified, when I know that I’m not speaking just for me.
CATHY FLEISCHER: Nice.
ALEXIS JONES: Very nice. And actually that came up earlier when we were talking about how it’s influenced people professionally, people talked about being more confident to talk about what they know, this validation that what you do matters, and it’s really nice to know that that’s reached a wider audience.
Incredibly, we’ve reached the end of our time, and I just wanted to thank you all for the time that you’ve taken, to drive in terrible weather to get on the phone with us today.