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Our Teacher Research: Past & Present

Helping all students achieve higher standards

Teacher preparation and new teacher induction   Ongoing teacher professional growth   Teacher networks
Teacher leadership in school change   Helping all students achieve higher standards      


A 7th Grade Class Researches and Reflects on Its Discussion Habits

by Matt Wayne M17Wayne@aol.com

All across the nation, schools are asking their students to meet new and higher standards in all subject areas. The new standards require students to become thinkers and problem solvers. Thus, we need to create opportunities in the classroom for students to be thinking and problem solving. In my seventh grade English language arts classroom, I endeavored to do just that in our efforts to meet the Speaking and Listening Standards through our discussions around our reading and writing. In our class, the students were given the responsibility to think through what it means to have a good discussion and how we might accomplish this. 

Speaking and Listening Standard E3b

The student participates in group meetings in which the student:
  • displays appropriate turn-taking behaviors;
  • actively solicits another person's comment or opinion;
  • offers own opinion forcefully without dominating;
  • responds appropriately to comments and questions;
  • volunteers contributions and responds when directly solicited by teacher or discussion leader;

Thinking To Meet the Standards

In the beginning of the year, our first discussions were unfocused and didn't meet any of the criteria established in the new standards document. As I thought about how to address this issue, I recalled steps I've taken to improve my own teaching. The use of action research during the previous school year had greatly helped my practice. Action research is "research designed to yield practical results that are immediately applicable to a specific situation or problem." Or more simply put, "Action research is a way of saying, 'Let's study what's happening at our school and in our classroom and decide how to make it a better place.'" Having had success when researching my own teaching practice, I wondered what would happen if the students were to research their discussion habits. 

During our next discussion, the student's science teacher collected data on who raised their hands (R), who talked out of turn (T), and who talked to a neighbor (N). (See excerpt of the class observation chart.) The next day I presented the data and we worked together to figure out how we could do things better. After an interesting conversation about the research I collected, the students suggested several strategies to better focus our talks. They wanted to make a conscious effort to raise hands and to try not to sit next to friends with whom they might be tempted to have side conversations. The very next day there was an excellent example of what can happen when students think through a problem and take responsibility for their learning. Alana and Kendra had sat next to each other in the meeting area and had side conversations during our previous discussion seventeen times! Before class began, Kendra came in to sit down next to Alana. Instead of chatting with Kendra as usual, Alana said, "You know what, you probably shouldn't sit there. You know we're going to talk if you do." Sure enough, Kendra moved and they did a much better job than the day before. We researched and reflected on our conversations for the next several weeks and we were able to see a marked improvement in our discussion habits. (See graph.) This experience made us committed to using the action research process to improve our discussions throughout the year.

The More We're Asked To Think, The More We Learn

By March, I was reading aloud a novel to the class and students were working in book clubs reading their own books. We held many discussions about our reading to help us understand and respond to the text. These conversations that took place in March bore little resemblance to our work in September and October. The biggest change was that the students were responsible for the whole discussion - from their actions as participants to the content of the conversation. After reading aloud a section of our class novel, the students would propose discussion topics based on the reading. As half the class had a ten to fifteen minute conversation about their topics, the other half worked as researches investigating the discussion. While in September and October we were looking at simple actions such as raising our hands or talking out, we now investigated more sophisticated behaviors such as our body language and eye contact. More importantly, we looked at the content of the discussion and analyzed our topic suggestions, how we supported our ideas, and how we responded to other people's comments. 

Once again, the research process offered students the opportunity to be problem solvers as they worked to meet the Speaking and Listening Standards. The class agreed that doing the research positively affected both the class' discussion habits and their individual role in discussions. 
Alana describes how the research process has helped her discussion habits.

Tyrone, a very dominant speaker, claimed that the research process helped him "because I saw how other people can't talk - being outside [the discussion] makes you see not to talk so much." Shi Fen, on the other hand, learned the value of talking more. He said, "doing the research made me want to talk more. I knew it was important to share my ideas." A significant number were also able to make the connection between researching and reflecting on our class discussions and their work in the book club meetings. Lolita shared that the fishbowl helped her "learn how to express my feelings about the book more in our book club meetings." Finally, Alana noted that the research "helped me because I got a different view from other people. I know that now they can see what I can't see." Alana has eloquently defined the research process which has helped our whole class get a different view and become thinkers in our work toward the Speaking and Listening Standards.

Creating an Environment for Thinking Students and Teachers - 
What Policymakers Can Do

Our work to improve our discussions is just one example of how we can encourage our students to be thinkers and problem solvers, the skills which are necessary to meet the new standards. Professional development in a school or in a district can be structured to empower this reflective teaching and learning. 

For classroom research to happen, it is essential that teachers:

  • develop their own research questions based on the students' needs, the teachers' passion, and the learning standards the students are expected to meet. Action research questions shouldn't be mandated from outside, but grow from classroom situations, critical conversations between colleagues, and the guidance of professional developers and instructional leaders in the building. 
  • have the time and the tools in class to pursue their research. This kind of classroom research is only effective if it is integrated into the day-to-day work of the teachers and the students.
  • collaborate with other teacher researchers and collectively analyze the data and reflect on their ideas. Releasing teachers to observe each other's class and providing time to meet with a professional developer are two such examples which contributed to my success with classroom research this year.
For the students, it is important that:
  • the research is recognized as critical thinking essential to meeting the new standards. 
  • the research is done in a safe environment and in the spirit of problem solving. 
  • students are purposefully collecting data.
  • students, just like teachers, are given the opportunity to collaborate with each other and share their ideas about the dat


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