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.”


Fighting for Human Rights in Holland

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It’s time for everyone to go back to school, even the 5th graders from my dissertation study at Lanley Elementary. Except this time I won’t be with them. I am staying home today (and 3 days a week this entire semester) to write about them. I have a little under 4 months to write their story; I officially applied for graduation last week.

The largest part of their story was the last few days before winter break. These days were some of the most rewarding of my entire career, showing me that the type of social justice oriented, authentic curriculum can be beneficial for the teachers as well as the students. First of all, the students spent time at the beginning of our final week together deciding to donate their money to the Barnabas House. We had a great discussion about where to donate where they had to analyze the information from our guest speakers, make a decision (backed with evidence) about why their profits should go to a certain place. (Hello Common Core Standards!!) In the end, the students decided on the Barnabas House. The Barnabas House is raising money to build a huge facility for homeless youth in Holland. I think this organization appealed to the 5th graders because of Michelle, their director. She was great with the kids, telling them personal stories of children she knew that didn’t have homes. Without me prompting her, she just naturally talked to them like colleagues. Like she would anyone else who had taken an interest in helping children. She also gave them choice. When they asked her what their money would help do, she told them that they could personalize their donation and have their money go toward anything that they thought a house would need. This lead to another discussion about what they could do with the money. In the end, I think the students one of the things they wanted to donate was a fish tank, so the homeless youth could have pets to take care of and be able to watch the calming water. How amazing is that?

The very last day before break the school had a Christmas program. We decided that right before the program, the students would present the donation to the Barnabas House and tell the parents what they’ve been up to. The few days before, a few students took on the job of writing a script to read and then the afternoon before break the students practiced what they would say. We also tie-dyed T-shirts (blue of course) as our “uniform” for raising awareness of child abuse. They wanted to make a “big check”, so we did that as well. The last day before break was pretty much entirely planned by the students and guided by us, and they loved it. The other 5th grade had a pizza party and cupcakes and none of our students complained that we didn’t have a “party.” We were too busy having fun learning.

In the end, the students made about $650 profit, which is an insane amount of money from selling the little things they did. This was after they paid back their loans to me. The “Whitlock Store” had collected about $150 in costs from them buying supplies, so I agreed to donate that as well (after all, that was Whitlock Store profit–I can be a social business too!). All in all, we had $800 to give to the Barnabas House. When the students all got up in front of the parents to tell them what they did, and when Tommy read the total amount, the entire audience cheered and clapped. Neither the students or I expected this reaction–the looks on their faces were priceless.

The Barnabas House is buying a fish tank (among other things) with the money, and all the students’ names are going on a plaque by the tank (Michelle is going to make sure of this). But, more importantly, the students now have “real proof” that they are helping a need in the community. After interviewing them for the post-data, I could tell they now have a broader understanding of human rights and human rights issues both here and around the world. If they haven’t completely transformed into human rights activists by the end of the semester, I can say at least One Hen opened the door for the conversation. And, we opened the door for them at age 10, instead of like 18 or 20 when most of us go to college or travel and realize there is a world bigger than us. The students are also planning to help with the Barnabas Winter Silent Auction and even with construction in the spring. They have found their “cause” and passion.

For the 2011-2012 school year, the ISD in our county has  888 students registered as homeless. Of that number, 127 are listed as unaccompanied. A student self-report survey in 2011 showed that 113  8th, 10th and 12th graders had no place to sleep at least once this school year in our community.

These are obviously not national statistics, they are right where I live. And a group of 5th graders did something this year to alleviate this problem. Just that is pretty amazing.

Slime and other blue items

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This has been quite the week at the school (I’ll need pseudonyms soon I think…). In my last post I wrote that since the students had chosen child abuse as their issue to solve with their social businesses, I was a bit nervous that we wouldn’t find a product that would help solve that issue. Child welfare is not really something that can be solved with products or services. I had come up with a back-up plan of making child-related things like toys or books and I was going to pose this to the students as a “close enough” option. Turns out, the kids had other plans. Since a few of them had researched that blue is the color of child abuse awareness, they were all really set on making things that are blue to educate others. The classroom teacher had shown them some statistics about abuse that shocked and angered them and they wanted to get the word out.  After talking about it, the kids thought that as long as they made blue items that kids wanted to buy, they were reaching their target audience.

The classroom teacher liked this idea too and used the opportunity to talk to the students about how they treat each other in the classroom. They are so concerned about abuse of other children, that they are allowing abuse of children and adults in the school happen every day— bullying. Right around this same time, the class had gotten in a lot of trouble for being horrendous to their substitute teacher one afternoon. After that debacle, sadly, this class has formed a reputation in the school as “the bad class.” It is a small handful of students causing trouble, and certainly not the whole class (as is often the case), but yet the mistreatment of other students and adults in the building is consistent. It seems that despite their care and concern for child welfare, some parts of this re not transferring to their personal lives. As a researcher, I find it interesting that the subject of social studies is where this kind of teaching falls to–learning how to get a long, how to treat others, how to work as a team, etc.

I am just now starting to see the students learning social studies content, and we are 4 weeks into a social studies unit. The main concept the students are starting to grasp is the idea of the relationship between revenue, cost, and profit. When choosing their “blue item”  to sell, I told them to find products where they can spend very little money so their costs are low and their profit can be high. They really responded well to this challenge. Many of them chose products that need very little materials to make. Two teams are making jewelry of some kind, one team is making stress balls out of balloons and cotton, one team is making calendars of their own artwork, and one team is making slime to sell (blue, of course). They took great care in listing their “costs”, and then I purchased everything the kids would need to make their products. They are going to “buy” their products from the “Whitlock Store” on Monday.

Here is the costs list from the “Slimy Kids Who Care” (their company name choice, not mine!):

Here is my haul to stock the Whitlock Store on Monday. This prompted the Meijer cashier to say “You’re a teacher, right?”

To “buy” these products, the students got a loan on Friday and I taught a lesson on interest and what that was. I was so impressed with how serious they took this– as I had each student sign their loan agreement, you could hear a pin drop as they all carefully signed their names and I gave the manager of each group their credit slips.They did a lot of math in this lesson to calculate interest, and one student and I had this exchange:

Student: “This is math part is really hard!”

Me: “This is part of starting a business. Entrepreneurs do a lot of math to help them make business decisions”

Student: “I thought running a business was just selling stuff”

So they are learning! I see a bit of a different class than the rest of the school does. I see kids that are excited to learn but having trouble carrying over the lessons into real life yet. I am hoping the troublemakers find a new set of skills they can feel successful with in this project and turn their negativity in positive social change.

Watershed Moments

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Near the end of the summer, I started reading the newest Stephen King novel called 11/22/63. It’s about time travel and the date refers to the Kennedy assassination and how someone goes back in time to stop it. Being that I love the Kennedys and time travel stories, I got very into this novel right away. However, it’s an 800-page novel that I began right before my semester, so of course I only got abut 100 pages into it before I had to take a pause.


In the first 100 pages, King writes about “watershed moments”–important events that may seem small but change the course of direction of time. Watershed moments are important in time travel because it’s the moments that could make history go one way or another (like JFK dying), but they are also important in a similar way (but less intense way) in dissertation data collection. I have been waiting to try to find a “watershed moment” in this One Hen unit I’ve been teaching and watching unfold in the 5th grade classroom over the course of the last 3 weeks. Watershed moments are good to write about because of their impact and how they can possibly change the direction of a study. My committee even suggested that I narrow down my data focus ONLY on important, watershed moments in the unit so as I only spend time writing about these things instead of every small detail.

Finally, this week I believe I have witnessed the first watershed moment. It came when it was time to tell the students they would actually be running a social business. I explained that a social business has the ultimate goal of helping people and that we would have to think of two ideas– what to make and sell and what issue or problem we would like to try to solve. There was a lot of excitement about starting a business: “We’re going to make something we can sell? A REAL thing? Not just pretend?” “We’re going to make real money? Do we get to keep it?” They got even more excited when I had them fill out job applications to be a manager, a marketer, and on the production team within their business. They really took this seriously, working very hard on their applications which we told them had to represent them in the best way. Every day this week I have gone into school they ask me if we’re doing One Hen that day. I am thrilled to see them so engaged and excited; I have seen this with every school that I piloted this unit in at NHA. It’s something for another study another day, but it’s saying something when students are actually excited to learn. Good things can happen.

The watershed moment was when I got to see how the students embraced the “social” part of the social business. I started by having students brainstorm a list of issues and problems in the community that they would like to help “solve.” Prior to this I had them research in the computer lab and browse some websites. It was great to see their eyes light up and the wheels turning as they were learning new things about the world around them. The students came up with a huge list of world issues, ranging from the very broad, global issues like hunger, poverty, homelessness to things that they had more personal connections to: bullying, abuse, cancer, violence. We voted to narrow down our list and decide on a cause that mattered to us the most. As we were narrowing the list, I asked students to raise their hand if they had a personal connection to a cause. For example, when we talked about cancer I asked if anyone knows anyone with cancer or knows someone who died of cancer. Every person in the class raised their hand, which surprised them. I was more surprised when I asked if anyone knows/knew anyone who had been abused and nearly everyone raised their hand. In the end, the students voted that child abuse was the issue they wanted to tackle. The fact that so many of them have a personal connection to this is so sad, but the fact that they all were excited to do something about it gave me hope.

But this posed an interesting dilemma, since finding a product or service that helps stop child abuse is virtually impossible since we aren’t trained counselors and doctors. So we decided to broaden their thinking a little by leading them to expand their idea of creating a business to promote child welfare. We then brainstormed ideas of products and services we could produce that would improve children’s lives. They came up with great ideas–books, comfort toys, food. They also, without prompting, wanted to raise awareness of child abuse. Some students had researched the “color” of child abuse–blue– and wanted to make blue products to advertise to others some of the horrible statistics about child abuse that they found. Everyday these students have amazed me with their caring, thoughtfulness, and creativity. It’s amazing what kind of thinking students can do when given free range to think.  I have left every day with so much to write about that I’ve gotten into the habit of talking into the iTalk app on my phone for the 15 minute drive home.

This is why I love teaching because it’s my ultimate inspiration. Without students, I have nothing to write about. I look forward to seeing what else is going to happen.



One small step

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I’ve had this blog for about 4 months now and as of a few days ago hadn’t actually written anything for my dissertation. However, I can actually say that I have made progress on this front. This past week, I wrote ONE draft of ONE chapter–the literature review. A full 22 pages of both “old” work (from my proposal) and “new” work (readings that I wanted to add based on the new stuff I have read this month). A literature review, for those lucky enough to never have written one, is essentially where you outline the research that’s already been done on your topic (or parts of your topic) so that you can place your study somewhere in the mix. This means you need to read. A LOT. I have been essentially reading about my topic since February, so knowing what to read isn’t the issue. For me, it’s organizing what I’ve read in order to make a coherent analysis of what I’ve read. This needs to be more than “This person said…and then this person said…” I need to work on how to integrate everything I’ve read around the argument that my study belongs with all of these other great studies.

I feel pretty good about what I’ve written so far, but there’s always more to read, and therein lies the problem. It is possible to not know when to stop reading and start writing. This is the first year I have actually visited the MSU library to check out books, and there are just so many good ones up on the 4th floor East Wing that I keep finding. I also like their organizational system:

It makes me feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland for some reason to follow the lines on the floor to my destination and then at the end… books! (I am partial to the black line, which always leads me to the section where they hold all of the super old books about social studies instruction from the 1950s and 60s. I checked out a book the other day where the first “due date” stamp was from 1972!) You can also “recall” books. This is where you can request books that are checked out by other people and they have to return them so you can check them out. I always feel kind of bitchy doing that, but oh well– books!!

My goal though is to finish reading whatever library books I currently have in my possession, add their insights to my literature review draft, and then send it on to my advisor. Because no matter how much I write for a first draft, I am already preparing myself for many many many rewrites. I was talking to a first year doctoral student the other day who told me she hated rewriting–she just wanted to write something and be done with it. I wanted to just give her a hug and tell her the life of writing something and leaving it alone is long gone. If I handed in a first draft of my dissertation and called it good, then I could probably write the thing in a couple of weeks.

My life isn’t all small steps. October is Data Collection Month– I have begun to teach 5th grade social studies and collect data! This is a big step that is news for another blog post I’m sure. I am also submitting two job applications this week, which is a HUGE step. Wish me luck on all my steps, big and small.

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:


The Hustle

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My friend Christina and I were chatting not too long ago about the desperate lengths one will go to make progress on one’s dissertation. She told me about the various desperate phone calls she’s had recruiting participants for her study, and I tried to reassure her that this isn’t “desperate”, this is “the hustle”. We should reframe this type of work the way rappers do when they have to sell drugs on the street to make money before dropping their mixtape or something–we’re just “hustlin”. (Yes, I compared recruiting participants for a dissertation to selling drugs. I am desperate.)

I came up on my own hustle situation recently when I finished writing the pre and post assessment for my study. This assessment is meant for the 5th graders I’ll be working with– I am going to give it to them at the beginning and at the end of the One Hen unit to see what they have learned. The assessment asks a few questions about economics and entrepreneurship to meet the state and national standards for elementary economics. I thought what I had developed made sense and that I had made it kid-friendly, but my experience writing assessments for NHA has taught me that you never really know the assessment is good until you see the kind of answers it produces. Since this assessment is a very important piece of data in my study, I don’t want to wait until I give it to my dissertation participants before I discover it won’t work. At that point, I will be screwed. So the best solution is to “pilot” the assessment with some kids that are not part of the dissertation to see what happens before I give it “for real.” Sounds easy, but I don’t know any kids.  I ideally need a kid going into 5th grade and none of my friends’ kids are that old yet, and since I have been basically writing and working for 4 years, I haven’t gotten to know any of my neighbors and their kids.

While I was trying to figure out this new dilemma, my nephews came to visit. They live in Houston and come up once a year, usually in the summer, to escape the insane Texas heat (unfortunately this year, the heat followed them to MI). They stay a while and Mike & I usually spend a few weekends tubing with them on the boat on the lake, swimming in the pool, and having dance parties in my living room– you know, typical aunt & uncle activities.


While playing in the lake one weekend, it hit me all of a sudden– my nephews are kids! And the oldest of the three, Mikey (in the blue life jacket above), is going into 4th grade which is close enough to 5th grade! Yep, I had decided to resort to using my own family to help me with this assessment. Just hustlin’. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Mikey turned out to be an easy sell to help me despite having to take a “test” about topics he knows nothing about during his summer vacation. I guess he just loves his aunt. Or, he liked the idea of being able to tell a teacher whether her test questions were good or not. Or, the thought of a $10 Walmart gift card to spend on whatever toy he wanted was an incentive. I am going to pretend it’s the first one.  Mikey was also a tremendous help, pointing out words he didn’t know and telling me when some questions were redundant (or seemed that way). My favorite is when he started reading the directions to one set of questions out loud, gave up, and finished them by saying “blah blah blah…”  Kids are pretty blunt about when you’re too wordy, apparently.


I really am going to take his suggestions to heart on this one. The fact that he’s going into 4th grade, not 5th, actually made sense. Perhaps many of the students I’ll be working with might be a grade level below when beginning the school year and most likely would struggle with a few of the same things Mikey did. I think I want to pilot this with more students, but I am out of nephews. If anybody knows of any 5th graders, let me know. The hustle continues…

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