Shaping a Research Question as a #SEACCR

Image: Literature Circle Meetings and Posting Notes of Meeting to the Group's Google Site!

Literature Circle Meetings… – cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by The Unquiet Library

I must admit that I have fallen a little off the pace in the SEACCR Community as this week progressed. There were a number of disruptions at the school where I work, including the tragic accidental death of a eighth grade student in the immediately adjacent middle school, as well as an unexpected leadership change in my building. Needless to say, all of that diverted a lot of energy away from a typical focus I might have had on this project. Add to that, I have come down with the annual welcome-back-to-school-cold, so I am currently playing a bit hurt.

But enough excuses.

Angling for a Question

When it comes to developing research questions, I always feel like a have a bit of a weakness. I am not sure that it is true, but I certainly feel like it is. I sometimes have a hard time problematizing certain ideas in a way that makes them more readily research oriented. Perhaps it is simply a matter of over-thinking. I am not sure. Then there is always the issue of scale, which is no simple challenge for me, always a bit more ambitious than a course of study and schedules sometimes accommodate. Refining and narrowing are also challenges always seem to come in a rush as the deadline looms and I need to figure out how to wrangle all the research I have compiled into a sensible whole.

With the SEACCR Community’s focus on English Language Arts Common Core Standards as an anchor for the journey, however, I am operating in a comfort zone. I also knew, based on previous action research from last year, I was going to focus on writing. Last year, I suffered a bit from grandiosity of goal but in so doing actually was employing a whole lot of different strategies and tools, each of which could very well have been turned into a project, if isolated. So, as I got my students started writing their first assignment this year, knowing that I was going to be using it to introduce them to the practice of reader response groups, it occurred to me that I might have found a focus that could be examined over eight weeks.

Surveying Current Practice

I have been employing reader response groups for a number of years, but was rarely all that systematic about it until last year. In my class context a reader response group involves each student meeting with a few peers, in a small group of three or four, reading their work aloud to the group, soliciting feedback and discussion, in preparation for revising their work. The process is cyclical and nearly always precedes my seeing student work.

It is not a peer editing session. It is more about engaging the students in thinking about real audiences – themselves. In fact, I tell all my students, The first audience for your writing is yourself, always and forever.” Yet, I want them to share their work with each other and recognize that I, as the teacher, am not the ultimate audience for everything.

Making it a practice continues to challenge me to find different reasons and tasks for writing. While I hate the overused term “authentic” in education, I keep trying to create opportunities for writing that embrace a wider audience than me or even the classroom, while trying to employ professional models of craft for inspiration. It also means that essays about stories and books that we read in class have become less the focus and more just part of the process and just another genre opportunity.

Plus, everything changed once I began working in a 1:1 laptop environment with ninth grade students. Suddenly the ease and convenience of employing the approach opened in a way that made earlier attempts seem medieval. Since we are a Google Apps school, we use Google Docs, but truth be told I had student start using Google Docs years before the school got around to providing every student with an account. With each student able to share the document and the rest of the group to follow along on screen as it is read, potentially embedding comments in the document, everything can take on more of a charge, It is now a regular routine in my courses and continues to evolve my classroom.

Crafting a Question

So as I introduced my students to their first reader response experience this week, it was clear this would be the crux of my action research question.

How does the use of use of Google Docs impact in reader response groups change or shape the writing process?

I know that may yet need some refinement and tuning, but it is good enough to start. This week I will need to consider how I am going to gather data and what angle or approach I want to take to seeking an answer.

Shifting Standards

I have been working with the Common Core for a few years now, beginning just as states started adopting them. As part of a team of Massachusetts teachers involved in the National Writing Project’s Efforts in the Literacy Design Collaborative in 2010, I had an opportunity to grow quite familiar with the new standards early.

Considering that the state of Massachusetts’ previous frameworks served as a model, at least in part, for the new Common Core, as well as the stake in getting an early adoption from a highly successful state, I have generally found there to be a lot of similarities between the two. In many ways, the previous commonwealth’s frameworks were better written, arguably offered greater flexibility, and friendlier to teachers. yet, the differences are far more overstated to me and marginal, at least on the surface.

On a broad level, I am not convinced that new standards will have a significant impact on the teaching and learning in my classroom. Part of this is due to the fact that I have been adapting for the last three years, and part is due to the broad similarities. Once routine practice I have been doing since is using the new standards to audit curriculum and make decisions about what might need adjusting. Any new curricular efforts simply based on  the new standards from the start.

Ultimately, no one will really know how much of an impact the new Common Core Standards will have on the teaching and learning on any individual classroom until the results of the first battery of new tests are gathered and analyzed. I suspect that will have far greater ramifications than anything.

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