Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Reaction Papers and Breakthroughs: Teaching and Learning in a Graduate Program

Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Reaction Papers and Breakthroughs: Teaching and Learning in a Graduate Program

Article excerpt

A second grade teacher with two years of classroom experience is considering various options for graduate study. She solicits opinions from her more experienced colleagues, many of whom have master's degrees. Their comments include the following:

"All teachers employed in my district must complete a master's degree within seven years of their initial employment. A master's. You can pick any program you want."

"You learn about teaching by teaching. All that theory won't help you a bit. The only real reason for a classroom teacher to get a master's degree is to advance on the pay scale. So my advice is, pick the easiest route you can find; just get the credential."

"Choose the most substantive and manageable program you can find. You want your degree to mean something in terms of rigor and quality."

As our novice found out, perspectives of the value placed on graduate study by teachers reflect a wide range, from "You have to do it but you won't learn anything" to "It will transform you as a teacher." It goes without saying that those of us who teach in graduate programs in education believe strongly in the value of graduate study for teachers, but most of us spend little time reflecting upon or documenting exactly what happens in teaching/learning transactions between professors and graduate students.

Teachers have increasing options for graduate study, from "distance learning" to selfpaced video-taped courses to traditional faceto-face programs for those who live within commuting distance of a university. There are also options in content, from general programs ("Teaching and Learning", "Curriculum and Instruction") to more focused programs ("Special Education," Literacy Education"). I teach in one of these more traditionally structured, focused programs: Literacy Education. Ours is a writing intensive program; this feature is intimidating to many beginning graduate students who are less than confident writers. One of the most powerful experiences in the introductory courses, for both professor and students, is the evident empowerment of teachers as they make breakthroughs in their writing, critical thinking, and instruction. As with teaching at any level, the conditions that lead to these positive results are support, substantive feedback, and nudging. Teachers are generally practical people with practical (and pressing) pedagogical problems to solve. In the increasingly client-driven world of higher education there is often a rush to provide hands-on teaching applications, sometimes at the expense of reflective scholarship. While recognizing the appeal of the pragmatic, I believe that scholarship and reflection have an important role to play in the development of a master teacher. In the discussion that follows, I would like to argue for the value of the interchange between professors and students that is stimulated by students' reflective and analytical written reactions to professional literature.

Although the writing process is used, many of the assignments in the first courses of our program are quite traditional. Students write "reaction papers" on topics of their choice, in which they briefly review three sources (book chapters or articles from refereed journals), synthesize and react to the readings, and speculate as to their applications or implications for teaching practice. Students brainstorm topics, learn how to locate and select appropriate readings, and draft the paper outside of class. I assess the drafts with a modified rubric, commenting specifically on both form and content, and assign a tentative grade. Any student who wants to revise has that option; I have very few students who do not choose to revise. For many of them, this experience of support, nudging, and opportunity to improve their written product is a first, even though they may have been providing such experiences to their own students for years. Without this feedback/rethink//rewrite process, reaction papers could easily become dry, academic exercises which earn the proficient writers good grades and lead to minimal growth for anyone. …

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