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.

Intellectual Conversations

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

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

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

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

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


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


My “first day”


My husband and I have been joking that today is like my first day at a new job. One where I get to work wherever and on whatever I please. Today was a pretty awesome “first day at work.” For example, this was my old work space:


Other than the large poster of George Washington, it’s pretty boring. To be fair, this is how I left my cubicle on my last day at NHA. Now here is my new workspace:



Much better, right? Not to mention the cat loves to keep me company on that big couch when I’m reading, which I appreciate. I also took the laptop outside today and worked on the deck, then went and had Monday night cocktails with some friends to celebrate my “first day”. All in all, a pretty great start to my new career as a stay-at-home-writer.

And tomorrow, for my 2nd day? I get to Skype with Bruce VanSledright. More on that conversation to come…

Reading for Inspiration

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This week I’ve been thinking a lot about my main issue with my dissertation at the moment– the fact that I have a lot of data sources and a virtually non-existent approach to looking at all of it. The first thing I do when I have an issue like this is to read what other people have done. I call this “reading for inspiration”. I actually spent a lot of time reading for inspiration this year just to get ideas. The most inspirational book I read this year was Bruce VanSledright’s  In Search of America’s Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School.

VanSledright went into a 5th grade classroom to teach the students historical inquiry and then measured what they learned from this approach. Replace “historical inquiry” with “project-based economics” and this is essentially my study. He appeared to be faced with the same amount of data sources I am, and I actually picked this book up again this week to look again at how he measured student learning, even though I first read this book in January. The cool part is that VanSledright got his PhD at MSU as well, studying elementary social studies with the late, great Jere Brophy.  See? We’re academic soul mates! Anne-Lise ran into VanSledrght at AERA this year and talked to him about my dissertation. He agreed to chat with me on the phone about his work! Having someone like him discuss my work (even briefly in passing) and want to talk to me more about it is the nerd equivalent of meeting a rock star. So, I made up some questions to ask him about his data sources. How often can one talk to an author of an inspirational book of theirs?

I also find inspiration reading other things. My writing group friend and fellow “West Coaster” Erica sent me a syllabus and all her readings from a case study course she took, and I am going to conduct my own independent study of case study research. I also am reading a book on reading comprehension and inquiry circles for a class I’m teaching in a couple weeks (Comprehension & Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action by Stephanie Harvey & Harvey Daniels) and I found some good stuff in there, even though my dissertation topic is seemingly unrelated. I’m also making more of an effort to read fiction– just for fun. It’s important for me to remember that I also once enjoyed reading for fun instead of work; for entertainment instead of knowledge.  This brain break I give myself very now and then is key for inspiration. I feel like I’m more ready to tackle the tough stuff after reading The Art of Fielding, or Hunger Games.

Hopefully I can chat with Bruce soon (I’ve already decided we’re on a first-name basis), but until then, back to the books.

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