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.




photo (4)


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.

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.


A stressful semester

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I don’t want to spend this blog post bitching about how stressed out I am. Everyone I know is stressed out a lot of the time, so to continue to announce it to people gets pretty redundant. However, I think it should be noted that this semester seemed tougher than most. My dissertation data collection stressed out way longer than I wanted it to (I won’t be done until Friday–blog post on that forthcoming), I struggled with completing grading and writing without losing my mind, and in the month of November alone I made not one, but two trips to the West Coast. Nothing stresses me out like airports. But I got the sense that other people have been having a rough time too. The teacher I work with for my study frequently seems stressed, many of my students had a tough semester, Mike is stressed out at work…it seems like everyone is having a difficult time. Not to mention the news lately. Michigan is not-so-slowly turning into a conservative wasteland, and of course, there is the school shooting in Connecticut last Friday. I imagine if Mitt Romney had won the election, I would be in a mental institution right now. Or living in Sweden.

The school shooting news made me incredibly emotional, more so than stories like these usually do. Clearly, it’s because of the nature of the violence and the setting. This man murdered 1st graders for chrissake. This happened in an elementary school–a place where I spend Every. Single. Day. (Especially this semester). I am so saddened by it, but there have been so many mixed emotions as well. I cried so hard hearing about teachers who gave their lives for their students because I totally get it. I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t worry about their students, feel proud and brag about their students, and yes, wouldn’t stand up to a man with a gun for their students, even if it meant possibly losing their life. Just like a parent would.  I hope this makes the general public see (especially the Michigan legislature) that teachers are incredibly important people in a child’s life that should be protected and treated with respect by society. Ask the parents of those kids in CT who survived how thankful they are for their child’s teacher and they can tell you. I’ve seen stories that we should arm teachers and train them to use deadly weapons. I’ve seen a story from a complete idiot who said that this maniac would never have made it into the building if there was just a MAN around to protect everyone (the CT school principal and most the teachers were female). These disgusting stories completely miss the point. You want to protect kids, you start with putting the people who would give their lives to protect them on a much higher pedestal.  Teachers don’t need guns, they need respect.

Life is stressful this semester looking for jobs. I got flat-out rejected from three positions–the one that hurts the most was Hope College. I really thought I had a chance there, but apparently neither of the search committee chairs that I met at LRA and talked to on the phone late one night thought I was very impressive. It sucks because that job meant I could possibly stay in Holland, but who knows now. Good news is that I do have an on-campus interview at my old stomping ground, Central Michigan. I am a finalist for two positions there– elementary social studies professor and introduction to education professor. I think on Jan 31, I’ll be heading up there for a two day visit of schmoozing people, talking about my research, and teaching a class! I am very very excited about this. Hopefully it turns into something positive to turn this semester around quickly.



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.

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.

Where does it start?

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For my first blog post, I am trying to think about the following question: What is the start of my story?  If I am writing about writing my dissertation, where do I begin? I don’t think it starts with my first words or even my first thoughts on my topic. I think the story starts at the end– the end of my semester, the end of my time at NHA. I need some time to process “the end” of a few things before I can start on this new beginning of mine. The first “ending” that I still haven’t processed is the end of this crazy school year.

This year, I had one of the most exhilarating experiences of my career, and one of the most debilitating. I was both simultaneously confirmed in my talent and passion for teaching, and taken down quite a few pegs in my abilities as a writer.

I spent my year teaching some amazing students at MSU in the TE 401/402 classes of the elementary teacher preparation program.

My students

Every day, they inspired me to think of new things– what it means to be a good teacher, how I can help people find their passion for teaching (and for teaching social studies), how I can be a part in this conversation around teacher preparation, etc.  It was by far the best experience I’ve had in my doctoral program, and I put a lot of my focus into developing my students this year.

Although they inspired me to think and write new things, I had one last (very large) hoop to jump through– taking my Comprehensive Exams. This was a six-month ordeal of writing about things that other people wanted me to write about, or write about topics I used to be interested in, but was no longer excited about. So while I was incredibly inspired by these future teachers, I was still stuck in a writing rut.  When the time came to write about what I was actually interested in– my dissertation topic–the year was very close to being over, a deadline to defend a dissertation proposal was looming, and time was running out.

Needless to say, I wish I had more time. I wish I had more time to spend thinking about the topics I want to think about, and preparing to research and write about them. I even wish I had more time to be a better teacher to this group.

I defended my dissertation proposal last week, and was left with a lot of work to do. Work I probably should have done earlier this year. I made a decision a while ago not to waste any more time thinking or working on things I’m not passionate about. This is the theme of the next year of my life– to give myself the gift of time, and work on moving on to the things I really want to do–whatever they are. I’ve got a year to figure it out.

If these guys can figure it out, I’m sure I can too.

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