Building a Bridge

I’ve been working on my dissertation proposal for too many months to count now. This is a common phenomenon and not worth commenting on. But what is of note is this: I’ve been slogging through mud for some time now, and six weeks ago, I came to a full stop. I’ve banged my head against the proverbial wall. I’ve paced. I’ve frowned and stared off into the wild blue yonder. I’ve retraced my steps, started anew, retraced, tracked out in a different direction.

This wouldn’t be so tragic if I didn’t have three pretty tight chapters of an almost complete dissertation proposal. Here is my roadblock: I’ve been feeling as though it’s Frankensteined together for some time. There’s something wrong and it feels disingenuous to keep pushing. (Note to self: it’s important to honor the tension of daily forward movement vs. forcing something that doesn’t fit.) So I’ve given myself permission to wrestle with it. I’ve taken time, time that I don’t feel I have – which makes it all the more important to take the time.

But the more I tease at it, the more I read and ponder and consider, the more I think that there is a missing link. The more I depend upon that sidelong glance, the more I realize that I’m keeping “the tail of [my] eye on what is happening over and above [the] author” and theory and research that I’m reading (Frost). It’s not Frankenstein – there is simply a missing element.  It is a bridge that links the two together. It is my job to identify, design, gather materials for, and build this bridge.

I’m good for it. I’ve got this. I have a growth mindset. In the immortal words of Gandhi, “If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.

On the other hand, I am learning the hard way that Vygotsky is right: Learning is social. I need someone to talk to. I need iron sharpening iron. I need hard questions. I need to be simmering in the primordial morass of likewise seeking scholars, intent on the nuances of measures and constructs and theoretical frameworks. This isolation isn’t what I signed up for.

But the bridge calls. And forward movement is essential. And growth, while painful, is worth it in the end.

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Design Thinking: Tim Brown

The initial planning stages and subsequent development of our statewide professional development program, the Idaho Core Coaching Network, was predicated on the concepts of Design Thinking. This iterative process is never finished: as more teachers join our ranks, we constantly ask for feedback in the form of surveys, reflective questions in dialogue journals, and collaborations between Core Coaches. This feedback informs our goal of continuous improvement, but it does so in such a way the integrates the needs and concerns of those most deeply impacted: the teachers receiving the professional development and the Coaches providing the professional development.

This brief clip (Don Norman and Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO) provides a glimpse into why design thinking provides an additional layer of insight for those concerned with planning, innovation, and problem-solving.

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Honoring the Tension of Researcher & Teacher

I provide professional development to teachers. This is my passion and my vocation. As a doctoral student, I have grappled with the challenge of being deeply immersed in my subject as a facilitator and dispassionately observing in my role as researcher. And yet, it doesn’t make sense for me to entirely disregard my 15 years in the education field. My experience as a junior high and high school English Language Arts teacher and as a facilitator of professional development for teachers has provided both a substantial foundation of knowledge and a valuable context for the events and practices that I encounter as researcher. And while there is validity in acknowledging the researcher’s bias, there is a long history of acknowledging the valuable role that harnessing the expertise, insights, and “gut checks” of the researcher in question (Mills, 1959; Glense & Peshkin, 1992; Straus, 1987; Reason, 1988) provides. It is this acknowledgement of tensions – the awareness of real, perceived, and potential bias as well as the “virtuous” perspectives and insights of my experience – that girds my research journey.

What do I do? Upon reflection, it seems that I must acknowledge the tension. And so, on this journey of research and dissertation planning, I vow to consciously honor the years of apprenticed and masterful junior high and high school teaching, the years spent honing the art and science of facilitating professional development for adult learners, and the depth and breadth of my own perspective, knowledge, and experience in these roles. I also consciously bound this journey within a flexible netting of researcher awareness. While choosing not to eliminate the influences of my educator identity or background in facilitating professional development, it is also essential that I choose not to impose my assumptions and values upon the research. In this, I am adopting the lens of “critical subjectivity” (Reason, 1988, 1994), that “quality of awareness in which we do not suppress our primary experience; nor do we allow ourselves to be swept away and overwhelmed by it; rather we raise it to consciousness and use it as part of the inquiry process” (1933, p. 12). Instead of allowing myself to be distracted by the binary thinking of either/or, I am embracing the both/and attitude. I am both a researcher and a teacher — and my writing, thinking, and research will only benefit from this union.

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Excerpts from my Researcher Identity Memo

As part of my readings and preparations for my Comprehensive Exams and for writing my dissertation proposal, I’ve been reading a couple of books. One of these is Maxwell’s (2013) Qualitative Research Design. Chapter 3 suggests drafting a Researcher Identity Memo. Here is an excerpt, the first of several that I’ll eventually post, which explores my identity as professional development facilitator.

I have very powerful memories of both watching and experiencing effective professional development and non-examples of the same. I began to internalize these experiences, almost without conscious thought, and creating experiences for teachers that mitigated the negative aspects and enhanced the positive. Because I realized the importance of mentoring another facilitator into position, I began the arduous task of explaining my rationale of my choices to her. This was painful, both for me and, I imagine, for her. Sometimes I could not clearly articulate my choices and the underlying rationale without resorting to drawn diagrams and a great deal of narrative explanation. However, over time, the process solidified and the communication became more fluid, the rationale more easily accessed. This particular facilitator and I now work seamlessly, a team in the truest sense of the word, both of us able to brainstorm, plan deep learning experiences and active learning activities, and articulate the rationale for both content and strategy decisions. The act of mentorship honed my own facilitator abilities and forced me to articulate the rational for my actions.

This was an interesting activity that helped me name and label the seminal events and milestones that shaped my research interests and led me to this current space in my professional life. If you’re interested in doing the same, read the section on “Experiential Knowledge” (pp. 44-48) of Chapter 3.

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Kazakhstani Hospitality

The people of Kazakhstan are incredibly hospitable. We were fed…and fed…and fed. At this particular school, after we visited the classrooms and watched students present and toured the school, we were each presented with a bouquet of roses and invited to sit and feast.

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We were offered all kinds of breads and meats and salads and pastries and chocolates and nuts and dried fruit. The thin, round slices of meat in the lower right quadrant (directly above the desert) is horse. Because horse is so lean, they infuse this horse sausage with fat.

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A Glimpse into Culture: Student Performance

2013-04-09 21.14.49Wherever we went, students performed for us, showcasing both Kazakh and Kazakhstani culture. The two schools we visited today were no different. The first, a Kazakh school (where the subjects were taught in the Kazakh language) presented traditional dance forms and dombra playing.

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The music was lively, the young girls vibrant, and their dressed twirled. They had traveled to compete (and win) internationally.




The students at the second school (subjects taught in Russian) performed dances as well, though these were ballroom dances performed to classical music.

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The Chocolate Factory

We were walking down the street, exploring a bit after dinner. Wan sunshine illuminated the sky, and we were chatting, our bellies full.

2013-04-09 05.57.26Suddenly the rich, unmistakable scent of chocolate filled the air. Wave after wave undulated across the heavens, the heady scent filling our heads. I felt a bit like Odysseus & the Syrens, but this time the silky call sought the nostrils.

We followed our noses to the Chocolate Factory. It was packed. Folks from every walk of life stood behind the counter, ordering a kilo or five of the chocolate candy pieces.

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Hello? Anyone there?

2013-04-09 04.51.06In Kazakhstan, also, cell phones are ubiquitous. It was worth noting the one public telephone that I found.

This was at the Ascension Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox place of worship in Almaty. The square was rather large, with many people strolling about, taking in the scenery, laughing with their children, elders, and friends.2013-04-09 04.51.21

The church itself, finished in 1907, was built entirely without nails. Somehow, it survived the earthquake of 1911, an earthquake that registered 7.7 on the Richter Scale and destroyed almost 800 buildings in Almaty (which was, incidentally, almost the entire city). It’s incredibly colorful and beautiful.


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Museum of Kazakh Culture

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Traditionally, the Kazakh people were sheepherders. Wool and sheep products figure prominently into their way of life. The walls of the yurt would be lined and layered with beautifully & colorfully designed rugs. They lined the floors as well, keeping out the cold and keeping the inhabitants warm & cozy.

The jewelry of the Kazakh people reflects their culture, values, and beliefs. Much of Kazakh jewelry is made of silver and inlaid with jewels or carved with meaningful designs. Because the Kazakhs were nomadic people, the jewelry also reflects the various peoples they encountered. For Kazakh people, jewelry held magical and protective properties.

While kumys (mare’s milk) and shubat (camel’s milk) are particularly important in the Kazakh culture, tea is also quite important. The former are often taken with the meal, while tea is often served afterwards or with a mid-morning or afternoon snack.


As mentioned previously, the horse figured largely into every part of the Kazakh life. This print captures the vital nature of the horse and how integral the horse was for warfare, defending territory, and advancing one’s borders.

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Music: the Dombra

2013-04-09 03.38.19The traditional musical instrument of the Kazakh people is the dombra. It is a three-stringed, long-necked lute. We’ve seen it played by several different students, and it seems to share a prominent place in the Kazakh culture.



Check out Freestailo on SuperStar KZ playing the dombra:

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