In this instalment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of teachers Cathy Griffin and Liz Campbell and the Bluewater Action Research Network. Griffin and Campbell are teachers in the Bluewater District School Board in Ontario's Bruce and Grey Counties.
Taking a good, hard look at our shortcomings and mistakes is not always easy. But for teachers Cathy Griffin and Liz Campbell, that process opened a world of learning and elevated their teaching practice to heights they hadn’t imagined.
These outcomes were achieved as a result of the Bluewater Action Research Network (BARN), a project focused on using the action research process, including self-reflection, to inform and inspire improvements in practice for teachers.
“The word ‘transformative’ is so over-used, but this process is transformative,” says Campbell, who began BARN with Griffin as a Teacher Learning and Leadership Project in 2013. “When you ‘get’ this, it really is a game changer. I grew more than I have in any other PD in my life.”
The BARN process begins with a full day group meeting of the teachers participating in the project. “We started off asking people to identify their values in their personal and professional lives and their concerns in their own practice,” Griffin reports. “For the most part, people came up with a huge list.” Participants are encouraged to focus on one thing they want to improve upon. They spend the balance of the day creating an action plan and referring to external research as needed. The focus is on teachers using their personal knowledge of context, students, and self, to generate and test their own theories. After Day One, participants go back to their schools and take action. They work on changing their practice and are encouraged to collect and record data in the form of reflections, critical conversations, student work and video of their practice before the next meeting.
Each teacher’s process is self-directed and self-determined, but includes identifying personal values and concerns about their own practice, planning corrective actions, reporting back to the group on the outcome of those actions and inviting others to critique their work. Educators involved in the project spend four full days meeting with the group and dedicate one personal research and writing day sometime between those meetings.
A key facet of BARN’s approach is based on the idea of Action Research, which involves a reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working in teams or as a part of a community of practice. Each individual focuses on a question, such as, "How can I improve what I am doing?"
Campbell and Griffin were specifically inspired by the work of researcher and teacher Jack Whitehead, who stumbled upon the value of filming himself teach in the 1970s. Along with 18 other Bluewater educators, Campbell and Griffin were introduced to Whitehead through Professor Jackie Delong of Brock University in the Bluewater Masters Cohort (2011). Delong acted as a co-facilitator of the first BARN cohort in 2013/14 and continues to be a consultant for BARN. In this latest group, Griffin and Campbell invited past participants, Melissa Juniper, Bradley Clarke and Krystal Damm to co-facilitate and build sustainability in the process.
“When I video taped myself interacting with my students,” Griffin reports, “I realized that I didn’t do a very good job of just listening. My intention was getting the student to explain his thinking but I just saw myself on video taking over the conversation and misinterpreting what he was saying.”
Campbell admits this can be an unsettling process. “For some people, it’s not easy to embrace their ‘darker side,’ she says. “But once they bring the barrier down, they don’t go back.”
Some of this hesitation stems back to the fact that many teachers are “so afraid to be wrong,” she explains. “We’re supposed to have all of the answers. You have to be willing to be wrong and that should be celebrated.”
However, once teachers have identified some problem areas, tried some new approaches and reported back to the group on their successes and failures, they soon see its value. “Once they do even one round of it, they’re hooked,” Campbell says. “It brings a heightened awareness and once they have this they just get better and better.”
Living Educational Theory
Another key influence on BARN has been research around Living Theory, an approach focusing attention on the experiences and implications of a person’s values that give meaning and purpose to their lives.
According to the Educational Journal of Living Theories, A living theory “is an explanation produced by an individual for their educational influence in their own learning, in the learning of others and in the learning of the social formation in which they live and work.”
This aspect of the group’s journey began by asking themselves some pivotal questions, including: Who am I? How do I know? So what? And, now what? Campbell insists it’s critical for everyone to know the their own answers to these questions.
“What we are trying to get at is the ‘I’; I have my personal value connections, trust, authenticity, humility, and love,” says Griffin. “These are the things we try to embody in life.” Aligning your professional work with these values and connections is vital to being the best you can be in the classroom, she explains. "As Parker Palmer (1999) says, "We teach who we are,” she says. “You can’t separate yourself as a person from your teaching practice.”
It’s crucial that teachers are able to carve out the time to stop and do this kind of meaningful reflection, the teachers say, stressing that TLLP funding or supportive administrations are key to this. “What happens is that teachers are so busy doing they don’t have time to stop and reflect on what they are doing,” says Campbell. “If they had to do this on top of what they already do, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.”
A part of the process for Griffin was asking her students: What in my practice is helping you learn? “They were very reluctant to be critical at first because by being critical exposes the person being critical,” she reveals. “But as soon as I started to show excitement about their barriers to their learning, it just started taking off.” Some kids reported they work better alone, some said the class was too loud, one student said he felt teaching was being lectured to. All of this helped inform Griffin as she worked to improve her practice. She also learned to stop taking any criticism personally. “You start to equate our practice with a thing,” she says. “It’s not who we are. It’s not to be taken as an attack on me but as something I have power to change.”
At the beginning of each year at Bluewater, the facilitators ask what the educators hope to get out of their year. "Then at the end we go back and ask if they accomplished it and they always say they did and way more,” Campbell reports, adding that everyone comes together for one final symposium at the end of the year to share what they have learned with each other and invited guests from across the board. This public sharing of what they claim to know from their research, the telling of their story, is a crucial aspect of the process.
As the teachers get comfortable on this path, it's natural for them to share this approach with their students, Griffin says. "The students start to become a part of the process and they start to take risks," she says. "Showing vulnerability brings down barriers for students and teachers."
One student, who worked on an action research project with Campbell in high school and is currently a student at Ryerson University, recently came back to the school to report how much her teaching approach impacted her. “She said before she had done her self-study she wouldn’t have gone out when she moved to Toronto. She said she goes out all the time now and embraces every opportunity she gets because before she wasn’t confident in herself.” “We talked about the only way to be successful is to be really honest with yourself," Campbell explains. "Push yourself to be more honest.”
Another Grade 12 girl said “'I can’t be honest with myself. I’ve lied to myself my whole life, how can I start now?' "It was so huge," says Campbell. "And I didn’t tell her that. She figured it out for herself.”
One of Griffin's Grade 6 students reported on his action research project. "My problem was focus," he says. "Our barriers are that we get nervous. Our minds wander and get distracted really easily. Our action is that we are going to be drawing while we are listening, drawing out our thoughts. And also mindfulness while tracking our focus."
One of the themes that emerged from participant feedback was that the focus on improving self was contagious. One participant reports, "Through the process of recording and reflecting, I was able to gain new insight into how my practice can be improved upon by opening myself and my work to the ideas of others. This project opened my eyes to the learning of students as well. Much like ourselves, I discovered that when children are given the opportunity to take control over some of their learning, their ownership of it and sense of responsibility is improved."
Velvet Rollin, Vice Principal of Peninsula Shores District School, says that BARN, and the action research teachers are conducting through the BARN project, are important in many ways. "BARN itself has created a community of life-long learners who are travelling a path of professional learning that is both empowering to the individual teachers because they have taken control of their own professional development, but also beneficial to the group because of their shared journey and what they are learning from each other," she explains. "It is also important to the learning journey of all staff within our schools because our BARN participants are becoming experts other teachers can access when they have questions about student learning."
Campbell and Griffin say their practice is more meaningful and continues to be inspired by the dedication and insights of BARN participants and their fellow co-facilitators.
Sharing the Learning
While not everyone can take the time out to do a full action research project in their own practice, Campbell and Griffin recommend interested teachers read Jack Whitehead's book on Living Theory as a starting point. Campbell also regularly participates in Skype discussions with other teachers from around the world on the subject of living education theory and welcomes anyone interested to connect with her.
You can find more information about BARN (including the individual questions of researcher practitioners) and the international context connection, here. Click here for a summary of the 2014-2015 BARN symposium.
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