teacher-writers build bridges

Last week I was able to participate on a panel at the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) annual meeting. I was the discussant on a panel, “What Writing Can Do for Teachers: Beyond Pedagogy and Professionalism.” Below the fold is my response, “Teacher-Writers Building Bridges.” For those of you who might not know, a discussant aims to synthesize the individual papers and to frame a conversation for the panel and audience. I hope I was able to do both, because the research shared was insightful and helpful in a wide range of ways, which I tried to capture in my remarks below. Many thanks to my colleagues on this panel, and thanks too for those teachers, scholars, librarians, and administrators who were in the room and participated in the conversation.

The panel featured the following speakers sharing their research.

Kati Macaluso (Michigan State University)
The “Intertwining” of Teacher and Writer: Teacher Writing as a Way of Being

Becca Woodard, PhD. (University of Illinois-Chicago)
Teachers “Knotworking” Everyday and Professional Practices through Writing

Christine Dawson, PhD. (Skidmore College) and Anny Case, PhD (Gonzaga University)
Writing their way into teaching: How high-stakes teacher performance assessments invite an argument for competency

Leah Zuidema, PhD. (Dordt College)
Administrators as Literacy Sponsors for Teacher-Writers

Here is my response …

Teacher-Writers Building Bridges
a response by Jim Fredricksen

Drs. Woodard, Zuidema, Dawson and Case, as well as Macaluso (who is busy having Baby Mac) work at the intersection of writing and teaching, asking how teachers’ writing practices shape not only what they do, but who they are. They investigate how the practices of teaching and composing reveal what we know about both teaching and writing, but importantly, they also reveal and ask new questions about what it means to live and work in various communities as teacher-writers.

Their studies, of course, do much more than this, but I want to focus my comments here on the way in which their collective focus on the intersection of teaching and writing could fall under the umbrella of professional learning and how their important work is not only an intersection that raises new questions but how they each see their participants as building bridges between practices and communities, between times and spaces, between personal and professional identities, between making and representing, and more.

In other words, I want to talk a bit about how their focus on the writing practices – not just on the texts teachers produce – provides openings for us to understand what teacher-writers learn, how they go about learning those things, and what it might mean for those who think about professional learning and literacy.

Professional learning is an inquiry that occupied much of Lee Shulman’s attention when he studied the education of those in the fields of medicine and education. In his later work, Shulman outlines several principles for professional learning. I’d like to use each of these five principles to tie together the studies reported here this afternoon.

The first principle is one of activity. For Shulman, authentic and enduring learning occur when the learner is an active agent. We see across each of these studies teacher-writers who engage in the practice of composing, whether it be written arguments about competency or blog posts or published professional articles. In each of these instances – and with teacher-writers more generally – we see people authoring their experiences, interests, questions, and surprises.

The second principle builds on this activity, as Shulman argues that authentic and enduring learning happens when the learner is an active agent who thinks about why they do what they do: that is, the learner reflects. We see this clearly in Dr. Dawson’s and Case’s study where pre-service teachers must reflect on their experiences and then figure out how to represent their competence to an outside audience. They reflect not only for themselves, but they represent those reflections for others.

The third of Shulman’s principle is collaboration, which he argues allows for learners to act and reflect in ways that allow for confronting and juxtaposing different positions, to rethink what they already know, and to eventually deepen their understanding of an idea (p. 559). In the studies offered here, we see teacher-writers composing with one another – inventing ideas, figuring out what material to gather, deciding what audiences value and already know, building on the ideas of one another. To me, this suggests that teacher-writers are social, even when they might sit alone in quiet rooms putting pen to paper or clicking on the keyboard.

Shulman’s fourth principle for professional learning is one of passion. About this principle he writes that authentic and enduring learning occurs when learners “share a passion for the material, are emotionally committed to the ideas, processes, and activities, and see the work as connected to the present and future goals.” Annette in Dr. Woodard’s study composes a blog about her crafting, about her making, and Dr. Woodard helps us see how Annette’s out-of-school composing shapes the way Annette sees herself, not just as a teacher and learner, but as a person. This is no small point. If we begin to see schools as places where teachers learn too, then we have to take into account what teachers’ passions are and allow them to bring those passions into the classroom. We see this passion indirectly in the other studies too if we consider administrators as sponsors who support teacher-writers in pursuing inquiries that matter to them or if we consider preservice teachers crafting arguments about their competency in a way that highlights their vision and their hopes.

Shulman’s final principle is that of community. He writes about learners needing many opportunities to have the sorts of opportunities that the Drs. here describe. That is to say that teacher-writers need communities to recognize the importance of the work teacher-writers are doing. We see this clearly in Dr. Zuidema’s study of administrators as literacy sponsors as she tries to understand a process for creating communities that value not only writing, but that value writers. Of course, all the researchers here show us their participants in order to push us – as researchers and scholars – to recognize the wide range of work that happens when we study teacher-writers and how that can help us see more than just the products teacher-writers produce.

So, how do teachers’ writing practices matter within and beyond the classroom? How do teachers engage in writing across these contexts? How might continued inquiry into the relationship between teaching and writing expand notions of teaching and writing? These are the questions I hope we’ll discuss in our remaining time. To kickstart that conversation I want to return to the idea that this research opens up conversations about teacher-writers and those metaphorical bridges they build.

For one, this research asks us to focus on the whole person – not just the technician in the classroom, not just the products that one creates, not just the practices one engages in or the community one is entering or is participating in. Instead, this research suggests that we have to look at how all these potential areas of focus – skill, products, practices, communities – how they are all connected, because it is how the teacher-writer experiences her time as a person. In a time when teachers might feel alienated – when they might feel as though they MUST comply with external conditions that they have not chosen and from which they inwardly might disagree – studying and understanding how teacher-writers make choices and build these connections can help us to be more mindful to the experiences teacher-writers have or could have.

Two, this research asks us to not only look across the places where teacher-writers connect through their practice, it asks us to also look across time – to consider a longer trajectory. That is, becoming and being a teacher-writer fits within these participants’ larger life experience (Connelly and Clandinin, 1996), and as the good Drs. here report, when we see how the moments we study – specifically moments of becoming and being teacher-writers – it helps us to consider the way this work intertwines or knotworks with the teacher-writers past experiences, their beliefs, their hopes, and much more.

Three, as we look across the participants’ various communities, this research asks us to consider how networks are built. We’re asked to consider more than the communities of teaching or the communities of teacher-writers, because the participants themselves work across those communities. Research on teacher-writers often focus on the “teaching” or the “writing,” but the research here – as Macaluso suggests – asks us to look at the hyphen between teacher-writer. It’s the hyphen that leads us to trace the ways in which an individual teacher-writer moves from community-to-community and shares the practices and experiences from one community to the other. If we follow the hyphen, if we follow the networks that teacher-writers construct, we learn about how they see themselves, how they understand their communities, their experiences, their practices.

Fourth and finally, this research asks us to widen and deepen our understanding of writing to notions of “crafting,” “composing,” or “making.” If we consider the wide-range of shifting locations and networks teacher-writers participate in over time, this broadening conception of writing can have us trying to understand other practices and products, like making videos, crafts, gardens, and so on. This kind of making, of composing, might be other ways of understanding the ways in which teachers learn, where they learn, and how it shapes the way their personal and professional lives intertwine into a beautiful knot.

By focusing on teacher-writers’ experiences, Drs. Zuidema, Woodard, Dawson and Case, as well as Macaluso, help us see how teacher-writers shape a stance toward learning and being learners and how teacher-writers build bridges between the personal and professional, between their various communities, between writing and making and representing, between different experiences over time, between doing and being, and surely more.

Clandinin, D.J. and Connelly, F.M. (1996). “Teachers’ professional knowledge landscapes: Teacher Stories – stories of teachers – school stories – stories of schools.” Educational Researcher, 25:3, pp. 24-30

Shulman, L.S (2004). The wisdom of practice: Essays on teaching, learning, and learning to teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.