Professional Learning Teacher Inquiry

Digging Deeper: Teacher Inquiry in the Summer Institute Demonstration


The National Writing Project’s core philosophy, “teachers teaching teachers,” is perhaps most directly expressed in the invitational summer institute’s teacher demonstrations. NWP founder Jim Gray writes in Teachers at the Center, his memoir of the writing project beginnings, “The most successful demonstrations communicate not only what the teacher does but also why the teacher thinks this particular practice works. The emphasis upon the why as well as the what is important: it provides a theoretical underpinning and it accents a considered approach to writing beyond mere gimmickry” (143). According to Gray, this demonstration serves as a “trial run” for the workshops future teacher-consultants will present during inservice work in the schools, but it is intended to be much more than a simple demonstration of a strategy or technique. It is intended to be a significant “genre” for the circulation of knowledge about practice.

The effect of these “teachers’ practice” demonstrations has been to disseminate to thousands of teachers, inside and outside the writing project, new understandings of learning and writing strategies from dialogue journals to multigenre papers to inventive uses of writing in science, math, and other disciplines.

In ongoing discussions, leaders at some NWP sites have been focusing on another dimension to that venerable and successful writing project vehicle that is teacher demonstration: inquiry. Their interests range from how the demonstration can serve the learning of the presenting teacher to how the summer institute community can become a collaborative inquiry group.

Examples of this inquiry focus, examined here, come from the Northern California Writing Project and the Red Cedar Writing Project, Michigan, both of which are turning their findings into monographs as part of the National Writing Project at Work series. At the Northern California Writing Project, Director Tom Fox, Co-Director Kathy Wainwright, and other site leaders propose that their aspiring teacher-consultants use their demonstrations not only to teach other teachers, but also to teach themselves, presenting their best practice and also examining that practice. Meanwhile, at Michigan’s Red Cedar Writing Project, Director Janet Swenson and Co-Director Diane Mitchell noticed that the extended conversations that took place at the snack table after a teacher demonstration had a depth and profundity often lacking in the cursory written responses that followed these presentations. They began wondering what would happen if these fruitful conversations were made the first step of a response group “consensus” writing about a demonstration that would then be shared with the presenter.

The Northern California Writing Project’s Inquiry-Based Demonstrations

“We want our summer institute participants to make inquiry a central part of their teacher demonstrations,” said Kathy Wainwright. “If a certain practice has worked for a particular teacher, we want her to go beyond `Here’s something that worked in my classroom. Why don’t you try it?’ We want our teachers to put their work in a larger context, one that they may not have thought much about. We encourage them to ask `If this worked for me, why did it work?’ In this way, the presenter, as well as the other participants, will share and gain knowledge of more than just a strategy that works. Rather, a piece of theory will evolve from a presentation that has general applicability to the presenter’s teaching and maybe all teaching.”

Fox added, “The purpose of the inquiry is not to push teacher-consultants to expose their weaknesses or focus on an unsuccessful strategy. We don’t want `here’s a lesson that really bombed; I don’t know what went wrong. Can you help me?’ Rather we want teachers to examine successful practice. Our job as coaches in the institute is to support the continued questioning and improvement of their practice.”

Fox, Wainwright, and their colleagues understand that planning is a crucial element if an inquiry demonstration is to work. “Our site has thought carefully about how to help teachers succeed at showing how inquiry drives their practice,” said Fox.

Preparation for the inquiry demonstrations begins with acceptance to the summer institute, continues during orientation, and culminates in a workshop at a “boot camp” that precedes the summer institute. The boot camp is an intense three-day experience at which participants read current research, write about their practice, and prepare for their demonstrations. This means that teachers need to show up at the boot camp with student work related to a particular teaching practice. “This has not been the barrier that it might seem,” said Wainwright. “The word is out in our region that teachers interested in applying for our institute need to collect student work. They’ll sometimes show up with boxes full of material.”

Participants spend a good three-hour block of time looking carefully at student work and formulating observations and questions that will inform the inquiry demonstration. And then the coaching begins. “It starts when we ask teachers to step back from a piece of their work and ask a question about it. Much of what we do has to do with helping teachers find a question they want to ask,” Fox said.

“We work through the scientific process starting with a question, developing and testing a hypothesis, reporting results, and drawing a conclusion,” said Wainwright.

Along the way, participants will be encouraged to ask themselves questions such as: What do I know about my students? What do they do effectively as readers and writers? What do I want to find out by examining their work? How do I examine their work? What is the evidence that supports the effectiveness of my instruction? Does student work show that my teaching reaches all students or just some? Which ones and why? How do I use what I learn about my students and my teaching to direct my work in the future?

Examples of teacher inquiry projects that evolved out of this coaching include:

  • Marianne Werner, a community college teacher, brought her successful work with very structured essay writing to the institute. Her inquiry into her practice resulted in her documenting her “success;” students really learned what she taught. Her question was about what successful meant. She wondered if what had previously appeared as “success” might also be a too narrowly defined idea of effective writing.
  • Janet Farshon, a first grade teacher in a remote area of California, developed case studies of beginning writers for the institute to assess, focusing on the relationship between her school’s reading program and the writing instruction that she had developed to accompany it.
  • Lou Buran, after examining his student work at boot camp, decided that the rubrics that he was using both enabled and inhibited the assessment of his student work. For his presentation, he engaged the institute in an experiment. Half of the group assessed student work with a rubric, while the other half used a less-structured assessment. The discussion that emerged examined carefully the use and misuse of rubrics.

Could the teacher inquiry demonstration work anywhere other than the Northern California Writing Project? Fox and Wainwright think so. “It’s true we have this boot camp of preparation, but our regular summer institute is only three weeks long. In terms of hours invested, this means that we work for about the same number of hours as the traditional five-week summer institute. A site that wanted to give some up-front time to coaching with inquiry demonstrations could probably adopt some version of what we do,” Wainwright said.

Fox, however, counseled caution. “The writing project’s historic focus on the knowledge of practice is retained in our institute. The inquiry demonstrations extend the idea of practice to include the inquiry that we see in exemplary teachers. We don’t feel that this is an entirely new idea. It does require careful coaching and thoughtful response from participants to be successful,” he said. However, for experienced site leaders looking for ways to add a level of depth to these presentations, the teacher inquiry demonstration presents a new and potentially effective opportunity for growth.

“We’d be pleased to help,” concluded Fox.

The Red Cedar Writing Project’s Group Response Strategy

The leaders at the Red Cedar Writing Project, Michigan, were also interested in a demonstration process that went deep, but their initial concern was less with the presenter and more on those who received the presentation.

Initially, demonstrations at the Red Cedar Writing Project had been followed by a brief whole-group discussion, followed by individual letters that were for the most part perfunctory notes: “Thank you very much for the wonderful presentation. I was deeply engaged throughout. I plan to use this approach in my classroom next year.” It is not surprising that presenters did not regard their colleagues’ responses as particularly significant aspects of their demonstration process, nor did participants find composing responses to the teaching demonstrations of their colleagues an especially meaningful act.

But consideration of these teacher demonstrations did not end with these token and obligatory written responses. During breaks between demonstrations, intense discussion related to the presentations often took place. Janet Swenson said, “Just talking, we put the demonstration into a larger framework, discussing the demands of school districts to construct curricula built around state standards, benchmarks, and standardized test. And we talked about our own classroom-based trials and travails as we struggled with questions of `best practice’ in composition pedagogy.”

Observing and participating in these discussions, Swenson and Diana Mitchell came to an understanding about the meager and more or less mechanical responses to the demonstrations that had been the norm: the response to demonstration was one aspect of the summer institute where the leaders did not allow a process approach to writing to play out. Listening to the lively conversation those demonstrations generated, the leaders realized that they had had it backwards. The writing had taken place; now they were listening to the prewriting.

Seven years ago, armed with this new understanding, Swenson and Mitchell worked out a new protocol for response to teacher demonstrations that made use of conversation in writing groups for prewriting and revision. The groups were expected to review each teacher demonstration through five “lenses” (see below). Following this process, participants worked together to construct common understandings with regard to the teaching demonstration. The goal was to reach a consensus on language that expressed the group’s understanding in the context of each of these “lenses,” and then to write a letter to the presenter summarizing the group’s consensus.

The Five Lenses

Lens 1: Describing affect for teachers and learners. This lens puts the spotlight on those often seemingly invisible cues that give students important information. Does the teacher respect us as learners? Does the teacher care about what she is teaching? Does the teacher work to involve us in the learning?

While these are questions that students in any classroom could legitimately ask, the “us” here consists of the teacher audience that participates and responds to the demonstration.

Said Janet Swenson, “Since this first lens invites participants to consider their affective responses, teachers generally have little difficulty beginning their letter. The opening sentences often celebrate some aspect of the demonstration and then name the affect or feelings the demonstration evoked from them.”

Lens 2: Articulating best practice. The letter writers here are aided by a shared definition of best practice to guide their thinking. “Methods that positively affect learning and productively address problems acknowledged by those in the discipline to be at once fundamental and profound,” Swenson said. “Sometime teachers have difficulty getting a handle on this one, so we prime the pump by naming attributes that may have been present in a demonstration, such as `beginning with students’ lived experience,’ and `invoking the use of multiple intelligences.'”

Lens 3: The Michigan language arts standards and benchmarks. “We’ve notice that many excellent teachers do not have the language to describe the larger context in which teaching fits, and we felt working with the standards would be one method of addressing this gap,” says Swenson. So Red Cedar Writing Project leaders present institute participants with a copy of the Michigan standards. Each writing group can then decide which, if any, of the standards are exemplified in the demonstration.

Lens 4: Extensions and adaptations. This section challenges letter writers to consider ways they and others can put the demonstration to use. Their work in this area allows them to show how an idea from a demonstration can be represented in many ways, applied to many skills, and adapted to different grade levels.

Lens 5: Questions arisen. This section gives the letter writers a chance to ask questions about the demonstration, referencing their own teaching practice. (“How can we keep student attention if we need to lecture for more than 15 minutes?”) Said Swenson, “The primary purpose of this section is to `say back’ to the presenter how the group as a whole internalized and theorized the demonstration so the presenter might think through again all parts of the demonstration.”

Writing the Letter

Before the writing response groups begin with any of this, the entire process has been modeled for the participants by the institute leaders. Now, starting their letter writing, group members usually begin by sharing oral observations and reactions to the presentation. After that, each group finds a process that works for them in drafting the letter. Some work through the “lenses” one at a time; others find a theme in the demonstration and construct their comments around that theme. Of course, as each group will be going through this process several times, the groups have many chances to polish and tweak their response strategies. And as the group coalesces, members find their individual strengths. One person usually takes on the writing, another has a knack for coming up with a succinct expression, and still another has an advanced understanding of content areas.

This entire process, of course, is more time consuming than the once-over-lightly written responses that participants formerly gave to the demonstrations. With this difficulty in mind, the Red Cedar Writing Project has worked out some logistical answers to allow enough time for an indepth discussion of each demonstration. Swenson said, “We schedule these [discussion] groups to meet 45 minutes before our lunch break. If the process takes longer, participants have the option of continuing over lunch.”

Like Fox and Wainwright at the Northern California Writing Project, Swenson and Mitchell conclude that the changes they have brought to the summer institute demonstration are an advance over what they had. “The collaborative letter is almost always better and more helpful to the presenter than individually written letters,” they said. The writers are pushed to in-depth reflection, and the five lenses provide a framework anchoring appropriate topics for reflection that are specific enough for the presenters to put to practical use.

And the collaborative letter has been useful as well to Red Cedar Writing Project leaders in their efforts to craft an institute that meets the needs of participating teachers. As Swenson and Mitchell wrote, “The information from the letters has given us a wealth of information about what teachers pay attention to and has thus helped us see what we must pay attention to in constructing a meaningful, provocative, professional experience for teachers.”