Action Research Supporting Students' Oral Language in Northern Canadian Schools: A Professional Development Initiative

By Peterson, Shelley Stagg | Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online), May 15, 2012 | Go to article overview

Action Research Supporting Students' Oral Language in Northern Canadian Schools: A Professional Development Initiative


Peterson, Shelley Stagg, Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)


Interview, document, and observational data were used to examine grade K-2 teachers' and literacy coaches' perceptions of the benefits and challenges of collaborative action research as a professional development initiative in rural schools. Eleven teachers and five literacy coaches in five northern Ontario school districts participated in collaborative action research supported by a university facilitator/researcher. Their goal was to enhance their teaching practices to support K-2 students' oral language development. The collaborative action research approach proved to be a relatively inexpensive and effective professional learning forum for the rural teachers, who had limited opportunities for formal professional development because of geographical distances between individual schools and major urban centers. The time commitment, often a challenge in action research, represented a particular constraint to rural teachers because of their heavy curricular responsibilities.

Geographic distances between schools present unique challenges to rural school districts in isolated regions as districts seek to support their teachers' professional learning. The cost of transportation to bring teachers together for district-wide conferences and workshops is prohibitive, and teachers often need a full day of released time just to travel to and from a central location to attend these events. In addition, speakers from urban locations may be hesitant to travel long distances on small planes to reach rural locations, and the cost for school districts to cover their transportation expenses is high. Moreover, the geographic distances that school district consultants must travel to meet teachers in their schools require a great deal of time throughout a given week, so rural northern teachers have less access to school district consultants than their urban counterparts (Clarke, Imrich, Surgenor, & Wells, 2003).

Given the obstacles to providing traditional forms of professional development, rural school districts may consider collaborative, teacher-directed action research as an alternative. Action research harnesses the strong sense of community, often characteristic of teaching staffs of rural schools, to develop successful and sustained collaborative practices for school improvement (Chance & Segura, 2009). Collaborative action research draws on the professional expertise of teams of teachers who are mentored by an experienced colleague or university facilitator/ researcher who serves as a mentor. The action research projects are teacher-directed, and the teams of teachers meet in their schools. Much of the support provided by the mentor takes place through regularly scheduled telephone calls and online meetings, although teachers may contact their mentor at any time. This type of professional learning initiative addresses the rural-urban gap in teachers' access to resources, as action research has the potential to build "expertise in instructional practices through interactive, systematic and collaborative means" (Clarke et al., 2003, p. 26).

Addressing a well-documented need for research that examines ways to support rural teachers' professional learning and promote student achievement (Arnold, Newman, Gaddy, & Dean, 2005; Harmon, Henderson, & Royster, 2003; Stockard, 2011), this article reports on an action research professional development project in five rural school districts in northern Ontario, Canada. The overarching goal of this research was to examine the benefits and shortcomings of an action research initiative for grades K-2 students' oral language development through the perspectives of 16 teachers.

The action research project was a follow-up study to a three-year professional development initiative funded by the provincial Ministry of Education. The initial three- year initiative did not involve action research. Instead, an expert in the field presented workshops each year at central locations, and participating teachers were given released time to travel to and attend the workshops. …

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