A Slice of Life!

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This week in my writing methods course, I introduced my pre-service teachers to the idea of writing about a “Slice of Life.” Many blogs do “Slice of Life” challenges in March, and I used the Two Writing Teachers blog for examples of slices. During our weekly independent writing time this Monday, I had them all write “Slices.” I was reading through them today and my goodness, they really understood this genre. I was really into all of their pieces–some of them made me laugh out loud. They have such unique voices! I want to ask them if I can post some to this blog; hopefully they agree. Many of them are too good to share.

Independent writing time in a methods course is going well. I was nervous that they would think it is lame or that they wouldn’t see the point of it. A student today said she was really enjoying my class because of the independent writing time– she called it “peaceful.” The only “complaint” I have received so far is that one girl wrote that she didn’t enjoy the Madonna song I was playing during writing time. I think it’s going well, which makes me feel good since this is the first time I have taught a “writing” methods course as opposed to a “language arts” methods course.

In my own writing world, I finally submitted that lingering piece yesterday and it felt very good to get it off my plate. I just needed to sit down and devote a couple hours to it and finish it up, but I was struggling to make myself do it. I finally buckled down on Tuesday and it felt great to send it off. I have another journal article now that is in the polishing stage and then I can send that one off too– hopefully this week. My collaborative proposal pieces are starting to take shape as well.

This was a good writing week! Let’s hope I can keep it going!


Mentor Texts: Borrow or Buy?

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I haven’t blogged in quite a while, I know. Lots of personal things going on have kept me from writing as much as I would like, and blogging about NOT writing probably wouldn’t be all that interesting to read. I have made some progress on my overly-ambitious January writing goals, but I haven’t accomplished everything I would like. I’ll set February goals and share those soon.

The biggest thing I’ve been doing in January, when I haven’t been interrupted by polar vortex snow and cold days, is teach a couple classes of my writing methods course. I’ve also been teaching my social studies methods course as well. The last few weeks in both classes, I’ve brought in children’s books. In social studies, I wanted to show how teachers could use text sets to teach certain social studies concepts in ELA, and I just packed a huge bag of books for Monday’s writing class on mentor texts. 

Whenever I want to bring books in, I run into the same dilemma– I don’t have nearly enough children’s books. I mean, I have a decent amount (especially for social studies) but I always envision stacks and stacks of books to bring in for these classes and I don’t have stacks and stacks. So, what to do? Do I buy more to add to the collection or do I borrow?

I never know the right answer. I don’t have a ton of money to spend on books. I have asked around about funding options at work and have hit a few dead ends (most of the funds I have available are for research, not books). I am not giving up on finding funding, but even if I did find money to spend on books, where would I start? There are so many options! And I would want to stretch my dollar the best I could–where would I purchase them?

So borrowing from my local library is nice and free, but lately I have had some specific titles in mind that aren’t available. My library is quite nice, but it can be a pain stopping in every week to check out a new stack and then taking them back when I’m all done. And borrowing books just means I have to keep revisiting the well every year and I don’t get to just pull from my shelves.

What approach do others take? Do you spend a ton on books or borrow? If you buy, where can you get the most bang for your buck?

And not bringing books to class just isn’t an option. The smiles on everyone’s faces when I walk in with a giant box or bag of books is too good to pass up!

Kids Are Capable of More Than You Think

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I have spent a lot of time lately researching and writing about some pretty complex topics–  social entrepreneurship, microfinance loans in developing countries, and international human rights documents. What surprises most people when I discuss my work is that I research teaching these topics to elementary students. 

I taught middle school social studies for several years and have had other classroom experiences working with elementary students as young as Kindergarten. I also spent many years consulting with elementary teachers about social studies instruction. In my work, I came across lots of people that doubted what young students could do regarding social studies–so much so that they were hesitant to teach the subject at all. I heard so many comments like “These students can’t work in groups”, or “No way will these students understand [fill in the blank historical event” or “My students can’t….” 

You get the idea. In my opinion, some of these statements were a bit unfounded. Sure, a lot of the students in these classrooms had very little experience with social studies but that shouldn’t be a reason to NEVER give them that experience. I’ll never forget one teacher saying that she couldn’t teach social studies in Kindergarten because her students had no background knowledge. They’ve only been on the earth for 5 years! Of course they have very little background knowledge! Instead of the attitude of “I need to give these students the background knowledge and experience”, she used their inexperience as a reason to avoid social studies. In these teachers’ defenses, however, many of them have had very little experience learning social studies themselves. When it requires some work, knowledge, and guidance to help your students learn social studies and you are out of your comfort zone providing this, it makes sense that this becomes a very scary endeavor.

But let’s not project this discomfort on students when making claims about what they can or can’t do. I came across this quote from Sheldon Berman last year as I was writing my dissertation:

Our conception of the child as egocentric, morally immature, uninterested in the social and political world, and unable to understand it has effectively deprived young people of the kind of contact they need to make society and politics salient. Young people’s distance from politics and their lack of interest may be the effect of our misconceptions, our ignorance of their potential, and our protectiveness (Berman, 1997, p. 193).”

Berman understood that sometimes young children’s perceived or actual inabilities are because of our own projections of what they can do. In my work, I set out to show teachers and students that are doing amazing work to highlight what students CAN do, and I am continually impressed but not surprised when young students rise to the challenge.

Most recently, I worked with a group of 5th grade students at Lanley Elementary. I engaged these students in a project-based unit centered around economics, but also integrating math and literacy as well. The students learned about entrepreneurs and what they need to start and run successful businesses through concepts of revenue, cost, profit, loans, interest, and price. They also learned about how some entrepreneurs start social businesses that address community needs and that some people in developing countries need small loans to get these businesses off the ground.

In teams, the students started social businesses that addressed a community need that they chose– helping raise awareness of child abuse victims. The students received a loan to create and sell products like homemade calendars with inspirational messages, and a variety of children’s toys that were royal blue, the color of child abuse victims awareness. Together, we found an organization working to build a homeless shelter specifically for children and teenagers. Because we had learned about human rights, the students made the connection between homelessness and child welfare. By the end of the project, the students had more than $700 to donate to this shelter. They created a final presentation that they gave to the entire school that described their work and presented the shelter with their profit money.

I faced the same problems as many teachers do when I began the project: the students had trouble working together in groups and they had little to no background knowledge on economic concepts. But we kept at it, and yes, even though this project took a while and was very challenging at times, the students rose to the occasion. That paragraph above doesn’t do justice to all that they learned about economic concepts and math concepts. It doesn’t do justice to all of the amazing literature they read through the unit and the practice they had reading complex informational text, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More importantly, in my opinion, the project gave the students experience making a positive impact in their community. After one successful experience making a difference; whose to say that they won’t be inspired to do more now that they have done it once before?

Since I now am responsible for working with pre-service teachers, I need to somehow get it across to them not to underestimate their future students either. This will involve me getting them more comfortable with teaching elementary social studies to break this cycle. It’ll be a lot of hard work and effort on my part, but I’m pretty sure pre-service teachers are more capable than one would think as well. 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” – Margaret Mead


Students reported profit totals at the end of every day as part of their math instruction. All profits were later donated toward the construction of a youth homeless shelter.


Section 6

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Both this school year and last, I taught Section 6 of TE 401 and TE 402 at MSU. These are the social studies and literacy methods courses for the MSU seniors.  The courses are not a year-long sequence with instructors usually. The students are together all year, but the instructors don’t usually stay with the students the whole year. I’m one of the few people who teach both social studies and literacy, so I do get to meet these students on the 1st day of the fall semester and see them through until their graduation. Both years I have been assigned Section 6, which seems to be my lucky number.

Both years, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching some amazing people in Section 6. They’re fun, inspiring, smart, and dedicated students. At this stage in their careers, so early on, they are excited about joining the field of education. Let me tell you that it is so rare these days to have people excited about teaching anymore. I want to bottle their energy, enthusiasm, and excitement and feed it to a lot of people I know. It would be some magic elixir that teachers could drink when they feel frustrated or burned out. I would make a killing if I sold it.

I started my blog with a picture of the students of Section 6 from 2011-2012. They lit the spark for my dissertation and reaffirmed that teaching and research is what I wanted to do for my career. They inspired me to start the Year of  Writing. This year’s Section 6 helped me in a different way. If last year’s Section 6 was the spark, this year’s group was the fuel. They kept me going when I was collecting data–it was great to be able to commiserate with them about teaching elementary school and share stories. When I spent day after day in my house writing, seeing them on Tuesdays was a wonderful break. When I finished writing, I could not wait to tell them.

Today was our final exam. Much like the 2012 Section 6, the 2013 group handed out awards. I won “Best Dressed” mostly because I’m usually the only one not wearing my pajamas in class, and “Best Laugh.” This means they probably heard me laugh a lot.  They dressed in their graduation gowns and we took pictures at Erickson Hall. It was the last class I will ever teach at MSU.


Yes, Section 6 has been very lucky for me. On Sunday, I am actually going to hand them their diplomas on stage at the Breslin. Two of my students are giving the commencement speech based on a poetry-writing assignment I gave them this semester. Another one is being honored for the highest GPA in the special education program. The chair of the TE department is letting doctoral students attend as “faculty” to honor the seniors they’ve worked with all year. I absolutely wouldn’t miss it.


2013 Section 6 flashing our sign

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…

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.



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