Teacher Research for all Teachers

By Shira Loewenstein

On an unusually cold Sunday in March, I joined my fellow DeLeT Alumni Network (DAN) colleagues, DeLeT MAT professors and other educators from Jewish and public schools at Brandeis University for the tenth annual Teacher Forum. This event, co-sponsored by the DeLeT Alumni Network and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education brings educators together to explore central ideas in teaching and learning. Marilyn Cochran Smith from Boston College presented on the various ways that we as teachers can use our classrooms as a laboratory for learning. Her ideas brought to the forefront of my mind some of the methodologies that I had learned at Brandeis’ DeLeT MAT program when I was just learning how to teach, and how to take the data from my classroom to further inform instruction.

As I sat with another DeLeT Alumni Network member at a table of current DeLeT students and other masters students from Brandeis the two of us had a chance to reflect on all we have learned since we were in the DeLeT program. The masters students all had “research questions” that they had written for class, and were testing out in their own classrooms. The students were thinking about participation in their math class, increasing motivation, fostering independence. As Marilyn Cochran-Smith challenged us to think of our classrooms as laboratories filled with information rich data, ready to be gathered at any time, we were able to see the evolution of researching a ‘project’ to becoming teacher-researchers.

Dr. Cochran-Smith stressed that being a teacher researcher is a mindset and an ongoing practicenot a project. Our classrooms are data rich environments filled with all sorts of material we can use to analyze our own practice and our students learning. Thinking through our classrooms with a data lens allows us to make informed decisions, and strategic teaching moves.

Oftentimes Jewish Day School teachers claim that they do not have enough data in their classrooms. The immediate implication is that data comes from standardized tests. Cochran-Smith reiterated for us that this is not at all the case. While standardized tests offer one form of data, this is one very limited form of feedback (and often it doesn’t even answer a question we have been asking). Information that we have in our classrooms right now can offer rich data sets for classroom research.

  • Teachers should always be looking at what is around them to inform their instruction.
  • How many students raised their hands to volunteer?
  • How long did my students spend at that center before moving on?
  • What can these writing samples teach me?
  • What data is here on these exit tickets?
  • What are the students saying about their own learning in their self reflections?
  • How do these student drawings help me see what they have learned?

My guess is that your desk or back table is actually covered in piles of student data. The next step is to put on the hat of researcher, go back to the days where you were taught to ask a question and gather data for an answer and begin this process all over again. Researching your classroom shouldn’t be reserved for an assignment. It doesn’t have to be the basis for a book manuscript. It can be a simple way to answer a teaching question that you aren’t sure about, a way to challenge your assumptions, or simply a challenge to make a more informed teaching choice. What questions need answering in your class? What research is waiting to be discovered? How will this help you be a better teacher for your students?

As a DeLeT alumna, I am fortunate to have a cohort of peers who can push my thinking forward and help me ask the important questions about my practice. As I sat at the Teacher Forum surrounded by teachers at every career stage, I was fortunate enough to not only have the chance to continue my own learning, but to do so in an environment that helps me to push myself with colleagues who want to continue learning about and from their own practice.

Shira works at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day School as the Director of Leadership Development. She is the director of the YOU Lead and HOSPEP programs, and spearheads Prizmah’s school accreditation department. Shira is interested in helping teachers grow as leaders, thinking through the pedagogy of teaching, and the growth of a leader. She spent 10 years as a classroom teacher and school leader, and is a proud alumna of the Brandeis University Delet Program. shiral@prizmah.org