Back to the Roots: A Tribute to Cathy Fleischer, PhD.

Posted on July 19, 2015


There is one teacher in my life who has played a tremendous role in my education, for she has been my teacher for over 20 years. When I was an undergrad in English Education at Eastern Michigan University, I had the great good fortune to have been scheduled into an English Methods class taught by Cathy Fleischer. It was around 1990, and it was the single most influential event of my college career. It was Cathy who introduced me to Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle and Workshop methodology, which has been at the center of my practice throughout my career.  From Atwell’s book and from my experience in Cathy’s Methods class, I learned about three key ingredients that are essential for success as readers and writers: time, ownership, and response. Time: to write, to revise, to conference, to edit, to perfect a piece of writing; ownership: of ideas, of style, of conventions; and response: from peers, from the teacher, and from a wider audience; these three aspects of writing instruction have been at the center of my classroom practice, and have kept me grounded when creating lessons. For that, I–and a generation of students–have Cathy to thank.

EMWP Reunion 2012

lisa, Dave Kangas, Cathy Fleischer, EMWP Reunion 2012

Another aspect of my classroom practice that bears the hallmark of Cathy’s influence is that of teacher research. I have no way of knowing exactly what was said about teacher research in her classroom so long ago, but I do know that I learned to collect copies of student work during each school year and to analyze later to learn about teaching and learning. Long before the buzzword “data-driven” was on the tip of every education reformer’s tongue, my lessons were data-driven, as I’ve spent every summer analyzing student work with a goal of improving instruction. Because of her influence as a researcher, I have an archive of student work that goes back to my student teaching days. I keep it in binders and hanging file folders in my basement, and it is a tangible record of mine and my students’ attempts to grow as readers, writers, thinkers, citizens, and human beings. The Archive is a rich library of thinking and writing, where I can see the development of myself as a teacher and scholar as well as the growth and development of a generation of student writers. In fact, The Archive holds artifacts created by some of the parents of my current students. Because I learned to pursue continuous professional development from Cathy, I can delve into The Archive for a particular area of literacy and find articles I’ve read, research I’ve done, interviews I’ve conducted, presentations I’ve made, and articles I’ve written–and I am now begun mining that material as a writer. In addition, I have student examples of nearly every lesson I’ve taught. The Archive now extends into cyber-space, and it is MUCH easier to store an artifact as a link to a website than hauling it around in a binder! I look forward to discovering forgotten gems that spark stories for this memoir/blog project.

In the summer of 2014, like the summers before, I was analyzing data, but this time it wasn’t only from the previous year. This time I was looking back at twenty years. Our teacher research group met in the library at EMU to work on our research. Everyone in our group was working on his or her own research question. The room was quiet as we were writing, thinking, and analyzing data. I began to reflect on what a tremendous influence Cathy has been on my work, and I got curious about some things, so I asked her a few questions about her background.

le: When did you do National Writing Project summer institute?

CF: I did a version of it when I was in my MA program…1980.

le: How did you get started with National Writing Project?

CF: I didn’t really get started with it until I came to EMU and Russ Larson asked me to re-vitalize the Eastern Michigan Writing Project.  It was around the time that federal funding came in, so it made a lot of sense to get it going.  I came to EMU in 1990 and started almost immediately on relaunching our site.

le: How has National Writing Project influenced your teaching?

CF: The whole idea of teacher as writer was huge for me.  I realized that I had to write with my students and I had to teach my students to also be writers if they were going to be effective teachers.  I also learned about teachers teaching each other, and realized that if you could help teachers start to see themselves as professionals (how I was treated in my own stint in high school teaching—I was able to write curriculum, lead workshops, etc., as a very young teacher), they would feel like professionals their whole careers—always learning, always changing, always being the best they could be!

le: Looking back, I realize that your English Methods course was very much like an NWP workshop: I remember that we had readings and discussions; we had to do demos and give feedback to each other. You introduced us to Nancie Atwell. What might you have shared with us about teacher research? What might you have been working on at that time?

CF: It’s hard to remember what I did when, but I taught Teacher Research from the beginning—one semester I even had a group that worked together for the next year on a “Teacher Researchers from the Start” kind of thing.

Since we both had other work to do, I didn’t ask more questions, but it was interesting for me to learn a little bit more about Cathy’s journey as a teacher, researcher, and writer–to see the intersections of chance and circumstance that brought us–her, to teach, and me, to learn–to EMU at the same time and the cascade of events that are the results of our meeting.

“Teacher Researcher from the Start”: that’s me! Cathy has had such an enormous impact on my career and on the lives of all the writers I’ve worked with over the years. She taught me to trust the writing process–for myself and for my students, and our lives are so much richer because of her dedication to excellence in English Education. I could never thank her enough for her incredible teaching, mentoring, researching, writing, and presenting; she is the embodiment of a lifelong learner, and her passion for our profession and the people in it never wanes. This post is a tiny gesture of appreciation for my teacher, colleague, and friend, Dr. Cathy Fleischer. Although, truth be told, every piece I write about teaching is evidence of her influence and a gesture of appreciation. Thank you, Cathy!

Fortunately, even if you can’t take a class with Cathy, you can learn from her. Check out her books, including Teachers Organizing for ChangeWriting Outside Your Comfort Zone: Helping Your Students Navigate Unfamiliar Genres (co-authored with Sarah Andrew-Vaughan), and her most recent title, Reading & Writing & Teens: A Parent’s Guide to Adolescent Literacy.

You can find out more about our teacher research group on our Literacy and Learning Exchange blog: Finding Commonalities and Making Change through Teacher Research: A Conversation with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project Teacher Research Group