Academic Exchange Quarterly Fall 2003: Volume 7, Issue 3

Editors' Choice
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Building on Students’ Experiences in Teacher Education
Susan C. Griffith, Central Michigan University

Susan C. Griffith, Ph. D. is a professor of English who teaches writing in the 
elementary school and children’s literature to prospective teachers.

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 (Kolb, 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.

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Hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge.
Kiefer, K. (2003, Summer).  “Why teachers should also write,” 
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May 2003