2 Teacher-Researcher Practice

I left the house with my 1-year-old son, John Jacob, on my shoulders, heading for a meeting with Bill Johnson, the principal at Clifford, at 11:00 AM. It would be my first official contact with the school, other than the phone call to set up the appointment. There were two ways for John Jacob and me to walk the four or five blocks to the school. One way took us up our street (mostly rental properties) and over to the school on a gently curved lane past well-kept lawns and houses–a fairly representative sec­tion of the predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood the school served. We took the other route, which was a little shorter.

We walked across the street, through a parking lot, and alongside the 8 or 9-foot wooden fence that separated a large trailer park from the well­ kept lawns. We turned with the fence at an alley that ended near the school. The entrance to the trailer park opened onto the alley and faced the backsides of a liquor store and an old motel. The entrance offered the only look at the trailer park; otherwise the fence kept it hidden from view. I was always surprised at how close together the angled trailers were–just enough space, it seemed, to park a pick-up truck or car. The trailers were mostly white, dusty, some were peeling. There was no grass, only white stones and dirt, as far as I could tell. I knew a few children who lived here. They sometimes played with John Jacob and me on our front lawn.

The meeting with Bill went well. John Jacob sat quietly, and Bill and I decided I would meet with the teachers at Clifford the following week.

I was consciously trying to present myself to Bill as someone who was a teacher. I told him I wanted to teach writing, that the legitimacy of my research depended on my actually teaching, since I wanted to write about it from that perspective. He was surprised when I said that I would teach every day for the entire year. He called it “ambitious” and then added that he meant it in a good way. (Fieldnotes, 5-25-89)

I talked with the Clifford teachers at their final staff meeting for the year. I told them I wanted to teach writing in someone’s classroom for about 45 minutes every day, and that I wanted to write about what hap­pened. I also told them that it would be up to the person I worked with to decide how much she or he wanted to be involved in the work.

Seven teachers wanted to talk with me about my project, and I met with each of them individually over the next week as they wrapped up their teaching for the year and straightened their rooms for the summer. I declined offers from several teachers who wanted me in their room, but could not promise me that I would have time each day to work with chil­dren on writing. The daily schedules of the fourth and fifth grade teach­ers seemed especially prohibitive this way. A few teachers had envi­sioned a sort of tutor role for me with children who had trouble with class writing assignments. One teacher asked me if I would like to help her in her writing workshop. She had been experimenting with work­shop approaches for several years. I told her she had probably faced and resolved many of the problems and issues I was interested in learning and writing about. We agreed that we would talk to each other the fol­lowing year about what we were trying to do.

I realized as I talked to the first several teachers that it was very important to me and my sense of this project that I have control of a classroom for a period of time each day. I wanted to be the writing teacher, even if the regular classroom teacher worked collaboratively with me in various ways. I decided to work with Grace even before we had finished talking.

Grace told me that she was “stuck” in writing, that she had been able to get kids to enjoy writing and to write in response to story starters. but she didn’t know what to do next. She said she wanted to have chil­dren talk to one another about their writing. but wasn’t sure about set­ting it up. She was wondering how to manage all this. As I listened. I thought that this would be a good place to be. I will have enough autonomy as the writing teacher to set up a writing workshop. but Grace also wants to learn more about teaching the way I am going to try. She seems to have similar interests and concerns to me. It feels like we could learn a lot, since we are at similar places in our thinking. (Fieldnotes, 6-7-89)

I talked with Grace several times during the summer on the phone. She told me that, at the beginning, she wanted to watch what I was doing. Her primary interest, she said, was learning how to manage a pro­gram like the writing workshop. She said she had read Graves (1983) and Calkins (1986) in masters classes she had taken, but still had trouble envi­sioning what such teaching would look like. She also told me that she would be job sharing with Ruth. We decided that she and Ruth would introduce me to the class on their first day of school, and that I would start up the workshop the following morning.

Grace and Ruth were going through the different schedules, rules, and routines for the class when I walked into the room. I waved to Grace and quickly sat down at a round table at the side of the room, near the door. I would do most of my conferencing with children at this round table.

Grace stood at the front of the room. There was a large green chalkboard in the center of the front wall with bulletin boards on each side of it. Grace’s desk was in the front corner, opposite me. Ruth was in the other far corner, near her desk. She was pointing to a bulletin board on the back wall, and telling the children about classroom jobs each of them would perform at different times throughout the year. There was another large chalkboard on the back wall, and what looked to be a portable, off­ white closet next to it. The room had a small bathroom in the corner to my right and a bookshelf, cupboards, and a faucet and sink filled the wall behind me.

Soon after I arrived, Grace introduced me.

I am sure I didn’t sound too confident. It is not the kids–I do not feel easy talking to students with other adults around. I said that I was going to be their writing teacher,  and that we wouldn’t be working on handwriting, but on stories, poems, reports–I stumbled sort of here. I couldn’t use words like “composition” to contrast handwriting. I proba­bly will fumble like this a lot, not knowing the right words for third graders. I told them a little about the workshop routine before Grace took over again. (Fieldnotes, 8-29-89)

I started teaching the next day, and the day, and the month, and the year were harder than I had expected or wanted. I soon found myself fantasizing about pursuing a different project–maybe one in which I learned about writing and teaching writing by sitting in the library and reading books.

I had expected some difficulties getting the writing workshop off the ground and running. The workshop called for new participation structures, new “rights and obligations of participants with respect to who can say what, when, and to whom” (Cazden, 1986, p. 437; see also Philips, 1983). The opening meeting would be closest to traditional classroom lessons, with the discourse largely controlled by me, the teacher (Mehan, 1979, 1982). But writing time and sharing time called for discourse pat­terns breaking with the typical sequence of teacher initiation, student response, and teacher evaluation. During writing time, much classroom talk would take place among children with limited teacher surveillance. And sharing time replaced the teacher at the front of the room with the child-writer who reads books and solicits responses from students.

In other words, I expected confusion as the children and I attempted to do something new in the classroom. We brought old how-to knowl­edge to a situation in which I hoped to upset traditional procedures and rules. Furthermore, these children were working with two other teachers in the room–Grace and Ruth–for much longer periods than they spent with me. These teachers organized their lessons at least a little differently from each other, as well as differently from the writing workshop. Finally, given social class and ethnic differences, as well as individual dif­ferences, the children themselves brought diverse competencies and assumptions to their work with me on writing (Heath, 1983; Michaels, 1981). There would be plenty of occasions for confusion, as my students and I brought what we knew and were learning about how to participate in school from a variety of settings.

But this is a very friendly interpretation of possible sources of difficulty in the workshop. It assumes that everyone, more or less, is interested in doing things in these new ways but gets hung up when they use old knowledge in a new setting. It forgets conflict. It ignores that teachers and students sometimes take up adversarial roles. Children’s “old knowledge” of school certainly includes knowledge of how to help things go smoothly, how to cooperate, but it also includes knowledge of how to disrupt, resist, engage the teacher in classroom warfare. If the writing workshop loosens the lid on tightly controlled classrooms, it loosens the lid on more than just repressed positive possibilities. If we assume that at least some children are alienated from school work (as in Everhart, 1983), and/or engaged in resis­tance to teacher authority and control (Willis, 1977; Connell et al., 1982), then loosening teacher control in the workshop may well promote an avoidance of writing and work, and increased–or at least continued–stu­dent attempts to subvert teacher authority. The workshop becomes a place, in a child’s school history of alienated labor and teacher domination, for increased opportunities for rest, for avoiding work, for opposing the teacher, even as the teacher embraces a “gentle pedagogy” that avoids overt displays of teacher power (Hogan, 1989).

This was a tough class of children to work with, partly because a number of children actively resisted teachers in the classroom. You will get some sense of this in the chapters that follow. Ruth, a competent teacher with 7 years of teaching experience, tried (and failed) to get out of her teaching contract after struggling for little over a month with this group of children. Substitute teachers made a special point to walk over to my round table where I waited to teach writing, to tell me that this was one of the worst classes they had ever subbed in–one substitute teacher sharpened her evaluation by pointing out that she had worked in some of the toughest urban elementary schools around, and never had she met a more difficult group of children to handle. As I talked with other teach­ers in the building, I learned that the children in this and the other third grade class (taught by Samuel) were generally recognized as an extremely difficult group of children to teach. Samuel and Grace eventu­ally attempted, with the support of the school’s parent-teacher organiza­tion, to get another third grade classroom at Clifford, in order to reduce class size (Samuel had 28 students; Grace, 27). They were unsuccessful, though an additional fourth grade teacher was hired for this group of children the following year.

I faced confusion and conflict in the writing workshop. The 1st month was especially frustrating and emotionally draining.

This is getting a little tiring, feeling so frustrated and depressed after teaching (what teaching?). I can’t seem to get done the things I hope to. I am angry. James. Suzanne, Robert, Bruce, Ken are getting me angry. They are testing me. And I am feeling humiliated in front of Grace. (Fieldnotes, 9-11-89)

I felt vulnerable in front of Grace, and in front of the children as well. I worried about what this meant for my teaching and my students’ experi­ences in the classroom.

When I taught junior high, there were one or two classes each year I didn’t feel good with–for some reason, sixth period my 2nd year sticks in my head. I didn’t do the same things with that class that I did with other classes, because I didn’t feel I could trust them. I think I felt too vulnerable in front of them, I kept a distance. The problem is that I am feeling this way about this class. I feel vulnerable in front of them.

The bigger problem is that I won’t take risks with them. I won’t do the special things that maybe would really get them interested. We’re tied in a bad circle, I begin trying to do interesting things. For whatever reasons, the students (some) don’t cooperate, don’t make me feel they are with me. I then adjust, and my adjustment is to worry more about making children behave. This of course backfires, and causes some to resist more: others, who weren’t resisting before get sick of me talking about people misbehaving. Pretty soon, we’re sick of each other. Obviously, I’m the one who has to bust out of this. I need to figure out how. (Fieldnotes, 9-15-89)

In early October, I had a particularly bad day. The confusion got to me.

Rajesh probably came and talked to me four or five times during writing time. He got on my nerves. One time he said he didn’t know what to put down on his sheet of Ideas for Topics. Another time he said he didn’t know what to write about. I felt as if he was always tugging on my arm as I tried to help other children. I remember Rajesh and how I felt because I usually enjoy him so much. I didn’t today. (Fieldnotes, 10-2-89)

And the conflict got to me.

I said that it felt like they were fighting me. The word “fight” must be too vivid or exciting. James sat in the back of the room, saying over and over, “We’re fighting you, we’re fighting you,” swinging his fists in the air. (Fieldnotes, 10-2-89)

The emotional, physical, and intellectual demands caught up with me. I did not have it within me to go to school the next day. I talked to Grace in the morning on the phone, and she suggested we talk that afternoon after she finished teaching. We met in the teachers’ lounge, which was empty. She gave me a letter written in blue magic marker.


Twenty of your students are ready to fly with the writers’ workshop, seven are not. Unfortunately, these seven will set the tone for the others.

Tailor make the WW to meet the needs of these seven. They need lots of structure, clear directions and expectations, one task to deal with at a time, quiet. They are easily distracted and fall off task easily. Gradually, ease into a full blown WW.

There are many activities I’d like to try with this group, but I’ve put them on hold until they are ready. Otherwise I’d be pulling out my hair and downing bottles of Pepto.

The issues of movement and noise will take care of themselves once the seven have a handle on the WW.

I don’t expect you to be a clone of me. As long as the kids are learning, being cooperative and you’re having fun–I’m okay. But are you having fun yet?

The teaching of writing is frustrating enough. Never enough time to conference with each child. To complicate matters even more, you’re dealing with 2 7 kids, 7 of which have special needs.

It’s the reality of teaching. Not all programs are easily imple­mented. You nip and tuck at it (tailor make it) until it fits.

WW is a wonderful program. You have a wonderful way with kids. Let’s put the program to work our way first. By spring, it will be the real thing.


In her letter, Grace gave an analysis of what she thought had been happening in the workshop: seven students were not handling it very well. She also shared her own teacherly response to this class, which was to not do certain activities (presumably less “structured”) because she believed her students were not ready for them. She related her own ver­sion of what I had been going through: “pulling out my hair and down­ing bottles of Pepto.”

I talked with Grace about what she meant by “special needs.” Her use of the term had little to do with psychological or intellectual defi­ciency on the children’s part. She meant what she said at the beginning, that these particular children, in her opinion, needed “lots of structure,” “one task at a time,” and “quiet.” She saw these adjustments as at odds with a sort of official version of the workshop–“the real thing”–I was trying to set up. Grace asserted that seven specific children needed something a little different from what “the writing workshop program”­–as interpreted by her in her own readings of Graves and Calkins, and through her interactions with me–offered. But she also believed that the workshop was a good thing to do, and that these children would even­tually function well within it.

I should note that Graves and Calkins are quite clear about there being no one right way to do writing workshops. Their books are filled with stories of many versions that they applaud for their respon­siveness to children and for how they draw on the particular strengths of individual teachers. Still, a basic assumption of these approaches is that if you allow children to write, they will do so (and, it seems, not do other sorts of things, like throw paper or hit people). This assump­tion is tied to Graves’ and Calkins’ critiques of traditional approaches to the teaching of writing, which actually produce resistance to writing as they “take the control away from children and place unnecessary roadblocks in the way of their intentions” (Graves, 1983, p. 4). Grace, at different times in the year, questioned the amount of control that workshop approaches granted children. Similar to Delpit (1988), she believed that this control actually allowed some children to avoid (or prevented them from) learning what they needed to learn. Grace was also concerned with things going smoothly in the classroom, and increased levels of student autonomy tended to make things jagged and noisy. Her letter expresses, if faintly, some of these doubts and beliefs.

Grace’s letter was extremely important to me that Tuesday after­noon–not for its insight into the needs of children and its critical response to workshop approaches, but for the support, affirmation, and solidarity it offered. Grace recognized my struggle (“are you having fun yet?”), affirmed my work with children in the room (“you have a won­derful way with kids”), and expressed her willingness to work with me in the future (“Let’s [let us] put this program to work our way”). Her offer came at a crucial time, and I gratefully accepted.

The workshop routines and norms, and my work there, did not change drastically. I still did the planning (sometimes in consultation with Grace), conducted the opening meetings, worked with children at the round table–in other words, I was still largely responsible for the shape and content of the workshop. But Grace became an important part of the day-to-day experiences of the children and me there. She helped me most during writing time. She usually circulated around the room, helping children write or remember they were supposed to be writing (or reading or conferencing). Grace and I discussed what we saw happening and what we should do about various children and problems in the few minutes we had around the edges of teaching and family demands­–sometimes we talked a little longer over lunch, but not as often as we would have liked.

Our relationship was transformed under the pressures of working with children in new and demanding ways.

Grace gave me a note to read, written in blue magic marker. I told her how I tried to respect what teachers knew, but that deep inside I must have thought that I really had learned how to do this stuff in graduate school. I didn’t expect it to be this hard. (Inside, that morning while I was thinking about talking to Grace, I had been humbled, and it freed me. Maybe this was necessary. I would start over, with more respect for how hard this was and for what Grace knew. Maybe I would learn more.) (Fieldnotes, 10-3-89)

Grace’s help allowed me to become a teacher in the classroom, rather than the teacher. Her participation in the workshop, especially during writing time, allowed me the luxury of talking with children about their work at the round table with fewer distractions and responsibilities for the rest of the class. She allowed me to become more of a student of writ­ing and its instruction, a researcher. I turn to this aspect of my work at Clifford in the remainder of this chapter.

But before I do, I want to note that Grace’s participation in the work­shop did not suddenly remove confusion or conflict from the room. She joined the struggles I had been experiencing more or less alone–or, more accurately, she joined the struggles my students and I were experiencing as we tried to go about teaching and writing in a writing workshop.

Even as I labored to negotiate my teacher role in relation to Grace and our students, I struggled with my broader role as a teacher-researcher. Although I had written about my classroom as a “philosophical labora­tory” (Berthoff, 1987) in early proposals, and my plans for data collection were fairly well tuned to the goal of critically examining the intersection of theory and practice in my teaching, it was not until I began this work that I seriously considered some of the conflicts and issues that attended actually pursuing teacher and researcher roles simultaneously. In what follows, I discuss the main conflicts I encountered, and then describe how I responded to these conflicts in my day-to-day research.

Four conflicts shaped my work as a teacher-researcher at Clifford. These conflicts originated in:


  1. Divergent teaching and research demands for my attention while I taught;
  2. The influence of emotional responses to my teaching on my notewriting;
  3. Questions as to the content and function of fieldnotes in a teacher research project; and
  4. The need to narrow my research focus and data collection with­out privileging some children over others in my day-to-day work as a teacher.

The first conflict arose out of demands for my attention in my every­ day work as a teacher-researcher. Being a teacher put demands on where and when I could look at things while I was teaching. Whereas a more traditional classroom researcher can sit at the back of the room and make decisions as to when and where to attend, my vision and attention were often tied to my activity and responsibility as a teacher. A researcher, for example, might purposely ignore John biting Suzanne in order to listen carefully to a peer conference between Carol and Maya, but a teacher will feel he cannot. At issue was my ability, as a teacher-researcher, to engage in data collection as a type of progressive problem-solving (Erickson, 1986), in which what I attended to (and then wrote about in my fieldnotes) represented a deliberate process of gathering evidence to support and challenge emerging theories (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Hammersly & Atkinson, 1983). I often felt more reactive than proactive in my decisions of when and where I would “look” in the classroom. The problem of “bounded rationality”–simplifying complexity because of limits of infor­mation-processing capacity (Simon, 1957)–takes on a socially con­structed twist here. I was bounded, as an interpretive researcher attempt­ing to describe and understand a complex classroom situation, not only by processing capacity, but also socially, in my role as the teacher.

A second conflict pitted my emotional responses to my teaching experiences against research demands that I write fieldnotes each day as an important source of data, and as part of an ongoing process of data analysis and methodological problem-solving. My emotional responses to teaching, especially how well or badly I thought things went, affected my notewriting. At the extremes of magnificent and devastating experi­ences as a teacher in the classroom, it often seemed harder for me to get myself to write fieldnotes. If things went well, I would rather celebrate and talk about it with friends; if badly, I wanted to forget about what happened rather than dwell on, relive for the purposes of notetaking, what had caused me distress in the first place. I usually overcame these responses, but I often noted how depressed I was, how tired, how my feelings discouraged notewriting.

This is not to suggest that the only reason I resisted writing fieldnotes was because of my teaching–sometimes, like most interpretive researchers, I simply did not feel up to the intellectual and physical labor writing notes demanded. I am also not suggesting that more traditional researchers are never depressed or tired or giddy, or that such feelings, in my case, only related to my teaching and not other aspects of my life. My point is that as a teacher-researcher, I had a certain emotional invest­ment in what happened in the classroom that more traditional researchers would usually not have, and that this investment affected data collection, in as much as it made writing fieldnotes more or less dif­ficult for me to do.

One way I attempted to help myself overcome resistance to writing fieldnotes was to experiment with various ways of recording them. I began the year typing my notes at a computer. A couple of weeks into my work (and remember, I was struggling in my teaching here), I bought an artsy blank book with an illustration every few pages and short quo­tations from “real” authors for inspiration.

I wanted to have an inviting place to write my notes–we’ll see if this thing does the trick. I wasn’t planning on getting anything this gimmicky, but the other blank books I saw were either too small or too impressive and expensive. I wouldn’t want to write in them. (Field­notes, 9-15-89)

At the bottom of this very first page was a Jack London quotation: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Just the sort of thing a slightly battered teacher, looking for a safe, peaceful place to write, needed. For most of the fall, I went back and forth between hand­written notes in this blank book, and typed ones on my computer, not very pleased or comfortable with either. After Christmas, I found some inex­pensive, large, hard-covered blank books (no illustrations or quotations) and wrote my fieldnotes in them consistently through the end of the year.

The third conflict I encountered in my roles as teacher and researcher concerned the content and function of my fieldnotes: What sort of notes would I write? When I wrote fieldnotes for my first day of teaching, I already realized that research goals of description–“to cap­ture the slice of life” in order to provide “the clues that you begin to put together to make analytical sense of what you study” (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982, pp. 84, 86)–were in conflict with more teacherly goals of reflec­tion and planning that I might press my notes toward. After three pages of mostly descriptive material, I wrote:

Ideas for teaching tomorrow keep intruding–for instance, I just dazed off and was thinking that I need to express to the kids tomorrow that the workshop is a chance to write about things they care about, think about things they want to think about. (Fieldnotes, 8-30-89)

I continued for a page and a half, before pulling myself back to description with “Back to notes.” Teacher reflections were often sparked by my attempts to describe what happened in class that day. But as a teacher, I often felt the need to move beyond description to an evalua­tion of what happened, in order to formulate for myself what needed to be done in the future.

Again, I do not want to suggest some absolute break with what I faced as a teacher-researcher and the problems other interpretive researchers encounter. The content of qualitative fieldnotes includes both descriptive and reflective material. Descriptive material attempts to record details of the people, conversations, physical setting, events, activities, and researcher behavior that make up the research setting. Reflective material expresses the “more subjective side of the researcher’s journey,” and contains speculations, hunches, impressions, as well as methodolog­ical notes for future research in the field (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982, p. 86).

Any interpretive researcher, then, faces decisions of balance between these different sorts of material. However, for me the problem was intensified because the initial questions guiding my research emphasized investigating how teaching writing was experienced by me, the teacher. (See Appendix for discussion of beginning research ques­tions.) In other words, the reflective material, in which I mulled over teacher problems and how I was feeling, was an extremely important part of the study as I began my work. At the same time I knew I needed rich descriptions of classroom life in the workshop in order to investi­gate what was happening there and what this meant to other partici­pants. My goals for the study went beyond teacher autobiography. I wanted to study what happened in the classroom–not just to me­–when I tried to teach writing in a writing workshop. I wanted to ground the teacherly issues and problems I was facing in a plausible account of workshop life.

“Teacherly” notes, then, were important both as a tool for improving teacher practice through reflection, and as a record of my thinking and experience in the classroom. “Researcherly” notes, focused on descrip­tion, also remained important. In an ideal situation in which I would have unlimited time and motivation to write fieldnotes, I could pursue both sorts of notes without conflict. But in the actual situation I faced, the two were often in competition for my time and effort, and any act of notetaking represented conscious and unconscious choices of emphasis.

A fourth and final conflict arose as I thought about ways to narrow my research focus in order to gain a depth of data and begin the gradual process of confirming, revising, and disproving various assertions I was formulating in relation to what was happening in the workshop, and what problems my students and I faced there in our work. A common way to focus data collection and analysis in studies of classrooms is to eventually identify and concentrate on a limited number of children. These children become key informants as well as foci for observation and collection of documents. I considered this move throughout the year, but could not shake the worry that such a research commitment would also entail a teacher commitment–that is, that the goal of learn­ing more about particular children for research purposes would in some way affect my teacherly decisions, and ultimately benefit some children over others.

My discussions of the other conflicts I encountered have focused on how teaching constrained or complicated my research efforts. But here, the problem was my research affecting my teaching. I was aware that my research goals sometimes pushed back on my teaching. For example, after a discussion with Grace about how to manage writing conferences with individual children while keeping the rest of the class on track, I noted:

If I weren’t doing research in the workshop, I probably wouldn’t con­ference with children at the round table at the side of the room so often, but do it at the children’s desks, moving around the room. I feel the tug as a researcher to stay close to the tape recorder. (Fieldnotes, 12-13-89)

I was concerned about a similar research “tug” toward certain chil­dren, and not others. The writing workshop, especially during writing time, was a fairly open place in which children and teachers made deci­sions to do this and not that–to work with this person and not that per­son–on an almost moment-to-moment basis. As a teacher, I worried about more or less unconscious preferences I might be expressing for certain children in these decisions. As a result, within the 1st month of my teaching, I created a weekly schedule that ensured that I talked reg­ularly with each individual child in the room. A research focus on certain children may have encouraged me to attend to some children more than others, even as I consciously sought to work with children according to their needs (and not my own).

By early November, I had come to a way of proceeding in my work that responded to these conflicts. This response had two aspects: a daily rou­tine of data collection, and a relative emphasis on writing conferences to focus the study.

I started collecting what I called “packets of data” each day. At least four types of data made up my packet of data–I would have teacher planning notes; fieldnotes; an audiotape of the day’s teacher-student writing conferences, as well as our opening meeting and sharing time; and photocopies of any children’s stories I came in contact with that day, in conferences or whole-class sessions.

Collecting packets did several things for me. The collection of audio­tapes, children’s writing, and planning notes each day eased my concerns about my ability to capture rich detail and important events in my field­notes (because I attended to certain things and not others, because I was too depressed to write a lot, because I wanted to use my notes to figure out a pedagogical problem, etc.). What I did not cover with fieldnotes could be partially filled in, if need be, with audiotapes and other data. And, of course, the collection of four sorts of data rather than only field­notes gave me multiple sources to draw from to better understand what was happening in the room. Children’s writing and the audiotapes, for example, were less constrained in what they “looked at” than I was in my role as teacher in the classroom.

As I realized that my daily data collection would support my research interests, I became more comfortable with using my fieldnotes for reflec­tions on my teaching. And the fact that I photocopied children’s writing that I came in contact with each day proved crucial to these reflections. Originally, I had planned to collect classroom sets of children’s writing at periodic intervals. But without a child’s text in front of me as I wrote notes, it was difficult to write about what happened and what I was thinking about as I responded to the child and her text, even with an audiotape of our conversation. Having children’s texts also allowed me to begin the work of connecting writing conference talk with the writing children did in the room.

My daily methods served my research and teacher interests fairly well. I was collecting the sorts of data that would allow me to write plau­sible accounts of what was happening, as well as using my notewriting and the data I collected to reflect on and inform my teaching practice.

My methods also served a more or less explicit research focus. From the beginning, a teacher experience I wanted to write about was responding to children’s writing. My packets of data were well suited to such a focus. Each day, I had fieldnotes, photocopies of children’s sto­ries, and audiotapes that addressed this experience. I had solved the problem of focus (at least temporarily) not by looking to particular chil­dren, but by attending closely to a fairly compact event and location­–the writing conferences with children at the round table at the side of the room.

In the end, responding to children’s texts did not turn out to be the primary focus of my work and writing, even though it remained impor­tant. My eventual focus did, however, emerge out of my experiences with children in writing conferences. In my conversations with children about their writing, I began to learn about the importance of peers to children’s writing processes and texts. I learned that in order to under­stand and respond to their writing, I often needed to know about social relations among children.

For all the concern I expressed as a teacher for student experience and voice, I showed little interest in children’s voices in my early plans for research. My earliest memos and proposals show a strong emphasis on my experiences as a teacher in setting up a workshop and responding to children’s writing, and do not even include student interviews. Gradu­ally, children’s experiences and problems became more important to my research. But even then, I thought of children’s experiences in relation to me and a teacher-manipulated environment, and ignored influences of peers on children’s experiences.

For example, in a proposal for funding I wrote in early November, 1989, I said that the following three questions would guide my research:


  1. What problems and difficulties do children encounter as they attempt to become authors in classrooms?
  2. What pedagogical problems and difficulties arise when teachers take seriously the notion of student ownership?
  3. What is involved in establishing and sustaining a classroom envi­ronment that supports children writers?

In my discussion of the sorts of difficulties children were likely to encounter in their writing, I emphasized authority relations between teachers and students and the pervasiveness of evaluation in schools as situational constraints that might undermine children’s efforts to take control of their writing in writing workshops. In other words, I looked to teacher-student relations as an important determinant of children’s expe­riences in the classroom. I wrote that “part of the problem for children writing in classrooms … is exactly that they are writing in classrooms in which teachers and students take up certain roles and relations with one another” (Proposal, 11-89).

In order to investigate children’s experiences more thoroughly, I added interviews of children, by outside researchers, to the research methods I was already pursuing. I attribute the absence of interviewing before this proposal to two factors. The relative emphasis on my own teaching experience at the beginning of the project made data collection on children’s experience less crucial. But more importantly, I had con­sidered writing conferences to be important sources of information on children’s experiences in the workshop.

And they were. My conversations with children about their texts often functioned much like interviews: I asked children questions about their writing–how they did it, what special problems they were having, why they did what they did–so that I could understand how they were attempting to solve writing problems, and support them in their efforts. These conversations were audiotaped, and provided a valuable source of data on children’s writing and how they thought about it. But, by the time of this proposal, I recognized that, at least for some children, I may have been one of the problems or difficulties they were experiencing in the writing workshop, and that students may very well be reluctant to talk about problems they were having with the teacher when the teacher was also the interviewer. I planned for colleagues to conduct extended interviews of children toward the end of the school year. I conceived of these interviews as occasions to explore children’s perceptions of writing and our writing workshop, with some attention to students’ relations with Grace and me.

As I worked with these children across the year–as well as watched them play on the playground, vote for student council representatives, decide who to sit by in the cafeteria–I began to pay attention to peer relations in the workshop. I realized that peers were extremely important to–and not necessarily in positive ways–the experiences of children in the workshop and their writing. Several teachers in the building told me that children from the trailer park formed their own subculture in the school, and tended to only have friends from the trailer park. From my observations, this division seemed largely repeated in the workshop. Lines did not appear to be drawn by race. The four African-American children in our classroom and one whose parents were from India did not form a subgroup–each of them worked and played primarily with white children within gender boundaries.

I noted patterns of association among children that divided them along gender and social class lines (if we take the fence separating the children living in the trailer park from those living in the surrounding suburban community as a rough social-class line). In the workshop, girls worked with girls, and boys with boys; and the boys and girls who lived in the trailer park were at the bottom of informal peer hierarchies of sta­tus and power in the classroom, although there were several children who did not live there who also occupied similar positions.

Toward the end of my teaching at Clifford, and then into my analy­sis and writing, this aspect of children’s experiences and writing in the workshop became more and more central to my research.

In late March and April, I began developing interview questions that would help me understand the sense children made of our writing workshop. I wanted children to talk about what they thought typically happened in various parts of the workshop, and how they felt about what happened, as well as comment on particular incidents or aspects of the workshop and their work that caused them trouble. There were questions about their relations with me and Grace, as well as their rela­tions with other children. Children’s responses to questions about their relations with other children were extremely important for my later analysis and writing. Some of the questions used to explore peer rela­tions were:


  • Who are the people in the class you like to be with and work with?  Why? Are there people you don’t like to be with and work with? Why?
  • What usually happened in conferences with classmates? What sorts of things would they say? Did you always use their advice? Why or why not? What did you say in conferences? Did you like peer conferences? Have you ever had bad experiences in conferences with classmates?
  • What was sharing time like? How did you feel about it? Are there people in class you would rather not read your stories in front of? Who? Why?
  • Did children ever tease one another during the writing workshop? When/how/why did they do it? Did students ever use writing to tease one another or hurt someone else’s feelings? How did they do it? Why is that “teasing?”
  • Who are the popular children in class? Why are they popular? Who are the unpopular children? Why are they unpopular?

In May, I arranged for three colleagues to conduct 1- to 1½-hour inter­views with all but three of the children in the classroom. I instructed my colleagues to emphasize to the children that the purpose of the interviews was to learn about what children thought of the writing workshop, with the goal of making workshops better in the future. The interviews were audiotaped, and the tapes were transcribed early that summer.

One of the first things I did after my teaching ended was to read through the transcripts of children’s interviews, paying particular atten­tion to children’s responses that commented on peer relations within the room. In the beginning, I concentrated on children who were at the extremes of the informal peer hierarchies I had observed. My hunch was that the workshop afforded rather dramatically different experiences for different children, depending on who they were in relation to other chil­dren. Gradually, I looked to other children’s interviews for commonali­ties and contrasts, and began reading fieldnotes and listening to audio­ tapes in order to investigate what peer relations meant for children’s experiences in the room, and how they affected children’s writing pro­cesses and texts.

I also began examining children’s texts. I drew on the literary theo­ries of Bakhtin (1981, 1986) and Kristeva (1986) to analyze children’s texts in relation to the social contexts of their production. For Bakhtin, texts respond to preceding and anticipated texts and are sensitive to audience and social context. Texts are “dialogic,” in that they are respon­sive to others and to their texts. Kristeva (1986), an early interpreter of Bakhtin in the West, characterized the dialogic nature of text in terms of horizontal and vertical relations.

The word’s status is thus defined horizontally (the word in text belongs to both writing subject and addressee) as well as vertically (the word in text is oriented towards an anterior or synchronic literary corpus). (p. 37)

Any text is written in relation to some audience. That audience shapes the content and form of the text–the text “belongs” to both the author and audience. But texts also draw on and anticipate other texts. In my analyses, I did interpretations of children’s texts where peers (not only teachers) were important audiences, and in which children drew not only on their conversations with teachers and their readings of books, but also the words, meanings, and values of their peer culture to con­struct their texts. In other words, I placed young writers in a social con­text in which peers were important audiences and sources of material, in order to investigate how peer culture intersected with the official work of the writing workshop.

My work as a teacher-researcher developed throughout the project. When I began, I called myself a teacher-researcher, but the term meant little more to me than the same person embracing two different roles. The development of my teacher-researcher practice was characterized by the progressive integration of my teacher and researcher roles. The activities and content of my work increasingly reflected both teacher and researcher demands and commitments.

In the beginning, I separated my teaching and research activities. Setting up the tape recorder, photocopying children’s stories, writing fieldnotes at night–these were research activities I pursued in addition to my activities as a teacher. By the time I started collecting daily pack­ets of data in November, my research and teaching activities had become more integrated. I used my notewriting for descriptive purposes, but also to think about my teaching and future action. I knew the audiotapes and photocopies of children’s stories were essential for later analyses, but they also became essential for day-to-day assessments of what was hap­pening and what to do about it. My research methods became part of my teaching methods, part of the movement from action to thought to action that I brought to my work with children.

By spring, not just the activities, but also the objects or contents of my teacher and researcher activities had begun to converge. In my teaching, I had a problem, and that problem became an important focus for my research and writing. The problem was reading, understanding, and responding to children’s texts, when the meanings and functions of those texts were at least partially dependent on a peer culture to which I had limited access.


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When Children Write Copyright © 2023 by Timothy J. Lensmire is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.