Five Portraits of Teachers’ Experiences Teaching Writing: Negotiating Knowledge, Student Need, and Policy
by Juliet Michelsen Wahleithner — 2018
Background: Numerous reports have highlighted problems with writing instruction in American schools, yet few examine the interplay of teachers’ preparation to teach writing, the instructional policies they must navigate, and the writing development of the students in their classrooms.
Purpose: This study examines high school English teachers’ instruction of writing while taking into account their preparation for teaching writing—both preservice and inservice, the instructional policies in place, and the learners in their classrooms.
Setting: Data used come from public high school English teachers teaching in Northern California. These data were collected in 2011–2012, when teachers were sill complying with the mandates of the No Child Left Behind legislation.
Research Design: I use year-long qualitative case studies of five high school English teachers to highlight various ways teachers used their knowledge of writing instruction to negotiate the pressures of accountability policies and their students’ needs as writers to teach writing. Data collected include beginning- and end-of-year interviews with each teacher, four sets of 1- to 2-day observations of each teacher’s instruction of writing, and instructional documents related to each teacher’s writing instruction. These data were analyzed using the constant comparative method to look for themes within the data collected from each teacher and then make comparisons across teachers. Findings from the case studies are supported by findings from a survey of 171 high school teachers who taught a representative sample of California high school students at 21 schools in 20 districts. The survey included 41 multiple-choice items that asked about teachers’ instructional practices and their perceptions of high-stakes accountability pressures and their students as writers. Survey data were analyzed quantitatively using descriptive statistics and principal components analysis.
Findings: Findings illustrate that significant differences existed in how the five teachers approached their writing instruction. These differences were due to both the teachers’ varied preparations to teach writing and the contextual factors in place where each taught. Those teachers with more developed knowledge of writing instruction were better able to navigate the policies in place at their sites and more equipped to plan appropriate instruction to develop their students as writers.
Recommendations: Findings indicate teachers would be better served by opportunities to develop their knowledge of writing instruction both prior to and once they begin their teaching careers. Additionally, the findings add to an existing body of research that demonstrates the limiting effect high-stakes assessments can have on teachers’ instruction of writing.
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