Seeking First to Understand: 

A Synthesis of my Graduate Studies

Although I have always loved being a student, it was never my plan to become an educator. Growing up, I was a voracious reader, and the highlight of my summer break was my weekly trip to the library where I would fill a backpack with books, and I sought ought books that would challenge me and expose me to something new. In college, I relished the opportunity to take a wide variety of classes in a liberal arts curriculum, dabbling in music, philosophy, literature, and world religions, and learning a little bit of French and Arabic. While I am no adrenaline junky in the physical world, I love intellectual adventure, and I am always seeking encounters with new ideas. When I left college, I thought that if I were to become an educator, I would be tied to teaching the same content over and over, and my days of intellectual roaming would come to an end. I thought that in some ways, becoming a teacher would mean I would become less of a student.

Graduating from Hope College

I stumbled into the professional world of education somewhat unintentionally. I knew I enjoyed working with people, and so I took a position with a college access program right out of college working as a reading coach and academic mentor. Very quickly, I realized that my fears about becoming an educator were unfounded: there was always something new to learn. Sometimes I got to learn new content and had the ability to vary the material I explored with students, which I truly enjoyed. More significantly, I discovered that even if content remained the same, I was always able (and required) to learn from the students. Each student brought in a unique set of experiences, perspectives, interests, values, strengths, and fears. Learning from my students, learning about my students, and learning how to best support my students has become my new and perhaps most important intellectual adventure.

For the entirety of my professional life thus far I have worked with students who are culturally, religiously, and linguistically diverse. When I decided to pursue a Master of Arts in Education, I was driven by a desire to be my best self for these students. I chose to enroll in courses that connected to the work I do and the population I serve. These courses prepared me to understand students more deeply and customize programs, create systems, and engage in interactions that support each student equitably. As I complete my master’s degree, I exit the program better prepared to design and facilitate educational opportunities that are inclusive, flexible, and allow a very diverse group of students to thrive and engage.

One of the ways that my master’s degree deeply changed me, challenged me, and improved my ability to support diverse students was by orienting me to social justice. In both ED 822 Diverse Students and Families and in EAD 850 Multicultural Education, I read the text Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2011), and this text along with other readings in the courses prompted me to acknowledge the ways that systemic injustices and individual bias impact students’ educational and personal experiences. Throughout these courses, analyzed how systems such as financial aid practices, hiring practices, and curriculums can stifle opportunity for many groups. I also regularly reflected on my own practice and context, and learned that self-reflection and awareness of one’s own positionality is an integral part of becoming an educator that affirms the identities of students and creates an inclusive and equitable classroom. I am now able to more clearly see the ways that different systems serve or do not serve the success of different students, and how specific actions, decisions, or instructional approaches on my part can promote or discourage learning for different students.

Image courtesy of books.google.com

These courses also exposed me to critical race theory, Michel Foucault’s ideas about power and discourse, and culturally sustaining pedagogy, and these concepts transformed how I think about my work, how I problem-solve, and which questions I ask myself when I am trying to understand a student or a situation better. Recently, a group of students in our program were struggling academically in spite of receiving additional content tutoring, and these two courses helped me recognize that it is not only the content but also the context that can create difficulty for students. I realized that there was a set of unspoken norms and assumptions upon which the students’ classes were based, and that the students’ previous educational opportunities and experiences did not align with those classroom norms. To support these students, my team and I are now working to name those unspoken norms for the students and provide instruction, modeling, and practice in the hidden curriculum of rigorous high school classes. Additionally, in the programs I design for students, I work to affirm and incorporate their expertise into my lessons by using culturally and linguistically diverse texts and recognizing students’ own stories, family histories, and experiences as valid sources of knowledge. By changing the way I see and think, these courses have prepared me to advocate for positive change, to help students navigate unfair systems, to more fully understand my students, and to ensure that the learning environments I create are positive for all.

Another course that helped me better understand and support the learning of my students was CEP 802 Developing Positive Attitudes Toward Learning. This course changed how I think about and approach my role as an educator, and re-framed my conception of student motivation. Prior to this course, I had heard some fellow educators speak about motivation as if it were a thing that a student either had or didn’t have—as if a lack of motivation were a character flaw or a personal failing on the part of the student—as if student engagement was beyond educators’ realm of influence and responsibility. In CEP 802, I learned about a variety of theories of motivation and research on student engagement, and concluded that as an educator it is my job to think about student motivation, and I can do things to positively impact engagement. Using the TARGET framework, I learned how to analyze how the choices I made regarding my instruction, facilitation, assessment, and interactions with students either encourage or hamper student engagement. I studied how a student’s confidence, sense of belonging and safety, value for the task at hand, amount of agency, and self-monitoring strategies can all impact the student’s level of motivation to learn in a given context. What’s more, I came to realize that some behaviors that an educator might interpret as a manifestation of low motivation (such as failing to complete homework or participate) may in fact not be related to motivation at all, and may instead be a result of a gap in content knowledge, strategy knowledge, cultural miscommunication, or unclear expectations.

I took these insights and put them into practice in the course by completing a motivational design project. In this project, I identified a student lacked motivation to learn in a specific context and I designed and implemented a motivational intervention for the student. To create this intervention, I analyzed the learning environment and context, and I also worked to better understand the student as an individual through observations of the student and discussions with her and her academic coaches. This project helped me develop a productive approach to working with disengaged students: rather than feeling frustrated or dismayed, I feel curious, and I seek to learn more about the student, to look closely at the context I’ve created, and to make a plan to meet the needs of the student and respond to the obstacles to engagement. I have become more patient, more aware of myself and my students, and a more dynamic educator. I have also become a more effective leader, and have applied what I learned in CEP 802 to think about mobilizing and encouraging the team members that I supervise.

As I progressed through my master’s program, I also made a point to enroll in a variety of classes that related to my oldest and greatest academic passions, reading and writing. In my professional life, much of my early work was related to reading and writing instruction, and my more recent work has involved training and supporting other literacy educators, so I was eager to dedicate much of my studies to literacy.  In TE 846 Accommodating Differences in Literacy Learners, I gained a more nuanced understanding of literacy development, including early literacy development as well as literacy development in non native languages. This course helped me firmly identify the hallmarks  of  quality  literacy  instruction  and  implement  them  in my

Toward the end of my program, I enrolled in two additional literacy courses, and these two courses broadened my thinking about how reading and writing different types of texts can be powerful. In TE 849 Methods and Material for Teaching Children’s and Adolescent Literature, I read texts in a variety of forms, from verse novels to graphic novels to more traditional texts, and considered how each form might provide opportunities to engage different students. The course also helped me think critically about how specific groups are represented in texts, and the degree to which a wide variety of voices and experiences are included in texts I share with students. Overall, I left the course with a larger and more powerful arsenal of texts to share with students, and with a renewed dedication to exposing students to texts that can serve as “windows” into others’ experiences as well as “mirrors” of their own (Blaska, 2004).  Similarly, TE 848 Writing Assessment and Instruction expanded my conception of what writing instruction can and should be, empowering me to innovate and create meaningful and exciting opportunities for students to develop as writers. Taken together, these two courses widened my definitions of reading and writing instruction, and while I still see great value in canonical texts and traditional forms, I also believe that in order to be as effective as possible, literacy instruction must also be meaningful, dynamic, and empowering to students. As a result of these courses, I have become a richer resource to my team, better able to recommend texts and activities for individual students and groups. I have also carried my learning into my own lesson plans, including a wider variety of texts and giving students more opportunities to have greater agency over their writing. Overall, the literacy courses have inspired me to invite students to read and write about things that matter, and have prepared me to effectively support their literacy development at the same time.

Schuler Coach and student discuss a book.

Image courtesy of Schuler Scholar Program

practice. Notably, I learned that all students benefit from literacy instruction that embeds explicit skill and strategy instruction in meaningful contexts that require higher-level thinking, and this insight has become an anchor for all of my literacy work with students and staff. The course also helped me learn to more effectively analyze individual students’ needs and progress, and to differentiate my instruction. This has especially informed my volunteer work with adult English Language Learners, where I now incorporate cooperative learning activities that allow more advanced learners to take on the challenge of leadership while newer students benefit from the bilingual support of the veteran students.

As I exit my master’s program, I leave with a larger repertoire of strategies, techniques, theories, and resources. More significantly, I leave with a set of questions, habits of mind, and values that position me to better and more holistically understand my students.  My studies of social justice, student engagement, and literacy have all led me to this realization: my top priority as an educator is to understand students’ experiences and insights, languages and funds of knowledge, cultures and values, goals and fears. Through my master’s program and my experiences with students, I have learned to be a better listener, a more critical thinker, a more knowledgeable scholar, and a more responsive educator.

Reference: Blaska, J. K. (2004). Children’s literature that includes characters with disabilities or illnesses.  Disability Studies Quarterly 24(1).