Notwithstanding the limitations, what is important is not so much a realized end, but the processes unleashed in the creation of a viable learning environment for students and tutors. This program had struggled valiantly, although not always successfully in the areas of portfolio construction, qualitative assessment, and in the linkage of educational development with social services support. It achieved more success in the creation of its various in-house manuscripts that provided tangible, consumable products, which students and tutors could and often did incorporate into their lessons, as evident following representative student statement on the value of student-generated narratives:
It motivates you, you know? It makes you want to keep going and you feel that some way you’re going to learn something for yourself. Sometimes you don’t think you can learn until you see other people do it. So that motivates you a little bit. Well, a lot, I might say, a lot (Demetrion and Gruner, 1995, p. 60).
Whatever its limitations in achieving organizational-wide visibility, this imaginative vision of the Reading Center as an adult literacy laboratory/research was the “moving force” in my own practice that grounded the direction as well as my own case-study research. In terms of research, such sites as the Reading Center can provide not only rich ethnographic material for academic scholars, although that remains important itself and largely untapped throughout much of the field. An in-depth exploration of sites like the Center by practitioners could also contribute toward a reconstruction of theory wherein site-based experience becomes the interpretive vehicle of new ideas rather than merely an exemplification of existing concepts canonized by the academy (Cochran-Smith and Lytle 1993). By 1996 such a potential was a far cry from any such realization although our prototypical efforts have left a roadmap for others to build upon (Lestz, Demetrion, and Smith, 1994; Demetrion, 1994; Demetrion and Gruner, 1995).
The challenge for any laboratory/research center engaged in daily programming is to simultaneously encourage sustained intellectual activity while also paying close attention to the dynamics of the daily learning environment for the purpose of improving practice. This is a tall order, in that scholarship and practice do not necessarily always converge even as a quest for their joining needs to be a prevailing objective in such an environment. Moreover, it is theoretically possible to establish such an environment, notwithstanding the ambiguities that we had not been able to untangle in our limited effort. Such work would require a strong commitment to practice and academic scholarship in a setting where the distance between them is often very difficult to cross.
However, the grounds to establish such work would require highly nuanced attention and sustained commitment over some reasonable period of time to the laboratory/research model. Given the persistence of such tensions even in the best of conditions, much would have been required to establish a Dewey-like laboratory/research center that I envisioned. In such an environment it would be as inappropriate to give short shrift to theoretical work for the sake of immediate gains in practice, as it would be to shun the daily work at the Center for the sake of constructing, perhaps, some grand theoretical design. Both theorists and practitioners need to pursue the logical trajectories of their reasoning even as they search for common ground in the quest to build new praxeological space. This is the fundamental challenge of teacher research at its best with one leg in academic scholarship and the other in the daily exigencies of ongoing practice (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993), which such an environment would foster if well designed and effectively run.
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