Confessions of a First-Time Teacher Researcher

Confessions of a First-Time Researcher

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March, 2017, Thinking About the Teacher-Research Results: What Did I Learn?

March 2017

Well, I’ve spent the last two months looking over my findings and thinking about how I wanted to present them at the EMWP event this weekend. After consulting with a few experienced teacher researchers, I’ve decided to focus more on my process of conducting teacher research for the first time and less on the results. I’m calling my presentation “Confessions of a First-Time Researcher, or When Teacher Research Takes an Unexpected Turn.” What really motivated me to do this was reflecting on how I held myself back for so many months out of fear that I had strayed too far from my original proposal.

I’m going to talk about how I believed I had a really structured, organized plan to follow, but I was missing an important part of teacher research – watching what happens. As I looked back over comments on my research memos and notes I had taken during our Thursday meetings, I began to see that I really wasn’t hearing what people were telling me at the time. At one of the very first meetings, Cathy recommended that I worry less about the structure of my plan and instead “research the heck” out of one instructional strategy. At the time, I just wasn’t hearing this because I was too focused on what I had planned. After trying to analyze my students work, I realized that what I found was not what I was looking for, but a strategizing that is equally interesting. As one of you mentioned (a line I love and am using in my presentation), “strategizing was not the cognition I was looking for.” That is the thrust of my presentation; in teacher research, sometimes what you find is entirely different from what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, I spent a few months thinking I had to throw all my work out because it didn’t fit my original proposal. After reflecting on what you all had been saying all the time, I finally realized that teacher research is about following the path the students take me on rather than trying to control the path I want to take them on.

Some mistakes I made:

  • I tried too hard to control the experience but then didn’t adjust when I strayed from the original plan. I should have watched what happened rather than try to force the students back into my original plan.
  • My original method was too complicated for my first experience. Instead of “observing the heck” out of it, I tried to follow it exactly, even when I knew there were problems.
  • When my original plan began falling apart, I became paralyzed and ignored it for months instead of looking at the results to see what happened. This prevented me from interviewing students because the semester was over.

Some things I learned:

  • Start off simple; ask a one-part question and see what happens.
  • Don’t assume, just notice.
  • Take notes, notes, notes, notes! Kris emphasized this, but it wasn’t until I looked back at my results that I wished I had taken more notes.
  • Look at the results within one week and adjust the research plan from there.
  • It’s better to talk to colleagues about my concerns rather than ignore the problems.
  • Set a time to write/think/touch the research every week.
  • Be flexible.

Besides having a better idea about how to conduct teacher research in the future, I also learned so much more about my students as people from this process. I learned about their outside lives and that many of them work full-time while taking a full course-load of classes. I learned that they are constantly strategizing their work load and deciding what they have to do and what they have to let go. I learned that they carry these strategies into the classroom in order to navigate their academic lives. I learned that I am probably assigning more homework than a 100 level course needs and that I need to respect their lives, too. Because of what they blogged and told me about their strategies for appearing to read for class, I’m going to vary the reading strategies I assess them on instead of requiring written reflections for every reading assignment. I’m going to try to incorporate some of the strategies they shared and talk about how to build on those. Mostly, I’ve learned that I need to be more respectful of their outside lives and responsive to their personal needs, not just what I determine are their academic needs.

For future research, I’m thinking about how what I’ve learned compares to the Habits of Mind in the WPA’s “Framework for Success.” There seems to be a natural correlation between the strategizing my students revealed and the HoM categories of responsibility, flexibility, metacognition, and persistence. Over the summer, I will work on developing a proposal to examine the strategies students come into college using and observe what happens when these categories from the HoM are explicitly taught as strategies.

January, 2017, Initial Teacher-Research Results

I have been working on coding the first half of student responses (blogged discussions). These blog posts reveal what I had heard students say in class – they hadn’t done the reading. I originally set out to identify differences between face-to-face versus blogged discussions of a complex reading as evidenced through higher-level thinking skills in post-conversation writings; however, I am finding other things in their posts that seem more interesting to me.

My experience teaching high school told me that students will not always complete a reading assignments for in-class discussion unless there is a writing assignment tied to it. For this reason, I have been assigning one-page, written reflections on every reading, but I worry that this is preventing some autonomy and responsibility among my college students. It also becomes a lot of work for me to read 75-100 pieces of writing twice a week. Part of what I wanted to determine was if students would be prepared to discuss a reading if they were only assigned the reading and asked to come in ready to discuss it. Granted, I created some problems by postponing the discussion by one class period; however, many students blogged that they did not complete the reading because there was no writing assignment with it. This was one finding that was not part of my original research question, but seems to confirm my original thinking. Eight of 20 students read, eleven did not, and one did not say whether she read or not.  I still need to look more closely at their comments.

This leads me to another interesting finding. While I wanted students to reveal their levels of thinking about the article, the majority of the blog posts discussed strategies to appear to have read the assignment. Sixteen of the blogs reflected what I call “strategizing.” Some of these talked about quickly skimming the article, looking at a classmate’s notes or highlighting, or even just speaking generally and vaguely about the topic, so the instructor would not realize the student had not read the article. This reminds me of an article I read last year (I need to find this again) by a FYW instructor who spent a semester auditing a FYW class. She found that the majority of student-writing consisted of “writing to not write.” She claimed that this was in texts to friends and classmates about avoiding or not doing the assigned writing or in emails to the instructor about why they were not able to complete assignments. I remember thinking how odd that was when I first read the article, but I am reminded of it when I realize that the blogging I asked students to do about an article turned into blogging about how to “fake it till you make it” as when student blogged. I need to look further into this.

In terms of higher level thinking skills, students were most likely to reach only the first level of “remembering” (recall). While only seven reported reading the article, fifteen had post-discussion blogs that reflected this level of recall. Many of these students reported they were helped by reading the posts of group members who had actually read the article. Notably, “remembering” was the highest level reached among those relying on posts of their classmates. Overall, only two students wrote to reflect the level of “analyze,” the highest level reached by anyone in the class. No student blogs showed “evaluating” or “creating” which are at the top of “The Cognitive Process Dimension” that I am using to assess levels of thinking.  I wonder if higher levels would have been achieved if more students had read and written posts discussing the reading assignment instead of strategies to appear to have read.

I also wonder if this strategizing does actually reflect a high level of thinking. This seems to be a “real-world” skill that shows a savvy and ability to compensate and overcome potential difficulties. I may want to look for research on these correcting behaviors or strategizing (I’m not sure what to call them).

Ok, I still have a lot to look at, including the blogs from post face-to-face discussion of the second article where they did have a writing assignment with the reading assignment.

November, 2016 Initial Stages of Teacher Research

Completed:

  1. Survey of preferred learning styles
  2. Assigned reading Bunn “How to read like a writer”
  3. Couldn’t discuss Bunn during the class after reading was assigned.
  4. Asked students to blog a reflection to Bunn the following class.
  5. Most students either hadn’t read the article or couldn’t remember what they had read.
  6. I asked them what strategies they would use to recover from not having read an assignment.
  7. Students began skimming the article on their computers or their phones.
  8. They blogged for about 10 minutes. Many of them admitted to not having read the article.
  9. I asked them to reply to 2 group member’s blogs.
  10. They then blogged how their thinking had changed after reading and responding to peer’s blogs (Bunn 2).
  11. These second blogs were much shorter.
  12. Three weeks later, I assigned the Murray’s “The Maker’s Eye.”
  13. I asked students to type a one page reflection to the article before coming to class. Most students completed this.
  14. In class, students discussed the article in small groups. Discussions lasted no longer than five minutes and quickly turned into other topics.
  15. I asked students to blog how their thinking had changed after discussing in groups. Many students wrote that their thinking did not change at all. They implied that the article lacked complexity, making it difficult to discuss in depth and discover new ways of thinking.

A First Attempt at Teacher Research

July, 2016

Purpose:

Students in their first year of college sometimes struggle to make sense of the complex readings they are assigned in college courses. While we know that student comprehension improves when students are asked to reflect in writing on their reading and that student-led discussion also increases comprehension and synthesis of information (Gipe), I am curious about what effect moving the reflection and discussion to a digital platform would have on student comprehension, synthesis, and writing.

The preferred method of  personal writing and discussion for students has become increasingly digital and social (Moore, et. al.); however, writing and discussions in First Year Composition courses often do not match the writing our students do in their personal lives. Furthermore, students are likely to need skills to communicate in digital platforms in their post-baccalaureate careers. My goal for this study is to determine the effect that written, digital discussions have on student comprehension and synthesis of complex readings.

Research Question:

How does online discussion of a complex reading affect student comprehension and  synthesis?

Sub questions:

            –How does digital discussion differ from face-to-face discussion?

-How is “complex reading” defined?

-What interventions for correcting and redirecting will teacher provide?

-How does initial reflection to a blogged audience differ from reflection written for a  teacher-only audience?

-How will comprehension and synthesis be assessed?

-How do blogged responses/discussions differ from face-to-face discussions in terms of higher level thinking?

Method

Compare two sections of WRTG 121

Pre and post survey

What I am looking for:

– Look at the language and what I notice: voice, level of thinking reflected in discussion vs.blog

Sec A completes one part and then switches.

  1. Section A blogs a reflection of Text 1 and shares it online. Section B writes a reflection of Text 1 in Google Docs and shares with instructor only.
  2. Both sections are assigned small groups of four.
  3. Section A responds to at least one blog posts by each group member. Each member must reply to the responses they receive.
  4. Section B orally discusses their reflections in small groups.
  5. Section A blogs a final response discussing if and how their understanding of the text changed.
  6. Section B writes a second google doc as a final response discussing if and how their understanding of the text changed.
  7. Alternate assignments for Sections A and B with Text 2

Data Analysis:

  • Code initial blog postings and written reflections based on cognitive process dimension (revised Bloom’s Taxonomy) http://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/effective-teaching-practices/revised-blooms-taxonomy
  • Code blog responses and replies (Section A). Video and code discussions (Section B).
  • Code final responses for both sections looking for growth/movement to higher order thinking skills.
  • Section 1: Compare coded reflections, pre and post blogged discussion
  • Section 2: Compare coded reflections pre and post verbal group discussion.
  • Compare two sections looking for lower vs. higher order thinking skills.

Timeline:

September – Collect Reading and Discussion Preference (Google Survey).

October – Analyze survey and assign groups for Text 1 based upon results (If I assign them based on their preference, won’t I be getting results based on their strengths, not on effectiveness of the

activity?)

  • Get permission letters to students (using informed consent form from EMU)
  • Code responses and discussions
  • Assign Text 2

November- Analyze results from both Groups A and B and Texts 1 and 2

December and January – Write paper on findings

 

Student Access to Digital Tools

I had an interesting conversation today with a colleague observing my Comp II, Research Writing, class. She noted that my students began class by taking out their laptops or their phones to blog responses to the class prompt. This colleague asked me if all of my students brought some type of technology to write digitally in class. I explained that, yes, I developed the course around the idea of writing for a real-world audience outside of the classroom. Although this Comp II course is a required class that is not designated as digital writing, I have not had any problems with students not being able to bring their own technology to class. This surprised my colleague, perhaps because there are those in our field who don’t realize how widespread individual access to technology is among our students. We recognize the ubiquitousness of cell phones when students are looking at them during lecture, but we seem not to realize that we can turn a potential distraction into a powerful means of composing during the class.

Even those of us who are old enough to remember typewriters find ourselves using digital tools to compose in both our work and our social lives. We recognize our daily use of email to communicate in the workplace, social media to connect with friends, and texting to message  family throughout the day, but what about the to-do lists we write in Notes or the brainstorming/planning that we also compose on our phones. I have often begun my own research writing on my phone because it’s handy and available whenever the inspiration strikes.

Research suggests that our current students are writing more than previous generations have, but oftentimes the writing they do outside of class is very different than the writing we do in the classroom. What if we appropriate some of those writing styles in order to help students examine and improve their own use of technologies they write in already? It seems to me that we should constantly consider adjusting and updating our methods to reflect composition that is done outside of the academy. Perhaps we become complacent in our belief that the methods of composition we have always used in the academy are best. Perhaps we cannot imagine the benefits of extending our expectations of molding our pedagogy into something that is more relevant to our students’ lives. Rather than allowing ourselves to be entrenched in traditional composition practices, we could look at the composition that happens in our personal lives and help our students examine their own practices of writing.

Predicting the future of digital rhetorics in the classroom

I found the article “Computers and Composition 20/20:…” by Janice Walker, et al to be interesting in ways that didn’t actually change my way of thinking that much. The article compiles predictions by a number of scholars, but I was most interested in those who were talking about the pedagogy of composition and computers. Douglas Eyman talks about how quickly literacy practices are changing and with that, our pedagogy has to change as well. But more importantly, I think, he discusses how “the answers may change,” but our pedagogy has to remain fixed on the important questions of composition and rhetorical theory in terms of using these new technologies (328). This seems very true to me. There will always be newer, faster ways to compose, but if we remain rooted in rhetorical theory we will be well placed to address new modes of composing.

I also found it interesting that the questions posed by Hawisher and Selfe in 1991 are still questions we ask today and will likely be questions we ask 20 years from now. They worried back in the 90s that we would be concerned with providing “equitable access to technology for all students,” preventing the “use of computers as … ineffective teacher substitutes,” and preparing competent teachers to provide computer instruction (328). Just because the technology continues to change doesn’t mean that these core issues will. I think our students will have more access to technology in the classroom, but it will continue to be dated for the most part, and there will still be issues with wealthy districts having better access compared to lower socio-economic districts. Similarly, as the use of technology increases in the classroom, there will continue to be struggles over the role of teachers in terms of how prepared they are to use the technology and whether or not the technology can replace the teacher in certain roles. We see this issue now with computerized grading.

I really like Fred Kemp’s ideas on research and what that means to the future of the composition class. As a teacher of FYW, I love the access students have to more and more information. I think it’s true that they are writing better informed, more timely research papers than was possible even ten years ago. But as Kemp mentions, our job as instructors is to teach them to differentiate between good sources and weak ones. No longer are the sources vetted for the students as in research journals. Access to the Web means access to varying qualities of information, so it becomes more important than ever that we help students navigate this information.