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A new focus

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Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the day I quit my job at NHA. I started this blog just a few days later, to mark the beginning of what I had expected to be  crazy year, full of uncertainty but also accomplishment and excitement. I was not disappointed with this year by any means. I did accomplish quite a bit, including proposing, collecting data for, writing, and defending my dissertation. I also taught 4 different classes to nearly 100 different students. I traveled the world and the US– to Germany, Austria, Hungary and to Hawaii, Seattle, and San Diego.

My year has been full of uncertainty at times. I often stressed about whether I was making the right decisions with writing, teaching, or life in general. There were times when I was positive I had made all of the wrong decisions, and times when I felt like everything was falling into place. This will be a topic for another blog post soon, but more uncertain times are ahead, along with more times of accomplishment and excitement. Ultimately, I don’t regret the reason why I started this blog in the first place–quitting NHA.  As I said in my first blog post, I will never forget what NHA did for me to develop my professional career, but leaving there was the best decision I ever made. Now that I’ve had a year of hindsight, I can safely say that working without a net this year was good for me. It was nerve-wracking at times, but ultimately worth it.

I called this year and this blog “The Year of Writing.”  But now what? This blog was about my dissertation journey, and the year of working without a net, but now that year is over.  I think this blog needs a new focus, and possibly a new name. I know that every year of my life will be a year of writing, so should I change the “the” to an “a?” Should I blog about my future projects? Or abandon this all together? I am still unsure of what to do next.

I went out last night to celebrate things– graduation, Mike’s birthday, him finishing the Riverbank Run, the end of a rough semester and the beginning of a great summer of relaxation ahead. We went to our first bar for dinner, and once we were seated, I looked up and saw this sign:

one adventure

 

I thought this was so fitting for what we were doing there in the first place. Maybe my year of writing (and therefore this blog) has to end so another great adventure can begin? I know I have at least one more blog post left in me, but I might need to find a renewed focus to mark the next great adventure…

Spring Break

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Spring break is neither spring nor a break…discuss.

coffee talk

Seriously though. I said goodbye to my students on Tuesday for the next two weeks and it hardly feels like anything. I’m not planning a giant road trip like last year, or excited about sleeping in, getting my hair done, and catching up on TV shows like I used to do during Spring Break when I was teaching middle school. For me, Spring Break is just more of the same–write, write, write.

The last couple of weeks have been tough. I actually had two different blog posts composed that I deleted because they sounded too depressing. I’ll be honest when I admit that I didn’t know how lonely writing could be. Now I know why authors are so depressed sometimes–you get stuck in one world for such a long time and that can really mess with your head. No joke, I dreamed about curriculum integration last night. I dreamed that I went back to Lanley Elementary and interviewed the teacher and students again. I don’t get a break from thinking. Usually teaching gets me out of whatever funk I’m in because I get to escape the house, focus on other people, and do something creative, and that is a great recipe for inspiration and a refreshing new outlook. However, the last couple of weeks the commute has been so anxiety-inducing thanks to the insane winter we’ve been having that I can’t get inspired to teach either. I also got the news that I was not offered either of the jobs I interviewed for at CMU, which was a major bummer.

Yesterday, I forced myself to get out of the house and get out of my head space. I went with my friend and former colleague Tiffany to visit the school where we used to teach. I still have several friends there, so we grabbed lunch and brought it to the teacher’s lounge like old times’ sake. Everyone always says never to eat in the teachers’ lounge, but I never subscribed to that theory. It’s different when you work with your best friends. The week before, I drove out to Tiffany’s school in Grand Rapids where she is now an administrator and volunteered to do a center in a Kindergarten classroom for the 100th day of school. I had fun in both cases, but it made me miss K-12 teaching! Missing the little ones combined with the fact that I now have no real job prospects on the horizon, makes me think that if I were offered an elementary teaching position right now I would take it. 🙂 So it the experiences me nostalgic and worried more than inspired.

Mike has been nothing but encouraging during these rough weeks. He reminds me constantly that something will happen for me and tries to keep me positive. He reminded me last night that worrying about job prospects, or snow days, or whatever just detracts from the dissertation writing and I’m coming up on the home stretch. He indicated that I have forgotten a bit that writing the dissertation and just completing this 5-year journey of a PhD program is such a huge deal in and of itself. So, time to embrace my reclusive writing self. I made another timeline today that is now broken down into weeks, not months. And, there are only 8 of them left.

 

 

 

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A good thing that came out of these last two weeks is that I sent off two more chapters for Anne-Lise to read. I have plans in March to write the other 3 chapters with a tentative goal to defend at the end of April. I’m also making plans for a May 3 graduation. This is happening regardless and that’s definitely something to be happy about. The month of March begins tomorrow, and even though the above picture indicates that I have a lot of work to do next month, March has always been my favorite month. It means warmer weather, marks the beginning of another great year in my life, and indicates the end of the school year is near. It means spring and new-ness, and I am so so ready for it to be here.

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.

Welcome to 2013: The True Year of Writing

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The title of this blog is “the year of writing”, dating back to when I quit NHA in June 2012.  The start of this blog really marked the beginning of working without a net–having nothing to “fall back on” and just going for the end goal of finishing my PhD. The end of a calendar year always means reflection for me, and I have decided that quitting NHA was the best decision I made in 2012. And to be honest, it hasn’t even been that scary. Since I quit on June 1, I’ve accomplished a lot: revised my proposal, presented at conferences, taught 3 classes, applied for many jobs, and traveled the world. (Yes, I managed to squeeze that in as well!). Being so busy has made me forget that in just a few short months’ time, I will be facing a slew of uncertainty. Nothing reminded me more about that than the beginning of 2013. This year has lots of promise. It has the potential to be the best year of my life–the year I accomplish getting my PhD, which is arguably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The year I get a job that could be my “forever job”, the year I move away from West Michigan (?). The question marks also mean that 2013 has potential to also be truly terrifying. For the first time in my life, I have not even the slightest idea where I’ll be in a year. The beginning of 2013 has made me very, very aware of this. It’s getting closer. This is the real “year of writing.”

Every year, I don’t set resolutions, I set challenges. In 2010, my challenge was to write something every day of the year. I didn’t entirely meet this goal, but I would say I was writing 75% of the year. In 2011, my challenge was to run 700 miles and complete my first half-marathon. That one was much easier. In 2012, my friend Holly challenged me to read one fiction book a month. I was glad I met this challenge because reading fiction did give my brain a break and reminded me that reading is also fun, and something I once considered my hobby, as opposed to work. Total, I read 28 books this year– 12 fiction, 16 non-fiction/professional. Not too shabby. Maybe in the summer of 2013, I’ll have time to dust off Harry Potter again.

This year, though, I am not setting an additional challenge for myself. No diet goals, no running goals, no reading goals. I’ll diet, run, and read anyway. This year my challenge  needs to be singular, focused: GET. THAT. PhD. Write, defend, finish. Related to that: get a job. So I guess I have two challenges. It’ll be work, that’s for sure. But I am ready.

To recharge, Mike & I spend 10 days in Hawaii on a family vacation. It took a while for us both to wind down and relax, but by the end the anxiety of a new semester and the challenging year I have ahead was a distant memory as I laid on the beach at Waikiki. I came back to the snow, a bit of jet-lag, and mostly excitement to get this year going.

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Sleepless in Seattle

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Lame title, I know, but it does fairly accurately describe my trip to Seattle last week for the National Council for Social Studies Conference (NCSS) and it’s research-related pre-show, the College and University Faculty Assembly (CUFA).

I arrived on Tuesday to an interesting surprise. My friends and fellow grad students and I were planning to share a hotel room. There are three of us total–Cheryl, Elizabeth, & I. Due to the conference booking the hotel completely, and my not following up with them earlier, we were informed that we would all be sharing a tiny hotel room with one (yes, one) double (yes, double) bed.  We all just decided to go for it and get cozy, hence the “sleepless” title. It wasn’t actually too bad, but definitely an adventure.

On Wednesday, CUFA began. I started the day with my presentation. It was at a “roundtable”, which means that there were two of us presenting our papers (both dissertations, actually–the other girl was from UM) and one discussant, who summarizes the similarities and connections between the two papers. My discussant was Anne-Lise, who had already read my paper a bunch of times. There were also three other profs there from other schools who listened and gave me some feedback on my study that was very helpful. Wednesday and Thursday were mostly full of listening to other social studies people from around the country present their research, and then walking around trying to meet them during the receptions at the end of both nights. It was inspiring to see what others are working on. Working on just my project can get to be a bubble where I forget about all of the other good stuff going on. Hanging out with other MSU grad students that I don’t get to socialize with very often was nice too, and I even met some nice grad students from Missouri and we had a very nice dinner all together.

I also got to meet Bruce VanSledright in person at CUFA. He was presenting on the new social studies standards, and I walked up to him afterward and introduced myself. I invited him to my talk the next day, and he said he had tried to come to my roundtable, but all of the seats were full. He told me to keep in touch about my study and that he would love to read it when it was finished. It was nice to officially meet him, not just over Skype. The funny part was that the first thing he said to me was that I look much different in person than Skype– “you’re much shorter”, he said.

Friday started the “big conference”–NCSS. The highlight of Friday was seeing James Loewen speak. He is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, among other fabulous books. His stance is the misrepresentation of history by common school textbooks. His book challenged me as a undergrad to think about what is “common knowledge” about our country’s history and re-examine what I have learned. We make our undergrads read a chapter of it in TE 401 as well, and it never fails to surprise people. His talk was PACKED. I had to sit on the floor right in the front and I was sandwiched by tons of fellow history nerds. Once again, I learned something new from him–characteristics of the “nadir” of race relations in our country from 1890-1940, and then I promptly went to the bookstore afterwards and bought two of his books. I devoured and almost finished one on my flight home.

 

Also on Friday, I presented one more time at NCSS. I gave a one hour talk on the One Hen unit to fellow teachers. I think it went well, although the audience didn’t ask a lot of questions. Also thanks to a crazy cold that has been plaguing me for two weeks, plus the dry air or hotels and airplanes for the three days before this,  I basically coughed and sputtered my way through the whole thing. Not my finest public speaking performance, but hopefully not too distracting. My next goal is to turn that presentation into a publication for Social Studies and the Young Learner.

Friday was our last day there, and to finish, a few of us MSU people made the trek to the Space Needle. We felt like we couldn’t leave Seattle without seeing it. We left for our walk at 4:00 in the afternoon and already Seattle was pitch black and pouring rain. It was truly fitting. It was beautiful to see even if we couldn’t exactly afford to go up in it. Then we grabbed pizza and enjoyed a lovely final night in the Emerald City. It was a rejuvenating trip, really. I learned a lot, I was inspired and encouraged at times, and I was so busy I didn’t have time to think about what I still needed to do when I got home. I am still catching up, but Seattle was well worth the travel and the sleeplessness.

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.

 

 

Social Business

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I chatted up my whiteboard, and I have since added to it.  I have been thinking about how to analyze the data in my study, and I think I have  a plan. Give the students a written pre/post test to discover what they learn about economics in the One Hen unit, using the National Economics Standards to guide me. And also interview the students about their interest in helping the community and participating in a project that helps others before and after the unit. I have an idea of what some of the questions could look like–both for the written econ assessment and the interview. I think all of the other data I collect would be secondary and perhaps only used to support my claims–things like student work completed during the unit, or transcriptions of class discussions. This pares down my data to pre/post assessment and pre/post interviews, which is much more manageable.

My new problem is this: where does this experience at this school doing this unit fit into a larger picture?  If the school where I am collecting all of this data and the One Hen unit the students will experience is such a special case, special enough  to study, what is it a case OF?

I put off thinking about this for a while and I focused on a few other things– making tweaks and improvements to the One Hen unit, for one. Drafting questions for these assessments, working on my IRB application, etc. Then I went through an old e-mail from right after my dissertation proposal defense from Kyle, a committee member of mine, about Mohammed Yunus, the “creator” of the concept of microfinance. The One Hen unit teaches the students about microfinance and Kyle thought I needed to read up on Yunus a bit. I read his wikipedia page and promptly ordered his most recent book Building Social Business.

In a nutshell, Yunus started by giving small loans to poor people in Bangladesh, inspired by women unable to get loans from banks to start their own small businesses. Eventually he started his own bank specializing in giving collateral-free loans to those in poverty, especially women. This concept of “microfinance” is the heart of the One Hen unit, and I can see why Kyle wanted me to read up on Yunus. However, this book is about something bigger than microfinance. It’s about social business– a type of capitalism and entrepreneurship that is selfless. It’s not about becoming an entrepreneur not to make profits to keep, but to make profits to sustain the business, which is formed around a goal to help others and eradicate poverty. He writes that this new form of economics/capitalism could be taught in schools. This is literally what I am doing with this study, but I have never called it “social business” before.  Now, I am rethinking everything I have been plugging away at these last couple of weeks.

I am only 25 pages into this book; I seriously started reading it an hour ago. I promptly started following Yunus on Twitter, which is what I do when I discover something new, and I found out that today (June 28) is “Social Business Day”. It’s like a sign that I found something bigger. In the Steve Jobs biography I read last week, he said that there are times when he gets pretty far in developing a new product and then discovers a way to take it in an entirely new, and better, direction. Part of his genius was that he was not afraid to change course when the need arose. Including more about social business would not be “changing course” for me, but instead looking at things from a new angle. I am now getting excited about this study’s potential to empower students to change the world through education. Which is, duh, why I became a teacher in the first place.

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