Uncovering Conflict: Why Teachers Struggle to Apply Professional Development Learning about the Teaching of Writing

By Lillge, Danielle | Research in the Teaching of English, May 2019 | Go to article overview

Uncovering Conflict: Why Teachers Struggle to Apply Professional Development Learning about the Teaching of Writing


Lillge, Danielle, Research in the Teaching of English


Secondary English teachers' need for ongoing professional learning about the teaching of writing is well established. State and district mandates, standards, and assessments increasingly prioritize student writing proficiency and intensify the pressure teachers feel to improve the quality of their writing instruction (Hillocks, 2002; Rex & Nelson, 2004; Smith, Wilhelm, & Fredricksen, 2013). Yet, teachers leave their initial preparation feeling underprepared to teach writing (Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Morgan & Pytash, 2014; Zuidema & Fredricksen, 2016), and their access to ongoing professional learning specifically about the teaching of writing remains equally fragmented (Applebee & Langer, 2013).

Thus, many secondary English teachers turn to increasingly popular and accessible disciplinary literacy professional development (PD). Current disciplinary literacy scholarship (Conley, 2012; Moje, 2008) offers a foundation for the design and facilitation of these PD programs. It suggests the importance of integrating literacy modes (e.g., reading and writing) in cross-disciplinary literacy instruction, and it positions teachers as expert literacy consumers and producers (Schoenbach & Greenleaf, 2009).

Despite the prevalence of these disciplinary literacy PD programs, relatively little is known about how English teachers experience and seek to apply their learning about the teaching of writing as a result of their participation. Understanding their experiences more fully holds promise for designing and facilitating PD that is responsive to their needs. In this article, I focus on the "telling cases" (Mitchell, 1984) of two English teachers who participated in one such yearlong disciplinary literacy program and faced unique application challenges, or conflicts. My research led me to question, how do the conflicts that English teachers experience as participants in disciplinary literacy PD influence their efforts to improve the quality of their writing instruction?

Conflicts in Professional Development Learning

School administrators, teachers, and policy-makers look to PD as an important vehicle for improving the quality of writing instruction and, by extension, student writing (Avalos, 2011). To accomplish this goal, some PD programs ground their efforts in research that affirms the positive influence of teachers' experiences as writers on their instructional decision making and, by extension, students' writing (Woodard, 2013). The National Writing Project (NWP) is one well-researched example of writing-focused PD that, acknowledging the value of teachers' writerly identities, seeks to deepen teachers' writing experiences. Whitney and Friedrich (2013) note that orientations "toward writing, writers, and the teaching of writing" enable NWP participants to link "their teaching of writing to their own experiences as writers" (p. 11). Unfortunately, geography and infrequent PD offerings can limit teachers' access to these opportunities.

Informed by existing scholarship, other PD programs are, as Moje (2015) argues, "crafted as apprenticeships into disciplinary literacy teaching" (p. 272). From this perspective, writing just like reading is viewed as "literate behavior that underlies disciplinary 'knowing'" (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 7). Thus, writing is a central vehicle for supporting disciplinary apprenticeship, and teachers are seen as important mentors who help students contribute to disciplinary discourse communities, or audiences, through writing. Many such PD programs begin with assumptions about the inherent depth of understanding that teachers bring to PD contexts as disciplinary literacy producers and users. In a time when English teachers' disciplinary expertise is perpetually challenged and undermined, this seems a favorable beginning point.

However, beginning from this assumption is problematic. Even when secondary English teachers believe themselves to be well versed in disciplinary knowledge and literacy practices, they do not always see themselves as expert writers or as prepared to teach writing (Applebee & Langer, 2009; Kiuhara et al. …

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