“What Do You Want to Get Smarter About?”

In the College of Education at Michigan State University, a practicum is, according to some faculty, a “mini dissertation” and in the Teacher Education program, along with faculty, doctoral students are invited to participate as committee members for doctoral students’ “practicum committees.”  In some ways, it’s an opportunity for the student doing the practicum as well as for the doctoral student serving on the committee. Since I’ve already completed my practicum and am now working on my dissertation, I am “qualified” to participate as a practicum committee member and for me, this is a privilege and terrific learning opportunity.  It’s a privilege because I get to listen to someone else share their ideas, refine their questions, and plan out a study to answer their question(s).  It’s a learning opportunity because I also get to participate in a larger conversation about research, methodology, theoretical frameworks, and the ideas and questions that make us want to know more.

Earlier today, I spent time in a colleague’s practicum proposal defense, listening to him articulate his ideas about his research project.  Before we met as a committee, we all read this individual’s practicum proposal, in which the student outlined his ideas, questions, and research project.  As I sat listening to the conversation unfold, one of the faculty committee members commented that – as researchers and scholars – we should continually ask ourselves questions about our ideas and research.  One question in particular, she pointed out, that we should continue asking ourselves as we press forward is, “What do you want to get smarter about?”  

I have to be honest here.  When I first heard this question, my first thought was a fleeting image and memory of the Get Smart movie, staring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway, in which a bumbling analyst for a secret spy agency must prevent an international spy from bringing great harm to the United States.  This thought was not exactly fodder for an intellectual conversation focused on the topic at hand.  


However, as I listened to her say this, I quickly realized the beauty and truth in the question.  It’s a question we should all ask ourselves, in and out of academia.  For instance, this question resonates with this student’s practicum because he is working to refine his questions and hone in on what is he wants to really know more about.  At the same time, I also thought about my own research.  What is it I want to get smarter about? And, am I answering this question with my dissertation project?  

Throughout the dissertation data collection process and as I continue to learn from my case study teachers about how they think and work in their 1:1 classrooms, there’s definitely a lot about which I want to get smarter.  

For example, I want to get smarter about….

  • understanding how teachers think about about use 1:1 technology in their classrooms
  • recognizing how, when and why teachers use 1:1 technology in ways that bring about changes in teaching and learning
  • what “change without difference” and “change with difference” means, if anything, in 1:1 technology classroom contexts
  • portraiture and how to use it effectively to write my case study chapters 

At the same time, I also want to get smarter about writing which includes learning and understanding more about

  • the dissertation writing process and how to make it work well for me [and my family]
  • balancing my writing life with the rest of my “lives”
  • knowing when enough is enough, in terms of data collection, analysis and writing
  • identifying the *best* stories for each case study, which most readily answer my research questions and compel my reader

The things listed above are just *some* of the things about which I want to know more.  I also recognize that there will always be things about which to “get smarter.”  The question in today’s meeting, however, offered another opportunity to think – once again – about what it is I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and what it is I hope to learn along the way.  So, one of my goals as I continue to venture forth = get smarter.

The Writing Begins (or, better yet, continues)

When asked what they’re doing, I have colleagues who will reply, “I’m writing my dissertation right now” and when I hear this phrase I sometimes find myself jealous (because I want to be writing my dissertation).  At the same time I want to be writing my dissertation, I don’t want to be writing my dissertation.  It’s a daunting task.  Some women liken writing their dissertations to being pregnant and then giving birth.  I’m not sure if that metaphor works for me – check back in nine months (I plan to defend Jan./Feb. 2014).  In any case, though, the thought of writing a dissertation is both exciting and intimidating at the same time.  It’s this big, looming project that stands between me and the Ph.D.  At the same time, it’s supposed to be something I’m deeply interested in and should want to write (most of the time, anyway).  

For the past three and a half years, writing the dissertation wasn’t an option.  However, about a month ago I heard someone else tell me about the dissertation chapters they were writing and when they asked me what I was doing, I told them, “Oh, I’m writing a lot – just not the actual dissertation.  I’m still analyzing my data and am working through ideas.”  I went on to tell this colleague that my writing processes includes writing notes, typing analytic memos (i.e., notes about my notes), and revisiting/rewriting portions of my proposal as well as other things I’ve written connected to my research.  “So, I’m writing.  I’m just not writing my dissertation, at least not yet,” I told her.  I wasn’t sure when I’d start but knew I wasn’t there yet.  


This was the case until about two weeks ago and that’s when it happened.  It dawned on me, as I looked, once again, at my data piles that it was probably time to take the data and the analysis I’ve been doing and “do” something with it.  In other words, I should probably start writing my dissertation.  And, that’s when I decided to sit at the “art table” in our family sun room with my laptop and data spread about.  Sitting in that sun room I opened up a blank document and started typing, still not sure if I could actually call what I was doing “writing my dissertation.”  However, it’s exactly what I was doing and what I will continue to do for quite awhile. At this point, for me, it’s putting my ideas on the screen, looking back, again and again, at my data and then putting more ideas on the screen.  Based on my experiences so far, I anticipate repeating this process over and over and over again for the next while.

It’s not nearly as “romantic” as I imagined it might be.  Not that I have romantic notions about dissertation writing.  It is, however, easier to think about and imagine oneself doing something when you’re not actually doing it.  The writing part, I realize, is just like writing anything else.  It takes time, lots of brain power, and discipline (lots of discipline).  Sitting down and writing is hard work, especially making oneself sit for long periods in a seat, putting their fingers to the keyboard, and making words appear on the screen.

Of course I’ve just begun and it’s likely that whatever I’ve written up to this point is probably no more than a draft (at best) of whatever final product emerges.  I still have more data analysis and definitely a lot more thinking to do.  I also have a lot more writing ahead of me.  But, I am now someone who, when asked what I’m doing at this point in my graduate program can reply, “I’m writing my dissertation.”  It sounds so official and exciting and yet scary and unnerving at the same time. In any case, though, I have begun.

Dissertation Spine Poem

This post’s title and corresponding picture are directly related to a post one of my amazing colleagues at Michigan State University, Kristin McIlhagga posted on Facebook.  She’s an amazingly creative and smart person, so when I saw a picture of her “dissertation spine poem,” it inspired my own.  It wasn’t long before I grabbed some of the books I’ve already read, some I’m currently reading and some I still have yet to read.  The one thing this pile has in common – they all connect to my dissertation in one way or another.  I piled them up, arranged them “just so,” and snapped the picture.  The titles, in some cases, speak for themselves. In other instances, they are texts which inform my research and writing. dissertation spine poem1

The process of putting together a dissertation, I’m finding, is interesting and complicated.  When I look at this “poem,” I’m excited and proud of what I’m doing.  At the same time, I’m equally overwhelmed and intimidated.  I regularly vacillate between these emotions (among others) when I think about or talk with others about this project.  I have so much I still want (and need) to learn and I continue to think about what I see, hear, and read when it comes to 1:1 digital devices and teachers in K-12 classrooms.  Like these books, thoughts and ideas stack up in my mind and I’m not always sure what to do with them.  This project continues to provide opportunities for me to keep learning and growing, not only as I watch teachers teach in 1:1 classrooms but also as I read about technology, research, learning, and K-12 education.

1:1 Classroom Observations and Data Collection

Notebooks and Hand-Writing – Since October 2012, I’ve spent time in four different 1:1 iPad high school classrooms, observing science, world language, English language arts and social studies teachers teach, sometimes using iPads and sometimes not.  Since my dissertation focuses, in part, on when, why and how teachers (and their students) use or don’t use these devices, it’s been a lot of fun (and quite interesting) to observe what happens.  In addition to classroom observation notes, I regularly interview these teachers, and I continue to collect teacher handouts, pictures of classrooms (w/out students) and course resources, as well as online content.  However, my picture for this post are the four notebooks I continue to add to, every time I’m in one of these classrooms. I take notes for every class period and each notebook represents observational data for one teacher.   Although I do use my iPad for some note-taking when I observe, I’ve found that hand-writing what happens (in some cases, “scripting”) helps me more effectively organize my thoughts and allows me to capture more details.  I can also write and look around.  I know, for me, I can’t type and look around.  So, hand-written notes it is and these notebooks are evidence to that point.  


Needless to say, since this is a yearlong study, I have A LOT of notes and I still have A LOT more to take.  But, when I go back and re-read them or when I type up memos and ideas, I am transported back to that day, that classroom, that hour with that teacher and those students.  I don’t capture everything but I’m definitely capturing some things and it’s all of the “somethings” I’m excited to make sense of.

Speaking of Classroom Observations – Having spent twelve years as a high school English teacher before heading back to pursue my doctorate, I know that not everything that meets the eye is what it appears to be, especially in classrooms.  This is why I often ask my case study teachers about students or particular questions I have about something they taught or did.  Asking these questions helps me get a better, clearer picture of the classrooms in which I observe.  It also reminds me that these teachers, despite their differences, generally know what’s going on (and often why) in any given hour.  For example, when I asked one teacher after class about a student who appeared to be utilizing social media on her iPad during class while the teacher was lecturing, I learned about how smart this student is (“crazy smart and someone who probably read tomorrow’s assigned reading last night,” the teacher told me).  I also learned that, given some additional circumstances (which wouldn’t be evident in a classroom observation), the social media engagement was probably helping her focus.  So, here’s an instance in which I saw some thing (i.e., a student “surfing” a social media site) but without the teacher’s additional insights, I would’ve missed something, perhaps many things.  It would’ve been easy to I assume that the teacher just didn’t notice or didn’t care, neither of which turned out to be true.  So, asking these follow up questions is crucial in helping me “get my story right.”

In another instance, a teacher told me about how he configures his room and constantly moves around to maximize his ability to connect with his students and see what they’re doing on their iPads.  This constant movement keeps him connected to this students AND maintain a sense as to what they’re doing on their iPads, when they’re using them.  In this case, this teacher’s 1:1 class isn’t just about iPads.  He’s constantly (and consistently) working with students, one on one.  He talks to them about their work in his classes, answers their questions when they have them, and provides re-direction and encouragement when necessary.  He’s also vigilant in his supervision of their iPad usage.  He’s taken iPads away, told students to “power off” and shut it down and he’s even told students to leave his classroom.  In this case, he’s connected to his students in human and technological terms.

These observations, among the many others I have so far, serve as springboards for many of the rhetorical questions I ask of myself, not to mention most of the questions I pose to my four case study participants.  I ask A LOT of questions and I know enough to know that this part of my dissertation data collection process is exceedingly important.  If I only rely on what I see (or *think* I see), I’ll miss the “crazy smart” student and won’t fully understand the method one teacher uses when walking around the room, using every sense possible to connect with students on multiple levels.  Of course I’ll miss things along the way but my goal is to see as much as I can, write as much as I can and ask as much as I can.


“Clouds” and the Dissertation Process

I recently asked a post-doc friend about her experiences collecting data and writing her dissertation.  She explained that, for her, it was “like a cloud – always there, hovering.”  This is an apt description of my own experiences thus far (we’ll see how they play out, as I have not yet crossed the “dissertation finish line”).  In any case, though, it’s funny that she used the term, “cloud” because, for me, there is truth to this word and image on two levels.

ImageOne – Cloud Technology.  My entire dissertation project (e.g., drafts, proposal, memos, audio and transcript interview files, notes, etc.) are housed in cloud technology (there’s NO way I’m losing all of this stuff if my computer’s hard drive crashes).  I also have it backed up to an external hard drive, but that’s just another safety net.  Thanks to cloud technology, though, this project is “always there, hovering” – waiting to be accessed and added to, improved upon, written, and revised.

Two – Clouds in the Sky. The concept of a “cloud” also works in a literal sense.  Clouds in the sky are never the same. One can use clouds to look for shapes, beauty, and/or weather.   Sometimes clouds are wispy and thin, like someone stretched out cotton candy on canvas.  Other times, they are billowy and lazy, like thick cotton balls puffed up, stretched and dotted across the sky.  In some ways, my dissertation feels like a literal cloud in the sky.  For example, sometimes dissertation ideas cloud my mind (pardon the pun), filling it up with little room for much else.  But, there are also other times, when there exists only hints of ideas or thoughts.

In any case, though, there’s always some sort of cloud “hanging” in the back of my mind.  For example, I think about things such as how I’m going to organize and code my data as I continue forth.  Or, other times, I mentally (and literally) re-examine my theoretical framework and coding schema   Still, others, I imagine chapter titles and the ways I want to organize and “tell participants’ stories.”  These are just two examples – there are many more.  Trust me.  But, at this point, for most of my days there’s almost always a cloud in sight (or mind).  So, like my friend said, the dissertation project is “always there,” in one cloud form or another.

Image (2013) taken from:  Officialplaystationmagazine.co.uk

Dissertation Data Collection Adventure(s)

Well, since October 2012 I’ve been collecting data in high school 1:1 iPad classrooms.  I am grateful to the four case study teachers who have allowed me to come in and observe them, their students and the teaching/learning that occurs in their classrooms.  In some ways, these teachers are similar to one another and in others they are quite different, which is to be expected.  For example, it is evident they all enjoy what they do.  They are passionate about their subject matters and they care about their students’ learning.  They freely give of their time to students, before school and after school and during class.  They show up, they care, and they teach.  All terrific attributes in a teacher.

In other ways, though, they are different (also to be expected).  How they think about 1:1 classroom environments and the ways in which they incorporate iPads into their teaching and curriculum is quite different.  For example, one uses iTunes U and Edmodo (for different classes) to house and communicate course content.  Two others use Google sites to disseminate curricular information, and the fourth uses Edmodo to send out regular reminds and share class-related materials.  They also vary in the apps and sites they employ and the ways in which they manage students’ uses of iPads in the classroom.


It’s interesting to think about these similarities and differences, as I watch these teachers give of their time, expertise, talents, and encouragement to their students.  Each of them want students to learn.  How they go about facilitating this learning, though, is different and while some of it is based on the ways in which they view and understand how 1:1 works in their particular content area(s), their teaching and facilitation also stems from deeper held beliefs about what’s important for students to learn and how and why students learn best in specific content areas.  This is becoming evident the more time I spend in their classrooms, listening and learning from these individuals.  It has become clear that my goal, as I press ahead in data collection and analysis, is to find ways to tell their stories that reflect what I see and understand as well as what they see, experience and know.  And so, the adventure continues.

Image taken from: Jonathan D. Blundell’s (2012) blog post, “Sharing Stories”


This entry’s picture is a bag full of brand-new highlighters, thanks to my dad’s recent generosity (he had too many and couldn’t use them all).  I anticipate using them to highlight and code my data, which continues to accumulate the more time I spend in high school classrooms and the more interviews I conduct with my four case study participants.  By the time this project is finished, these highlighters will have had a workout!


However, this post is also about highlighting particular moments in 2012.  These moments are important to the journey I continue on and are ones I need (and want) to remember, as I continue to gather data as well as conduct analysis and engage in the writing process.  So, here are some “highlights” from this past year.

Winter 2012 – I spent the fall (2011) meeting with various faculty members, talking with them about my dissertation ideas.  The more I talked, thought and read, the more the ideas came together.  By later winter, I secured my dissertation committee faculty members (yeah!), all of whom bring expertise, wisdom, and balance to the committee and their own work.  I am grateful for their service and intend to give them my very best, when I send them my final draft.  In the meantime, I spent the majority of late winter and early spring 2012 formulating my dissertation proposal.

Spring 2012 – The first (and, I might add, terrible) dissertation proposal draft I composed was sent to some of my doctoral friends who graciously pointed out ways I could strengthen and further develop my ideas.  It was a beginning.  March and April were months in which I spent countless hours drafting, revising, reading (and re-reading), all connected to my proposal.  By the time I sent off a finalized proposal to my committee (in the midst of a flurry of technical difficulties!?), I had begun to dream about my topic and thinking about it during too many moments of each day.  A good sign – it had clearly taken root in my mind.  I successfully defending my proposal in late April 2012, receiving the green light from my committee to proceed with my project (completed by a huge sigh of relief on my part).

Summer 2012 – I spent time revising my dissertation proposal (based on my committee’s feedback) and securing IRB (i.e., Institutional Review Board) approval for my project.  I continued to read more about 1:1 technology as well as research methodology and the craft of writing.  In the midst, I enjoyed some quality time outdoors with my family, taking in the warmth of one of the hottest summers on record.  I also worked on some additional research projects, adding to my never-ending “to do” list.

Fall 2012 – As the result of teaching an online graduate course focused on teaching and technology (i.e., TE 831) this year for MSU, I’ve learned more about educational technology and theoretical frameworks others use to think about “ed tech stuff.”  I also applied for a fellowship connected to my dissertation, a process that was both time consuming and wholly beneficial as it, once again, required me to revisit my  ideas and project, writing about it for a general audience.  I solicited volunteers for my dissertation and, as it turned out, had more than enough volunteers (a great problem to have!).  By October 2012, I was “officially” on my way….

Mid fall, I began classroom observations and conducted round one (of four) interviews with the case study participants.  I also distributed and collected survey responses from high school faculty members (I ended up with a 45% response rate, give or take a percentage point or two).  This past fall also found me re-thinking and revising my own theoretical framework, which I’m currently labeling “TIK,” which stands for “Teachers’ Integrated Knowledge.”  We’ll see if that label sticks in the final draft.  For now, it works.  I’m now finishing up round two of interviews and am in the midst of classroom observations, focused on how teachers use 1:1 technology in their classrooms, with their students.

Highlights:  This past year also provided me with some important reminders.  I 1.) thoroughly enjoy being in high school classrooms; 2.) find myself with all sorts of ideas, questions, and thoughts; 3.) and, am still not sure how I will get my final draft finished (a problem for another day).  In any case, I have a lot to be thankful for, as I continue to journey forth.  There’s also much to highlight, literally and figuratively, in 2013 which is why this bag of markers will come in quite handy.