How to Be Critical

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I just finished writing the 5th chapter of my dissertation where I discuss the pros and cons of teaching One Hen from the teacher perspective. Of course, since I was one of the teachers I’m relying a lot on my own reflections as data. (And, to think, my students hate writing reflections! They are useful!). The regular classroom teacher, Lynn, also has a perspective on the unit, and I interviewed her twice (once at the beginning and once at the end).  When I write about the “cons” of the One Hen unit, I really need to take a look at what we did in practice or adjustments we made to the unit itself that didn’t work out so well.  I am very used to looking at my own practice or my own lesson planning and reflecting on what went well and what didn’t. I am my own toughest critic when it comes to teaching. But critiquing someone else…that’s a different story.

But wait, one might say, I also teach teachers. Doesn’t that mean I have to critique other people? I do, but it’s different. It’s easy critiquing a student, they have taken a class seeking feedback. They are seeking new learning and someone to prompt THEM to look at their own teaching critically. Not necessarily to critique them. And most of my students aren’t even teachers yet, so I don’t have any qualms critiquing their practice because they are just developing their practices. In my dissertation, things are different…

Lynn is a veteran teacher who began her education career when I was still listening to Alanis Morissette in my basement. She has had so much more experience than I have. And we share the same approach to social studies education and a lot of the same beliefs about education in general. So when I have to reflect on her practice as well as mine to critique, it’s more difficult. For example, Lynn made a lot of adjustment to my original design of the One Hen unit. I am not so proud that I don’t want teachers to make revisions. In fact, I consulted several teachers when writing the unit. And I would assume teachers would need to adapt any unit to fit the needs of their specific students. And Lynn made several adjustments to the unit that I think made the unit a lot better, including field trips and beefing up the math standards and activities.

However, there were some choices that Lynn made adjusting the unit and implementing it that I wouldn’t have done. For example, Lynn wanted to have the students sell their products for a long time, whereas the original design of the unit is 4-5 days tops. In the end, Lynn got her way–the students sold their products for 4 WEEKS, not days. I rolled with it (she is the veteran), but looking back, I see that it wasn’t the best decision. The students “forgot” what they were selling for, there was a huge gap between instruction and the final assessment (that’s never good), and the students’ engagement with the project diminished. Even fun things stop being fun when they become routine. So, looking back, I think I was right. So how do I write about that?

I can’t just rip Lynn apart for this decision. It was made with good intentions; after all, the kids selling for longer meant they made more money. And Lynn is a human whom I happen to like very much. Nobody wants to read about how someone else questioned their professional decision-making. And really can I even judge what was the “right” decision as far as time? It’s complicated. I know that when I was teaching I could have taken more time on certain subjects to let students explore. This is something I have come into thinking more now that I have left the classroom than in actual practice. I, like many other teachers, faced the issue of too-much-to-cover-not-enough-time. Not mention, Lynn has expressed a desire to read my dissertation. What if she reads it and is offended by what I wrote?

At the moment, I am treading lightly with wording and hoping my message get across…

Making Sense of It All

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Today I taught my intern class and the scheduled syllabus topic was “Teaching Economics.” Of course, this is the time in the course where I become a bit self-indulgent and talk about my own research for a while. When this typically comes up with my seniors, I talk about what I believe to be true–that economics can be taught for civic engagement like any other discipline of social studies, that students typically considered “at-risk” or “too young” to care about global issues can actually discuss issues intelligently, that project-based learning and integrated curriculum can help students learn, can be more engaging for teachers and students, but also has its drawbacks. Before, I could only talk about what I believed to be true. Now that my data collection is complete, I can actually start finding evidence to back up what I believed to be true. Of course, what is “true” is relative to one’s experience. But that’s just it–now I have data to start forming stories about the students’ and teacher’s experience.

I have a lot of data and it took me a while before I even tried to tackle what the data were telling me. I started with the students first. I had their assessments they took, the interviews I did with 10 of them, and all of the work they completed over the course of our time together. Plus, I had all of my notes from teaching as well! I started with the assessments first and once I had graded them according to a rubric that I developed, Mike helped me make a very nice graphic to really understand what the students had learned about economics. I am so glad my husband is an Excel Freaking Master. It takes a village to write a dissertation apparently:



So perhaps this makes no sense to anyone else but me, but the numbers across the top are the questions on the assessment and reading the cells vertically shows all of the students and how they performed. He even color-coded everything (we ARE soul mates!) to represent at a glance which questions had huge gains for certain students from pre- to post-test. The numbers in the column on the far right represent the gains overall from pre- to post-test. Green is good. Red is bad. All of this took him about 15 minutes and it would have taken me days. Clearly, overall there is growth. There’s a lot of yellow, but a lot of shades of green as well. These results helped me decide which economic concepts to write about (the darkest green ones perhaps?) and which students to write about (dark green but also dark red–what might have happened there?).

Then, I tackled the interviews.  In another “village” moment, I had an undergrad save me a crap-ton of time by transcribing my interviews. So she had the fun task of listening to my lovely voice on tape (that must have been torture for her) and typing literally every word that was said. So while I was in Hawaii soaking up the sun, she was tediously listening to every “um” and “like.”  Don’t worry, she was paid handsomely for this slave labor.  Her work allowed me to copy, paste, and sort interview quotes into categories I had made according to assessment results, like “Understands revenue, cost, profit relationship”, “Understanding of loans.”  And some that were not evident from the assessment like “Values teamwork”, and “Awareness of Global Issues.”

Right now, my biggest challenge is writing my “methods” chapter. This is where I have to write, in detail, the process I went through to make sense of the data. I attempted to write this chapter once earlier this fall, before I had actually figured out a system and it turned out to be quite the mess of verb tense, and not as specific as it will be when I give it another go now. It was difficult to write about something that, at that present time, was in the future, but to write it as past tense. Yikes.

From this, I am starting to piece together the story. I think I can now make claims about what I found and use the data for evidence. I am even going to highlight 5 students and tell their stories in greater detail as sort of expanded examples of my findings. I am really excited about this part– I get to relive the experience. It’s like this quote by Anais Nin:

“We write to taste live twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

Cabin Fever

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It had been snowing non-stop here since Sunday night and it finally let up this morning. This weather caused me a lot of anxiety and a few firsts, all related. My first time in the ditch on the side of the highway, resulting in my first 911 call ever. (I am fine, my car is fine, no worries). My first time being late for a class I teach and the first time I ever “cancelled” class. After the ditch I managed to make it to campus, albeit very late; so today I just didn’t take any chances and turned my face-to-face class into an online one. This resulted in me basically being shut in my house until I decided to venture out to shovel the driveway today once the sun came out.

winter picThis is the view of my street from my office. I usually don’t take the time to appreciate the beauty of snow, considering I hate it so much, but I admit this looks lovely despite throwing off my schedule for the entire week.

Being snowed in has given me time to work, but I haven’t had as much time for dissertation work as I would like. For one, teaching 3 classes certainly keeps me busy. But the biggest thing I have been preparing for is my 2-day interview at CMU next week. I am so beyond excited to head back to my alma mater, actually teach a class there in a beautiful new ed building, and spend time talking to professors there, one of which–Norma Bailey– I actually have respected and admired since I had her in 1999 as a freshman. I also have a phone interview with UM-Flint in a couple weeks as well.

However, I go back and forth from thinking I have done nothing on my dissertation (which is not entirely true) and I am running out of time, to thinking that I have plenty of time and I’m right on track. I did set a goal for myself to be done analyzing my data by the end of January, so this has been my singular focus. I doubt this is going to happen in a week, but I have done some initial analysis right after collecting the data. Now I just need to go through my interview responses in detail to code them and enter in the assessment scores into an Excel document so I can see changes between the pre-and post-test. Nonetheless, that little counter on the side of this blog counting down how many months  have left to go is a little anxiety-inducing. In February, I want to write up my findings about the student interviews and assessments. I feel like once the findings chapters get started, then I’ll really be “writing” my dissertation.

Or maybe I’ll get to the defense and still not really believe it is “real.” A lot of things about my life don’t seem “real”– am I doing enough work that someone working on their dissertation is really supposed to do? Am I really interviewing for a professor job a my “second home” CMU? The other night Mike and I discussed the possibility of selling our house. Are we really to that stage? I guess so. My life is constantly surprising me right now, which is pretty amazing since I spend most of it locked in my office writing like J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee or some other reclusive writer. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll seek coffee outside of the house and see what happens.

Time is money

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I am beginning to prepare for one of my upcoming presentations, and my advisor suggested that I start t write up my “findings.”  The One Hen unit at Lanley Elementary (Found a pseudonym! Bonus nerd points if anyone knows who “Lanley” is) is not even close to being over, but I do already have some ideas of what I want to write about and Anne-Lise suggested that I write these up as initial findings so that I have something to talk about at this presentation and any future job interviews beyond just what my study IS. SO, I set out to do that this week and I learned a few lessons:

1. This is going to take a long time to do. I knew that I need to study all of the work I have collected as well as all of the memos I have been writing in great detail, but even doing just a surface level look at these things took a while.

2. I have a lot to write about. This is good! And I think I will have even more to write about, but again this will take more time.

3. My defense could be as close as 6 months away, and I have a lot to do.

All of these lessons center around time. I need time. I need to stop collecting data soon and start writing. I made a goal for myself to end my regular time at Lanley on Nov 30. This gives me Dec, Jan, Feb, March, & April to write– 5 months. Maybe 4 if I decide I want to push myself. I need more time.

This week, to attempt to solve this issue, I applied for the Dissertation Completion Fellowship at MSU’s Graduate School. This fellowship would allow me to only teach 1 class at MSU next semester instead of 2. The class I would be left teaching only meets 10 times, so that would cut down on my prep time and driving time during the crucial writing months of Feb & Mar. The DCF would also pay me more money than I would have made teaching that extra class to make up for it, so that would be very nice.  I also am applying this week for the Graduate Research Enhancement Award, which is for a smaller amount of money to reimburse me for all of the Borax and beads I bought last week and to pay someone to transcribe my interviews for me.  That is another detail outlined in Lesson #1 above that I would love to pass off to someone else. Both awards would help significantly, so we’ll see what happens. I should know by the end of the semester on both.

Next week, I head to Seattle to present these initial findings. More to come about this fun trip…

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.

Talk It Out

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In my office, there is a giant whiteboard. I do love everything digital, trust me. I am currently sitting near my laptop, my iPhone, my iPad, and the Steve Jobs biography (fitting, right?). I read articles and books on my iPad when I can, I take notes and organize on OneNote, my life is run by Google Calendar…yet, nothing beats writing on a good old-fashioned whiteboard. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but that Expo marker smell gets my brain working. As I’ve been reading, I’ve been jotting down things on my board like so:Image

(Yes, I move right to left on the board, for no apparent reason. Don’t judge.) This morning, I just sat and stared at it for a while and then started to talk out loud to myself about what was up there and how it related to my “too-much-data-not-enough-focus” problem. Then my random talking started to make sense. Then Anne-Lise called and I talked about it with her. I talked about the whiteboard, about things that Bruce said in our phone call, and then… things didn’t sound so overwhelming anymore. In fact, it started to sound like something important was coming out of that whiteboard mess. I then turned to my digital notes and my digital calendar and started to make a plan. A do-able plan.

I need to do some more talking to myself to figure this out, but I think I might have a way to focus my data issues. And I owe it all to the whiteboard and the Expo marker smell. There are some things that Apple products can’t replicate.

The best part about talking to myself, or even talking on the phone, is that my cat Milhouse thinks I’m talking to him. So, he ends up getting in my lap, meowing, generally trying to get in on the “conversation”. Once I’m no longer talking, he goes back to his usual spot in my office:


So, I guess i’m not completely talking to myself…

Intellectual Conversations

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This has been a great first week working from home. I have done a lot of thinking about my data analysis problem, and although I have not figured it out, I feel like I am a bit closer. I’ve been reading about case study methodology (Exciting right? To balance this, I’ve also been reading Ready Player One, a sci-fi, dystopian, pop culture obsessed, awesome novel as well as the Steve Jobs biography which I can sum up in three words: He’s an ass.)

The case study articles have helped me see that (surprise, surprise) I need some more focus and clarity. I need to find a theory that is at the heart of my study and see if the “case school” I’m working with is an example of that theory or not. Find a theoretical framework: easier said than done.

I also chatted with Bruce VanSledright over Skype on Tuesday, and I hope I didn’t come across as a complete moron. He said he would be happy to talk with me again, so I take that as a sign that I didn’t disappoint him too much. He said the same thing– that I need to focus on the 3-5 economic concepts I want to study, and 3-5 elements of student engagement, and only stick to those. He listed a bunch of data that he thinks I should collect, but he reassured me that I don’t need to use everything. He, however, seemed to like a lot of the elements in my study and didn’t want me to cut any research questions.  He also thinks I should lean towards measuring growth– in other words, seeing if the One Hen unit “works”. Although I can’t make any causal claims to that, he thinks a pre and post test will strengthen my study, and he liked the idea of an engagement survey. So, in other words, he liked the things my committee wasn’t exactly thrilled about. I still have a challenge ahead of me if I want to follow his advice. We’ll see. He’s also from Grand Rapids, so I think we were academics that were meant to collaborate!

I think focus is key. In the Bolker book (Write Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes...) she says that the length of a dissertation should be the shortest amount of pages that my committee will accept. It was her way of saying not to try to take on the world with this project. This is also something Erica and Sally mentioned to me during our “intellectual conversation” time on Tuesday morning. Erica, Sally, and I have decided to chat once a week about our projects (we’re all dissertating at the same time, which sounds weird), and talking to them also helps me achieve this focus I so desperately need.

So basically Tuesday was a day of talking to smart people. Today I also talked to smart people by crashing a field trip for Vanderbilt Academy (where I used to teach middle school), catching up with some awesome teacher friends, and relaxing at Lake Michigan. I hoped that staring at nature and going back to my roots would also give me focus:


I don’t need to hole myself up in my office every day, right?


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