Friday, May 27, 2016

Being a Student Again

As a recent graduate, I have pondered my journey to completion and what it actually took to get here.  Even though the Louisville Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute hours applied toward my coursework, my official entrance into the doctoral program came the fall of 2011 with a seminar course.  For many students, I can imagine, their initial experiences in a program can determine their trajectory for the remainder of their studies.

This seminar introduction to deciphering qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods; writing literature reviews; and developing a path for research was akin to mental Olympics.  I felt pushed, pulled, and stretched in new, very demanding directions.  For the first time in a very long time, my brain felt out of shape.  For over seven years I had attended professional development, created innovative lessons, crunched impossible amounts of data, and learned how to be a more effective teacher, but none of these experiences trained me to run this marathon.

During that first semester, I remember wondering if I would ever learn it all.  Would or could I learn enough to earn a doctorate?  Fortunately, our professor named our fears and welcomed them.  He encouraged us to wrangle literature and make sense of published data.  My brain hurt.  I felt, well, dumb, and may have said as much to my classmates (and professor).  By the end of the semester, though more knowledgeable, we all had glazed eyes with expressions of "what the hell have I gotten myself into?!" plastered on our faces.

When I think about some of my attempts with data collection and analysis even closer to the end of my coursework a few years ago, I realize now the incredible patience my professors must have had.  For instance, only experienced researchers should attempt to record and analyze unstructured interview conversations and try to make sense of their contextual significance or explain that significance in class.  Thankfully, I learned from these experiences.  With guidance and understanding (surely everyone has early researcher mistake stories), my professors modeled what I hoped to become.

Being a student influenced my teacher lens in my middle school classroom.  I hope I became more sensitive to students' struggles, more flexible with my instructional approaches, clearer in my expectations.  At the minimum, I hope I found ways to stretch my students' brains.  For that reason, I encourage teachers to pursue higher education--a master's degree, endorsement or certification, or doctorate.  Enroll in MOOCs or a study group to which you are accountable in some way.  Be a student again.  Yes, we have well over eighteen years under our belts as students, but (sigh) that is the same argument we hear with members of legislature.  Becoming a student after being a teacher revealed insights I never would have discovered otherwise.  I promise it was worth it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Terminal Degree as the Beginning

As I listened to Ashley Miller speak at the doctoral hooding ceremony about her fears of not graduating, of that dreaded email requiring one more course or one more draft, I realized how real my own fears had become.  The time-line of defending my dissertation at the end of March, addressing the committee's recommendations in early April, sending the revised draft to my adviser soon afterwards, submitting the final dissertation to the graduate school before April 22, and the ceremony on May 13, intensified these fears rather than relieved them.  And when I was in line to step onto the stage, I held back the urge to look inside the cardboard tube with the University of Louisville seal to see if anything was inside.

The ceremony marked the transition to "Doctor" as one to be taken with great responsibility.  Dr. Beth Boehm, vice provost for graduate affairs, assured our families that a terminal degree meant "the end"--no more coursework or dissertation drafts.  Yet, this journey is just beginning.  As doctoral students, we learned how to create new knowledge.  Through our doctoral programs, we discovered the needs within our communities.  Our new terminal degrees have positioned us as researchers, creators, and problem solvers.

Through courses in education and literacy theory, teaching writing, cognitive coaching, and qualitative research design and methods, I discovered the need for "small data."  I am prepared to analyze trends, identify learning gaps, and further disaggregate data as tiny lenses into education; yet, more exists to be seen and heard.  My dissertation research study narrated the stories of a teacher leadership team and the liaisons across the country who developed and implemented a Literacy Design Collaborative professional development workshop called Assignments Matter.  Narratives such as these show us effective ways into big data.  Teacher and student narratives help us see the faces behind the numbers.

Inspired by the speakers' encouraging words, my adviser Dr. Penny Howell's vote of confidence, and my professor Dr. Lori Norton-Meier's special congratulations, I enter the next phase of my education.  Empowered with the knowledge of how to create new knowledge, I attend to the literacy and professional development needs within education through organizations such the Illinois Writing Project.  And although I hesitated to add "Ph.D." to my C.V. until it was official, I now have a signed parchment that no one can take away from me--I'd like to see them try.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Students' Voices at the IWP Writing Palooza

What happens when students, teachers, parents, and grandparents come together in the same space to write and share?  The Illinois Writing Project hosted a Writing Palooza on Saturday, April 30 to find out the answer to that question.  What we discovered far surpassed our expectations.

The Writing Palooza event featured Adrienne Gibbs as the keynote speaker to jump start our day on writing.  She shared lines of poetry from noted authors and some of her own writing from middle school.  Everything and anything can be a story, she encouraged, and writing flourishes when writers discuss their works together.

The morning and afternoon writing sessions and workshops included poetry, soapbox speeches, and memoirs for grades K-2, 3-5, and 6-8.  In the poetry sessions I attended or facilitated, parents and teachers were encouraged to join in the writing and discussions.  The primary focus, though, was empowering students' voices.  

In the middle grades poetry session, R.J. with the Young Chicago Authors invited introductions from everyone.  These introductions were slightly different in that he asked us to rate the day on a scale of 1-10 and share one thing we often think about but do not get to talk about.  How powerful it was for students (and teachers and parents) to answer this question!  Students around the room identified environmental concerns, worries about their neighborhoods, world events, self-destruction, and other issues they have weighing on their minds with no outlet for conversation.  A common thread wove its way across the room.  Yet this space was different than their more familiar settings of school and after school activities--here, students could discuss and, better yet, write.

One girl in our afternoon poetry session rated the day a 10.  I wondered what made this day shine so brightly for her.  Was it her morning session on writing memoirs, perhaps?  Was it the lunch led by The Chicago Community Trust with information about leading #onthetable2016 civic community conversations?  Or maybe she was there with friends who had also found an outlet for their writing passions.  I did not have the chance to ask her, but I did get to hear what she had to say.

The IWP Writing Palooza culminated with an author share in the auditorium where Adrienne Gibbs began our day.  A few of our youngest eagerly started the line, and we watched with amazement as the line perpetually grew longer and never shorter.  The thirty minutes allotted for this part of the day grew into forty-five.  Students shared narratives about their first roller coaster adventures and soapbox speeches about playground repairs or ugly words on bathroom stalls.  And poetry.  Their poetry, like what was written by the girl in the earlier session and the one by another girl, pointed out the unfairness of stereotypes and made me wish a whole community could fit into that auditorium to hear what these students had to say.

I am excited that the Writing Palooza might become an annual event.  But what I realized even more at the end of this incredible day was that students need more than just one annual event for their voices to be heard.  Where is our daily palooza joining communities of students, teachers, and parents together to write and share?