This post was written by NCTE member Elizabeth Walsh-Moorman.
The text of the email from my professor was projected on the screen, and a few students had come to the front of the room for a closer look.
“He said you need to explain that point more. You’re always telling me that, “one student remarked sarcastically, turning a devilish grin my way. Suddenly, I was part of their club; more importantly, I wanted to invite them to be part of mine.
I’m honestly not sure how I managed to work through my doctorate program in just five years while still teaching full time at a parochial high school. There were long days, and my weekends were so busy that it is a blessing my beloved Cleveland Browns were performing so miserably, because watching a Sunday game would have been out of the question. There were times that I would look with raw envy at my colleagues who had left the classroom to focus on their studies.
That began to change during a discussion with my seniors. I had just announced a required revision for all of my students, and some of them were arguing that they should be able to just be done.
“We revise as we go,” one girl shared.
“But writing,” I said, “is a conversation, and I tried to give each of you some questions that might make your papers better.”
Wanting to show empathy, I shared that I had recently been sent a long list of required revisions to my dissertation proposal. I told them that I had made the silly mistake of opening the email during a family dinner, and I had to leave the table to catch my breath because I had been so overwhelmed by the work that was yet to be done on a chapter I thought I had completed.
When I showed the students the email and my draft, we were commiserating peers. That year,I left it there: I shared my stories and sometimes my work with my students.
But the next year, I was leading a reform to change our AP Language course into a dual-credit college-level composition course. The move had largely been prompted by my department’s desire to emphasize sustained writing and research projects rather than the timed writing that is so important in the AP program.
Preparing to teach that class, I finished one summer afternoon of curriculum mapping only to click over to my Google drive and pull up an early draft of my thesis to begin some revisions. In that moment of juxtaposition, I realized how I could create a culture of inquiry in my composition classroom, and the capstone project emerged.
With the help of a colleague, I developed the idea: students would do sustained research on a topic of their choice, develop research questions and design a study in an attempt to answer those questions. They would mimic my inquiry path, and together we would follow where our questions led.
With the chapters of the dissertation as my guide, I built steps into the process, borrowing the theme “This American Life” from the weekly podcast, and drawing inspiration from the way that Ira Glass and his colleagues create detailed snapshots of quirky aspects of modern American life.
First, I had students explore a topic. Why was this chosen topic important, especially in the context of modern American life?
Students spent the first semester researching their topics, creating annotated bibliographies and synthesizing what they learned into academic reviews of literature. As they worked, I showed them my work products: a Google folder filled with PDF sources, my annotated bibliography organized by research question, my draft and feedback for Chapter 2 of my dissertation. We talked about the challenges of organizing so much research; we shared resources we found to help, and we cheered each other’s successes.
By the second semester, I was deep into my research study, which I conducted in the classrooms of two fellow teachers at the school. While I couldn’t share the details of the study itself, I did keep my students up to date on my progress, and they began to develop study proposals of their own. A recent graduate spent part of her spring break sharing her undergraduate research project for an honors diploma. We did a deep dive into ethics, methodology and data analysis, and then the students went out to conduct simple (and ethical) research on their own. One student read the top 20 Tweets about five recent Black Lives Matter articles to find trends; another student spent a morning at the local coffee house tracking what was being ordered by young, old and middle-aged customers in order to estimate caffeine consumption. Admittedly these “mini-dissertations” didn’t all reflect the most rigorous scholarship, but students were very proud of them.
By May, my students were done with the capstone, but it seemed anti-climactic.
They had really poured themselves into the process, and I felt they needed closure. Doctorate students know the dreaded but venerated defense allows for that triumphal end, and so I made a quick addition to our process: each of my students was to develop a five- to ten-slide presentation about their study and present it to a group of people who share an interest in the topic.
I shared the presentation I used in defense of my dissertation proposal, and students created their own versions. Small groups of coaches, teachers, administrators and counselors could be spotted sitting in mostly empty classrooms listening to one of my seniors share their research in 10-minute presentations. My generous colleagues filled out simple Google forms to offer feedback and verify the presentation. (Because 50 students were taking the course, I wasn’t able to attend each of these presentations.)
In Comprehension and Learning (1975), psycholinguist Frank Smith used a metaphor for becoming literate, saying it is like joining a club in which new members learn from more experienced members. I do not believe my students mastered academic research, but it opened the door and allowed them to see the possibilities. What I wasn’t expecting was just how much I enjoyed belonging to that club as well.
This experience merged my professional lives and enriched both. I no longer envied those who were not teaching while writing their dissertation; instead I felt sorry that they had no students to join them in their journey. Working alongside my students motivated and inspired me to join the dissertation “club,” and that year, our inquiries led us down separate paths, together.
Elizabeth Walsh-Moorman is an assistant professor of literacy, Lake Erie College, Painesville, Ohio.