January 10, 2021—This past summer I was visiting a place well known for its natural beauty. An area frequently visited by tourists enjoying the sights and wonders. The town’s economy is closely tied to the flow of outsiders, like me, and our purchases at restaurants, hotels, boutiques, and outfitters. I was there to enjoy the scenery, watch wildlife, and witness the profusion of wildflowers. Experiences widely distributed in promotional materials. Over the few days I was in town, I did enjoy the scenery, spent hours watching wildlife, and took lots of pictures of red, yellow, blue, and purple flowers. The trip was fantastic in that sense.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the stark contrast between the publicized and actual experience of hospitality. I was not ready for the profusion of “no trespassing” and “private property” signs. There was simply no way to experience the fullness of the area outside of the “authorized” tourist zones. There are plenty of good and defensible reasons to “post” one’s property. For instance, if there is some dangerous activity or landform that it is better for the inexperienced to avoid. My contrasting experience with the publicized message of welcome and the practical message of private spaces of exclusion started me thinking about education through a similar messaging. For many students, especially brown, Black, and Indigenous learners, schools try to welcome all, but in practice the “no trespassing” signs are everywhere. They tell students how to talk, how to walk, how to think, how to be fully human. Unlike the signs that where visibly tacked to fence posts, trees, and metal poles, the “private property” signs in education constitute the hidden curriculum; the unstated norms of behavior, thinking, and being.

As I reflected on these real signs of exclusion and segregation, I remembered another set of signs that dot the landscape; “open space”. These signs announce that all are welcome and invited into the presence of a communal resource, to share and appreciate. Even in open space there are rules and limitations, dos and don’ts, but they are typically designed to limit the kind of damage that is destructive to community. Imagine what schools or classrooms would look like or the experiences of students if the message was framed in “open-space” signage. The private signs of schools communicate a deficit model of humanness, an assumption that students need control and structure. They can’t be trusted with choice and exploration. In contrast, open space is asset based. It presumes good intentions and the capacity of students to make worthwhile decisions for themselves. It doesn’t assume that students will always act with right intentions; making mistakes is part of what being human means and it is a source of learning.

One experience with the “no trespassing” signs was particularly revealing and inviting for me, an educator dedicated to the creation of transformative learning spaces. Since the purpose of my vacation was nature study, I was constantly on the lookout for places where I could park my truck, sit, and watch. One day as I approached a bridge over a river, I noticed a baby tree swallow sticking its head out of a hole in a dead cottonwood tree. It just so happened that the tree was located in an ever so small gap between the fenced-off property and the riverbank. A minute piece of open space, free from prohibitions. I could sit and watch without violating the “no trespassing” signs.

Through my binoculars I saw that three or four swallows occupied the nest. And in no time the parents returned, flight after flight, with food for their growing brood. As I sat, watched, and listened, other signs of life’s profusion were brought to my attention. Higher up in the old cottonwood, four baby king birds were busy vying for the attention of their parents, who were flying back and forth between their hunting grounds and the gaping mouths of their children. Just a short distance away the cry of young kestrel was letting its parents know where it was, and that food was required. And finally, across the river, a pair of American dippers were belly deep in the shallows searching for aquatic insects. When necessary, they plunged into the current to capture prey. At the end of every dive they shook off the water and flew to a nest hidden in the overhanging bank. Over the next few days I made regular trips to this oasis of life. It was magical. It was unexpected. It was delightful.

I tell this story because I’m left with such an indelible memory of nature’s passion for life beyond human imposed constraints. But I also tell this story because it offers me much to think about when it comes to education and the ways I structure learning. I’m invited to consider how often I limit learning by fencing off the content, emotions, and hard conversations; posting private property signs keeping my students away. Even when my intentions are right and justified, the “no trespassing” signs in my syllabus, content, or pedagogy convey a message of limitation to my students. I’m encouraged to consider the value of posting “open-space” signs that redefined the student/teacher relationship as collaborative, not restrictive.

The vibrancy of life I witnessed near that bridge was short-lived. In a few days the baby birds fledged and were gone. I’m reminded that learning is not something that can be controlled. When the conditions are right, it happens at a frantic pace and is short-lived. I need to be vigilant and ready for those times in the classroom when I’m called upon to desperately search for and offer my students the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual nourishment they long for. I need to dive deep into the content, shake off what is unnecessary, and bring to all of us the best of myself, the content, and the mystery of learning.

My best moments of teaching and learning are not bound by the structure and pacing of my syllabus or lesson plans. They exist in the gaps. The spaces between the spaces defined by my “no trespassing” and “private property” signs. I’m wondering now, how often do I leave the narrowest gap for students to fully explore their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual world? I invite you too to consider where “no trespassing” signs exist in your teaching and to ask if they are required and important for keeping students safe? And when should you remove those sings and replace them with the invitation to “open space”? Look for the gaps in your teaching. The unexpected places where students shine and thrive. That is the place to begin the work of sitting, watching, listening, and being present to the very real learning going on around you.

We are excited to highlight Morgridge College of Education Higher Education PhD student Delma Ramos. Delma focuses on social justice in higher education and explores systems of access and opportunity for underserved populations that stem, in part, from her experience as a first generation student. Her inspiring scholarship has led to a variety of opportunities including a summer associate position at the American Council on Education Center for Policy, Research, and Strategy! Below Delma shares her professional experience and advice:

Current research

I have been involved in collaborative projects guided by both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Currently, I am participating in a study that explores the transition to college of low-income and first generation families and the systems institutions have in place to determine their involvement in their children’s college experience. Another project examines the academic trajectories of low-income, first generation women of color in racialized and sexualized academic settings.

Most recently I was invited to collaborate in two studies one which seeks to understand the role that low-income and families of color play in cultivating their children’s educational aspirations and ideologies, and one that involves the construction of a series of measures of Funds of Knowledge. I am also currently working with the Colorado Department of Higher Education on projects related to developmental education and performance metrics.  This summer, I look forward to joining the American Council on Education Center for Policy, Research, and Strategy in DC as a graduate summer associate exploring federal policies impacting higher education. Findings from at least two of the projects have been widely disseminated at forums including ASHE, NASPA, and AERA. Several publications that have emerged from this work are currently in the pipeline.

Collaborators

Most of the research inquiries I have participate(d) in are collaborations with various researchers.  In these settings, I play different roles as part of the research process from proposal development to finding dissemination and the creation of recommendations. These partnerships have taken place within the University of Denver, primarily with my academic advisor Dr. Judy Marquez Kiyama and with colleagues from outside organizations including the University of Missouri, the University of California-Los Angeles, Teachers College, the Denver Scholarship Foundation, RAND Corporation, and the Education Commission of the States.

Initial Inspiration

My research interests include access, retention, and graduation from higher education institutions, with an emphasis on underserved populations. Additionally, I focus on the assessment of programs with similar foci and on issues pertaining to educational quality and inclusive pedagogies in higher education, with a special interest in measure development. Philosophically, my research agenda is driven by my passionate commitment to social justice and my vision for a more inclusive and accessible higher education system. My research interests are further strengthened by my background as a first generation student and my exposure to scholars who study inequities in higher education as influenced by economic, social, and political contexts.

Biggest Challenge

As a woman of color, my biggest challenge has been to identify support systems that strengthen my ability to persist and succeed in my program at DU. My support network is composed of colleagues within and outside of DU as well as family and friends outside of Higher Ed.

Research Advice: Make Connections

I have found networking to be a very effective tool to access a wide array of research and other professional development opportunities.  Reach out to those people you would like to work with, you’ve got nothing to lose!

NOTE: This blog post is being featured from the official blog of the University of Denver’s Office of Graduate Studies.

If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Like many twenty-somethings fresh out of undergrad, I landed in a position that felt more like a career than not, but certainly didn’t fulfill an all-encompassing life purpose. I was simply happy to be working in a position I enjoyed, not thinking too much about the next steps in my career path. I was fortunate to develop experience as a sales manager with a large and reputable company, which would later prove to be invaluable in my career change. But, as I eventually realized that particular job was not going to lead to a place of lasting interest to me, I had to decide how I was going to use the skills I had gained to work my way toward something more fulfilling.

A part time position at a public library lead me to discover something about myself. Whether it would be in libraries or another type of organization, I knew that I needed to pursue something that felt purposeful to me.

I decided it was important to obtain a Library Information Science degree, which would provide me with a basis of knowledge for a library position. I didn’t have a great deal of experience working in libraries, and felt that this would help prepare me for the type of work I was excited to begin doing.

I applied to a handful of LIS programs, and at the top of my list was the University of Denver and Morgridge College of Education’s LIS program. I wanted to be in Colorado if possible, and I wanted a program that would offer an in-person academic experience. Networking and learning from professionals face to face was one of my priorities, and DU delivered.

I was able to learn from many different professionals working in the field locally. The in-person program provided me with a variety of hands-on, practical experiences that boosted my knowledge and local support system. I graduated with my MLIS and a job in public libraries at the end of 2 years. And, during that time, I discovered a particular interest within libraries and non-profits I wouldn’t have known existed without going through the LIS program within Morgridge.

With the many opportunities the program led to, I discovered evaluation, analysis, and assessment in libraries and non-profits. The work is an excellent match to my passion that was there before I even knew what to do with it. While completing the LIS program, I became familiar with the Research Methods and Statistics program in MCE, and it proved to be the perfect avenue to continue my studies and deepen my focus in my chosen field. I’m completing my first year in the RMS doctorate program now, while continuing to work in public libraries, which will inform my work in research to come.

The faculty in MCE have been continuously supportive and steadfast in assisting me in reaching my goals. I’m continually challenged to think about my path, the steps I’m taking to get there, and how this is fulfilling my goal and professional purpose. My time working on my graduate studies at MCE has certainly shaped me as a professional, as an individual, as well as a seeker of education. Community and education is the thread of passion that links all MCE graduate students together. I’ve discovered that, as varied as our careers and interests are, our common goal is to do meaningful work in our fields.

 

Natalia BlogHaving been invited to interview only a few weeks earlier, I arrived in Denver feeling very anxious.  This was my first in-person graduate school interview and I was feeling apprehensive about having to distinguish myself from the other applicants in a single day.  I was staying with a friend close to campus and we walked over to Ruffatto Hall the evening before so I would know where to go the next morning.  I was blown away by the beauty of the building and could imagine spending hours reading and writing papers in the many study nooks around the building.  I went to bed early that night, hoping to get a good night’s sleep.

After a breakfast buffet and time to mingle with current and prospective students, the day’s program started.  My two interviews were both scheduled for the afternoon, so I spent the morning learning about financial aid and inclusive excellence.  My thoughts were preoccupied by the interviews and this made it difficult to focus on the presenters.  During lunch, we were able to ask a panel of current students questions about the program.  Hearing their firsthand perspectives was one of the most helpful parts of the day.
After lunch, I had some free time before my interviews.  I found a beautiful porch on the fourth floor to review my notes and enjoy some vitamin D.  After a long winter in North Dakota, the 50 degree weather and view of the mountains was welcome.

I had two half-hour interviews with two different faculty members and both asked the same questions,  “Why do you want to be a school psychologist?” and, “Why do you want to attend DU?”  The first gave me the opportunity to expand on my prior experiences that had led me to the field and to expand on my specific interests.  To the second I was able to say unquestionably, “I want the best education I possibly can.”  Both interviews turned out to be more of a comfortable dialog with faculty than the interrogation I was worried about.

The interview day finished with a reception with good food, wine, beer, and conversation with current students and faculty.  The other prospective students shared feelings of relief that the day was finished.  The head of the program gushed about her summers spent white water kayaking with her family.  I left campus that evening feeling 100% sure DU was the school for me and with my fingers crossed that, come next fall, I would be able to experience the 300 annual days of sunshine, hike the beautiful mountains, and maybe even try out white water kayaking, while preparing for my dream career.

Natalia Lynch
MCE Student Ambassador
Child, Family, and School Psychology

Visit the Student Ambassador Webpage: http://morgridge.du.edu/community/student-ambassadors/


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