“I develop theories based on lived experiences, not existing theories.”

Dr. Brene Brown


Traditional researchers and documentarians deepen their learning by exploring the theories shared by the giants who came before them. They study professional literature, seeking best practices that they might test in order to meet their students’ needs. Then, they confirm or deny their viability. Often, the results are anything but unexpected.

Grounded theory is different. 

When teachers position themselves as grounded theory researchers, their learning typically begins on their feet, in their classrooms, and in the close company of the kids they hope to serve. They study their students first. Rather than chasing answers to tightly focused guiding questions that are driven by their review of previously published best practices, they often begin with looser concepts, phenomena, curiosities, or topics that are most worthy of investigation.

What makes something most worthy of investigation? The fact that students have defined it as a dilemma they need to resolve or an opportunity they’re eager to take advantage of.

When teachers practice grounded theory, their questions and the theories that emerge from their work are refined by their students’ lived experiences in their actual classrooms. Students and teachers collect these qualitative data first, and then, they examine how their findings fit with those that have been shared widely by others in the field. When conflicts rise to the surface of that work, they acknowledge it. Their theories don’t change, but their sensitivity to this tension certainly does, and their studies are often refined in order to seek better understanding.

Make Writing emerged from a documentation project that I conducted over the course of several years. My research didn’t begin with a question or a narrow focus, but instead, a dilemma: resistance in the writing workshop. I began my project in 2008, before maker education was even a breath on the wind. By the time I was coding my data, developing hunches, and turning to the work of others in the field, the connections were clear, though.

And that made me a bit uncomfortable, to be honest. It still does, but I’ve realized that this discomfort might be a very good thing.

I’ve learned that when I’m willing to simply watch writers with clear intention, invite them document what they do, and help them tell stories about their thinking, learning, and work, we uncover theories and solutions and opportunities that are unexpected and even inconvenient, but absolutely crucial to our growth.

How do we approach this work in a way that leaves us satisfied, though?

Here’s what I’ve learned by documenting beside different teachers and young writers over the last few years:

  • We need to truly connect with the people we hope to serve.
  • We need to remember that empathy is a practice, not a feeling. 
  • We need to prepare to document our learning ahead of the moment, using the tools we have on hand and our most comfortable with.
  • We all need to reflect while we’re in the process of documenting.
  • We need to get better at coding our data.
  • We all need to stay hungry. This means refining our studies and diving back into the research process once initial hunches begin to take shape.
  • We need to explore diverse strategies and approaches for investigating and documenting our learning. Approaches that cultivate divergent ideas and perspectives ahead of emergent and convergent thinking help us discover things we didn’t intend to, and this matters.

So…what does any of that mean, anyway? I know, I know, I know: I’m supposed to slap up a 500 word post with a handful of specific strategies that you can trot back into your classroom and use tomorrow.

I know.

But…this is something different and something more.

I plan to tackle each of those bullet points one blog post at a time over the next few weeks. I’ll share some different approaches and my own work in progress. I’ll ask for your feedback. I hope you’ll share your ideas, too.

Because I’m wondering: How about you? What are you discovering that’s unexpected? How is your process similar or different? How does documentation make you a better writing teacher?


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