Teacher research is increasingly recognized nationally and internationally as a critical part of early childhood professional development and noted for its role in advancing knowledge about teaching and learning. This section of Voices of Practitioners highlights the wide range of early childhood teacher research initiatives and inquiry communities through brief summaries. They include contact infroamtion for educators interested in learning more about specific project goals and methods. Action and Reflections is an ongoing series in which we will post new projects as we receive them.
To submit a summary of your teacher research community of practice, contact Gail Perry, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cape Cod Early Childhood Teacher Research Group, Holly Bryant, Heidi Ingram, and Debra Murphy
RECESS--Reflective Early Childhood Educators' Social Seminar, Jeff Daitsman
María Paula Ghiso
Too often, professional learning is structured by a top-down model where educational knowledge is constructed outside the classroom and transmitted to teachers, who must then implement the required program or content. Practitioner inquiry disrupts such prevalent arrangements, providing opportunities for teachers to theorize their practice and investigate issues they identify as important (Cochran-Smith & Lytle 1999; 2009). The goal of such research is not merely to critique existing educational arrangements, but to take action and construct alternatives more conducive to children’s flourishing (Campano 2007; 2009).
For the past three years, I have collaborated with teachers in a multilingual school district in a large northeastern city through professional development courses we have restructured along an inquiry-based model. The courses focus on investigating the languages and literacies of children and families, and how educators might learn from and include such cultural and linguistic funds of knowledge (Moll et al., Amanti, Neff, & González, 1992) within school contexts (Moll et al., Amanti, Neff, & González, 1992). The group is intentionally composed of individuals from different institutions, age groups, and job descriptions. This inspires dialogue, allows us to better learn from one another, and fosters inquiry into interrelated issues affecting immigrant families that extends beyond an individual classroom. For example, early childhood educators working with English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers who span the elementary grades can together reinforce the need for shared advocacy for students. At times, our inquiry groups have also included high school teachers, creating a platform for investigating learning across the grades, delving into overlaps and divergences in academic practices and expectations, and exploring how intergenerational networks might be a resource for multicultural learning. The courses provide structures to support such collaboration, a dimension often difficult to encompass within the demands of a regular school day.
The meetings entail discussing educational literature, participating in pedagogical experiences about language and literacy learning (including Spanish-language experiences, which foster better understanding of how children with emerging proficiencies in English navigate the curriculum), and jointly examining data in the form of children’s work and teacher practices. The goal is to create a climate of dialogue where teachers’ own professional questions are honored and collectively explored. The following examples provide a window into this inquiry-based work.
• Changing the school environment: Troubled by the messages their physical settings may have conveyed regarding inclusion and exclusion, two groups of teachers examined their school sites with regard for how environmental print and public imagery did or did not reflect children’s native languages and cultures. Each of the groups then took action by altering the surroundings based on a resource orientation (Ruiz 1984). They replaced English-only signs with ones representing the schools’ multiple languages, choosing high-profile placements such as the Visitor’s Log-in Book, the front door, and the main public hallway. In this way, changes would not be confined only to their classrooms. For both groups, the project also entailed an interactive component: children participated in schoolwide investigations of different countries and languages, posting questions and predictions in a central public space. English language learners were invited to help direct the inquiries and also to showcase their multilingual knowledge through the public announcement system.
• Sharing available resources: A kindergarten teacher noted that although Spanish speakers were the most represented language group in the district, her work in community outreach revealed that Latino families were not utilizing the library. As a result, she undertook a project to familiarize them with this resource, which she titled “Bienvenido a la biblioteca libre” (Welcome to the Free Library). She conducted interviews with librarians and community members to understand available services and possible obstacles for families in accessing them. As a result of her research, she developed and distributed a bilingual pamphlet that included maps to the closest library and pictures to illustrate its resources. She conducted Spanish language tours of the site that brought together Latino families from across the district, and provided childcare during the event in the form of a Storybook Reading Time so that more parents could attend.
• Reconceptualizing children’s experiences: An ESL teacher working with primary grade children was dissatisfied with the battery of tests in English that newcomers were given upon entrance to her school. She examined how the design of such evaluation measures effectively positioned English language learners as failing instead of focusing on either their resources or information that could substantively inform instruction. She consequently devised an alternative set of assessments in Spanish more conducive to accurately understanding the children, including their rich cultural and linguistic resources. She also hopes to work with school translators to offer the assessments in other languages.
• Building multilingual libraries and cultural networks: After investigating the role of native language literacies, several educators applied for and received grants to acquire multilingual children’s literature in order to diversify their school libraries. These texts have then been used for Multilingual Literacy Nights, where children and families are invited to engage with books in their native languages and teachers emphasize the importance of oral storytelling for supporting children’s emergent bilingual literacy. One insight from such gatherings has been the realization that many families have felt isolated. This is leading to further inquiry and action to build networks among families.
These undertakings constitute only a subset of the varied projects and issues the teachers have researched, and the ongoing directions we continue to explore. It is heartening to see educators across a district working together in communities of inquiry to think creatively about early childhood educational practices in support of diverse children and families.
For more information, contact Maria Paula Ghiso at email@example.com.
MSIP—Math and Science Inquiry Project for ECE Teachers
Project findings include:
1. The varied nature of the group (from teachers to administrators to a museum outreach coordinator) promoted an intriguing range of perspectives on children’s math/science learning as well as the inquiry process
2. The combination of data samples and the reading of sections of the two inquiry texts helped integrate data and analysis/reflection
3. The age/developmental range (from infants to kindergartners) of the group participants provided data on children’s math/science learning across the 0–8 age span
4. This kind of inquiry project served as an important form of professional development for promoting math/science knowledge and inquiry methods
5. The project provided opportunities for cross-site discussion and collaboration.
The term research-based practices often refers to the practice of teaching based on theories and philosophies rooted in a scientific understanding of children’s early development. But as theories become more abstract, so too do the researchers developing them. Educational research thus moves farther away from the practical classroom applications of the theory. In order for there to be research-based practices, there needs to be practical research.
One form of practical research comes from practicing teachers. Teachers who reflect on their practices and consider the implications not only for their own classroom, but for others as well, can make unique contributions to the field of education. By collaborating with other reflective teachers, teacher researchers gain insights about the minds of the children they teach and about methods of improving classroom practices.
It is in this vein that the Reflective Early Childhood Educators’ Social Seminar (RECESS) was created. A collective of reflective teachers of young children in the Chicago area, we dedicated ourselves to improving the quality of education in our classrooms. Through visiting each other’s sites and conducting regular meetings, RECESS members shared teaching experiences to gain a greater understanding of children and how they learn.
Each member of the group investigated a particular focusing question in his or her classroom. When we met, we focused on one of these questions. We shared stories of our classroom experiences as they related to the topic of inquiry and raised questions based on these stories. As we discussed the questions, group members gained insight not only into the investigation presented at the meeting, but also into their own question as it related to the topic.
After each meeting we wrote up the stories we shared and the summaries of our discussions and posted them to our website at http://sites.google.com/site/aeraarsig/Home/action-research-world/recess, where they can be accessed for review.
Here are some examples:
- Allison Ashley of Covenant Nursery School investigated how teachers can create an atmosphere where children’s questions and exploration are encouraged and welcome.
- Jeff Daitsman of McGaw YMCA Children’s Center investigated children’s understanding of the concept of death.
- Pearl Frantz of North Park Preschool investigated how aggressive play can be positively implemented in a preschool classroom.
- Roxanne Junge of Glenview New Church Preschool investigated the impact of nature on children’s aggressive behavior.
For more information, contact Jeff Daitsman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The teachers at the Kent State University Child Development Center, a laboratory school for children 18 months through kindergarten, are engaged in teacher research with children and families about the nature of relationships formed in the outdoors. The context for this research is a campus full of hills, trees, and gardens and an adjacent wetland area with a variety of plant and animal life, creeks, ponds, and woods.
The goals of our project are to understand the child’s approach to natural outdoor spaces, to engage families in dialogue regarding the value of nature experiences, and to support preservice teachers’ knowledge of the integrated learning opportunities when children explore natural spaces on campus, in the wetlands, on the school playground, and in their own neighborhoods.
The following are some of our findings:
• As small groups of children and teachers explore natural places, they can listen to each other on a level not always possible indoors. This ability to listen closely to others supports the group decision-making, negotiation, and problem solving experiences that naturally occur in the outdoors.
• As the children establish their own landmarks in the outdoors, they begin to form an identity with these outdoor places (for example, a drainpipe covered by a grill becomes “a bear cage”; a group of trees becomes the “whispering woods”). In these places, the children engage in rich, imaginative storytelling that blends science and fantasy. They also desire to bring the outdoors back to their classroom through dramatic play and the creation of maps of the wetland using the landmarks as points of reference.
• Children engage in more positive risk-taking in the outdoors. They test their physical capabilities and share their thinking and stories. We observe that children who engage in less verbal communication indoors often become eager to talk when outdoors. Individual learning styles often become more visible in the outdoors.
• Children are able to slow down, observe carefully, explore intentionally, and make many discoveries that are later shared with other children and adults. Gardening on the playground becomes an opportunity for children to study the life cycle of plants.
• Children become caretakers of their outdoor environments. They develop habits related to honoring and protecting the natural environment. In a book written by a group of preschoolers, they stated their rights and responsibilities in the outdoors (for example, “We never pick anything that is living”).
As the children document their encounters in the outdoors and represent their findings through drawing, painting, and other forms of expression, they begin to understand the connectedness of all living things.
These teacher-and-child research projects depend on a support system for conducting teacher research with children. Teachers have studied teacher research methodology, including framing the question, observing and documenting, interpreting, and communicating findings. They have organized themselves into critical friends groups, small groups of teachers exploring a particular aspect of the schoolwide nature studies—for example, two teachers are studying
the ways toddlers and preschoolers communicate their findings to each other about the birds that feed just outside their windows. Other aspects of the support system include resource people to support the process of teacher research and time for study together.
One of our research projects was published in the July 2009 issue of Young Children (“We Need a Way to Get to the Other Side: Exploring the Possibilities for Learning in Natural Spaces,” by Galizio, Stoll, and Hutchins). We also share research projects with families and visitors by displaying collaborative hallway panels that communicate the importance of outdoor explorations for young children’s learning.
For questions about this project, please contact Carol Bersani, Associate Professor, Director, Kent State University Child Development Center, at email@example.com.
For the past three years, the Lee Academy Pilot School, a pre-K through grade 5 Boston Public School, has partnered with the staff of the Making Learning Visible Project—a research project of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education—to promote learning communities among children and adults. During the 2009–2010 academic year, instructional coach Marina Boni of the Early Childhood Division of Boston Public Schools joined our effort. We are focusing on how to best support conversations and storytelling among the 3- to 5-year-old children in the school’s early academy.
Our guiding inquiry questions are,
• How can teachers best support the oral language development of a diverse group of young children at an urban public school?
• How can a school faculty come together to build knowledge and improve their instructional practices?
Every other week, Marina or Ben Mardell and Mara Krechevsky, staff of the Making Learning Visible Project, facilitate a discussion among the six preschool teachers and two kindergarten teachers during their common planning time, a forty-five-minute period during the school day. Teachers take turns bringing a question about their practice and a related artifact to these meetings. For example, a teacher who wondered what questions to ask to extend his students’ conversations brought a transcript of a conversation from his class. A teacher wanting to refine her prompts to promote storytelling brought a videotape of her eliciting a story from a child.
The protocol guiding our conversations includes the following steps:
• The presenting teacher describes her question and provides a brief context
for the artifact she is sharing.
• Teachers carefully review the artifact, make observations, and discuss the material the presenting teacher shared.
• The teachers answer the presenting teacher’s questions.
• During a few minutes of silent, individual reflection time, the teachers consider the feedback provided during the session and think about how it might influence their teaching practice. The facilitators encourage the teachers to share their reflections.
Each session builds on the preceding session’s conversation. Teachers report on strategies related to the previous meeting’s topic that they have tried, and they discuss new questions that have emerged.
Kindergarten teacher Erin Daly feels that the time to reflect at the end of the conversation, even if only a few minutes, is very valuable, giving her a chance to plan how she can move her practice forward. Preschool teacher David Ramsey appreciates the chance to talk to colleagues about teaching and learning.
Building knowledge and influencing practice through collaborative teacher research requires a culture in which teachers are accountable to themselves and each other. The facilitators, Marina, Ben, and Mara, support this culture in several ways. As noted above, we bring teachers’ ideas and practice to the forefront by beginning each session with teachers’ descriptions of how they have tried to support conversations and storytelling in their classrooms since the last meeting. We reproduce the teachers’ insights in several documents (for example, a list of prompts for supporting storytelling) and bring these documents back to the group for feedback. We check in with the teachers—individually and as a group—to see if there are ways our work can better support their teaching.
Given the multiple demands teachers face, helping them focus on one topic is a challenge. However, real learning comes when teachers have opportunities to carefully track, collect evidence, and reflect on one aspect of children’s learning over time. It is a process for which teacher research is well suited.
For questions concerning this project, please contact Ben Mardell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, visit Making Learning Visible: Understanding, Documenting, and Supporting Individual and Group Learning at www.pz.harvard.edu/mlv. See also Project Zero & Reggio Children’s Making Learning Visible: Children as Individual and Group Learners (Cambridge, MA: Project Zero, 2001).
Information about the Lee Academy can be found at http://boston.k12.ma.us/leeacademy/index.html.
Las Americas Early Education School Teacher Research Initiative in Collaboration with San Francisco State University
Isauro Michael Escamilla
San Francisco, California
Located in the heart of the Mission District of San Francisco, California, Las Americas Early Education School is part of the San Francisco Unified School District Child Development Program. Our school provides a nurturing educational program inspired by the project approach, an academic philosophy that embraces children’s interests as the starting point for in-depth study of specific topics through multiple media: reading, writing, drawing, field trips, and creative arts such as painting, collage-making, music, and movement.
Reflecting the ethnic, economic, cultural, and linguistic tapestry of our city, our school includes a multiage preschool program for children ages 3 to 5, a mainstreamed special education preK program, and an educational after-school and summer program for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. We aim to provide an environment-based curriculum using our school garden to connect nature, outdoor learning, and academic success. In our classrooms we offer children a rich variety of materials to explore and represent their ideas and emergent understanding on a variety of topics; in the process they create their own knowledge, with teachers offering support as needed at specific points of the learning experience.
Our staff has a commitment to support children’s interests and curiosity by listening, observing, and documenting. We document their theories, ideas, and feelings through stories, photographs, dictations, audiotaped conversations, and drawings. We believe that when children work and play in small groups they are better able to explore and understand concepts of literacy, numeracy, nature, and the creative arts. Besides ensuring the safety of the children and their social-emotional well-being, we believe that one of the most important and challenging roles as teachers is to present children with thought-provoking questions or situations that encourage them to expand their emergent analytical thinking.
Preschool head teachers Isauro Michael Escamilla and Mary Lin graduated from the master’s program in education with a concentration in early childhood from San Francisco State University, and consider teacher research an art as much as a science. Both are experienced teachers with a personal interest in pursuing the underpinnings of teacher research as a pedagogical tool to guide their own professional growth. Some of their work with children has been published in Learning from Young Children: The Art and Science of Teacher Research (Meier & Henderson 2007), Young Children (Escamilla 2004), and more recently in Teaching Young Children (NAEYC 2010).
The other teachers in our program have different levels of expertise and knowledge about the inquiry process and systematic documentation of children’s learning experiences. Our inquiry group, described below, has provided the right context to share experiences, find answers to common questions, and more importantly develop the habit of collaborative reflection as a strategy to gain a better understanding of our role as educators of young children.
Our teacher research inquiry group
Our monthly teacher research team meetings help us further our understanding of the research process as it relates to documentation of children’s learning experiences based on classroom projects. These meetings, supported by professor Daniel Meier, provide the pedagogical framework needed to reflect on practical day-to-day decisions about children’s interests, and possibilities for inquiry based on those interests and activities. We hope to provide an on-site pedagogical forum to further our understanding of our role as educators and to improve our skills as critical thinkers and teacher researchers.
Our inquiry group is composed of two head teachers, two associate teachers, and two assistant teachers. All teachers are bilingual and speak Spanish, Cantonese, or Mandarin. We have different levels of expertise in the field, with a range of four to almost 15 years in the classroom.
We consistently meet approximately once a month for an hour and a half to discuss the progress of our class projects and the content of assigned readings. In order to create a common experience we decided to read the book Learning from Young Children in the Classroom: The Art and Science of Teacher Research (Meier & Henderson 2007) as a way to reflect on our job as educators, develop a common professional language, learn specific data collection strategies, and further our understanding of classroom based research. From the outset, each teacher received a copy of the book; a teaching journal to keep up with the development of class projects, observations, and pedagogical reflections; a notebook for note taking during meetings; a calendar and folders;and one digital camera per room in addition to a tape recorder and a computer.
An important aspect of our inquiry group is the relaxed atmosphere and flexible formality of our meetings, with teacher researcher Isauro Michael Escamilla serving as group coordinator. Our meetings are not mandatory for the staff, but have become a forum where we can present to colleagues our ongoing projects, samples of children’s work, emerging documentation panels, and the challenges we face to move projects forward. During these meetings we get constructive feedback, ideas, or strategies and we set new goals for the next meeting. More than anything else, these sessions have provided a framework to acquire a common language and the opportunity to learn or redefine the meaning of terms such as observations, reflective practice, pedagogical reflections, teaching journal, documentation of children’s learning experiences, classroom-based inquiry, and active listening, to name a few.
Our inquiry group explores a wide variety of topics. For example, in a recent meeting teacher Mary Lin focused her attention on an emergent interest in writing from a small group of kindergarten-bound children, and the strategies that teachers could use to help these children become proficient in holding different writing tools.
Throughout this richly documented project—which included photographs, teacher reflections, children’s dictations, and writing samples dating back several months—Mary Lin discovered and confirmed that strategies are subject to differences in cultural beliefs, the involved adults’ personal upbringing, and each child’s skills, age, and dispositions to learning. She shared specific activities that helped children gain a more meaningful understanding of the writing process. Some of these activities were sensory, such as when she gently traced letters and other shapes with her fingers on the children’s backs while they simultaneously wrote down the same letters or shapes they were feeling (and reading) with their bodies.
Other examples included writing in the air and manipulating playdough or sticky foam to engage the children in creative writing. She discovered that “playdough and sticky foam lead children to the sensory exploration of the abstract concept of letters, as the children represented the letters in a more concrete manner by manipulating, bending, and twisting the sticky foam to form random and letter-like symbols that had meaning for the children.” She explains the influence of teacher research on her teaching:
|My participation in the teacher research meetings has encouraged me to question the status quo and to challenge my own assumptions and beliefs. The group has opened my mind to new possibilities in the way I teach children and collaborate with colleagues. Most importantly, it has made me be fully aware of how much I actually learn from coteachers and children.|
The parents and guardians of the children who participated in this particular writing project shared that they observed great improvement in how their children held their pencils, crayons, or markers. Lin’s coteachers Edwin Serrano and Sahara Gonzalez also noticed an increase in children’s motivation to write, either with a marker on paper, a stick in the sand, or with plain water and a paintbrush on the walls in the school yard. Suddenly, writing became an enjoyable, stress-free activity for both children and teachers. The inquisitive nature of project-based learning and teacher research opened multiple perspectives on how to best support our young learners to develop a disposition to engage in real or imaginary writing. In this context, Lin and her coteachers promoted an optimal environment for creativity, laying a solid foundation for learning to take place.
Some of the projects we are currently working on and that are still in different stages of development are:
• Celebration of Chinese New Year, initiated by associate teacher Joanne Yu
• The Importance of Sand Play in the Classroom, documented by assistant teacher Sahara Gonzalez
• The Children’s Creative Process in Collage-Making Using Recycled Materials, by head teacher Isauro Michael Escamilla
• Supporting Children’s Literacy Development by Role-Playing Stories Read in Class, documented by assistant teacher Edwin Serrano and head teacher Mary Lin
Reflecting on our teacher research
In our first 18 months, our teacher research inquiry group has accomplished several objectives in accordance with our original goals. Some further questions we would like to reflect on, regardless of our topic of investigation, are:
• How do we find a balance between children leading the projects and teachers’ guidance?
• How can we teach and at the same time collect data from multiple children?
• How can we deepen our reflective practice skills to find the pedagogical meaning behind the activities?
• How can we facilitate school-home connections when working on long-term projects?
Although most of the staff have embraced the principles of teacher research and the role of the teacher as observer, recorder, and interpreter of children’s learning experiences, the premise of teacher research still remains thought-provoking. Perhaps this is because it contradicts the common perception that teachers are not deep thinkers and theory-makers. In many ways, teacher research breaks the stereotype of teachers as holders of knowledge and children as recipients of information; it encourages critical thinking along with self-reflection as common teaching practice. In any case, one of the themes that has emerged from our discussions is how to listen to the children and to ourselves, which has led us to the exploration of a pedagogy of listening within the teacher research context. The more we explore this topic, the more we discover that the traditional roles of teacher and learner as opposites tend to blend; the inquiry process helps us understand that these roles can and should be interchangeable.
Being a part of this group makes us feel a responsibility not only towards the children, but also towards each one of our members—when we commit to carry out a specific task, most of us tend to follow through and come fully prepared to the next meeting. Moreover, these gatherings may also count as professional growth hours to fulfill SF CARES requirements in order to obtain an annual monetary stipend. Professor Meier is also investigating how staff might be able to gain a college credit for professional development through local colleges and universities.
The success of our teacher research group at Las Americas Early Education School is in great measure the result of a staff-driven idea, as opposed to a top-down mandate. In a way, just like children, we are creators of our own knowledge. However, these opportunities for professional growth would have been more challenging without both the administration’s support and funding from the Preschool For All (PFA) program, which is part of the First 5 San Francisco initiative. Our current site manager, David Hollands, has expressed that our group provides a unique scholarly forum for teacher-initiated inquiry, in-depth observations, and interpretations and discourse, which only improve the teaching/learning experience of both teachers and students. Funding for substitutes has been possible through PFA and the First 5 San Francisco initiative, allowing our group to meet for more time.
In a recent staff meeting, Hollands outlined the expectation that our expanded support will provide more opportunities for enhanced class project developments, field research, innovative data collecting strategies, and field trips to exemplary schools in our area. He added: “The teacher research group . . . has been central to our faculty’s team building and core competence. The individual and collective professional development of this diverse group of educators has been impressive and will continue to evolve.”
Teaching can become quite an isolating profession; our teacher research group has made it possible to create a community of educators brought together by the need to make visible their voices, ideas, and learning journeys, with the ultimate goal of offering young children meaningful educational experiences.