Reclaiming the Classroom: A Retrospective on Bread Loaf’s Foundational Work in Classroom Inquiry

May 21st, 2020 | By | Category: Featured, Spring 2020

Reclaiming the Classroom: Teacher Research as an Agency for Change

-Tom McKenna with Vicki Holmsten, Lucinda Ray, Dale Lumley, and Dixie Goswami

With the pandemic having shut down most of our schools, we are called to tap some of our newest technologies to extend our classrooms, just as we are faced with some of our oldest and most intractable divides between those whose needs are met by our school systems, and those whose circumstances make learning more challenging, or not accessible at all. From the standpoint of Zoom calls, and screencasting, and polling tools and multimedia compositions, we might as well be on another planet from the extraordinary classrooms of the early 1980s—classrooms like Vicki Holmsten’s on the Acoma Pueblo where students and teacher worked together to study the ways the writing process would be changed by their first experiences using a brand new tool called a word processor. But former Bread Loaf faculty member James Britton’s call for “the decade of the classroom teacher,” for “the full potential of interactive teaching and learning” requiring “all the help we can give them” may have arrived in 2020. Holmsten’s classroom and Britton’s scholarship are part of the weave of an exceptional volume that has much to teach us about the foundations–and perhaps an ongoing trajectory–of todays’ Bread Loaf Teacher Network. 

Reclaiming the Classroom: Teacher Research as an Agency for Change, edited by Dixie Goswami and Peter H. Stillman, and published in 1987, not only captures snapshots of the teaching and influence of some of the most influential scholars in the fields of writing, literacy, linguistics, anthropology, and teacher research, but it serves as a rallying cry to all of us to claim and reclaim teachers’ and students’ authorities in this moment of reimagining  education. 

The fact that ethnographic experience is rooted in the experience of those who were actually there has profound implications for classroom inquiry. Teachers and their students are essential sources of information. They, and only they, were present and engaged–deeply or perfunctorily–in the learning process…They can, and should be the chief source of both the questions and the data from which the questions may be answered.

-Nancy Martin, “on the Move: Teacher Researchers”

The defining opening section, “Classroom Inquiry: What is It?” opens with a preface by Peter Medway, and is anchored by essays by beloved Bread Loaf faculty members James Britton, Nancy Martin, Ann Berthoff, Shirley Brice Heath, and Ken Macrorie, all introduced with incisive analyses by Goswami and Stillman. 

Let’s Review what many of us have observed about what happens when teachers conduct research as a regular part of their roles as teachers:

  1. Their teaching is transformed in important ways: they become theorists, articulating their intentions, testing their assumptions, and finding connections with practice.
  2. Their perceptions of themselves as writers and teachers are transformed. They step up their use of resources; they form networks; and they become more active professionally.
  3. They become rich resources who can provide the profession with information it simply doesn’t have. They can observe closely, over long periods of time, with special insights and knowledge. Teachers know their classrooms and students in ways that outsiders can’t.
  4. They become critical, responsive readers and users of current research, , less apt to accept uncritically others’ theories, less vulnerable to fads, and more authoritative in their assessment of curricula, methods, and materials.
  5. They can study writing and learning and report their findings without spending large comes of money (although they must have support and recognition). Their studies, while probably not definitive, taken together should help us develop and assess writing curricula in ways that are outside the scope of specialists and external evaluators.
  6. They collaborate with their students to answer questions important to both, drawing on community resources in new and unexpected ways. The nature of classroom discourse changes when inquiry begins. Working with teachers to answer real questions provides students with intrinsic motivation for talking, reading, and writing that has the potential for helping them achieve mature language skills.
Peter Medway, Preface

Britton’s perspective that every lesson should be a discovery process, a “quiet form of inquiry” leads to his contention that what we think we know must be constantly “reformulated in the light of what we perceive, and our knowledge is thus forever on the move.” (19) 

Martin advocates that we take an ethnographic stance as practitioners who are “the hewers of wood and the drawers of water in education”:

The fact that ethnographic experience is rooted in the experience of those who were actually there has profound implications for classroom inquiry. Teachers and their students are essential sources of information. They, and only they, were present and engaged–deeply or perfunctorily–in the learning process…They can, and should be the chief source of both the questions and the data from which the questions may be answered. (21)

Martin concludes by warning us that without networks of support, we risk losing heart, and reverting to “older and easier ways.” (24)

The theme of teacher-as-best-recorder-of-particular-knowledge-in-its-particular context is developed in Shirley Brice Heath’s chapter, “A Lot of Talk About Nothing.” Heath’s description of a third grade classroom (“described by the principal as a class of ‘low achievers'”) as a team of “talk detectives” is one you won’t soon forget (replace the tape recorders with iPhones if you must). In this classroom of Heath’s teacher-researcher collaborator, the students study and report on all kinds of talk rather than working on reductive, isolated, remedial tasks. Hard and evolving questions about students’ home experiences with language, questions that yielded more nuanced and actionable information than the contemporary research published in “the field,” led to teaching breakthroughs. 

The teacher in the third-grade classroom described at the beginning of this essay recognized that her students needed intense and frequent occasions to learn and practice those language uses thay had not acquired at home. She, therefore, created a classroom that focused on talk—all kinds of talk. The children labeled, learned to name the features of everyday items and events, told stories, described their own and others’ experiences, and narrated skits, puppet shows, and slide exhibits. … A critical difference here, however, and one driven by a perspective gained from being part of a research team, was the amount of talk about talk in this classroom. (48)

In the final section of the opening, Bread Loaf faculty member Ken Macrorie, known widely as the father of the I-Search process, talks about how following “a genuine need to find out” can lead researchers, including teachers, away from formalistic and forbidding research process, and towards a practice fulfilled by curiosity and genuine humanity. You’ll learn a lot about Macrorie’s salty approach to interviewing (which he would later call “Tell Me Something Interviews”), and you’ll be led by his common sense away from illusions of objectivity to insights like these. 

That’s what I want to say here. It’s much like the other inquisitive people who appear in this book are saying. They’re exciting, loving human beings. They’re interested in finding out what other human beings do that works—in the sense of improving the quality of our daily lives…Expect to make mistakes. Use any uncommon, sophisticated sense or method that will help you do your job of searching, or any simple ordinary kitchen sense of method. Go for something you want and that will make a difference to you, your peers, and other people you don’t know yet. (58)

Macrorie’s I-Search methodology, detailed in Searching Writing and other widely read books, would become the approach to research driving the contemporary What’s the Story? The Vermont Young People Social Action Team where young people research life-changing issues, and take their research public through documentary films.


Each summer at the Bread Loaf School of English’s Vermont campus, an influential scholar is invited to give the school’s Drew Lecture. In 2017, Nancie Atwell, a Bread Loaf student in the late seventies and early eighties, gave the lecture, making the case for a curriculum that includes “frequent, voluminous, happy experiences with books” in a time when commercial products and traditional curricula are squeezing self-selected reading out of the school day. Since her Bread Loaf days, she has been recognized as Poetry Teacher of the Year by the Library of Congress and as the first recipient of the Global Teacher Prize from the Varkey Foundation. Perhaps best known for her widely published  In The Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning (1987), Atwell’s talk, like many of her publications, including chapters in the middle sections of Reclaiming the Classroom, trace her steps from her transformational learning with Dixie Goswami. 

While teaching in Boothbay (Maine) Elementary School, Atwell took her summer learning back home and engaged 14 teachers in observing and describing students’ writing processes, en route to developing a new curriculum.  Here, in the section, “Inquiry as an Agency for Change,” she attributes the research design to learning with Goswami. 

Goswami posits that teachers who study their own writing and the writing of their students undergo transformations in their behavior in the classroom….We found that we concur with Graves (1980) in that teachers slow down when we engage in looking at and thinking and raising questions about our students’ writing. Rather than conforming writing instruction to our timing, we adjust our teaching to attend to individual students’ needs, progress, and stages in the writing process. We stop focusing on presenting a lesson and evaluating its results and start observing our students in the process of learning, listening to what they can tell us, and responding as they need us. As a result of this shift in focus, a different relationship between teachers and students emerges. The teacher-centered classroom becomes a community of writers and learners in which teacher and students are partners in inquiry. (89) 

The volume moves from examples of classroom research leading to curriculum and school reform, in the second section, to Lee O’Dell’s discussion of planning classroom research in the third, to a focus on Bread Loaf teachers’ work, in their classrooms in the final section, “Research Close-ups: Bread Loaf’s Teacher-Researchers.”  These close-ups focus on six teachers who “have become listeners and observers of a new kind, working with students and colleagues to develop cultural and linguistic understandings at the classroom level… kinds of inquiry [that]… can and should happen anywhere.” 

Readers of In the Middle will recognize Atwell’s Reclaiming the Classroom essay “Everyone Sits at a Big Desk” as an early iteration of an important section of that paradigm-changing book. Here Atwell grounds her rationale (to be followed later by detailed techniques) for giving students opportunities to bring their own ideas, experiences and expertise to writing and reading workshops. Each of the six teachers in the volume’s final section describe shifting their stances–several attributing their launch to conversations in Dixie’s Bread Loaf living room–to learn alongside their students, and to discover, learn, and improve together. 

Three of those six teachers offer contemporary reflections on how their work in Reclaiming the Classroom has transformed and propelled their careers.

My teacher-research journey began in my classroom at Laguna-Acoma High School at Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico in 1983. That summer, Dixie Goswami and I sat in big chairs on the porch at the Inn after she read my notebook of teaching observations and reflections from the previous school year.  She informed me I was on the path and invited me to write up a proposal for a grant to conduct a teacher-research project with my students when I returned to New Mexico that fall.  Little did I understand this conversation and the project it started me on would define the rest of my teaching career.

“We Watched Ourselves Write” was my final report on that project. It set me solidly on the path of understanding that the questions and the stories from the classroom needed to be the foundation of my teaching.

The questions never stopped. I took them into my PhD program at New Mexico State University where I majored in rhetoric with a focus in teaching writing.  My dissertation was a teacher-research project, working with my students as collaborators in asking questions about evaluation in our community college basic writing classroom.  In one chapter, I revisited “We Watched Ourselves Write” from the lens of 15 more years of experience and a swim in the critical theory pond. (That chapter, “My World is Made Up of Stories,” is published in Joanne Addison and Sharon James McGee’s 1999 collection Feminist Empirical Research.) All of this work started in that first Bread Loaf teacher-research project.

During the balance of my teaching career at San Juan College, I continued to build on these roots when I became founding director of Bisti Writing Project, a new National Writing Project site in 2005. During our summer institutes, we invited teachers to take on their own inquiry projects and design questions based in their own practice—teacher-research again.

Teacher-research never left me. It gave me a way to discover my own teaching story and help my students, and our NWP teacher participants, to discover their own learning and teaching stories.

Vicki Holmsten graduated from Bread Loaf with her MA in 1985. She retired from full-time teaching at San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico, in 2014. She now teaches memoir writing part-time, and is working more on her own writing.

As I’m sure most of the readers of this journal know, classroom teaching can be a lonely and draining process. Teachers all need inspiration and rejuvenation. I had been teaching for 15 years, and luckily for me, I was accepted to one of Bread Loaf’s early Rural Teachers of English Institutes led by Dixie Goswami. Being a student in her classroom was both exhilarating and terrifying. The bar for the final assignment of the summer was high: submit a piece of your writing for publication. In my teaching career, the most important thing I wrote seemed to be bathroom passes. Dixie’s assignment taught me to respect my writing and my abilities—an essential component of keeping creativity and energy in the classroom. Dixie’s belief that we could get our writing published not only became a reality, but it also was immensely dignifying.

Several years later, the classroom research project I completed for Reclaiming the Classroom had a similarly energizing effect. I chose to study what was often a discouraging part of my classroom life: conferences with my lowest performing 11th grade students about their writing. I explained to them that I was proposing to study the way they wrote. With my students’ permission, I actually tape-recorded writing conferences all year, transcribed them, and tabulated how many words I spoke and how many the students spoke.

The statistical results were not surprising. I talked a lot; students spoke very little. I gradually learned to talk less and listen more. But more importantly, the process of conducting the research changed the content of the conversations and dramatically increased my students’ engagement in their own writing. I believe this happened in large part because my students understood that I respected their writing enough that I wanted to study how they did it. 

That’s the magic of the process of conducting classroom research that I learned from Dixie and also from James Britton: being curious enough about what happens in our classrooms to study it allows classroom teachers to take seriously the ordinary business of their lives as teachers. It can also transform student learning. 

Lucinda Ray graduated from Bread Loaf with an MA in 1990. She continued to teach high school English until 1993, when she transitioned to managing and developing teachers’ materials for educational software products including Kid Pix, Living Books, and Print Shop Publisher. She returned to the classroom in 2005 and is now teaching freshman composition at Contra Costa College in California.

But Dale, Don’t You See How This Has Changed Your Teaching?

As a young teacher at Bread Loaf, I was introduced to teacher research by Dixie. She worked with me to conceptualize and analyze my work with dialogue journals. I wanted to discover how to better engage my high school juniors as readers and to fortify the connections between writing and reading in my classroom. It was a heartfelt effort to improve their skills and their appreciation of literature and the writing processI delved deeply into the analysis of the journals, and those discoveries became real for me while focusing on the words and thoughts within the green notebooks of my students.

And, yet, in subtle ways throughout my research, Dixie kept sending me messages that my analysis revealed more. (I was so immersed in the journals, writing comments to students, codifying their sentences, and interpreting their responses, that I could not see the Green Mountains for the oak, hemlock, maple, birch.) Dixie remained patient.

Finally, as I worked on the manuscript for publication in Reclaiming the Classroom, Dixie used a more direct technique all teachers must come to at times. I remember we sat in the barn, and she said with just a touch of her lilting Southern cadence, “But Dale, don’t you see how this has changed your teaching? I would like you to think about that.”

And I have been thinking about that ever since. I never taught literature or writing again as I had before my classroom research. I stopped long lectures about theme and characterization, symbols and the lives of authors. I stopped issuing reading guides and comprehension quizzes. Journals and journal-sharing, in some form, have been my classroom lifeblood for over thirty years, the last twenty at the college level. If you want to make literature dead for students, just tell them what it means.

If you want to make it live, ask what it means to them, listen to them, read their journals closely, and take what they say thoughtfully and seriously. Be patient, and when needed, be direct. They know when you are sincere. And they will read, engage, and share more. My dialogue journals made me a sincere reader and a better teacher. By looking carefully inside their journals, I see more clearly my students, myself, and the place we share within the classroom.

Dale Lumley received his MA from Bread Loaf in 1985. He earned his Ed.D. from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2000. After teaching high school English for twelve years, he served as a principal, assistant superintendent, and superintendent in the Pennsylvania system of public schools. In addition to those administrative roles, he also taught evening and summer writing classes at Butler County Community College. Since retiring in 2017, he teaches Technical Writing at La Roche University in Pittsburgh.

The central themes of Reclaiming the Classroom–locating the knowledge of classroom teaching within its nuanced local contexts, shifting pedagogical stances to learn with students, and changing systems to be more responsive to the resulting observations-equip us well to analyze the very real and difficult challenges of suddenly re-imagining classrooms via distance learning, outreach to young people, and their families. If we are not in Britton’s “decade of the classroom teacher,” we are certainly in an extraordinary moment of classroom expertise. With echoes of Bread Loaf voices like Martin’s, Britton’s, Macrorie’s, Heath’s, and Atwell’s, we are fortunate, too, to keep learning from the volume’s co-editor, and the visionary behind what has become today’s Bread Loaf Teacher Network.

A recorded conversation will have to take the place of that life-changing Bread Loaf living room. We asked Dixie to tell us a bit about how the lessons in Reclaiming the Classroom, and the traditions of the Bread Loaf Teacher Network might guide us through and beyond these uncertain times. 

An interview with Dixie Goswami on Reclaiming the Classroom—then and now.
Dixie Goswami in the Frothingham living room on Bread Loaf’s Vermont campus where she launched many teachers on life-changing inquiry journeys.

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