Action Research: Reseeing Learning and Rethinking Practice in the LOTE Classroom

LOTE CED Communiqué: Issue 8

by Richard Donato, University of Pittsburgh

NOTE: This paper was published May 2003 as Issue 8 of the LOTE CED Communiqué. It may be reproduced and distributed to others with acknowledgement of the LOTE CED as the source. For best results printing, please access the PDF version (512K) of this document.

Professional Development and the LOTE Teacher

No area of education is as complex and challenging as the professional development of practicing teachers. The need for participation in valid and useful professional development opportunities is clearly articulated in several national standards documents, such as the Model Standards for Licensing Beginning Foreign Language Teachers (INTASC), the Program Standards for the Preparation of Foreign Language Teachers (ACTFL), and the World Languages other than English Standards (NBPTS). Despite the strong recommendation of these national organizations for continual professional development, efforts to educate and renew practicing foreign language teachers are largely assigned to periodic workshops and yearly professional conference attendance. Research on teacher education has shown repeatedly that the benefits gained from one-day “how-to” workshops are limited and transitory. Thus, a critical question is how can teachers engage in on-going professional development in ways that make a difference to their practice, connect to their lives as teachers, and ultimately improve learning and instruction. Closely connected to this issue is finding ways to create self-renewing opportunities for teachers to participate in this substantive form of professional development given the demands and time-intensive nature of teaching in American public schools.

Action Research and the LOTE Teacher

One area that has recently been seen as potentially useful for weaving long-term professional development into the lives of teachers is the establishment of action research networks in schools, districts, and states. In this way, teachers form communities of collaboration and change (Fullan, 2000) through the examination of their own classrooms. Through the action research process, teachers investigate closely a self-selected area of interest with a view towards seeing learning in a new light and thinking in alternate ways about instruction. This process, far from burdensome, is linked directly to the lives of teachers, is centrally situated in their classrooms, and is constituted through their interactions with students. Action research means innovation and change through on-going collaborative dialogue with colleagues in an effort to see teaching and learning in new ways and improve student learning. Action research is conducted by teachers, not merely on teachers by researchers who often lack knowledge of daily life in classrooms.

This paper reports on a one-year-long, innovative professional development project for Texas LOTE teachers that was initiated by the Languages Other Than English Center for Educator Development (LOTE CED) at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas. During the 2002-2003 academic year, ten Texas LOTE teachers and a state LOTE supervisor explored action research as a tool for deepening professional knowledge and improving foreign language instruction in the context of their own schools and classrooms. I was fortunate to be a part of this action research institute and to work with a highly committed group of accomplished teachers. In my capacity as consultant, I presented the concept of action research to the teachers, engaged them in discussions of issues worthy of investigation, and outlined a process in which their concerns and issues could be examined systematically with data. Dr. Elaine Phillips, Director of the LOTE CED and the Action Research Initiative Director, monitored the teachers’ research throughout the year by requiring periodic electronic reports of the projects and responding to them in ways that probed and deepened the teachers’ studies. This on-going contact provided the momentum that prevented professional inertia and kept the projects moving forward.

The Action Research Process

The 4-part model for organizing the projects was drawn from the literature on action research and involved a cycle of thinking, acting, reflecting, and rethinking (Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, 1988; Mills, 2003; Stringer, 1996; Wallace, 2000; Burnaford, Fischer, & Hobson, 2001; Hopkins, 1993; Hartman, 1998; Freeman, 1988; Burns, 1999; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999). Through this model, the teachers were introduced to the tools of action research. During our initial two-day meeting in September 2002, teachers explored thinking tools in the form of areas of focus and research questions. The teachers discovered that research involves a clear area of focus and questions that permit rich descriptions rather than naïve comparison of methods or materials. Additionally they learned that the best research always grows out of situations that are within their locus of control, that they feel passionate about, and that they would like to change or improve.

The process of identifying an area of focus and establishing researchable questions is far from neutral and requires an intimate relationship with one’s beliefs about teaching, the nature of language and learning, and the learners. Identifying an instructional problem or puzzle always leads to confronting one’s own values and beliefs about the relationship of theory, practice, and schooling and the effectiveness of one’s own work as a teacher. A critical component of action research is reconnaissance, or the recognition of one’s own contribution to creating positive educational change or maintaining mediocre or ineffective practice. As the teachers explored their areas of focus and wrote their research questions, a community of research and change was forged. In these sessions, we grew together professionally and personally, as colleagues and friends, and learned how to respect and accept each other’s divergent experiences and opinions.

Once research questions were established, we discussed the actions that needed to be taken to answer these questions. The teachers learned that answers to questions could be found by collecting data through personal experience, inquiry into their classrooms, and a systematic examination of teaching practice and student learning (Mills 2003). The tools of inquiry they explored as data collection techniques involved direct participant observation of their own instruction and learners; the use of surveys, interviews, and questionnaires; and the examination of existing documents such as lesson plans, videotapes, grades, journals, questionnaires, interviews, and student work samples. We discussed the importance of multiple perspectives on an issue. We concluded that no single research instrument or test can capture the complexity of instruction and that data need to be triangulated to be credible and valid. We also became familiar with the genre of action research and contrasted action research to laboratory studies where careful control of variables is required and generalization of findings is the desired outcome. In action research, investigations of teaching and learning shift from the controlled laboratory setting to the uncontrollable and unpredictable life of a classroom. Consequently, action research findings give way to locally constructed knowledge of one’s own students, classroom, and foreign language program.

Based on these discussions and distinctions, the Texas teachers left the session ready to begin their studies of their lives as teachers and the world of language learning of their students. Armed with a well-focused area for investigation and research questions that could be answered using a variety of classroom-based research tools, the teachers returned to the classroom prepared to initiate their projects, to collect information, and to make new discoveries. As the year progressed, the teachers were instructed on analyzing the data and drawing interpretations through direct reference to the information they had collected. The teachers then wrote their own accounts of their action research projects. Each report follows a similar format and provides information on the purpose of the study, research questions, discoveries and findings, and instructional actions to be taken in the future. Findings and conclusions, as will be noted in the studies below, were based on actual evidence rather than anecdote.

Perspectives on the Teachers’ Research

Reading across the ten studies below, we discover important themes and areas of professional concern for the Texas LOTE teacher. All the studies maintain an area of focus on learners and the relationship of the learner to a particular teaching or assessment practice. In some cases, the learners became co-researchers with the teacher during the action research project and were asked to self-assess, provide input on lesson content and assessments, and rate instructional strategies for their effectiveness. It is noteworthy that, for five out of the ten studies, spontaneous and creative language ability in the interpersonal mode of communication (the National Standards for Foreign Language Learning, 1996) is a particular concern. Other action research studies sought to understand student opinion on lesson design and assessment effectiveness, topics and contexts for presenting new language content, and reactions to instructional innovations, such as thematic units and interdisciplinary instruction. Three studies looked at particular types of learners–the heritage language learner, learners with special needs, and the Advanced Placement student. In the case of the heritage language learner, a frequently-observed situation in the state of Texas, the study attempted to innovate instruction in an effort to integrate more fully the heritage language learner in second-year foreign language classes. The findings of this study point to the critical need for providing differentiated instruction to heritage language learners, a program that will fortunately be implemented in the fall in this teacher’s school.

A second theme to emerge across many of the studies was that innovation does not always lead to immediate improvements for all. Rather, a more realistic view is that innovation is an ongoing process of change and refinement. In the study of interpersonal communication in the middle school Spanish classroom, the teacher learns that not all activities are created equal. After a close examination of two classroom projects, the teacher discovers that certain projects deflect student attention away from language learning as they focus more on the materials of the project, in this case a puppet show, than they do on using the language. In the study of special needs students, the findings reveal that, despite efforts to educate teachers, among 148 respondents to a survey on special needs LOTE students, teachers often reflected misconceptions about what constitutes a learning disability and confusions about accommodations and modifications. Other studies indicate partial successes and diversity in student opinion about an innovation. For example, in the study of student input into classroom assessment practices, the teacher found that students often reflected traditional views of assessment in their choices, and they did not always score higher on student-generated tests. Although some students did not perform substantially lower on student-made assessments and one class performed better, the findings indicate that, for an innovation, “one size does not fit all.”

Action Plans and Planning for Action

Action research is a reflective cycle of planning for action leading to future action plans that can be carried out and more fully investigated. Far from being completed, these studies represent a teacher’s cycle of discovery. This cycle is characterized by the iterative process of assessing conditions in the present for creating and implementing instructional innovations and additional research in the future. All the studies conclude with recommendations for the future and all recommendations involve more action research-based instructional decision-making. Some studies recommend a specific focus on a problem area, such as redesigning communicative activities to allow greater focus on language, vocabulary retention, or topics of student interest. Other studies conclude with large-scale projects. For example, designing a curriculum specifically for heritage language learners or instituting professional development sessions based on teacher conceptions and misconceptions about the nature of the special needs learner. Finally, some studies refer specifically to the need for collecting more information from students to establish a clearer perspective on student content learning and curriculum. It is clear that planning an action research project has become the catalyst for these teachers to use this new tool in their daily practice and to invoke a research perspective to innovate and improve their instructional planning, teaching approaches, and assessments.

It is hoped that these studies will enlighten and inspire other LOTE teachers to explore this powerful tool of professional development. For all the teachers in this action research institute, I am sure they leave the project with a greater understanding of student learning, language teaching, and the issues that face our profession. Action research is not an additional burden to what we do as teachers. It is fundamental and at the core of accomplished teaching. As one of my own students pointed out to me this past year when she began her action research project for her MAT degree, action research is what teachers should always do, since it is fundamentally “reflective practice.” Action research goes far beyond the “what-to-do-on-Monday-morning” approach to professional development. It is continual, reflective, and renewing and, as such, represents perhaps our best effort at connecting teachers to their practice and building understandings that cannot be captured in methodology textbooks or other generic educational recommendations. As one teacher stated, participation in the action research institute provided a supportive network of teachers that allowed her to explore her own issues and experience the true meaning of teacher empowerment. In her own words “I left feeling inspired, hopeful, and affirmed.

Teacher Reports

Native Lands
Gigi Austin, Dallas ISD

I am an experienced English teacher who, at the start of this saga, was inexperienced at teaching Spanish to talented and gifted middle school students. I willingly chose to change subjects and grade levels and can now say I am glad that I did. Much transpired between that choice and "gladness," however. This happy ending did not have a very happy beginning. >>continue

Integrative Teaching
Cesiah Boryczka, Northside ISD

The purpose of the study was to examine the effect of interdisciplinary teaching on student performance as evidenced in the end product (poem), student/teacher satisfaction, and attitude. I sought to learn how students perceive and react to the professional interaction and collaboration between their Spanish teacher and her colleague, an English teacher, as they teamed to introduce a unit of poetry. A second goal was to engage the students themselves in the development of the lesson to determine whether or not this procedure is effective or ineffective. >>continue

Customizing Curriculum to Address Standards
Monica Daucourt, Dallas ISD

The purpose of this study was to investigate if standards for foreign language learners can be met while at the same time addressing student motivation and interest in real-world topics and tasks so that they can be more successful in the classroom. More specifically, can curriculum be customized to student interest and still address the standards set by districts, the state, and the profession? >>continue

Student Choice in Assessment
Greg Foulds, North East ISD

The purpose of this study was to give students choices in the ways in which they are assessed and in the types of assessments used to evaluate their proficiency in Spanish. This topic is of particular importance to me because even after eleven years of teaching Spanish at the secondary level, I still feel that, more often than not, students end up showing me what they do not know rather than what they do. I want them to be able to demonstrate what they have actually learned. >>continue

Getting Middle-Schoolers to Talk... in Spanish!
Pat Kahn, Round Rock ISD

Middle school kids talk all the time, except when you want them to. Every time I have gone to conferences, the other teachers praise their classes on the wonderful job they do on the 2-minute mini-conversations in the book or the situation scenarios that accompany the text. Mine talk during the mini-dialogues, all right—about what they ate for lunch, what they are going to wear tomorrow, who’s hot, who’s not, etc. They converse very nicely, in English, on every subject but the one at hand. They also moan and groan about the situation scenarios, saying they are "boring." >>continue

Increasing Opportunities for Real Communication
Phyllis Santiago, Killeen ISD

I teach Spanish I in a middle school to 8th graders who receive one high school credit for foreign language. I sought to investigate students’ interest level throughout a thematic unit of their choice with a focus on communicative use of the target language. My belief is that when students have a part in the planning and designing of lessons that are meaningful to them, they will seek opportunities to use and increase their newly acquired vocabulary and become life-long learners. I wanted to compare students’ communication in the target language under these conditions with the communication that regularly takes place using the standard lesson from the textbook. >>continue

Choosing and Using Meaningful, Communicative Activities
Leah Sequeira, Spring Branch ISD

I want my students to communicate with one another in the target language in spoken and written formats that mean something to them and are interesting to them. I want them to learn French, not just memorize it. I want them to learn the process, not just the parts. I want them to be involved in the language, seeing the "big picture." Therefore, I wanted to identify a process for choosing and using meaningful, communicative activities because without meaning and context, the language is many parts that do not necessarily equal the whole. With meaning, the students can function and create and understand. >>continue

Improving the Communication Skills of Spanish IV-V AP Students
Miriam Thompson, Round Rock ISD

This is my third year teaching Spanish IV-V Advanced Placement (AP). In looking over my students' AP scores the last two years, I noticed that they did not score well on the oral portion of the exam. The purpose of my study was to investigate activities that create interpersonal communication. My goal was to provide a 10-15 minute oral activity every class period. >>continue

Inclusion in the LOTE Classroom
María Treviño, Texas Education Agency

The purpose of my study was to take a closer look at the population of students who are enrolling in LOTE classes and how teachers are dealing with modifications and accommodations to help all students succeed in learning a second language. This subject is of extreme importance to me; first, because of the personal experience that I just related (and those that followed in subsequent years), and second, because I see an ever-increasing enrollment of special needs students in foreign languages. >>continue

Student Feelings, Authentic Instruction, and the AP Test
Renée Wooten, Wichita Falls ISD

I am a new teacher of AP Spanish Language. My personal feelings are that authentic evaluation and instruction is more valuable to students than activities and isolated evaluations performed in the traditional manner. Yet students are in my class to prepare for the AP exam which is largely traditional in format: multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, etc. I know that a goal of an effective teacher is to teach the way one tests. So, with the addition of the AP program, how would I stay true to my style of teaching while preparing them for the exam? >>continue


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