“Bringing CLMOOC Back Home,” Part 4 (An Interlude)

I intended to blog about writing commentaries with my students in this post, but my thoughts went in a different direction this week.

In Chapter 4 of In the Middle, Nancie Atwell recounts a visit to her classroom from the legendary writer and teacher Don Graves.

At the end of the day Graves came and stood in my doorway with his coat on, smiling. “What are you smiling about?” I asked.

“I’m smiling at you,” he said. “You know what makes you such a good writing teacher?”

Oh God, I thought. Here it comes: validation from one of the world’s most famous writing teachers. In a split second I flipped through the best possibilities. Was he going to remark on the piercing intelligence of my conferences? My commitment to the kids? My sensitivity to written language?

“What?” I asked.

He answered, “You’re so damned organized.”

It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Don Graves never visited my classroom.

Organization has been my Achilles’ heel throughout my career.  When I was a beginning teacher, working in middle schools, it was noticeable in the form of a chronically chaotic teacher’s desk, which attracted solicitous fretting from colleagues and, once, a reprimand from an administrator.  My rollbook was a mess, too, and I was known to lose a student’s paper or two.

When I made the move to high school, I got my paper-based problems under control.  The physical rollbook is no longer of the same importance, of course, with the advent of digital attendance-keeping, but mine is orderly; a substitute can make sense of it and use it while I’m out.  My desk has been tamed through a rigorously-implemented routine of cleaning-up-and-putting-away, once a day and sometimes even twice; just as my face will inevitably require shaving after a day, I’ve accepted that my style of working will mean that my desk will also require regular grooming.  Digital technology, and some big metal filing shelves that I inherited, have made keeping track of student work much easier; I don’t lose papers now.

Still, while I am organized – at least organized enough – on the surface, I am afraid that, to paraphrase Robert Pollard, the classroom of my mind is a cluttered mess.  I have many ideas that I want to put into practice, both professionally and personally, but I struggle to do so in any meaningful way because my thoughts are so disorganized.

One reason for this is lies with my frequent relapses into Trying To Do Too Much Disorder, where I load myself up with so many virtuous activities that I fail to be really effective at any of them.  But I think there’s more to my struggles with a disordered mind than my tendency to bite off more than I can (professionally) chew.

This leads me to a piece that I’ve had on my mind since I read it earlier this term:  “Toward Developing A Definition of Teacher Research” by Marian M. Mohr, a chapter from Teacher Research for Better Schools.

I’ve decided that my next step as a connected educator is to move from using inquiry merely as a stance and a mindset toward performing what Mohr calls “teacher research.”  In particular, I’m interested in two elements of Mohr’s definition of teacher research:  teacher research, she writes, is systematic and public.

Teacher researchers…document the research process, identify assumptions, collect and analyze both qualitative and quantitative data, and articulate theories, findings, and implications.  Teacher researchers collect a variety of kinds of data to triangulate findings, engage in constant comparison of data they have collected, and check their interpretations with colleagues, students, or parents involved in the study. They respond to challenges to their thinking that other teacher researchers present to them during discussions or in response to drafts of research reports. They formulate theories in relation to their analysis.  In these ways, teacher researchers systematically seek to establish an accurate and full picture of a teaching and learning context that will lead to deeper understanding of that context.

…teacher research is a public endeavor. When teachers conduct research, they examine their assumptions, withhold judgments, and look at issues from alternative perspectives in an effort to make apparent to themselves that which has been unseen or silent. They intentionally shift from a private perspective to a more open, public perspective in order to encourage challenges to their understanding. … 

Efforts to make their research public involve sharing research processes, findings, and implications with colleagues in their schools and with those in communities beyond their schools through informal exchanges, the publication of research stories and research reports…they make their research public in order to add to the body of knowledge about teaching and learning.

I believe that my CLMOOC-inspired inquiries over the past two-and-a-half terms have been positive steps forward for my teaching practice.  This term, for example, my inquiry into teaching the Sheridan Blau commentary with ninth-graders has led my students to ask questions and to tolerate ambiguity as we read.  I’ve noticed that our classroom feels and sounds more like a community of learners than in years past, with almost none of the put-downs of classmates so common among ninth-graders.

Perhaps this is connected to the inductive nature of the commentary.  If kids can see that questioning and lingering over questions is a sign of intelligence, not a sign of incompetence; if learning is not a zero-sum game but a collaborative inquiry where students can respond to each other and build off each other’s efforts; if the teacher has consciously and explicitly positioned himself as a co-learner rather than an authority (and I’ve tried really, really hard to point out possible questions and invite students to write about those questions rather than give my interpretations), then it may be that students are more likely to be kind to each other than to try to tear each other down.

But this is all conjecture, and while I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater – good things are happening with this inquiry – I realize that my approach to inquiry is limited.  How can I share my findings without a plan to make my research public?  How can I convince other teachers to take this approach when my lack of a systematic approach means I can’t say for certain if the approach is what is producing my positive results?  I want to take a more rigorous approach to inquiry starting with the spring semester.

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