Thursday, June 28, 2007

How does your investment in your RQ and the students’ background about your topic affect the research?

How does your investment in your RQ and the students’ background about your topic affect the research?

I think it hugely affects the book club research, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing as long as we come clean about it. During Jason’s Researcher’s Chair yesterday, he verbally sketched out an outline for an article on his topic, and he was adamant about starting with the “why.” As he explained his rationale for this approach, I remember thinking that his passion (think positive connotation here) for this subject would drive the piece, its voice, and, eventually, its impact on the reader.

Teacher research is just too intensive (again, think positively) to take on if you aren’t invested in the topic. And while this goes against the traditional notions of the Researcher in the white coat with the pocket protector and his (and, yes, the image has historically been male) supposed objectivity, there’s got to be some passion back there somewhere.

In the physics wing of the engineering building where we’re holding the summer institute, there’s a terrific quotation by Einstein that I’ll get and post here, but the gist of it is that his outlook was driven by passionate curiosity, something he considered a terrific strength. So, yeah, I think the passion’s gotta be there, both to prompt and sustain the work.

In the case of the students’ background on engaging in civil discourse via book clubs, again, we’ve discovered that this is hugely important. One thing that’s been interesting to me is that the premise I had going in to this work—that students don’t have a plethora of civil discourse models to glean from in this culture—is proving to be true. At first, Rebecca and I actually tried to emulate the traditional white-coat mentality, I suppose, because we didn’t let the kids in on what we were doing. We just observed while they read edgy books to see what happened. And basically, what happened was that they while they did have mostly well-behaved book club conversations, when edgy topics came up, they either giggled their way through them or ignored them altogether. So our more distanced approach was useful in this regard.

But the next semester we ran book clubs, we wondered why we’d been so secretive. Why not tell them what we’re interested in, see how they respond to that premise, and let them reflect those thoughts from the very beginning as they set their book club norms?

It made a difference, so it did shape our research, but deliberately so. And our documentation of that process is part of our data set, so it’s something we can account for as we share our findings. We learned more from that book club sequence that we want to shape our next round of our teaching and research as well. But that’s what teacher research is all about. Teaching to understand and make well-informed adjustments as a result.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

if your research were a color...

During Morning Pages time today, Stacey posed a series of prompts to us to help us think about our research in metaphorical terms. Here's what I wrote:

If our book club research were a color, it would be the muddy grey that Easter Egg water becomes when you dip all the eggs in all the water. I was watching family videos recently, and that’s how toddlers dye Easter Eggs—one egg, all colors because those bowls of tinted water are just too irresistible for one. Even the most patient parents eventually give up and let ‘em go at it because no degree of explanation works in advance. Kids just have to be okay with the mottled outcome or wind up being comforted, learning their lesson, and going the more conventional route—one dye vat per Easter egg. Eventually, they might get clever and figure out how to suspend the egg in one vat until that color sets and then move it to another for a nifty two-tone effect. Or they might learn how to create secondary colors by taking it a vat at a time—red + blue = purple. Or if the multi-color temptation persists, they learn to use crayolas and let the dye take the backseat as a background color.

I wonder if teacher research methods are similar? My approach is generally to deliberately collect certain kinds of data and then keep everything else for context “just in case.” This can be overwhelming, but it also allows me to be selective later.

I’ve also used layered forms of data analysis if I get a richer picture that way. If different filters give me different views, then I’ll do it, methodological purists be damned. Generally, though, I take a first pass through and then at least another, much like a two-step Easter egg process.

The same has been true for the book club research because each BC sequence has resulted in new questions and adjustments that we need to pursue for another round. I hope the vats of dye are infinite because I know this Easter egg will never be finished.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

a little ditty I like to call "reality, perception, and the nature of truth"

Okay, so Natalie has set the bar REALLY high with her individual morning pages prompts (AND pictures—really, we’re all kind of hating her right now, but in a good-natured writing project kind of way). And I’d probably be tapping right away except that Stacey made the fruit dip that is so yummy, you really need your own bowl to stick your whole face in. But enough stalling…

Natalie’s posed a real doozy of a prompt for me:

“How do you tell what’s real from what’s perception? What I mean is, how do we determine the changes that occur as a result of what we do as t-rs and changes that would have naturally occurred anyway? How do we know what’s real—or does it really matter?”

Believe it or not, I’ve been thinking about the last question in particular, and Jason (Malone) and I were just talking about it yesterday in reference to students’ reactions to The Life of Pi, which Rebecca’s kids have been reading to mixed reviews in book clubs for the past couple of years. Well, you get the picture—more groovy serendipity in CSUWP. So it may be hard for me to think of these questions in the broader sense of t-r, but I’m going to try in the next 8 minutes.

This question really has to do with the nature of truth, I think (oh, yeah, like I’m gonna solve that problem in 8 minutes…). Okay, so I’ll take a stand. I do think that truth is in the eye of the beholder to a large extent, but I also think it does matter. Yes, there is such a thing as empirical truth, at least when it comes to inanimate objects, but as soon as something moves, well, so does the nature of truth. One of the things I’ve learned in my years as a qualitative researcher (and a human being) is that truth is to a large extent the story we tell to make sense of what happened (cf. Life of Pi again).

Maybe applying this to my recovery from back injury would be helpful here. Thankfully, I’m having more good days than bad days now, but the task of late for my physical therapist and me is often to figure out why that is and how to avoid more pain on the bad days or to replicate more wellbeing on the good days. She’s encouraged me to keep a daily journal to note what I did, what my pain level was, what adjustments I’ve had to make in my activities, and so forth. As a result of that journal, I’ve started paying attention to my body more than I did prior to the injury so that even on the days I don’t have time to make a journal entry, I still am writing one in my head.

The conclusion we almost always come to is that in both cases, we can’t pin down a single cause. Almost always, it’s a combination—I didn’t rest enough or was experiencing high levels of stress or did a handstand in the swimming pool (okay, that was pretty stupid), therefore I had a bad day. While we can both see the results of the bad day—visible spasms in my back—we aren’t always able to pinpoint the cause. However, because of I’m more aware of potential variables overall and am able to make accommodations to avoid them, I’m beginning to have more good days as a result.

So how does that connect to t-r? (I have 5 whole minutes to go here, so be kind if I miss the mark ☺) I think that one of the differences that teacher research and its concomitant methods make is that I become more mindful. I wonder more. I document my observations, so that I can reflect on them and draw conclusions that result in deliberate changes I make to my teaching and to my thinking about it.

The result for me as a teacher has been that I have more good days than bad. But more significantly, I think that my definitions of “good” and “bad” have changed. In fact, both have nearly been replaced altogether with “interesting.” To borrow an idea from Maclean and Mohr, the teacher-researcher mindset has allowed me to approach my teaching with more professional distance rather than automatically (and rather self-centeredly) assuming that I am responsible for every behavior or event that occurs in my classroom.

No matter how many classroom management books we read, we don’t have near as much control as we’d like to think we have (and this is also true in life, I’m afraid). Sure, we can set a tone and do what we can to help students maintain it, but kids are agents, too, and we can no more determine the exact experience they will have as individuals in our classroom than we can make sure everyone has a fabulous time at our next dinner party. We can work within our own set of variables to make one possible, but in the end, everyone is responsible for having her or his own fabulous time.

So going back to Natalie’s prompt, my perception—the story I tell myself—is also my reality to some extent. But teacher research provides me with some tools I can use to hone that perception so that I arrive at a more complex understanding of teaching and learning (both mine and my students’) and the nature of truth in both realms.

Monday, June 25, 2007

checking back in

Okay, so it took longer than a week to get back here, but as I just told everyone in the AI (sorry for looking directly at you, Steph), our first mantra for the next 2 weeks is "no guilt." Also, swearing is okay, and sometimes to be expected, during CSUWP activities and teacher research in general.

So no guilt.

The face-to-face part of the AI began today, and despite the fact that CSUWP is running (count them) NINE programs this summer and I'm as tired as I look, I'm really excited to be here. Right now, we're writing morning pages via our blogs, so if anyone wants to check in on us over the next 2 weeks, you can get a play-by-play of our thinking and hopefully our progress in our own work. Our morning pages prompt today is simply to check in and think about what's next for us this week. What have we already done, and what do we want to do now?

As I said a couple of entries back, Cam and Rebecca and I have got a whole lot of data--fieldnotes, book club discussion records, mandalas (I think), freewrites, and a taped discussion, I'm hoping to:

* get caught up on the AI blog
* get all that data organized and begin analyzing it with Rebecca (and Cam, too, if possible), and
* get some outside reading done about civil discourse
* make a sabbatical plan

Oh, yeah, and also to work our way through our AI schedule by learning more together about teacher research.

That plan may be too ambitious, but it's a place to start, and the good news about it is that I'll have a to-do list when I leave here, too.