English 5870 — Practicum: Teaching Composition

Spring 2009

Tuesdays 6:00-9:00 p.m.

An Ethnographic Approach to Classroom Observations

The culture of school tends to work against learning and in favor of knowledge.  –Sheridan Blau, CSU Stanislaus Instructional Institute Day, 2009.

Required Texts:

  • Rewriting: How To Do Things With Texts, Joseph Harris (2006)
  • A course packet of selected readings (L-195) This packet is also available on reserve in the Library.
  • Online readings found here, under Readings or linked from the schedule.

Suggested Texts:

  • Making of Knowledge in Composition, Stephen North
  • The Interpretation of Culture, Clifford Geertz
  • More will be added online

Course Aims:

In this course you will learn about the “art of classroom inquiry” and how to approach teaching as teacher-researchers. The centerpiece of the course will be the classroom observations you conduct of various writing classes. You will have the opportunity to observe other writing classes to gain exposure to different approaches to teaching composition. You will have a chance to observe how other teachers shape daily lessons, how they scaffold writing instruction, and how they work to create productive learning environments that enable student learning. You will also be introduced to some research tools for conducting ethnographic classroom-based research, such as notetaking, notemaking, and reflecting (Frank).

Since ethnography involves the lives of others and writing about these lives, as a class we will discuss ethical issues involved in conducting observations and in writing ethnographic reports. Each week, we will have several 5-7 minute presentations salient elements of the observations for that week. The aim of our course readings will be to provide new perspectives for viewing teaching and learning in the classroom. Ultimately, the goal of this ethnographic research will be to improve your own teaching, deepen your understanding of writers, and develop your skills as a teacher researcher, particularly the ability to read educational situations critically.

Prerequisite: Completion of one of the MA-RTW core courses.

Overarching Course Questions:

  1. What is teacher research?
  2. What is ethnography?
  3. How do you find and frame a research question?
  4. How do power, authority, and equity figure into a researcher’s relationships with his/her subjects?
  5. How does a researcher’s identity, subjectivity, (e.g. gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and class) shape his/her interpretation of data at the site of inquiry?
  6. How is ethnographic data transformed into narratives? What is gained and lost in this transformation?
  7. What narratives and rhetorical strategies do authors of ethnographies invoke in their writing, and to what ends?
  8. How does gaining an ethnographic perspective expand your awareness of various cultural perspectives?

“Ethnography is not for researchers who already know what they are seeking or for those who have strong hypotheses to test. Rather, it is for those researchers who are truly wondering, seeking, curious about some
aspect of literacy as it occurs naturally in sociocultural contexts” (Purcell-Gates 94).

Questions to Consider in the classroom:

  1. What events are occurring?
  2. What is required to be a member of this class and to participate in socially and academically appropriate ways?
  3. What evidence do you need to support the claims you wish to make about learning in a given class?
  4. What are the consequences for members living in a particular classroom?

Ongoing Assignments and Requirements:

Observation Notebook:

You are required to do fifteen hours of classroom observations with assiduous note-taking (descriptive field notes), and note-making (interpretations of what you have observed), and note re-making (questions/ideas for how you might revise or adopt some of these pedagogical practices in writing class of your own). Choose classes that have a strong writing component. You must submit 5 typed reports.

  • Please use pseudonyms for instructors and students.
  • You are responsible for arranging your classroom observation before your visit. If you plan to visit a public school, check with the school beforehand; some do not allow observers, and some require observers to undergo training. Do not approach a teacher just before a class and request permission to observe.
  • Whenever possible, gather handouts or lesson plans and consider these materials data that will inform your understanding of the culture of the classroom you are observing.

Assessing Ethnographic Observation Reports

(√+) Classroom Observation Write-Up: Includes your name, the date, the date
and exact times of your observation, and the level you are observing. Contains
three clear columns of

  1. note-taking,
  2. note-making,
  3. reflection related to the writing instruction you observed.

Strong write-ups show evidence that you can make connections between our course readings and your classroom observations.

(√+) write-ups include thoughtful analysis, interpretation, & questions in the columns devoted to note-making and note re-making. Typed or very legibly written. No typos or errors.

(√) write-ups includes your name, date, date and exact times of your observation, and the level of writing class you are observing. Contains three clear columns of 1.) note-taking, 2. note-making, 3.) note re-making
related to what you observed. A (√) represents an adequate performance. It contains all of the requisite parts that make a √+ but it is “thin” on analysis and interpretation and there may be some errors and typos that distract a reader from your main points.

(√-) write-ups do not relate directly to writing instruction. There is very little note-making and note re-making, which means very little analysis or interpretation about the significance of what you have
observed and how you are making meaning of what you have witnessed. There are no connections to our course readings. Meaning gets lost due to numerous typos, or grammatical errors. The write-up is difficult to read.

Note: (√+)=A; (√)=B; (√-)=C.

You are the researcher who selects the particular details, records informants’ particular voices, chooses what to leave in and what to take out, and decides how to write about the ‘particular’ as it illuminates [what] you studied. Your reader needs to know you as the person who has been there. To create a writing voice, you must invite yourself onto the page. To invite yourself onto the page means to ignore conventions you’ve already learned—the formula for an essay, the passive voice, overuse of the third person, or the taboo against the personal pronoun I.                                        —Bonnie Sunstein and Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater, Fieldworking

Weekly Commentaries:

Commentaries are brief (1-2 pp.) observations, reflections, or critical comments (possibly built on log entries, but revised as more considered contributions to a class discussion) on weekly readings.

Commentaries can be a place to use writing to make sense of course readings and to practice the moves that matter in academic writing (Graff; Harris). Consider your scholarly peers as your primary readers. Periodically you will exchange commentaries with a classmate to receive peer feedback on the writing, as well as another reader’s point of view and critical questions. Be sure to include:

* MLA-style citations
* A question or a series of questions (demonstrating critical thinking).
* 12 Font–one typed page minimum, 1 1/2 typed pages maximum.

Please keep all responses with instructor comments.

Grading Commentaries
(√+) Offers both a personal & critical reading of the significance of the selected passage. Your writing has been “crafted,” or carefully constructed adhering to MLA style conventions, with clear, grammatically correct prose, and no distracting typos.

(√ ) Tends to be lop-sided. Instead of weaving together strands of the personal, critical, and analytical, it either includes straight summarization or personal narrative without correlation to the text. A (√) commentary may not elaborate on the significance of the key issues in the reading as they connect to classroom observations. A (√) may raises some questions, and may contain a few typos/grammatical errors.

(√-) Lacks purpose, or focus, or may contain numerous errors (spelling, typos, & grammatical errors), that distract a reader away from the main message. A (√-) may fail to make a direct reference to the reading. May not include enough reflection/questioning/evidence to be considered a substantive response.

Note: (√+)=A; (√)=B; (√-)=C.

…each semester in college involves various types of transitions, and each course, each professor, each task represents a more or less different ecological environment…The variety of these expectations is often underestimated by faculty who again fantasize writing as a stable skill that can simply be applied in different circumstances rather than as a complex set of abilities developing unevenly through many periods of transition requiring a variety of different roles.
—Lee Ann Carroll, Rehearsing New Roles .

The Log

Each week pairs of you will collaborate to create a log that documents and highlights key moments in the class for that night. We will begin class with a report from the logger. You are encouraged to be creative in designing the log. Think about which genre or medium fits best for that week. If it’s a printed log, please come ready to distribute 16 copies.

Discussion Initiators:
Each week, either individually or in pairs, we have discussion leaders who will set the stage for the discussion. As discussion initiators, you will frame for our dialogue on that night’s assigned text. In framing the discussion, you might want to include some background information about the author read for that night. Or, you might come with a list of the key themes you identified in the reading, or you might list the central issues raised in the reading. Come with 2-3 open-ended questions to begin the dialogue and provoke thought. As readers and presenters, you always want to be asking yourselves “How does this reading inform my understanding of ethnographic methods of research?” Consider designing an interactive activity that either renders the key concepts, or provides an experience that will demonstrate the key concepts.
*With each subsequent presentation I will be looking for evidence of recursive reading, or the ability to
make connections back to earlier readings. Plan for an hour presentation that allows for both “setting
the stage” and subsequent dialogue.

Mid-Term Essay:

The mid-term essay exam will ask you to demonstrate some of the academic “moves” that matter that Joseph Harris describes in Rewriting: How to Do Things With Texts. The mid-term will cover readings from the first seven weeks of class.

Final Portfolio:

The final portfolio will be divided into three parts:

  1. A Top 10 List of Things Learned;
  2. Five graded ethnographic classroom observation reports + a chart that includes times/dates for your complete 15 hours of observations;
  3. Ten commentaries with peer feedback, five with instructor comments.

Attendance and Participation:

Your attendance and active participation are important factors in the success of this course. A sign-in sheet will be distributed at the beginning of the class to help me keep track of attendance.

*If you think repetitive lateness and/or absences will be an issue for work reasons or any other reasons, I recommend that you take this course at another time.


20% Mid-Term Exam
20% Presentation/Discussion Initiator
10% Logger
50% Final Portfolio

This class will employ Plus/Minus Grading Option.


If a disability may prevent full demonstration of your abilities, please contact me as soon as possible so we can discuss accommodations necessary to ensure full participation.

Academic Integrity:

If you submit someone else’s writing, published or unpublished, as your own, you have plagiarized and that warrants failure for the course. If you have questions about whether or not you are using a source fairly, ask me.

1 comment for “English 5870 — Practicum: Teaching Composition

  1. mgarcia5
    February 20, 2009 at 10:28 am


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