Good Guide to Teacher Research

Living the Questions: A Guide for Teacher-Researchers
by Ruth Shagoury and Brenda Miller Power
(Stenhouse Publishers, 2012 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Amanda Wall

Teacher research is an exciting way for teachers to expand on, analyze, and reflect upon their teaching. In Living the Questions (2nd ed.), Ruth Shagoury and Brenda Miller Power encourage teachers to see teacher research as a way of “discovering essential questions, gathering data, and analyzing it to answer…questions” (p. 2), and they often employ garden metaphors to explain and advocate the research process.

The authors define teacher research as research “that is initiated and carried out by teachers in their classrooms and schools.” It’s research that includes careful observation of students with a goal of understanding learning from the perspectives of students themselves. Shagoury and Miller clearly value and respect the work of teachers and include short essays, tips, and examples submitted by teacher researchers themselves.

Working through the research process

The chapters in Living the Questions are organized by the research process, with early chapters addressing ways to find and formulate research questions, and subsequent chapters focusing on “harvesting” and analyzing data and then on writing up and sharing research findings. Throughout the book, short narratives by teacher researchers offer real-life examples of teacher research projects and reinforce the topics of each chapter. Aspiring teacher researchers will appreciate these insider snapshots of teacher research in action.

In the chapter on data analysis, several sample observation protocols and other data-collection tools are  especially helpful. As a newer researcher myself, I appreciate seeing the work of other teacher researchers, including examples of coding sheets, summary charts, and observation guides.

The later chapters on writing up research and sharing research are also very effective. Shagoury and Power present the idea of writing a literature review as a way to join the ongoing research conversation about a topic. That seems to me to be a very empowering way for teacher researchers to approach what may appear to be a daunting body of prior knowledge and discovery.

The chapter on writing up research provides several step-by-step guidelines for organizing and sticking to a writing project. There also are tips for getting published (every researcher’s dream), tips for organizing a writing retreat, and sample conference presentation proposals written by teacher researchers. I bookmarked many of these highly practical examples, tips, and guides, and have begun to implement some of the ideas in my own projects.

Coping with the stresses

Happily, Shagoury and Miller also acknowledge some common sources of anxiety for teacher researchers. They recognize the extra pressure created by research deadlines and the fear of having writing rejected, and they explain how teacher researchers can avoid such pitfalls. Throughout the book, the authors also advocate collaboration and communication with colleagues, including those beyond schoolhouse walls. They name several groups, workshops, and venues for teacher research, and there are bibliographies for both general and specific sources likely to be of interest to teacher researchers.

My own story

Two years ago, I launched a teacher research project with two colleagues. We began the work with gusto. Then one teacher faded away. The other and I continued for a while but ultimately left the project with our goals unfulfilled. At the time, I wondered just where our work had gone off-track and what we might have done differently. A book like Living the Questions would have helped us approach our work with clearer goals and a series of concrete, specific steps to take.

Living the Questions is a great resource, although it may favor experienced teacher researchers. The book is somewhat abstract in the opening chapters, which set the stage for teacher research, metaphors of the garden, and the idea of “living the questions.” For this reason, first-time or solo teacher researchers may prefer a book that is just as explicit about identifying research questions as it is about data analysis and presentation of research. Overall, though, this is a solid resource that anyone interested in teacher research will want to add to their core collection.

Amanda Wall has taught Latin and Writing in high school and middle school. She’s now a graduate student in teacher education at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where she particularly enjoys studying motivation and working with the next generation of fantastic middle school teachers.

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