Transcription of the episode “Descriptive inquiry: Teachers talking about hard subjects”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

[00:00:17] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today are Dr. Cecelia Traugh, dean of the Graduate School at Bank Street College of Education, and Dr. Cara Furman, associate professor of literacy at University of Maine, Farmington. They are co-authors of “Descriptive Inquiry in Teacher Practice: Cultivating Practical Wisdom to Create Democratic Schools.” Welcome Cara and Cecelia. 

Thank you. Hello,

[00:00:44] Amy H-L: What is descriptive inquiry? 

[00:00:48] Cara F: So I’m gonna start with a little bit of a story that I think will help you picture it. So picture me. I am a somewhat experienced, but still relatively new, classroom teacher teaching first and second grade. And I am struggling a little bit in the classroom. I have done a teacher ed program. I feel pretty confident with the curriculum. I feel passionate about literacy methods in particular, and I have two challenges. One is a particular child who, despite all my best intentions, is not performing in the way that I had hoped, at this point, is struggling with writing in particular. And the other challenge is that I’m feeling kind of alienated from my colleagues. Like maybe my strengths are not necessarily being recognized. I’m feeling a little bit lonely in the classroom. 

So descriptive inquiry enters in here. My principal, who is Alison Hazut reached out to me and said, would you like to do a descriptive review and work with, Cecelia? And I said, okay, sure. And this was something we had been doing in the school. 

I met with Cecelia. And the first question she had, “is there somebody who you wanna focus on? Is there a situation in your classroom that you’re experiencing as a challenge?” And I immediately thought of this particular child who again was struggling despite what I saw as my best efforts. And to add another layer to this, he also was struggling in ways that were really mysterious to me. He could do, you know, he was a great talker. He was energetic. He was happy to be in school. He was doing everything that I thought would lead to strong writing. He could handwrite, he could spell, all those things. So when Cecelia and I met, we spoke for a long time, I described the child and then we came up with a focus question about the child. And then we also had me write a narrative, which was a detailed description of the child across a series of headings, his physical presence and gesture, his disposition and temperament, his strong interests, preferences, connections with others, and modes of thinking and learning.

And then we also decided to use some video to capture who this child was. And then I presented this to the staff by sharing the video, by sharing what I had written. And then, if you picture this, it was a huge room that we were in. There were all the tables put together and everybody was sitting in a circle so we could see everybody. This was the whole staff of the school. And over the course of the two hours that we spent, Cecilia led them through describing what they had heard from me, and culminating in people giving suggestions or ideas for practice from that. I went back to my classroom the next day and worked with the child some more.

And just to close that story, some really helpful things that I took from it. One was some really practical suggestions. One teacher suggested that I partner with her class and he might be able to write purposefully for, she was a pre-K teacher, purposely for her kids. But one person also said in the review, you know, writing is lonely and this child seems really like a social person. And that was probably the most useful thing that I heard in that day. And so I thought going forward about how to make my classroom more social and to support his writing in that way. So that’s kind of a, a window into a complicated process.

[00:04:14] Jon M: How did descriptive inquiry get developed? 

[00:04:18] Cecelia T: So let me first, though, go back and just pull forward a few of the qualities of descriptive inquiry in that example, and then I can talk about the development. So a couple of things to note about the story that Cara just said, in terms of the first question, which is what is descriptive inquiry. First of all, it is descriptive. The basic guideline for all participation is staying as close as possible to really naming what we see and what we hear. And in the particular case with Cara, it was both hearing her description of this child and also everyone seeing the child in action through the video and describing back what they’re noticing about him in that particular kind of documentation. And it’s also a process, particularly the descriptive review of the child. It’s a process where the teacher works with a chair, and in this case I was the chair, to really think through what, what is the question, what is the issue that you want to focus on, that becomes a second real important quality there. And then thirdly, I just want to point out that this was done in the entire, with the full staff. This is a collaborative, collaborative process. And one of the key things that you are hoping happens is that the multiple perspectives of the group get thrown into the mix giving the teacher who’s presenting, in this case Cara, a lot of things to think about and ideas to mix and match and pull forward. And as she said, the one particular point about writing, being a solitary, lonely kind of activity and this child being more of a social, gregarious kind of person, how do you rethink practice around that idea. So just to highlight those particular points in terms of what descriptive inquiry is.

It got developed in a school by a woman by the name of Patricia Carini, who was a phenomenologist in terms of her background philosophically. In working with one of her basic eyes she draws on is Merlo Ponti, who’s a phenomenologist, and really points to that idea of really naming what you see and combining that with ideas from Dewey, which is the idea that you’re looking for the cutting edge of idea and action, where do ideas point, where does your behavior get you. So putting these things together and, working with a small group of teachers at The Prospect School, really developed the process and then brought it to what is known as Summer Institute and worked with a range of teachers from Philadelphia, from New York City, from Michigan, from California, teachers who would come every summer and really expand and hone that process.

So it’s a process that was developed by a core person, philosopher, but also honed and really augmented through the work of classroom teachers. It’s a kind of work, you know, a human creation that grows and develops over over time. 

[00:07:32] Amy H-L: Cecelia, what is phenomenology? 

[00:07:35] Cecelia T: Phenomenology is the philosophical orientation to phenomena, really trying as simple as basic as that, and Cara could add onto this, I think probably in a little more depth, but really trying to, trying to notice and describe what is, what are you, what do you see in the movement, in the actions of the environment of people in the environment. So that’s its basic core. Don’t know if Cara, do you wanna say some more then?

[00:08:10] Cara F: Yeah, I’ll add in just so like an example might be I have a cup in front of me. I have a concept of what a cup is and a particular shape. And if I was to sketch a cup, it would look a way that you would all recognize as a cup. 

If I actually really describe what I see in front of me, it doesn’t necessarily take the same general format. I can’t see the whole thing. There’s parts that are invisible. I can’t see the bottom, but I’m assuming that the cup is there. And as applied to children, which I think is really important, I have a student who is doing what looks like hitting people. He’s pushing his body into people with his hands. I have a general concept that that’s hitting. But if I actually look at what’s physically happening with the child, and this has happened, you know, with a real child, I start to look at what his face is doing when his hand is connecting to other people. I start to look with how the rest of his body is orienting. I start to look at the focus of the hand and how intentional is that. And I start to see a child who’s not hitting people, but who’s flailing their arms and it is connecting with other people. And so that’s a different thing. 

[00:09:17] Jon M: I just wanted to go back for a second. Cecelia, you mentioned the Summer Institute. Is this an ongoing thing? Is it still going on?

[00:09:23] Cecelia T: Yes, it is. July 25th it starts again this year. 

[00:09:28] Jon M: And for people who would be interested, either for this year or in the future, how would they get in touch with it? 

[00:09:34] Cecelia T: I don’t have the email on the tip of my tongue, but I can certainly… 

[00:09:39] Amy H-L: We’ll post it along with this episode. We can do that.

[00:09:42] Cara F: That would be great. And there’s a Facebook page too, that we should, we should post. Um, great. Okay.

[00:09:48] Amy H-L: I have a question about this process and that is, you know, we always talk about relationships and it seems to me that one benefit of this process is to develop relationships among the different faculty members. Could you talk about that a little bit? 

[00:10:05] Cecelia T: Sure. I think that that is a key idea, I think. You’re developing a body of idea that’s shared, you’re developing a language that is shared very often, and yes, you are learning about each other in ways that otherwise aren’t visible and apparent to you in terms of colleagues. You know, you’re really, you’re very often sharing some very deep points of view, deep values, and that, that does build really strong professional, and sometimes personal, but largely professional relationships among colleagues. 

Another story I can tell builds, a different kind of relationship of school with parent. So I worked with Earth School and the principal of Earth School, Abby Futterman at the time. And she was beginning to bring forward… Earth School is a school with multiracial, multicultural, and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She was beginning to bring issues of race into the the workings of the school. The staff had done several in depth workshops with an organization called Border Crossers. They were looking at their curriculum and their program and their practice, looking at all of those pieces of their work through the lens of race. And Abby was trying to bring these same kinds of issues out into the conversation with the school community as a whole, parents included. She had bulletin boards. She made talks, a little talk at an open house and a special Saturday day that the school has, et cetera. And she was doing it in a way that she just expected everybody to really be really alongside her very easily, but a small group of white parents who who are very supportive of the school, really pushed back on this work and said that, you know, raising the issue of race is divisive. They took what Abby will describe as a more colorblind approach to the whole thing. 

So she brought all the work she had done, the bulletin board, she had created the text of her talks and made a description of what she had been trying to do in the school at Summer Institute into a small group, a small inquiry group. And I was part of that group. And one of the things that I suggested was that we maybe create a study group of parents with Abby. And we, and we did set that up and we advertised it in such a way that Abby was hoping that those parents who pushed back on her work would join. And they did. And we had a group that met for a full, well, actually a couple of years. We started with just meetings from the fall, but they expanded into a couple of years’ work. And the group was mixed, white folks, immigrants from a variety of countries. We read, we shared recollections, we shared reflections on words, such as “marginal,” “marginalization.” We used a lot of the particular inquiry processes, the work, and described as pieces of text. And through that work, and this is why I’m sharing this example, through that work, relationships, really different relationships, developed. Abby was able to see and learn from the parents who had pushed back on her, what their thinking was. They were able to hear, because I was chairing this group and that let Abby be a real part of the group, not the principal in an authority kind of way. They were able to hear what her thinking was and why she felt this was so important. 

Did everybody change their point of view? Not necessarily, but they could talk across difference and form relationships, working relationships, parent to school, in a in a very different way. And parent to parent, because these were parents that didn’t necessarily talk with each other on a regular basis.

So it’s been a real touchstone experience for me in seeing what using processes like this, that brings out people’s stories, their experiences, their descriptions of their own experiences, both as children and as parents, in this case, sharing in that way, what the power of that can be for our group.

[00:14:37] Jon M: That’s really exciting. You’ve also written and talked about dealing with questions of race within faculty practice. Could you talk about how you see how descriptive inquiry is used in that setting? And perhaps Cara, you wanted to describe the particular situation that you’ve written about where you felt that practice showing bias and that you really wanted to have the group have a descriptive inquiry process around it. 

[00:15:06] Cecelia T: Well, let me say briefly, I can say talk briefly about what my core work has been in teacher education. I’ve been a dean at two different higher ed institutions, currently at Bank Street. Before that, I was dean for about 13 years at Long Island University, Brooklyn. In both of those situations and cases, I have made race a core focus for an inquiry group that brings faculty together to share practice, to share reading in the same way that that we talked about with the parent group, to develop a language, to hear about each other’s work, the questions that arise, the struggles that they have and over time, become vulnerable enough to share, which is not so easy for a higher ed faculty group to do, to admit that they don’t know everything and can’t do everything.

It’s been a very enriched work. And we draw on people’s practice, draw on people’s questions, and do a lot of bringing in text that will help expand our thinking. One of the pieces from Bank Street that I think is particularly interesting. Bank Street’s a very progressive higher ed teacher ed, leadership ed institution, and has had social justice as its core since its founding with different emphases, of course, over time. But the idea we work from strength is a Bank Street tenet, but being able to recognize strengths that aren’t the usual ones from your culture, from your race, is really an important thing to begin to do. And that’s one of the threads in the inquiry group at Bank Street that I have been particularly interested in and glad to see that folks were able to expand their ideas of what a strength looks like, that a strength in how one uses your body, how one uses your voice, what people bring to the kind of experiences from culture that they are able to bring that I, as a white woman, couldn’t possibly bring. So that has been a real benefit of this kind of work in a faculty group. 

[00:17:25] Cara F: I think too, I would just add in that who you choose, what you choose to focus on and who you choose to focus on as a teacher says as much about you as it does about a child. So a child that I’m struggling with gives a lot of insights, not into there being something wrong with that child, but that there’s a blind spot or a challenge that I, as the teacher, am having trouble connecting to and attending to that child, as a white teacher.

In New York City, often the children who I brought to do reviews about were children of color, primarily children who identified as Black. As a teacher now in a rural new England area, the children, the students who I feel like I need to do a root view on are often white and come from a much more rural or different kind of background from the one that I have. And so in schools, even in schools that are progressive saying, you know, you’re struggling with all these children in your class. Have noticed that they’re mostly children of color? Mostly is doesn’t necessarily lead to a very positive or effective response even among teachers who theoretically want to be welcoming children of color into their classroom, for example.

But the descriptive review gave me an opportunity to look at my own biases and what, in describing the child, look at what I was seeing, but also not seeing. And it also gave me an opportunity to share children with my colleagues. I see doing a descriptive review as a kind of advocacy so that I, when I was sharing about the child in the opening story, who identified as Black, I was also saying, look at the potential and all the things that this child is doing, even though some of what he’s bringing to the table doesn’t fit with normative sort of value judgments about what a child should be doing at a particular age. 

[00:19:23] Cecelia T: And that’s what I’m saying in terms of faculty seeing those same things in their students who are not necessarily normative graduate students. 

[00:19:33] Amy H-L: It must be challenging to kind of tease out the cultural norms that might be different as well. 

[00:19:40] Cecelia T: Yes, and that’s where the collaborative group is so important. I find that, as an individual, particularly difficult to do in a complete and way that I feel really satisfied with, but in a collaborative group, entering into it in a descriptive and vulnerable way, I have had much more success in that kind of teasing out. 

[00:20:03] Amy H-L: Can we boil this down to some key elements of using descriptive inquiry to address issues of potential bias without alienating or shaming faculty or staff members who may not be aware of their biases?

[00:20:18] Cara F: One of the key things is that you’re entering into a circle where… I’m trying to think of how to boil it down. But one of the key things would be that you’re entering into a circle with others where you have something shared between you. You’re all looking at the same child’s work, or you’re all looking at the same question even, or you’re looking at a child, and in doing that, there’s no one person being positioned as expert. So that, I think, is one of the steps that by sharing a question together, and by then passing that question or what you’re looking at around the room, everybody has a way to enter in that also presents crosstalk. So that I say something, it sits in the room, the next person can say something. What they say may indirectly challenge what I’ve said, but they’re not directly, we’re not combating back and forth. So it completely changes the kind of engagement. So I think those are two things. 

I guess another one would be that, coming back to the cup image, instead of focusing on concepts or assumptions, we’re really trying to look at what’s in front of us. And so instead saying, oh, you’re behaving in a racist way, we can say, let’s look at this child more expansively through the processes and that’s gonna help. Kind of indirectly, it gets at the racism.

I think one more element of it that I would want to stress is the community, and Cecelia spoke to this, the community that’s developed and the close community. Once you have that community, you may end up having a relationship with people and you do where you can directly say, yeah, it’s concerning to me that this many of your children who are being referred for IEPs are children of color. And we did over time have those frank conversations in the school, but it was based on these relationships and a trust that we had listened to each other.

[00:22:13] Cecelia T: I would add one other element. And that is that there is an assumption of strength of both the person who’s asking the question and of, if you’re reviewing a child, a strength in the child. There is that basic value assumption. And that also makes it possible to address issues of bias when that is a core piece of the community’s agreement.

[00:22:42] Cara F: So, just to give an example, to come back to my opening example, when I was struggling with a particular child in my class and struggling to figure out how to teach the child. A typical response from a principal might have been to notice that the child wasn’t performing up to the standards of the school and to suggest that I get interventions in one way or another. They might suggest that I watch what someone else is doing. They might send a literacy coach to tell me what to do. The principal themselves might step in and say, have you tried this and this and this and this, all of those things, assume that I, as the teacher, am missing something, I’m not doing things correctly. And it assumes that somebody else has expertise, that they can just fix the situation kind of quickly. 

By instead inviting me into doing a descriptive review, the principal was again letting me choose the question I wanted to ask. Letting me enter the conversation in a way that felt comfortable to me. And then a whole group of people was providing insights to me that I could then as the teacher decide to follow up on, or I could go a different direction. So all of that kind of came from a place of capacity in me as teacher.

[00:24:01] Amy H-L: You’ve both spoken about descriptive inquiry as being value laden. What do you mean by that?

[00:24:07] Cara F: I see it as an ethic in committing to the dignity of every person and attending, and these are phrases that Pat Carini uses, attending to each person with care. And also that part of that commitment is valuing both the person and the person in relation to the group. And so an example for me, that I use with my students, is we all have a certain amount of freedoms. So you have a freedom to stand in class. You have a freedom to sit however you want, you have a freedom more or less to sit wherever you want. You have freedom to get up and leave if you need to. But your freedoms shouldn’t be infringing on other people’s freedoms. And so you don’t have a freedom to stand in front of your classmate. You don’t have a freedom to tap on your desk if it’s bothering your classmate in such a way that they can no longer participate. So to me, attending with care is respecting both the individual and the group. 

[00:25:06] Cecelia T: You know, recently, in my work at Bank Street, we were asked what values guide our leadership. And for me a value is what is a core basic worth. What is it that shapes ideas, that really shape something. And for me, and it comes from this work, and it’s another phrase that Pat Carini used and that is capacity widely distributed. So it is an idea about, and it relates very much to what Kara’s talking about in terms of human dignity, but a value is the core value for this process, these processes, one thing. But it’s also a shaping value that carries beyond doing descriptive inquiry. It shapes all the work I do. Actually the assumptions I make about colleagues and work.

[00:25:54] Cara F: Briefly, descriptive inquiry, it’s an ethic in the sense that it’s a value. It influences our conduct, as Cecelia just said, or how we behave in the world. And it’s a practice, so we’re constantly practicing by engaging in a descriptive review to help us stay true to that value because paying attention to, with care, to people all the time. Is not easy to do or clear for how to do it. So you’re, you’re building muscles, basically, to be able to do it. 

[00:26:29] Jon M: I just wanted to ask you, it’s so fundamental to everything that you’ve been discussing about the idea of building community, among faculty, students, and parents, and that obviously descriptive review and descriptive inquiry involves teachers making their work public to their colleagues, which, unfortunately, in lots of schools is not the case. And people sort of shut their classroom door and, and work in isolation. Have you found some teachers or college faculty more reluctant than others or having more difficulty than others in doing this, and what are some ways that you help people get to the point of feeling comfortable sharing and being vulnerable? 

[00:27:14] Cecelia T: I would say sure. We all have places that we would rather not make public, don’t we. I mean, we all do. There’s no way around that. And so what I have done with college faculty is, uh, really get acquainted with a reluctant person’s work and what what’s of interest to them, what’s of interest in their work to them? What, what are they really working on and showing that kind of interest and then begin to have conversations with them about, okay, so what, what, what are you working here? What questions do you have? And then invite them, that I would work with them and help them shape a piece that they could share with colleagues. That has pretty much worked, but it’s grounded in my being careful to really try to understand what that person is about in terms of their practice in schools. 

When I’ve worked with schools and a principal will name a teacher that they really would like to have share a piece of work, an issue, I do this a similar thing. I don’t go in saying, we’re going to do this at all. You’re gonna describe your curriculum practice. You’re gonna describe a kid. No, you know, I, I visit their classroom. I will sit with them and talk, sometimes several different times, going in and just having a conversation and slowly coming to a place where we can really begin to form and shape something that the person is interested. It’s a key piece that they’re interested in sharing with people and interested in getting response. And, and of course, doing this, both in a school setting and a college setting, where there is a community of this kind of work going on. In a college setting, I’ve had to shape those communities. They don’t come preformed. 

[00:29:14] Cara F: I want to add three things to that. One of them is that there’s a structure with descriptive inquiry. So you know what’s coming. And that really helps with the sense of safety and comfort that you know that there’s going to be a ritual where you share a certain amount of things, then people ask questions, that there’s somebody chairing it. All of those things help with the sense of security.

I think two other things that speak to what Cecilia was saying, being a teacher and struggling with children is a very challenging, painful process when it happens. And. at least in my experience, you want help. You don’t necessarily want someone to call you, you know, in the same way you call up a friend, when you want help, you don’t necessarily want to be told how to fix what you’ve done wrong, but you do want other people to enter into what you’re doing. And so I think that it’s when you see that the help is there for you on your terms, teachers are inclined to want to share their work.

And the last thing, I think, you talked about. Your question, Jon, mentioned teachers not wanting to disclose their work, but I would say the opposite. Again, in my opening story, I was lonely as a teacher and I didn’t feel seen, and I was proud of a lot of what I was doing in the classroom, and I think the principal could have stepped in and said, Cara, you should be collaborating better with other people. Or she could have put me forward as, you know, look at Kara, she’s doing all these great things, but instead she invited me to do a review and I came out of that review feeling like I was seen for the first time by my colleagues for what I was doing in the classroom. And I needed that. I needed that to feel like a person in a way.

[00:31:05] Jon M: Why did you decide to write your book now? And is there anything that you’d like to tell listeners about the book, and why they should read it?

[00:31:19] Cecelia T: Why did we decide to do the book now? Well, you know, again, it kind of goes back to relationship. Cara and I worked together in a variety of different ways over time. And I think there just came a time in our working relationship with each other to start this kind of enterprise. And, we began with doing some in depth interviews of principals of schools. It grew from, from that nugget, but one timing thing was really sort of the growth over time of our professional relationship with each other. 

[00:31:53] Cara F: I definitely agree with that. I think in that professional relationship, too, I think some spaces that we felt needed to be addressed also emerged. And they emerged kind of through the ways in which we were talking to each other. And so some examples of that are, for one, a lot of the books on descriptive inquiry are focused in a rural setting. And I think, at least on my end, documenting the ways in which this had enlivened and supported urban diverse schools felt like something that was a story that needed to be told and that I, as a teacher in one of those schools, was proud of and impressed by the work that Cecelia had done in those spaces.

I think that Cecelia had been doing reading on practical wisdom. And I had been doing reading on what’s referred to as the care of the selves, and these are ancient Greek philosophies that had not been discussed in descriptive inquiry. And so thinking about this as a work that evolves, we wanted to bring these things that seemed really important into it in a book form. And I, as somebody, my own background is in philosophy of education, and I think lots of concepts, again, to think about ethics, often the philosophical, the value part of it, gets addressed in philosophical circles without all that much attention to conduct and how the conduct actually is cultivated. And so connecting those dots with what Cecelia was bringing to the Institute, to me, I felt that we needed to be bringing these things together. Because philosophers can talk all they want about the value of practical wisdom, but how does that actually help schools? Well, it helps schools when you bring in descriptive inquiry and you think very carefully about how you actually behave daily in schools. 

[00:33:46] Cecelia T: I’m just to build on that last part because I was thinking more about that, why we did this. We had me, who’s done a lot of work of this kind in multiple settings and places. And we had Cara, who had this incredible philosophy background that really enabled me to see more of what it was that I was doing. That again has to do with relationship and multiple perspectives.

[00:34:14] Cara F: I think why you should read it… you know, Cecelia dedicated the book to, to her partner who’s a long term teacher in schools, and I dedicated it to my children and my grandparents. I always feel uncomfortable saying it, but my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. So for me, the stakes are really high. And I think, as for Cecelia, that we are aspiring towards human dignity. And what we often are living is human atrocity. And that can be as big as what my grandparents experienced, but Cecelia and I recently wrote a paper where we quoted sections of isolation rooms in Illinois, where children are being placed in rooms and they’re screaming and they’re crying, and the adults are just standing there watching, and that’s an atrocity. But then there’s also just the sort of daily injustice of telling a child no, you have to cross your legs and sit in this way in the meeting area, even though it makes you really uncomfortable and it’s painful. And so moving from these small hurts to these larger things to me, they always are living together.

And so why should people respond to our book? Being a teacher who doesn’t commit that kind of injustice is a daily practice. And the book is giving insights into one way in which you can constantly go against the stream to be a better teacher. And every single time I reflect upon my class, I have to go back and say like, what did I do that was kind and helpful? And what did I do that was injuring the people in front of me. 

[00:35:48] Cecelia T: And I want school leaders to read the book alongside the teachers we talk about. And again, go, back to phenomenology. We talk about having democratic schools. We talk about building , some kind of real shared understandings, but how to do that, what that looks like is can be elusive.

And I think, you know, we would never argue, Cara and I would never argue that descriptive inquiry is the only way to do this, but it is a way. And I think that the book can be a source for school leaders who are looking for real practical ideas and ways to create democratic schooling. The leadership I hope for is in school leadership too.

[00:36:38] Amy H-L: This has been both inspirational and practical. We have some concrete ideas for teachers and administrators. So thank you so much, Dr. Cecelia Traugh with Bank Street College of Education and Dr. Cara Furman of the University of Maine, Farmington. 

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