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Evolution of Research Question

October 11, 2010

Research Question: Where I Started
After brainstorming ideas for a couple of weeks – with the help of classmates and professors – I settled on the following question to guide my research project:

Do experiential learning and narrative-based assessments adequately prepare K-5 students for future success in more conventional learning environments?

After receiving feedback from peers, the question morphed into:

Do experiential learning and qualitative assessments adequately prepare K-5 students for transference of knowledge, skills, and experiences to other learning environments?

Though I am in the Professional Writing track of the Written Communication program, my background is in elementary education, and many of my educational/professional passions are in this area. I am especially interested in curricula design, experiential learning, collaborative learning, integrated curricula, and balanced liberal arts with a healthy emphasis on fine art, music, drama, and sport. I taught elementary and middle school in Ann Arbor for six years, substitute taught for an additional four years, and I’ve been providing one-on-one English, ESL, and math instruction to learners at a variety of levels for about ten years.

Beyond issues of learning and instruction, I’m very interested in parent/teacher communication, teacher/teacher communication, and qualitative, narrative-style assessment of student academic performance. I list these interests separately, because, though still education-focused, they each revolve around specific professional written practices. Often these practices are overlooked or misidentified when scholars consider K-5 education, and I prefer taking a more holistic approach that includes all potential players and communities. Ignoring teacher/teacher communication practices in favor of focusing exclusively on instruction/curricula delivery, for example, ignores an integral component of K-5 culture. Same goes for relegating parent/teacher contact to report card checklists and semi-annual face-to-face meetings. I believe equal focus on all of these K-5 situations, contexts, and relationships is necessary for student performance and growth, teacher empowerment and satisfaction, and parent buy-in and support. A popular K-5 motto is, “It’s all about the children.” I disagree. It’s all about the community, and the wants and needs of all members are valid and important and must be considered for the success of everyone.

Summers-Knoll School

From 2002-2008 I taught grades 1-7 at Summers-Knoll (SK) School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I left SK two years ago to take a position as a technical editor with Cape Henry Associates, Inc., a government subcontractor providing training, education, and manpower analyses and recommendations for a variety of government entities including the US Navy. I really enjoy my new job, and the people I work with and for are top notch. Though I now spend my days in front of a computer instead of in front of a classroom, I’m still able to interact with students each week via one-on-one tutoring. I’ve tutored a variety of subjects in the past, but am currently focusing solely on English.

I also remain in touch with my former colleagues at Summers-Knoll. When I began brainstorming for grad project ideas, I contacted Joanna Hastings, head of school at SK. Joanna had several ideas for ways I could get involved with SK that would allow me to give back to the school that’s given me so much and also provide me with experience, data, and deliverables to satisfy requirements for my MA program – a win-win situation. The two ideas of Joanna’s that I latched onto are:

1. Grad students from UM’s School of Information are currently building digital portfolio wireframes for SK. These portfolios will be used to document and present student work and move beyond current hardcopy portfolios by allowing easier inclusion of video and sound. Joanna suggested I might provide the communications component of this venture. This potential project also leads to several other related activities including usability testing of the school’s web site and participation in the development of a parent portal at, both of which I’m interested in pursuing.

2. Summers-Knoll’s focus is on experiential, project-based learning within a larger liberal arts framework. The school’s primary academic assessment tool is Work Sampling System (WSS), a narrative and portfolio-based qualitative assessment application developed by the University of Michigan. It is the best assessment tool I’ve ever worked with. A concern, however, of a minority of SK parents is the tool’s inability to provide quantitative evaluations of kids’ work. Some parents fear SK’s curricula may not prepare children for future success in more conventional learning environments, and WSS is unable to capture meaningful data that demonstrate the ability of SK learners to transfer learning to new contexts. Joanna asked if I could figure out a way to demonstrate what we both know theoretically and anecdotally. I agreed, and think the answer may be as simple as an in-depth literature review and teacher testing of WSS’s new web-based application. (My hunch is WSS online will make it easier for teachers to run more quantitative reports on student achievement and growth over time.)

Research Question: Where I Am Now

After a great face-to-face with Dr. Krause on 8 October, I decided to limit my project to just the digital portfolios and web-based WSS. My plan is to upload sample digital portfolios and sample classroom assessments on WSS. I will conduct teacher usability studies on both and perhaps parent usability studies or roundtable discussions as well. I will work with SK on developing a parent portal at their school web site, and have already begun usability testing of this site to meet requirements for my current Advanced Technical Writing class with Dr. Benninhoff. (Work on may or may not be included in my final grad project.)

Currently, my research question looks something like this:

Should Summers-Knoll School adopt the web-based Work Sampling System and UM-designed digital portfolios as part of their permanent student assessment program?

My literature review will focus on the use of digital portfolios in elementary education, Work Sampling System, and general assessment of experiential learning. I’ve got another meeting with Joanna Hastings this week. If she approves my current plan (which I’ll flesh out even further beforehand), then I’ll meet with SK’s homeroom teachers next week to get them on board. I plan to position my project to them as a study of their communication practices. I think they’ll be more receptive if they feel they’re in the driver’s seat.

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