Doing Multigenre Inquiry: Lessons Learned from Beginning Secondary Teacher Candidates’ Multigenre Inquiry Projects

Jim R. Carlson, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies and specialist in literacy studies, teacher inquiry, and teacher identity at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, describes his inaugural experience with implementing a multigenre inquiry project into his coursework in a secondary teacher education program.As a literacy educator, I am always on the lookout for motivating and innovative ways for students to demonstrate their understanding(s) of course content through self-initiated inquiry projects. After struggling through the process of creating a multigenre paper through a professional development experience with the National Writing Project (NWP) and finding the experience rewarding, I began to see the potential for providing students (mostly beginning secondary teacher candidates) with opportunities to create and showcase multigenre papers. The multigenre paper provides writers with opportunities to think through issues related to context, purpose, and audience in ways that traditional writing assignments often fall short.

In this article, I describe my initial experience piloting a multigenre inquiry project in a content area literacy course. I provide readers with insights and reflections into the multigenre paper from the perspective of teacher candidates, and I consider challenges and constraints of the multigenre paper. I begin with an overview of genre and multigenre before turning to my initial experience with the multigenre paper.


Defining Genre and Situating Multigenre Papers

In “How Rhetorical Theories of Genre Address Common Core Writing Standards,” Collin (2013) identifies common ways in which genre is taught. Historically, genre has been a term discussed only in English classes, though this may change given the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on literacy in all subjects. Collin contends that some writing pedagogies (e.g., expressivist) position genres “as templates or delivery systems used to present the author’s unique thoughts and feelings” (p. 217), thus overlooking rhetorical concerns of domain, task, audience, and purpose. Alternative pedagogies (e.g., structured process approach) tend to emphasize function while minimizing form or generic conventions, while writing process pedagogies emphasize form while back dropping questions of function. Collin argues for a rhetorical approach to studying genre (across the curriculum), one that accounts for “genres and situations as objects of struggle” (p. 219).

In “Genre as Social Action,” Miller (1984) argues that a sound definition of genre emphasizes action over substance or form. According to Miller, a narrow definition of genre as “form” is neglectful of the rhetorical situation and the actions accomplished through participation in and deployment of a genre. Viewing genre as social action and mindful of the reciprocal relationship between genre and situation, Miller (1984) and Collin (2013) strive to impart an understanding of genre that takes into consideration the ideological structures and effects of genre, in addition to noting specific forms or textual features typically associated with particular genres. By inviting teacher candidates to compose multiple genres in response to a topic significant to teaching and learning, I wanted them to negotiate choice and constraint as they accounted for a range of changing audiences, purposes, and contexts while composing a multigenre paper.

In order to conceptualize a multigenre paper, I turned to author and teacher Romano (2000), who provided the following description of a multigenre paper in Blending Genre, Altering Style:

A multigenre paper arises from research, experience, and imagination. It is not an uninterrupted, expository monolog nor a seamless narrative nor a collection of poems. A multigenre paper is composed of many genres and subgenres, each piece self-contained, making a point of its own, yet connected by theme or topic and sometimes by language, images, and content. In addition to many genres, a multigenre paper may also contain many voices, not just the author’s. The trick is to make such a paper hang together. (pp. x-xi)

A multigenre paper arises from research, experience, and imagination. It is not an uninterrupted, expository monolog nor a seamless narrative nor a collection of poems. A multigenre paper is composed of many genres and subgenres, each piece self-contained, making a point of its own, yet connected by theme or topic and sometimes by language, images, and content. In addition to many genres, a multigenre paper may also contain many voices, not just the author’s. The trick is to make such a paper hang together. (pp. x-xi)

Romano’s description of the multigenre paper disrupts the prevailing notion that multigenre inquiry is an “anything goes” collection of disconnected poems and vignettes. As he emphasizes, multigenre texts are the result of an interrelated assortment of “research, experience, and imagination.” Failure to invest in any one of these vital components is likely to result in a final product with negligible effects.

For additional background on how multigenre papers might be used with preservice teacher candidates, I relied on teacher and scholar Scherff’s (2012) description of multigenre texts presented to her preservice English teachers as they embarked on a multigenre inquiry project: (1) Multigenre texts are produced as a result of extensive inquiry into a self-selected question, (2) Multigenre texts explore, name, and challenge issues inherent to the question, and (3) Multigenre texts surface from the conscious recognition that genres have political dimension (231). As I began conceptualizing a multigenre inquiry project for the content area literacy course I teach, Scherff’s description provided a firm foundation upon which to invite the teacher candidates in my course to negotiate a multifaceted literacy experience that included: (a) developing and pursuing a question of inquiry, (b) considering multiple perspectives on the self-selected topic, and (c) and contemplating the presence and absence of particular genres of writing (and reading) in school settings and in particular disciplines.

In addition to brainstorming, modifying, and sharing definitions and descriptions of genre and multigenre texts, I sought additional ways to scaffold the multigenre inquiry project. Readings for one course meeting included two multigenre papers published in National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) journals. Boose’s “Will I ‘Run Loose’?” (1999) and Gaughan’s (1998) “From Comfort Zone to Contact Zone” provided candidates with experience reading and responding to multigenre works, and equipped them with concrete examples of a student teacher and a veteran teacher using the genre to persuade, inform, and entertain. While the readings were helpful, in retrospect, I assigned them too late in the semester. In the future, I would make these readings accessible earlier. Along with the readings, I shared my example of a multigenre text along with my personal experience—struggles and triumphs—as a student learning how to “do multigenre” for the first time.


My Introduction to Multigenre Inquiry

My introduction to multigenre research and inquiry occurred during my participation in the National Writing Project in 2012. Prior to the first Writing Project meeting of the summer, Writing Project Fellows were required to create a multigenre text to be displayed and presented at the first meeting of the summer. The assignment served as an icebreaker, allowing participants to learn about one another before really getting to know one another during the project. The expectations for the “Project Me” assignment—assigned months in advance of the first meeting—seemed simple and straightforward: (1) You are the subject of the project, and (2) You must write in a minimum of five genres about yourself.

In the days and weeks leading up to the first Writing Project meeting, however, I struggled to make sense of the assignment. My confusion, and perhaps trepidation, resulted from a number of factors. For starters, in addition to grading semester finals, I was stressing out over an upcoming move across the state, my third move in about as many years. Further, the multigenre assignment required me to spend quality time contemplating questions related to personal and professional identity/ies: Who am I? What do I value? How might I best express personal and professional facets of my identity in five genres?

Like other procrastinating Writing Fellows, rather than accepting responsibility for my lack of progress on the multigenre project, I began to blame others. Namely, I blamed the Writing Project facilitators for my problem: The assignment description is too vague. The requirements are too open-ended. They did not provide us with examples. This kind of writing is too ‘loosey goosey’ for me. What are they really looking for? As the first meeting for the Writing Project approached, I frantically unpacked boxes in the sweltering “new” dwelling (actually a Civil War era farmhouse without air conditioning) and fretted about the pending deadline for the multigenre “Project Me” assignment. While unpacking a “junk” box filled with materials from my high school English teaching days, I began to see possibilities for transforming this “junk” into various genres for the assignment. More specifically, I began to see opportunities for creating multiple genres of narrative, poetry, and drama out of the artifacts. The artifacts from the luggage and boxes played an instrumental role in structuring and inspiring the texts and multiple genres that were eventually composed.

I set to work on the multigenre “Project Me” using very basic tools–scissors, markers, pens, pencils, adhesives, a laptop, and other materials in my “junk” box (newspaper clippings, photographs, cards, government documents, academic transcripts). I began cutting, juxtaposing, writing, revising, reading, and reflecting. Over the course of several days and intense hours, I created a number of texts I look fondly upon to this day: (1) My life in photo id’s, (2) A history of my life and family, (3) A collection of “found poems” culled from student evaluations, (4) a digital story, (5) a draft of a speech given later that summer, and (6) a “report card” of my life as a student (in a grade book I once used as a teacher).

As a result of my experience learning to overcome fears associated with doing multigenre inquiry, integrating the multigenre paper into the course I teach was simply a combination of time and detailed planning. Before describing the multigenre project assignment and timeline, I provide a brief overview of the context for the project.


Context for the Multigenre Inquiry Project

During the spring of 2014, I required a multigenre field inquiry project in a “Content Area Literacy” course. The course is required for secondary teacher education candidates and serves as the first field experience required in the program. Concurrent to enrollment in the course, teacher candidates were placed in a field experience at a local Professional Development School (PDS), where they worked closely with a mentor teacher in their content area in a middle school setting. The PDS is a partnership between the school and university aimed at developing and supporting professional learning and knowledge through inquiry, mentoring, and critical reflection (Zeichner, 2007). For this initial field experience, candidates committed approximately 4 hours/day for 4 days/week at their site for approximately 12 weeks of the semester.

During the course of the semester, teacher candidates plan, implement, video-record, and reflect formally on at least one occasion to meet a course requirement of implementing one lesson plan. Another assignment, a “field inquiry” assignment, is the subject of this paper. As the course instructor, I had been assigning a “field inquiry” assignment for several semesters, and I sought a recess from the traditional end-of-semester presentations that had become commonplace. I hoped that by exposing teacher candidates to multigenre inquiry, many of them would be less intimidated by concepts such as genre, disciplinary literacy, and teacher research or teacher inquiry.

This was my first experience assigning teacher candidates to compose a multigenre paper. As well, this was the first time that many, if not all of the candidates, had been required to compose one. A total of 22 teacher candidates created multigenre texts during the semester. The majority of the candidates enrolled in the course were either secondary English Education majors (9) or History/Social Studies Education majors (5). In addition, three candidates were Music Education majors, two candidates were secondary Mathematics Education majors, two candidates were Spanish Education majors, and one candidate was a secondary Science Education major.


Description and Timeline

Having assigned “field inquiry” projects over several previous semesters, I eventually saw the potential for modifying the project to incorporate a multigenre twist. The purpose of embedding “field inquiry” assignments into my course was to develop in teacher candidates a stance-of-inquiry (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009) on a topic related to literacy, diversity, and one’s content area. In the course syllabus, I described the “Field Inquiry Project” as an inter-related set of five components: (1) a field notes and interview analysis paper, (2) an initial wondering or question, (3) an annotated bibliography, (4) a project description statement, and (5) a multigenre paper and presentation.

During the first half of the semester, candidates took daily field notes at their placement, noting various happenings in the classroom in terms of literacy events. Further, each candidate interviewed at least one person in the building on the topic of literacy in the classroom, school, district, and state. The candidates next synthesized the results of their field notes and interviews in the “Field Notes and Analysis Paper,” outlining key aspects of their site context and arriving at what Dana (2013) calls an “initial wondering” for pursuing a topic further during the second half of the semester.

Teacher candidates next received peer and instructor feedback about their questions and many revised questions into a manageable unit to pursue for the multigenre paper. I set aside one entire class meeting (approximately 3 hours) for one-on-one meetings with individuals about their inquiry project questions and ideas. During these meetings, I often clarified individual confusions about starting on the project, but the occasions did not always provide opportunities to discuss specific decisions about choosing genres and targeting audiences. Often, conversations about choosing specific genres and targeting particular audiences happened after class, informally in the library at the PDS site, and/or during office hours. In the future, I would consider providing more support structures for the inquiry by creating Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) within the class and online through a course management system such as Desire 2 Learn (D2L). The PLCs would be a place for individuals to bounce ideas off one another, provide feedback on others’ work(s), and experience the drafting stages of multigenre papers composed by their peers.

Once initial wonderings were approved, candidates set to work on the Annotated Bibliography assignment, summarizing and analyzing a minimum of three peer-reviewed journal articles. In addition, candidates found additional data points for their inquiry. Several candidates created and distributed surveys to their middle school students and many interviewed teachers, librarians, administrators, and other experts on their topic. In order to prevent candidates from waiting until the last minute on these tasks, I would establish deadlines whereby candidates would need to show progress on their annotated bibliography (e.g., one annotation per week over a three-week period) and drafts of their interview and survey questions.

The final two tasks for the project included a brief multigenre project description assignment and the final presentation. The project description assignment (150 words or less) required the submission of a title, a description of the research question and purpose, and an explanation of the approach to data collection and transformation. The project descriptions eventually appeared in a document that served as a program and schedule for the final presentations. As teacher candidates prepared their multigenre papers, they were tasked with drawing on and transforming their interviews, field notes, and independent research and writing about their question into various genres. During this stage, teacher candidates actively working on their projects would tell me that they were creating a survey, analyzing the results of the survey, or about to interview someone about their topic. I would then ask how they were going to transform the results of their survey and/or interview into a meaningful genre for their project. Many teacher candidates initially struggled with the idea that collecting survey information or interviewing someone was merely a preliminary means to a greater end (creating a meaningful genre). In the future, this stage of the multigenre process would require additional support in terms of feedback, questioning, experimenting, and transforming data into meaningful genres.

For the presentations, candidates prepared a 15-minute presentation on the major themes, findings, and genres of their inquiry. Table 1 represents a sampling of the topics inquired into by the teacher candidates, and Table 2 provides a sampling of the genres created by teacher candidates across the projects.

table 1 and 2

Based on the topics pursued, I arranged the end-of-semester symposium around themes that emerged from the topics and created the order of presentations. Sample thematic sessions (approximately 3-4 teacher candidates per session) included Assessment Literacy, Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners, The Social and Political Context of Education, Religion and Gender in Schools, Social Class in/and Schooling, Multiculturalism, and Disciplinary Literacy. In this arrangement and due to time constraints, audience members waited until all presentations in a session were complete before posing questions and asking for additional information or clarification.

The following specifications, a blending of assessment criteria outlined by Scherff (2012) in her work with pre-service teachers and Allen (2001) in her work with elementary students, guided the assessment of the multigenre text:

  1. Includes an orienting piece that sets up the readers for what is encountered in the paper.
  2. The research paper contains multiple genres (minimum 5), including argumentative and persuasive, informative and explanatory, and narrative and description.
  3. Texts of varying lengths and varying complexities.
  4. The pieces reflect multiple research sources.
  5. The organization reflects a systematic way of presenting the material (paper/project flows).
  6. There are at least five references cited in APA format.

In Appendix A, I have included the rubric used to provide feedback on the multigenre paper to provide additional details about the summative assessment.


Common Themes from Final Reflections
On the day the multigenre papers were due, I invited candidates to write a memo to me about their experience of doing the research and creating the multigenre text (see Appendix B). In Blending Genre, Altering Style, Romano (2000) notes that the memo writing activity provides information to the instructor about the “invisibilities” (p. 169) that often accompany student work. In this instance, the teacher candidates responded to the writing prompts during class time. I informed them that I was seeking informal feedback about their process for creating the multigenre papers, and that I would be reading their memos prior to actually reading their submitted multigenre papers. The results of conducting this brief experiment were so illuminating that I encourage all teachers to provide students with an opportunity to submit a memo about work they are submitting. Key themes that emerged from my exploratory analysis of the candidates’ responses to selected questions relate to enthusiasm for the multigenre paper, deeper understandings of genre and its possibilities and limitations, connections to disciplinary literacy, and challenges of writing multigenre papers. I expand on these general themes below.

The first question on the memo-writing activity asked students to respond to the prompt: “What was surprising about doing the multigenre research project?” Overwhelmingly, the students expressed general enthusiasm about the assignment, while some also noted “it was a lot of work.” In a number of instances, teacher candidates wrote about things that surprised them about their topic, which was not related to what I was seeking information on. In the future, I would talk through the prompts prior to distributing them so that everyone was on the same page about what the prompts were asking. A few examples of the students’ response to what surprised them about the project follow:

  • “I was surprised by how excited I was to create them. Specifically, I actually put off other homework to do this one.”
  • “I was surprised by how much fun I have had with this project. It was a lot of work, but worth it.”
  • “I was surprised by how much went into this paper.”
  • “I was pretty surprised about how much I liked writing this paper …”

As the instructor, I was shocked to see my students’ enthusiasm for pursuing a topic through the multigenre format. Never had a student revealed to me that s/he put off other homework in order to work on a project for my class. It was rewarding to learn that the candidates had fun in addition to learning about their topics.

In addition to learning more about a self-selected topic, I had expectations that teacher candidates in the class would begin to articulate a more sophisticated understanding of the importance of integrating the reading, writing, and study of multiple genres into the curriculum. I wanted candidates to begin to see possibilities for integrating more authentic writing assignments into their content areas, and I also wanted candidates to reflect on the limitations of the writing that is typically assigned in schools. Further, I hoped that candidates from content areas not traditionally associated with reading and writing (e.g., mathematics, music, art) would spearhead a movement to embed more meaningful writing experiences into their courses. Unfortunately, this one multigenre inquiry project did not accomplish all of these goals. However, candidates’ responses to the question, “What did you learn about writing in different genres as a way of communicating?” revealed that some were beginning to think more critically about genre as being multifaceted and multidimensional, and not just as a template. For instance, some candidates referred to the importance considering topics through multiple perspectives and through various audiences. Others reflected on how some genres of writing assume a more prominent status than others in schools, while other forms of writing appear to be non-existent. A few of their responses to the question follow:

  • “I learned that genres can ‘overlap,’ depending on the perspective/lens you view it through and who your audience is.”
  • “I learned how to accommodate for multiple audiences.”
  • “It made me synthesize the data much more than I otherwise would have.”
  • “I actually enjoyed and found this way of research to be more informative than papers I have done in the past.”
  • “I learned that there are a ton of ways to present – dare I say artistic style- rather than just writing a 5-paragraph essay.”

Based on the responses, it became clear that the multigenre inquiry project contributed to accomplishing key goals related to thinking about the affordances and limitations of traditional writing assignments in schooling. For instance, the multigenre assignment awakened in several candidates an interest in writing for a particular audience or multiple audience members. In previous renditions of the field inquiry project, while unstated in the assignment description, the “real” (only?) audience for the project was the course instructor. In this project, however, teacher candidates were invited to compose for range of audiences, changing the form and content accordingly. Admittedly, for some candidates, the only audience imagined for this assignment was the course instructor. For others, however, the multigenre paper seemed to guide candidates toward a wider conception of audience that included their peers, other professionals in their content area, and particular perspectives encountered in the reviewed literature on the topic. Additionally, looking at some of the responses, teacher candidates described feeling empowered through the process of sifting through their data and presenting the synthesized information into a genre other than what Romano (2004) has referred to as the “five-paragraph-you-know-what” (p. 66).

Because teacher candidates wrote in multiple genres for this project, in the memo writing assignment, I invited them to reflect on which pieces were their best and which pieces were their weakest. I wanted to get a sense of the aspects of their work they stood behind with confidence, while also accounting for the areas in which they appeared vulnerable. Responses to the “best piece” question provided insights into where candidates put their time. For instance, one candidate revealed that he spent the majority of his time creating his Google Site, often to the neglect of other genres. Other candidates explained their engagement in the process of transforming data generated from one genre into a new genre. One candidate described being “really proud” of turning a summary of a peer-reviewed journal article into a news article. The question also revealed that some teacher candidates were thinking about their multigenre text through a disciplinary literacy perspective, identifying discipline-specific genres—the genres with which they had the most familiarity—as their best pieces.

In terms of perceived weaker pieces of writing, one teacher candidate noted the difficulty inherent in “making connections between the different genres.” Looking back, it is clear that I had romanticized notions that teacher candidates would create flow between their genres. This was an aspect of the project that was underdeveloped and could be better addressed in a future iteration of this project. As the instructor, I would spend more time discussing the use of repetition, repetend (recurring phrase or word), and recurring images in multigenre papers as important features of multigenre papers. In addition to examining an assortment of multigenre papers for their use of repetition and repetend, I would provide opportunities for teacher candidates to explicitly discuss their experiences and decisions making the connections between the genres. I imagine setting aside time in class specifically for the purpose of work shopping the multigenre papers to improve the flow or connections between the genres. In addition, I would have more intentional large group conversations throughout the process about evolving understandings of genre and insights into discipline-specific situations, genres, and writing practices and pedagogies.

A bit naively, I had assumed that the teacher candidates would feel confident in writing any and all genres. However, it became apparent through the memo-writing responses that some teacher candidates felt that their lack of mastery or expertise in a particular genre (e.g., position statement, argument, political cartoon) provided for more of a challenge than I had anticipated. The following responses reveal the importance of familiarity when it comes to composing a particular genre:

  • “My weakest piece was probably the position statement opposing disciplinary literacy. First off, I am not familiar with the genre of position statements, and secondly, I didn’t really agree with the arguments presented.”
  • “The weakest piece is probably the interview. I tended to just want to use my interviewee’s quotes because I had a hard time finding out how to report her statements otherwise.”
  • “My weakest was probably my created letter … I am not a confrontational person, so bringing up a problem like that is not my strong suit.”

Teacher candidates sometimes struggled to present information in a genre they had minimal prior experience reading or writing. For instance, the teacher candidate above who wrote a position statement opposing disciplinary literacy had little experience reading position statements and had never before composed a position statement. Further, the candidate personally agreed with a disciplinary approach to his content area, but used this genre to take a stance of opposition against the implementation of a disciplinary literacy approach, a cause for internal conflict that would not have been experienced in a traditional research paper. Other candidates navigated similar conflicts as they sought to portray “the other side” of an argument they were constructing.

Now, some may argue that the multigenre paper is doomed to fail in the classroom because of this “flaw” in the nature of the genre; however, I prefer to see value in the struggles similar to the ones encountered by teacher candidates in this project. It is through these struggles that individuals grow as learners, writers, and teachers. In line with Dewey’s (1997) thinking on the continuity of experience, it is through experience and discussion with others that we learn and grow. According to Dewey, “As an individual passes from one situation to another, his world, his environment, expands or contracts. He does not find himself living in another world but in a different part or aspect of one and the same world” (p. 44). I prefer to see genre as an activity with the potential to expand, rather than contract, one’s surroundings. Rather than viewing genre as a gatekeeping activity (i.e., Your lack of expertise in the genre prevents you from participating in it), I see genre as a site for experimentation and participation. In the future, I would incorporate more intentional conversations about decisions related to choosing and excluding particular genres and the continuum of novice/expert. I would encourage teacher candidates to talk through their decisions to include and exclude particular genres in their final paper, exploring the benefits and constraints of choosing familiar and less-than-familiar genres along the way.

Teacher candidates sometimes struggled to present information in a genre they had minimal prior experience reading or writing. For instance, the teacher candidate above who wrote a position statement opposing disciplinary literacy had little experience reading position statements and had never before composed a position statement. Further, the candidate personally agreed with a disciplinary approach to his content area, but used this genre to take a stance of opposition against the implementation of a disciplinary literacy approach, a cause for internal conflict that would not have been experienced in a traditional research paper. Other candidates navigated similar conflicts as they sought to portray “the other side” of an argument they were constructing.

Now, some may argue that the multigenre paper is doomed to fail in the classroom because of this “flaw” in the nature of the genre; however, I prefer to see value in the struggles similar to the ones encountered by teacher candidates in this project. It is through these struggles that individuals grow as learners, writers, and teachers. In line with Dewey’s (1997) thinking on the continuity of experience, it is through experience and discussion with others that we learn and grow. According to Dewey, “As an individual passes from one situation to another, his world, his environment, expands or contracts. He does not find himself living in another world but in a different part or aspect of one and the same world” (p. 44). I prefer to see genre as an activity with the potential to expand, rather than contract, one’s surroundings. Rather than viewing genre as a gatekeeping activity (i.e., Your lack of expertise in the genre prevents you from participating in it), I see genre as a site for experimentation and participation. In the future, I would incorporate more intentional conversations about decisions related to choosing and excluding particular genres and the continuum of novice/expert. I would encourage teacher candidates to talk through their decisions to include and exclude particular genres in their final paper, exploring the benefits and constraints of choosing familiar and less-than-familiar genres along the way.

Another question that candidates responded to in the memo-writing activity asked them to elaborate on what the multigenre format enabled them to do with their topic. I anticipated that teacher candidates would talk about how the assignment allowed them to consider multiple perspectives on their topic. While some candidates did refer to this theme, two additional themes emerged in teacher candidates’ responses to the question. First, teacher candidates made statements related to creativity and turning the mundane into the imaginative. The following statements capture this theme:

  • “It allowed us to create interesting forms of an originally ‘boring’ format. We created ads and newsletters to reflect academic journals. It allowed us to create a story that made our topic be viewed as an issue that is alive.”
  • “I liked that I was able to go to so many different genres to prove my point. Papers can be so dry and this offers something more interesting.”
  • “It allowed me to be much more creative than I originally would have been.”

In addition to the creativity theme, candidates elaborated on how the multigenre text required them to give serious contemplation to multiple audiences for their genres beyond the course instructor. The following candidate’s response reveals the multiple audiences accounted for in the multigenre text:

[The multigenre paper enabled me to focus on] the audience: the people targeted would be teachers, librarians, school board officials, parents, and students.

As audiences for particular genres changed, candidates noted that they had to re-think their purpose and tone accordingly. In this era of the Common Core, the standards require that “college and career ready” students: (1) “Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.9-10.1.D), and (2) “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style appropriate to task, purpose, and audience” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.9-10.4). Given these demands and expectations, in addition to exposure to the standards, it is crucial that teacher candidates also are provided assignments challenging them to demonstrate proficiency in the standards. In the future, I would be more intentional about drawing connections between the multigenre paper and the guiding literacy standards of the time.


Moving Forward

Earlier in this piece, I detailed my own experiences with confronting a range of emotions when I created a multigenre paper for the first time. Many of the teacher candidates in my course experienced similar feelings of confusion, anger, and acceptance as they wallowed through the murkiness of multigenre texts. Recommendations suggested by the teacher candidates for improving the multigenre inquiry project included providing clearer directions and guidelines and sharing more examples of multigenre texts. Some teacher candidates indicated that they felt lost when they first started (something that I had anticipated given my own experience), and indicated that more time in class should be dedicated to supporting individuals through the process of creating a multigenre paper. Others indicated that creating a multigenre paper took more time than they had budgeted and that life factors (e.g., work, relationships, field experience) contributed to papers that were less engaging than others. In general, teacher candidates seemed to request that more time be spent at the beginning of the process to situate an understanding of the multigenre paper. While they found assignment descriptions and evaluation rubrics for the project helpful, candidates wanted their introduction to the project to be “step-by-step” and insisted on a “page length guideline” (e.g., How many pages does this have to be?). These will be important voices to consider in creating future materials and experiences related to the multigenre paper, along with incorporating other modifications noted throughout this paper.

In addition to the teacher candidates’ recommendations, I share the following observations about the multigenre research project in the hopes that other teachers may be motivated to experiment with this kind of writing/inquiry in their classrooms: (1) Doing multigenre inquiry takes time, (2) Showcasing and sharing out students’ work should be a priority, (3) Product is important, but not as important process, and (4) Multigenre inquiry projects are not always the best option.

Doing multigenre inquiry takes time. In this paper, I have presented some of the initial uncoverings that emerged from my analysis of the feedback teacher candidates provided informally through the memo-writing activity. As a result of looking back at the events leading up to the candidate’s final presentation of their work, I am reminded that, as teachers, we can always make improvements following a trial run.

Piloting the multigenre inquiry project in my course provided me with opportunities to consider a number of changes that I would make to ensure less confusion and to provide more clarity for teacher candidates. Now that I have seen/read/experienced a number of multigenre inquiry projects created by teacher candidates, I am better prepared to respond to students’ questions about the process, to talk about the kinds of moves made in a multigenre inquiry project, and to share examples of previous projects. Also, I now know that I would want to set aside more frequent “checkpoints” in the future to have teacher candidates share ideas, questions, and drafts with each other and with me. In addition to setting aside one class period to meet one-on-one with individuals as they present their initial wonderings, I would set aside time (e.g., 30 minutes) in each class for teacher candidates to receive feedback and support from their peers and from me. I would incorporate a peer evaluation tool as part of this process to hold students accountable for bringing in drafts, sharing their work electronically, and responding thoughtfully to others’ ideas and drafts (f2f and online).

Showcasing and sharing out students’ work should be a priority. During the semester I piloted the multigenre inquiry project, each teacher candidate presented her/his multigenre text to classmates during our scheduled final exam time. While this experience was powerful, it was not as powerful as it could have been. In the memo-writing activity, at least one teacher candidate expressed disappointment at the lack of opportunities during the presentation to ask questions of the presenters. This comment provides an important reminder that we need to honor our students’ investments in their work.

During this iteration of the project, teacher candidates had a limited amount of time to share their work and the set up did not allow for the kinds of interactions between presenters/creators and audience/viewers ideal for sharing multigenre texts. In addition to honoring the creators of multigenre texts, we must build in time for the audience to interact with the creator in relation to the project. Unfortunately, during the semester I piloted the project, the audience had limited opportunities to raise questions and seek additional information about the topic. Also, in the future, rather than having a “closed” sharing (within the class) of the multigenre texts, the event would be more of a public sharing/dissemination of the findings.

This past semester (Spring 2015), I made three slight changes to the end-of-semester inquiry presentations that provided different results and ideas for considering future implementations of multigenre inquiries into course work. First, instead of presenting during the final exam time (a 2-hour block), teacher candidates presented their material during the last course meeting time (a 3-hour block). The advantage to this arrangement is that there was more time for personal interactions with presenters. A disadvantage, however, was that candidates had one less week to compose and modify final products. A second change occurred in the format of the presentations. Rather than formal presentations to the large group in a restricted amount of time (15 minutes), candidates presented their work in a round-table format in blocks of 30 minutes. The roundtable format allowed for more personal interactions, but also limited the number of presentations that one could observe or participate in. The final changes revolved around the decision to open the event up to the public and to hold the event outside of a classroom. Both changes seemed to be worthwhile, particularly the change in venue. By not having the presentations in a classroom, the event felt more like an informal professional gathering than a final class meeting. While this semester’s event was publicized on social media and around campus through flyers, the coinciding of the event with end-of-semester projects and finals elsewhere on campus seemed to impact the overall turnout. Despite a low turnout at this semester’s event, I continue to see the importance in deprivatizing our work as dynamic and multifaceted teachers. Cochran-Smith (2012) refers to the deprivitization of teaching practice as “the interruption of teaching as a private act” (p. 112). Further, deprivatization of teaching means collaborating with others and being open to critique in more a more public setting. Though deprivatization may cause others to feel vulnerable and threatened, such work puts an end to the isolation that too often accompanies the profession.

Product is important, but not as important as the process. Beyond creating a product that the teacher candidates in my course could stand behind, the most important aim for this project was the development of a stance-of-inquiry. For too long, teachers have been told about what should be happening in their classrooms from “experts” outside of the profession and with limited experiences in actual classrooms. The multigenre inquiry project provided beginning teacher candidates with preliminary experience related to observing practice, posing questions, and sharing results of inquiry with others. They were invited to see teaching as a social and intellectual enterprise, challenging the notion that teaching is merely a private activity in which one implements a curriculum created by outside “experts.” In other words, the inquiry project provided beginning teacher candidates with an opportunity to view teachers as agents rather than objects in matters of schooling and curricula. The multigenre inquiry project, then, must be conceived as an attempt to empower teachers to do inquiry in/on their classrooms and to share their new knowledge with others in the profession.

Multigenre inquiry projects are not always the best option. While I stand behind the importance of having students do multigenre inquiry, it also is important to remain a realist about the conditions under which teachers operate and to acknowledge that current education reforms and demands limit the possibilities for this work. In an era of increased standardization and efficiency, it is clear that multigenre inquiry may not always fit the bill. It would be impossible to standardize the creation and/or evaluation of a multigenre text. Further, the time required to gather, collect, synthesize, and transform multiple points of data and to create a cohesive flow between the parts of a multigenre text is among the reasons that multigenre inquiries are not more ubiquitous in schools today. Quite simply, multigenre papers are not conducive to a system predicated on efficiency and orderliness. In my own setting in a teacher education program, the Teacher Performance Assessment (or edTPA) is an example of an education reform that limits the possibilities for the kinds of robust gains that can be made through multigenre inquiry. As this high-stakes assessment becomes the gatekeeper for teacher candidates making the transition to the profession, the tendency in teacher education, as in public schools, is to “teach to the test.” Despite some of these constraints and material realities, the multigenre paper and other inquiry-related experiences continue to provide valuable opportunities for teacher candidates to develop consciousness of the social, cultural, and political context(s) that influence teaching and learning.


Conclusion

Doing inquiry is about more than adding one more “to do” task to a teacher’s already busy schedule. Doing inquiry is about collaborating, actively engaging, and articulating questions that provide and guide learning experiences relevant to improving classroom practice and student learning. While challenging and tricky at times, the teacher candidates in my course gave voice to several benefits of doing multigenre inquiry. Teacher candidates expressed that the project helped them to see the issue they were exploring as “alive.” Candidates learned about craft and structure, about how important it is to “frame” a paper in a paper’s introduction and conclusion, and about how subtle changes in tone might be the result of changes in audience. Importantly, the teacher candidates learned to think about writing as a complex process, one that required the support of others. Lastly, candidates had opportunities to develop and expand on preliminary notions of disciplinary literacy, and the discipline-specific reading and writing demands valued in their content area.

Thinking back to my own experiences as a writer learning to compose a multigenre text for the first time, I am reminded of the struggle that is writing, regardless of the genre. For me, and I imagine for other writers, participating in a new genre or style of writing can be intimidating and lead to feelings of immobilization. I recall being so frustrated with the multigenre paper expectations for the National Writing Project that I almost dropped out of the project before it even started. Throughout this paper, I have tried to avoid presenting teacher candidates as a monolithic group of teachers enamored with the genre. It is important to reiterate that not all teacher candidates were infatuated with the experience, as several candidates did express that they could have just have effectively presented their research by submitting a more traditional end-of-term paper. Despite some of the challenges related to doing multigenre inquiries, the multigenre paper—as pursued with some of modifications outlined in this paper—holds unique potential for equipping teacher candidates with knowledge and experience necessary to leverage components of authentic writing and teacher inquiry in transformative ways.


References

Allen, C. A. (2001). The multigenre research paper: Voice, passion, and discovery in grades 4-6. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Boose, S. (1999). Will I “run loose”? Voices from the Middle, 6(3), 18-22.

Cochran-Smith, M. (2012). A tale of two teachers: Learning to teach over time. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 48(3), 108-122.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research for the next generation. New York: Teachers College Press.

Collin, R. (2013). How rhetorical theories of genre address common core writing standards. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 57(3), 215-222.

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Washington, DC: National Governors Association.

Dana, N. F. (2013). Digging deeper into action research: A teacher inquirer’s field guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster. (Original work published 1938)

Gaughan, J. (1998). From comfort zone to contact zone. English Journal, 87(2), 36-43.

Miller, C. R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(2), 151-167.

Romano, T. (2000). Blending genre, altering style: Writing multigenre papers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Romano, T. (2004). Crafting authentic voice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Scherff, L. (2012). “This project has personally affected me”: Developing a critical stance in preservice English teachers. Journal of Literacy Research, 44(2), 200-236.

Zeichner, K. (2007). Professional development schools in a culture of evidence and accountability. School-University Partnerships, 1(1), 9-17.


Appendix A
: Multigenre Paper/Project Rubric

Criteria and Evaluation*

The final grade for the multigenre paper/project will be determined using the following scale:

3=exceptional completion of criteria
2=acceptable and proficient completion of criteria
1=minimal completion of criteria

Includes an orienting piece (e.g., Preface, Foreword, or Introduction) that contextualizes the topic of the inquiry, supplies background information, and sets up the readers for what is encountered in the paper. This piece should:

  1. help the reader to make connections between the topic of inquiry and your discipline or content area,
  2. provide readers with important details related to the process(es) and decision-making involved in the creation of these interconnected texts, and
  3. provide an overview of the organizational structure and territory (e.g., genres, pieces, texts) that follow

The research paper contains multiple genres (minimum 5), including:

  1. argumentative/persuasive (e.g., advertisements, book reviews, conversation, speech, letter),
  2. informative/explanatory (e.g., non-fiction, monologue, editorial, interviews, questionnaires, book reviews, research pieces, newspaper article, pamphlet, auto/biography, cartoon/comic strip, encyclopedia entry, time line, news cast, assignment description, poster, infographic, lesson plan),
  3. narrative/description (e.g., double-voice poem, fiction, letter, descriptive field notes, play, case study, journal entry, reflection, photographs, response to student work).

Pieces created should address the following communication purposes:

  1. One piece which conveys interactions between more than one actor/agent (or teacher, student, parent, etc.). Some possible genres: dialogue, poem for two voices, comic strip, spoken conversation, e-mails, instant messages.
  2. One piece which conveys research information. Some possible genres: diagram, table, chart, graph, how-to essay, research poster, newspaper article, advice column, summary of research/journal article.
  3. One piece using a genre appropriate to communicating the information and/or ideas of your inquiry and research. Some possible genres: student work, lesson plan, interview transcript, summary of research/journal article, diagram, table, chart, graph, how-to essay, research poster, newspaper article, advice column.
  4. One piece which allows you to consult and depict the “other side of the issue” (opposing viewpoint). Some possible genres: point-counterpoint, cable television pundits, science fiction, fantasy, drama, public radio talk show, editorial, public or community hearing transcript.
  5. One piece which allows you to integrate multimedia (e.g., podcast, iMovie, Digital Story, Screencast, New Literacies) into your project.

The total number of pieces shows dedicated effort. Texts of varying lengths and varying complexities are included.

The pieces reflect multiple research sources and include information derived from research, not simply pieces that could have been written without having done the research.

The organization reflects a systematic way of presenting the material (paper/project flows); the pieces are tied together to form a cohesive paper (e.g., piece may include repetition, repetend, or recurring image).

The paper/project is original/creative/moving. There is an original way to present the information; there is something creative about it that reflects the passion that drove the project; it entices the reader to keep reading.

The presentation of the paper/project is attractive and pleasing to the eye.

There are no errors in mechanics, usage, grammar, spelling.

There are at least five references cited in APA format.

The overall quality of the paper reflects a genuine effort on the part of the writer.

*Criteria modified based on Allen, The Multigenre Research Paper: Voice, Passion, and Discovery in Grades 4-6, and Scherff, “‘This Project Has Personally Affected Me’: Developing a Critical Stance in Preservice English Teachers.”

One thought on “Doing Multigenre Inquiry: Lessons Learned from Beginning Secondary Teacher Candidates’ Multigenre Inquiry Projects

  1. Pingback: Vol 57, No 2 (2015) | The Wisconsin English Journal

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