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Lillge, Danielle. Conflicts in Professional Development for Writing Teachers. RTE, May 2019. Posted 07/02/2019.

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Lillge, Danielle. “Uncovering Conflict: Why Teachers Struggle to Apply Professional Development Learning about the Teaching of Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.4 (2019): 340-62. Print.

Danielle Lillge examines conflicts that can affect how teachers charged with teaching writing in the schools apply professional development. She notes that such teachers are often pressured to improve student performance while feeling that their training has not been adequate (340). Teachers often turn to “disciplinary literacy professional development” programs (PD) (340). Lillge reports on what she calls “telling cases” of two teachers’ experiences participating in and applying such PD (341).

Writing that PD programs for literacy professionals emphasize “integrating literacy modes (e.g., reading and writing) in cross-disciplinary instruction” (341), Lillge focuses on her subjects’ encounters with Reading Apprenticeship (RA), a program notable for its concerns with both reading and writing and for its provision of a research-sanctioned PD experience: RA is “sustained over time” with a focus on collaboration and a “cohesive unifying framework” (344). Her two subjects, Abigail and Heloise, are white English teachers in a midwestern urban high school that is 95% African American (343). Lillge is also white, and is a professional in literacy instruction and professional development, with “[v]arying degrees of participantness” in RA programs. She represents her positionality as both ethnographer and participant-observer, and as both insider and outsider (345).

Lillge finds Erving Goffman’s theory of “frames” useful in understanding how Abigail and Heloise negotiated their use of the RA program. A frame, Lillge writes, is

a cognitive structure that reflects the “subjective context” whereby people work with and in relation to one another to interpret interactions by answering the question “What is it that’s going on here?” (342)

Frames, she contends, are social rather than individual, created through interaction, and can be invoked “both explicitly and implicitly” (342). Her study is meant to elicit how “framework conflicts” that teachers may not even be aware of can facilitate or hinder the application of professional development (342).

Lillge’s main consideration is how assumptions about teachers’ self-identity and positionality built into the PD framework may fail to accord with the frameworks the teachers actually bring to the experience (341). She contrasts her two cases, arguing that differences in the degree to which the two teachers’ frames aligned with the frames presented by the RA sessions affected their ability to make full use of the experience.

Both teachers were “eager learners,” were “acutely aware” of the challenges in their teaching environments, and reached out for additional guidance in order to improve as teachers of writing (343-44).

Lillge attributes some of Abigail’s personal frameworks around writing to her participation in a National Writing Project program and her own time in a college continuing education class; both of these experiences led Abigail to hope she could take students beyond “formulaic” writing, which she had found personally frustrating (350). However, in Lillge’s view, Abigail’s framework made it difficult for her to see herself as a writer and to feel confident in her understanding of “what good writers do” (348). Abigail wanted specific guidance to help her achieve her teaching goals and felt that the integrative approach of the RA materials foregrounded reading and in fact barely addressed what she saw as writing (348).

Heloise, as a drama teacher and playwright, could draw on “sustained involvement in disciplinary discourse communities” (355) in order to make use of opportunities for experimentation and integration suggested by the RA approach. She was able to choose specific ideas and adjust them to fit her students’ needs, revising as needed through her understanding of the different kinds of writing possible within an English classroom (352). Lillge presents Heloise as already aligned with an “experiential learning” framework that allowed her to see the “unifying rationale” in RA that connected particular writing activities to a more interlocking approach to writing and learning (352).

In Lillge’s account, Abigail struggled to see how a specific activity, such as students annotating their own texts, supported this broader philosophy and therefore found the outcomes disappointing, whereas Heloise, informed by the larger framework, was able to critique and modify her own applications in light of the unifying rationale (353-54). Heloise’s literacy experiences allowed her to draw on “multiple frames” that addressed her role as a white teacher in a largely African American community as well as “interanimated” the RA frames (354).

Lillge questions what she sees as the assumption in many PD programs that “teachers merely need help transferring their own experiences as writers to their writing instruction” (355-56). In her view, the diversity of the frameworks teachers bring to PD requires facilitators to actively address the differences among these frameworks and make potential conflicts more visible (357). She also challenges the “myth of English as a single discipline and writing as serving a set of commonly agreed-upon purposes” (356). Integrative approaches like those of RA, she contends, risk “artificially unify[ing] English subfields and . . . conflat[ing] purposes for writing,” in the process working against teachers’ efforts to introduce students to a range of writing genres and situations (358).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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