Professional Learning Teacher Inquiry

Exploring Resources from Teacher-Researcher Marian Mohr

Marian Mohr, a tireless advocate for teacher research, left behind a wealth of resources when she passed away in March 2007. Her many publications provide a window into her continuing influence in both her local writing project site and the field at large, and they offer solid guidance to teachers interested in pursuing research into their own practice.

In “The Teacher as Researcher,” her first published article, which appeared in The Quarterly in November 1980, Mohr wrote,

Keeping a journal of the context and discoveries of my teaching days has helped me to learn from my experiences and observations. Looking at teaching as research has made me more of a professional by making me more of a student.

According to many of her colleagues, these sentences sum up her approach to life. Don Gallehr, director of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, says of Mohr, “She was always involved in something, and always writing.”

Influence in Fairfax County, Virginia

Mohr’s influence is felt most personally in Fairfax County Public Schools, where she taught for many years and worked intensively with colleagues such as Marion MacLean to start a rich and active teacher research network. The Fairfax County Public School Teacher Research Network “provides support for practicing teacher-researchers and education to others about the network of teacher-researchers.”

Fairfax County Public Schools currently supports 30 school-based teacher research groups and recently hosted its fifteenth annual teacher research conference. Gail Ritchie, resource teacher in the Office of Professional Learning and Training for Fairfax County Public Schools, says of Mohr,

I am indebted to her legacy. If the gold standard of professional development is ongoing and job-embedded professional development, then nothing meets this standard like teacher research, and it was Marian who not only brought teacher research to Fairfax County Public Schools but also kept it alive here.

In the late 1990s Mohr and her colleagues received a Spencer Foundation Grant, which allowed them to document the work of their teacher research network at Fairfax County Public Schools in the 2003 book Teacher Research for Better Schools.

The preface of that book argues for “respect for teachers’ professionalism as they conduct classroom research, work collaboratively, develop teacher research networks, and disseminate their findings.” The book combines ideas about how to develop and support teacher research communities with examples of articles produced by teacher-researchers.

Betsy Sanford, whose work is featured in that book, says of working on the project, “What I found was a group of people looking at teaching in really, really interesting ways, with real substance.”

And of Mohr as a mentor she says, “We become inured to a culture in schools that says teachers need to be taught how to teach, but Marian knew teachers were theory builders and believed in what we could figure out. What a gift in my life, to be part of that and to have that mentoring.”

Mohr’s work close to home also included co-directing the Northern Virginia Writing Project, where she and Don Gallehr developed their first teacher research seminar in 1980. Gallehr says of that work, “Marian soon took the lead, and through a two-year grant from George Mason University, established the Writing Research Center of Virginia.”

The Two Marians

Through the Northern Virginia Writing Project, Mohr met and began a 30-year friendship and writing partnership with Marion MacLean (they are often referred to by friends and colleagues as “the two Marians”). Of working with Mohr, Marion MacLean said, “She always showed people an honest respect. She listened. In concert, she demonstrated a kind of fierceness.”

Such fierce respect for teachers and their work is apparent in Mohr’s 1982 article in The Quarterly, “Window Sill: Teacher-Researchers and the Study of the Writing Process,” where she proclaims, “Their research is valuable, solid, and in some cases innovative, adding real and useful findings to the field of writing research.”

She adds later, “Researchers outside of the classroom, possibly associated with local school systems and universities, may wish to do their research in a community where teacher-researchers are at work. If so, they will need to adopt teacher-researchers as equals.”

The “two Marians” are coauthors of several articles and books, including Teacher-Researchers at Work. Betsy Sanford, an NVWP colleague, says of that book, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dipped into Teacher-Researchers at Work. They [Mohr and MacLean] knew what not to worry about and what to worry about. I don’t know how they did it, but they were really able to lead teacher-researchers with that work.”

Many teacher-consultants seem to agree. In NWP initiatives and programs that ask teachers to take an inquiry stance, Teacher-Researchers at Work often surfaces as a friendly guide, a how-to.

Teacher Inquiry Communities Network

Of course, Mohr’s influence in the NWP is most visible in the Teacher Inquiry Communities (TIC) Network, where she served on the leadership team from 2000 to 2006. Former TIC chair Shirley Brown says of Mohr’s effect on the network, “Teacher-Researchers at Work was just being revised when she got involved with TIC. She, and that book, helped us think about how to support groups getting started and about what kind of programming we wanted to offer. She was simply always there as someone who knew about teacher research.”

When asked about the value of teacher research networks, Denny Barry, an instructional coach coordinator in the Fairfax County Public Schools, answered, “There are ways in which this era of high stakes testing and accountability threaten learning. We believe that teacher research has a place in teaching and learning, but most of all, that when we do teacher research, we model learning in a rich way. Teacher research networks keep alive a hope that we will pay attention to the learning process in all its depth and richness.”

For those interested in Marian Mohr’s work, an annotated bibliography follows.

A Chronology of Marian Mohr’s Work

The Teacher as Researcher (1980)
In this 1980 piece, Mohr describes her own early forays into teacher research, which begin when she comes to understand that the “humiliation of not knowing everything catches up with every teacher.” She concludes that one way of learning to live with this realization is to “begin asking why things happened the way they did in my classes, to become a student of my students, encouraging them to teach me about the way they learned.”

Window Sill: Teacher-Researchers and the Study of the Writing Process (1982)
This article was written as the introduction to a collection of research reports on the writing processes of students, grades one through twelve, prepared by the participants in a teacher researcher seminar.

Methods and a Wild Surmise (1984)
A short reflection on the writing project and the role of the demonstration in the summer institute.

Revision: The Rhythm of Meaning (1984)
Mohr’s first book, this emphasizes the role of revision in the writing process as a tool for helping the writer to make meaning clear.

Working Together: A Guide for Teacher-Researchers (1987)
Short and readable, this book displays the workings of a yearlong seminar for teacher-researchers in Fairfax County, Virginia. Mohr and Maclean, both high school teachers and teacher-consultants with the Northern Virginia Writing Project, describe their orientation to teacher research, print samples of participants’ journal entries, data charts, and other documents, and lay out a plan for biweekly meetings of the group. Since the research group is also a graduate class, there is information about the syllabus as well.

Teacher-Researchers: Their Voices, Their Continued Stories (1989)
Mohr’s comments frame sections by four teacher-researchers telling their stories about the effect of teacher research on their classrooms and on their teaching. Mohr argues for the importance of hearing teacher-researchers’ voices.

Teacher-Researchers at Work (1999)
This is a revised edition of Working Together (see above). It describes the components of teacher research, presents research articles for teacher-researchers, and contains an extensive section that describes resources for teachers conducting research in their classrooms.

Teacher Research for Better Schools (2004)
In this book, Mohr and her colleagues take teacher research to the next step, showing the impact of a teacher research community on the classrooms of participating teachers and on the schools and the district in which these teachers practice.