Toward a Scholarship of Teaching Practice: Contributions from NWP Teacher Inquiry Workshops
When I describe my work in education, I always feel duty bound to share a bit about my checkered background. I started teaching high school English forty-six years ago in my hometown, New York City. Like many women of my era, I stepped away from full-time teaching when my first child was born. During the years that Heidi and Andrew were little, I followed them around. With a friend who was also a teacher, I established and directed a nursery school on Long Island, where we lived at the time. I am happy to say the school recently celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary. When my children went to elementary school, I got certified to teach elementary school in New York state, and I worked as a substitute teacher at the elementary level. When Heidi and Andrew were in school full time, I went back to high school teaching.
An accident of time and place had me teaching in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when the University of Michigan was establishing the English Composition Board to develop its new writing-across-the-curriculum program in the mid-1970s. That program had grant funding to conduct outreach workshops in Michigan schools and summer conferences on the university campus. At the closing session of the first summer conference, those of us participating were asked to suggest how the university’s faculty and we K–12 teachers in Michigan who were working to find ways to teach writing at all levels of instruction might work together. I made a suggestion and was invited to join the English Composition Board to carry it out. I took the job and began a course of study that led me to earn a Ph.D. in English and education.
Because I began doctoral studies under the circumstances I did, and when I did, in a large research university, it is probably not surprising that the research strand of my work focused on teacher research. And if you were a teacher and a teacher-researcher at heart, and you were interested in the scholarship of teaching practice in the 1970s, you found your way to the National Writing Project.
My Work Within the National Writing Project
That leads me to another chapter in my checkered career. For a little over twenty-five years, I have had a love affair with the National Writing Project that has grown and deepened over the years. In the early 1980s, I began working directly with the project as a teacher-consultant for the Oakland Writing Project, Michigan’s oldest writing project site. In the early 1990s I served on the writing project’s national advisory board. In 1993, with my colleague Janet Swenson and others at Michigan State University, I co-founded the Red Cedar Writing Project. Currently, I’m working with my colleague Joseph McCaleb in College Park and with Barbara Bass, director of the Maryland Writing Project, to establish a satellite site of the Maryland Writing Project in College Park.
Background for My Current Research Project
For the past two years, I have had the privilege of working with the National Writing Project’s research office in a study that is a gift to me because it has allowed me to combine my love affair with the writing project with my commitment to teacher research. This commitment has taken the form in recent years of working to draw attention to the unique contributions that teacher research has made and can make to improving the quality of American education if it is conducted, published, reviewed, nurtured, and supported—as it is in the writing project—and taken as seriously as it should be in the broader educational research community and among policymakers.
In an effort to bring the unique value of the kind of work that we do in the writing project to the attention of the broader educational research community and policymakers, for a little more than ten years now, I’ve been studying and writing about what I’ve called overlooked and undervalued genres in which teacher-researchers conduct and publish our inquiries. In writing about one of those studies, a study of the function an anecdote played in the work of a group of teacher-researchers in which I participated (Stock 1993), I tried to address a criticism some educational researchers have made about teacher research that goes like this: Too much of the work of reflective practitioners who call themselves teacher-researchers cannot be considered research because that work is produced by chance, not as a the result of systematically conducted inquiries.
By tracing the telling and retelling of an anecdote about a perplexing teaching-learning moment in a class that two of us in the teacher research group were team-teaching, I showed how with each telling of the anecdote—first to a couple of our colleagues in the group, then to a couple more, and then in a meeting of the whole group—we collected, sorted, and analyzed that teaching-learning moment in order to develop effective teaching strategies for our students. And furthermore, in the process, we also published a form of phenomenological, interpretative research for review in our research community.
In writing about another of those studies (Stock 2001), I tried to address another criticism of teacher research that goes like this: While teacher research may work to good effect at the local level, because it is often conducted in relative isolation, it fails to benefit from sufficient peer review.
To counter this criticism, I described how the important and influential work in composition studies of two teacher-scholars, Theodore Baird and Bernard Van’t Hul, was published only in workshop form. Baird taught in Amherst College and was the teacher of folks like William Coles and Gordon Pradl, who were colleagues of David Bartholomae and colleagues and teachers of Joseph Harris, all of whom have circulated Baird’s practices of teaching writing in workshops and in print. Bernard Van’t Hul taught at the University of Michigan. His famous “Porphyria” workshop has made its way coast to coast and border to border. With reference to these workshops, I was able to show that there is a tradition of citation and criticism in workshop publication of scholarship that functions very much like the tradition of citation and criticism in the written publication of scholarship.
And while the anecdote study and the workshop study got enthusiastic reviews in our field, neither of them were noticed much beyond English education and composition studies. And I wanted, with them, to draw the attention of policymakers and researchers in education to the genre in which we teacher-researchers conduct and publish our work in forms and forums other than print publications.
But the truth of the matter is that while we in our field appreciate the texture and density of case studies because we want to see if we agree with the claims the researcher is making (i.e., we want to see dynamic, organically developing evidence of teaching and learning in context), educational researchers in other fields, and policymakers—while they speak well of such evidence—want and need to know that cases in point are just that—cases in point—not idiosyncratic cases. And I understand that. So when I was concluding the article that focused on the workshop I made a researcher’s move (not something I usually do); I called for further research in these words:
There has been little systematic, empirical study of the genres of research that reflective practitioners and teacher-researchers have used and are using to build the base of knowledge about teaching that they circulate for review within their professional communities although the possibility for such systematic study surrounds us. In the corps of teacher-consultants of the National Writing Project, for example, there exists an extensive community of reflective practitioners and teacher-researchers who conduct and publish research in these genres all the time.
Of course, once those words took shape on my computer screen, I realized that if I believed the study should be conducted, I ought to try to conduct it. And I did try. And happily for me, with the help of the writing project and the wise advice of the writing project’s leadership, I am in the midst of that study right now, a study of an overlooked, under-examined genre of educational research that is called, in some writing project sites, the presentation workshop; in others, the demonstrations workshop; and in still others, the teacher inquiry workshop. Although I must say, in my observations so far, this genre is what Shakespeare might have called “a rose by any other name.”
The Research Project I Am Conducting Currently in the National Writing Project
Currently, I’m exploring four broad questions: 1) What is the nature of what I am going to call the teacher workshop in this talk (but please fill in your favorite name for the genre when I use that name)? 2) What are the sources of these workshops? 3) How are the workshops conducted? 4) What are their impacts?
Participating and Observing
To conduct this inquiry, I have worked primarily as a participant-observer in four National Writing Project sites, all of which serve diverse communities of learners: The Northern California Writing Project (NCWP), the Southern Arizona Writing Project (SAWP), the Northern Virginia Writing Project (NVWP), and the Hudson Valley Writing Project (HVWP) in New York.
In 2005, I was a fully participating observer in the summer institutes of three of these sites; in 2006, in the fourth. In addition, I have been a participant-observer in group interview sessions for the summer institute in one of the sites, in orientation sessions for institutes in three of the sites, and in continuity programming for summer institute fellows in all of the sites. I have also participated in and observed workshops that summer institute fellows, now teacher-consultants, have offered in regional and state-level conferences during the past two years.
In the time since the summer institutes in which I participated, I have also been conducting 1) observations in classrooms at all levels of instruction (elementary, middle, secondary, college) of fellows who have adapted practices they experienced in summer workshops to serve their own various curricular goals and requirements; 2) follow-up interviews with individual summer institute fellows; and 3) focus group discussions with summer institute fellows during continuity-session reunions of them.
Interviewing Site Directors
To learn more about the development of the genre of the teacher inquiry workshop across the years in the writing project, I have been conducting interviews with NWP site directors who are themselves observers of teacher inquiry workshops and part of whose responsibility it is to describe these workshops to university colleagues, school district administrators, and teachers applying to the summer invitational institute. I have also been conducting focus group discussions with site directors who have been associated with the writing project for fifteen or more years.
Finally, I am “revisiting” workshops that I know have influenced my teaching and teacher research in order to add a historical dimension to the study—a dimension that is enabling me to explore the impacts of NWP teacher inquiry workshops over time, something the other parts of the study don’t allow me to do. To revisit these workshops, I have been interviewing (in person, in telephone conversations, and in email exchanges) the teacher-consultants who conducted them and others who participated in them, and I have been collecting all existing artifacts related to them that I am able to locate (e.g., documents of various kinds produced at the classroom, school, school district, state, and professional levels).
Matt Doebler’s 2005 NVWP Summer Institute Teacher Inquiry Workshop
Because this is a work in progress and not a completed study, I am not able to offer any conclusive findings from it yet, but I am able to share some work-in-progress thinking based on the teacher inquiry workshops in which I have participated. To do that, I’m going to describe in some detail one of those workshops this morning and talk about it as a representative case in point of what I’m seeing in many of them.
The workshop I want to use as a case in point this morning is one that Matt Doebler, a secondary school English teacher, conducted in the 2005 Northern Virginia Writing Project Summer Institute. I chose to use Matt’s workshop as my case in point this morning for three reasons: First, we are in Matt’s part of the country here. Second, nine of the 2005 NVWP Summer Institute fellows adapted and used the teaching strategy Matt shared with us in the workshop in their own teaching during the 2005–2006 school year. And, third, because they invited me to do so, I was able to observe teachers at the elementary, middle, secondary, and college levels as they adapted this teaching strategy for use with their students.
As I describe the workshop, its sources, and the impacts that I know about to date, I think parts of what I’ll say will be familiar to everyone in this room, and if we were sitting over a cup of coffee you’d tell me about the sources, conduct, and impacts of other workshops that this one calls to mind—and I hope you will.
The Mock Trial Strategy
Matt introduced his workshop by telling those of us who were participating in the summer institute a little bit about his background and his students, particularly the students with whom he used one of the mock trial teaching strategies that were the focus of his workshop. The title of Matt’s workshop was “The Trial of Mark Twain: Using Trials in the Classroom” because his original plan for the workshop had been to describe and engage us in activities from a unit of study he had taught the previous year.
Matt’s goal for the workshop was to offer those of us in the summer institute an alternative means of getting students involved in the work they have to do to write effective critical essays about books they are reading or research they are doing. Matt developed this alternative means by taking advantage of students’ interest in pop culture, specifically their interest in the courtroom dramas they see on television.
Matt planned to engage us in the mock trial strategy not because he thought it was the answer to a problem he’d identified in his teaching but because he thought it was an answer and because he thought the rest of us might have experienced the same problem he had. The problem Matt wanted to address has three parts: First, how can I/we get students to invest themselves in the work they have to do to write effective critical essays and research papers? Second, how can I/we help students develop viewpoints about books and issues? And third, how can I/we help students feel secure enough to express those viewpoints in discussion and writing?
Because he’d been grappling with this problem in his teaching, Matt experimented with teaching strategies that might help students get invested in their studies, develop viewpoints about books they were reading, and feel secure enough to express their viewpoints and opinions in class discussions and in writing. In one of those strategies, a mock trial strategy he tried with his eleventh-graders, he found that asking students to play the role of a legal team member or witness in a trial went a long way not only toward helping them to develop and express viewpoints and opinions but also toward making them feel secure about doing so. As Matt put it,
[I found] mock trials an effective means of enabling students to work through issues because role playing allowed them to shrug off their “student” identities and become “experts.” They become empowered to challenge people/institutions with a boldness that they [didn’t show] . . . in the traditional critical essay or research paper. (email 3/26/07)
The unit in which Matt originally intended to involve us was a unit in which he engaged his students in a mock trial study of Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with a particular focus on issues of racism that the novel and its teaching raise. The unit asked students to conduct research, to compose creative, expository, and persuasive writing about that research, and to prepare themselves to play various roles in a trial in which they charged Mark Twain with racism (e.g., attorneys, judges, witnesses based on characters from and literary critics of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).
A Change in Plans
During the first weeks of the summer institute, Matt decided to revise his plan for the workshop, although his goal for it remained the same. He still wanted to engage us in mock trial activities as a means of inviting us to think with him about teaching strategies that might help students develop ideas and opinions about books they read and gain the self-assurance to argue for those ideas and opinions in discussions and writing. However, after participating in the workshops conducted by summer institute colleagues who teach at the elementary level, Matt began to think that the mock trial strategy that got his secondary school students to invest themselves in close reading, writing, and research into issues of social justice could work just as effectively with younger students’ study of a work of children’s literature and their research into issues of human behavior, fairness, and self-esteem.
He decided to test his hunch. He revised the original plan for his workshop and designed a new one. Instead of involving us in the specific activities in which he had engaged his high school students in the mock trial study of Huckleberry Finn, Matt engaged us in reading, writing, discussion, and role playing as means of studying a classic piece of children’s literature, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (2003). As we moved through the activities in which he involved us, Matt frequently cross-referenced similarities and difference between what we were doing and what his eleventh-graders had done.
The Giving Tree Workshop: Identifying Themes
Let me give you a sense of how the workshop unfolded. After introducing himself and his teaching situation to us, Matt took a couple of minutes to explain how and why he had revised his workshop. Then he began the workshop by asking us to write briefly about an example of a friendship that disappointed us in our own lives. As we got started, he mentioned that in an opening activity like this, he had asked his eleventh grade students to write about an example of racism they had experienced or witnessed.
When we finished writing, we discussed our disappointing friendships, first in small groups. Then as a whole group we charted the themes embedded in them and noted contrasting themes that would characterize strong friendships. In a comparable move, Matt’s high school students developed a definition of racism that would be the one they would use in their Mark Twain trial.
Studying the Characters
Following our prewriting, Matt read The Giving Tree to us. In their work, Matt’s high school students read the Norton Critical Edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain 1998) as well as a number of critical essays published in the edition. After his reading, to initiate our discussion of The Giving Tree, Matt asked us to write, from the viewpoint of the boy or the tree—the characters in The Giving Tree—to explain ourselves to others. Matt had asked a more complex version of this task of his eleventh-graders in order to engage them in reading and rereading Huckleberry Finn and reading and re-consulting literary criticism of the book.
A Mock Trial
In light of the ideas we were developing in the workshop about the nature of friendship and the characters in The Giving Tree, Matt asked us to imagine the roles we might play in a mock trial that charged the tree or the boy with being a good or a bad friend. He asked us to develop two sets of questions: one we might ask the boy if we wanted to give him a chance to prove he had been a good friend and a second we might ask the boy if we wanted to reveal him to have been a bad friend.
Skipping the role-playing part of the trial in the interests of time, Matt asked us to write briefly to support our opinion that the boy had been a good friend or a bad friend. He concluded this part of the workshop by asking us to share several of our writings and then to assume the role of a jury and vote: In The Giving Tree is the boy guilty of being a bad friend?
Having given us a taste of the kinds of activities that might take place if a teacher were using a mock trial strategy in an elementary school classroom, Matt went on to talk us through the considerably more writing- and research-intensive and procedurally formal version of the mock trial strategy, outlined in his handout, that he designed to enable high school students to study, discuss, debate, and form opinions about a controversial work of American literature (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), about secondary source criticism of that work of literature (essays in the Norton Critical Edition of the novel), and about issues of social justice.
To conclude the workshop, Matt invited us to form small groups and examine five different pieces of writing composed by different students in response to different assignments in the Huckleberry Finn mock trial unit to see if we found evidence in them of the following competencies he hoped his students would learn or demonstrate in the unit: critical analysis of a literary text, critical analysis of secondary sources, persuasive writing, rhetorical skills, and research skills. We did, and in the limited time we had left, we offered Matt examples of them from the writing.
The Workshop: A Blurred Genre of Educational Research
A review of Matt’s workshop reveals many familiar elements:
- He gives us background information about his teaching context and the teaching strategy he plans to share.
- He doesn’t just tell us about the strategy, he engages us in it.
- He provides us student work produced as a result of the teaching strategy.
- He leaves us with a handout of useful materials for later review and use.
There are other elements of Matt’s workshop that are characteristic of the workshops I have been observing. I want to name some of those elements this morning in terms that will speak to educational researchers who, by custom, speak of their work in these terms. I also want to describe some elements of these workshops that cannot be named in terms that were developed when positivism prevailed in social science research, because those terms cannot account for certain distinguishing features of the conduct and publication of research in the teacher inquiry workshop. I want to argue that it is these features that make the teacher inquiry workshop a unique and a uniquely valuable genre of educational research.
Elements and Terms Familiar to Educational Researchers Who Publish in Many Print Journals
The Common Problem
Matt introduced us to his workshop by naming a problem he’d experienced in his teaching that he thought might be a common problem, a problem that teachers face, not just a problem that he faced. The problem might be expressed something like this: When students are asked to write essays or research papers, they often find it difficult to get interested in doing the research that will allow them to speak with some authority about the book or issues. Furthermore, even when they have done the called-for research, they often find it difficult to assume the voice of assurance required when arguing for a point of view about books or issues.
He went on to tell us that he had a hunch (a hypothesis if you will) that if he brought his students’ interest in popular culture, specifically television courtroom drama, into the classroom, he could ask them to play roles that would involve them in research, discussion, and debates and free them to speak and write with authority from the point of view of characters filling roles they’d seen played many times on television (e.g., witnesses, attorneys, etc.).
So he conducted what I like to call an experiment in teaching and learning to test his hypothesis. He engaged his eleventh grade students in a mock trial that charged Mark Twain with racism. In the handout he provided us, Matt described that carefully scaffolded trial unit in enough detail that anyone interested in replicating or adapting it could do so if they wished. Or, to put it another way, he provided us the procedures that he and his students followed to carry out the experiment in teaching and learning that he had designed.
Evidence and Conclusion
Matt shared the teaching strategy with us because in the Mark Twain unit his students produced work, like the work he asked us to examine, that demonstrated critical thinking and the ability to present, support, and argue enthusiastically for a point of view about complex issues. In other words, based on evidence emerging from his experiment in teaching and learning he concluded that the mock trial strategy had accomplished his goals for it.
Characteristics of Research
Or to put it another way, in Matt’s workshop, we can find customary characteristics of research that is published in journals like Research in the Teaching of English and Educational Researcher: a statement of the problem (question) and a hypothesis about how it might be addressed (answered), a description of the procedures of an inquiry that was conducted to test the hypothesis, findings of the inquiry, and evidence to support conclusions drawn from the inquiry.
Furthermore, these are elements I have found in most of the workshops I have observed. In some, the workshop leaders point them out explicitly, in others they don’t. Sometimes these elements become explicitly apparent in discussions of the workshop. At other times, they don’t. Although they are seldom named in these terms, they are almost always there.
And while these elements reveal that the teacher inquiry workshops developed in the National Writing Project share characteristics of educational research published in print and described in long-used terms, they aren’t the end of the story. I want to argue that four additional characteristics I have observed are ones that make the workshop that NWP summer institute fellows and teacher-consultants conduct a unique and a uniquely valuable genre of research in education.
Four Unique Characteristics of the Teacher Inquiry Workshop
First, in these workshops the conduct and publication of teacher research are not discrete activities. Instead, in these workshops, the conduct, publication, and pilot-test application of experiments in teaching and learning are fluid, mutually dependent, holistically realized activities. Furthermore, the all-at-once, all-together conduct and publication of research is neither accidental nor a flaw of the work. It is, in fact, intentional, generative, and demonstrably productive. Again, using Matt’s workshop as a case in point, let me describe what I mean.
After the summer institute began, Matt put aside his original plan to have us try our hands at some of the activities that made up his Huckleberry Finn unit, in part because he wanted to directly address the teaching interests of all of us in the institute, and in part because he had developed another hunch (hypothesis): The mock trial strategy that had worked so well with his eleventh-graders could work equally well, he thought, in preparing students at all levels of instruction to explore issues raised in the literature they were studying, to develop points of view about characters and issues, and to be able to express those viewpoints effectively. So he revised his workshop to engage us as participants in what he called a Popcorn Model of the mock trial strategy and, in doing so, he also engaged us as co-researchers in a pilot test of another experiment in teaching and learning.
In effect, in his workshop, Matt published a classroom-tested teaching strategy for our review and use that emerged from his first experiment with the mock trial strategy, and he invited us to further explore the possibilities of the strategy by inviting us to co-conduct a second experiment with him. Our experience moving through the brief study of The Giving Tree in which he engaged us led us to conclude that Matt’s hunch was a good one. He was onto something. We thought the unit might in fact help elementary school students to read closely, explore issues in some depth, and write persuasively.
Several months later, I had a chance to see Matt’s hunch, now our hunch, move through a real pilot-test test when I observed Matt and another summer institute fellow, Roseanne Morgan, teach the unit in two elementary school classes over a period of two weeks, during which time Roseanne led her students in the pre- and post-trial discussion and writing activities and Matt, white-wigged and robed, conducted the trial.
I also had the opportunity to examine the student writing produced in the unit. Based on my observations I would have to say that Matt’s hunch—now the co-owned hunch of the NVWP 2005 summer institute fellows—that the mock trial strategy held promise to work with students at all levels of instruction was well worth further use and experimentation. And—I am happy to report—that use and experimentation is alive and well in this geographic region, even as I speak.
If one characteristic that distinguishes NWP teacher inquiry workshops from educational research published in print is that empirical research is conducted, published, and pilot-tested simultaneously in them, the second characteristic that makes them unique adds another dimension to their complexity. These workshops present for review and use not just classroom-tested teaching strategies but also theories of those strategies.
When Matt decided that he was going to engage us in activities to launch a study of The Giving Tree rather than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he reflected beyond the Huck Finn mock trial unit in which he engaged his eleventh-graders to other strategies he used to engage students in close reading, role playing, discussion, debate, and creative, expository, critical, and persuasive writing, and he discovered that three of those strategies could also be thought of as forms of mock trials.
Reviewing those strategies through what I want to claim had now become the “mock trial teaching strategy” theoretical lens he was developing (I hope you’ll help me with a better name for that) he saw in some of them the kinds of activities in which he had engaged his eleventh-graders (e.g., close reading, role playing, discussion, debate, and creative, expository, critical, and persuasive writing). He concluded that if the teaching strategies he was reviewing were engaging students in close reading, role playing, discussion, debate, and creative, expository, critical, and persuasive writing, they were in fact versions of the mock trial strategy. He further concluded that their difference, one from the other, might best be explained by the amount of time and the quantity and depth of reading, discussion, and writing that each required.
In the process of this review of his teaching, not only did Matt enrich his own thinking and plan for the workshop in which he engaged us; he also enriched our understandings of the mock trial teaching strategy he provided us for review and use in the summer institute.
Having identified various mock trial strategies that he wanted to share with us, Matt decided to name them and to describe the characteristics that distinguished them from one another.
The Popcorn Model. One version, the one he named the Popcorn Model, the one we tried our hands at in the summer institute, asks for little pre-trial preparation. In it, Matt and his students are usually able to complete the work of the trial in one class session in which students alternate playing the roles of character witnesses, lawyers, jury members, and so on, often with one student at a time assuming the role of a character or a witness (having prepared herself to do so by writing as he asked us to do in the institute), while the others ask the character questions they have developed (as we did).
At the end of this version of the mock trial strategy, the entire class becomes a jury, discussing and debating the merits of a question, like the one we grappled with in the workshop—Was the boy in The Giving Tree a bad friend to the tree?—based on viewpoints they developed from their reading, writing, discussion, and role playing.
The Judge Judy Model. Matt named the second version of the mock trial strategy the Judge Judy Model. The Judge Judy Model is essentially a judge-moderated debate that requires little or no secondary research. Just as they see on the television show, in this version of the mock trial strategy, students can act as advocates, have witnesses, and present evidence on behalf of their viewpoint. Matt told us he’s used this model to good effect to teach poems like Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.”
The Law and Order Model. The third version of the mock trial, the Law and Order Model, is the one he used with his eleventh-graders in the Mark Twain trial unit and described for us in detail in his handout.
Testing the Theory
In the process of reviewing his teaching in light of what he came to see as constitutive characteristics of a mock trial teaching strategy (i.e., engaging students in close reading, role playing, discussion, debate, and creative, expository, critical, and persuasive writing), Matt developed a theory of the mock trial teaching strategy that has what all sound teaching and learning theories must have: the power to account for teaching and learning and the power to generate teaching and learning. And the theory did just that during the next year in classes of other summer institute fellows that I had the pleasure of observing.
Katherine Stocking adapted the strategy for use with her middle school students’ study of Gary Paulsen’s novel Night John. In her classes, Katherine engaged students in activities that were adapted for their needs and the requirements of her curriculum. And when her students conducted a mock trial that charged Gary Paulsen with including excessive amounts of violence in the novel, they did it with other teachers serving as the jury and with parents and invited guests (including Matt) as observers.
Don Gallehr adapted the strategy in yet another way to meet the needs and requirements of his college-level advanced writing class in creative nonfiction where, after studying In Cold Blood, Don’s students prepared and conducted a mock trial that charged Truman Capote with corrupting the genre of nonfiction.
3. Workshops Construct Arguments
So, if one characteristic I am seeing that distinguishes teacher inquiry workshops from other genres of educational research is that in them we conduct, publish, and pilot-test experiments in teaching and learning simultaneously, and another characteristic that distinguishes them is that in the process of preparing ourselves to conduct, publish, and pilot-test experiments in teaching and learning we develop theories of the teaching strategies we circulate for review and use, the third characteristic of the workshops that I am seeing is this: They construct arguments.
In the case of Matt’s workshop I might state the argument this way: Drawing on students’ interest in popular culture, particularly on their interest in the court room dramas they see on television, we can engage students in the kind of reading, research, discussion, and debate that leads them to write effectively in a number of genres, including the expository persuasive writing so highly valued in schooling today. Whether the argument is the one constructed in Matt’s workshop or another one constructed in another workshop, the argument is constructed jointly in the “work” of all workshop participants, not by the workshop leader alone, which is what I mean when I say the workshop constructs an argument.
Let me explain a bit more. In Matt’s workshop, the workshop leader brought materials to the “shop” (e.g., a piece of children’s literature and mock trial activities that allowed us to experience the potential of the teaching strategy; a description fleshed out in a handout of a more complex, but similar set of activities developed for older students; and samples of students’ writing.) In that “shop,” we participants “worked” with the materials to make things, including ideas, understandings, and an argument.
Our communally developed work in the shop constituted the argument for the claim Matt had made for the mock trial strategy when he introduced the workshop. He made the claim and we did the work that argued for the claim: Mock trials provide teachers a promising means for engaging students in study, research, role playing, discussion, and debate, and for enabling students to compose effectively in a variety of genres of writing.
Last year I had the pleasure of observing high school classes taught by Karin Tooze, another summer institute participant who was persuaded of the argument the workshop constructed. Karin has used the mock trial strategy for the past two years to engage her students in a study of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is required summer reading in her school district.
In Karin’s classes the trial unfolds much as Matt described it had in his classes, with a couple of significant differences. Instead of having her students read criticism of the novel published in the Norton Critical Anthology edition of the book and charging Mark Twain with racism, Karin has her students read Peaches Henry’s highly regarded essay “The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn” (1992, 1995), which includes a comprehensive discussion of the arguments for and against the censorship of Huckleberry Finn in school curricula. And Karin’s students develop the charge for their trials themselves.
The classes I observed developed different charges: one charged a school district with inappropriately assigning the novel; the other charged a school district with inappropriately banning the novel from classroom study. Another interesting note about Karin’s use of the teaching strategy: she planned for her study of the novel to occur during the week each year that the American Library Association draws attention to banned books.
4. Immediate Impact on Practice
The fourth characteristic of the teacher inquiry workshop that I want to mention is one familiar to all of us, I know. This genre of research has immediate, salutary impact on practice. Teachers who experience classroom-tested teaching strategies in workshops that argue persuasively for those practices adapt those practices almost immediately to meet the needs of their own students and the guidelines of their own curricula. I wish I had the time this morning to describe the various sound, imaginative ways in which the mock trial strategy played out in Roseanne’s, Katherine’s, Karin’s, and Don’s classes, because they were as wonderfully different from one another as they were sound examples of the strategy Matt theorized and for which his workshop argues.
And now, for a minute, I’m going to play a numbers game, not my usual style.
As I mentioned earlier, nine NVWP 2005 summer institute fellows introduced the mock trial strategy in one form or another into their teaching after the summer institute. In the classrooms I observed where teachers were using the strategy, I can demonstrate in thick descriptions the quality of teaching and learning the strategy set in motion. I have a room full of field notebooks to support those descriptions. In examples of student work, I can also demonstrate both the variety and quality of writing that students composed in the course of these mock trial units, and I can report the number of students whom this teaching involved in this kind of learning and writing. In the case of Roseanne, Katherine, Karin, and Don, about 280 students benefited in ways I’ve described from instruction inspired by one summer institute workshop.
If for the moment I remove from my calculations the college-level teacher whose administrative duties meant he taught fewer students than usual, I want to suggest that approximately 90 students per teacher benefited from the instruction I observed. And continuing my math exercise for a minute: If the nine summer institute fellows who reported using Matt’s mock trial strategy did so in similarly rich ways, then 810 students’ learning was benefited by this one workshop.
And if I make an additional assumption that just four, not nine, teachers in each of the four professional development settings in which Matt has offered the workshop since the 2005 summer institute have also decided to incorporate a rich version of it into their teaching, then in less than two years 3,250 students have benefited from the scholarship of teaching published in one teaching workshop.
The NWP has done a stunning job of demonstrating the reach of the project’s work. The data we provide in our annual reports to document the number and range of teachers and students the project serves have gone a long way toward making the cases we all made here yesterday for the valuable service the National Writing Project provides in American education. In my work, I’m hoping to reveal and relate the depth and quality of our work to its impact and reach as I make a case for the unique contribution that the teacher inquiry workshop has and is making to the base of knowledge that productively informs the practice of teaching in American education.
Of course, mine is a work in progress. The study is far from complete. I hope you will help me to see things I have missed in this remarkably rich genre of research developed in this remarkable community of teacher-scholars—The National Writing Project.