Role of the Teacher: Teacher Research

Topic Progress:

In Module 1, I talked about the role of the teacher in Story Workshop as beginning, first and foremost, with asking questions. Those questions are both ones we ask children and ones we ask about our practice.  One of the ways that we prepare for Story Workshop is by asking questions that as teachers we are genuinely curious about exploring with the children we work with. I want to share a small snippet of a larger story written by my colleague Nicole Simpson-Tanner in 2016 that follows one child’s experience.  I hope that this story will make visible the ways in which Nicole’s teacher-research question guided what she paid attention to and how she made decisions that particular year.

 What is the relationship between play and writing?

By Nicole Simpson-Tanner (from Opal School’s 2016 Summer Symposium)

In the beginning of the school year, a group of teachers came together to collaborate for the first time as a primary team and they began to realize that each individual’s images of Story Workshop weren’t exactly the same as everyone else’s. As a group, they began to wonder how to create some shared understanding and possibly expand their own understanding as they researched together. They wondered:

 What is the intention of Story Workshop for the Primary Grades?

What follows is Nicole’s reflection on how this one teacher-research question led to more questions and the journey those questions led them on.

Through our own understandings of Story Workshop, we felt that setting up the environment and provocations that would invite the children to explore and play was a main priority.  We know that play is critical to learning, and from that play, stories are born. Humans tell stories to try and make sense of their world, to give organization and new meaning to their experiences, to connect ideas and to connect with one another.  We felt that the materials, spaces in the classroom and invitations to play would lead children to capture their stories through writing.

What we were seeing was children being immersed in play – with materials, with the environment and with each other. We were seeing children becoming practiced in materials, in oral language, in using their imagination, collaborating and creating– but the actual writing part was not as visible as the other parts.  It seemed that the creation of the story and the putting pen of to paper were on two sides of a river – and not flowing together or sometimes not even really connecting.

As teacher-researchers, we constantly live in reflection and questions.  We wondered together:

   If the goal in the Primary Grades is to cultivate strong and proficient writers – where is the balance between play and writing?

   How can we create an environment that is playful, joyful and creative and also a place that the children are willing to take the risk to write and capture their ideas and stories on paper?

   How can we use materials to guide and inform children’s writing and, instead of separating play and writing, use materials to connect the two?

This is why this work is so exciting and compelling, but, at the same time, keeps you in a constant state of discomfort and disequilibrium.  We thought we “knew” Story Workshop – how to do it, how to implement it, how to support it.  We saw the presentations, we read the publications, we watched the videos, and we lived it.  I was even in the classroom with Susan MacKay the first year Story Workshop was conceived and implemented! So where was the disconnect?

This is where we would like to introduce you to our first-grade friend, Garland.   Garland is a big thinker and wonderer.  His ideas have helped guide our project works over the past 2 years and he is a critical player in his community.  Garland is a child who didn’t come to school seeing himself as a writer and his journey towards understanding resonates with our own questioning and wondering.   We chose to share his story today because it so closely resembles our story as teachers as well as our growth as a community.

This year, as a first grader, it was apparent that Garland categorized playing and writing as two separate things.  It always felt unnatural to pull Garland away from his play so that he could capture in writing what was going on within his play.  His play was sophisticated, detailed and elaborate.

But his writing? Not as much so.

We took what we knew about Garland and his gifts of oral storytelling and story crafting and noticed there was a big disconnect from that and what he was actually writing.  We knew that his ability to write and spell and craft language on paper had not yet caught up with the stories that he found in materials and his imagination.  And he knew it, too – so it was risky to make the jump from materials to paper.  We wondered about the different ways we could help support Garland as we all worked together to make this visible gap smaller.

Throughout the year, we built a relationship with Garland around trust, understanding, and expectations.  We knew that he was the keeper of amazing stories and ideas and we gently nudged him to share what he had inside with his community and even with the world. 

We did this through accommodation and gentle nudging:  finding the right paper he could use (the bigger the better); researching and exploring the opportunity to try out other types of writing like labels, comics, and maps – and, also, by giving him a lot of time to co-create and co-author stories with his friends that shared his excitement and his extensive imagination.

We saw the most growth from Garland when the idea of play and writing was fluid – when it made sense for him to play with the idea of stories – creating, capturing, and sharing them.  When the play was meaningful and strong, the writing seemed to come more naturally for him and we began seeing more examples of this during the latter part of the year. 

This was the case as we were totally immersed in project work last year.  The children had created their own characters that moved with them through stories and play. With the collection of these characters, “Character World” was born – a land where the characters and the children came together to play, create, and explore.

 When Garland played and explored stories with his character, a stag beetle named GR, we saw him – and maybe for the first time that year – go to paper and capture his story without requests or nudges from the teachers.

 He had an authentic reason to write – he wanted to share the story of his character.  He wanted this character’s story to be known.  Garland became a writer because he had a cause.


We were seeing growth in Garland as a writer and we could detect a shift in how Garland saw himself, too.  There was also a shift in Story Workshop itself and we were feeling the beginnings of the fluidity between play and writing.  It was slowly moving towards the creation of the community of writers we hoped for. As with Garland, it was through trust, relationship and a shift of our idea of what play was and how it could easily live inside the marks that he and his peers put on paper.


Reflection Questions for your notebook:

  • What do you notice about the relationship between Nicole’s teacher-research question and Garland’s learning experience?
  • What research questions do you carry with you into this new year?  How might pursuing these questions support your children’s learning?

Additional Resources:

“On the Virtue of Thinking Small” by Thomas Newkirk from The Teacher You Want to Be

“The Teacher As Researcher” by Carlina Rinaldi

Course Discussion