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What Counts as Teacher Research? Investigating the Scientific and Mathematical Ideas of Children from Culturally Diverse Backgrounds

by Cynthia Ballenger & Ann S. Rosebery - 2003

In this article we address questions raised by the research methods used in teacher research by exploring a particular approach to teacher research. This approach is based in teachers' concerns with underachieving children, particularly those who come from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It grows out of the work of the Brookline Teacher Research Seminar (BTRS), the Chèche Konnen Center (CKC), and the Prospect Center and Archives (Prospect). We report on a conference where experienced teacher researchers from these groups met with newcomers to explore classroom data together. Our goal is to describe what the experienced practitioners had to say to the newcomers.

In this article we address questions raised by the research methods used in teacher research by exploring a particular approach to teacher research. This approach is based in teachers concerns with underachieving children, particularly those who come from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It grows out of the work of the Brookline Teacher Research Seminar (BTRS), the Cheche Konnen Center (CKC), and the Prospect Center and Archives (Prospect). We report on a conference where experienced teacher researchers from these groups met with newcomers to explore classroom data together. Our goal is to describe what the experienced practitioners had to say to the newcomers.

Childrens questions teachers questions close attention

Shifting perspective altered practice

New ways of thinking about learning.

Gallas, 1999, p. 47

It is clear to anyone familiar with the growing field of teacher research that individual teachers engage in research for many different reasons, collect many different kinds of data, and use many different kinds of methods. What teachers find important and useful to investigate has helped to shape educational research during the past decade.

At the same time, many questions remain among both teachers and researchers about the research methods used in teacher research, about the role of theory in it, about what people are doing when they do it and the values behind it, and about how it can best be used. There have been a number of attempts to address these questions from both within and outside teacher research (e.g., Anderson, Herr, & Nihlen, 1994; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Dressman, 2000; Fecho & Allen, 2003; Hubbard & Power, 1993; Huberman, 1996; Lampert, 2000).

In this article, we hope to add to this growing research literature by presenting a particular approach to the practice of teacher research. This approach, which is associated with the Brookline Teacher Research Group (BTRS) and the Cheche Konnen Center (CKC), is based in teachers concerns about issues of equity and on their worries about underachieving children, particularly those from culturally diverse backgrounds. As Fecho and Allen (2003) write in a review of teacher research addressed to issues of equity, the process of inquiry unfolds from the teachers sense that the dissonance within his or her practice must be embraced and interrogated (p. 3). This focus on what Fecho and Allen call dissonance, on what we often call puzzling children, forms the central practice of the teacher research that we open to scrutiny in this article. We do so by reporting on a conference where experienced teacher researchers met with newcomers to the practice to explore data with them. Our goal is to describe what these experienced practitioners had to say to the newcomers (i.e., the important principles and practices on which these teacher researchers focused).


Approximately 35 teacher researchers and 5 university-based researchers participated in a conference titled Toward the Development of Teacher Research in December, 2000. The conference was funded by The Spencer Foundation, The National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI). Approximately half of the participants were experienced in teacher research, and half were newcomers to the practice. The experienced participants represented various research groups, including BTRS, CKC, Fairfax County Teacher Researcher Group, Philadelphia Teachers Learning Cooperative, and Prospect Archives and Center for Education and Research (Prospect).

The conference was structured by joint exploration of childrens classroom talk and work, with particular attention to the talk and work of puzzling children. A puzzling child is one the teacher finds difficult to understand. As stated previously, often, but not always, this is a child who is not doing well academically, or who is from a linguistic, cultural, ethnic, or socioeconomic background that differs from the teachers, or the child has both characteristics. Documenting the talk and work of puzzling children in an attempt to understand the learning situation from their point of view is a central practice of teachers associated with BTRS, CKC, and Prospect.1 At the conference each participant who was presently teaching was asked to bring data documenting the work or talk of a puzzling child in his or her classroom. These data included many different ways of documenting childrens work (e.g., audiotaping and videotaping and transcribing childrens talk or collecting childrens written work, such as notebooks, drawings, and paintings). In documenting such work, the teacher researcher is able to stop time (Phillips, in press) and study aspects of the childs talk and activity at length and from multiple perspectives.

We chose to focus this conference on teacher research in science and mathematics for two reasons. Although most teacher research has taken place in the context of language and literacy, the number of teachers interested in pursuing moments of dissonance in science and mathematics is growing. We hoped that by providing these teacher researchers with a forum for their work, a critical mass of interest might develop. Moreover, because schools often have circumscribed what counts as scientific or mathematical the range of students ideas, talk, and activity can be restricted in the classroom. The students most likely to experience this are, in our experience, students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Thus, we were interested in engaging a conversation among teacher researchers about dilemmas and questions they had in this regard.

Experienced practitioners interacted with newcomers in three formats. First, all conference participants brought data to roundtables, in which six to eight colleagues were present. These sessions were informal in nature, lasting anywhere from 4590 minutes, and allowed experienced practitioners and newcomers to exchange ideas freely. Second, a handful of experienced teacher researchers were asked to present in-progress analyses of their data more formally, in sessions we called Festivals of Data, following the tradition of the Penn Ethnography Forum. Because this data was part of an ongoing study, it was more focused, that is, more organized around a particular concern or idea than the data presented in the roundtables. We wanted novice teacher researchers to experience the stage of a study where there is a developed question and approach but where the data are still largely open to interpretation. Third, we asked Karen Gallas, a nationally recognized teacher researcher, to give a keynote address on a long-term research project she was doing on the role of the imagination in learning. Karen had conclusions to share, as well as further questions and a developed method for her inquiries.


We organized this article into three parts, each exploring an important practice that we observed experienced teacher researchers articulating and enacting.

1. Analyzing data: What do experienced teacher researchers do when they look at data?

2. Using knowledge of the discipline: What role does their own learning play in the research they do?

3. Using research literature: How do they use academic research in their own studies?

To explore each practice, we consider examples from the conference.


In this section we examine a conversation that occurred when Pam Heimann,2 a 3rd-year teacher from Prince Georges County, Maryland, and a relative newcomer to teacher research presented data at a roundtable. Pam presented a concern, a puzzle; although it is not a research question per se, the experienced teacher researchers in her group advised her, through both words and actions, on what she might do to develop a research stance toward her puzzling students and toward her ways of teaching them. In doing so they demonstrated what it means to take seriously the idea that students are always making sense. We present two examples from this conversation to explore what experienced teacher researchers looked for in Pams data with this commitment in mind and how the group addressed her concerns.

A Sense of Number

For the second year in a row Pam had chosen to teach the lowest achieving fourth-graders in the school. Many of these children are poor, and most speak Spanish at home. Pam brought data to her roundtable on an aspect of her mathematics teaching that she has found particularly frustratingin her own words, the childrens lack of number sense. By number sense, she means the feeling for what numbers are in life, the sense of the relationships among numbers that people develop over time and experience and that allows many of us to add 10 and 7 or subtract 1 from 8 without computation. Pam is a person who likes math and enjoys teaching it, but she was disturbed and puzzled by the ways in which many of her students, who were able to make use of algorithms to add, subtract, and even multiply, nevertheless seemed to know little about the relationships among numbers.

To collect data for the conference, Pam designed a math assignment; she wrote problems that asked the students to add, for example, 1 to 5,499, and 10 to 362. She wrote the problems horizontally rather than in a way that suggested computation. She wanted her students to hold the numbers in their heads and to use their understanding of number to arrive at the answers.

She directed the roundtable participants to look at data from Jorge, whose first language is Spanish. This child, she stated, has great difficulty with these problems. The group began to explore Jorges written answers to the questions. Almost the first comment from the group was that the answers from Jorge could not be haphazard. They appeared to be carefully chosen. What was he thinking when he chose this number or that? There was a flurry of activity as the experienced participants began working together to figure out what the child might have been thinking based on what he wrote. They asked questions, such as Did Pam know what he said while he was doing this? and looked at erasures to try to discern his thinking process as well as the final answer.

One participant suggested that in one problem where the child had been told to add 1 to 6,399, he may have tried to add 1 everywhere he could. Thus his answer was 7,499 to B. in the following:

B. 6,399 Teachers Script: Add one to this number.

He added 1 to 6 and then to 3, but he may have decided that he was unable to add 1 to the 9 s because he would not have gotten a one-digit answer. Another participant realized that some of the childs answers may have been the result of adding vertically, which meant in this case that he added together numbers from different problems.

A BTRS member suggested that the next question to ask might be, Just where do Pams students show number sense? Earlier, Pam had reported that they have some significant abilitiesshe had mentioned a conversation on fractions that had come up spontaneously in her classroom. An important part of the teacher researchers practice, the BTRS member continued, is to find out where the students are able to think in this way and then to use this information to consider why they cannot in other situations. Pam responded by saying she has noticed that her students are fluent at figuring out their place in line, how many places back they are when they line up for lunch, who will get served first, and who will have to wait and for how long. She characterized this kind of thinking as number line thinking. Experienced participants suggested that Pam keep exploring what her children say and do in such contexts to understand both the mathematical task itself more fully and the childrens various abilities at dealing with it.

Like far

Pam next brought up Jorges behavior in another contexthe was given the number 50 and asked to suggest a number that was very far away from 50. He suggested the number 72. Pam and another teacher also working with Jorge were astonished that he would come up with a number like 72 when he could have said a million or a thousand, something they considered to be really far away. In response, a CKC member related the story of a child who, similar to Jorge, was learning English and is from a family with a limited history of schooling. This child was involved in the task of writing possible trips for others to take along a piece of adding machine tape stuck to the floor of his classroom. The tape was 9m long. The trips children wrote included such directions as walk three steps, twirl, crawl two, run to the end. This child, after watching a number of trips, was suddenly struck by the way that, when you had traveled 5m down the tape, if you turned around and looked back, 5m was, as he said with a wondering emphasis, like far from the start. Five meters, which is not a long way by most standards, seemed very far in this context.

The group then talked about the role of context in determining what we consider far. Again, they wondered, what was Pams student thinking, what context did he have in his mind, when he chose 72? Does Jorge know nothing about far in terms of numbers? Or does Jorges answer call for a further investigation into his thoughts on far and also on the ways we use far and the role of various contexts in determining what counts as far, as various participants suggested?

In these examples, the experienced participants demonstrated their belief that children are always making some kind of sense, that they are always working with a meaning that is reasonable in the context they perceive themselves to be in. Therefore, the major suggestion made to Pam by these experienced participants was that she get more information from the children on their ideas, either by observing the children or by exploring their ideas with them in more depth. It is also important to note that experienced participants suggested that exploring the childrens ideas further as part of a mathematical or a scientific conversation was at the same time a way to develop childrens understanding. These practitioners did not view their research as separate from their teaching.


Experienced participants spent significant time thinking about scientific and mathematical ideas, even as they considered data on what children said and did. Questions came, often insistently, about, for example, the meaning of an idea in biology, or the way a piece of graphing technology works, or the different kinds of perspective used in maps and paintings and how they work. We present two examples of this kind of thinking because we believe they reflect an attitude toward knowing in science and mathematics that these experienced practitioners find to be crucial to their research.

Positioning Myself as a Learner

Ellen Schwartz, a teacher in Northfield, Massachusetts, and a long-time member of Prospect, discussed the value of assuming the learners perspective in her research. The occasion arose during a discussion of data brought in by a teacher who was new to teacher research. This teacher, Stephanie Davis, shared her students work with fractions and place value. Stephanie is a sixth-grade teacher in a school in a largely Mexican American neighborhood. She told her roundtable group that she expects her students to know certain things, such as place value in mathematics, but frequently finds they do not. She asked the group to focus on the work of Eduardo, a recent immigrant from Mexico. Eduardo seems to have average math skills, but some of his work makes Stephanie wonder how he really sees these numbers. What do these values mean to him? She said she was trying to get better at asking the right questions to understand his thinking.

Ellen responded by explaining that in her own work she finds it helpful to try to put herself in what she imagines to be the students position. She offered an example of how she goes about doing this. Before she teaches place value to her third-graders, she spends time each year solving problems in another number base (e.g., base 12). This practice complicates for her the meanings that numbers have, given their place in a number string, and puts her in contact with her own questions about place value. It makes her aware of what and how much about understanding place value she takes for granted because of her deep familiarity with base 10. Doing the math lets me position myself as a learner. I always learn something new. And it puts me in a better position to hear what my students are struggling with.

Showing Me What I Dont Know

Mary DiSchino, an experienced teacher researcher from CKC, was at the roundtable with Ellen and Stephanie. She shared a videotape and transcript of a discussion in which her third- and fourth-graders from diverse backgrounds discussed the question, if an amaryllis grows from a bulb, why would it make seeds? Gita, a fourth-grader and speaker of English as a second language, asked this question based on the classs experience growing Wisconsin FastPlants and an amaryllis. The children grew cycles of FastPlants: planting them, raising them, pollinating them, and planting the seeds that were produced by their original plants. At the same time, they planted an amaryllis bulb, watched it grow, pollinated its flowers, and then watched as it produced seedpods. They were trying to figure out what the seedpods, which looked very different from those of FastPlants, might be. Samuel, whose first language was Haitian Creole, said he thought they might be little, little bulbs. Gita said she thought that the amaryllis would make other bulbs, not seeds. Mary asked the roundtable participants to explore the transcript with her; she wanted help thinking about whether learning had taken place in this conversation.

After some initial discussion, one participant remarked that he wasnt sure what bulbs were and how they related to seeds. Ellen agreed, asking what a bulb is. Another participant with extensive knowledge about plants explained that she thought a bulb was a specialized root that develops in certain kinds of plants and allows them to reproduce asexually. Someone then asked, Does an onion have seeds? Ellen responded, somewhat surprised herself, that yes, an onion makes both bulbs and seeds. The participant familiar with plants said she thought that new bulbs are produced asexually, so the bulblets are genetically identical to the mother plant, but that seeds are produced through pollination, which involves both father and mother plants. Thus, the new seeds will contain genetic material from both parents. Pollination, she suggested, is a way of ensuring variation in a species. Another participant asked why some plants reproduce only through seeds and others reproduce through bulbs and seeds.

Shortly thereafter, one of the experienced teacher researchers wondered if Marys children were trying to figure out how the seeds and the bulb worked together to grow new plants. Mary said she thought they were trying to understand a deeper question: If this plant reproduces via bulbs, what was it doing making seeds? In effect, the children were exploring variation. In response, Ellen said she hadnt thought about variation until that moment; as a gardener, she knows that bulb plants make seeds and bulbs, but shed never thought about why they did this.

Responding to Ellen, Mary said that she frequently finds herself in a situation of not knowing when her children ask questions about natural phenomena. In fact, she relies on their questions and ideas to push her to the edge of her own knowledge. She looks forward to those moments when their questions

show me what I dont know. I could never have predicted Gitas question. I didnt know that an amaryllis made seeds . . . . (T)heir questions take me to a different place. I have to learn with them in order to help them learn. We really learn together. . . which means that I can use what I am learning about how I learn science to help them learn.

For Mary, Ellen, and the other experienced teacher researchers, not knowing is integral to teaching; they expect to learn from and with their children as they teach (see DiSchino, 1987, 1998). While they listen for the ways their students questions connect to big ideas in science like variation, they also examine their own understanding of the phenomenon. The experience of bumping up against the limits of ones understanding is a generative opportunity from their point of view: It keeps the discipline alive for them by forcing them to probe the state of their own understanding. By using childrens ideas as they teach, these experienced teacher researchers not only better understand the meaning the children are making but also become conscious of another resource for learning and teachingfirsthand knowledge about the kinds of contexts and instructional materials that have helped push their own learning forward in science and mathematics. They regularly find that the most challenging questions come from children from culturally diverse backgrounds. These children often say or ask things that the teacher does not expect, thus requiring the teacher to think hard about what she knows and what the child means and is thinking about.


How does the work of others influence the way experienced teacher researchers pursue their research? How does it shape the kinds of questions they ask? How does it influence their theories of teaching and learning? In this section we discuss more finished pieces of research. The first example comes from a Festival of Data, the second from the keynote address. We found that these experienced teacher researchers drew on the research literature in a number of ways.

Theres a Mismatch Between the Question Ive Asked and the Responses That I Receive

Suzanne Pothier, an experienced first- and second-grade teacher researcher from CKC, teaches students from a range of cultural backgrounds. She discussed her efforts to resolve a question about what she called a mismatch between the question Ive asked and the responses that I receive in her classroom. Suzanne presented a transcript from a discussion that occurred during a unit on motion and force. The children had been exploring Newtons idea that if an object changes its speed or direction, the change was caused by a force. Suzanne asked the children to roll a toy car down a ramp and observe any changes in speed they could see. Then she asked them to tell a story about the cars trip.

Sharrone, an African American child who rarely spoke during science class, volunteered a story of a bike speeding down a high hill, going faster and faster, and if somebody was walking by and then you was coming close to them you might hurt them. To focus Sharrone on change in speed, Suzanne asked, If the bike hit a person right here (pointing to the top of the ramp) and then it starts again and hits a person right here (pointing to the bottom of the ramp), who is going to get hurt more?

Sharrone explained that the person at the top was not going to be hurt because if the biker saw him hell stop before they hit him, and the person at the bottom might get hurt because if the bike was going fast and the person was looking the other way and the biker was doing a wheelie, he might hit the person in the belly because it was too hard to stop. Arlene, a European American child, told Suzanne that she thought that the person at the top wouldnt get hurt because the biker is just getting started and so its really slow, but at the bottom the biker gets a longer time to start up so it gets really fast and its hard for him to stop. Following this conversation, Suzanne wondered why Sharrone didnt seem to know that she was asking him to talk about changes in speed but Arlene did. Did he not know that the speed of the bike increased as it went down the hill? Did he not understand her question?

Suzanne told conference participants that as she studied this transcript, she was reminded of research by Gee (1989) that she had read earlier that year. She talked about Gees Alligator River Story research, in which he compared the ways in which teenagers from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds discussed with their teacher their reactions to a story. Gees research suggested that one of the reasons that the students talked in different ways was because they assumed different things about the conversation they were in. For example, the working-class African American students referred to the characters by pronouns rather than their full names because, in Gees view, they assumed that their teacher shared their knowledge of the plot and the characters. They did not feel the need to name the already-known characters. Instead they elaborated the thoughts and questions that they considered to be new information for their teacher. The middle- and upper class White students, although they too knew that the teacher knew the story, interpreted the task as one that required them to act as if she didnt. In effect, students from different backgrounds approached the task and situation differently.

Suzanne reported that these insights helped her develop a perspective on what might have happened during the bicycle discussion. Gees delineation of the varied social and cultural assumptions people make in relation to the kind of conversation they are in led her to ask, What were Sharrones, Arlenes and her own views of the conversation? What did theyand what did shebring in the way of background knowledge and experience that might have led them to different interpretations of the communicative requirements of this event?

Suzanne realized that she and Sharrone might have been operating from different assumptions about what is shared, and therefore, what needs to be made explicit between observers of the same event. She wondered if Sharrone assumed that, because they shared the visual experience of the car (or bicycle, in his story) going down the ramp, she knew that it got faster and faster, and that the person at the bottom of the hill would get hurt more. When she asked him which person would get hurt more, did he assume she was asking an authentic question, one that did not yet have an answer? Was that why he explained why a person at the bottom could get hitthat is, how events might have conspired to cause the accidentrather than why he would be hurt more than a person at the top?

Suzanne wondered if Arlene held other assumptions about the communicative situation and whether her assumptions were closer to her own than to Sharrones. Why did she seem to understand that Suzanne wanted to know what she thought about the effect of increasing speed in the two collisions? Why did she talk explicitly about speed in her responses? Was she aware, in a way that Sharrone was not, that in Suzannes role as teacher she was trying to assess what she was understanding?

As Suzanne studied the transcript, she realized that Sharrones story was replete with information about change in speed and even laid the groundwork for a discussion of momentum. She also saw how Arlene, whom she had heard in the moment as more on task, built directly off Sharrones ideas to formulate her own explanation.

Suzannes reflections on the ways her students responded during this discussion, her further exploration of various contexts and conversationsall in relation to Gees work and ideaslaunched her into an ongoing exploration of the assumptions about meaning that children and teacher bring to communicative situations based on their diverse knowledge and experiences. She told conference participants that her view of what she wants to teach her children has broadened. She wants all her children to be comfortable in a range of communicative situations and to possess a repertoire of responses to draw on in those situations: She wants Sharrone to learn what Arlene knows and Arlene to learn what Sharrone knows. Her research has led her to see that all children have something to teach, as well as to learn from, one another.

Investigating the Role of Imagination

The second example comes from Karen Gallas, a primary school teacher and member of BTRS, who spoke to conference participants about her multiyear inquiry into the role of imagination in learning. Karen began by situating her inquiry. Like others, her study was motivated by a child in her classroom. Denzel, an African American second-grader, had learned to read, but despite Karens best attempts he could not be engaged in listening or responding to literature at read-aloud time. Nor was she able to engage him with other texts during other parts of the day. Karen felt that Denzel had not taken the step beyond simply reading because he wanted to participate in some way with the text and the class. Karen observed him throughout the year and by June concluded that she had failed him somehow because she had not found a way to bring his imaginative life into contact with school.

During the last days of school, however, Denzel showed Karen that his imagination was indeed alive and well. The following is from Karens field notes, which she read to the conference participants.

Field Notes

Tuesday: We have our summer-baby birthday party. Parents bring in great food: sushi, cake and strawberries, cookies, cupcakes, juice, and Jello. Ayakos mom made a raspberry Jello that was just beautiful: layers of white and red gelatin. Denzel had four servings. We went outside to play, and half the class started to make up a line game that sort of resembled Red Rover, but was a line that, like an ocean wave, chased, and then enclosed whomever it caught. They were chanting nonsense rhymes, laughing and falling. Denzel and Alex came out a little late and they watched for a few seconds. Then Denzel came over and asked me if he could go and play catch with his cousin, who was also out on the playground with his class. I said no, that I wanted him to play with our class. The children went under a big pine tree that was shady, and conferred. Denzel stood on the edge of the group, listening. Then the children broke apart running in goofy ways, making nonsense sounds. Denzel watched them for a minute, then followed running in a jerky, wobbling manner past me, and he had a big smile on his face, and called out, Look, Karen, Im running like Jello! He continued running after the group, then reached them and ran on. I stood still, trying to grasp the words, and shocked at the metaphor that had just come out of his mouth. Had I ever heard him use a metaphor before? I dont think so. (Quoted in Gallas, 2001, p. 461)

Karen went on to report a series of dances that Denzel performed on the last day of school for the class. She explained that she had come to realize that she was not seeing Denzels imagination. It was there, but not in words, and she had not thought to look for it in his physical actions. She explained that although she had not recognized Denzels imagination in time to help Denzel as she would have liked, this experience started her on a quest to understand both the diverse ways in which the imagination operates and the relationship it has to learning and literacy.

Karen began her study by further challenging her own notions of imagination. Denzel had helped her to see that she had too narrow a view of how the imagination looked and where to find it. To broaden her notion of imagination further, Karen felt that she needed to do three things: She needed to investigate her own uses of imagination, she needed to explore how imagination was conceived of by others in various disciplines, and she needed to collect more instances of imagining from children. During the year following the year she taught Denzel, Karen did not teach. She explored her own imagination by, as she puts it, recording what passed through my mind when I took my daily two hour walks, when I danced, when I swam. Slowly I began to get a fix on how imagination did and didnt work for me (Gallas, 2001, p. 463).

Karen also explored the works of many scholars from diverse fields. She read the works of artists who wrote about the development of their imaginative processes. (e.g., Grotowski, 1968; Sartre, 1964). She explored the work of philosophers and theologians who considered the role of imagination (e.g., Corbin, 1969; De Chardin, 1960; Greene, 1995; Sartre, 1961; Warnock, 1976). In addition, she read the work of scientists and sociologists of science who spoke or wrote about the role of imagination in the development of scientific thinking (e.g., Cobb, 1993; Fox-Keller, 1983; Holton, 1973; Ochs, Jacoby, & Gonzales, 1996; Raymo, 1987; Root-Bernstein, 1989; Salk, 1983; Wolpert & Richards, 1997). Finally, she delved back into some of her own favorite thinkers in the field of education to look again at the way they conceived of imagination (e.g., Ashton-Warner, 1963; Gee, 1989; Grumet, 1988).

All this helped Karen to build an expansive sense of the imagination. She explained that this process of exploring others views on imagination as well as her own experience of it broadened her ability to look back at Denzel, to better understand the points at which he had and had not made contact with storybooks and other kinds of classroom texts (p. 488). Denzels legacy, as she put it, was an expanded space in her teaching for children to carry out their own purposes as learners. With the attention she paid to this space, she was able to see the imagination alive and well in many children and in many disciplines, including sciencein Emily, for example, a child who spent all her free time with insects, a child who believed she could talk to them. As Karen says, what right did she have as the teacher to prevent Emily from pursuing her passion? She was a child who imagined herself as a scientist and, in many ways, as a fellow creature with her insects as well.

Her view of imagination also helped Karen see, as well, the mapmakers in her own classroom. These kindergarteners, after a good deal of work exploring actual maps, began to create their own. Here they explain their three-dimensional map to Karen:

First we found the maps and then we wanted to make our own maps. So we copied from the maps how to draw. Then we started to go on a trip, and then we made calculators on our maps! The calculators reminded us of the telephone and then we put on a T.V. If we dont have a telephone, we couldnt call, and we needed to count stuff on the calculator. If we say something on it [the keypad], like . . . . Is someone having a birthday party here?. . . It will say no, or yes, and where it [the party] is. We also made a key for the whole world to unlock wherever you go, and to lock it back up whenever you go away. (Gallas, 2001, p. 476)

With this expanded view of what imagination is and what it does, Karen continues to collect and explore data, to develop spaces for it to come forward, and to articulate for herself and others its relation to childrens identity and their learning.

Bringing Research to Where You Live

Although academic researchers use professional literature in various ways depending on their goals and needs, there has been a strong sense among teachers that the professional literature of education has served them poorly and rarely honored what they know and what they wish to know. Teachers often report that their experience of reading educational research has left them feeling that it has little to do with them, their children, or their questions about teaching and learning.

Importantly, Suzanne and Karen recount a different kind of experience. We believe that their experience with research literature was different for at least two reasons. First, each started with her own question about her students learning and her own teaching. Thus they sought out the ideas of others to deepen, provide texture, and challenge their own thinking about what they do as teachers. The ideas, interpretations, and perspectives contained in what they read helped them to interrupt commonsense frames (Kidder & Fine, 1997), to go beyond their own assumptions about imagination and norms of communication.

Second, both Karen and Suzanne found it useful to bring their own experience into the mix: for Karen, her ways of imagining and, for Suzanne, her own ways of talking in school. Thus they were able to consider what the literature was claiming in relation to something they knew well, their own experience, as well as in relation to claims or suggestions or theories made in the literature about students and classrooms. Connecting the literature with personal experience in this way helped each to develop a critical stance. The research articles that each read became not an authoritative voice but another perspective in an ongoing internal dialogue of ideas in which these teachers theorized their own experience and their practice.


Dressman (2000) reviewed a collection of 61 examples of classroom research published in Language Arts. The most common genre throughout, he found, was what he called the good practice narrative, a paradigm that reports seemingly successful attempts to instantiate theory into practice. He points out that such narratives, by focusing on success in this way, fail to engage or even mention most of the external factors that give teaching and learning their texture, their contour, and all too often, their outcome (p. 57). He suggests that the goal of teachers who develop accounts of good practice may be to inspire other teachers. In doing this, their narratives often convey what the writers believe in rather than the details and complexity of what actually happens. The theory, whether it is about the writing process or cooperative learning or constructivist lessons in science, is presented in its power and success. No problems arise, or those that do are not seen as moments to embrace and interrogate, to use Fecho and Allens (2003) words once again.

In contrast, the teacher researchers discussed here choose to focus on moments of confusion and the responses of children they find puzzling in science and mathematics lessons. Their goal is to better understand and delve into something they perceive as problematic, confusing, perhaps even unsuccessful. By documenting students talk, activity, and work, they make the busy world of the classroom stand still as they probe beneath standard explanations for problems and listen for their students ideas about what they are doing. They question what they themselves know and assume in their active attempts to see the sense each child brings. They use the theories of others to illuminate and deliberate on what they know and want to know about teaching and learning science and mathematics.

This tradition of teacher research is based on concerns about issues of equity. Interestingly, however, in the teacher discussions, they dont say very much about race, gender, or ethnicity. Although the discussions we are reporting were in many important ways informed by literature that does discuss these ideas more directly, these teacher researchers approached these issues from a point of view that is firmly situated in their daily dilemmas of practice. There are always children in any classroom who pose particular problems to the teacher, who dont do well academically, and dont seem to be easy to help. Who these children are varies, but many of them are poor and come from a culturally diverse background.

The experienced teacher researchers highlighted here show how close observation of childrenall children, but especially those who do not do wellcan challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions about what ability looks like, about what our own knowledge is, and how we might best teach it. They also demonstrate that children who make puzzling responses do not necessarily have deficient ideas but rather are operating from a world that differs from the one we commonly assume. As we come to understand such worlds, we are better able to teach not only these children but all children because we become more attentive to our basic ways of communicating scientific and mathematical knowledge in the classroom.

The work reported herein and the writing of this article were supported by a grant from the Research Conference Grant Program of the Spencer Foundation, the National Science Foundation, Grant No. ESI-9555712, and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Cooperative Agreement No. R305A6007-98 to the National Center for Improving Student Learning and Achievement in Mathematics and Science, University of Wisconsin, Madison. The data presented, the statements made, and the views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors. No endorsement by any of the funding agencies should be inferred.

We wish to thank the teacher researchers who attended the conference for their many contributions to the development of this article. We would also like to thank the following individuals for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this article: Faith Conant, Mary DiSchino, Karen Gallas, Pam Heimann, Hedy Helfand, Rhoda Kanevsky, Suzanne Pothier, John Rury, Ellen Schwartz, Beth Warren, and Tracey Wright.


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CINDY BALLENGER is a sociolinguist at the Cheche Konnen Center with principal research interests in classroom discourse in relation to learning within academic disciplines. She is also a teacher, most recently of third- and fourth-grade bilingual students. She is a founding member of the Brookline Teacher Research Seminar. She has published articles that address issues of cultural difference in language use in early literacy education; her book Teaching Other Peoples Children addresses both teachers and researchers, with particular focus on conducting research on language practices as part of the process of teaching in a multicultural classroom. She is involved in a variety of efforts to support the development of teacher research as a part of teaching.

ANN S. ROSEBERY is codirector of the Cheche Konnen Center. Her research focuses on improving science learning and teaching for low-income, racial, ethnic, and linguistic minority children. A central goal of this work has been to document and characterize the range of intellectual resources that children from diverse backgrounds bring to the study of science. Currently she is collaborating with teacher researchers and Cheche Konnen staff to develop innovative pedagogical practices that enable all children to understand and use diverse sense-making resources to learn and do science. Dr. Rosebery was a middle school teacher for 8 years.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 2, 2003, p. 297-314
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11054, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 2:38:03 PM

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  • Cynthia Ballenger
    Chèche Konnen Center
    E-mail Author
    CINDY BALLENGER is a sociolinguist at the Chèche Konnen Center with principal research interests in classroom discourse in relation to learning within academic disciplines. She is also a teacher, most recently of third- and fourth-grade bilingual students. She is a founding member of the Brookline Teacher Research Seminar. She has published articles that address issues of cultural difference in language use in early literacy education; her book Teaching Other People's Children addresses both teachers and researchers, with particular focus on conducting research on language practices as part of the process of teaching in a multicultural classroom. She is involved in a variety of efforts to support the development of teacher research as a part of teaching.
  • Ann Rosebery
    Chèche Konnen Center
    E-mail Author
    ANN S. ROSEBERY is codirector of the Chèche Konnen Center. Her research focuses on improving science learning and teaching for low-income, racial, ethnic, and linguistic minority children. A central goal of this work has been to document and characterize the range of intellectual resources that children from diverse backgrounds bring to the study of science. Currently she is collaborating with teacher researchers and Chèche Konnen staff to develop innovative pedagogical practices that enable all children to understand and use diverse sense-making resources to learn and do science. Dr. Rosebery was a middle school teacher for 8 years.
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