When researching the lives of people

When I think about qualitative research, I remember a group of Salvadoran teachers sitting on the floor talking about the challenges of teaching in a rural setting. They talk about their frustrations with the younger ones who have never lived in a time of war and all the loss and violence that was so much a part of their lives. They talk about crossing the Sumpul River to get away from the soldiers and their makeshift classrooms in the forest where they went to school.

Sumpul River Massacre – “there were so many vultures picking at the bodies in the water that it looked like a black carpet,”

I haven’t thought about these stories for a long time, but I am thinking about them now. The memories have been stirred up by the reading I have been doing on qualitative inquiry and what it means to use a narrative approach to conduct research. For me, the only meaningful study of the lives of these people would be through a rigorous qualitative study. Using the criteria that exists to conduct qualitative research we could learn a great deal from these people’s stories.

This was not what I was imagining when I started my courses in the fall. Now I am thinking about John Creswell and what he says about listening to the participant in the study and working to understand the lived experience of those you are talking to Creswell (2015).

I am also thinking back to the first article I read, Tracy’s ‘Big-Tent’ criteria for excellent qualitative inquiry (Tracy, 2010). The first criteria – Worthy topic –  really struck me and this is challenging me to think in a different way about my own research.

Studies of worth excite interest and go places that are unexpected (Tracy, 2010, p. 841). That is what I want to do and this is certainly what good qualitative research should do. I have read and reread Samantha Cutrara’s book Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imaging a New We (Cutrara, 2020) and I now understand why this book is having such an influence on me. In my opinion, this is excellent qualitative research. It tells the story of four classrooms where the author attempted to turn conventional history teaching on its head.

Rather than teach the standard curriculum revolving around the two founding peoples, Cutrara allowed students, mainly from urban racialized schools in Toronto, to develop their own narratives. She calls this methodology Historic Space, and it focuses on deconstructing the historical narratives that are meaningless to the students she is working with (Cutrara, 2020, p. 168). The richness or rigour of her research comes from the stories she tells of her conversations with different students and also the pushback she experiences from some of the teachers she works with.

Cutrara is a very reflexive writer who has taken the time to write about the anger and frustration she encountered while doing this work. She wrote this book because after four years, she felt compelled to honour the voices of the students she worked with and to ensure that their voices were heard (Cutrara, 2020 p. ix.).

The research really resonates with me, not just because at one point I was a history teacher, but because she is telling the stories of the voiceless, another key component that Tracy identifies as good qualitative research (Tracy, p. 844). 

Tracy also writes that good qualitative research should make a significant contribution. I do need to read more about how Cutrara’s arguments are being received. She goes against conventional thought on the use of historical thinking concepts in the classroom so while I consider this excellent qualitative research there may not be many academics who share my belief.

Returning to the classroom in El Salvador, I can imagine a researcher using Tracy’s model and Cutrara’s story-telling ability to get at the heart of good qualitative research. What an exciting challenge to bring such important stories into the light.

References

Creswell., J. (2015). Doing qualitative research [Video]. In SAGE Research Methods Video https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781506363448

Cutrara, S. (2020)Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imagining a New We. UBC Press.

Tracy, S. J. (2010). Qualitative Quality: Eight “Big Tent” Criteria for Excellent Qualitative Research. Qualitative Inquiry 16(10) 837-851. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800410383121

My Researcher’s Journal – an introduction

This is a different type of post, it may go on for years.

One thing I have been charged to do is to write every day. One of the writing challenges is to start a researcher’s journal. Everything in a Ph.D. program focuses on the end goal, the completion of a dissertation. There are many layers to this process, I am unpeeling one of them here.

I am very grateful for the writing prompts I have been getting over the past two weeks. My writing had dried up and while I love to write, I really did not see much to write about. Now I have a focus and I need to reserve time every day for writing.

I have two supervisors which is wonderful. I met with both of them last week to start work on this journey. Very slowly I think, I will develop some ideas on what I should focus on in my research.

What do I know so far?

I got into all of this because of historical thinking concepts. I love the idea that as teachers our first task is to help our students to think.

While much has been written over the past 20 years, some areas like the ethical dimension have received less attention. This gives me a clue on where I can start.

One of my advisors told me to read everything by Peter Seixas, the preeminent writer on historical thinking concepts in Canada. So, I need to go back and follow the train of his writing for the past 20 years. I can’t see how I am going to truly understand the philosophy and epistemology behind historical thinking without this deep dive.

Peter Seixas

As I learn new things and read more articles, I will have to find a system for keeping a record of all this. Over the summer I used this chart along with summary notes to start documenting the articles I am reading. The chart is a good way to clarify my thinking so I will start using this again with some modifications.

content or topic with matching
photo article on gallery walk – pedagogy,
methodology, epistemology
text – big ideas/concepts
  ← relates to my thesis?
← applications for own teaching/inspirations
I have added epistemology and Methodology to the chart, also changed other resources to relates to my thesis
I have to look at articles critically – what is the epistemology, the methodology? the method?

The chart will continue to change and eventually there will be hundreds of articles, but putting down something here helps me to commit.

Apart from historical thinking, I am really interested in how we choose the stories we are going to tell our students and how this changes over time. This week, I am going to work on Reverberating Echoes: Challenging Teacher Candidates to Tell and Learn From Entwined Narrations of Canadian History (2011)
by Kent Den Heyer and Laurence Abbott. Narrative is something I am really interested in, so this is another clue.

I am learning about qualitative research, and this is something I want to understand better. There is more of a story-telling approach in qualitative research and this immediately appeals to me. I am also learning about oral history which is fascinating.

Can I combine oral history with qualitative research?

I also have to work on my academic writing and how to do citations and references properly. The only way to do this is to keep writing and listen carefully to all the advice I get.

These are early days, so my journal is a collection of random ideas. I have decided to put this out on my regular blog so that I can keep this process visible. I also hope that along the way I will get some sage advice that might help.

This is the introduction, the next post will be a chapter 1.

Searching for an idea – whose stories need to be told? 

I am putting my ideas out there now because I want to make my academic journey as transparent as I can over the next four years. I am trying to get into the discipline of writing every day, my next post will probably be the start of a research journal that I need to keep over the length of my Ph.D. I am hoping some people will find this interesting and that I will get some helpful feedback as well! Who knows maybe I will get on Doug Peterson’s show on VoicEd Radio.

I am looking forward to doing this writing every week. I love to write, but academic writing and APA ( a style guide for writing) are new to me. When I post my writing now, I will adapt it so some of the course-specific material is omitted. This post is part introduction, a search for a research topic and my reactions to reading bell hooks.

I did my B.A. at Queen’s University, my M.A. at York University and my B.Ed at the University of Toronto. In between my Masters and Education degree I took a break from studies to work for Katimavik, a national work experience for Canadian youth. I grew in this program and I wanted to find more ways to work in this non-traditional learning environment.

I taught for 31 years in several positions. None were as interesting as working in Katimavik, but after seven years in a traditional classroom, I had the opportunity to work in an alternate classroom at my school. My students didn’t fit into the regular stream. Some had mental health issues, some were dealing with addiction and some simply didn’t fit in. In some ways, I was like many of them. I felt comfortable in this learning environment, and it was a unique privilege to help them through some of the life crises they experienced while in our classroom.

I find now as I take my graduate classes that my mind is growing again. No one really grows when they are comfortable, and it is a relief to again be in that zone. Now I am searching –  what can I write about that will make a difference for people?  Last night in the middle of our methodology class, an idea came to me. Maybe I need a bolder focus. Is there a way I could study a different education system outside of the Canadian context?

Years ago, I spent a good deal of time talking to educators in a northern village in El Salvador. The educators in this town all grew up during the war and were survivors of massacres that took place in their region. We talked about these experiences and it seemed as if they were back in the river fleeing for their lives. They are teachers because they want something better for their children, they are trying to build a society out of the chaos of war. It occurs to me that going back to the village do some form of qualitative research could be what I am looking for. What would it be like to tell their stories? Has anyone tried to do this?

 talking to teachers in San Jos las Flores

I love the bell hooks book. There is so much that speaks to me. I am thinking of the discipline and passion that went into her writing. She writes a great deal about anger and loss, but I think her real message is love and understanding. It is interesting to watch her interview and what she says about speaking freely and teaching courage (Freedom Forum, 2016). The book was dark in many ways and she seemed to lack the confidence to write and publish, but here in this interview I can see how she developed her dissenting voice that welcomes conflict as a normal part of our lives.

It seems like a whole new generation of writers has been influenced by her power and honesty. We do a book study with our year 2 students on How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi mentions bell hooks in his book, she was one of the writers he turned to as he worked to overturn his own gender and queer racism (Kendi, 2019, p.198-199). Kendi uses a style that reminds me of bell hooks. In each of his chapters, he gives us a taste of his own story. He uses these stories to write about gender, colour, power and what it means to be an antiracist. This book has a great influence on our students, but would this have been possible without the truth-telling of bell hooks?

this is not long and it is a wonderful interview!

My Academic Life (so far)

When I put things down on paper or in a blog I make a public commitment. Right now I am working on developing an academic schedule that will take me through the next four years. Yes, this is an assignment for one of my courses, but this is really a letter to myself. I understand the importance of committing to a plan. When I was working as a  principal I would plan ahead all the time, even though the job by its very nature, was unpredictable. Despite the chaos in running an elementary school, every week I would write weekly plans in a school blog to parents so that they would know what was intended to go on at the school. On some Sunday afternoons, this writing would take hours. I never resented the time. This was an opportunity to reflect on what had happened the week before and plan for upcoming events.

My last school blog post – December 2016

I never worried that the school schedule did not follow what was set down on Sunday. Writing was a  way for me to take a longer view and celebrate what was going on with our parent community. This also made the learning more visible for the community.

Six years later I find myself planning again: this time for a Ph.D. which will consume my time for the next four years.  The first year in a Ph.D. program is probably the most straightforward. I am in the process of taking six courses – two last semester, three right now and one in the spring. After this I will be starting work on my comprehensives. This begins with the development of my bibliography and continues on following the schedule below:

StepsExpected completion
Courses completed Spring, 2022
Committee Member List 
Comprehensive Exam: Bibliography
Written component
Oral presentation
1) October
2) spring
3) fall 2022 
Thesis proposal  winter 2023
Ethics approval spring 2023
Recruitment and data collection summer – fall 2023
Thesis winter 2024
Defense December 2025
my first draft at a long-term schedule

To get to 2025, I need a detailed schedule. I am sure this will evolve as I learn more about the Ph.D. process. However, on this cold January afternoon in 2022, there is comfort in editing a draft schedule that sets a future path and supposes order to a very busy four years.

The challenge will not only be managing a busy writing and reading schedule, it will be finding ways to balance this work with many other interests. The foundation of the week will remain exercise. If I have learned anything through the Pandemic it is the importance of keeping body, mind and spirit healthy. The activity can change from the Peloton to hiking to biking, but this is where I have to start, I simply can’t afford to let this go no matter how busy things get.

one thing we did regularly during Covid was to take walks and photos

At the heart of all this will be the thesis and defense. These are the end goals and I have to keep these in mind all of the time. Over the past summer I started to collect articles and write summaries of what I was reading. This has fallen off with the amount of work I have been doing, but now I need to get back to the process of preparing for my end goal. To do this, I will reserve one morning a week – Wednesday for reading and summarizing articles that I can start using for my comprehensives and beyond. It is a challenge to block out time for a goal that is so far away, but by the fall I plan to produce a bibliography of 20-30 pages that will prepare me for my comprehensives.

Every article – one-page images – can be single entry or represent a folder with hyperlink; text in different fonts – synthesized big ideas; icon for connections – your own and/or other articles or sources; photo scan – original written notes; ideas – applications for your own teaching.


content or topic with matching photo article on gallery walk – pedagogy
  




 text – big ideas/concepts


                   ← other resources







applications for own teaching/inspirations
the summary chart I started using last summer – designed by Heather Swail

The summary chart above was really helpful last summer and I plan to start using it again this Wednesday. I have known for a long time that I write best in the morning, especially after an exercise session, so I am going to reserve time every day for writing – summary notes, assignments, reflections, and revising.  I plan to put in two hours in the mornings each day to get something down. This semester, my goal is to improve my academic writing. Last semester I learned that while I write well, I am a little careless with my grammar and I need to brush up on my APA and academic style.

This leaves afternoons free for reading –  a highly necessary Ph.D. activity. Right now, I am working through Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life by bell hooks (hooks, 1997). She writes that when researching her first book hooks would read up to three books a day, sometimes getting only one line she could use for her own writing (p. 102-103). That will not be me. I am a slow reader; sometimes I need most of the day to absorb one article. I will read every day, otherwise, I will never keep up.

bell hooks (Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

It is one thing to write a schedule, it is another to live it. I will need to weave in the work I continue to do at the university and for Discovery Education. I won’t give up my work with Discovery, I love working with them. The assignments are always different and interesting. Whether I am writing or editing for one of their digital science books, there is a great sense of accomplishment in getting this work done. Without doubt, they are the most positive and affirming people I know, so why would I leave that behind? It is hard to add this work to my growing schedule as I never know when another contract will come up. When it does, I can easily put in 15 hours a week working on their material. Because there is always a deadline, I will have to estimate and portion out my hours throughout the week.

Right now I have one meeting a month with the graduate student committee for Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future. I am definitely the junior member of this group, but I am starting to meet some great people, so I need to find ways to become more involved.

I also want to keep up my teaching at the University of Ottawa. Right now the responsibilities are light: we work as faculty advisors to second-year teacher candidates, but we haven’t been able to visit their schools since the beginning of the Pandemic. Next year I hope to get either another section of this course or even better, a section of the history methodology course that I taught three years ago. I am certain that this experience led me to this PhD journey. I can’t really schedule this time yet, but when the fall comes I will have to restructure my days. For now, I will reserve one morning a week to work on our current course.

SundayMondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturday
exercisexxxreading for
comps
xxx
writingAMAMAMAM
readingPMPMPMPM
DEwhen
available 3-4
hours daily
when
available 3-4
hours daily
when
available 3-4
hours daily
when
available 3-4
hours daily
when
available 3-4
hours daily
when
available 3-4
hours daily
when
available 3-4
hours daily
University
work
AM
classes5:30 – 8:30pm11:30 – 2:30 pm
free
time
6:00 pm – 9:00 pm – 6:00 pm –6:00 pm –6:00 pm –6:00 pm –6:00 pm –
My schedule – first draft

There will be adjustments to this schedule over time, but the daily reading and writing will remain the foundation of my schedule. I am leaving some events out like meeting with my supervisors and committee work, but as these become more frequent I will have to find space.

My schedule is seven days. Since my days as a principal, a seven-day schedule made more sense. There is less pressure and at times when there is no Discovery work I can get ahead on my assignments. I really hope to keep my nights free – there needs to be time for fun, just as bell hooks said (p. 122).

What is missing right now is something I love to do. If I mention it here I know I will get back to it – our regular radio shows – Old Fellas New Music. Bob Kennedy, a very long-time friend and I started doing this show in the spring. Work took over and we gave the show a bit of a rest. We got two episodes done over the holiday break and we hope to get another one in next week. This is a great creative outlet and I am determined to work this in, let’s say Wednesday afternoons for now.

You can find our shows on Mixcloud – https://www.mixcloud.com/paul-mcguire3/

What is also missing are some of the activities that were so important to us before Covid. In 2017 Heather and I developed a fundraising campaign for Christie Lake Kids, an Ottawa foundation that provides recreation programming for children throughout the year. Our campaign – Climb for Kids has raised over $100,000 over a three-year period. We raised this money by carrying out group climbing trips in Peru and the Alps. Our next trip was to be Mt. Kilimanjaro, but this has been on hold because of the Pandemic. Our whole family has been involved in this venture and all of our children have worked for Christie Lake Kids. The family is not on the schedule, but in all things, family comes first.

Our first Climb for Kids trip – The Ausangate Region of Peru

If I write it down, I will do it. If I publish this, I have to do it! Thanks professor for giving me the push to get all this down. I am writing again and it feels great!

References

hooks, b. (1997). Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life. Holt.

A reset for 2022

I did a really challenging Petoton class today with Denis Morton. He is tough and I really got a great workout from him. His theme was resetting in a new year and it resonated with me. I think I have been on a mental and emotional reset for most of this year and it is good to look at what this means to me as we enter 2022.

Dennis Morton

A reset is a good thing. To me, it means recasting, rethinking, and learning from experiences that are unique to me. The first reset for me has been the struggles I have had as a result of Covid. I have written about these in the blog and I am still in the process of recovery, but I am writing now to tell you that recovery is part of the process. It does come and we need to persevere.

This whole period of pronounced anxiety is not a loss, there is so much to learn while you are in such a state. For one thing, I am much more mindful of how I am doing and what I can do to further my recovery process. So many people go through periods like this, it is really important to take these opportunities to learn. Learning seldom happens when everything is going well – there is little motivation for reflection. There vis little real growth.

One of the infographics I made that record some of the wisdom I have gained through conversations with my therapist. Good to read this on a regular day.

The resetting process has many components. One big one for me has been the work I have been able to do on my Ph.D. at the University of Ottawa. I have completed two graduate courses and am beginning to start work on three more. This has been such a wonderful learning experience and I find new vistas are opening up all the time as I begin my training as a researcher. Maybe this semester I will find the time to write about what I am learning – reflection through writing is a great way better absorb the experience.

I have also gained much through Noom. I started this last January and have kept at it throughout the year. The psychology behind the program is what keeps me with them. So much of what they write can be applied to other aspects of my life. This is a very positive approach to examining life and how you want to live it. I have also lost 30 pounds and am much more aware of what I need to do to stay healthy.

I have returned to daily meditation practice using another app, Headspace. I have taken a bunch of their courses and am working on the Pro level. This is now part of my daily practice. It is only 10 minutes a day, but I feel like I am learning more about the benefits of the practice.

An on again off again part of the reset has to be Old Fellas New Music. If you read this blog, you will see a number of posts having to do with the music show my friend Bob Kenndy and I have done since the spring. The latest episode is a New Year’s Eve edition. The show had to take a back seat for a few months as I worked through my assignments, but I am hoping in the new year that Bob and I can do this on a regular basis.

Our latest poster – you can listen to our entire playlist here

So, where does the resetting process take me in 2022? All these elements plus a few others will remain important. Another part of the process has to do with learning to live post-pod with my wonderful partner Heather. Our children are all again on their own with one daughter now in the Maritimes – lots of learning here and having time together is a wonderful reset.

After a challenging year, it is important to reflect on what one is learning. No experience is wasted, everything we do has its purpose. Resetting for a new year means reflecting on the old and setting sights on what comes next. It has been a remarkable year in so many ways; we honour the time by pausing to reflect on all this.

The family in 2021 so many experiences, so much to learn