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Getting Started with Action Research

I wrote this article for the Stenhouse blog. I am reposting it here as it was. Enjoy!

Getting Started with Action Research
Matt Renwick

We recently facilitated action research for twenty of our district teachers. They came from all areas in grades K–12. The course was led by Dr. Beth Giles and Dr. Mark Dziedzic from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Teachers met one evening a month to explore their driving questions, set up action plans, collect and organize data, and prepare their work for an inquiry showcase this spring. Here are some of the questions that were specific to literacy, and what we learned.

What happens when we provide choice in reading and learning?

Three teachers investigated this tenet of engagement. A second-grade teacher conducted Genius Hour at the end of the day, a time in which students could tinker and make things of their choosing. A third-grade teacher allowed her students to decide how their classroom should look and feel regarding furniture and resources. A reading interventionist embedded choice within her instruction, including letting the students select one book a month to keep.

What they found out was that choice affected each student in different ways. For example, the reading interventionist discovered that if a student’s basic needs were not being met, he or she had a hard time progressing. She countered this reality by bringing families into school to engage in literacy activities, such as building bookshelves. The third-grade teacher realized that some students liked working with peers regularly, whereas others needed quiet time to read and write. The second-grade teacher found that, for one student in particular, a half hour of tinkering every day led to a reduction in office referrals by 70 percent from fall to spring. Providing choice in school helped teachers better understand their students and adjust their instruction.

What happens when students are taught to ask questions and reflect about their reading?

A fourth- and fifth-grade teacher working with multiple curriculums in a split classroom realized that addressing the needs of a wide variety of learners was a tall order. Therefore, she wanted to find out if teaching her students to ask their own questions of the books they read and to reflect on their thinking in authentic ways through reading journals would lead to more independence.

She modeled these skills and strategies with her own reading. Gradually, she released the responsibility of questioning and reflecting to the students. Data she gathered were anecdotal and powerful. Students not only kept reflections of their own reading, they also noted what their peers were reading. Recommendations for what to read next led to students creating “Want to Read” lists in their journals. Also, students emulated how their teacher talked in their book discussions. This teacher later noted that she was looking forward to working with next year’s fifth graders in the fall.

What happens when teachers reveal themselves as learners?

A secondary reading interventionist was frustrated with her past students’ inability to exit her program in a timely manner. She decided to focus on how her language might promote a growth mind-set in her most reluctant readers and writers. First, she wrote in front of her students about the struggles she was having as a teacher and as a parent. These were day-to-day ordeals—ordinary issues she was sharing publicly. Students were also asked to write about their struggles. Few initially took her up on it. But as the teacher continued to model a growth mind-set, more students followed her lead.

Because the teacher was so open about her own learning, students felt safe in her classroom to take risks. They started to shed their rough exteriors, revealing frustrations about classes and their home lives. This led to exploring literature that students could personally relate to, populated with characters and settings in which they could reside. Pretty soon, her students were coming to her with improved progress reports to share and celebrate. A few kids exited her reading intervention earlier than anticipated but didn’t want to leave. This teacher eventually published her action research in the Wisconsin State Reading Association journal.

What happens when we let kids read?

A fifth-grade teacher and I teamed up to provide her students with a lot of texts to read, and we decreased the reading requirements placed upon them. I would come in once a month with a box full of high-interest books and do a quick blurb about each one. The teacher also used her allocated funds to enhance the classroom library. She taught the students how to have a conversation with peers and frequently conferred with students about their reading and goals. Her work derived from the research by Gay Ivey and Peter Johnston, highlighted in a Stenhouse blog post four years ago.

My role as coresearcher was to survey the students once a month using a tool developed by Ivey and Johnston. What we learned was that every student was different. Their reading lives varied from month to month. One student who proclaimed “I hate reading!” in February was excited about a new series he discovered in March. Other students also became more honest about reading in school. “I am SO glad to be done with my reading contract, so I can read whatever I want.” This type of data was more powerful than any screener or test score. Reading lives look more like a heartbeat than a straight line. Readers—kids and adults—have their ups and downs.

In observing these teachers’ journeys, I have discovered new truths about principalship. Just as students need to be engaged in their learning, teachers have to be engaged in their work. Not merely busy or working collegially with staff, but really engaged. We need to trust in their professionalism. We need to provide teachers the room to ask questions and grow. We need to honor the process as much as the outcomes. We need to celebrate both their mistakes and their successes, always striving to become better every day as professionals. Letting go of some control as a school leader is hard. Yet when we do, teachers are able to be the leaders of their own learning.

Tips for Getting Started in Action Research
If you are a teacher…

  • Ask yourself, “Why do I want to engage in action research?” If you can identify the purpose for this work in your professional life, it will motivate you to get started.
  • Do your homework on action research to build a knowledge base about the topic. Excellent resources include Living the Questions by Ruth Shagoury and Brenda Power (Stenhouse, 2012) and The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research by Nancy Fichtman Dana and Diane Yendol-Hoppey (Corwin, 2014).
  • Develop a community of professionals who also want to engage in action research. You can leverage the power of the group to persuade your principal to support this initiative as part of the professional development plan. If you cannot collaborate in person, check out online communities related to classroom research, such as The Teachers Guild.
  • Find a question that you want to explore and that is embedded within your current practice. This wondering should relate to your professional learning goals and offer artifacts that can serve as evidence for your evaluation system.
  • Include your students in your action research as much as possible. They will become a great source of information as you study the impact of your work on their learning. They will also come to see you as a learner, which enhances the entire classroom community.

If you are an administrator…

  • Be deliberate when considering action research as a possible professional learning experience. The phrase action research can scare off some teachers who might otherwise be interested in this approach. Start small, maybe offering it as a voluntary course beyond the school day for graduate credit or pay.
  • Connect with outside organizations that can facilitate a course instead of trying to host it yourself. There is vulnerability involved in action research. The more we can have others lead the initiative, the more likely teachers will be willing to open up and take risks in their pursuits of becoming better practitioners.
  • Conduct action research yourself. I did this, using the resource The Action Research Guidebook by Richard Sagor (Corwin, 2012). The author offers several examples of a principal engaging in professional inquiry at a schoolwide level. I would share my findings and reflections in staff newsletters and at meetings. The message you send is the same one teacher-researchers convey to their students: We are all learners here.
  • Prepare a multiyear plan for facilitating action research in your school or district. Teacher questions seemed to lead to more questions during the school year. At the inquiry showcase, teachers were already asking if they could conduct action research again. “I feel like I just discovered my question,” noted one teacher.
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Teacher/Learner

The most powerful way of thinking about a teacher’s role is for teachers to see themselves as evaluators of their effects on students. – John Hattie

Students check out our mastery wall of writing while waiting for lunch. Teacher teams selected exemplary pieces of work at the mid-year point.
Students check out our mastery wall of writing while waiting for lunch. Teacher teams selected exemplary pieces of work at the mid-year point.

Battle of Semantics by Melissa Emler (Connecting to Create Greatness, January 2, 2015)

A former high school English teacher and current education consultant confronts the concept of separating teaching from learning on her blog. “To teach is to learn, and to learn is to teach.” Melissa explores the deeper meaning behind the dichotomy of these roles. For example, she questions the concept and intent of change as a prerequisite for truly becoming a learning professional. “I would rather emphasize growth than change because the connotation is more simply more hopeful.” Melissa rounds out her reflection by observing that our actions speak much more loudly than anything we might say. “Teachers and administrators can use ‘growth speak’ well, but practicing the concepts of a growth mindset is much more difficult.”

Five Questions for Crossing the Threshold by Parker J. Palmer (On Being, December 31, 2014)

The author of The Courage to Teach reflects on the coming of another new year, questioning it’s importance. “The planet on which we’ve hitched a ride has been wheeling through space a lot longer than 2,014 years.” Never one to wallow in despair, Palmer finds wisdom in a short poem about crossing a threshold:

We look with uncertainty
by Anne Hillman

We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
clear-cut answers
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes…
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.

Palmer passes on a resolution, and instead encourages us to consider our personal inquiries as we prepare for the new year. “If we wrap our lives around life-giving questions — and live our way into their answers a bit more every day — the better world we want and need is more likely to come into being.”

Research Making Its Way Into Classroom Practice by Peter Johnston and Virginia Goatley (The Reading Teacher, December 2014/January 2015)

Two literacy professors from the University of Albany shed some light on the origins of educational research and its relationship with instruction. The two main areas of literacy research, reading and writing, find their roots in practice. Donald Graves (writing) and Marie Clay (reading) conducted many of their studies within actual classrooms.

Not only does this approach appear to have a longer and more reliable influence on collective instruction, it also “offers an agentive role for teachers in generating knowledge in practice”. In other words, teachers can feel a stronger sense of commitment and motivation about themselves as professionals when they are actively engaged in the process of applying knowledge about literacy to their craft.

“Motivating ELLs Through Booktalks and Speed Booking” by JeanaLe Marshall (WSRA Journal, Fall 2014)

The Wisconsin State Reading Association published this action research article from a 4th grade ESL teacher out of Carpentersville, IL. JeanaLe used two protocols to teach her emerging bilinguals to have more authentic conversations with peers about the literature they were reading. While many educators are familiar with book talks, speed booking expands on this activity.

Speed booking is set up like speed dating. Students prepare a brief book talk on paper, gather in two circles facing each other, and then sell a book they recently finished to the other student facing them. After a few minutes, students rotate to the next person. JeanaLe found that by using these engaging activities, many more students stated they enjoyed reading and were able to list a favorite author.

Speaking of reading, are you going to the Wisconsin State Reading Association convention on February 5th and 6th in Milwaukee? If so, stop by the Digital Learning Lounge or one of my sessions and say hi!

Digital Learning Lounge (1)

Extraordinary schooling begins, ends with student work by Josh Thomases (SmartBrief, January 15, 2015)

The Dean of Innovation, Policy & Research at Bank Street Education makes the case that the essential focus of any school should be what students know and are able to do. In order to make this assessment, Josh highly recommends professional teams put student work front and center during collaborative conversations. “An ongoing, disciplined look at student work grounds the public debates — whether celebrating exemplary practice or raising key concerns.”

He describes two situations in which a professional discussion led to changes in his own practice. By comparing his students’ work with the student work of his colleagues, Josh realized that his “teaching and assessment practice needed to shift.” He summarizes what works in his school for conducting collaborative inquiry:

  1. Ensure it is substantial work worthy of investigation.
  2. Make and protect the time to do this.
  3. Use the time well.
  4. Make sure educators feel valued for participating.
  5. Attend to the power and challenges of teams.
  6. Create room for local autonomy.

Putting the pieces together…

This discussion about separating teaching and learning is a hot topic. How can we break down instruction into the essential elements of quality, without losing its “essence”? Then, when things are not going so well in the classroom, what type of feedback system will help that teacher realize these errors and subsequently make adjustments? Of course, the feedback needs to be handled carefully, as practitioners personally attach themselves to their beliefs and practices. All this in the name of accountability, it seems.

But what if it could be more? What if teachers could position themselves as students of their own practices? One possible example occurred just this week. I was doing an instructional walkthrough in a second grade classroom during independent reading time. I observed a boy reading a title from the Dork Diaries series. I asked him why he chose to read it. “A friend told me about, and it is really funny.” “Was it my son?” I asked him (he is in this class, and also likes the series). He shook his head, shared another student’s name, and continued reading.

While speaking with this student, I wrote our conversation down using a stylus and handwriting app on my iPad. Before I left, I informed the teacher that she has created a wonderful community of readers. It was obvious that she values giving time for her students to talk about their reading with each other in authentic ways. Once I was in the hallway, I emailed the teacher my notes so the feedback was timely. Both the teacher and I can use this informal observation as an artifact to support our professional goals of engaging students with meaningful literacy activities.

Unfortunately, not every school situation takes a partnership approach to professional growth. We separate learning objectives from professional goals, which only seem to benefit those that do not work in our school. This misinformed idea that teaching and learning are separate entities can lead to separation between teacher and administrator, teacher and teacher, or even an educator with oneself. This cannot be healthy nor lead to high levels of student achievement.

Even if a teacher does not have access to others who would support this type of work, he or she can take steps to advocate for themselves. First, take that learning objective and reframe it as a driving, or “life-giving”, question. Second, find support in the work practitioners have completed beforehand. As Johnston and Goatley note, the most influential studies have come directly out of the classroom. Third, conduct action research within your own setting, using evidence-based practices such as discussion protocols. Finally, share your findings with colleagues, in the desire of becoming better and to “take that needed shift”.

In spite of any ill-informed initiatives that may come our way and attempt to distract us, we still have some control over the outcomes in our classrooms and schools. By taking an inquiry stance toward our important work, we can view our practice through more objective eyes. This will lead to improvement, not because someone or some system suggests that we needed to improve, but because we see the need through our students’ point of view.