Getting Started in Action Research

January 18th, 2019

In my former school district, we facilitated action research for 20 of our district teachers. They came from all areas, 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 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 2nd 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 3rd grade teacher allowed her students to decide how their classroom should look like and feel like regarding furniture and resources. A reading interventionist embedded choice within her instruction, including letting the students select one book a month to take home and keep.

What they found out was choice affected each student in different ways. For example, the reading interventionist discovered that if a student’s basic needs were not being met, they had a hard time progressing. She countered this reality by bringing families into school to engage in literacy activities, such as building book shelves. The 3rd grade teacher realized that some students like working with peers regularly, while others needed quiet time to read and write. The 2nd grade teacher found for one student that a half hour of tinkering every day led to a reduction in office referrals by 70% from fall to spring. Providing choice in school helped teachers better understand their students and adjusted their instruction.

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

A 4th and 5th 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 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 was anecdotal and powerful. Students not only kept reflections of their own reading, but 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 out of her program in a timely manner. She decided to focus on how her language might promote a growth mindset 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 her offer. But as the teacher continued to model a growth mindset, 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 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 5th grade teacher and I teamed up to provide her students with lots of texts to read and decrease 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 co-researcher 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 looks 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 the principalship. As students need to be engaged in their learning, teachers likewise have to be engaged in their work. Not merely busy or working collegially with staff – 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 a professional. 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 Shagourey 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 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 who 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 teacher-researchers convey to their students: We are all learners here.
  • Prepare for a multi-year 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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