Mary Jean McCarthy discusses the shift in the entire focus of a Master's Seminar class so the teacher candidates are engaged in action research.

Flying solo may be appealing and exhilarating for some. For me, piloting, especially while building the plane, requires a capable crew. This summer, along with a cadre of other Adelphi professors  I  participated in a summer two-day intensive faculty workshop, “Teaching Writing from the Core of Your Discipline” which was supported  by the Provost’s Office and the FCPE. The workshops were led by our skilled air traffic control captains, Michael Matto, Associate Professor of English and Writing Program Director and Belle Gironda, FCPE Instructional Designer. Their well-chosen manual, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking And Active Learning in the Classroom. by John C. Bean helped us with lift-off.  All participants found the text to be quite helpful; I highly recommend it. Belle and Michael skillfully unpacked significant concepts from the text while facilitating thought provoking collegial conversations. 

The challenge for the WID workshop participants was to take what we learned and use it to enhance the ways we support our students’ critical writing in our disciplines, by modifying our syllabi  or adjusting writing assignments. I did both. One compelling idea presented in the Bean book is bruillion, derived from the French verb meaning “to place in disorder, to scramble” which Bean suggests is a natural part of the writing process. In fact, it became one of my Master’s Seminar objectives – “Embrace “bruillion!” I invited  my students to embrace the disorder, the rearranging and the grappling  inherent in the processes of critical thinking and writing. I too feel compelled to embrace it–particularly as I am piloting a plane, while building it.

This fall, in Childhood Education Master’s Seminar: Inquiry in Teaching and Learning, I have shifted the entire focus so the teacher candidates are engaged in action research. Sarger (2000) describes action research with a definition from the Institute for the Study of Inquiry in Education,  as “a disciplined process of inquiry conducted by and for those taking the action. The primary reason for engaging in action research is to assist the ‘actor’ in improving and/or refining his or her actions.” Drawing on McCutcheon and Jung, Hacqq lists the key features of action research as “systematic inquiry, reflexivity, and focus on the practical” (McCutcheon & Jung, 1990, cited in Hacqq).  

Action research is done by teachers to better understand their own teaching and their students. The most effective action research results in opportunities to improve learning and engagement. So our syllabus aligns with the action research process: 1) Frame an action research question that is personally meaningful, addresses your students’ needs, accords with mentor’s interest AND connects directly with your residency. 2) Use research to inform your thinking. 3) Identify your specific focus and develop research methodology. 4) Plan and implement your intervention. 5) Gather data. 6) Analyze data. 7) Evaluate and report results 8) Take informed action.

Describing action research is a “cyclical process of reflecting on practice, taking an action, reflecting, and taking further action” Riel (2016) notes that each inquiry in this iterative procedure may lead to deeper insights to be applied, when appropriate, in our classrooms. Being a reflective, responsive practitioner is at the core of teaching, and so this is the foundation of the critical thinking and writing students do for this course. My main goal for us is to grow as reflective and responsive teachers who maintain an  inquiry stance as lifelong scholarly learners.

These Master’s Seminar students are all residents spending four full days a week working extremely closely with their elementary school mentors, taking on many teaching responsibilities in their classroom communities. I feel compelled to note that these students are wonderfully eager passengers.  I am honest with them in the piloting of this course and seek their input as we progress through our work together. So far it has been a smooth ride (relatively) and, yes, they let me know, “It’s a lot of work.”

The developmental assignments align directly with the action research process outlined earlier.   

Specifically, to break the writing into developmental phases and their first writing assignment is Wonderings to Be Done- Framing your action research question. I do not merely ask them to, “ State your action research question.” Instead, to guide their efforts productively, I give them “Questions to ask yourself about your action research question:” 1) Is your question clearly framed? 2)Is it compelling? 3)Is your question in an inquiry mode? (i.e. is it a “what,” “how,” or “why” question?) 4) Is your question framed in a way that is personalized to your situation? 5) Did you talk with your mentor and me? 6) Is it doable? Realistic? 7) Does investing time and effort in this question potentially yield significant impact? 7)Is your question “loaded”? In other  words, are your assumptions part of the question? If so, restate. 8)  Do you already know the answer to your question? If so, keep playing with your question to make it more open-ended? 9)Does your question pass the “so what” test? Is this question meaningful to you in your life as a teacher? To your mentor? Will it interest others?

Integrating interactive feedback and revision is integral to our work together. To that end, I seek to create a classroom community of trust, in which time is devoted to residents talking through what they have been thinking about and writing. Here they get to practice embracing the “brullion,” with the understanding that the writing process is inherently disordered, scrambled and messy. We respond as critical friends. This social interaction, this active listening and dialogue, promotes increased sophistication in their thinking and writing. Scaffolding is intended to move us through increasingly complex ways of thinking. Because of the discussion of peer review in the workshop, and suggestions in the Bean book, I have also implemented a more structured, guided peer review process.I am piloting the use of TurnItIn, where all their assignments are submitted, and attempting to capitalize on its feedback features.  One feature allows for voice annotating students’ papers which I intend to use later in the semester.

As I prepare for landing,  I want to mention that, not only did I have a super crew to support me in the summer workshops, I also have had the privilege of ongoing support from  FCPE Media Technologist, Tom Jennings, and Ryan Sobel, an Educational Technology graduate student who worked in the FCPE. Additionally, a subcommittee of the SOE Technology Committee is working to create online writing supports for students which you can see discussed further in another newsletter article by Cynthia Proscia, Clinical Assistant Professor Exercise Science, Health Studies, Physical Education And Sports Management. Professor Proscia and I are both members of the SOE sub-committee as well as WID workshop participants. We are excited about  the ongoing process of  incorporating our learning from the workshops and the use of the online writings supports in our classes. My redesigned syllabus and some of our writing assignments using the TurnItIn platform are posted on the FCPE faculty resources web page for Writing in the Disciplines. Feedback is welcomed.

I can already see ways that I will further adjust the developmental assignments in my class, the next time. I intend to make the students’ flight through the semester a little smoother, as they ambitiously take on action research. Yet, I know there will always be bruillion–because turbulence comes with flying.


Abdal-Hacqq, Ismat. (1995). Eric as a Resource for Teacher Research. ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education Washington DC. Retrieved from:

McCutcheon, G. & Jung, B. (1990) Alternative Perspectives on Action Research. Theory into Practice. 29(3), 144-151.

Riel, Margaret. (2016). Understanding Action Research. Center for Collaborative Action Research. Retrieved from:

Sarger R. (2000) Guiding school improvement with action research. Alexandria: Association for Curriculum Development. Retrieved from:

This article is from the Fall 2016 edition of the FCPE Newsletter.

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