National Writing Project

Keep the Spirit Going: Teacher Inquiry Communities Focus on Student Work

By: Shirley Brown
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 10, No. 2
Date: 2005

Summary: Brown shares insights gained through work with the Teacher Inquiry Communities Network as to how teachers can create space during the school year for the kind of collaborative work that happens at the summer institutes.


Remember the luxury of the summer institute where, in the company of interested colleagues, there was a time and a place to think about your classroom; where hearing about the challenges and questions others had about their practice gave you insights into your own wonderings? Remember how the summer institute was a safe haven, distant from daily pressures?

While you might not have the same luxury of extended time after the summer, it is possible to create a space during the school year for the collaborative work that's one of the hallmarks of the summer institute. Convening study or teacher inquiry groups is one way to provide an opportunity for teacher-consultants to come together on a regular basis to reflect on their practice, and one of the most effective ways to make those meetings productive and satisfying is to look at student work collaboratively. Structured conversations about student work provide a way to sustain reflective practice as well as to analyze data. (These objectives are in effect the same thing, if one considers student work to be at the heart of reflective practice.)

Noting the value of such conversations, the leadership of the NWP Teacher Inquiry Communities (TIC) Network saw a need to help sites become more familiar with various ways of carrying out this practice, so that they could choose an approach to fit their local context. This understanding generated the LETSWork (Learning Essentials from Teacher and Student Work) Institute in 2003. LETSWork brought together representatives from sixteen sites to examine tools, processes, and protocols that could be used in looking at student work.

There was general agreement that the collaborative processes were effective in

  • supporting reflective practice
  • developing a common language to discuss student work
  • sustaining a focus on writing
  • providing a safe environment for examining classroom practices
  • promoting collegiality
  • establishing standards for student work.

When the attendees returned to their home writing project sites, they had an opportunity to test whether the collaborative nature of looking at student work was as powerful an approach to continuity and professional development as they imagined it to be. The answer was yes. For example, Amy Kilbridge at the Red Cedar Writing Project said she found that "common analysis of student writing and teacher expectations has led to a higher level of discourse amongst the staff [at her school], allowing them to dig deeper into writing instruction in their curriculum." Red Cedar teacher-consultants also reported that looking at student work collaboratively has helped them discover a common language for discussing and assessing writing.

Representatives from the San Diego Area Writing Project noted that the process of looking at student work collaboratively works to "build rapport among teachers, [and to] structure a safe and inviting dialogue, allowing teachers to practice listening with openness as their colleagues share perspectives that might conflict with their own, particularly when their colleagues see positive aspects of student learning in student work that the presenting teacher believes is substandard."

Members of the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project reported that collaborative examination of student work can inform instructional decisions, offer a way to build cohesiveness among teachers in evaluating student work, and build stronger teaching teams.

Other writing projects reported similar experiences, but as productive as occasional sessions might be, the real power of looking at student work collaboratively lies in making it a regular and ongoing feature of practice. As teachers know, however, finding or setting aside the time can be a barrier. The teacher-consultants at the San Diego Area Writing Project expressed both the challenge and the necessity of a sustained meeting schedule: "Time is a huge challenge," they state. "The process is slow," and "examining a body of work across many students and many teachers" cannot be satisfactorily carried out "in one or a few . . . sessions." In other words, it is the sustained and regular examination of student work that unleashes and nurtures the kind of professional development that matters and makes a difference in the classroom.

While the summer institute offers teacher-consultants an idealized version of a community that looks together at research, their own writing, and student work, the professional dialogue that begins there need not disappear. It can be continued, but it does require a commitment and a conviction that examining student work is at the heart of teaching and that examining this work through the eyes of others leads to new practices and to student growth.

About the Author Shirley Brown is online events coordinator for the National Writing Project. She is also the coordinator for the NWP LETSWork Summer Institute.

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