VOICES OF PRACTITIONERS | Volume 11, Number 1
Voices of Practitioners: Teacher Research in Early Childhood Education, the online journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, has been published since 2004. Starting in July 2016, one Voices of Practitioners article will be published in each issue of Young Children as well as online.
Voices of Practitioners is a vehicle for dissemination of early childhood teachers’ systematic study of an aspect of their own classroom practice. Deeply involved in the daily lives of children and their families, teachers provide a critical insider perspective on life in their classrooms through communication of their investigations, the results, and their reflections.
Visit Voices of Practitioners to learn more about teacher research and to peruse an archive of past Teacher Research articles dating back to 2004.
As a teacher educator working with master’s students on their culminating yearlong teacher research projects, I have struggled to convince my students of the importance of ongoing data analysis—and to encourage them to make time in their busy lives to actually do it. Qualitative researchers have long agreed that ongoing reflection and data analysis is important throughout the data collection period (Freeman 1998; Saldaña 2011). As Ely, Vinz, Downing, and Anzul (1997) write, “The interweaving of data collection and analysis is highly transactional, each activity shedding new light on and enriching the other” (165). The authors further assert that skimping on early data analysis can be detrimental: “When analysis has not been ongoing, the end results tend to be less rich and insightful. They also tend to have big holes in what is needed to tell the story” (174). Teacher research is an “ongoing, reiterative process,” and teachers’ responses in their classrooms should be the result of careful analysis and reflection (Klehr 2012, 127).
To foster the habit of early and ongoing analysis in research, I have been assigning an analytic (or reflective) memo blog for the last few years, an idea drawn from Saldaña’s (2009) work on analytic memos. This exercise has the potential to help researchers form connections that make their research both stronger and more interesting. I share examples from my students’ work to show some of the ways I believe they have benefited from their blogs. However, it might be useful to note that independent in-service teacher research groups could benefit from this practice as well.
The benefits of reflection during early data collection
Much of ongoing data analysis involves reading and rereading data as the pieces are collected, developing codes and categories. Researchers code using a variety of methods at different times depending on the focus of the work and available data. These methods are fundamental to analysis because they are “natural and deliberate” and aim to find the repetitive patterns in data (Saldaña 2009, 5). However, Wolcott explains that “truly analytical moments will occur during brief bursts of insight, or pattern recognition,” in contrast to what he calls “the tedious business” of coding and other methods of data management (1994, 24). That is why writing memos is an important complement to coding. Coding alone can neglect important connections.
Writing memos has the potential to help researchers capture moments of insight, recording moments that can both influence future data collection and be remembered for the analysis of the project. Saldaña explains that memos can take the form of journal entries or blogs—“a place to ‘dump your brain’” (2009, 32). Others, like Charmez (2014), recommend writing memos based on one’s codes to help clarify what is happening in the field. Such reflective memos can lead to shifts in thinking during the data collection process (Ely et al. 1997). For my assignment, blog entries are meant to be completed alongside more systematic and careful coding procedures.
My blog assignment
Before I began assigning reflective blogs, I had planned for my students to bring data to class early in the data collection process so that they could share it with their peers and begin to code the data together. I aimed to use classroom time for members of the class to engage in deep discussions about one another’s data from the beginning of the research project, similar to the conversations between researchers that are documented in Brookline Teacher Research Seminar’s book Regarding Children’s Words: Teacher Research on Language and Literacy (Ballenger 2004). However, in the context of a large public urban university, where students balance work, families, classwork, and research, sharing data during class early in the data collection process never works out as planned. Some students are unprepared to bring in their data, and the class sessions are not very helpful to these students.
I came up with the idea of using some of the online sessions of my hybrid course to have students write what I called “Memos to Myself” blogs during the early data collection period. The students write four approximately 500-word blogs, in which they illustrate their ideas using specific examples from their data. I have found them to be useful for many reasons. When students read their peers’ blogs, they see the range of levels of work and thinking being done in the class. This has a positive influence on many students’ work. Some may not have understood the assignment or expectations, and seeing peers model exemplary work is helpful. The public nature of the blog work also seems to motivate my students to get serious about their data collection early in the semester. Eventually I decided to stop teaching the course as a hybrid because I felt I needed the face time with my students, but I have continued to assign the blogs.
The assignment (see Appendix A) always requires students to reflect on their early data collection experiences. Although I try to adapt assignment prompts to meet my students’ needs throughout the semester, for the most part, the prompts ask the students to write about their data collection (how are they thinking about their participants, their research questions, their data, etc.) at early points in the process. I require the students to comment on at least three of their classmates’ blogs and ask students to include their research questions in their blogs so that members of the class can be reminded of their study’s focus.
I provide feedback on the first blog (but no grade) to help the students understand what I expect. There are usually students who need to be reminded to focus on their data. Some seem to feel internal pressure to figure out their whole study right away, leaping to conclusions rather than taking the time to explore what the data are truly saying. I remind these students that the process of being systematic and intentional with one’s data is at the heart of teacher research (Cochran-Smith & Lytle 1993). I may ask students to look at just a couple pieces of data and remind them to be careful to provide ample evidence from the data when they begin to assert points about what they see.
Benefits of using the data analysis blogs
These blogs have produced some valuable learning experiences. I compiled these findings after reviewing blogs from three semesters (Spring 2015, Fall 2015, Spring 2016). Before I describe them, I should note that my students include both experienced teachers returning to school for master’s degrees and new teachers working on their master’s as part of their initial certification.
Evaluating research questions
Sometimes students discover from writing their initial public memos that their data doesn’t quite match up with their research questions, and they determine that they need either to reconsider their research questions or adapt their data collection process. For example, Teresa (all names are pseudonyms), a student teacher who was learning about ways to support struggling literacy learners in an urban classroom, wrote about her work with one student. In writing her memo she noticed that she needed either to change the focus of her study or begin collecting data to provide a wider view of the classroom. (The comments of her peers supported this conclusion.) Either choice was fine—she just needed to be aware that her data collection was drifting away from her original plan and make a decision about how she’d like to move forward.
Aligning the research question more strongly with the experiences or the data available in the classroom is common for teacher researchers. Klehr reminds us, “It is not unusual for questions to continue to evolve and change over time in relation to emerging data, student interactions, or shifting events in the broader political landscape of schools” (2012, 123). Writing their blogs can make it easier for students to recognize earlier in the process if their focus is changing and to clarify the purpose of their study.
Adapting data collection methods
Sharing memos provides opportunities for the class to highlight data that is particularly interesting and gives others a chance to make some suggestions for coding in the future. For example, when Deborah ended her “brain dump” entry on what she was observing in two different classrooms, she made several statements about what she would like to try to be aware of in her future observations. She wrote, “Some things that I would like to be mindful of are verbal or physical cues that involve classroom management.” I thought this was an interesting insight and encouraged her to use verbal and nonverbal cues as codes and to see if looking at classroom management using these terms was a fruitful way to organize her data. These ideas eventually led to a finding in her final paper.
Sometimes students begin their data collection with data they have already collected as part of their jobs, such as test scores. When they report this data in their blogs it provides me with a chance to ask the students to contextualize this information by exploring more deeply what the data mean. Rosa, who was teaching kindergarten with a prescribed curriculum that included a lot of testing in a school labeled by the city as “persistently dangerous,” was conducting her research on differentiation. In her first blog she shared the results of a test she was required by her school to administer, describing how the children had trouble answering questions about the four seasons. Rosa and I thought about how to use the test results to inform her study on differentiation, and what it meant to really focus on the children’s learning. In her next blog entry, she shared how she drew on her knowledge of differentiation to create a lesson about the seasons in which she provided many learning options for the children—teaching the children a song, conducting a read-aloud, and creating a hands-on collage-making activity. Her work gained depth as she incorporated the testing data with her knowledge of differentiated instruction to influence her next steps in the classroom based on her knowledge of the children. Klehr (2012) notes that numerical data sets such as test scores can indicate subgroup trends in the classroom and that qualitative methods can provide a strong complement to such numerical measures. Rosa’s blog helped her to bring together quantitative and qualitative data in just this way.
Sharing specific data and discussing implications
In their blogs, my students often included examples of children’s work and photographs from their classrooms. Sharing photographs adds vitality to the blogs and seems to invite peers to join in on the data analysis. Carmen showed how her preschoolers’ ideas of patterns were changing over the course of the semester as she played music-related pattern games. Carmen’s work in her classroom became more vivid to her peers when she showed the evolution of a few children’s thinking through pictures of their changing work with patterns in projects such as using blocks and stickers.
Similarly, Magda posted photos (without children’s faces) of strategies she was using to try to give her preschoolers more autonomy in the block area. Her aim was to have the children play in the block area for sustained periods without a teacher leading the experience. She tested out ways to make the block area more enticing to children, such as turning it into a construction site with hard hats and tools. Later, she described implementing a new strategy she had read about in the literature that involved putting a photo of each child in the class on a different block. She wrote in her blog entry:
I introduced my students to that new supporting item by placing them on the rug together with a small structure built before I opened the classroom in the morning. I wanted to observe the children’s reaction on that without any teacher’s suggestions, engagement, or support. A few students visited the area first thing in the morning, and those blocks were noticed right away. I heard:
“Wow, it’s me!”
“Look, Lara, I see you here!”
“There is everybody here!”
One boy took a block and went to a sensory table to show it to his friend. He said: “Look, Andre. It’s you. Do you want to see me?”
After a few minutes, more than half of the class (eight children) was sitting on the rug in the block area. They were looking for their friends, asking who is on the picture.
Magda shared the photos and then expressed her concerns about how to extend the play with these blocks that had the children’s photographs on them. She received many comments from her colleagues. One student suggested placing pictures from a children’s book the class was reading on the blocks at another time to give the children an opportunity to re-create the story or to make up their own stories. This is just one example of how sharing photographs and other data on the blogs became a good opportunity for the students to invite others into their study.
Working as professional colleagues
A central goal in the research course is for my students to grow as professionals. This goal is realized in a variety of ways in teacher research, such as when students learn to ask their own research question, research and synthesize what the professional literature says about the topic, and systematically study and analyze empirical data related to their research project. Along these lines, working with their peers to iron out issues in their research can help my students to see how they can go about solving a problem in the field and, in many cases, how much they know about education.
For that reason, I try to give my students opportunities to tackle dilemmas in their work and research together. I write positive public comments on their first blog and then write private comments on subsequent blogs so that my opinions don’t dominate the discussion. I have found that my students read each other’s blogs very carefully, comment on more blogs than are required of the assignment, and offer sincere support for one another’s work. Most often the students’ comments take the form of advice, encouragement, and questions about specific pieces of data or instructional materials.
Sometimes students simply call attention to an aspect of a blog that makes them think about teaching in a new way. Students will quote a line from the blog to consider, highlighting an idea of interest to them and perhaps to other teachers. For example, one student pulled a very complex question about motivation from a peer’s blog entry: “How can someone turn a child’s mood around and bring them back into the learning despite outside situations?” The commenter said she had often thought about this in her classroom. Her highlighting of this question invited other members of the class to share their opinions on the topic.
Other times students will ask for responses to a specific question. In her blog, Jennifer, who was studying the use of digital resources to assist kindergartners with literacy, asked, “When do resources cause more disruption than help?” One student shared an experience when she felt that technology got in the way of learning in her classroom. Other students in the class offered many ideas about how she could support her kindergarteners to use the technology. They suggested that Jennifer could talk with her class and develop rules for using technology in the classroom, or she could use a sandglass to get the children in the habit of taking short turns.
Some students shared their concerns with their peers more openly on the blog than they do during class. One quiet student, a preservice career-changer who was conducting her study about ongoing support for new teachers available in urban schools, shared that after interviewing several new teachers she was getting “worried” and “second guessing becoming a teacher.” Many students responded with suggestions that included networking with teachers to find schools with strong mentoring programs and considering first applying for a job as a paraprofessional or assistant teacher to prepare to become a head teacher.
Many of the comments were not about improving the research project but instead focused on the realities of teaching that the research project was exposing to this student. The lines between research and practice are indeed often indistinct in teacher research as Cochran- Smith and Lytle (2009) explain:
With practitioner research the borders between inquiry and practice are crossed, and the boundaries between being a researcher and being a practitioner are blurred. Instead of being regarded as oppositional constructs, then, inquiry and practice are assumed to be related to each other in terms of production and generative tensions. (95)
The students’ blogs have the potential to foster a caring community beyond the one period a week meeting in which our graduate students are physically together. In this new space, students can share pressing issues in the classroom that influence both their lives and their research.
Reflective blogs are less formal than the final research project and allow these new teacher researchers to resolve classroom dilemmas and start to make connections to the ideas they’ve studied in their master’s coursework. Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) explain that this is central to the work of teacher or practitioner research:
By definition, practitioner research is grounded in the identification and empirical documentation of the daily dilemmas and contradictions of practice, which then become grist for the development of new conceptual frameworks and theories. (95)
The blogs are not intended to replace classroom experiences in which student researchers explore one another’s data. But they seem to create some good habits of analyzing data early in the data collection process that lead to more successful in-class experiences, looking carefully at data with peers. It is helpful for students to have many different types of opportunities to simply explain what they think they are finding in their research and to identify evidence that supports their hunches. Doing so when the stakes are low can help one to articulate emerging findings (Freeman 1998).
Write the second memo to yourself (at least 500 words) about your data collection experiences or processes (the reflection ideas below are from Saldaña, 2009, pp. 34 & 35). For full credit you must discuss your data and the study in detail. Illustrate your ideas using examples from your data. It should not read like a quickly jotted down free-write. Here are some ideas of topics:
Reflect on and write about how you personally related to the participants.
Reflect on and write about your study’s research questions (and make connections to what you are noticing in your data collection).
Reflect on and write about the emergent patterns, categories, themes, and concepts.
Please comment on 3–4 other classmates’ blogs—see if you can help them push their thinking about their own projects!
The second memo is due 9/ 26, and the comments are due 9/ 28.
This assignment is graded (out of 5 points). Please note, in order for everyone to get ample feedback, it is important to respect these deadlines.
Ballenger, C. 2004. Regarding Children’s Words: Teacher Research on Language and Literacy. New York: Teachers College Press.
Charmez, K. 2014. Constructing Grounded Theory. 2nd ed. London: Sage.
Cochran-Smith, M., & S.L. Lytle. 1993. Inside/Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.
Cochran-Smith, M., & S.L. Lytle. 2009. Inquiry as a Stance: Practitioner Research for the Next Generation. New York: Teachers College Press.
Ely, M., R. Vinz, M. Downing, & M. Anzul. 1997. On Writing Qualitative Research: Living by Words. London: Routledge Falmer.
Freeman, D. 1998. Doing Teacher Research: From Inquiry to Understanding. San Francisco: Heinle & Heinle.
Klehr, M. 2012. “Qualitative Research and the Complexity of Classroom Contexts.” Theory Into Practice 51 (2): 122–28.
Saldaña, J. 2009. The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers. Los Angeles: Sage.
Saldaña, J. 2011. Fundamentals in Qualitative Research: Understanding Qualitative Research. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wolcott, H.F. 1994. Transforming Qualitative Data: Description, Analysis, and Interpretation. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan Blumenreich is an associate professor of childhood education at the City College of New York, CUNY, and the editor of The New Educator journal. firstname.lastname@example.org