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Building on students' experiences in teacher education.


Student-sparked discussions of personal teaching experiences can be one of the most powerful learning experiences offered in teacher education courses. Framing practice-based discussions to provide reflective distance on experience and to encourage making connections to theory and research is often a challenge. This article chronicles and analyzes the use of a process of writing case studies as a structure for focusing and enriching discussion of practice within a graduate course on teaching writing to children.


Spring 1999, I share the stage in a mini-drama played out again and again in teacher education classes in colleges and universities across the United States. I am teaching "The Teaching of Writing" to prospective and practicing teachers for only the second time. My apprenticeship with my own master teacher is fresh in my mind. My hopes are high. I unveil the ideas, theory and research that underpin current thinking about writing with children and invite students to use them to build a frame for thinking about what happens in elementary school classrooms.

The preservice and inservice teachers work as problem solvers. They are eager to focus on their personal teaching dilemmas in order to make sense of the theory and research that comprise the content of the course. I, like others who work with adult graduate students (Merriam and Caffarella, 1991; Taylor and Marienau, 1995), understand the tremendous value of working from students' own experiences in helping them learn. I am committed to integrating their stories of nitty-gritty classroom life into course work in order to foster the reflective thinking necessary for true learning from experience (Kulb, 1984; Brookfield, 1986). But, my efforts to meld discussion of theory and practice go awry in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example, when a student introduces a pressing problem, others, sensing the immediacy and import of a colleague's dilemma, jump directly to a problem-solving mode. They throw out suggestions and ideas without stopping to see what might lie behind the problem. With little or no reflective distance, the student who has introduced the problem takes on the role of evaluator. She judges the efficacy of all suggestions and ideas on the spot using standards buried in the unarticulated specifics of her experience.

Then, the students' high estimation of the value of teaching experience establishes an informal hierarchy. Students who have more experience working in classrooms ascend as experts while their preservice counterparts remain silent. The entire class loses the benefit of important questions and critical responses from the fresh perspective of the less experienced. Finally, as students connect to personal experiences loudly, clearly and--from my point of view--inopportunely, I make hurried decisions that give short shrift to the very experience I want to honor. Tension builds. Theory and research appear to stand in opposition to experience instead of in conjunction with it as tools useful in making experience meaningful. No matter what scenario the students and I play out, I know that they are not getting the support they are seeking. Opportunities to place personal experiences in the context of theory and research are lost. And, a true exchange of ideas about writing in the elementary school is not taking place.

Reflection in Action

The drama caused by the push and pull of blending theoretical and practical perspectives nagged and frustrated me as I was teaching that spring semester. The gap between my own practice and the theories that inform it was glaringly impressive. The continuing series of failures in communication goaded me to look more closely at what was happening in this section of The Teaching of Writing. Like the reflective practitioners described by Schon (1983), I wondered how to use my theoretical perspective to inform my teaching. What forum might I create to provide the validation of experience essential in learning from that experience (Merriam and Caffarella, 1991; Marienau and Taylor, 1995)? What structure might shape discussion of students' personal experience to foster the reflective distance needed to combine the analytical and experiential into a richer way of knowing (hooks, 1994)?

As I pondered these questions, I participated in a workshop on the use of case studies in college classrooms. Discussing problems in teaching through the vehicle of the case study narrative led to lively, expansive, yet focused, discussion. An idea was born. What if the students wrote case studies highlighting a challenge in their teaching? Might a case study approach foster a deeper, broader, more equitable discussion of personal experiences in my teaching of writing course? Even though it was not a part of the original syllabus, I asked students if they would be open to writing brief case studies based on their experiences, instead of simply bringing up pressing concerns as we went along. They agreed to do so.

Collaboratively Writing Case Studies

As part of the writing workshop aspect of the course, the thirteen students set about writing four case studies. They divided into three groups and traded stories about difficult students, impossible situations and frustrating colleagues. From this initial discussion, they settled on four cases and produced drafts that I shared with the colleague and case-study writer who had organized the workshop I had attended. She made several important comments: Each case needed a definite point of view. It was not necessary to include every single detail of the experience. Final questions should be open-ended. With these provisos in mind, the groups went back to work to make their case studies effective narratives. They decided on a point of view and shifted to use of the present tense. They reworked endings so that the cases would encourage open discussion instead of leading readers to one pre-determined question. Three revised cases were produced by the groups in this second session. The fourth case was revised by myself and its student-originator during a writer's conference. After class, I proofread and edited all the cases for continuity, preparing them for the next session when we would get the chance to try them out.

Students discussed three of the four revised cases; I acted as facilitator for each discussion and student-originators acted as recorders. After discussion of a case, its student-originator responded. She let us know where the writing was misleading and where we needed to delete or add information to make the case a more accurate reflection of her experience. Others contributed ideas for making the cases as clear as possible. I kept track of this evaluative discussion of the cases themselves and used it as a basis for final revision of the cases. In addition, students included responses to the discussion of the cases on response cards they filled out at the end of the class period. Each of the case studies written by the students captures a particular challenge faced by one of the students as she worked with children learning how to read and write. The cases---or "All in a Day's Work" as we came to call them--describe situations typical in the daily life of ordinary teachers: integrating children into the classroom mid-year, motivating children who resist learning or change, working with colleagues who appear uncooperative, meeting the needs of children with differentiated skill levels, and channeling children's creative energy productively. (See below for "All in a Day's Work")

Reflection About Action

As the students moved through the process of collaborative writing and discussion, the reflective process placed inherent value on their experience (Rogers, 2001). At each point in the process, they faced fresh response from others who were not steeped in the particulars of their situations. They began to see their dilemmas and challenges from a broader perspective--a perspective that helped them make connections with others and that made the influence of events, mandates and conditions beyond the scope of their classrooms evident. The written comments from their response cards on the night of the case study discussion speak eloquently about the impact of focused and formal discussion of pedagogical challenges through case studies. One found it "great to know that others have similar problems and concerns." Another welcomed the "opportunity to engage in a really valuable dialogue that wasn't cut short due to time." A third said, "I think teachers should get together regularly to discuss such topics and solutions. I learned that it's important to seek out the help and suggestions of others if I need it."

Still others noted the tension and excitement that emerged as people saw the same situation differently:
 The case study discussion gave me insight as to how it is possible
 for teachers and professionals to misread a situation. And, with the
 same process in mind, how it is possible to misread writings. It is
 always interesting to hear the perspectives of others ... it is
 sometimes scary that we make judgments without knowing all of the
 facts. I think this happens often in education and can become a
 source of tension between teachers.

As can be seen from their words, the case study process did provide both the reflective distance and personal affirmation lacking in the less structured discussions held earlier in the semester. It also productively placed the students' experiences in a larger context. The larger context that developed during the process, however, was not abstract or conceptual. In written responses and in discussion, the students rarely, if ever, naturally made connections to theory or research. A need for mechanisms that would spark and require making such connections was clear. In order to expand the benefits of this structured, reflective process, I would need to be more active and forceful as mentor or coach (Rogers, 2001). In future semesters, I would model making connections to theory and research more explicitly and often throughout the semester, making sure to draw attention to the fact that I was doing so.

I would also begin the case study process earlier in the semester. Then, based on the cases and their discussion, we would have time for yet another discussion based on their experiences. To prepare for this discussion, students would scour required readings for concepts and ideas that brought new light to the dilemmas. They would also locate and bring in specific research articles that addressed some aspect of the problem at hand. With each student drawing from a set of common readings as well as a distinct individual contribution, a multi-faceted discussion of experience could help break down the notion of research as "tidied up experience, detached from the tangled realities of classroom life (Wollman-Bonilla, 2002, p. 313)." Personal experience would be more directly placed in an abstract, conceptual context to encourage making genuinely productive connections.

Writing, revising and discussing the case studies had unforeseen benefits. In meeting the challenges of writing collaboratively on a project close to their own passions and concerns for an audience other than themselves, the students were pushed in their own development as writers (Kiefer, 2003). The experience became a model of writing as exploration and learning. The structure it provided was sound enough to provide a secure environment for taking the risks of self-revelation that passionate, personal writing evokes. Writing the case studies required experimenting with elements of fictional narrative. As they gave their case studies point of view, dialogue, setting and character, the students struggled with the same problems they would soon present to the children in their classrooms. The case study process was a powerful learning experience--the kind of experience that Calkins (1996) alludes to when she says : "We will only be powerful teachers on a topic if we are powerful learners of that topic (p. 20)."


Writing and discussing the cases in "All in a Day's Work" more than met the goal of encouraging more focused, broader, and more equitable discussion of teaching issues and challenges. In using writing as a tool for their own learning, the students saw, felt and understood--in the words of one student--"how written words are so powerful" and how those words "can convey different meanings depending on the reader." The process of writing and discussing case studies made this possible. While it did not naturally lead the students to seek theoretical perspectives, it did insure that they found the support they were seeking, placed their personal experiences in the context of the larger world and felt the impact of a true exchange of ideas from multiple perspectives.

All in a Day's Work: Ordinary Dilemmas in Teaching Reading and Writing

Student-sparked discussions of personal teaching experiences can be one of the most powerful learning experiences offered in college and university education courses. When teacher-education students explore problems that are part of their real lives with other prospective and practicing teachers, the result can be passionate, enlightening, reflective discussion. These four brief cases were designed to be used by their writers--students in a graduate level course on the teaching of writing. Written and revised collaboratively as part of course work, the cases were also field-tested in classroom discussion to produce cases we hope others find useful to others in reflecting on literacy issues as part of teacher education course work.

Rachel Hesitates and Is Lost?

Mrs. Clarkson's fifth-grade classroom door opens. Rachel hesitates before entering, wondering what will happen in this her sixth new school in six years. As Rachel takes her seat, Mrs. Clarkson presents her with a copy of Mildred Taylor's Mississippi Bridge. Unaware that the last book Rachel read independently was on a third grade reading level, Mrs. Clarkson invites her to read along silently with her new literature group. Rachel slumps into her seat. Her eyes fill with tears. Mrs. Clarkson sees the fear on her face and speculates that reading the book is beyond her capacity. She imagines pairing Rachel with a volunteer from the local college for one-on-one tutoring, but her heart sinks when she thinks of how Rachel must feel. Her heart sinks further when she thinks of Rachel and the upcoming state-mandated, standardized tests. What should she do?

I'm Still Thinking

Mrs. Murphy watches Thomas doodle, sharpen his pencil, look around the room, and stare into space while the rest of her third grade students write. She is frustrated. Thomas refuses to write no matter what the assignment--whether it's persuasive, reflective, poetry writing or stories. Even though Thomas is not a student with an Individual Education Plan (IEP), Mrs. Murphy is discussing his behavior with Mrs. Jones, the special education teacher. Looking at Thomas whiling away his time across the room, she tells Mrs. Jones with dismay: "I've called home, come up with special topics, you name it--but Thomas still won't write." Mrs. Murphy approaches Thomas. "Are you having trouble getting started?" No response. "Thomas, why aren't you writing? Would you like me to write while you dictate?" Thomas gives his standard reply: "I'm still thinking." This routine has gone on for months with Thomas. Mrs. Murphy doesn't know what options remain.

Creative, Talented and Obsessed

It's the first of May. Ms. Brown gives the third graders in this large urban classroom a writing prompt: "The caterpillars wiggled in her hand." The students write for fifteen minutes. As Ms. Brown walks around the classroom, she notices the dreaded word "vampire" in beautiful penmanship on Carl's paper once again. "Vampire" flashes in her mind as red as the blood Carl constantly writes about. Discouraged and irritated, Ms. Brown asks herself "Why does he keep writing about vampires and blood? What is his obsession?" She struggles to encourage the development of other ideas or topics for him. The last thing she wants to do is limit or discourage his creativity and love of writing, but she has tried every trick in the book and this creative, talented writer just won't budge. What can be done?

The Daily Grind

Ms. Smith, a special education aide, works with a small group of children on Individual Education Plans (IEP's) in a fifth grade classroom. Today, like every other day, she pulls the children out for an hour of specialized reading instruction. While Ms. Smith's children are with her, the rest of the fifth grade class studies specific skills and the mechanics of writing. The head teacher has not informed Ms. Smith about the specific writing instruction, yet the students are expected to complete the assignment taught to the rest of the class that day. Ms. Smith is frustrated: Not only is this stressful for her, it is stressful for the kids. She knows that, later today, she will have to pull the kids out again during read-aloud time so that they can make up the writing. Without the whole class instruction, Ms. Smith has to reteach everything, and most of the kids hate writing. Ms. Smith fears approaching the veteran head teacher because she has observed her rude and unprofessional behavior toward other colleagues. What should Ms. Smith do?

Written by Lesley D. Bell, Cynthia Bordieri, Aimee M. Carroll, Aimee DelCielo, Allison Hill, Jacquelyn Judge, Christine LoVecchio. LoriAnn O'Brien, Ann McLaughlin, Karen Thurber, Maria J. Ursino, Meredith West, Laurie Wojslawowicz and Susan C. Griffith. Lesley University, 1999.


Brookfield, S. D. 0986). Understanding and facilitating adult learning: A comprehensive analysis of principles of effective practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Calkins, L. (1996). "Form a teachers' study group to rethink reading." Instructor, 106, 20-22.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge.

Kiefer, K. (2003, Summer). "Why teachers should also write," Academic Exchange Quarterly.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Merriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R. S. (1991). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rogers, R. R. (2001) "Reflection in higher education: A concept analysis." Innovative Higher Education 26, 1, 37-57.

Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Taylor, K., & Marienan, C. (1995). "Bridging practice and theory for women's adult development." In K. Taylor, & C. Marienau (Eds.), Learning environments for women's adult development: Bridges toward change Vol. 65, (pp. 5-11). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wollman-Bonilla, J. E. (2002). "Does anybody really care? Research and its impact on practice." Research in the Teaching of English 36, 311-326.

Susan C. Griffith, Central Michigan University

Griffith, Ph. D. is a professor of English who teaches writing in the elementary school and children's literature to prospective teachers.
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Author:Griffith, Susan C.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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