Research Spotlight: Angela Kohnen

Q & A with Angela Kohnen, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the School of Teaching and Learning

What basic questions does your research seek to answer?

I am very interested in understanding the teaching of writing and the role of writing in classrooms across the curriculum, K-12. Some of the questions I hope to answer include: how do teachers across the curriculum learn to incorporate writing into their classrooms? What are the most effective ways to prepare teachers to teach writing? How does the teaching of writing impact student and teacher identity?

We are in an interesting place when it comes to writing instruction. The Common Core State Standards have brought more attention to writing instruction than we’ve had for years, but the standardized writing tests have also created a lot of pressure. In some places, we see more formulaic instruction rather than authentic writing, which I find troubling.

What makes your work interesting?

Everything! I love my work. I feel very privileged that I get to ask interesting questions, explore the answers, and write about all of this for a living. Writing and writing instruction can be very powerful. I have worked with teachers in a wide range of classrooms, including elementary, secondary English, science, welding, construction, and culinary arts, and in each context we have been able to find ways that writing enhances the curriculum and helps students develop into the kind of people the teachers were hoping they would become. It isn’t always easy, but that’s also what makes the work interesting. For example, coming to understand how writing can help students become welders—learn to think like welders and enact the processes of welding—that’s fascinating! I’m most engaged when I am working in fields and places where I can learn too.

What are you currently working on?

My colleagues in English Education and I are beginning a long-term study on how teachers think about and enact their role as writing teachers. We hope to work with our secondary English Education students from the time they begin our program into their first years in the field to understand how they make sense of the competing demands they face as teachers of writing. Each day, in each lesson, teachers are influenced by so many different factors: the way they were taught themselves; the curriculum they’ve been given or are creating; their students’ expectations and preparation; standardized testing; and, we hope, what they learn in a teacher preparation program. How that all plays out in their actual instruction is something we want to understand more.

I am also continuing work with colleagues at the University of Missouri-St. Louis on the teaching of nonfiction writing at the elementary level, something emphasized in the Common Core State Standards. We see this attention to nonfiction writing as an opportunity to engage students in authentic questions and information seeking—to really foster student curiosity, something that notoriously diminishes as students move through school.