Archive article #99-05

What counts as teacher research?
An essay from the Book Club Plus Group1

The Book Club Plus Inquiry Group
What Counts as Teacher Research?
Toward a Dialogic Model of Practitioner Research

The Book Club Plus Inquiry Group
Our inquiry group involves classroom teachers and university teacher educators in practitioner research. It has existed since June, 1998, with the goal of extending the original Book Club Program (McMahon & Raphael, 1997; Goatley, Highfield, Bentley, Pardo, Folkert, Scherer, Raphael, & Grattan, 1994) to younger children and struggling readers, as part of a project for the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement (CIERA). We are working to create Book Club Plus , a literature-based reading program that combines the experience of authentic conversations about literature within the Book Club Program with instruction in language arts and reading intended to foster literacy learning for all students, especially those who struggle with reading in the early grades. The curriculum we are developing and studying focuses on culture, literacy and autobiography. It is a year-long, multi-genre study of "Our Storied Lives."

Each of us has in one way or another, been a part of earlier and related collaborative inquiry activities. These include the Literary Circle Autobiography Club (Florio-Ruane & Raphael, et al, 1999), the Teacher Research Group that developed the original Book Club Program (Goatley et al, 1994), the Literacy Circle which studies research on the improvement of reading and writing instruction (Raphael, Florio-Ruane, Topper, Highfield, George, & Shellhorn, 1999), and/or masters courses taught by Susan Florio-Ruane or Taffy Raphael combining book club discussions about adult literature (focused on autobiography and culture) with literature-based curriculum development using the Book Club model (Raphael, in press; Raphael, Damphousse, Highfield, & Florio-Ruane, in press). Based on these experiences, we all volunteered to work on the CIERA project that might extend our inquiry to the improvement of literacy education for children.

While we had these experiences in common, we are dispersed geographically. We also teach in different settings, at different grade levels, and from different years of experience. In putting the Book Club Plus inquiry group together, we were trying to network ourselves into an expanded collaboration. Communication among our diverse members was a priority, but since we live and teach across southeastern Michigan, we cannot meet as a group as often as we would like. Instead, we are using five ways to overcome distance and support each others’ work:

• face-to-face meetings, including summer institutes and "data analysis festivals;"

• outreach activities where we share our learning with other educators and researchers, and use these as
opportunities to push our own thinking and get feedback from outside our group;

• book clubs, both face-to-face and on-line, in which we discuss literature for adults with themes paralleling
those in units we are developing on "Our Storied Lives" for youngsters for improving literacy instruction;

• visits to one anothers’ classrooms for research and professional development purposes;

• internet conversations of both substance and procedure about our research and curriculum development
work-in-progress (see Raphael et al, 1999 for details).

This year our group has worked on both curriculum development and research. We have asked questions about the effectiveness of our pilot curriculum which address both immediate, local problems of practice as well as concerns of wider interest. Among the research questions we are asking are the following: Molly Reed is researching what students are learning from Book Club Plus Amy Heitman is researching what the "essential features" are in her Book Club Plus classroom and whether and how these compare to the other classrooms in our group. Kathy Highfield is investigating how our students fare compared to those in more traditional programs. Jennifer Szlachta and Karen Eisele are researching specific components of the pilot program including the relationship of writing (e.g. in reading logs (Jennifer) and process writing (Karen) ) to other parts of the curriculum. Mari Anne George is researching the nature of students’ intertextual connections within and across units related to the theme. Marcella Kehus is investigating how a Book Club Plus model might be adapted for older readers (teens) of diverse reading abilities. Kristin Grattan is researching how morning journals can be adapted in first grade classrooms to emphasize the idea of "our storied lives," and Nina Hasty is studying the adaptation of a district-mandated reading/language arts textbook to aims of Book Club Plus and the theme, "Our Storied Lives." Taffy Raphael and Susan Florio-Ruane are studying teacher learning within our inquiry group as part of their interest in conversation-based professional development.
Thus, teacher research has become an important means for our ability to address questions crucial to the work we are doing. With the emerging teacher research emphasis came extensive discussion within our group of what counts as research, how to frame a researchable question, what counts as evidence, and how our own research connects to others’ professional writing in journals and books. Below we try to think from our experience to shed light on these questions. To explore the question of what counts as teacher research, the Book Club Plus members held a conversation over email and in face-to-face dialogue which spanned the months of March and April, 1999. The quotes and examples below come from that dialogue.

What Counts as Teacher Research?
We believe that, at a minimum, teacher research involves taking an inquiry stance toward our practice as literacy educators. For us, this meant that we both implement the curriculum we’d developed and study it. As Molly noted, "We’re taping; we’re making field notes. I probably…wouldn’t be doing this. I’d say, ‘Hey that idea’s great...this was a cute activity and they learned some things,’ but I don’t think, unless I were specifically doing research, that I would go back to my classroom and tape their conversations… For me, [teacher research] goes back to the data that I’m collecting."

Our inquiry stance came about naturally. Initially, our conversations focused on unit development, talking about relevant children’s literature, how to connect our unit focus areas to state and district standards, how to relate guided reading and read alouds to book club discussions, and how to connect the more routine skill instruction to the unit goals. We didn’t really think about studying these questions, as we were more concerned about the structure the unit would take, whether we should all try to teach it in the same way, and even logistical things like whether the books we’d ordered would come in on time. However, our focus began shifting once we began teaching the unit. Mari Anne describes it as follows, "When we’re doing research, instead of just doing a product (like a curriculum or activity idea), we’re going back after we’ve done it and we’re really looking at what the kids gained from it or how we could build on it."

First, questions started to arise that related to our instructional decisions within the Book Club Plus pilot. For example, we struggled with the issue of how to build choice into students’ literacy activities, since ownership for our students was a key goal. We knew we wanted to teach students a broad range of reader response—personal as well as critical—but once they had learned different responses, what was our role? Did we assign certain prompts each day? Provide students with open choice? Jennifer’s work on prompts for logs and their influence on book club discussion is an example of an attempt to research these questions.

Second, questions arose related to phenomenon that we were observing in our classrooms. We felt if we understood some of these observed behaviors and responses better, they could be taught more effectively. For example, we noticed students’ intertextual connections. Some were across books, while others were between the books and their own lives. Still others were across literacy instruction and subject matter studies. This seemed important since one way in which learning occurs is through connections among ideas. Thus, Mari Anne’s research is designed to study the nature of her students’ intertextual connections, and how the different contexts of Book Club Plus their independent work during log entries, their student-led discussion groups, and the whole class community share—support such connections. We also noticed how much more integrated process writing and Book Club Plus had become, relative to the traditional Book Club Program. Karen’s research on her third graders’ "storied lives" writing activities is promising to reveal a great deal about how these two parts of the language arts curriculum entwine to support students’ genre knowledge.

Third, we are asked researchable questions by colleagues. For example, we are often asked about beginning Book Club Plus . In our conversations about this question, it became clear that there were contextual factors beyond the literacy curriculum that helped children handle responsibilities associated with the program. Amy has been researching this question by analyzing her own experiences as a Book Club Plus teacher, and interviewing other Book Club teachers. Other teachers have asked us how we know what children are learning, leading Kathy to examine questions of impact such as how Book Club Plus students compare to students who have not been in the program, on school administered standardized tests; and Molly to study how students’ understandings of autobiography and ways of presenting life stories changes over time. Others have questions about how our work can be adapted to older and to younger students. Kristin’s research with first graders’ daily writing in autobiographical journals and Marcella’s research with middle school students’ study of the Civil Rights Movement will provide important information about extending Book Club Plus across a broader range of grade levels. Teachers wonder if and how Book Club Plus can be integrated with commercial literature-based curricula. Nina is researching this question in her school, where students are required to use such materials. These three sources of good questions characterize the kinds of research topics we believe "count" in the realm of teacher research. Teacher research is grounded in questions of practice. It is analytic with respect to understanding the phenomena of interest and it is helpful in improving literacy instruction.

But, the question of "what counts" shouldn’t be limited to the substance of the research questions. Rather, "what counts" also raises questions about how the research is conducted. In our work, the research is not that of a solitary teacher, working within her classroom. Nor is it the work of a university researcher studying teachers and teaching. As a collaborative group, we weave diversity of setting, role, experience, and prior knowledge into the fabric of our research. We think, therefore, that we are engaged in work qualitatively different from more typically isolated forms of academic research on teaching or classroom-based practitioner research. Thus, in our last section, we offer a model of practitioner research that we believe captures the rich range of possibilities open to all who are interested in questions of practice.

Toward a Dialogic Model of Practitioner Research
Book Club Plus members live and work in rural, suburban, and urban communities in our state. Shared concerns and the assistance of new technologies help us to traverse the borders of these communities. This "border work" fosters comparison and contrast as well as critique. We engage one another both to find areas of common understanding and also to think critically about our own and others' practices, contexts, and beliefs and assumptions about literacy and education. In this process, we help one another define and refine researchable questions and use a variety of research tools and theories to pursue them. These latter two functions—the cross-site analysis of practitioner studies and collaborative study of theory and method—move us outside our professional isolation and into dialogue.

Our model of teacher research extends one developed by Richardson (1990). She noted that sometimes teachers conduct inquiries directly relevant to their local and immediate context and problems of practice, what she calls, "practical inquiry." Sometimes, however, they engage in something closer to what she calls, "formal inquiry." That is, they conduct inquiry to contribute to the general knowledge in the field of education. Practitioner research often blurs these distinctions, serving at once local, practical needs and advancing knowledge in the teaching profession at large. In the following exchange from our April 7th conversation, notice the local and personal nature of the work of Mari Anne, Amy, and Molly. But consider, as well, how the personal research they are conducting informs a broad audience of teachers about implementing Book Club Plus , and its effects on students. To help identify these dimensions of their talk, we have italicized the personal references and underlined references to issues of broad professional concern.

Maria Anne:
I can stand outside of myself, and if I listen to the tape or watch a videotape, I can do a lot of self-evaluation and I recognize certain strengths and weaknesses that I have myself.

I take my teaching and my instruction so2 much more seriously. I look at it so much more specifically… From doing this kind of research, its made me look at not only what my kids are gaining, but me as a professional. I’ve become a different sort of teacher, more thoughtful.

think that is what can be scary about the teacher research because it forces you to look at your own practice, and in a sense, be critical. And its sometimes scary to think, what am I going to find out about what I am doing?

Um-hmm. And after I spent all this time, did I help the kids?

Amy and her colleagues’ comments illustrate the interweaving of practical and formal inquiry, between inquiry to understand themselves better and inquiry to inform the field at large.

To the two types of teacher research Richardson suggests, we add "collaborative research," or research based in conversation groups where teachers work with other teachers, as well as university-based teacher educators, to investigate complex problems of both theory and practice (see Florio-Ruane et al, 1999, for example). In collaborative research, we find that out of a dialogue among diverse participants, we construct knowledge which might elude us if we conducted either traditional university-based research or innovative school-based practitioner in isolation. Rather than define practitioner research as alternative to or in opposition to university-based research on teaching, we suggest a model of "learning community" (Schwab, 1976), or negotiated knowledge and meaning within a diverse group with common concerns. Thus while we are not naive about the historical privileging of academic research in which teachers serve as "subjects" or "informants," we are also not sanguine about such work. We also recognize that teacher research offers another powerful, but also limited genre for the study of education. In organizing our group explicitly to work against the traditional isolation of teacher from teacher; university from classroom; novice from experienced educator, we hope to craft a new professional community with a new discourse for the understanding and improvement of practice (Swales, 1990). Our use of the term "we" in this article as well as our collective authorship are more than tokens.

Thus, it is not surprising that one of the first points that emerged in our April 7th conversation was that teacher research is, in Kathy’s words, a "collaborative and a solo activity." Amy characterized this as a balance between being "connected because we’re all talking about the same unit" and "ownership...because it’s our unit collectively." Individual research questions contribute to our general understandings, or, as Jennifer noted, "we have a common core to think about together, but can do it in our own style." We believe this balance between collaboration and ownership has been crucial to our successful collaborative research endeavor, and has been supported by some additional features that we think are important to collaborative teacher research. These include the social construction by means of dialogue of the following: (a) a shared vision for literacy education, (b) an orienting theoretical lens, (c ) trust in and respect for each other, (d) a sense of humor, and (e) and multiple lines of communication.

In Book Club Plus, we share a vision of classroom instruction. Specifically, we are all committed to conversation-based learning experiences for students, grounded within thematic content that is meaningful to our students. We value the diversity of our students and believe that we must involve students of all reading levels in the primary literacy events in our classrooms. We share a common social constructivist theoretical lens, developed in part from our practical theories about learners and learning, and in part from more formal theories, studied in courses with Susan and Taffy. We don’t believe that we must all believe in the same theory, but we must all believe that theory has value and that our work can be informed by theory as well as practice. We trust each other. We maintain our senses of humor at all times. (As one member has said, "We push each others’ thinking, but not each others’ buttons!"). And finally, we are using a range of ways for communicating, from telephone and face-to-face meetings to email, and now our own private website with chat rooms. The core of our membership has been stable over time. Yet just as we were formed last year by linking study groups across southeast Michigan, we continue to have permeable borders. We are currently making linkages, for example, with the Literacy Circle Study Group in Detroit. Teachers from each site will participate this summer in the Teachers-in-Residence Program, supported through the Wahlgren Foundation and the University of Michigan. This activity will stretch our thinking and enrich our resources for learning.

As the different experiences described above illustrate, within our model for teacher research we see the three forms and functions of inquiry that are both distinct and interdependent--practical, formal, and collaborative research. Out of our network members' curriculum development work we frame and attempt to answer immediate problems of practice in local sites. However, the accumulation of these local studies begins to give the group the benefit of critical comparative or "ethnological" cross-site analysis (see, for example, Heath, 1982). This helps us understand both local variation and common characteristics as well as our own biases and the limits of perspective. In addition, our commitment to "going public" with our work engages us with the wider community in ways that give us access to good research questions, critique of our ideas, and insight into how local work informs questions of general interest and concern. What "counts" as teacher research? The complex interweaving of people, places, and exploration of questions of practice helps our practitioner research to inform the local, immediate concerns of participants in the site of the research and, over time, to inform a broader community of professionals involved in literacy education. In addition, our effort at communicating across our diversity creates a new, alternative professional discourse community whose inquiry is enriched by the presence of many voices.

Florio-Ruane, S., Raphael, T. E., with, Glazier, J., McVee, M., Shellhorn, B., & Wallace, S. (1999). Culture, autobiography, and the education of literacy teachers (CIERA Report No. 3-003). Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, University of Michigan.

Goatley, V., Highfield, K., Bentley, J., Pardo, L. S., Folkert, J., Scherer, P., Raphael, T. E., & Grattan, K. (1994). Empowering teachers to be researchers: A collaborative approach. Teacher Research: The Journal of Classroom Inquiry, 1(2), 128-144.

Heath, S.B. (1982). Ethnography in education: Defining the essentials. In P. Gilmore and A. Glatthorn (Eds.). Children in and out of school: Ethnography and education. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. 33-55.

McMahon, S. I. & Raphael, T. E., with V. J. Goatley & L. S. Pardo (1997). The Book Club connection: Literacy learning and classroom talk. NY: Teachers College Press.

Raphael, T.E., Florio-Ruane, S., Topper, A., Highfield, K., George, M. & Shellhorn, B. (1999). A network for teacher learning: Goals and contexts. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada, April 20, 1999.

Raphael, T. E. (in press). Book Club workshop: Learning about language and literacy through culture. In J. Many (Ed.), The literacy educators' handbook. NJ: Erlbaum.

Raphael, T. E., Damphousse, K., Highfield, K., & Florio-Ruane, S. (in press). Understanding Culture in Our Lives and Work: Teachers’ Literature Study in the Book Club Program. To appear in P. R. Schmidt & P. B. Mosenthal (Eds.), Literacy in the New Age of Pluralism and Multiculturalism, Volume 9, Advances in Reading/Language Research. Lexington, MA: JAI.

Richardson, V. (1990). Significant and worthwhile change in teaching practice. Educational Researcher, 19(7), 10-18.

Schwab, J. (1976). Education and the state: Learning community. In Great ideas today. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Press, 234-271.

Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge, MS: Cambridge University Press.

1 This essay also appears in Language Arts.
2 Bold indicates emphasis in the original.

This research was conducted as part of CIERA, the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, and supported under the Educational Research and Development Centers Program, PR/Award Number R305R70004, as administered by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. However, the contents of the described report do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the National Institute on Student Achievement, Curriculum, and Assessment or the National Institute on Early Childhood development, or the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

© 2001 CIERA. All rights reserved.