National Writing Project

Article Exploring Process, Inquiry, and the Benefits of Site Research Wins Award

By: Art Peterson
Date: December 10, 2009

Summary: Researchers from the South Coast Writing Project compared the classroom practice of teachers who had experienced their site's inquiry-based professional development with the practice of those who hadn't—and reaped unexpected benefits.


Paul Rogers, Anne Whitney, Alison Bright, and Tim Dewar (l-r) are part of a team that submitted an award-winning article.

The once-revolutionary concept of the "writing process" has become a commonplace approach in many classrooms over the past 25 years, yet teachers may have different understandings about what the writing process entails as a model of writing and learning to write.

That's the idea that Anne Whitney and her colleagues at the South Coast Writing Project (SCWriP)—Sheridan Blau, Alison Bright, Rosemary Cabe, Tim Dewar, Jason Levin, Roseanne Macias, and Paul Rogers—explored in their award-winning article "Beyond Strategies: Teacher Practice, Writing Process, and the Influence of Inquiry," which appeared in the April 2008 issue of English Education .

Because of the article's exemplary scholarship, it received the 2009 Janet Emig Award on November 20 at the NCTE Annual Convention in Philadelphia.

Questioning the Depth of "Process" Practice

The article posits that "even in settings where no one would explicitly embrace a 'process pedagogy,' classrooms exhibit some of its markers: students and teachers use words like 'drafts,' 'prewriting,' and 'revision' in commonplace speech."

Even in settings where no one would explicitly embrace a 'process pedagogy,' classrooms exhibit some of its markers.

However, the SCWriP research team came to wonder about the extent to which such words represent free-floating terminology, ungrounded in understanding, and to what extent the use of this vocabulary grows from knowledge and insight based on intensive classroom inquiry.

The SCWriP site had good reason to pose this question. Process-based concepts have been at the forefront of the site's inservice programs from its inception in 1979 (when such ideas appeared revolutionary) to the present, when its IIMPaC program "carries out five interrelated and mutually reinforcing activities": inquiry groups, inservice workshops, modeling, coaching, and classroom demonstrations.

At the heart of the IIMPaC program has been the understanding that "engaging in inquiry means not only learning practices recommended by others or perfecting the practical execution of a set of teaching strategies, but, rather, theorizing about teaching and learning in a way that frames future interpretation and decision making."

Would the teachers who had experienced the intense SCWriP program envision and act on a process-influenced pedagogy in a way that other teachers, familiar with the terminology and general process-oriented concepts but not the program, had not?

An Opportunity: NWP's Local Site Research Initiative

Site leaders were asking this question at a fortuitous moment. They were able to apply for a $20,000 grant to participate in NWP's Local Site Research Initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to encourage sites to design and conduct studies framed by locally important questions.

SCWriP leaders jumped at the opportunity. They designed a study in which they would follow two groups of teachers, one group that had experienced the IIMPaC program and one that had not.

Teacher volunteers in both groups invited data collection in their classrooms. There were classroom observations, interviews with the teachers, and examination of a self-selected collection of classroom documents from one week of classroom activity.

The Study

In their article, Whitney and her colleagues spotlight the strategies and thinking of one representative teacher from each group. Both teachers taught in schools that served low-income, overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking English language learners. The teachers shared other similarities. They taught fifth grade, had similar teacher preparation, expressed a strong commitment to teaching English language learners, and cited writing as a major concern in their teaching.

Superficially these teachers (along with several others in each group) shared many strategies, and both used the language of process writing. However, the researchers found that teachers who had worked in the IIMPaC program applied "not simply a set of process strategies, but also a set of attitudes and stances with respect to writing."

Ms. Barrera, the teacher who had worked in the SCWriP program and experienced these strategies through inquiry, approached aspects of teaching writing with an understanding closer to the writing project model of best practice than did her counterpart in the comparison group, Ms. Gonzales, in three particular areas: preparing students to write, developing a piece of writing over time, and encouraging student investment and independence in writing.

"These data suggest the potential for inquiry-oriented professional development to influence more sophisticated enactments of the teaching practices such as prewriting, peer review, portfolios, and other elements which have in some regions become standard."

While the implications of this work are important in themselves (as the NCTE awards committee recognized), there is another story here, an instructive sidebar for sites taking on the pleasures and responsibilities of local research. Whitney, who was research coordinator on the project, and Rosemary Cabe, another author of the study (who now directs SCWriP), comment on these lessons:

Attitudes About Research

Cabe says, "The LSRI study changed my view of 'research' from something dry and distant to seeing it as very engaging inquiry into what teachers and students were doing. It had a very human component. The team discussed how to approach teachers in the study with an appreciation of their work, and our grad student investigators in particular came to understand the vulnerability of these teachers. They came to realize the perspectives of classroom teachers in a quite different way."

Whitney soon saw that the role of a writing coach, facilitator, and fellow learner in the writing project was different from the role of classroom researcher. "In the writing project we had always worked as partners with teachers in the inservice program. Those ways of working sometimes clashed with the researcher's role, or at least we thought they did. For instance, we asked the teachers in the study to have their students do a timed writing prompt rather than follow them in something they had developed themselves."

The SCWriP researchers also felt rather uncomfortable with the comparative design component that the LSRI protocols specified. Says Whitney, "We found ourselves studying teachers with whom we had not worked as partners, teachers who did not know the writing project and had not been a part of our culture of collaboration. To them, we were simply researchers from the university."

The Need to Tweak the Site's Core Work

Because of this research work, says Cabe, SCWriP leaders "learned that we needed to be more explicit in our work with teachers. Modeling was not enough. We had to process everything in more detail, inviting teachers to analyze in greater depth all the strategies that were presented. Our whole approach to inservice took on a more inquiry-based direction. We were looking for evidence of change, not approval of presentations. In addition, inquiry found its way more significantly into our summer institute as we asked new fellows to do less of a presentation and more of an investigation in their summer work sharing with colleagues."

The Peripheral Benefits of Intensive Research

Says Cabe, "This was the first time that SCWriP fellows, teachers, and grad student researchers did sustained work over time on a project. Previously, when we had grad students as fellows in the summer institute they were enthusiastic participants, but rarely remained in the project after their summer experience."

Adds Whitney: "The team grew to include twelve people. The variety of perspectives and expertise on the team made the project especially rich and meaningful for our site."

Further, comments Cabe, "the fact that we were involved in a local research project was a selling point in talking with administrators regarding staff development work, and I would have to admit that the work we were doing felt more grounded than it had in the past when we had to rely on teacher approval ratings for our feedback after a workshop."

Because of this boost to its reputation, the South Coast Writing Project has increasingly become the go-to source when school districts are looking for a program that presents teachers not just with a new set of strategies, but also with ways to interrogate and modify what they are doing.

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