Teacher Writers vs. Teacher Researchers

“I know that it’s not possible to write a competent interview without some juggling and eliding of quotes; don’t believe any writer who claims he never does it…What’s wrong, I believe, is to fabricate quotes or to surmise what someone might have said. Writing is a public trust. The non-fiction writer’s rare privilege is to have the whole wonderful world of people to write about. When you get people talking, handle what they say as you would handle a valuable gift.” (On Writing WellWilliam Zissner)

I wonder if the journalist’s tools might be more helpful to me than the educational researcher’s. Even though journalists share few of our interests, their predicament more closely resembles our own. Out for an interview, at first there are two people talking. And hours later it’s a writer with a notebook trying to faithfully capture that conversation.

Every time I sit down to write about a classroom experience I worry about my honesty. Am I making this up? I look to student work, sometimes I had managed to scribble down a quote or two during class. I bet I could get handier with my notebook. I need more scraps of the past.

And I also wonder whether the work of the teacher researcher is more about writing than research. We have no communally accepted standards of evidence. There is no experimental design worth talking about when you’re alone with your students. We teachers can’t afford to have systematic research methods, not when thirteen kids are yelling for help.

So, we pay attention as best we can and then we write. But do we pay enough attention to our writing? What sort of stories do we tell? What our the cliches of our genre? How do we improve the craft? What’s captures attention, what’s interesting?

Here’s what’s interesting: Tracy Zager, Christopher Danielson, Andy Gael, Joe Schwartz.

10 thoughts on “Teacher Writers vs. Teacher Researchers

  1. Hey Michael! Have you ever recorded yourself teaching (video and/or audio) and then taken the time to analyze it? I’ve been doing that for my book — its desperately hard to get any perspective on my work without it — and I feel like I’ve really benefited from an “outside eye” of sorts. Cheers.


    1. I have! It sometimes helps, and I’m excited to try more — I just bought an audio recorder — but I largely agree with Zissner’s take on this, as far as writing is concerned:

      My main reasons for warning you off of [recording an interview] are practical. One hazard is that you don’t usually have a tape recorder with you; you are more likely to have a pencil. Another is that tape recorders malfunction….But above all, a writer should be able to see his materials. If your interview is on tape you become a listener, forever fussing with the machine, running it backward to find the brilliant remark you can never quite find, running it forward, stopping, starting, driving yourself crazy. Be a writer. Write things down.

      Zissner’s point isn’t to totally nay-say recording — he finds it often helpful, and so do I — but for the day-to-day writing and thinking about teaching that a daily k-12 classroom teacher has to do, there are limits to recordings’ usefulness.

      That thing, where after a lesson you have time to listen and analyze a lesson? K-12 classroom work makes that very hard to find time for. Much like the journalist, who needs to get that piece out and write two new ones the next day, we just can’t always afford that.


      1. Dude! The voice recorder on a phone works great, not too fiddly. And, just record one class and listen to it on the way home. There will be interesting things that pop out at you right away. If it’s super interesting, maybe you’ll be able to find time to transcribe it. That’s when I really begin to “hear” what is being said. Stepping back this way is useful, even if you can only do a little of it.


      2. Malke: My phone is very dumb — it doesn’t record. And I’ve done my share of listening to full classes. It’s pretty boring, honestly.

        My point isn’t to dismiss recording my teaching. Like I said, I do it and I’m trying to figure out how to make it less of a chore. (Shorter clips? Targeted questions?) It can be helpful, sure! And I know that it can be helpful to journalists too.

        I don’t know if this is true — I don’t want to presume — but seems to me that the difference between your and my attitudes towards recording might be explainable by our different teaching situations. Four or five periods a day, everyday, changes things, I think.


      3. My goal when listening back to recordings is twofold — to asses my work as a facilitator of conversations with the whole class and to slow down time/space continuum to practice listening to my students’ thoughts and questions in a more focused context so I can get better at responding when I’m back in the fray. I know what a slog it is to listen back to every class, every day. I did that back in September. My point was that you don’t have to record/analyze all of them — I can’t tell if you think you need to do that or…?


      4. My point was that you don’t have to record/analyze all of them — I can’t tell if you think you need to do that or…?

        Of course I don’t think you need to do this. I’m still saying it’s a slog. I’m trying to describe my experience here — I’m not saying that in principle it has to be a slog — but I’ve tried this a lot of different ways and that it’s always been a slog.

        It’s interesting to think about why our experiences of listening to recordings of our teaching are so different. I hypothesize that our teaching situations might partly explain this but, hey, maybe I’m doing it wrong. I’m totally open to that!

        That said, the above quote warning non-fiction writers against recording interviews? That’s a pretty nice description of my experience of slogging through recordings.


      5. I’m getting a better sense of how it’s going for you, lol! I’ll be interested in hearing more as things develop. 🙂


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