Some of the most useful research and thinking about education can happen with teachers in the classroom.
Teachers learn a lot from their everyday work as teachers. Encouraging teachers to think and act like researchers can build capacities for learning — for both teachers and students — when teachers generate new knowledge from examining how they work with the children in their care.
For over 10 years, we have worked with New York City teachers to teach them how to research their practice. Our intention has been to provide teachers with tools to tackle the questions, problems, and dilemmas that are part of school life. Effective teaching, we believe, involves an iterative cycle of observation, documentation, and reflection that informs instruction and supports student learning — all driven by teacher curiosity and student needs.
By learning the tools of this kind of research, teachers develop their abilities to be problem solvers, to think and act critically, and to articulate their beliefs and actions to colleagues, administrators, families, and the public. The ideas and practices uncovered in the study of our work described here offer an alternative to images of test-driven teaching that dominate American education. This inquiry approach to teaching has the potential to strengthen educator preparation and enhance the ongoing learning of practicing teachers throughout their careers.
Our study focused on examining the research reports of over 400 teacher learners who have taken our graduate teacher inquiry course at a large, public, urban university over the past decade (Falk & Blumenreich, 2005). From those accounts, we selected 15 teacher research projects that we crafted into cases. The cases, fully reported in our book Teaching Matters: Stories from Inside City Schools (Falk & Blumenreich, 2012), represent four major challenges that the teachers grappled with:
- Establishing effective home-school partnerships;
- Being responsive to cultural and linguisticdiversity;
- Addressing constraints of educational policies and mandates; and
- Differentiating instruction.
This article presents two cases describing two of these themes: Mary Williams’ quest to become more responsive to cultural diversity and Hazel Veras-Gomez’ examination of how to infuse developmentally appropriate learning activities into her kindergarten’s test-driven curriculum. We chose these pieces not to showcase best practices or to highlight teachers who seem to have all the answers. Rather the stories are intended to demonstrate how the teachers’ process of inquiring about their work led them to learn and grow as professionals — a process that also benefits the learning of their students (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009).
A teacher makes a cultural quest
Williams grew up in white suburbia but now teaches African-American and Latino 4th graders in a low-income community of New York City. As a novice teacher, she was eager to learn about her students. Because she knew that children learn best in contexts that are interesting and relevant she searched for ways to offer students engaging experiences that would resonate in their lives.
To begin her work on these goals, Williams read a lot about culturally responsive teaching. She wanted to do more than observe the token holiday, week, or month to acknowledge an ethnic or racial group. She also knew that her experience as a member of the white majority shaped her thinking in ways she had not formerly recognized, and she became sensitized to the importance of viewing the world through others’ eyes. She was determined to find a way to engage in the practices and principles of responsive teaching while also meeting the school system’s high-stakes curriculum and assessment mandates. She launched her project by infusing culturally relevant materials into the books she read aloud to the class, by adapting math problems to reflect the realities of children’s lives, by encouraging students to share their ideas and life experiences, and by creating a sense of community in the classroom. She kept a journal.
One example of how she addressed curriculum mandates in a culturally responsive manner: In a required mathematics lesson about graphing that asked students to demonstrate their knowledge of pictographs, Williams changed the topic from the text’s original assignment — creating a graph of students’ favorite foods — to creating a graph of where their families came from. After inviting children to talk in small groups about their families’ places of origin, they each shared a bit about their home countries, which included the United States, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. As students shared this information, Williams taught them the required skills of how to make tally charts and other pictographs of data. This small change of the topic of the graph helped Williams create opportunities for meaningful conversations while still meeting the aim of the required lesson.
When teachers do research about their work, they are able to construct new knowledge about teaching.
Williams’ inquiry about her teaching also included documenting her efforts to infuse culturally relevant books into the literacy curriculum. As she read aloud texts with characters from diverse backgrounds, she saw that students found ways to connect the text with their lives. She noted:
We had a long conversation about important customs in our families’ lives just like Julian had had with his family when they made pudding together. I shared how my family makes sauce every summer together on the anniversary of my father’s death. The students then shared traditions in their families — like making tacos, beans and rice, and cake together.
In this way, Williams was figuring out ways to “see students’ cultural capital as an asset and not a detriment to their school success” (Howard, 2003, p. 4). For example, as an introduction to a math lesson about geometric shapes, she read the class Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt (Ernst, 1992), a book about a man who starts an all-male quilting club. Her intention in presenting this text was to motivate the students to create a paper quilt using the different shapes they were learning about. An unexpected discussion ensued, however, about male and female roles. Joseph, a generally timid and quiet child, blurted out, “Quilting is very important in my family.” Taken a bit by surprise, Williams stopped the official lesson on geometry and asked Joseph to share how quilting was significant to his family. This little detour served not only to validate Joseph, his family, and their culture and traditions, it also sparked the children’s interest in the project Williams had planned. (Names of students are pseudonyms.)
As a result of the time she invested in creating a space for students to share their ideas, backgrounds, and cultures, Williams found a sense of community developing in her classroom. At the conclusion of a writing study, the class celebrated by holding a “publishing party” where students presented stories of their lives to each other and their invited guests. Williams was especially pleased to observe Daniel, an English language learner who spoke with a stutter and was usually nervous about public speaking, enthusiastically sharing what he had written. The speech coach who had worked with Daniel was amazed. After witnessing him reading, she told Williams she had never before seen Daniel so at ease. No doubt the trust developed in the classroom contributed to Daniel feeling secure enough to take the risks necessary to share information about himself so freely.
Since Williams began her efforts to become a more culturally responsive teacher, she has incorporated research into her practice and used it to shape and guide her curriculum. Now in her third year of teaching, she has developed a system of collecting observations and students’ work that informs and shapes her instruction. She believes that working in this way has helped her to teach her students in ways that harness their interests and needs as they tackle required knowledge and skills.
Restoring the “garden” to kindergarten
At all grade levels, high-stakes testing has had a considerable effect on the day-to-day lives of students and teachers. This was true for Hazel Veras-Gomez and her class of kindergartners who had little time for active, play-based learning because of a mandated curriculum designed around the demands of standardized tests. Veras-Gomez was an experienced teacher who had worked for many years in early childhood centers in high-need communities in the Bronx. But she was new to teaching kindergarten and nearing the completion of her master’s degree in early childhood education. She was keenly aware of research on the importance of play for young children’s development, especially how play helps children interact with peers, solve problems, and build foundational literacy and cognitive skills — all of which are critical prerequisites for successful later engagement in more abstract academic work (Brown, 2010; Elkind, 2007; Paley, 2005; Tepperman, 2007). Despite this research, Veras-Gomez found herself in a classroom that was not the “garden” where children learn about the world through active experiences with materials and relationships. Rather it was focused on didactic teaching of academic skills.
Veras-Gomez wondered if she could meet the demands of the curriculum imposed by the school and still teach in ways appropriate to how young children learn. Then one day she read a book to her class called Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten (Slate & Wolff, 2001). At the end of this book, the children in the story paint, build with blocks and other materials, and get involved in make-believe play. When Veras-Gomez came to that part of the story, the children asked, “How come we can’t have play time like that?” That was when she resolved to end what she felt was her complicity in depriving them of their right and need to play. Immediately she made changes in her classroom to respond to their needs.
First, she reallocated time from math, reading, and writing and carved out time in the afternoons so students could have active, play-based learning in “centers” that she created in her room. At the centers, students:
- Sorted and categorized numbers and shapes while building with blocks;
- Explored the properties of bubbles at a water table;
- Kept journals of their investigations of plants and insects in a science area;
- Problem solved social issues while role-playing in a dramatic play area; and
- Constructed understandings of language structure and syntax while drawing and writing in an art area.
Through these centers, Veras-Gomez saw and documented how much meaningful learning was going on through play and how many more children were better able to learn and express their learning through these active experiences than through the largely paper-and-pencil tasks required by the mandated curriculum.
Veras-Gomez also figured out how to adjust the mandated curriculum to be more appropriate to her students’ level. For example, the curriculum requirements mandated a nonfiction study that produced books with tables of content, indexes, and glossaries. Veras-Gomez responded to this requirement by designing a unit that connected to the children’s interests and was appropriate to their understandings and skills. She crafted a study on “All About Our School,” which involved a series of experiences that included taking the children on a tour of the school and on visits to the homes of different children in the classroom. The class subsequently used their experiences and the pictures they took during their visits to write and put together their own books. The unit’s required components were included in the books.
Looking back on her efforts to build bridges between developmentally appropriate teaching and her school’s mandated curriculum, Veras-Gomez found evidence of how important play is for young children’s development, confirming developmental research and her original belief — that powerful learning happens through play and needs to be a big part of kindergarten life.
Because Veras-Gomez’ investigation focused not only on identifying problems but on examining ways to address them in her teaching, she took from it a renewed sense of power and trust in her knowledge of what supports children’s learning. She also gained some concrete strategies for how to retain some of the spirit of the “garden” upon which kindergarten practices were originally based.
Professionalism and ongoing learning
These stories demonstrate how teachers can examine important questions and generate new understandings about teaching and learning as part of their everyday worklife. Schools offer fertile ground for teachers to learn, share, collaborate, and innovate.
When teachers do research about their work, they are able to construct new knowledge about teaching. They invent new solutions to nagging problems, identify new challenges to address, and respond to the unique contexts and needs of the children and families of the communities where they teach.
Through ongoing investigation and reflection about practice, teachers invent better ways to explain lessons, entice reluctant learners, bring unruly classes under control, and ignite children’s imaginations. Exercising their intellect and judgment in these ways enhances their abilities to teach effectively; and teachers feel empowered when they take charge of their teaching. This builds teachers’ capacity for professionalism rather than “teacherproofing” the curricula. It is this kind of professionalism that is the hallmark of high-quality educators in the high-achieving countries of the world (Darling-Hammond, Wei, & Andree, 2010).
Brown, S. (2010). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York, NY: Avery Trade.
Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S. (2009). Inquiry as stance. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Darling-Hammond, L., Wei, R.C., & Andree, A. (2010). How high-achieving countries develop great teachers. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.
Elkind, D. (2007). The power of play: Learning what comes naturally. Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press.
Ernst, L.C. (1992). Sam Johnson and the blue ribbon quilt. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Falk, B. & Blumenreich, M. (2005). The power of questions: A guide to teacher and student research. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Falk, B. & Blumenreich, M. (2012). Teaching matters: Stories from inside city schools. New York, NY: New Press.
Howard, T.C. (2003) Culturally relevant pedagogy: Ingredients for critical teacher reflection. Theory into Practice, 42 (3), 195- 202.
Paley, V. (2005). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Slate, J. & Wolff, A. (2001). Miss Bindergarten gets ready for kindergarten. London, UK: Puffin Books.
Tepperman, J. (Ed.). (2007). Play in the early years: Key to school success. San Francisco, CA: Bay Area Early Childhood Funders.
This article originally appeared in Phi Kappan Delta, Vol. 96, No. 5 (February 2015).