What Makes Teacher Community Different from a Gathering of Teachers?

Pamela Grossman
December 1, 2000

Abstract .................................................................................................................................................................. 5
In Pursuit of Teacher Community ....................................................................................................................... 6
The Declaration of Community ................................................................................................................... 7
Community at Large .................................................................................................................................... 8
Professional Community and Teacher Learning .................................................................................... 10
Getting Started in the Workplace ...................................................................................................................... 11
The Essential Tension of Teacher Community ........................................................................................ 13
Uncommon Ground: Enacting the Essential Tension ............................................................................ 14
Pseudocommunity ..................................................................................................................................... 17
Cracks in Psuedocommunity: Acknowledgment of Conflict................................................................ 19
The Cultures of Teacher Community ....................................................................................................... 23
Telling our Stories: Bringing Our Selves to the Table ..................................................................................... 25
Subject Matter Fault Lines .......................................................................................................................... 28
“Grinding the Same Old Wheat” .............................................................................................................. 28
Distribution of Social/Intellectual Work in a Community ............................................................................ 32
Learning Together ...................................................................................................................................... 32
Navigating a River . . . and Ourselves ...................................................................................................... 34
The Social Work of Community ................................................................................................................ 38
Naming the Differences: Moving Toward Community ......................................................................... 38
Toward Community ........................................................................................................................................... 44
Obstacles to Community ............................................................................................................................ 47
Community and Diversity ......................................................................................................................... 48
Why Care About Community? .......................................................................................................................... 49
Intellectual Renewal ................................................................................................................................... 49
Community as a Venue for New Learning .............................................................................................. 50
Community as a Venue for Cultivating Leadership............................................................................... 51
What About the Kids? ................................................................................................................................ 53
Dewey’s Dream........................................................................................................................................... 55
References ............................................................................................................................................................ 56
In this paper, the authors draw on their experience with a professional development project to
propose a model for studying the formation and development of teacher community. The project they
describe brought together 22 English and social studies teachers, as well as a Special Educator and an
ESL teacher, from an urban high school for a period of 2 1/2 years. The teachers met twice a month to
read together in the field of history and literature and to work on an interdisciplinary curriculum. This
detailed account of the first 18 months of the project sheds new light on definitions of professional
community, its stages of development, and the challenges that confront community in the workplace of
high schools. One of the challenges consists of the need to negotiate an “essential tension” at the heart
of teachers’ professional community. Among this group of teachers, many felt that the primary reason to
meet was to improve classroom practices and student learning, while others were more interested in the
potential for continuing intellectual development in the subjects they taught. The authors—who
deliberately built the essential tension into the project—claim that these two views must both be
respected in any successful attempt to create and sustain intellectual community in the workplace. The
authors also describe the challenges of maintaining diverse perspectives within a community and how
familiar fault lines—both in society and in school—threaten the pursuit of community. The paper
includes a model of the markers of community formation— as manifested in participants’ talk and
actions—and concludes with a discussion of why we must continue to care about professional
The word community is at risk of losing its meaning. From the prevalence of terms such as
“communities of learners,” “discourse communities,” and “learning communities” to “school
community,” “teacher community,” or “communities of practice,” it is clear that community has become
an obligatory appendage to every educational innovation. Yet aside from linguistic kinship, it is not clear
what features, if any, are shared across terms. This confusion is most pronounced in the ubiquitous
“virtual community,” where, by paying a fee or typing a password, anyone who visits a web site
automatically becomes a “member” of the community.
We are not the first to urge caution about the profligate uses of the term community. In the early
1990s, researchers such as Judith Warren Little and Milbrey McLaughlin raised concerns about
importing and applying notions of community from literatures in sociology, social work, and
anthropology to the specific and unique contexts of schools. In work from the Stanford Center on School
Context, Perry (1997) noted that research had not yet “been able to identify and investigate the
dimensions which constitute [teacher] professional community or to discover how each of these
dimensions work to support or undermine teaching” (p. 37). Nonetheless, there is no shortage of
theoretical formulations of how community is supposed to function in educational settings. In his
review, Westheimer (1998) pointed to five commonplaces in theories of community (interdependence,
interaction/participation, shared interests, concern for individual and minority views, and meaningful
relationships), drawing on diverse thinkers such as Philip Selznick, John Dewey, Maxine Greene, Nel
Noddings, and Robert Bellah. But in the end Westheimer came to the same conclusion as others.
“Researchers,” he wrote, “could benefit from a stronger conceptualization of communities based in
empirical research” (p. 148).
What is clear from even a cursory review of the literature is the tendency to bring community into
being by linguistic fiat (“virtual community” is only the baldest example).1 Groups of people become
community, or so it would seem, by the flourish of a researcher’s pen. In this sense, researchers have yet
to formulate criteria that would allow them to distinguish between a community of teachers and a group
of teachers sitting in a room for a meeting. This conceptual blur raises the question of what, if anything,
the construct of community adds to existing accounts of schooling. Compounding this problem is the
fact that studies of community typically examine already-formed groups. Consequently, we have little
sense of how teachers forge the bonds of community, struggle to maintain them, work through the
inevitable conflicts of social relationships, and form the structures to sustain relationships over time.
Without understanding such processes, we have little to guide us as we try to create community
(whatever it may mean!) in settings where it doesn’t already exist.2
1 We recognize that virtual environments offer many possibilities for community that are just being explored by
researchers. Our concern, however, is the loose use of “community” that attends many new technological innovations. As
an example, consider the description of a new on-line partnership between university scholars and high school students
that claims it will use “email to create a common intellectual community among the different institutions” (“Schools &
Scholars Bridges the Divide,” 2000, p. 2). This claim is offered as self-evident without any specification of what
community means (beyond participating in a joint listserve), how it will be evaluated, and how project coordinators will
know if they have succeeded or failed in “creating community.”
2 In other fields, such as sociology, social work, and social psychology, a broad literature exists on the formation of groups
and group dynamics. See, for example, the classic works of Homans (1950), Yalom (1995), and Merton (1968).
The Declaration of Community
As researchers engaged in a long-term study of teacher community, we are as guilty as anyone of
these sins. Five years ago we applied for and received a large grant to create a “community of teacher
learners” in a large urban high school. After reviewing the educational literature on community, we
formulated a model based on the structural features of the urban high school (e.g., time and resources);
departmental organization (based on work by Grossman & Stodolsky, 1995); intellectual features of
cooperative learning environments (drawing largely on Brown and Campione’s work on communities of
learners, 1994; Brown, 1992), as well as our own prior work on pedagogical content knowledge and
subject-specific pedagogy (Grossman, 1990; Wilson & Wineburg, 1993). We located our project in a large
urban high school, where members from two different departments (English and history) came together
over joint work: the exploration of understanding in the humanities that would eventually lead to an
interdisciplinary humanities curriculum.
Here we draw on our experiences with this project, along with the work of others, to propose a
model of teacher community. This is the first of three articles based on this project. In this paper we
describe the group during the first 18 months of the project. We begin by laying out some of the
conceptual and theoretical issues related to community and uses of it in school environments. Using our
own project as a case, we discuss the developmental trajectory of intellectual community among
teachers and show how unprepared we were for the challenges we faced. Finally, we discuss how
community manifests in speech and action, noting along the way the twisting path of pursuing
community in an urban high school. We end by addressing the “so what” question: What is community
good for and why should we even care about it?
In a second paper (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 1998), we describe more fully how we
analyzed the learning of both individuals and the group as a whole. We explain our coding scheme at
some length, a scheme that draws upon the work of Robert Scholes (1985) to distinguish different levels
of reading in our group discussions. Such a coding scheme is essential if we are to make claims about
changes in the intellectual quality of our discussions over time. In the third paper (Grossman,
Wineburg, & Woolworth, in progress), we describe the final year of the project, a year that was
characterized by the contradictions of conflict and cohesion. It is in this final paper that we address
directly the fragility of community.
We offer our experience not as a success story (as will soon become clear, for every rousing success
we experienced, we weathered an equally dismal failure), but as an instructive case that sheds light on
the birth pangs of teacher community (cf. Thomas, Wineburg, Grossman, Mhyre, & Woolworth, 1998;
Wineburg & Grossman, 1996). We offer a bounded history of our project, drawing on data from the first
half of our three years together. Confining our narrative to the first 18 months allows us to focus on how
a group of people came together, struggled to find a common language, and worked to create a
collective vision for on-going professional development in the workplace. In telling our story, we
deliberately alternate between theoretical aspects of community that go beyond our setting and the
unique features of individuals and a context that have no direct parallels elsewhere. Our goal is to tie
our conceptualization to the concrete particulars of a single setting but also to show how our experience
speaks to issues that extend beyond this one school and district. Before we turn to our story, we offer a
brief review of the construct of community as it has been understood more generally in the social
sciences and humanities.
Community at Large
The association between community and the good life reaches across most religious, cultural, and
philosophical traditions where the value of individuals working together for the common good is
upheld and respected. When German sociologist Ferdinand Toennies (1887/1963) used the word
gemeinschaft to differentiate community from gesellschaft (society), he did so because in community, he
observed, individuals cultivate stronger bonds of connectedness than they do in the larger society, which
is often experienced as impersonal and alienating. Communities, he noted, are more apt to be defined
by close and loyal relationships and a stable social structure.
Our research comes at a time when many have expressed concern over the loss of traditional social
community. Numerous popular and scholarly accounts have detailed the ways in which people are less
grounded by place, less likely to know their neighbors, and less committed to a civic life than during
any other time in our nation’s past (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985; Etzioni, 1993;
Oldenburg, 1989; Putnam, 1995). Traditional communities built on personal and active engagement in
organized groups have withered in favor of more individual pursuits, like those symbolized by the
“virtual communities” we alluded to earlier, where people drop in and out of social networks by
choice—not through association or shared purpose. Many theorists warn that historical notions of social
responsibility and commitment are threatened by an unrestrained culture of individualism. What we
risk losing, many agree, are those communal spaces where meaningful social interaction broadens
people’s sense of self beyond the “me” and “I” into the “we” and “us.”
In Habits of the Heart (1985) Robert Bellah and his associates describe this loss as a decline in civic
membership, the intersection point between one’s personal and social identity. Americans, they claim,
have disengaged from the body politic and are less involved in the civic institutions that Tocqueville saw
as softening and containing the individualistic tendencies at the heart of American society. In response
to this perceived crisis of individualism, a social movement that aims to restore and revitalize the
community ideal has emerged. Amitai Etzioni (1993), writing as a spokesperson for the communitarian
movement, proclaims that rights now outweigh responsibilities in American society. What is needed, he
argues, is “a renewal of social bonds” and a commitment to a more moral and ethical form of public life
based on shared values and mutual understanding. Similarly, sociologist Robert Putnam (1995), in his
widely-cited paper “Bowling Alone,” suggests that current social conditions reflect a decline in “social
capital,” a term he uses to invoke the social networks, norms, and levels of trust that “facilitate” how
well people cooperate and work together for their own mutual benefit. Vibrant communities, according
to Putnam, have a “substantial stock of social capital” that makes life easier and more meaningful for its
Because of the nature of our work in teacher community, we are most interested in community at the
local level, where face-to-face interactions, dialogue, and trust are necessary ingredients to building
cohesion. We find Bellah et al.’s (1985) definition of community to be instructive in this regard. They
stipulate that a community is “a group of people who are socially interdependent, who participate
together in discussion and decision making, and who share certain practices that both define the
community and are nurtured by it” (p. 333). Based on our experience, we concur with Bellah et al. when
they note that such communities are not quickly or easily formed. It takes time for individuals to
develop a history together so that they, in effect, become a “community of memory” where public
discussion revolves around members retelling the “constitutive narrative” of the group.
We are also interested in the formation of group norms and how they come to define community.
For legal theorist Stephen Carter (1998), norms represent the shared moral life of a community—that
element which encourages participants to discipline their desires “for the sake of membership in the
group.” Participation in genuine communities is marked by civility, or what Carter refers to as the
“etiquette of democracy” whereby individuals are mindful about how they express dissent and
negotiate disagreement. As we will demonstrate, in our attempt to establish community at one school
we were confronted from the start with challenges over how disagreements were expressed in the
context of a “professional” community, where individuals already had a prior history with one another
and where there was often more at stake than winning an argument.
In writing about professional community, we acknowledge that a rich history of integrating notions
of professionalism with community extends back to the efforts of progressive period reformers and
social workers, who developed shared systems of support and fellowship around child welfare practices
and policies (Muncy, 1991). However, for applied social researchers interested in documenting the
formation of professional community, especially among teachers, there is less on which to build. One of
the first scholars to link the construct of community to issues of professionalism was William J. Goode
(1957). Goode observed that professions such as law and medicine vary in the extent to which they are,
indeed, a community, but that these professions share certain “characteristics” of community. Members
of the same profession share a sense of identity and common values; they share the same role definitions
in relation to members and non-members alike; they share a common language; and they control the
reproduction of the group through selection procedures and socialization processes. Professional
community, Goode observed, is a “contained community,” a group of people who exist within the
structural constraints and supports of the larger society. This metaphor of containment applies as well
to our efforts at building a community embedded within the larger organization of the school, the
district, and the profession at large.
Goode’s work, however, sheds light on the unique features and challenges of teaching compared to
the touchstones of medicine and law. Depending on grade level, subject area, prior education, and type
of students served, teachers vary in their understanding of the goals of teaching, the purposes of
education, the structure of the curriculum, the role of tests and assessments, and just about anything that
has to do with teaching. Focusing on any one of Goode’s criteria highlights the problems of establishing
professional community in teaching. For example, teachers in public school settings often have little to
do with selection and recruitment of new teachers, a task that rests in the hands of administrators often
removed from the day-to-day demands of the classroom. When it comes to policing the ranks and
issuing censures to enforce group norms, teachers accomplish this task informally: Official sanctions
(with repercussions for tenure and employment) are typically administered at a district level. Compared
to medicine or law, education has not been able to forge a shared language of norms and values, and
practically every significant question in education remains contentious. Indeed, one way to interpret the
standards movement sweeping the country (including the formation of the National Board of
Professional Standards) is as an attempt to create a collective professional vision for teaching where
none has existed before.
Professional Community and Teacher Learning
A key rationale for teacher community is that it provides an ongoing venue for teacher learning
(Lieberman & Grolnick, 1996; McLaughlin & Talbert, in press; Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 1999;
Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Nelson & Hammerman, 1996). The interweaving of teacher learning and
professional community is prominent in discussions of the embedded contexts in which teachers work,
such as national networks, district committees, and state-level organizations (McLaughlin & Talbert, in
press). But when we turn to the school level (particularly the high school), the most logical venue for
day-to-day community, we run into a series of structural, cultural, and vocational impediments.
The simple fact is that in the typical American high school the structures for on-going intellectual
community do not exist.3 One of the peculiarities of the high school, from the teacher’s perspective, is
that learning aimed at deepening knowledge of the subject matters of instruction must be done outside of
the workplace, during so-called “free time” (hence, the National Endowment for the Humanities or
NEH summer institute). Despite lip service to lifelong teacher learning, the organizational, vocational,
and cultural norms of American schools conspire to create a situation in which community for teacher
learning is found (if found at all) outside the workplace.
Much has been written about the occupational norms of privacy that work against adults learning
together in the workplace (Little, 1990; Lortie, 1975). These norms are maintained, in part, by the
temporal organization of the school day, which limits teachers’ interactions to brief lunchtime
encounters or to the rushed minutes before and after school. The situation is not much better in the
principal venue for school-based teacher learning: the professional inservice day (Miller & Lord, 1995).
The episodic nature of such inservice education works against sustained intellectual community. By
their very structure, inservice days are confined to technical and immediate issues, such as learning a
new assessment scheme, translating test results into lesson plans, implementing a new curriculum or
textbook series, and so on.
Efforts to build intellectual community have historically taken place outside of school walls, thus
removing teacher learning from both the temporal and spatial milieu of the workplace. Teachers leave
the school building to travel to an institute, often far away, to learn.4 While these institutes are often
collegial experiences, in which one works and learns with others, teachers do not learn with the people
they rub shoulders with in the workplace. Although summer learning experiences can be rewarding to
those who participate, such experiences represent problematic issues regarding teacher learning. On a
3 Much has been written on the barriers to developing a professional community in schools (cf. Bird & Little, 1986;
Lieberman, 1988; Smylie, 1994). Obstacles include both structural considerations, as well as the occupational
organization. One of the biggest barriers to the formation of intellectual community in the high school is time. For
example, Shollenberger and Swaim (1999) have shown that the average high school teacher contracted to work 35 hours a
week teaches 125 students per day in five classes. In order for a teacher to spend more than 10 minutes reviewing the
written work of each student and to have 15 minutes to plan for each class, Shollenberger and Swaim calculated that the
average high school teacher would have to work 70 hours/week.
4 Many summer institutes, including Breadloaf for English teachers and Summermath for math teachers, have succeeded
in creating rich environments for teacher learning (Schifter, 1996). The NEH has a long tradition of funding summer
institutes that provide teachers with opportunities to learn from cutting-edge scholars.
structural level, they suggest that learning is a “summer activity” accomplished during teachers’ free
time, rather than an on-going part of professional life. In practice, these learning opportunities are often
seen as optional (it is a rare school that requires teachers to attend an NEH institute) and as attracting a
particular kind of volunteer: individuals passionate about their own learning and who can afford the
time and tuition. Most important, the voluntary nature of such activities means that there is already an
intellectual match between the programs offered and those who volunteer, a fact that raises questions
about the teachers who do not participate. In many cases, teachers most in need of such an intellectual
broadening may be least likely to volunteer.
The biggest drawback to the summer or weekend approach to teacher learning rests on its implicit
assumption that it is possible to take individuals out of their workplaces, transform them in other
settings, and then return them to an unchanged workplace to do battle with the status quo. As Seymour
Sarason (cf. 1990) has steadfastly argued for two decades, such models of teacher change may affect
individuals but they are unlikely to change the workplace in any significant way. We argue, therefore,
for a vision of professional community that is located within the workplace, offering the possibility of
individual transformation as well as the transformation of social settings in which individuals work.
As we noted at the start, we created a “community of teacher learners” by declaration and invited
teachers to join us. We located our project in the context of the workplace by soliciting participation
from two departments, English and history, in an urban Seattle high school. Through locating our
project within the school, we hoped to effect change not only in individuals but in the culture of the
workplace. What we did not fully appreciate until later was how working with a group of teachers who
had a long history together would affect the formation of community.
In many ways, starting with a group of colleagues who have worked together is worse than
convening a group of perfect strangers (Wineburg & Grossman, in press-c; cf. Rothman, Erlich, &
Tropman, 1995). Unlike the people who attend a summer institute from different venues and are often
on their best behavior, our group had a rich and not always congenial history. They had heard about
each other from students, worked together on school projects, engaged in past skirmishes. The conflicts
and the tensions of the workplace accompanied us from the start. Many teachers had fully developed
opinions of each other. In most cases these impressions were developed not from actually seeing one
another teach, but from years (in some cases, decades) of reports by 15- and 16-year-old informants. We
also did not choose departments distinguished by a collegial culture. In fact, these two departments
rarely met formally and only then for pragmatic tasks. All of these factors made the creation of
community more difficult but also more realistic.
A second crucial feature distinguished our project from the volunteer summer institute. We were
able to draw into our fold teachers who normally would not seek out “high-brow” intellectual
experiences of national humanities groups. First, the stipend we offered for time spent on the project
outside of class (approximately $1,200/year) was an incentive for some. Second, the on-site nature of
the project made participation convenient. Third, and most important, while all teachers in the project
were technically volunteers, there were several teachers whom we came to think of as impressed
volunteers. Just as sailors abducted on the open seas were pressed into service, there were instances in
1996 Meetings
1995 Meetings
Figure 1. Project Meetings (with accompanying readings) February 1995 — August 1996
3 shorttexts
*The Sweeterthe Juice
The Ordealof Change
Makes MeWanna Holler
*The OrganicMachine
Makes MeWanna Holler
*Good Scent from aStrange Mountain
1995 Summer Institute
1996 Summer Institute
In the Lakeof the Woods
* Starred readings are those that are used as chief data sources in this paper.
our project where the department chairs “strongly recommended” to teachers that participation would
be a “good idea.” Given the stakes and the importance (particularly among newer teachers) of staying
in the chair’s good graces, the suggestion to participate carried much weight. The gentle persuasion of
department chairs resulted in the participation of several teachers who were highly unlikely to seek
outside professional development related to the nature of understanding in the humanities.
Teachers in these two departments came together monthly for an entire day to read and discuss
literary and historical works and to plan an interdisciplinary humanities curriculum. Grant money
allowed us to provide substitutes during these all-day meetings so that teachers could focus on their
own reading and reflection. The monthly meetings were supplemented by after school meetings every
other week and by a five-day retreat during the summer (see Figure 1).
Our own role in this project was to convene the group and, with the help of the two department
chairs, to set the initial frame for the meetings. While we documented the entire process (recording all
meetings, arranging individual interviews with all participants, collecting and collating all materials
from the project over three years), we saw ourselves as a cross between “project organizers” and “project
leaders.” We had no set curriculum for teachers other than a desire to provide opportunities for
continued learning and interactions around the subject matters of English and history. We straddled a
rather ambiguous dual role: as researchers, documenting the progress of the project; and as coparticipants,
reading books, discussing curriculum, and sharing our own ideas with the group of
learners. Our efforts to share leadership occasionally frustrated some members of the group who wanted
us to take the more familiar role of group leader. Because we had built multiple activities into our
project, teachers also wanted greater clarity about our purposes as a group and argued about how our
time together should be spent.
The Essential Tension of Teacher Community
We see teacher community as a form of professional community, which makes it different in key
ways from other forms of community in social life. For example, when a group of boaters comes
together in a “boating community,” their focus is self-referential; they are concerned with their own
common interests, their common goals and aspirations, and their own mutual support. Teachers’
professional community, in contrast, looks outward to the multiple contexts in which teachers work.
National, state, district, and school contexts all help shape definitions of the profession and the role of
But professional community, as we use the term in this article, must be concerned with its clientele.
For example, when communities of doctors or nurses come together, their focus is on the well being of
their patients. Similarly, for a group of teachers to emerge as a professional community, the well being
of students must be a central consideration. According to this criterion for professional community, not
all gatherings of teachers, even those in which teachers offer each other fellowship and support,
constitute professional community. Teachers who gather to read mystery novels, even if they do so in the
school library, would not meet our definition of professional community.
The improvement of professional practice is the most common rationale in formulations of teacher
community and constitutes one pole in what we refer to as the essential tension of teacher community. In
settings across the country, teachers come together to write new curriculum, create new assessments,
and formulate standards and benchmarks aimed at improving practice and enhancing student learning.
This form of teacher community (and teacher professional development) carries with it enormous face
validity among teachers, as well as among policy makers and the public at large.
We believe, however, that a second aspect of teacher community must be considered if teaching is to
truly emerge as a “learning profession” (Darling-Hammond & Sykes, 1999). This second, less familiar
pole in the essential tension focuses not on teachers’ mastery of a new pedagogical technique or new
form of group work. Rather, it highlights teachers’ continuing intellectual development in the subject
matters of the school curriculum. This aspect of teacher community is predicated on the belief that
effective teachers are lifelong students of their subjects. As lifelong learners, teachers must continue to
grow in knowledge, breadth, and understanding and keep up with changes and paradigm shifts in their
disciplines. The vision of the teacher as exemplar of the lifelong learner is central in classical
formulations of teaching, a fact that is preserved in languages as diverse as Chinese, Hebrew, and
Norwegian, in which the word for “teacher” is the interative, or intensive form, for learner.
We claim that these two angles on teacher development—one focused explicitly on improvement of
student learning, the other focused on teacher as student of subject matter—do not always mix
harmoniously. In most cases they do not mix at all. District-based inservices focus almost exclusively on
pedagogical techniques or the use of new curricula, assessments, or textbooks aimed at improving
student learning. The implementation of new teacher learning is intended to be immediate. Summer
institutes in the humanities, on the other hand, make claims about “renewing teachers” by reacquainting
them with the excitement of the college seminar. These venues typically focus on disciplinary content,
usually giving no more than a symbolic nod to lesson planning or classroom application.
Inherent in these two different approaches is a contrast between the promise of direct applicability in
the classroom and the more distant goal of intellectual renewal, a goal more difficult to see and measure.
The challenge in creating intellectual community for teachers in the workplace is to heed both aims
simultaneously: to maintain a focus on students while also creating a structure for teachers to engage as
learners with the subject matters they teach. This latter goal, in contrast to the former, has no schoolbased
tradition on which to build. Few examples exist of teachers successfully maintaining these dual
agendas in the hurried context of the urban high school.
Our claim is that these two aspects of teacher learning must be combined in any successful attempt
to create and sustain teacher intellectual community in the workplace. Teacher community must be
equally concerned with the learning of students and the learning of teachers. Providing for both levels
of teacher learning, and attending to the relationship and tension between them, becomes a central task
facing any professional community for teachers.
Uncommon Ground: Enacting the Essential Tension
We built the essential tension into our project from the inception of our work. We advertised our
community as an opportunity to develop both an interdisciplinary humanities curriculum and to engage
in discussions of history and literature. Not all teachers came equally interested in both parts of this
agenda. Some were only interested in developing curriculum, while others were more interested in
reading together. Our enactment of this essential tension ensured that we attracted a diverse group of
teachers. It also embodied another aspect built into our project design: our belief that successful forms of
professional development must offer multiple corridors for participation. Given the diversity of experience,
educational level, background, and individual tastes among teachers in the urban high school, a project
that offers only one corridor for professional development, by necessity, ignores the needs and interests
of many other groups. There were clearly subgroups of teachers who would not have joined our project
had it focused only on curriculum development or solely on reading texts. The diversity of our group
also meant that we spent much of our time during the first year trying to balance the differing agendas
and expectations people brought to the group.
At the heart of our work was the belief that before we could create interdisciplinary curriculum (a
need felt by teachers and one that elicited wide school-level and district support), we first had to get to
know each other as thinkers and learners. We had to grapple with and understand the two disciplines
we planned to integrate. To lay the foundation for understanding, we borrowed the model of book
clubs that meet in people’s homes and imported it into the context of the urban high school. From our
first meetings, we read short texts (poems, primary source documents, etc.) in small groups. For
example, at our second full-day meeting, we compiled and read a set of texts that included a section
from the Pulitzer prize-winning history, A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich; a section of the
poem, “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” by John Berryman; a poem by Anne Bradstreet, a colonial
poet; and finally, an excerpt from an American history textbook that described the lives of colonial
At our first whole group meeting, teachers agreed that one goal of an interdisciplinary humanities
curriculum would be to teach students to “read critically.” We were not able, however, to arrive at a
satisfying definition of critical reading to which all could agree. We hoped that this follow-up textual
exercise in reading difficult texts and a short reading from Robert Scholes’ (1985) book Textual Power
would spark a conversation about what it meant to “read critically.”
Instead of a lively conversation based on our own reading of texts, the whole group discussion
floundered (see dialogue on next page). In trying to facilitate the discussion, Sam introduced the topic
only to be met by 8 seconds of silence. In the first 20 turns of the discussion (4 min. 53 seconds), there are
47 seconds of interminable silence—particularly uncomfortable with 15 people sitting in a circle.
This early discussion was also characterized by unequal participation by the teachers. Lee, an
experienced history teacher, dominated the interchange by holding the floor for more turns than any
other participant.5 Pam and Sam, as project facilitators, served as primary discussion brokers. Listening
to the tapes of this discussion four years later, we are both surprised and chagrined by how “teacherly”
we sounded in trying to get the discussion going. The initial exchanges have the feel of a fishing
expedition, the worst form of recitation, in which the participants seem convinced that we, as group
leaders, have specific answers in mind. Given the lack of common purpose, it is not surprising that we
5 Twelve teachers were present at this meeting, 10 of whom contributed to the discussion. Of the teachers who spoke, Lee
had 22 turns, which accounted for 29% of all turns. For purposes of comparison, the other nine teachers’ turns were
distributed more evenly: Mary (Special Ed) 13%, Helen (English) 11%, Olivia (ESL) 12%, Patricia (English) 11%, Alice
(English), 7%, Grace (Social Studies) 5%, Tad (Social Studies, student intern) 9%, Barb (English) 3%, Nancy (English) 1%.
Counting turns is only one measure for accounting for “floor time” in large group discussions. In terms of words
spoken, Lee’s 439 words accounted for 23% of all words spoken by teachers. Even when the initial structuring comments
by Pam and Sam are factored into the total number of turns, Lee’s contribution still remained high: 23% of all turns
during the discussion.
found it difficult to sustain a coherent conversation. Most of the conversation followed the pattern of this
opening exchange: relatively brief remarks punctuated by long silences.6
(01) Sam: ..Okay, we——we thought, we hoped, we prayed that this exercise would shed some
light on this notion of needing to teach students to read texts critically, which is something that
everybody subscribes to- - - even when they hold completely divergent views. So let’s see if we
can—put some flesh on these bare bones.
((silence-8.5 seconds))
(02) Lee: What do you mean?
((group laughter))
(03) Pam: What is the experience that you had in the groups with the, with the text and talking about
what made the text difficult at those three different levels. How does that shed any light on this
issue of what it means to read texts critically?
(04) Lee: [Well I think, I think we definitely need to have—kids have
some context before they read these things.
((silence-9.5 seconds))
(05) Pam: We talked a lot about background knowledge is that?
(06) Lee: [Well, it’s just—or what-what exactly?
Why? Why are they reading this? —I mean why? What is the purpose of the assignment I
guess? Not just background knowledge. That’s— I think I was the only one who felt that way.
((laughter & joking asides))
(07) Female Voice: ((sarcastically)) This is a surprise?
(08) Alice: ((sarcastically)) Wasn’t it the same last time?
(09) Patricia: ((jokingly)) Weren’t you all by yourself last night?
(10) Alice: ((sarcastically)) [Is this your role Lee?]
(11) Pam: Who else?
(12) Barb: I—I think that its absolutely essential that you undertake the classroom work in the spirit of
exploration, of tentativeness, of-of —multiple responses, of open-ended—speculation that—that,
that has—that atmosphere has to exist in-in order to deal with the text. —And that there’s never a
sense from the teacher’s part that, where Scholes was talking about kind of holding the goodies
that, that we have the answers that we’re trying to, you know,—play 20 questions with them thatthat-
that it has to be a collaborative effort where you’re not, you’re not punished for even far out
(13) Mary: mm-hm
((silence-5 seconds))
6 We use the following diacritical marks to recreate our discussions as accurately as possible in the form of a textual
transcript. In doing so, we have drawn on the work of Schiffrin (1987, 1994), Gee (1990), and Clark (1992).
1. : Indicates rising and descending changes in intonation immediately prior to the rise or fall.
2. Italics: Words emphasized when spoken.
3. Capitalization: Capitalization is used to indicate words spoken with increased volume and emphasis.
4. [: A single left-handed bracket is used to indicate where overlapping utterances begin.
5. ]: A single right-handed bracket is used to mark where overlapping utterances stop.
6. =: Equal signs are used to join different segments of a single speaker’s utterance when part constitutes a
continuous flow of speech that has been carried over to another line to accommodate an intervening
interruption or overlapping utterance.
7. (( )): Double parentheses are used to characterize talk (e.g., tone, whisper, etc.) or details of the scene (e.g.,
laughter, pounding of the table, etc.)
8. -: Dashes are used to indicate a slight pause in a speaker’s speech utterance and to separate repeated words
during a continuous flow of speech.
9. __: An underline indicates where words were spoken but were unintelligible to the transcriber.
This opening exchange illustrates our difficulties in defining a common purpose. Much of the
discussion focused on speculations about the difficulties students would face in reading this particular
set of texts, even though there was never a suggestion that these texts be used with students.
As the day-long meeting came to a close, the discussion trudged toward an anticlimactic
convergence on the importance of using multiple texts to teach “critical reading.” This pedagogical
platform struck us as being as blurry and undefined as the one we started with. By the end of the
session, we had barely touched on the two questions that we hoped would frame the discussion: (1)
What does it mean to read critically? and (2) What makes critical reading difficult for students? As
project facilitators, we wondered what went wrong and where to go next.
As community begins to form there is a natural tendency by individuals to play community, to act as
if they are already a community that shares values and common beliefs. Playing community, or
pseudocommunity (cf. Peck, 1995), draws on cultural notions of interaction often found in middle-class,
typically White, settings. The imperative of pseudocommunity is to “behave as if we all agree.” An
interactional congeniality is maintained by a surface friendliness, vigilant never to intrude on issues of
personal space.7
The maintenance of pseudocommunity pivots on the suppression of conflict. Face-to-face
interactions are regulated by a tacit understanding that it is “against the rules” to challenge others or
press them too hard for clarification. This understanding paves the way for the illusion of consensus.
Because there is no genuine follow-up in face-to-face interaction, conversation partners are able to speak
at high levels of generality that allow each to impute his or her own meanings to the groups’
abstractions. For example, if, among teachers, notions of “critical thinking” or “interdisciplinary
curriculum” are never defined precisely, every discussion member can agree to a common cause without
giving it a second thought.
Pseudocommunities regulate speech by appointing a facilitator to control discussion or by allowing
a group member—often the most voluble or pushy—to seize the conversational reins. These group
mouthpieces emerge not because they express the collective will (a will that in psuedocommunities
remains vague) but because they are verbally fleet or because no one else is willing to challenge their
dominance. In pseudocommunity, implicit rules dictate that discussion leaders make no attempt to elicit
the thoughts of the whole group in order to bring underlying tensions or disagreements to the surface.
Silence goes unquestioned because the tacit rules of interaction militate against direct interrogation or
unexpected exchanges, such as publicly turning to someone next to you and asking, “What is your
position on that last point?”
At the heart of pseudocommunity is the distinction between hidden and revealed, or to use the
dramaturgical language of Erving Goffman (1959), the distinction between back stage and front stage.
The key to maintaining a surface esprit de corps is the curtain separating front from back stage, and the
7 The term pseudo-community has been variously used. Our use here focuses on face-to-face relations that appear
congenial because they tightly regulate the expression of conflict and dissent. The term has also been used in masscommunication
research but in a different way. For example, Beniger (1987) uses the term to refer to masscommunications
that appear personal and folksy, such as mass mailings in political campaigns written on personal
stationary and printed to resemble hndwriting but which are actually generated by machines. Our use of the term here
pursues a different direction.
fact that only some group members are allowed behind the wings. So, for example, while nonverbal
behavior may be noticed and registered by the group, it becomes the topic of back stage rather than front
stage discussion. “Did you see Ed roll his eyes when Ann started speaking?” is something whispered
furtively by the coffee dispenser but never brought before the whole group for public inspection. Even
if the whole group hears a hurtful remark, such as a barb that masquerades as an innocent joke, the
victim’s wound is dressed off-stage (in the restroom, in the parking lot after the meeting, or on the
phone that evening). If some type of redress is demanded of the offending party, it is an issue between
individuals rather than a topic for the entire group. It is this fact that reveals the lie at the heart of
pseudocommunity: there is no authentic sense of shared communal space but only individuals interacting with
other individuals.
The predominant mode of interaction in pseudocommunity is what Goffman calls “impression
management,” whereby individuals “perform” identities that typically (but not always) reflect on them
positively. We say not always because there are social roles that are performed not because they are
flattering but because they achieve other desired ends. Thus, individuals may don the mask of victim
who, through expressions of incompetence, hurt, or low self-esteem, seeks the group’s sympathy.8 The
execution of roles in pseudocommunity goes smoothly as long as everyone gets to play the role he or she
wants without being challenged by another player. But a threat to pseudocommunity—one which
looms larger as brief infrequent meetings turn into longer more frequent ones—is the question of
authenticity: Is a given player “authorized” to give a particular performance? In teaching, where social
norms dictate a performance of competent, committed educator, the question before the group is the fit
between an individual’s publicly performed identity and the “book” on the performer in the region
hidden from view. This hidden region is, of course, the classroom—seen daily by scores of students but
largely veiled from the eyes of co-workers. Because information from this region can disrupt one’s
performed identity, access to which is guarded, and information from which is tightly controlled.9
8 We recognize here the conceptual problems associated with the term “performing an identity,” particularly for theorists
who see identity as a fluid construct with no stable boundaries. Nonetheless, we find Goffman’s examples compelling,
particularly in the ordinary ways we construe social life. So, for example, newspaper reports about Rudolph Giuliani’s
withdrawal from the U.S. Senate campaign (e.g., New York Times, May 20, 2000, p. 1) draw attention to the discrepancy
between Giuliani’s performed identity as moralist (i.e., someone who advocated posting the Ten Commandments in
every classroom) and revelations about his own marital infidelities. The undercurrent of these reports is the discrepancy
between Giuliani’s “identity performance” and his dubious qualifications to give it.
9 No feature of our project exemplified this better than our attempt to establish “video clubs” (cf. Fredriksen, Sipusik,
Gamoran, & Wolfe, 1992). Part of our project design included the establishment of video clubs in which project
participants showed excerpts from their teaching to a small group of colleagues. Our hope was that the video clubs might
be used as a tool for teachers to elicit feedback from their colleagues and thus strengthen aspects of their classroom
practice in the same way that videos are used in professions such as medicine, counseling, sports and law enforcement. In
the end, however, we only had one day of video clubs because the majority of teachers in the project decided not to
continue with it. We see two reasons for this. First, we introduced video work less than a year into the project which, in
retrospect, was too premature given the levels of trust and respect needed to make such an activity a learning experience.
Videos, more than any other feature of our project, contravene the norms of privacy in schools. The second reason for the
demise of video clubs is that they posed a threat to the authenticity of one’s performance. Paulo Freire has observed that
videos “help us understand better our own practice and to perceive the gulf that almost always exists between what we
say and what we do” (p. 121). We suggest that it is precisely the gulf between reality and performance that videos
threaten to expose. Interpreted in these Goffman-like terms, video work represented a region of danger because if the
quality of teaching captured on the video was not consistent with, or did not reinforce, the performance participants gave
during project meetings, then one was at-risk for being seen as an impostor. The fact that teachers chose not to continue
participating in this aspect of the project speaks to the enormous challenges of building intellectual community in schools
that reaches into the interior and well-protected world of the individual classroom.
Cracks in Pseudocommunity: Acknowledgement of Conflict
The tenuous consensus reached at the end of the “critical reading” discussion was short-lived. Two
weeks later we got a call from Dave, an experienced English teacher with deep subject matter
knowledge and widely respected for his dedication to students. Dave informed us that he was leaving
the project three months after joining because he was disheartened by comments from several of the
younger teachers during a small-group text exercise. Dave stressed that his decision had nothing to do
with us, the contingent from the university. Rather, he was worried that if he stayed he would become
impatient with colleagues and say things he would later regret. Dave’s comment, “I’m better off staying
to myself in my classroom and working with kids because I can make the most difference there” should
be interpreted in light of professional norms that honor the commitment to student growth but which
carry no parallel commitment to colleagues’ growth. A second concern of Dave’s was the worry that he
might lose patience with his department chair. More was at stake here than if he lost his temper with a
new teacher. Because his chair set his teaching schedule and controlled department resources, Dave
figured that his most prudent course of action was to minimize contact.10
In the weeks between the second and fifth months of the project, it became increasingly difficult to
ignore the cracks in pseudocommunity. Incidents of eye rolling, ridicule, and muttering under the breath
continued to occur. Often this behavior came clothed in a jocularity that provoked laughter but left in its
wake a residual sting. When Fred Ingram, a social studies teacher and coach of the baseball team,
suggested a book for our upcoming summer institute he was cut off with the comment, “We’re not going
to all read the sports page!” Chuckles echoed, but the intent of putting Fred in his place was
Four months after we launched our project, our group of 22 teachers had divided into multiple
factions and alliances. Pre-existing workplace conflicts, normally held in check by the limited contact
during the school day, were given new life by our lengthy meetings. As project leaders we knew we
needed to do something to hold the group together. In our darkest moments we feared that our threeyear
grant would finish two-plus years ahead of schedule. As we saw it, the most pressing need was to
formulate some ground rules for civil discussion, some way to restore a safe linguistic space for all
This situation laid bare our own lack of knowledge and skill in dealing with the predictable
challenges of group dynamics. The emotional work of managing group interactions was outside the
theoretical framework, located largely in cognitive psychology, that we brought to this project. Our own
ambivalence about role, and the resulting ambiguity that came with it, got us into trouble. On the one
hand, as university researchers keenly aware of the resentment teachers feel toward outside “experts,”
10 We believe Dave’s initial departure from the project calls attention to, first and foremost, Little’s (1990) work on the
culture of isolation in schools. Dave’s participation presented him within an opportunity to step away from the seclusion
of his classroom and to engage collaboratively with colleagues. When Dave didn’t like what he was confronted with, his
initial reaction was to return to the private domain of his classroom, the most familiar and sanctioned venue in the
vocational (as well as spatial) context of schools. We also believe it is important not to underestimate the role of choice in
guiding Dave’s actions. Giddens’ (1979, 1984) writings on agency, Burke and Reitzes’ (1981, 1991) research on identity,
and the work of rational choice theorists (Scott, 1995) all speak to how individuals pursue their own interests. We
interpret Dave’s decision to leave the project as one he made to protect himself within the larger political context of his
department. Rather than remain in the group and risk conflict with his chair, Dave perceived it to be in his best interests
to remove himself from the situation. In other words, Dave chose the path of least resistance; the one that seemed to
make the most sense in the existing social organization of the school.
we worked hard to counteract the image of the university professor arriving on the scene with a binder
of answers. Reluctant to take on this role, we may have been too hesitant to provide leadership that the
group genuinely needed. On the other hand, we were also mindful of the tendency of funded projects to
vanish once the money is gone. By sharing ownership of the group from the outset, we hoped to create
leadership within the group that would help sustain the community beyond the time allotted to the
grant. But we may have backed away from our role as leaders too quickly, particularly in responding to
group dynamics.
As fractures in the group became apparent, people came to us and asked us to intervene. We
patched together the project as best we knew how—with Band-Aids for individuals rather than splints
for the group, through phone conversations with individual teachers late at night, side conversations
during meetings, and e-mail correspondence. But these remedies were all conducted back stage, away
from the whole community. Part of our strength in dealing with the group was that we were outsiders
and generally seen as fair brokers. But secrets and asides thwart the formation of community. We knew
that sooner or later we had to get these issues onto the main stage.
At a planning meeting for the summer institute with four of the teachers, we broached the issue of
incivility and had a frank discussion about our fears that the project was falling apart. There was
unanimous agreement that we could no longer avoid these issues and that they had to be brought into
the open before any real work could get done. Lee (the lightning rod for several incidents) and Mary (a
special education teacher who had emerged as an evenhanded member) agreed to take responsibility for
starting a conversation with the whole group.
Our first week-long summer institute in August 1995 began with the issue of norms for discussion.
Lee turned to the 23 teachers assembled and began:
Today we want to have energized dialogue without judgment, without people having to be
concerned about having their feelings hurt, having respect for each other. But the question is how
to do that within the confines of this kind of process . . . and in democratic process some people
are going to assert themselves more than others. The steering group talked about some of the
problems we had during the year and that some people might have felt intimidated by some of
the other people . . . we have department chairs and people who have been teaching a long time
and people who are new in the building and there is a sense of who has the right to talk and who
doesn’t . . . What can we do so that everyone feels safe as a group but there is still a healthy
exchange of ideas?
Lee paused and took a deep breath: “I know I tend to make quips but I hope I don’t cross the line
where these quips offend people. But if they do, they probably might put a damper on the
Lee’s comments brought to the surface conflicts that had simmered for months. By formally
acknowledging status differences, divisions, and hurt feelings, Lee’s opening words marked an early
step in the transition from a “meeting of teachers” to the formation of teacher community. For the first
time in the group’s history there was the conscious recognition of its own “groupness,” and the spotlight
turned on the less-than-smooth functioning of the group as a whole. Lee, known for his incisive barbs,
offered a public confession about the effect of his comments on the group. His opening confession
demonstrated that the public masks we had worn to that point could be removed, thus raising the
possibility that we could relate to each other on deeper, more authentic levels.
Lee’s comments made public what was by then commonly understood: that the united front of
pseudocommunity was a façade and that if we were going to continue, we would have to build our
community on a different foundation. Lee’s comment initiated formally the process of naming
differences in the group: differences between subject matter departments, between new and old teachers,
between regular department members and department chairs, between building veterans and
newcomers, and between those who talked and those who did not. With these differences placed in the
public space, it was only a matter of time before the discussion turned to the essential tension.11 Olivia,
the ESL teacher, publicly declared that although she would not be able to use curriculum materials the
group might produce (because of the limited English skills of her students), she still believed that “the
energy that comes out of these meetings—even when we come and disagree all day” sent her back to
the classroom “with so much more energy and inspiration.”
At this remark, Lee rejoined the conversation by comparing the value of generating curriculum
materials versus that of reading texts. His own views on the matter were unambiguous:
For some of us, maybe all of us, there is a sense we want to see improvements in the educational
system, and we see [this project] as a vehicle to improve curriculum and instruction . . . For me the
“community of learners” is fine, but, on the other hand, I think I am more interested in doing
something that might improve the kinds of things that happen in schools.
Lee characterized the divide in the group as one between the desire to read books (“the community
of learners”) and the desire to write curriculum. Lee’s beliefs about the moral differences between these
two foci were also clear. On one side were teachers interested in school change and improving the lot of
students; on the other side were those who came to the project because they liked to read, an activity
that, by implication, had less to do with students and more to do with personal development. With all
the work to be done in schools, personal development seemed a luxury at best, an indulgence at worst.
Despite our attempts to persuade the group that these two elements of the project could be fruitfully
combined, we found ourselves swimming upstream in an institutional and vocational culture stronger
than any exhortation we could muster.
Two comments during this discussion capture the depth of the divide that separated opposing
forces. Grace, a social studies teacher with seven years experience, spoke with deep conviction about her
I guess I totally had a misconception about what . . . we were going to do here. I thought we were
going to get in here and roll our sleeves up and try to integrate language arts and social studies
departments as far as curriculum . . . to me that’s exciting to develop something . . . we can use.
I’m very product driven . . . I am goal-oriented, that’s just my nature. It seems to me that with all
the stuff I have to do, reading a book like this [holding up and waving her copy of The Sweeter the
Juice, the first book for discussion at the summer institute] is like torture to me. I don’t get into it,
I’m sorry. I don’t . . . This abstract stuff is killing me . . . It’s like, what do I need this for? How am I
going to put this into my world history class?
11 We note that the term “essential tension” is our term for understanding these differences, not the one used by teachers.
Teachers referred to the same tension as differences between the “curriculum group” and the “reading group” or between
the “curriculum group” and the “community of learners.”
Grace’s comment was answered by Dave, who threw down the gauntlet in arguing for the contrary
position. Dave, the English teacher who had left the group several months earlier, was persuaded by his
English colleagues to return for the summer institute. He left no doubt about his disdain for writing
Grace had a good idea — I think we ought to go around and say what we are afraid of. I am afraid
[irritatedly] of being bored. I just won’t do it [with voice rising]. I will run from it every chance I can.
And curriculum development sounds really boring. But talking about texts, and listening to
different perspectives about books I haven’t read, that sounds very interesting, and it can’t help
but make me a better teacher.
These two comments capture the essential tension of professional development in terms more vivid than
any we could ever invent. It is easy to demonize Grace’s comment that “reading is torture” and be
shocked at these words from someone who teaches students to navigate the world of written texts. But
this would be unfair. Grace’s lament speaks to the occupational reality of teaching in which, despite
outward support for notions of life-long learning, there is no time to read when the goal of that reading
is not immediately apparent. Dave’s ability to mine his own experience and education, to turn book
discussions into concrete ideas for teaching, was far too abstract for Grace. Moreover, the differences
between these two teachers go beyond years of experience. Dave and Grace came to the project with
different intellectual backgrounds. Dave was an English major and avid reader, whose education was
shaped by the culture and ethos of the seminar. For him, reading books in a circle with other adults was
deeply familiar. For Grace, who majored in education at a large state university, the atmosphere of the
intimate seminar was foreign and uncomfortable. Nothing in her experience prepared her for the
loosely structured give-and-take of the book club.
Despite the territorial divide staked out by Grace and Dave, at least one teacher offered a way to
negotiate the essential tension, a way that reading books might connect to her daily work as teacher.
Kathy, a second-year English teacher, made this admission to the group:
I had a feeling of frustration as I was reading The Sweeter the Juice and thinking, “Well how is this
going to fit into my curriculum?” But as I was thinking about it I realized that I had forgotten
how to read for pleasure. We live by the bell, 15 minutes to do this, a half-hour to do that. I don’t
have time to do this pleasure reading thing . . . But what I am realizing is that I need to build this
reading into my life. The Sweeter the Juice was a great start because I started to think about things I
haven’t thought about in a long time. And I realized, “You know what—you need to read just to
read. You tell your kids to do that, and you are not even doing it yourself.”
It was on this reflective note that the group turned to its afternoon activity, a discussion of Shirley
Haizlip’s memoir, The Sweeter the Juice.
12 Dave’s return to the group is a fascinating story in itself, pointing to the complexity of both the process we were engaged
in and the nature of the story we are trying to tell. Despite on-going tension in the group, there was still an excitement (as
Olivia’s comment above attests) about reading books, arguing about texts, and engaging in discussions about literature
and history. Dave, a voracious reader who was already a member of several reading groups, was convinced by Barb, a
fellow English teacher and a personal friend, that he was “missing out” on something interesting. After a two-month
hiatus, Dave rejoined the group. Over the three-year history of the grant, the boundaries of the group remained
permeable, with several members coming and going, students interns finishing their internship and being replaced by
new ones, and new teachers to the school joining the group. The size of the group ranged between 22-26 teachers at any
given time.
The Cultures of Teacher Community
Researchers often implicitly treat professional community as generic, but the nature of teacher
community differs—just as teaching does—by grade level, by subject matter, and by student
population. A model of community developed for one population of teachers may not work for others.
In community as in clothing, one size does not fit all.
The most developed models of teacher community originated in elementary mathematics
(Carpenter, Fennema, & Franke, 1996; Wilson & Berne, 1999; Schifter, 1996). Many of these models have
mediated the essential tension between adult learning and student learning by having teachers learn (or
re-learn) the elementary school curriculum. At the core of this kind of teacher community is the
assumption that teachers cannot teach concepts they themselves have never mastered. Adult learning in
such projects is defined by learning the workings of fractions or understanding the meaning behind
algorithms for elementary school arithmetic. Elementary teachers are not assumed to possess extensive
mathematical knowledge. In addition, part of the reason for the community is to mitigate the negative
affect many teachers have around difficult subject matter (Schifter, 1996).
The limitations of such models become apparent when we consider the needs of a group of
secondary teachers. Such a group may include teachers with advanced degrees in their subjects and who
have chosen to teach a particular subject because of their own passion for it.13 Such a group differs
fundamentally from the prototypical elementary teacher, anxious about her own mathematical
understanding and solving math problems with other teachers in a group. By relying primarily on the
research on teacher community in elementary math, we risk the same kind of simplifications that came
to characterize research on teaching in the 70s. Just as the findings of process-product research,
conducted almost exclusively in math and reading classes, were eventually generalized to all teaching,
so claims about professional community based largely on elementary math programs might be equally
problematic. We need to examine carefully the differences, as well as the similarities, between
communities of elementary teachers and those comprising high school teachers.
One key difference between elementary and secondary teachers lies in the assumption of subject
matter knowledge. Few elementary teachers are expected to be experts in all of the subjects they teach;
most will profess a proclivity for certain aspects of the curriculum and not others. However, secondary
teachers are defined, in part, by the subjects they teach. Subject matter provides an important part of
their professional identities as teachers (Siskin & Little, 1995). The assumption that teachers do not
possess adequate content knowledge might offend many secondary school teachers, whose identities are
invested in their subject matter expertise.
Teacher communities differ as well with regard to subject matter. If subject matters operate as
distinct subcultures (Grossman & Stodolsky, 1995; Siskin & Little, 1995), then it is not surprising to find
that norms within subject matters differ as well. We argue that the sociocultural norms of the
humanities differ in important ways from those in mathematics. These norms may have important
consequences for the kind of discourse that is expected of a community.
13 For example, in our own group one teacher was ABD in history, another was in the midst of writing a thesis in Russian
history, and two members of the English department held MAs in their subject.
Lampert (1990) suggests that mathematical discourse involves arguing about what is true after
people have agreed on a common set of axioms. While individuals can argue for different ways of
making sense of a problem and for using inventive heuristics to solve it, the ultimate goal in
mathematics is convergence. There may be many roads to an answer, but participants who elect
different routes expect to arrive at the same destination. Parsimony is another virtue of mathematical
culture. Of the many routes to a solution, the simplest route is often seen as the most virtuous and the
most “elegant.”
The humanities, in contrast, cannot seem to agree on common axioms. Scholars do not agree on
what constitutes a text, or how to read a text, or how to do history, or even how history differs from
fiction (cf. Friedlander, 1992). Discussions are characterized not by convergence, but by seemingly
endless divergence. Nor is this a sign of something gone awry. A humanities discussion that converged
on a single interpretation would not be regarded as successful but would lead to the conclusion that
either the text was weak or the discussion poor. The richest texts yield multiple competing
interpretations. Scholars’ readings of Hamlet have yielded more ways of interpreting Hamlet than
Horatio could have imagined. Given the proliferation of interpretive communities, parsimony is hardly
a virtue in a humanities discussion, although elegant expression is.
Yet another way in which the sociocultural norms of the humanities differ is with regard to issues of
the self. Math can certainly evoke emotion. In fact, teachers’ negative affect about mathematics is part
of the problem professional community seeks to solve. But the actual content does not necessarily
invoke parts of the self in the same way as in the humanities. In the humanities, the very subject matter
addresses what it means to be human; our selves and our own humanity form the core of the subject. To
read Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners and not question our
own capacity for evil is to excise the human from the humanities. Affect in the humanities is not
byproduct but essence (Wineburg & Grossman, in press-c). The issue is not so much our competence (as
it may be in mathematics) as it is our very capacities as human beings.14
The humanities also engage deep issues of identity. Discussions of history or literature inevitably
position us by gender, race, religion, class, geography, and generation—what Huntington (1993) has
identified as the “fault lines” of contemporary society. These fault lines identify the predictable lines
along which people may differ. Any group of public school teachers represents a microcosm of the
larger society.15 As we grapple with basic issues in the humanities, these differences in our own
backgrounds and perspectives predictably emerge. If we see the humanities as fundamentally about
understanding what it means to be human, and if race, class, gender, religion, politics, and geography
contribute to our identities, then there is no way to avoid these fault lines in any serious discussion. The
task becomes how to navigate these fault lines productively.
14 We recognize that at the highest levels of mathematics, particularly as represented in writings of Lakatos and others,
mathematics can be viewed differently. But our point here is not about mathematics and history/English in their most rarefied
forms, but rather in the ways these subjects coalesce around communities of practice in high schools and universities. So, for
example, undergraduate classes in the humanities (cf. Denby, 1996) often seek to engage the self as their core mission. At the
same time, we would be quite startled to see the “engagement of self” listed as the central aim of an undergraduate course in
mathematics or engineering. A similar statement listed on a syllabus in the humanities would raise few eyebrows and even be
considered mundane.
15 The make-up of our group was predominantly White and native to the Pacific Northwest. The group also included an African-
American woman and a woman of Native American descent, both of whom were also from the Pacific Northwest. There was a
fairly even breakdown along gender lines throughout the first 18 months of the project. Among the group were several
evangelical Christians, a practicing Catholic, and several Jews, including the two project leaders. The overwhelming majority of
the group identified themselves as liberal democrats but there were also several politically conservative group members.
Following the morning’s treatment of interactional norms, we began our first summer institute by
discussing Shirley Haizlip’s memoir, The Sweeter the Juice. Unlike the short texts used in our initial
meetings, this full-length book was chosen by a steering committee of five teachers and the two project
directors. The decision to read this book originally came up during discussions in the curriculum
development groups. One group had selected identity as its organizing theme and suggested that
Haizlip’s memoir of racial identity would be a promising text for us to read.
This discussion began more smoothly than previous ones. Talk alternated between personal
evaluations of the book and comments about how students might react to it, a discursive seesaw that
evoked the essential tension of our work. An English teacher began: “I think students would have a
difficult time with this book,” to which another responded that “the whole idea about how people
perceive themselves and how important that is to them, versus what you think of yourself and is
important to you . . . would be an interesting discussion piece.”
After several minutes, the discussion turned from students to teachers, as individuals began to tell
stories of how their own backgrounds helped or hindered their connection to Shirley Haizlip’s life.
Alice told of her efforts to befriend an African-American woman and the ways in which class, more than
race, divided them. Patricia revealed her surprise that she and Haizlip shared so much in common
despite racial differences: “She and I had the same experience growing up except that we were a few
years apart . . . it was just small town New England middle class family and all the kinds of things you
did.” Helen shared memories of attending pow-wows with her Native American mother, and how she
herself felt excluded because of her own fair skin color. In the first half of this discussion, eight of the
twenty two participants located themselves along the fault lines of class, race, religion, ethnicity, or
In telling these stories, people publicly marked their identities. As the discussion unfolded, it
became clear that we were far from the homogeneous set of readers of previous meetings. Our reactions
to the book reflected our own mixed identities. Patricia expanded on her earlier point:
I was surprised at how similar Haizlip’s was to my own life. From having been raised and having
grown up in a town that had no Blacks, we didn’t have anything except Whites and Indians . . . To
find that a family living as a Black family was so similar to my White family and all my White
friends was kind of an interesting surprise to me. And I don’t know that I consciously thought
there’d be a lot of differences, but I was aware that I was surprised at the similarities.
Even as individuals revealed themselves to their colleagues, the group continued to test the
boundaries of legitimate discussion and how to talk about charged topics like race. With the morning’s
exchange about norms still fresh, teachers tried hard to listen attentively to each other and not to hurt
each other’s feelings. As Alice fumbled in telling the story of her African-American friend, she added, “I
hope I’m saying things politically correct, I might make some mistakes here,” a qualification that
signaled both the difficulty of talking about race as well as Alice’s hope that the group would give her
the benefit of the doubt.
16 During the first half of this discussion there were eight instances of participants identifying themselves to the group along the
fault lines of class, ethnicity, race, geography, and religion. Examples (in addition to those of Patricia and Helen) included Ed, a
white man, who reflected that “the church was very important, the church events were the most important, but coming back
home we didn’t practice in the way you might picture a family practicing,” or Grace, a woman of a mixed ethnic heritage, who
noted, “I’m Caucasian obviously, but not quite obviously, [since] my dad’s Armenian, so I could go either way.”
Despite the morning’s efforts, conflict quickly erupted. It happened when Alice turned the
discussion from Shirley Haizlip’s relationship to her mother to the more general issue of racism.
(83) Alice: ________ I have a question. When the two people drown at the church picnic, and her
comment afterward was that it took her many years to realize that the reason this had happened is
because that these people were poor, because they were Black, and the kinds of opportunities for
taking swimming lessons and so forth were not open to them and shortly after that her father
managed to integrate the- -the YMCA. Um, I’ve heard, you know, a statistic, for example, like
1000 babies die in Harlem every year, a 1000 new-born infants because of- — inaccessibility to
health care, and this is considered institutionalized racism. And, the reason these children
drowned was considered institutionalized racism. And, are we still? I don’t want to say, are we
still accepting that as an excuse, that isn’t what I mean. But are we still thinking in those terms?
Are we still - - -saying - making allowances for all kinds of acts or deeds that might be negative
because of institutionalized racism and how do————African Americans? Minorities?
(87) Patricia: [It still exists] ((firmly))[It still exists Alice.
(88) Alice: Well, I-I’m- -I know that.
(89) Patricia: Okay.
(90) Alice: I’m aware of that. But at the same time, on an individual one to one level, when you are
dealing with kids, students, or other pupils, do you want to,— - I don’t know ((exhale)). Is that to
be emphasized? Is that what you?
(91) Lee: Well, it depends on what you’re talking about. I mean if you are talking about, in what- in
what context?- - - -I mean why would?
(92) Alice: I don’t know, something as simple as school tardiness!
(93) Lee: Is that institutionalized racism?
(94) Alice: Yeah.
(95) Lee: Some people might say that the tardy policy is- -because some people have a different sense
of time. - - - -But,-why would you discuss that? I don’t-I- that’s where I’m trying to figure out
what you’re talking about.
(96) Alice: [ Well, I- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- - I guess I shouldn’t. ((angrily)) Should I? I shouldn’t have brought it up
(97) Ed: [I think it’s good we’re discussing this book.
The sharpness of this exchange exposed the fragility of the newly-established group norms. But the
larger group did not address this breach. In fact, immediately after Alice’s angry retort, Ed, an affable
history teacher, tried to put a positive spin on the exchange. “I think it’s good that we’re discussing this
book,” he reassured the group, and moved to bring the discussion back to how the book might be used
with students. The long silences that followed revealed the fractures in the agreed-upon norms from the
This discussion also uncovered divergent ways of approaching a literary text. At one point Steven
Zales, chair of the history department, asked the group, “Is there a way in which Haizlip could bring
these pieces of identity together so that she is comfortable with her identity?” Barb, an experienced
English teacher, responded by commenting on the differences between fiction and memoir as genres.
The way it happens is it’s fiction . . . The next step for her is she’s gonna have to start writing
stories and novels. She’s gonna have to tell it a different way . . . you can piece it together in
fiction, but when it’s memoir, it’s just baggage.
Barb’s point, picked up by no one, was essentially a literary reading of the text that pointed to the
possibilities and constraints characteristic of different genres. But Steven took the discussion elsewhere:
What this story shows once again is the truth of Degler’s observation of American and Brazilian
society.17 That in Brazilian society after slavery when abolition came, there existed what he calls a
“mulatto escape hatch” so that fair-skinned descendants of slaves became upwardly mobile and
enjoyed the multiple benefits of class. In America that did not exist . . . So it seems to me that the
author, in her quest to try to resolve these issues of identity, is constantly running into the fact that
race continues to matter in the United States.
Steven’s reading was informed by history, not literature. He saw the memoir as proof of racism’s
historical legacy. The distinctively different ways of reading implicit in Steven and Barb’s comments
foreshadowed yet another major conflict that was to surface among us: the fault line of subject matter.
Subject Matter Fault Lines
At the heart of the curriculum reform movement is the claim that existing subject matter divisions
contribute to the fragmentation of the school day for students and teachers alike. This belief has led to
the growth of interdisciplinary curricula, which by some estimates has affected nearly two-thirds of all
American schools (Cawelti, 1994; Wineburg & Grossman, in press).
The move to integrate curriculum has been easier among some subjects than others, and one of the
most common pairings is English and history. Both disciplines are rooted in the study of text and both
draw on common narrative forms. Beyond these similarities, the different foci of these disciplines can
mutually enhance one another. The study of literature in a history class brings to light cultural aspects of
social life often lost in straight presentations of diplomatic and political history. Similarly, the study of
history in English classes can situate literary works in time and illuminate aspects of context that render
otherwise obscure references understandable.
Indeed, the commingling of literary and historical approaches can be seen in contemporary trends in
the academy, such as Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, a work by a prominent historian (author of the
acclaimed Citizens) that blurs historical and fictional genres. In the same vein, novelist Tim O’Brien’s
In the Lake of the Woods is a piece of fiction that employs historical footnotes (some of them fictional) as
backdrop to its narrative about Vietnam atrocities. Perhaps the apex of blurred genres is Dutch, the
recent biography of Ronald Reagan by Pulitzer-prize winning biographer Edmund Morris, which
employs the technique of fictional narrator who accompanies Reagan throughout his life.
It is precisely the outcry over Dutch from historians (see Masur, 1999; cf. Ozick, 1999, Wineburg, in
press) that reveals the enduring fault lines between history and literature. The unarticulated assumption
(unarticulated because it is so taken for granted) between historian and reader is that the historical story
(no matter how suspense-filled or written with literary flourish) is a true story. The notion that the
historical story is tethered to something real, something that can be verified using evidence, is, as
Harvard historian Oscar Handlin (1979) put it, the historian’s “operational article of faith.” In the face of
postmodern assaults, such a belief, wrote historian Gordon Wood, “may be philosophically naive, may
even be philosophically absurd in the skeptical and relativist-minded age; nevertheless it is what makes
history writing possible. Historians who cut loose from this faith do so at the peril of their discipline”
(1982, p. 59).
17 Here Steven refers to Carl Degler’s (1986) book comparing slavery in Brazil and the United States.
The outcry over Dutch points to the perils about which Gordon Wood warns. This outcry also points
to the enduring differences between history and English—differences that might not be revealed during
the honeymoon phase of the interdisciplinary marriage but which slowly surface as the relationship
matures. Epistemological differences between these two disciplines have sociological analogues in the
world of schooling. Recent work on high schools explored differences among teachers of different
school subjects (Grossman & Stodolsky, 1995; Siskin & Little, 1995). English teachers, for example, tend
to share more common intellectual backgrounds (in general, majoring in English), whereas social studies
teachers come from more diverse backgrounds, majoring in a number of different fields. Subject matter
departments also differ by gender; English teachers tend to be female, whereas their counterparts in
social studies tend to be male. Members of these two groups also differ in how they view the purpose of
schooling and the curriculum. English teachers overwhelmingly support “personal growth” as a goal
for their efforts with students, while social studies teachers report a range of goals with no single theme
unifying their many perspectives. English teachers generally report more autonomy over the content to
be taught than teachers of many other subjects. In social studies, however, the ubiquity of the history
and geography textbook still demands fidelity to a body of content to be mastered and tested. These
differences between English and social studies teachers—some epistemological, some sociological—
began to emerge in our readings of texts. These issues soon came to a head.
“Grinding the Same Old Wheat”
To illustrate the tenor of these conflicts, we draw on a group discussion that took place 12 months
into the project and 6 months after The Sweeter the Juice. Prior to this meeting, a recurrent theme in our
meetings had been whether there were genuine differences between history and English. Two of the
main actors in these discussions were Charlie, an English teacher with eight years experience, and Lee, a
social studies teacher with 20 years. In broad terms, Charlie maintained that all texts are literary because
they all “do things with language.” To the extent that there were differences between disciplines, Charlie
maintained, they were more an issue of social convention than any fundamental difference. Lee, on the
other hand, saw irreducible differences between the subject matters, which he often cast dichotomously,
with English being concerned with “process” and history with “content.” Exchanges between Lee and
Charlie became a familiar leitmotif during our first year. When undercurrents of this argument surfaced
in discussions, other participants would murmur “here we go again” or “oh, no, grinding the same old
In individual interviews, teachers characterized the history/English debate as a “personality clash”
between two strong-willed, argumentative individuals. But noticeably absent from these comments was
an awareness of the epistemological issues that seemed to motivate the disagreement in the first place.
To the majority of teachers, the exchanges between Lee and Charlie were diversions from the more
important issues of working out the specifics of the marital agreement between English and history.
The theme of disciplinary difference came to a head in a discussion that occurred six months after
The Sweeter the Juice discussion. Worrying that our proposed focus on students’ understanding in the
humanities had failed to materialize, we planned an activity in which we shared findings from research
on student learning in history (cf. Wineburg, 1991, 1998). We created a set of primary source documents
on the Battle of Lexington, along with an historian and a student’s readings of these texts. One of the
primary documents explored issues of battlefield conduct and military propriety in seventeenth-century
Europe, which helped to explain actions at the Battle of Lexington. This 1703 document, a letter written
by Solomon Stoddard, addressed the nature of Indian warfare, which avoided confrontation on an open
battlefield in favor of small-scale symbolic acts. Stoddard claimed that wholesale killing of Indians
could be interpreted as inhumane (“contrary to Christian practice”) only if the Indians waged war as
other people. “But they are to be looked upon as thieves and murderers . . . they don’t appeare openly in
the field to bid us battle, they use those cruelly that fall into their hands. . . . They act like wolves and are
to be dealt with as wolves” (Stoddard, in Hirsch, 1988). In historical context, such metaphors
dehumanized native peoples and provided a justification for the colonists to burn entire Indian villages
to the ground (Hirsch, 1988, cf. Wineburg, 1999).
Following comments about how students might struggle with the language and spelling, Lee
observed that the Stoddard letter made an important point about what was considered “natural” in the
European mind of the mid-18th century. Lee then asked the group whether Samuel Stoddard’s letter was
simply a “text,” open to any interpretation or whether it constituted a window that helps us see how
people in the past construed their social reality. He argued:
You can’t read this [letter] in a vacuum. Are you trying to have kids understand the differences in
perceptions of Native Americans by the White people who came over here, or are you just trying
to get them to analyze “text”? I mean I think it really depends on what your objective is.
The English teachers who responded to Lee’s question, however, focused not on the historical
elements of the text but on approaches to teaching students to deal with complex texts. Kathy, a
beginning English teacher, commented on the attention she paid to issues of subject/verb agreement in
reading complicated texts and wondered aloud if perhaps the text she was planning to teach to her
freshman, The Odyssey, might itself be too challenging. Barb, her experienced colleague, added some
suggestions for how to help students gain a foothold into such texts by using the technique of free
One thing I’ve done that works really well is I give the kids a poem but you give them it one line
at a time. Put the line on the board and say okay, I want you to write as much as you can—stream
of consciousness—on that line, any and all—just free associate, any associations that come, words,
images, this reminds me of. And you go a line at a time, and it’s something like “Nothing Gold
Can Stay.”
This interaction had many analogues during our first year. Lee’s question—What is the relationship
of the text to a wider historical context?—was stripped of its distinctive epistemological cast. For Lee, the
central question was “How do we read history?” but in the very next turn, the question for Kathy and
Barb became “How do we teach reading?” In the space of a few short minutes, Lee’s question
boomeranged back refashioned as a recommendation to teach students to read closely by presenting
them a text line-by-line and having them “free associate.” It was this suggestion—the notion of having
students free associate in response to text—that brought Lee to his boiling point.
“I mean, you write a line up on the board—this “Gold” one [referring to the poem Barb had
mentioned earlier]—that could mean anything you want it to mean,” Lee objected, his voice cracking.
Leaning forward and shaking the Stoddard letter in his hand, Lee glared at his colleagues, “This one
can’t!” The baldness of Lee’s claim that there is a restricted set of meanings for a historical text served as
the signal for Charlie, Lee’s sparring partner from English, to enter the fray.
(90) Charlie: I think I could probably break this up into verse and make a poem out of it.
(91) Lee: Well, I’m sure you could, but that doesn’t mean that it, that it, that it means, it’s as
ambiguous as a line of poetry.
(92) Rhonda: It may not be as ambiguous, but I think anytime you’re dealing with primary sources
you have to take the same things into consideration that you would have to if you were dealing
with a literary text.
(93) Charlie: Look! “They act like wolves and are dealt with all as wolves.”
(94) Lee: [ A literary]
(95) Rhonda: [______act like wolves that are ]
(96) Nancy: Yeah, that’s the exact line. How do wolves act? And how do you deal with that?=
(97) Charlie: [ That’s poetry!
(98) Nancy: =that’s the question I had.
(99) Charlie: In fact! I would call that poem— - ((said melodramatically))“They Act Like Wolves”
(100) Nancy: [How would you approach that?]
(101) Kathy: [“Dances With Wolves”]
((chuckles & asides))
(102) Lee: Okay, you call that poem, “They Act Like Wolves” but if you just wrote on your board=
(103) Nancy: [Historically, what would you do
with that?
(104) Lee: =if you took this out of context and just wrote on your board: “They Act Like Wolves,” then
we’re talking about something completely different. But when you’re taking the context of
something that’s talking about a specific action by a specific group of people, and you know
THAT when you give them the assignments!=
(105) Charlie: So did they act like wolves?
(106) Lee: =[then that’s different than writing a line of a poem up on a board.
Several turns later, Barb reentered the conversation, this time to reassure Lee that her goals were
closer to his than he might think. She addressed him directly:
(169) Barb: Lee, this is the place where-where we meet so, we meet so completely in this text as History
and LA people. We meet in—in language=
(170) Lee: [Doesn’t sound like we’re meeting very well.
(171) Barb: =We are. ((scattered laughter)) We’re meeting in language, and you’re talking, Lee, you’re
talking objectives, and that’s nothing to do with what we’re talking here. You’re talking about
language, deciphering language, understanding language.
Barb’s comment (line 169) denies even the possibility that there is a difference between history and
English. To Barb (171), Charlie (99), and several other English teachers at the table, disciplinary
differences merged into a sea of textuality: All texts were polysemeous. Lee, on the other hand, held
firmly to the belief that a textual representation did not equal reality, that text is a partial and sometimes
impoverished referent, which must be viewed in a larger context before it can be understood (104-106).
Without paying attention to factors outside of the text, Lee implied, the process of reading a historical
document like the Stoddard letter loses integrity.
The distinctions teachers argued about were made without recourse to explicit disciplinary markers.
The entire exchange had a diffuse and scattered ring. When Barb talked about the need to “have a
dialogue back and forth with the self and the text,” or Dave, another English teacher, claimed that the
main imperative of reading was to “pay attention,” they did not refer explicitly to traditions of reader
response or efferent or aesthetic readings. Nor did Lee refer to the dangers of presentism in reading
historical documents. In fact, the efforts to convince Lee that there was a “way to read,” a way that came
with a pedagogical strategy of focusing on text and encouraging student response, assumed that
strategies for reading in history and literature were interchangeable. When Lee failed to yield, it was not
because he drew on disciplinary warrants but because he was, at least in some people’s eyes, stubborn.
In this sense, disciplinary differences were cast as a personality clash. The discussion ended with deeper
entrenchment and an unwillingness by either group to step outside their perspective to understand the
We do not deny that personality issues played a part in these and other discussions. Lee, Barb,
Charlie, and others were strong-willed, articulate individuals with histories of relating that long
predated this project. But we do not believe that these interactions can be explained by personality
factors alone. As we listened to these discussions we did not hear them as “grinding the same old
wheat,” but as beginning to address, however tentatively, contentious issues at the heart of textual
disciplines, where scholars argue, debate, and challenge received notions about the relationship between
text and reality. Issues of textuality are at the epicenter of the linguistic turn in the humanities, and have
spawned an array of conceptual approaches—from postmodernism, to feminist readings, to cultural
studies—that have breathed fresh energy into the humanities. The issues of text as representation are
problematic in the best sense of the humanities: they jar us out of complacency and ask us to reconsider
our beliefs about how we know what (we think) we know.
For these kinds of readings to surface and for people to become aware of different ways to grapple
with the written word, a group needs time together. Such time is not taken, nor granted, in the fleeting
interactions that typify interdisciplinary marriages of convenience (cf. Hamel, in press; Wineburg &
Grossman, in press-a, in press-b). In such marriages, there is a leap toward agreement, in which
participants search for what is common between disciplines rather than what is distinct.
But an approach to interdisciplinarity that preserves difference, casting it as a strength rather than a
problem, must allow for the articulation of multiple voices. In this case, the “problem” for several
English teachers became getting Lee to expand his textual horizons rather than trying to understand, at
a deeper level, the points he was making. Instead of agreeing to disagree, a useful way station to higher
understanding, this was an act of appropriation, as one discipline sought to subsume another. Nowhere
during the 83 minutes of this discussion did anyone ask Lee a follow-up question. Instead, the group
assumed that they understood Lee; the goal became to persuade him of his errors. Although
outnumbered by English teachers, and unsupported by other social studies teachers, Lee did not back
While the conflict in this discussion left teachers unsettled, we saw it as evidence that disciplinary
positions were beginning to surface. The relationship between text and the larger social context is a core
issue in the humanities; in this discussion we heard the voices of Hayden White or even Stanley Fish,
represented by Charlie’s position, and Gordon Wood’s argument that history forsakes “the truth” at its
peril, voiced by Lee. The different ways to engage the same phenomena, at the heart of interdisciplinary
efforts, swam just beneath the surface of this discussion. Unlike our earlier discussion of The Sweeter the
Juice, these issues were picked up by the group as a whole. While group members were not yet able to
name the differences that divided Lee and Charlie, they did become engaged and invigorated by the
In this discussion, conflict signaled affective engagement. We had clearly moved beyond the stage of
pseudocommunity in which we tepidly agreed on “critical reading” as a goal. How to read and teach
text was no longer a neutral topic but one that sparked intellectual passion, as Lee and Barb debated the
merits of free association and Charlie and Lee wrestled over the “poetry of history.” The respective
refusals of either side to yield set the stage for further debate. The interaction also clarified the critical
importance of having multiple voices at the table, although this diversity of perspectives hardly
produced harmonious discussion. Barb’s failure to convince Lee to adopt a literary perspective toward
text, a move made in part to restore harmony to the group, widened the dispute even more. But in many
ways it was this very question—the protean nature of text in the humanities—that ultimately led to new
learning later in our project. Without Lee’s voice at the table, the debate never would have occurred.
The capacity of the group to learn from this argument, to learn to listen more thoughtfully to different
ways of engaging and reading text, depended upon both the intellectual and social resources of the
community as a whole.
Teachers’ professional community requires that its members engage in both intellectual and social
work—new ways of thinking and reasoning collectively as well as new forms of interacting
interpersonally. In the context of the traditional high school, there are few opportunities for learning to
interact with colleagues outside of abbreviated interchanges. Extended periods of adult-to-adult
interaction in the workplace are irregular, episodic, and rare, and run counter to teachers’ professional
socialization (cf. Little, 1990; Lortie, 1975). When such interactions do occur, they are typically focused
on instrumental goals. Few teachers have the experience of spending regular time together as adults, in
the context of the workplace, in which they engage each other as learners for longer than a 25-50 minute
Learning Together
One of the first lessons to be learned in the development of teacher community is that some people
know things that others do not know and the collective’s knowledge exceeds that of any individual.
Although this may seem self-evident, teachers spend most of their working lives in situations in which
they serve as the primary authority and where their knowledge of the subject typically exceeds that of
their students. (This is particularly true at the secondary level.) Learning from colleagues requires both
a shift in perspective and the ability to listen hard to other adults, especially as these adults struggle to
formulate thoughts in response to challenging intellectual content. Schools, and the social forums for
adults in them, are conditioned by the dictates of the moment. With teaching’s emphasis on doing—and
often doing quickly—listening hard to the ill-formed thoughts of another adult is a new activity for
teachers that may seem strange and exotic.
The notion that the collective wisdom and knowledge of a group exceeds that of any one individual
taps one aspect of the concept of distributed cognition, as the idea has been developed in the context of
classrooms by the late Ann Brown and her colleagues (cf. Salomon, 1993). In a discussion about a given
topic, say the Roosevelt era, one individual may know about the decision to pack the Court, another
about attempts to integrate the military, another about issues of social security, and others may have
family members who participated in the WPA or CCC. For the collective to benefit from this
distribution, social conditions must exist that allow individuals to share what they know publicly
rather than keeping it to themselves.
The example of knowledge about the Roosevelt administration corresponds to how educators have
adapted certain techniques developed by social psychologists, such as the “jigsaw” method in classroom
settings (Aronson & Goode, 1979; Brown & Campione, 1994). Jigsaw provides a social architecture for
carving up knowledge into distinct spheres or “puzzle pieces” that can be reassembled. In the form of
jigsaw learning adapted by Brown and her colleagues, students learn about different aspects of a
common topic and then pool their learning in small groups or in a whole class setting.
But there is a second form of knowledge distribution particularly relevant to interdisciplinary work:
the distribution of fundamentally different ways of knowing. Here, what is distributed among individuals
are ways of reading, ways of asking questions, ways of adjudicating truth claims and coming to
warranted judgments of quality. These distributed epistemologies enrich discussion but do not necessarily
lead to any higher-order syntheses. Unlike the metaphor of a puzzle, in which pieces fill in a common
form or contour, we might think of the metaphor of a kaleidoscope, in which fragmented patterns form
and disappear with slight changes in perspective and refraction. The question to ask of an
“epistemological jigsaw” is not how the pieces fit together but how do the different positions make the
discussion more textured and complex (cf. Denby, 1996). The goal in this exercise is not to solve a preexisting
puzzle but to deconstruct pedestrian and self-satisfied notions of form and content.
A good discussion in the humanities thus requires both kinds of intellectual diversity among
members—individuals who bring different knowledge pieces (literary knowledge of Shakespearean
drama, personal experience touring the Globe Theater, knowledge of dramatic production in
Elizabethan times, etc.) as well as individuals who bring different ways of reading Shakespeare, from
close readings in an explication de téxte tradition, to feminist critiques, to personal responses.18 For a
community to learn from each other, we would want both kinds of intellectual resources represented.
But there is another aspect to consider in a community of teacher-readers. Within professional
community, the collective learning of the group is necessary but not sufficient. In the existing social
structure of schooling, teachers return to their respective classrooms individually, not collectively. Given
the present reality of schooling and the likelihood that it will persist into the foreseeable future, the
collective must serve as a training ground for individuals to think in new ways, to learn to listen for and
try out new ways of knowing and reading. In other words, in the supportive context of the teacher
reading group, teachers who bring a reader-response orientation to text must also learn that there are
alternative ways of reading—ways that privilege a text’s historical context or that locate the text within
an intertextual tradition. Teachers need to possess a supple understanding of the different intellectual
roles played by their peers before they can identify the proto-forms of these voices—often more subtle
and difficult to discern—in the comments of their students.
From this perspective, it is not enough for teachers to enact the same intellectual role in the group
over and over—to give only an aesthetic reading to a literary work or to ignore questions of social
18 We draw here on notions of reading in the humanities based on the work of Robert Scholes (1985, 1989).
history and representation. Over time we would want teachers to develop sufficient understanding of
the different perspectives represented in the group so that they would be able to try on these
perspectives themselves. This is precisely what happens in successful reading groups, in which
individuals begin to interiorize the voices of group members and report “hearing” each other’s voices as
they read books in the solitude of their own homes. Without the movement from distributed cognition (in
which individuals bring different aspects of content to a group and share these collectively) to cognition
distributed (in which there is a rotation and redistribution of epistemological roles) teachers may not be
able to identify and thus recreate multiple ways of reading and knowing in their respective classrooms.
Teacher professional community cannot be solely fixated on the content of its own collective learning
without seeing the social group as the crucible for individual change.19
The ability to alternate roles within the social group of supportive peers does not, of course,
guarantee that one can or will do so with students. But we can say that if teachers are not able to discern
differences between their familiar ways of reading and the radically different and well-articulated
perspectives of peers, it is unlikely that they will be able to recognize and engage the inchoate forms of
these ways of knowing among their students.
Navigating a River . . . and Ourselves
Two months after the discussion on the Stoddard letter and 14 months into the project, we met to
discuss The Organic Machine by MacArthur prize winning author Richard White, a professor of history at
the University of Washington. The Organic Machine narrates the story of the Columbia River, the
waterway that has played a pivotal role in the settlement and development of the Pacific Northwest.
Unlike conventional histories, organized around major events and key personalities, the protagonist of
this story is the Columbia itself, a narrative strategy that defines the field of environmental history
White pioneered. White’s recruitment of literary technique and evocative language provided a rich
opportunity to engage questions at the heart of the interdisciplinary enterprise, particularly issues of
narrativity that straddle the boundaries between history and fiction.
Indeed, it was the literary quality of The Organic Machine that sparked the initial discussion, as
participants weighed in about White’s use of metaphor. Shortly thereafter, the discussion flowed from
the story of a river to a river of stories. Participants moved from White’s narrative to a description of
how their own lives mingled with the landscape, economy, and development of the Columbia. Teachers
who had said little in group meetings to that point moved to the center. Frank Ingram, the social studies
teacher who had been silenced earlier on, embarked on his longest single turn in 8 months, when he
compared the Columbia to the rivers of his childhood in Michigan.20 Ed described growing up on the
banks of the Columbia and the tensions between gill-netters and sport fishermen. Mary described going
19 Here the contrastive foci of situative and cognitive approaches to social learning sharpen the issue for professional
community. As Salomon and Perkins (1998) note, situative approaches conceptualize learning holistically and the
“hoped-for transfer is to other similar activity systems” (p. 10). In this respect a teacher community around books might
transfer to other contexts in which adults come together to read—in a church setting, or even in social settings in the
home. But in the cognitive approach, the focus is on how the social context equips the learner with new capacities, new
ways of seeing, hearing, listening that serve the learner in other contexts (cf. Damon, 1991). Here the classroom
represents a dramatically different context from a collegial forum.
20 Frank Ingram’s long turn here totaled 507 words, which was considerably longer than any other single turn he took in
previous discussions. For example, prior to the discussion of The Organic Machine, Frank’s longest single turn in any
meeting was 146 words. Frank’s usual participation consisted of short (20 words or less) responses to his colleagues, a
fact that underscores the difference in his participation here.
down the river with her grandmother, whose 91 years spanned many of the changes White described.
Like the discussion of The Sweeter the Juice, the discussion of The Organic Machine provided a springboard
to self-disclosure, an opportunity to explain who we are and where we came from.
The surging currents and the tranquil tributaries of the Columbia served still another function. The
river gave us a metaphor for our own development as a group. Several people spontaneously compared
the history of the Columbia to our own unpredictable course of coming together, creating curriculum,
and learning to read books. The effect of such comparisons was to mark, with an explicitness unknown
to this point, the emerging sense of group memory, the constitutive narrative that weaves individuals
into an “us.” When Lee made a provocative comment that would have derailed us in earlier meetings,
Rhonda, Lee’s student teacher,21 offered a meta-commentary on group process: “The great thing about
Lee is that up to now [we’ve] all been sort of making our own individual comments. Now Lee jumps
in,” Rhonda joked, “and now we’re all going to have to respond and jump on top of him!” In making
explicit the conversational patterns that polarized earlier meetings, Rhonda’s light touch diffused a
potential explosion. More important, it held a mirror to the group that allowed it to ponder its collective
image, its familiar roles, and its well-worn exchanges. The effect of making these patterns explicit was
to release the group from having to go down the same well-beaten path. The next turn cycled back to
the topic that had been discussed prior to Lee’s comment.
Rhonda was not the only person to act as the group’s linguistic monitor. In contrast to the first
meetings, we said little, except for some initial framing at the discussion’s start and end.22 When conflict
again threatened to erupt over the charged question of technological “progress,” Grace assumed the role
of discussion broker:
You guys, wrong reasons or right reasons, remember we all have opinions here and some of us
may not think some things are wrong or right. Let’s be careful of value judgments here.
Typically uncertain and often self-deprecating, Grace tried on a leadership role for the first time in over
14 months of meetings.
Like the eddies of a river, members’ stories coursed in different directions. At one point Dave
wondered aloud, “I’ve got a question for somebody and you can tell me during the break, I’ve always
been curious, how do you build a dam?” Dave’s question sparked an interchange among five
participants who collectively constructed an answer to Dave’s question about dam building.23
21 Student teachers came to play an important role in this project. Viewed simultaneously as both insiders and outsiders to
the school, they straddled the worlds of university and school. Rhonda, in particular, stood out in her capacity to function
as a broker between the two sites of school and university. For instance, she was able to successfully introduce several
professional education texts to the group (see #22 & #24) something we refrained from doing after the difficulty
surrounding Scholes’ work in the second month of the project. In Goffman’s terms Rhonda had a certain type of
permission or authenticity needed to perform this role that came from working as a student teacher at the school. In this
sense, we see her akin to the liminal role of “insider – outsider” described by Victor Turner which provided her and the
other student teachers with opportunities to do things we couldn’t. We take up the role of the student teachers at the end
of the paper.
22 For example, in the discussion of The Sweeter the Juice we accounted for all of the structuring comments that framed the
discussion; here, our structuring comments dropped to 3 comments total, a 150% decrease.
23 As the following excerpt from the discussion shows, this conversation about the construction of a dam was dominated by
male participants. We have identified several other places in group discussions where gender divisions were noticeable,
but we are saving this analysis for a separate paper.
Table 1. Discussion of The Organic Machine, April 1996
(245) Dave: I’ve got a question for somebody and you can tell me during the break. I’ve always been curious,
how do you build a dam? So, if you don’t want talk about it in here
(246) Rhonda: [ oh, I was wondering that too
(247) Dave: I don’t know how to build, how a dam gets built, I would really like to know, boy I would —
so if you know, yea, I’d like you to tell me.
(251) Guy: …in terms of how they channel the water around
(252) Dave: They actually do? They divert it around.
(253) Mary: Yea. they showed some early films
(254) Quentin: [They built two dams, they built the coffer dam
(255) Dave: [how do you divert the river though?
(256) Quentin: the coffer dam!—a temporary dam that diverts the water from that area while they get that built
(257) Dave: Okay, okay, okay, but I’ve, you know, I’ve been around this river a lot and it’s a big ass river and
((group laughter)) I know he used to talk about a lot of wood here but, you know, it’s the size of a national
forest that’s going to go into this wood lock but where, where do you start? Do you take pile drivers out above,
upstream of where you’re gonna, your gonna go and you, you pound in, what do you do? Do they pour concrete in?
(258) Quentin: [Well, when they build the coffer dam that’s what they do=
(259) Dave: [Well
(260) Quentin: =they’re building a dam that is going to divert water. It doesn’t change the height of the
water it just diverts the water from where they can then go in and, and do some construction.
(261) Dave: So you build it just upstream, and then, so you got the water going around like this
((demonstrating w/hands)) these guys are little beavers are down there chipping their heads off the
(262) Chuck: [Remember where they
initially built the dam though was to recreate——an actual geologic feature that previously existed and so
they did it in an optimal, what they considered an optimal place.
(263) Dave: ((sarcastically))[Yeah yeah, you don’t
think the water is part of the river though?
(264) Chuck: Right
(265) Dave: But, but still, okay, so you got, you got a coffer dam—so you got the river diverted and you got
blah blah blah and you got something built here ((demonstrating w/hands)) right? And then what do you do?
(266) Frank: Open that area up.
(267) Dave: To what?
(268) Frank: The other side
(269) Dave: Oh, so you got holes in the thing here and then, then=
(270) Frank: [Yea
(271) Dave: =and so you divert it the other way and it goes through the spillways—here ((demonstrating
(272) Frank: And then you build the other half
(273) Dave: [and then you build the other half. See, so it’s, you go one half and then
(274) Quentin: [you build in your
spillways as you build your first piece so now you got a diversionary—funnel that the water fits in
(275) Dave: I see, so if you’re a worker you have a lot of faith in the coffer dam ((select laughs))
The previous excerpt (see Table 1) shows one way in which the group pooled individual knowledge
to construct a broader understanding. We liken this exchange to the description of jigsaw activities
described earlier, in which individuals contribute knowledge pieces to the group’s collective
understanding. We also see this interchange as evidence of the group’s growing capacity and
willingness to engage with and learn from each other. Dave, keenly intelligent, headstrong, and incisive
in his interpretations, first confesses his ignorance to the group. Compared to our early months, such
confessions were unknown, for the group norm was to perform understanding and mask ignorance
(what Goffman called “impression management”). As an intellectual leader, Dave’s willingness to turn
to the group for help was symbolically important. To get his question answered, Dave pressed the
group to supply increasingly detailed information about coffer dams and, in the give and take that
followed, acted as a midwife to the emerging explanation. A similar episode occurred when teachers
jointly told the story of how an entire town disappeared on the banks of the Columbia. In this exchange
Lee served in the role of discussion broker, pressing the group for further details.
The Organic Machine constituted an important way station on the road to the group’s consciousness
of its own “groupness.” The discussion elicited the participation of several members who had been
spectators and thrust other participants into new roles as discussion brokers and conflict mediators. But
for all these positive developments, we were nonetheless concerned with the limited engagement of the
intellectual aspects of Richard White’s experimental history. For example, early on, Lee expressed
frustration with White’s writing style, but no one picked up his implicit questions about the portrayal of
the river as a living organism. Lee:
Well, I had a really hard time with his writing style, kind of sing-song style was confusing, driving
me crazy after a while . . . I think what [White] wanted us to do was to relate to the river as if it
was a living organism and I have a hard time doing that. After all, it’s just water.
Lee’s question was left hanging even though three English teachers commented earlier on their
appreciation of White’s style. (Alice even went so far as to read aloud a particularly evocative
passage.24 ) Although this book afforded the possibility of engaging issues of narrativity, style, and
epistemology in historical writing—issues at the center of any genuine interdisciplinary undertaking—
they went unexploited and unaddressed in the ensuing discussion.
Indeed, the tone of the discussion was decidedly social, and it was on this note that the discussion
ended. As the discussion came to a close, Ed Berry, the affable history teacher mentioned earlier,
suggested to the group that they take a field trip to the Columbia River to see firsthand its varied
landscape. This playful suggestion provided further evidence of an emerging sense of a collective
organized to learn and grow together. Our conversation around the river and our embarking on this
figurative field trip required new forms of social and linguistic engagement. It is to this “social work” of
community that we now turn.
24 The passage that Alice read aloud from White (p. 63) is noteworthy in weaving literary and historical elements:
“Planning was critical to the river, but plans for the Columbia rarely regarded it an anything more than abstraction, a
prime mover providing potential kilowatts . . . Lewis Mumford was not a planner, but he wrote eloquently of planning.
It was a difficult task. Planning is an exercise of power, and in a modern state much real power is suffused with
boredom. The agents of planning are usually boring; the planning process is boring; the implementation of plans is
always boring. In a democracy boredom works for bureaucracies and corporations as smell works for a skunk. It keeps
danger away. Power does not have to be exercised behind the scenes. The audience is asleep. The modern world is
forged amidst our inattention” (p. 62).
The Social Work of Community
The construction of community requires ongoing social negotiation, including the regulation of
social interactions and group norms. While a few individuals may do most of this regulation at the
beginning of the group’s history, for a community to form members must begin to take on this
responsibility themselves. This requires new forms of participation in leadership. Over time, for
example, we would expect more people to take on the work of brokering discussions or of addressing
violations of norms rather than that responsibility falling on the shoulders of a single individual or
facilitator. From this perspective, we could chart the growth of community by looking at the evolution
of its leadership. The degree to which discussion brokering is distributed among individuals, the degree
to which it is alternated rather than monopolized by one or two people, is itself one indicator of group
equity and maturity.
Communities are microcosms of larger social collectives in that they pivot on the tension between
the rights and the responsibilities of membership. For a community to be sustained, members must
believe in their right to express themselves honestly, without fear of censure or ridicule. But genuine
communities make demands on their members—membership comes tethered with responsibilities. In
teacher professional community, a core responsibility is to the learning of other teachers. This
responsibility might include making contributions to group discussions, pressing others to clarify their
thoughts, engaging in intellectual midwifery for the ideas of others, and providing resources for others’
learning. If a feature of pseudocommunity is withdrawal from the public space when conflict erupts,
then a feature of a mature community is the willingness to engage in critique in order to further
collective understanding.
The work of school-based community demands new forms of social participation. In a profession
constructed around norms of privacy, taking responsibility for the learning of other adults is a radical
departure from business as usual. Pressing colleagues for clarification in a public setting requires not
only a particular intellectual stance, but enormous social skill and negotiation to prevent hurt feelings
and shutdown. Learning to argue productively about ideas that cut to the core of personal and
professional identity involves the skillful orchestration of multiple social and intellectual capacities.
While this vision of community may seem utopian, we believe that it is exactly the kind of work that
teachers require of students if classrooms are to become “communities of learners.” The literature of
reform-oriented teaching rings with accounts and exhortations of teachers who engage students in risky
intellectual and social work: teachers who ask youngsters to state their ideas but also listen hard to
others, who ask students to hone their ability to commit to what they think at the same time as avoiding
entrenchment; who ask students to focus on their learning while also considering the needs of the group.
Yet, we believe that such classroom communities will have little chance of enduring if teachers, as adult
professionals in the workplace, do not develop opportunities to engage in similar activities. Schools
cannot become exciting places for children until they first become exciting places for adults.
Naming the Differences: Moving Toward Community
Eighteen months into the project and four months after our discussion of The Organic Machine, the
group gathered for its second summer institute. Our text for the first day was Good Scent from a Strange
Mountain, by Robert Olen Butler, a text that Mary had suggested in a discussion seven months earlier.
Mary, the experienced special education teacher and a member of our steering group, led off.
Referring to a set of guiding questions generated by Dave, Mary suggested that the group adopt a
guiding question for the week.25
(2) Mary: Well, I—I just have thought a lot since, I guess Dave Collins really brought it up—
dramatically last spring, about having, you know, this list of questions that we think about and—
um——the impact that they might have on actually publishing such questions, and having them be
part of one’s curriculum throughout the year, or a unit, or whatever. And, so one of the things
that I’ve been doing in thinking about this fall is really addressing that issue, at least for myself
and maybe with the people that I’m planning curriculum with. One of the things that I thought
about—um—in reading the short stories, was this book and this question, I hadn’t read this book
yet, but I thought what would it be like to be able read— this series of short stories with the
guiding question being, what it means to be an American? Or, what does it mean to be an
American? . . . I wondered if it would be appropriate for this group—to have—a guiding
question this week? To experiment with that idea if we think it’s important enough to—use in our
classrooms-that we might consider —creating guiding questions for ourselves this week. One or
two from there. Is that what you were referring to _______?
((15 seconds of silence))
(3) Helen: The questions are section three in the notebook. I’m trying to remember what they are.
(4) Grace: I like the idea of reading the book with guiding questions. It was a neat idea. It would
give us the practice—or train us— does that make sense?
From this first opening comment, changes in the group were evident. First, Sam and Pam were no
longer brokering the discussion. Neither the idea to read this text nor the use of guiding questions to
structure the discussion came from us. Mary and Helen took on the work of facilitation, with support
from others. Their emergence as group leaders was nothing short of remarkable, for both began their
tenure in the project feeling like outsiders. Initially on the margins because of her role as a special
education teacher, Mary moved to the center; her voice, initially tentative, gained assurance and
authority, as people recognized her leadership. Helen began the group as a second year teacher; initially
hesitant to join the discussions, in part because she worried about getting “fried” by the more
experienced teachers, Helen played a pivotal role in this discussion.
Mary’s suggestion to use questions to guide our discussion vividly demonstrated how the group
had begun to navigate the essential tension. Here we explicitly agreed to experiment with an approach
that we had talked about using in the classroom, using our group as a crucible for the classroom.
Throughout the discussion, people continued to make the connections between our own readings of this
work and classroom teaching. Later in the discussion, for example, Lee, who had months earlier
vehemently resisted the value of eliciting students’ personal response, said:
I was wondering if a good guiding question might not have something to do with connection
because I was thinking about, you know, the story about the little girl and, you know, my—my
connecting with this is I had been in New Orleans recently was how much the story seemed, that
25 The guiding questions originated from the end of an all-day meeting when the group was deliberating over how to
proceed with the curriculum development part of the project. In response to an article on interdisciplinary curriculum
we debated whether it would be a good idea to have a set of questions for each grade level or a set of questions that
extended across the grades. At this point, Dave took the floor and informed the group that he used a series of questions
to guide inquiry in his English classes. He wrote a list of questions on the board that included; What do we do when we
read? What does it mean to write? How are reading and writing acts of composing? What kinds of strategies do we
employ in the face of difficulty? Rhonda, one of the student teachers, recognized several of the questions as similar to
those presented in The Power of Their Ideas by Deborah Meier (1995). She then brought the book to the following meeting
at which time the group began to explore the habits of mind articulated in the book. The group eventually came up with
its own set of guiding questions which several teachers posted on the walls of their classrooms.
his portrayal of New Orleans seemed real, and it did. So I think there’s something where we
connect with literature. You know, that to me would be a guiding question, where is there a
connection? And how do we get to that connection for our students?
Lee’s question represents a fundamental shift in his participation. Often seen as a provocateur or
resident cynic, here Lee builds on the ideas of his colleagues. Rather than throwing a monkey wrench
into this intellectual construction, he assumes the role here of intellectual laborer, asking questions that
build on the foundations of the discussion. Lee’s question is significant for a second reason. Early on,
Lee had criticized the “touchy-feely” aspects of language arts; here he asked a genuine question about
how teachers can help students make connections to literature, a pedagogical move he earlier rejected.
We see Lee’s role throughout this discussion as profoundly altered. His use of the collective pronoun,
“we,” to talk about teaching cast his lot with the group and represented a marked departure from his
earlier oppositional stance. Indeed, the sense of collective membership manifested in how members
referred to themselves in this discussion, and relative to earlier ones, the change was profound. In this
discussion 22 percent of all discussion turns contained a reference to the group as a “we,” “us,” or “our”
compared to only five percent of turns a year earlier in The Sweeter the Juice, an increase of 325 percent!
One of the guiding questions proposed for the group came from Rhonda, a student teacher. She
reported that her small group had discussed whether Butler’s stories are valid given that the author is a
white male speaking in a Vietnamese voice and whether “authors of fiction have responsibility for
giving us something that is absolutely true and accurate.” This question cut to the epistemological core
of literature and to questions of validity and voice that had resided below the surface of many of the
group’s arguments. Immediately, Alice jumped in.
(34) Alice: Lee had some things to say about that.
(35) Lee (quietly): What’s that mean?
(36) Alice I just volunteered you to address yourself to Rhonda’s comment about the validity—and his
(37) Lee: Yeah, I mean, I just thought that—why is the expectation of validity different in this case
than in any other fictional work? And if that is the major question why did we read the book?
This short exchange illustrates the movement from pseudocommunity toward community. In
community, ideas are public property, their pursuit a communal responsibility. Group members can be
held accountable for contributing their individual insights to the larger group. In this interaction, Alice
asked Lee to ante up, and just as importantly, he complied. His questions about the nature of validity in
fiction became the centerpiece for an extended debate about the nature of “truth” in literature.
We see another example of holding individuals accountable for their contributions later in the
discussion. In attempting to define a guiding question that builds upon Lee’s idea, Helen suggested
adopting the question, first generated by Dave, “How important is the truth in what we teach?” In
response Quentin, an experienced English teacher, volunteered that “fiction is truth-plus” and “the
curiosity piece is always to ask, what part is true? What part is plus?” Quentin’s enigmatic comment
was not left unscrutinized. Olivia pressed him to explain.
(82) Olivia: What part is what?
(83) Quentin: What part is true part? What part is plus? And—and I think your concern
(84) Olivia: [How? What?
How do you separate the two? I don’t understand.
(85) Quentin: I don’t know.
(86) Alice: Truth and what’s added to truth. Is that what you’re saying?
(87) Quentin: I think
(88) Olivia: [ Isn’t the whole piece truth from one person’s point of view? This is Butler’s truth
about whatever he’s telling the truth about . . . .
Here again, Quentin was held accountable for an off-handed and opaque comment. Olivia’s desire to
understand Quentin’s point and what it might add to the discussion led to an intense but respectful
exchange, in which Olivia, and then Alice, pushed for definition and elaboration. This interchange
suggests the opposite of what might be called a poker model of discourse, in which individuals throw
ideas, much like poker chips, into the center, where they lay inert, untouched by discussion. Here,
Quentin’s chip is picked up, examined, and discussed before the discussion moves on. In this
alternative model, group members have responsibilities as participants—listeners have the
responsibility to admit their own confusion in understanding others, and speakers have the
responsibility to clarify their initial ideas. This exchange more closely resembles a game of bridge, in
which partners try to understand each other’s bids and build upon their understanding of their
partner’s strengths in order to determine the best possible strategy.
This exchange underscores as well the communal nature of understanding in an intellectual
community. Olivia’s understanding is not a private matter to be addressed with Quentin privately over
coffee. Instead, her expression of confusion is a gift to the collective, as it provides opportunities for
everyone to benefit from Quentin’s efforts at clarification. Throughout this discussion, people take up
others’ points, press for clarification, and revoice what they have heard in an effort to understand the
issues raised.
We see these interactions as forms of intellectual midwifery, in which the group assists in the birth of
new ideas. For such births to occur, the group must provide a safe environment in which individuals are
free to voice uncertainty, explore ideas, state and retract opinions. Part of the press for clarification must
therefore affirm the potential value of a speaker’s contribution. During this discussion, several
participants responded to a speaker saying, “I fully agree with you but . . . .” or “I share with you your
concern, but . . . .”26 We see these as linguistic markers of an effort that both affirms a prior speaker’s
perspective but at the same time pushes the idea further. Such turns of phrase acknowledge mutuality
while also asserting difference. The initial expression of agreement lessens the sting of having an idea
challenged in a public forum. It is a linguistic form of Steven Carter’s “etiquette of democracy.”
The discussion of Good Scent from a Strange Mountain exemplified the group’s commitment to its own
learning by asking individual members to make private contributions public, and pressing them on their
ideas. Group members also demonstrated this commitment through their actions. Building on a practice
that Nancy had begun, Charlie and Olivia both brought written reviews of Good Scent from a Strange
Mountain to the group meeting. When the group debated how Vietnamese might view this book,
26 This was a general trend that went beyond an isolated instance. For example, Lee expressed dissent differently than he
had in earlier meetings. Here he began by acknowledging that he has heard a point made by Charlie, his sparring
partner from the Stoddard discussion, with the phrase, “I understand that” before he went on to press for further
clarification. In this same discussion we hear Olivia responding to Grace by starting her comment with the introduction,
“I fully agree with you but . . . .” Only after this affirmation did Olivia go on to press Grace to consider the broader
implications of her comments. In a response to Olivia, Charlie opened with “I share your concern, but…” Throughout
this discussion, group members continually pressed each other for clarification and disagreed with each other in more
civil and constructive ways as evidenced by these microfeatures of discourse. Such microfeatures, crucial but often
overlooked, contributed to what we think of as an invitational conversational climate.
Charlie offered to ask his Vietnamese-American neighbor who had read the book if she would be willing
to engage in a public e-mail conversation. Olivia tracked down other resources from the Vietnamese
community. The commitment to the learning of others went well beyond the boundaries of this single
discussion. In fact, another way to document the formation of intellectual community is to look at the
distribution of material resources (flyers for books, notifications of lectures, articles from the newspaper)
that appeared in teachers’ mailboxes and in e-mail conversations. Over time, people began to share
more and more resources, notifying others of lectures and speakers, and dropping off book reviews and
relevant essays in each others’ mailboxes. What began as the practice of one individual—Nancy—was
ultimately picked up by others.27
Throughout the discussion of Good Scent, the question of fiction’s “truth” was hotly debated. Once
this question was raised, in turn #69 of the discussion, members continued to develop and elaborate this
point through the next 74 turns, an unprecedented display of coherence in this group’s one year history
of reading together.28 In the midst of this conversation, the following exchange took place.
(121) Nancy: So you’re looking at the point of view, and then I heard you—say that they’re presenting
opposing viewpoints and trying to make them—valid, and then, Lee, are you saying outside
knowledge that you have about a situation so that when you’re reading it you can interpret
whether it, it corresponds with what you already know or what you don’t know?
(122) Lee: I’m saying that if you are approaching it in that way. I’m saying, I think what I hear from
some people is that this, they question the validity of the voice because he’s not—- Vietnamese.
It’s not his point of view that’s presented. And my—my, what I’m saying is that, okay, you can
question his voice, but you have more ammunition to question his voice if you have a frame of
reference to question it with. And I might question his voice, but I won’t question his voice about
the story about the fall of Saigon because it feels real in relationship to other things that I’ve read
about the fall of Saigon. So that’s—that’s my point. On the other hand if you don’t want it, on
the other hand it could stand alone, I guess. I mean if you are using it to teach about kids about
27 Throughout the duration of the project, we kept track of the material resources (e.g., readings, videos, lesson plans,
examples of student work, announcements, etc.) participants brought to project meetings to share with the group. The
first instance of this occurred at the first summer institute (seven months into the project) when Nancy shared a lesson
plan she had designed around The Sweeter the Juice. From that point onward, different participants brought in resources
to almost every project meeting. For instance, Quentin brought in several articles on interdisciplinary curriculum; Nancy
brought in two of her student’s essays on Make Me Wanna Holler for the group to read after the discussion of the book; Lee
brought in excerpts from the Lewis and Clark journals to supplement the group’s reading of Stephen Ambrose’s
Undaunted Courage; Olivia brought in readings about Asian American authors to supplement Good Scent From A Strange
Mountain; and two of the student interns called the group’s attention to Lisa Delpit’s “The Silenced Dialogue” during a
discussion of assessment which the group would later read as a result.
28 As part of our overall analysis of project data, we engaged in an extensive analysis of group discourse. For example, all
text-based discussions were transcribed verbatim and then subjected to a four-tiered coding scheme. We coded each
discussion turn from the standpoint of whether the speaker was responding to the previous comment, asking a question,
directing the group to action, or informing the group of something. We then coded each turn according to the knowledge
source informing what was said. For instance, a speaker’s comments might reflect autobiographical information, his or
her teaching experience, or subject matter knowledge (as opposed to general or popular knowledge). In addition, we
coded each comment about texts according to a scheme of evaluating textual understanding that we adapted from the
work of literary theorist and semiotician Robert Scholes (1985). His approach distinguishes between different levels of
textual engagement identified in the categories of “reading,” “interpretation,” and “criticism.” We included our own
“epistemological” category as well. Our codes also allowed us to determine whether ideas were being revoiced by others
and whether previous project discussions were alluded to so that we could look for evidence of a shared “project
memory.” We entered our discourse codes into the QSR-NUDIST (Non numerical Unstructured Data Indexing Searching
and Theory-building) software program that enabled us to look at broad quantitative changes in discourse over time, an
approach that is quite different from the micro-analytic qualitative examinations of discourse that we have relied upon
here. The focus here on coherence of discourse is often a feature of group discussion analysis (cf. Schiffrin, 1987, 1994).
But coherence of speech begs questions of ideational quality. Speech may be more coherent, but the ideas discussed may
not necessarily be better or more nuanced. This question, which by necessity varies across topics and subject matters, is
typically not addressed by discourse analysts. By operationalizing our coding scheme, we were also able to assess the
intellectual quality of our book club discussions over time and to describe the changing nature of participation both for
specific individuals and for the group. (See Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 1998, for details.)
the fall of Saigon, or to teach kids about Vietnam—the Vietnamese immigrant experience in
America, then that’s different than if you just looking at it as literature, that’s-that’s what I
(123) Helen: Do we use? It sounds like what you’re saying that—you use your evidence, the
historian’s evidence standard to decide whether it’s a valid text or not. What you know about
Saigon, does it match up with what’s here? You know.
(124) Lee: Actually, if I’m reading it in the way that I think the expectations are for us to read it. If I’m
just reading it as literature, then none of that matters.
(125) Helen: Well, I would imagine that as an historian you bring that——way of thinking to whatever
you read. That’s one of the ways you decide if something is true, does it match up with the
evidence that you have about the subject, or about.
(126) Lee: But if I read a book about something that I know nothing about then that doesn’t
come into play=
(127) Helen: [Right, then it doesn’t come into play, of course.
(128) Lee: =And for a lot of people, they know nothing about Vietnam, so it’s beside the point.
(129) Helen: I’m wanting for us to develop a guiding question that we can all use. And I’m
wondering—do language arts teachers use the same—evidence—thing?——That historians are
always talking about questions of evidence. Do we do the same thing?
In this exchange, the disciplinary perspectives that had divided the group, at least since the
Stoddard letter discussion, are explicitly named. Helen revoiced Lee’s comments trying to clarify his
point: “It sounds like what you’re saying . . .” She attributes his perspective to his “historian’s evidence
standard” and goes on to explicate how this perspective might color his readings of text. Helen uses the
interchange to propose a guiding question about whether or not language arts and history teachers use
the same notions of evidence: “Do we do the same thing?”
This exchange was a turning point. For the first time in our collective history, participants
acknowledged the disciplinary differences that frame reading and struggled to understand how these
differences manifest themselves. Unlike earlier exchanges between Lee, Barb, and Charlie in the
discussion of the Stoddard letter, Helen does not deny that Lee might bring a fundamentally different
perspective to his reading. As the discussion continued, group members tried to understand what
might be meant by notions of evidence and believability in fiction.
Helen’s questioning of Lee also suggests a new willingness to hear a different perspective, to enter
into a different way of thinking about text. Lee, too, struggles to understand how fiction might
represent a realm in which it is not the factual proximity to actual events but verisimilitude that
contributes to the truth of a text (cf. Bruner, 1985). In the midst of this discussion, Grace, always a
hesitant participant in these discussions, made her first epistemological comment in 18 months, trying
on a new intellectual role in the group.
(144) Grace: I don’t know, I’m having a problem with why does the person have to be-the author if it’s
a he or she, if she’s writing about a woman’s experience, why does a she have to write about a
woman’s experience? Couldn’t a he write about it and research it, and interview people and-and
do study on it and maybe write something on it? And just because he’s not a woman doesn’t
mean that he may not be able to capture the essence of a woman or whatever. And I don’t know,
in this I don’t necessarily think that this guy has to be Vietnamese to capture some of this
information . . . I—I have a problem with you being what you’re writing about.
(145) Helen: We talked about that in our-in our small group, does—did he have a right to write that
book? And we said, “Hell yes!” And then he—he can’t, I think you just—questions arise because
his name is Robert Owen Butler that wouldn’t arise if his name was Thay Ngyn.
As the group member most resistant to the practice of reading together, who called reading
unconnected to the curriculum “torture,” Grace’s foray into criticism represented a profound shift. Just
as she played an important social role in the discussion of The Organic Machine, here she takes on a new
intellectual role—that of literary critic. Reluctant to voice her opinions and unused to the literary
discourse that characterized many of the discussions, Grace learned how to participate in such talk and
was recognized by the group for her contribution.
In this discussion, Helen, Mary, Lee, and others take on new social and intellectual roles within the
group. But what has also changed is the ethos of the group as a whole. The eye-rolling and side
comments were largely absent from this discussion; the conversation was characterized by respect for
others’ viewpoints and the assumption of good faith. As Lee struggled with his ideas about fiction and
history, people did not dismiss him as “being difficult” or complain about “grinding the same old
wheat.” Instead, we engaged in the work of understanding epistemological issues that separate fiction
from history, speculating about what this might mean in the classroom.
We now return to the question we asked at the beginning of this article: What distinguishes a
community of teachers from a group of teachers sitting in a room? We offer here some initial ideas for a
model of emergent community based in the realities of the workplace of an urban high school—the
stages, obstacles, and elusive achievements that characterize the developmental trajectory of community
formation. In developing our model, we have drawn on our participation over time as members (and
sometimes reluctant leaders) of this group, captured in field-notes, e-mails, journals, and notes from
phone conversations. We have also drawn on an extensive database that includes teacher interviews,
written evaluations, and think-alouds.29 But the primary source of evidence that we used for this
analysis has been the transcripts of group discussions of text that occurred over 18 months of the project,
as represented by the six whole group discussions that we take up in this article.
We have relied on these transcripts for several reasons. Foremost, if we claim that our group grew
toward community, we should be able to hear it and see it in the venues in which the group met. In
other words, claims about teacher community should be supported by evidence from the interactions of
its members. One of the contributions we hope to make to research on teachers’ professional
community is to suggest ways of documenting how community manifests in speech and action.
Throughout our discussion, we have adduced numerous instances in which new forms of discourse and
social participation appeared that bore significance not just to us but to the participants as well.
Recognition of the changes in our discourse appeared not only in our fieldnotes and data analyses but
29 The data base for this project is extensive, comprising numerous sources of data on both individual group members and
on the group as a whole. We conducted a series of five semi-structured interviews with group members across the 2 1/2
years of the project, in which we asked them about their subject matter backgrounds, their views on the project, and their
views on colleagues. One of these interviews involved a think-aloud task, using a set of readings, including a poem, an
excerpt of a memoir, and a historical document. From this task, we attempted to understand how teachers constructed
interpretations from text and how their readings differed across disciplines. We then asked teachers to talk about how
students might read these texts. We also collected a series of surveys and evaluations related to the project from
individual participants. We also collected copies of the documents teachers shared with each other, as well as the email
exchanges that occurred over the course of the project. However, the primary source of data for this analysis consists of
transcripts of our discussions at our all-day meetings. We audiotaped all project meetings, in addition to keeping
extensive field notes. These tapes were transcribed verbatim and then carefully coded. For a discussion of coding, please
see footnote #28.
were the topic of comments from teachers. For example, Olivia turned to the group at the end of the
second summer institute and said, “Do you guys hear how much differently we talk to each other than
we did last March? The voice of this group, I think, has gotten so much more honest” (August 25, 1995).
This was one of the first times in which the group exhibited its own linguistic self-consciousness by
explicitly marking its awareness of its growth as a collective.
By way of summary, we provide a schematic of the markers of community formation we have
focused on throughout this article.
Figure 2: Model of the Formation of the Teacher Professional Community
Identification with whole group
Recognition that group is
enriched by multiple perspectives
(sense of loss when
member leaves)
Development of new interactional
Communal responsibility for
and regulation of group
1. Formation of Group Identity and Norms of Interaction
Belief that teachers’ responsibility
is to students, not
colleagues; intellectual growth
is the responsibility of the
Contributions to group are acts
of individual volition
Identification with subgroup
Individuals are interchangeable
and expendable
Undercurrent of incivility
Sense of individualism overrides
responsibility to group’s
Pseudocommunity (false sense
of unity; suppression of conflict)
Recognition of unique
contributions of individual
Open discussion of interactional
Recognition of need for
regulation of group behavior
2. Understanding Difference/Navigating Fault Lines
Denial of difference
Conflict goes backstage,
hidden from view
Appropriation of divergent
views by dominant position
Conflict erupts on main stage
and is feared
Understanding and productive
use of difference
Conflict is an expected featue of
group life and dealt with openly
and honestly
3. Negotiating the Essential Tension
Lack of agreement over
purposes of professional
community; different positions
are viewed as inherently
Begrudging willingness to let
different people pursue different
Recognition that teacher
learning and student learning
are fundamentally intertwined
4. Taking Communal Responsibility for Individuals’ Growth
Commitment to colleagues’
Acceptance of rights and
obligations of community
membership (e.g. “intellectual
midwifery”, “press for
Beginning Evolving Mature
Recognition that colleagues
areresources for one’s learning
Recognition that participation is
expected for all
The first dimension of community involves the formation of a group identity and the development
of norms for interaction. Initially, members of a group may identify with subgroups or factions within a
larger group. In our project, for example, teachers initially identified more with their departments, or
with other first year teachers, than they did with the group as a whole. In a meeting of teachers,
individuals are interchangeable; if a member leaves and someone else joins, little is lost. However, as
community evolves, people begin to recognize the unique contributions of individual members and feel
a sense of loss when members leave. This loss is not only personal. Over time, community members
recognize the distinct voices and perspectives that individuals bring to a group and mourn their loss of
these perspectives. In a meeting, participants do not see themselves as individually responsible for the
functioning of the group as a whole; in fact, this responsibility rests squarely with the group leader.
However, as community develops, members begin to formulate a sense of communal responsibility for
the regulation of group norms and behavior. In our project, teachers initially complained to us about the
behavior of their colleagues; over time, they assumed the responsibility for addressing violations of
group norms.
A second dimension of community formation has to do with the navigation of fault lines. In its
initial stages, a group may deny differences and proclaim a false sense of unity. During this stage,
conflict is hidden from view in order to preserve the sense of a united front. But if a group spends
enough time together, conflict will inevitably erupt onto the main stage. As difference becomes
impossible to ignore, members may try to appropriate other perspectives by claiming them as mere
variations of the dominant view. In our group, for example, English teachers tried to convince Lee that
reading historical texts was no different than reading literary texts. With the formation of community,
differences among participants can be acknowledged and understood. With such recognition comes the
ability to use diverse views to enlarge the understanding of the group as a whole.
Negotiating the essential tension is an inevitable task for teachers’ professional communities.
Initially, members may see attention to student learning and efforts to promote teacher learning as
irreconcilable, locating themselves at one end of the continuum or the other. With time, teachers may
agree to disagree over the relative value of the two poles, with different individuals fanning out in either
direction. In a professional community, however, teachers come to recognize the interrelationships of
teacher and student learning and are able to use their own learning as a resource to delve more deeply
into issues of student learning, curriculum, and teaching.
A final indicator of teachers’ professional community is the willingness of its members to take on the
responsibility for their colleagues’ growth and development. As schools are currently constituted,
teachers’ responsibility is to students, not colleagues. Professional growth is the responsibility of the
individual (with occasional nudges from administrators) rather than the faculty as a whole. Initially,
participation in group discussions is solely a matter of individual volition; if individuals feel like it, they
contribute. If they have pertinent knowledge that could push the thinking of the group forward,
individuals can choose whether or not to contribute. As community develops, individuals begin to
accept responsibility for their colleagues’ continuing growth. Members begin to accept the obligations of
community membership, which include the obligation to press for clarification of ideas and to help
colleagues articulate developing understandings.
Obstacles to Community
Our project also vividly demonstrates that time and resources alone are necessary but insufficient
ingredients for building community. In planning this project, we thought we had satisfied the primary
desiderata that had foiled efforts at creating learning environments. We located our work in the midst of
the workplace, believing that a group that took root in its everyday context had a much greater chance
of survival than one imported from a more distant locale. We tried to steer a middle course between
individual and whole-school change by focusing on the department. We had buy-in across multiple
levels of the system; from the district, principal, department chairs, and teachers themselves. And we
had the luxury of day-long meetings once a month, as well as the more rushed, and typical, after-school
In providing time to reflect, read together, and plan curriculum, we thought we were providing
water to parched travelers, giving teachers the time and space to learn. What we didn’t fully
understand is that in offering these resources, we created an unfamiliar and confusing social forum, one
that demanded a new form of social and intellectual participation (cf. Rogoff, 1994; Rogoff et al., 1995).
Our first lesson as change agents/researchers was that although time and money are obviously
necessary to build community, structural arrangements alone cannot teach people how to interact
differently (cf. Westheimer, 1998). Four months into the project, we worried that our intervention was
destroying what little goodwill had existed between the two departments before we arrived on the
scene. By providing a regular extended forum for teachers to meet, we had inadvertently created a
public stage on which co-workers could enact long standing conflicts, realize their differing
philosophies, and question each others’ credibility as teachers.
In retrospect, we should have known how difficult it would be to change the familiar folkways of
schooling. There are good reasons why privacy persists in the large urban high school. Such norms
shield both outstanding and weaker teachers from the public gaze. Few teachers entered the profession
to work with other adults. The easy retreat to the classroom provides an ever-present safety valve for
pressures that develop with other adults working in crowded and often financially strapped settings.
Given a setting in which teachers do not necessarily share common visions and pedagogical
philosophies, it is far easier to mark papers alone rather than negotiate with other adults who do not
share your beliefs.
In contrast to the idealistic visions sketched in the advocacy literature on teacher community,
bringing teachers together can hurt, as well as help, especially when norms for interacting in a public
sphere are ill defined. Reducing isolation can unleash workplace conflicts that were, ironically, kept in
check by the very isolation in which teachers work. To assume that just because teachers have
experience in creating social organizations among children that they will spontaneously organize
themselves into congenial social units reflects a romanticism that misrepresents the realities of group
dynamics in complex settings such as schools (cf. Hargraves, 1996). Teacher community works most
smoothly when teachers self-select into groups of like-minded colleagues. Longstanding teacher
collectives, such as writing projects or the TLC group in Philadelphia, or the Brookline Consortium in
Massachusetts, most often consist of such self-selected volunteers. Similarly, discussions of school
community often focus on sites such as Central Park East where teachers are chosen based on their
adherence to the clearly articulated mission and philosophy of the school. While such schools may
represent an ideal, they are far from representative of the typical U.S. urban comprehensive school,
composed of teachers with a dizzying mixture of philosophies, educational backgrounds, subject matter
commitments, political and religious beliefs, beliefs about students and learning, as well as varying
commitments to their own continued learning.
We do not believe that our group was particularly contentious; if anything, the culture of the Pacific
Northwest discourages overt conflict and encourages congeniality. If other projects that seek to create
community in the workplace do not encounter the obstacles we describe, we suspect that they either
began with motivated, self-selected volunteers (sometimes described as “going with the goers”) or met
for only a limited amount of time.
Community and Diversity
The ultimate goal of a community of learners in a pluralistic society is to learn to see difference as a
resource rather than a liability. We experienced momentary recognition of this possibility, even as we
struggled to hold on to it. We have consciously refrained from claiming that we attained community, in
part because we believe that community is always in flux, always an attempt by imperfect human
beings to move closer to a utopian goal. Despite our ability to traverse a good stretch of the territory
between a group of teachers and a community of teacher-learners, we remain painfully aware of the
fragility of the group that had come together.
Grant monies and incentives allowed us to put together a diverse group of teachers who, left to their
own devices, would not have chosen to spend time together. The group mirrored the fault lines we have
described—from ethnic, racial, political and religious differences to differences that matter in the context
of school—differences in educational philosophy, subject matter perspectives, pedagogy, and beliefs
about students. As the group began to coalesce, individuals who saw themselves and who were seen by
the group as deviating from the mainstream were pushed to the margins. This process of defining both
a center and a periphery for a group is a natural process in any collective dedicated to maintaining a
diverse membership. But our experience refutes idealistic notions of the community’s desire for
diversity. Community and diversity are in constant tension. As individuals forge a common vision, the
centripetal forces of community pose a constant threat to the centrifugal force of diversity. By its very
nature, community presses for consensus and suppresses dissent. Without constant vigilance,
diversities of many kinds may not survive the formation of community. Left on their own, large groups
filter out from the public space and congregate into smaller groups based on perceived or actual
similarity. Given this constant threat to diversity, much care has to be given to fostering experiences that
bring—and keep—a group together.
Common experiences provide a foundation on which to build community. This helps explain why
team-building exercises—from collective tugs of war to obstacle courses—have become so popular in
the corporate as well as the educational world. We too realized the importance of common experience
as a counterbalance to the centrifugal forces of diversity. But instead of seeking commonality by
trekking through the woods or scaling Mt. Ranier, we located the common experiences for our project in
something much closer to the spirit of schooling and the humanities: we shared common texts.
In the beginning, these texts only highlighted our differences, allowing us to see our disagreements
more clearly. But this was a crucial step that pushed us beyond the limitations of pseudocommunity.
Our collective growth came not because we lost the distinctiveness of the different readings we brought
to Good Scent from a Strange Mountain or No Ordinary Time, Makes Me Wanna Holler, or The Organic
Machine, but because we came to understand these differences more fully.
In the humanities, which seek to expand and enrich understanding of the human condition in all its
multiplicity, a good text is one that can be pushed, pulled, and stretched to illuminate this vast terrain.
As our list of common texts grew, we also began to understand how individuals responded to certain
types of texts or to particular themes. People came to know each other in new ways as a result of our
joint readings. We came to realize that our collective readings were far richer than the reading of any one
member. The process of reading together also wrought changes on our own individual readings done in
the solitude of our own homes. Like processes that go on in successful book clubs or even successful
seminars, we began, in a true Bakhtinian spirit, to hear the “voices” of group members as we read alone.
Our whole way of reading had come to be shaped by our anticipated responses to predicted (and often
predictable!) readings of other group members. To be sure, our reading patterns were continuous with
the predispositions, predilections, and tastes that each individual brought to the group, but at the same
time the communal space of listening, learning, and arguing over meaning stretched us in ways that no
one could have anticipated.
If our analysis about the difficulty of attaining community is correct, that even with substantial
resources, community is difficult to attain and even harder to sustain, we may reasonably ask: Why
bother? Why bother with a costly process that has shallow roots in the culture of schools and which is
destined to fail far more than succeed? We offer several reasons why we think the effort is worth it.
Intellectual Renewal
One of the most important reasons for striving to create workplace community was recognized by
Seymour Sarason years ago. We cannot expect teachers to create a vigorous community of learners
among students if they have no parallel community to nourish themselves. As Sarason (1990) noted, “it
is virtually impossible to create and sustain over time conditions for productive learning for students
when they do not exist for teachers” (p. 45). The opportunity for intellectual community in schools is
rare, where the predominant mode of learning among high school teachers (for those who avail
themselves of it) is some type of summer enrichment experience. But the notion that someone can teach
for nine months and then start to learn for two weeks in the summer is fatally flawed, somewhat akin to
having a marathoner train all week long but eat only on the weekends.
The intellectually barren atmosphere of many schools is evident in many ways. The high turnover
among teachers costs millions of dollars in replacement and training, and the attrition rate is most acute
among the most academically able. The higher a new teacher’s SAT score, the more likely she is to leave
the profession (Murnane, Singer, Willett, Kemple, & Olsen, 1991).
The intellectual ferment of our group offered hope to new and old alike that teaching did not have to
mean intellectual suffocation. Wilma, a student-intern with the group, had her first field experience in
the context of our project. Only when she went to her second-field placement (at a suburban high school
considered to be better than the urban site of the book club) did her experience with the group come into
[At the second placement] I was amazed at faculty lounges and disappointed . . . They’re like any
other work cafeteria or something. People gossip and piss and moan, but they don’t relate on a
professional level. And I don’t know what I thought . . . I thought everyone would be there with
their books and their professional ideas, exchanging high-flown stuff, which is naive. But I guess I
thought that there might be some place in the school, within the school environment, where
teachers would come together. But they don’t, it doesn’t happen in the faculty lounge and it
doesn’t happen at staff meetings,
The intellectual and professional conversation that Wilma refers to here is also evoked by Mary, the
special education teacher, when she reflected on the group’s role in “reinvigorating” her for her last 10
years of teaching:
I thought at first that I wasn’t going to be able to really engage in conversations with other people
about these readings in a comfortable way. So it was a challenge for me, I started out feeling very
unsure about it and ended up liking it a lot, and feeling acknowledged most of the time, and
listened to by my colleagues. So I learned a lot through that experience with the readings
themselves but also the experience of being able to talk about it later . . . When I applied for that
project thinking, well, I have another ten years or so teaching, what can I—this might be
something that will reinvigorate me about what I do. And it has done that through the book
groups, through the connections that I made with my colleagues that I never would have made.
Cultivating professional community within schools can help retain teachers who might otherwise
leave the profession or choose early retirement.
Community as a Venue for New Learning
From Mastery Learning to Cooperative Learning, from Outcome Based Education to Standardsbased
assessment, educational reforms come and go, but one thing will always remain constant: teachers
will always need to find ways to stay abreast of developments in the disciplines they teach. In fields like
history and English new knowledge is being produced all the time. But for many teachers their lifelong
resource for teaching is their undergraduate major, a major that often becomes outdated within a
decade. New teachers’ grand notions of keeping up soon become scaled back and modified by the
culture of schooling. In the context of the urban school, professional development most often means
learning about a new pedagogical innovation or a new way to integrate technology into existing
practice. Within the existing occupational structure of schools there are virtually no venues that have
longstanding and deep roots for learning new content about the subject matter of instruction.
It is difficult for an English teacher educated at the height of New Criticism to confront, through selfstudy,
the challenges of deconstructionism in English. These deep challenges to how and what one was
taught need to be mulled over, confronted, thrashed out, and argued in social settings. Workplace
community becomes the most logical place for this to occur for a wide range of teachers, not just the
most motivated who seek it on their own.
Within our project, teachers learned not only new content related to World War II or to Northwest
history; they learned new ways of thinking about the subject matters of history and literature. For
example, Grace learned the importance of checking the sources of historical documents in evaluating the
credibility of the evidence.30 Although she taught social studies, her own background in history was
thin. The group discussions provided her with a new understanding of how historians develop and
evaluate historical claims.
Similarly, Helen, a first-year language arts teacher who had also earned an endorsement to teach
social studies, began to teach history classes during the second year of this project. Reading Tom Holt’s
Thinking Historically (1990), along with the full-length histories in our group, provided her with a fresh
perspective on what it means to know history.31 As Helen evolved into a teacher of U.S. history over the
course of the project, she used the primary source documents she first encountered in project meetings
in her own classroom and asked students to question the perspective and credibility of the documents.
Her students, she reported, had begun “to think about what that means, to question text” and attributed
her success to the project: “Every single bit of the lessons I’ve done this week have come directly from
discussions about what it means to be a teacher and what it means to think about text that we’ve had in
this group.”
Even when teachers are not necessarily acquiring such important new knowledge, as Grace and
Helen both did, they found value in the opportunity to read texts they had not encountered before in
the company of colleagues. As Patricia, a very experienced English teacher, confessed, it is easy to pay
lip service to the importance of multiple interpretations without really paying attention to the different
interpretations that students bring to text.
As educators we can once again experience the joy of sharing ideas, as well as the discomfort of
voicing ideas with peers. Thus we not only begin to realize anew . . . that there are many
interpretations to reading, but also that feeling of vulnerability that we expect our students to
undergo on a regular basis . . . I have seen many teachers fish for particular answers as though
theirs is the only way to see a piece of literature. This project has made it clear that literature is
open to many interpretations.
Our group allowed teachers to remember how different it is to read a text for the first time, in
contrast to the repeated readings that make up much of a teacher’s life. Rabinowitz (1998) talks about
the difference between first readings of text and reading against memory—repeated readings of the
same text. The gap between English teachers and their students consists, in large part, of this difference.
Students are encountering difficult texts for the first time, while their teachers have read and re-read the
same text many times in their careers. This experience of first readings of text helps teachers remember
what it’s like to puzzle one’s way through a text, forming and reforming interpretations along the way,
working against confusion. Patricia eloquently articulated the value of teachers entering into the
“discomfort zone.”
Going into the discomfort zone helps us understand what our students experience. To say, “I
know this is not easy,” when we’ve not experienced that recently is very different from having
known the difficulty in recent experience.
30 In our third meeting of the project we assembled a series of short primary source documents in history and had teachers
read and discuss them in small groups. Grace became impatient with her group members, who paused to consider the
origin of each text before going on to the next one and suggested that it would be “better to read them all first and then go
back.” Over time Grace came to understand some of the unique features of historical readings of primary source
documents. The “sourcing heuristic,” or the act of checking the source of a document before reading its body,
characterizes mature historical practice (Wineburg, in press).
31 We also benefited immeasurably from having discussions with two of the historians whose books we read. Both
Christopher Browning (1992) and Richard White (1995), whose books we read, came to speak to the group about the craft
of doing history.
Community as Venue for Cultivating Leadership
Leadership is not a personality trait but an attribute self developed in social relationships. In schools,
leadership, at least in a formal sense of titles and administrative impact, consists of possession of the
right credential rather than on the consensual judgment of one’s co-workers. Too often the leader is
someone who has completed a credential program and earned a certificate rather than a person who has
emerged from the social group and earned the right to represent the collective vision.
The existing modes for developing indigenous school leadership tend to fall in the realm of the
administrative and political—from site councils, to site-based management teams, to school councils, etc.
These venues often draw individuals skillful in building coalitions and in negotiating between teacher
unions, parent groups, and district personnel. These are all-important skills needed in large
organizations with multiple constituencies, but there is little uniquely “educational” about them.
Indeed the fundamental concerns of such groups and the collaborations formed in them remain distant
from the core aspects of the work itself: actual classroom teaching and the knowledge, skills, and
dispositions needed to do it well (Bird & Little, 1986).
Within a group such as ours, where the intellectual aspects of teaching were at the core, an
indigenous leadership emerged based on a different set of impulses, or at least a different set of starting
points. Recall that Dave, the experienced English teacher, left the group after three months, only to
return two months later. Dave underwent a transformation from someone ambivalent about his
responsibility to other teachers (but never wavering in his commitment to students) to someone who
emerged as the intellectual lynchpin and spokesperson for the group. For Dave, already deeply
immersed in issues of subject matter and teaching, the group provided a training ground in which he
came to see his own fate as a teacher as bound to the collective capability of his colleagues. In the course
of this project, Dave went from someone who was ambivalent about his responsibility toward his
colleagues’ learning to someone who agreed to take on the responsibility of chairing the English
department when that position became open.
Mary, on the other hand, began her membership in the group at the periphery, both physically and
intellectually. As a special education teacher, her classroom was not in the main building with the
English and Social Studies departments but in a portable adjacent to the main building. Other teachers
knew Mary casually, but she felt unsure of where she might fit in as well as whether she had sufficient
knowledge of history and literature to participate in discussions. For Mary, a thoughtful reader who had
an uncanny ability to connect different and seemingly opposing readings, the group provided a crucible
in which she gained confidence in her leadership abilities in both the intellectual and social realm.
Together Dave and Mary emerged as the two group members responsible for taking the idea of the
McDonnell Project Book Club32 out of the context of two subject matter departments and bringing it to
the entire school. Two months after the Good Scent discussion, these teachers requested and received
time during the monthly faculty meeting run by the principal to present the McDonnell project to the
entire school as a model for how to think about professional development “centrally concerned with
what teachers do and think.” This presentation led to a spin-off book club open to the entire faculty and
staff of the school. As the project neared the end of its funding, group members began to take on
32 The name used to refer to the whole group was the “McDonell Project,” so named because of our funding source.
leadership responsibilities for the school as a whole. Several members of the group helped chair the
professional development committee for the high school and planned professional development days,
modeled after project activities, for the entire faculty. Other project members led the effort to create a
new block schedule in order to provide for extended discussion time with students.
These efforts at effecting change within the school as a whole show the deep nexus between the
growing sense of community within the group and the growing sense of collective moral purpose. A
subgroup within a larger group such as this one (22 teachers in a faculty of 80) can easily be perceived
and can easily come to perceive itself as an exclusive club with special privileges and “goods” not
enjoyed by all. Often subgroups build moats around themselves; the “school within a school” becomes
more than a metaphor but creates the social equivalent of the electronic fence. Rather than paving the
way to larger community, the subcommittee can become an impediment to its development (cf.
Hammerness & Moffett, in press).
In this case, as the group moved toward community, it also became aware of its responsibility to the
larger group; because the group had the luxury of time, it felt a heightened sense of responsibility. Many
of the later group meetings were devoted, in fact, to strategizing for whole school change that would
support the kinds of teaching and learning—for both students and teachers—explored in the project.
Group members, many of them sour on traditional district-mandated staff development, came to see our
less-directive and somewhat circuitous path as the model for adult learning in the workplace, an insight
that countered many people’s predictions at the project’s start. In the words of Steven, the history
department chair:
What I’ve liked, ultimately, is the unanticipated outcome, the ‘aha’ that we might be on to
something here that can be developed into an on-going experience, perhaps a model, for staff
development. I don’t think anybody anticipated that. Many of us came in with high hopes that
perhaps we could hammer out a cross-disciplinary curriculum for 9th-10th or 11th-12th graders. [We]
ran into frustration with that, and perhaps got back more to reality about the difficulties of doing
that. But the unanticipated outcome was, I think, one of the great accomplishments.
What About the Kids?
We argued earlier that professional community must serve simultaneously the interests of both
teachers and students. But what can we say of how teachers’ intellectual and professional community
can benefit students?
Before we turn to more traditional measures of student learning, we first want to address what we
see as effects that may be the most amorphous and difficult to measure, but also the most valuable.
What does it mean for students to spy the same books on their teachers’ desks and hear different
responses to these texts from their teachers? What might it mean for students to see their teachers return
from a day with the project, simmering with thoughts and ideas provoked by the day’s discussion?
What could it mean that students ask to borrow the books their teachers are reading, eager to participate
in the larger conversation? How does one measure the effect on a 16-year-old of seeing an adult get
angry, moved, brought to tears by a book, who cannot stop talking about it, who has conversations with
other teachers about it? While we have slogans galore about helping students become “lifelong
learners,” we provide them with few opportunities to witness, firsthand, what lifelong engagement with
learning might look like among their teachers.
In a youth culture shaped by MTV and Road Rules, there are few venues in which students
encounter adults who care passionately about ideas and books. If high school is supposed to be
preparation for adulthood, there are few opportunities for students to see adults engaged in the core
work of the humanities—reading and discussing text. The “gentle inquisitions” (Eeds & Wells, 1989;
Marshall, Smagorinsky, & Smith, 1995) about literature that students experience in the bulk of English
classes are hardly an advertisement for lifelong engagement with books and ideas.
Cultivating communities of learners among teachers can reculturate high schools, creating a space
where ideas matter to teachers and to students. Students can observe teachers engaging in the same
activities—reading and discussing text—that occupy so much classroom time. When Patricia reminded
her students to provide critical evaluations of books in their reports and “not a piece of fan mail,” one
student teased her, “Just like you Ms. T, with your books for your McDonnell project.” Perhaps even
more importantly, they can see adults argue over text, disagreeing over interpretations or responses to
characters. If the sources of these disagreements can be made explicit to students, perhaps they can
begin to understand why history or literature can differ from one class to the next, that differences
among teachers are not simply idiosyncratic differences—Mrs. X likes us to focus just on the text, while
Mr. Y wants us to talk about our own responses—but rather differences that may be grounded in
different disciplinary traditions.
There are clearly other potential benefits for students. The premise of the model addresses the
relationship between teachers’ opportunities to engage in rich discourse about history and literature and
their own ability to provide similar opportunities for students. One way of capturing such benefits
would be to look closely at the nature of discussions in teachers’ classrooms over time; to what extent
are changes in the teachers’ book club reflected in changes in the classroom? How do questions raised in
the teachers’ group find their way into the classroom? How do new ways of thinking about history or
literature, first explored among teachers, begin to manifest themselves in curricular or instructional
change in the classroom?
We do not have data that would answer these questions, although we hope that subsequent design
experiments might build the collection of such data into their designs. Researchers would need to be
prepared to wrestle with issues of the appropriate time frame for looking at classroom changes and the
kinds of measures that might capture the changes that matter in the teaching of the humanities.
Though the focus of our project was designed to look intentionally at teacher learning in the context
of community formation, we could not ignore how the project affected the school’s humanities
curriculum. Project books found their way into the curriculum for students. New courses, or units
within courses, were offered that explored interdisciplinary links between history and literature.
Guiding questions discussed by the group appeared on teachers’ walls and became a part of some
teachers’ instruction. Some teachers, including Helen who was described earlier, reported changes in
their instruction that they attributed to the project.33
33 The work of this project found its way into the school through a number of different channels. Several of the texts we had read
as a group made their way into the formal curriculum, including the novel Jasmine, as well as the primary source documents for
the Battle of Lexington. In addition, two of the teachers developed an interdisciplinary unit on Vietnam, based, in part on the
work of our project, and a history and a language arts teacher coordinated their 11th grade curricula. Two of our members
decided to team-teach a humanities course as a result of their interactions on this project; both thought it unlikely they would
have volunteered to teach together had it not been for this common experience. The project affected instruction, as well as
curriculum. Several of the teachers attempted to integrate the guiding questions we refer to here into their teaching. Other
teachers reported trying to foster the kinds of discussions we had as a group in their classrooms.
Dewey’s Dream
There are many reasons to cultivate teachers’ professional community—from providing
opportunities for teacher learning to enriching the possibilities for student learning, from retaining
talented teachers to enabling teachers to work together toward a common goal. We believe that local
professional communities can help achieve these goals. But there is also a larger imperative. A
democratic society such as ours rests upon the premise that individual voices are important, that
different perspectives can be productive, and that ultimately the wisdom of the collective exceeds the
wisdom of any individual. But in a pluralistic society such as ours, democracy will also involve
wrestling with the fault lines that threaten to divide us. From Hamilton’s factions to the politics of
identity, the unity envisioned by e pluribas unum has proved difficult to achieve.
If public schools are indeed the cornerstones of a democracy, charged with preparing future citizens
with the skills and sensibilities required to participate in a democracy (cf. Dewey, 1923), then the
struggles of community formation take on a larger meaning. If teachers themselves cannot reclaim a
civil discourse and an appreciation and recognition of diverse voices, how can they prepare students to
enter a pluralistic world as citizens? If we are unable to broker the differences that divide us, how can
we tell students to do otherwise? Of all the habits of mind modeled in schools, the habit of working to
understand others, of striving to make sense of differences, of extending to others the assumption of
good faith, of working toward the enlarged understanding of the group—in short, the pursuit of
community may be the most important. In an era of narrow academic standards and accountability, it is
all too easy to forget that the ultimate accountability of schools is to the sustenance of a democratic
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Center Affiliates
American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education American Association of School Administrators
American Federation of Teachers Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Council for Chief State School Officers International Reading Association
National Alliance of Business National Association of Elementary School Principals
National Association of Secondary School Principals National Association of State Boards of Education
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards National Conference of State Legislatures
National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education National Council for the Social Studies
National Council of Teachers of English National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
National Education Association National Governors’ Association
National School Boards Association National Science Teachers Association
National Staff Development Council National Urban Coalition
National Urban League Teachers Union Reform Network
Center Team
Principal Investigators and Co-Principal Investigators
Michael Knapp, Center Director
James Banks
Margaret Plecki
Sheila Valencia
Linda Darling-Hammond
Pamela Grossman
Milbrey McLaughlin
Joan Talbert
Deborah Loewenberg Ball
David Cohen
Edward Silver
Thomas Corcoran
Richard Ingersoll
Researchers at Other Institutions
Barnett Berry, University of North Carolina
David Monk, Pennsylvania State University
Jon Snyder, University of California at Santa Barbara
Judy Swanson, Education Matters, Inc.
Suzanne Wilson, Michigan State University
Contact Information
Michael S. Knapp, Center Director
Miller Hall M201, College of Education
University of Washington, Box 353600
Seattle, WA 98195-3600
email: mknapp@u.washington.edu
Michele C. Ferguson, Center Manager
Miller Hall 203C, College of Education
University of Washington, Box 353600
Seattle, WA 98195-3600
Phone: (206) 221-4114
FAX: (206) 616-6762
email: ctpmail@u.washington.edu
Sally Brown, Communications Director
Miller Hall 404B, College of Education
University of Washington, Box 353600
Seattle, WA 98195-3600
Phone: (206) 543-5319
FAX: (206) 616-6762
email: salbrown@u.washington.edu
Web Address
CTP Occasional Papers
The Center’s Occasional Paper Series address topics that are timely and intimately connected to the Center’s agenda.
Papers in the series—some by Center members, others by researchers elsewhere —include conceptual work, research
syntheses, discussions of policy issues, and reports of empirical studies undertaken under other auspices. We
warmly encourage feedback on these documents to help us refine them in preparation for final reports of our research.
Along with CTP Research Reports, Working Papers, and Policy Briefs, these papers are available for download from
the Center’s website: www.ctpweb.org