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

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).

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Zuidema and Fredricksen. Preservice Teachers’ Use of Resources. August RTE. Posted 09/25/2016.

Zuidema, Leah A., and James E. Fredricksen. “Resources Preservice Teachers Use to Think about Student Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 51.1 (2016): 12-36. Print.

Leah A. Zuidema and James E. Fredricksen document the resources used by students in teacher-preparation programs. The study examined transcripts collected from VoiceThread discussions among 34 preservice teachers (PSTs) (16). The PSTs reviewed and discussed papers provided by eighth- and ninth-grade students in Idaho and Indiana (18).

Zuidema and Fredricksen define “resource” as “an aid or source of evidence used to help support claims; an available supply that can be drawn upon when needed” (15). They intend their study to move beyond determining what writing teachers “get taught” to discovering what kinds of resources PSTs actually use in developing their theories and practices for K-12 writing classrooms (13-14).

The literature review suggests that the wide range of concepts and practices presented in teacher-preparation programs varies depending on local conditions and is often augmented by students’ own educational experiences (14). The authors find very little systematic study of how beginning teachers actually draw on the methods and concepts their training provides (13).

Zuidema and Fredricksen see their study as building on prior research by systematically identifying the resources teachers use and assigning them to broad categories to allow a more comprehensive understanding of how teachers use such sources to negotiate the complexities of teaching writing (15-16).

To gather data, the researchers developed a “community of practice” by building their methods courses around a collaborative project focusing on assessing writing across two different teacher-preparation programs (16-17). Twenty-six Boise State University PSTs and 8 from a small Christian college, Dordt, received monthly sets of papers from the eighth and ninth graders, which they then assessed individually and with others at their own institutions.

The PSTs then worked in groups through VoiceThread to respond to the papers in three “rounds,” first “categoriz[ing]” the papers according to strengths and weaknesses; then categorizing and prioritizing the criteria they relied on; and finally “suggest[ing] a pedagogical plan of action” (19). This protocol did not explicitly ask PSTs to name the resources they used but revealed these resources via the transcriptions (19).

The methods courses taught by Zuidema and Fredricksen included “conceptual tools” such as “guiding frameworks, principles, and heuristics,” as well as “practical tools” like “journal writing and writer’s workshop” (14). PSTs read professional sources and participated in activities that emphasized the value of sharing writing with students (17). Zuidema and Fredricksen contend that a community of practice in which professionals explain their reasoning as they assess student writing encourages PSTs to “think carefully about theory-practice connections” (18).

In coding the VoiceThread conversations, the researchers focused on “rhetorical approaches to composition” (19), characterized as attention to “arguments and claims . . . , evidence and warrants,” and “sources of support” (20). They found five categories of resources PSTs used to support claims about student writing:

  • Understanding of students and student writing (9% of instances)
  • Knowledge of the context (10%)
  • Colleagues (11%)
  • PSTs’ roles as writers, readers, and teachers (17%)
  • PSTs’ ideas and observations about writing (54%) (21)

In each case, Zuidema and Fredricksen developed subcategories. For example, “Understanding of students and student writing” included “Experience as a student writer” and “Imagining students and abilities,” while “Colleagues” consisted of “Small-group colleagues,” “More experienced teachers,” “Class discussion/activity,” and “Professional reading” (23).

Category 1, “Understanding of students and student writing,” was used “least often,” with PSTs referring to their own student-writing experiences only six times out of 435 recorded instances (24). The researchers suggest that this category might have been used more had the PSTs been able to interact with the students (24). They see “imagining” how students are reacting to assignments important as a “way [teachers] can develop empathy” and develop interest in how students understand writing (24).

Category 2, “Knowledge of Context as a Resource,” was also seldom used. Those who did refer to it tended to note issues involving what Zuidema and Fredricksen call GAPS: rhetorical awareness of “genre, audience, purpose, and situation of the writing” (25). Other PSTs noted the role of the prompt in inviting strong writing. The researchers believe these types of awarenesses encourage more sophisticated assessment of student work (25).

The researchers express surprise that Category 3, “Colleagues,” was used so seldom (26). Colleagues in the small groups were cited most often, but despite specific encouragement to do so, several groups did not draw on this resource. Zuidema and Fredricksen note that reference to the resource increased through the three rounds. Also surprising was the low rate of reference to mentors and experienced teachers, to class discussion, activities, and assignments: Only one participant mentioned a required “professional reading” as a resource (27). Noting that the PSTs may have used concepts from mentors and class assignments without explicitly naming them, the authors note prior research suggesting that reference to outside sources can be perceived as undercutting the authority conferred by experience (27).

In Category 4, “Roles as Resources,” Zuidema and Fredricksen note that PSTs were much more likely to draw on their roles as readers or teachers than as writers (28). Arguing that a reader perspective augured an awareness of the importance of audience, the researchers note that most PSTs in their study perceived their own individual reader responses as most pertinent, suggesting the need to emphasize varied perspectives readers might bring to a text (28).

Fifty-four percent of the PSTs references invoked “Writing as a Resource” (29). Included in this category were “imagined ideal writing,” “comparisons across student writing,” “holistic” references to “whole texts,” and “excerpts” (29-31). In these cases, PSTs’ uses of the resources ranged from “a rigid, unrhetorical view of writing” in which “rules” governed assessment (29) to a more effective practice that “connected [student writing] with a rhetorical framework” (29). For example, the use of excerpts could be used for “keeping score” on “checklists” or as a means of noting patterns and suggesting directions for teaching (31). Comparisons among students and expectations for other students at similar ages, Zuidema and Fredricksen suggest, allowed some PSTs to reflect on developmental issues, while holistic evaluation allowed consideration of tone, audience, and purpose (30).

Zuidema and Fredricksen conclude that in encouraging preservice teachers to draw on a wide range of resources, “exposure was not enough” (32), and “[m]ere use is not the goal” (33). Using their taxonomy as a teaching tool, they suggest, may help PSTs recognize the range of resources available to them and “scaffold their learning” (33) so that they will be able to make informed decisions when confronted with the multiple challenges inherent in today’s diverse and sometimes “impoverished” contexts for teaching writing (32).