What’s the priority?

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It’s Week 4 of the fall semester, and just like every other fall semester of my doctoral studies, Week 4 is the “holy shit, I have a lot of work to do this semester” week. For some reason, it’s always Week 4 where this hits me, and this makes sense. It takes a couple weeks to get out of summer mode which is still productive but let’s be real, far more relaxed. It takes a couple weeks to start making commitments for the next few weeks ahead, a couple more for the first assignments and deadlines to come in, and then…you’re in Week 4 and you realize that you are in deep. Whenever I have gotten overwhelmed in the past, I always try to prioritize. Trouble is, everything is a top priority right now.

Top Priority: Looking for jobs. Since I have previously mentioned numerous times that I am now working without a net this year, you would think trying to find a net would be my most top priority at the moment. Applying for academic jobs is surely far more complex than anything I’ve done before to get a job. I need to prepare a cover letter that brags about how awesome I am in the shortest amount of words possible, a CV that certainly has holes in it that I’m hoping job interviewers overlook (that publications section certainly is thin…maybe that should be a priority…), letters of recommendation from my committee, transcripts (even from my undergrad days at CMU!), and a teaching statement. Surprisingly, I have never written in words what I believe about teaching. I’ve certainly espoused it enough to my friends and family, but writing it? That could take a while. As of now there are three jobs in West Michigan that I am applying for, one even here in Holland at Hope College (2 others at GVSU).  I am excited about job possibilities in this area, so this needs to be top priority. Or should it be…

Top Priority: My dissertation. Hmmmm. Perhaps this should be top priority, especially considering  that I have now met my students that I will be studying and I really want to put my best effort into planning a great learning experience for them. This week I interviewed them, assessed them on their knowledge, talked to their teacher about what they are like and what they know and I am really excited to give them the experience of One Hen. I’m beginning to now picture how chapters of my dissertation could go. I’m getting excited to get more into my writing. So, I guess this should be top priority. Or should it be…

Top Priority: Teaching. The good part about Week 4 is that it’s the week where my classes really start to gel. Last week we went to the historical museum together, and nothing bonds a class like a successful field trip to a fun place like a historical museum. I realize this sounds like sarcasm but it really isn’t. The Michigan Historical Center is a great place to learn Michigan history, it’s very interactive and well done, and my students loved it last year too. When we have the experience of going there together, and then have a class where we start to talk about students’ needs and learner diversity and we discover we have a common bond of caring about students…then it all clicks. I had some great classes this week and I want to continue my commitment to these future teachers. So maybe this should be a top priority. Or perhaps it’s…

My husband? My friends? My fantasy football teams? (Both 2-0 so far this season, thanks!) All of those are top priorities too. Turns out, everything is.  Sigh. Well, in the words of Academic Tim Gunn:


Setting the context

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It has been 6 days of me visiting my dissertation school (at some point I’ll need to come up with pseudonyms for the school, teacher, and students; not only for this blog but for my paper in general). Even though I only go for about a half a day, I am already getting to know my students a little. I know which students are outgoing, which are shy, which ones rip loud farts for others to laugh at, which girls “like” which boys, which ones take pride in their fashion sense, and which ones give me hugs when I arrive versus which ones give me handshakes or fist bumps. I also am starting to learn a bit more about them academically–like which students work quickly and which ones don’t. I’m learning the students who, during writing workshop, can fill up page after page of a great story and which ones well, rip farts for everyone to laugh at instead of writing.

My committee posed an interesting question at last week’s meeting: How will I present my results of this study? In other words: What kind of story do I want to tell?  If I can have an idea about this from the outset, then I can collect the data that fits with the story I want to tell. As I am wrestling with this question now, I see it like this: I could tell the story of the class in general (“students learned this…”, “students thought this…”). This would allow me to really talk to anyone in the class and look at whatever data I choose. Another option is to tell the story of specific students and their specific journey through the One Hen unit. This would probably mean I only focus on a select few students (5-6 perhaps) and any data not pertaining to these students’ stories either get woven in some other way or ignored for the sake of this study. I wonder what is a more compelling read? I asked Mike this question and he said he thought knowing individual stories would be more interesting to read, but he pointed out that one can’ t know their stories without setting the context–which may then involve talking about the class as a whole. So in sense–he thinks both are interesting. Even though I’m writing a dissertation, not an entertainment piece, it’s still important to me that this is readable and accessible and that my voice comes through. I feel I might be more successful telling individual stories, so this is where I am leaning.

Of course there is another story here–the teacher’s. And of course she is very much responsible for the context in which these students learned. For example, I learned that she uses natural light and floor lamps as much as possible–no overhead florescents if she can help it. She also has books literally in every nook and cranny in this room (which I LOVE), as well as a collection of dirt from all over the world, displayed in jars all around the classroom (I brought her a vial from Budapest to add to the collection).  She also has set up an environment of teamwork in the class—the students work in “learning clubs.” So far, her social studies instruction as been about teaching the students about what she calls “life skills”– how to focus, work to your best potential, help each other, be responsible, etc. Her perspective is incredibly important here too.

And I suppose my story is important as well– what I bring to the classroom and what I hope to teach them with One Hen. I have this blog to capture my story, but I have to figure out where (and how and if) I fit in to my paper as well.

And it begins…

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After all of the excitement of travelling to Europe and back, starting my first day of TE 401, MSU vs. Boise St. football, and a Labor Day wedding, the first day of school for K-12 public education in Michigan seemed to arrive with little fanfare. It wasn’t until I was getting ready in the morning on Tuesday that I realized that I was going to my dissertation school and meeting the students that I will be working with to collect my data. It seemed to be such an afterthought to my busy August that I got nervous that  I was under-prepared somehow.

Turns out, I had forgotten that not a lot of learning (other than socialization and classroom culture) happens on the first day of school. We played a name game so I can remember everyone’s names (and I have them down now–remembering names is my specialty), and I helped them fill out their agendas and learn the signing in for hot or cold lunch (and really, all but 1 took hot lunch because it’s “free and reduced”), and gave a lot of handshakes and hugs. I had also forgotten how crazy the first day of school is–it’s been 4 years since I had a K-12 teacher version. We had a kid in the wrong room, some leave, some enter, confusion about which special class they had…all typical but I was exhausted. Day 2 was much easier–I was even able to explain to them why I was there and what we would be working on together over the next few months. It is really real now.

Believe it or not, after my first day with them I wasn’t finished. I left at noon to head to East Lansing for another meeting about my proposal. I reviewed all of the changes I had made over the summer with The Committee and they were really positive about my work. Describing all that I did this summer out loud made me realize that I actually did get a lot accomplished, and seemingly with a clear focus. I felt the most proud of myself about this–in the past, working at NHA had caused my brain to be split-focused and although that is feasibly possible to get through that way, I am glad I chose not to continue on like that. It was good validation that, so far, it appears that I have made the right choice by leaving NHA. These kiddos will need my undivided attention and I want to do their work, thoughts, and opinions justice in my writing by doing the best that I can.

The classroom teacher I’m working with had this posted by her desk and it made me smile:

I am going to practice being awesome this semester for sure. And I’m beginning it with a positive attitude and a readiness to move forward…


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