Month: May 2017

And the hits keep on coming …

Eui-Kyung Shin and Thomas Smith

Eui-Kyung Shin and Thomas Smith

The spring awards season goes on for the NIU College of Education.

Eui-Kyung Shin, professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and Tom Smith, Presidential Teaching Professor in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment, join former colleague Andrew Milson of the University of Texas at Arlington, in an award from the National Council for Geographic Education.

For more than 100 years, the NCGE has worked to enhance the status and quality of geography teaching and learning at all levels of instruction. Through its awards program, NCGE recognizes excellence in geography teaching, mentoring, research, instructional design and service.

ncge“Each year, we are impressed by the level of innovation, quality and creativity of all our award nominees,” said Zachary R. Dulli, chief executive officer. “Understanding our world is critical to a high-quality education, and these award winners represent the best of the best in providing that to our students.”

Shin, Smith and Milson were honored “Future Teachers’ Spatial Thinking Skills and Attitudes,” which earned top honors as Best College/University Article in the Journal of Geography Awards category. Milson taught in the NIU College of Education from 1999 to 2001.

Recipients of NCGE recognition will receive their awards at a special ceremony held during the 2017 National Conference on Geography Education, scheduled from July 27 to July 30 in Albuquerque, N.M.



A celebration of excellence

excllence-2College of Education Dean Laurie Elish-Piper, along with associate deans Bill Pitney and David Walker, rolled out the red carpet May 5 for the college’s annual Celebration of Excellence.

The event in Anderson Hall recognized winners of the College of Education awards.

  • Excellence in Teaching Award by Faculty/Clinical Faculty: Katy Jaekel, CAHE
  • Excellence in Research and Artistry Award by Faculty: Jim Ressler, KNPE
  • Excellence in Service Award by Faculty: Myoung Jung, SEED (not pictured)
  • Exceptional Contributions by Instructors: Jan Hart, SEED
  • Exceptional Contributions by Civil Service Staff: David Snow, LEPF
  • Exceptional Contributions by Supportive Professional Staff: Susan Schwartz, KNPE
  • Outreach/Community Service Award: Stacy Kelly, SEED
  • Exceptional Contributions in Diversity/Social Justice Award: James Cohen, CI, and Lauriece Zittel, KNPE

Also stepping into the spotlight:

  • Tom Smith, a newly named NIU Presidential Teaching Professor from the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment;
  • soon-to-retire Toni Tollerud (COE personnel consultant) and Susan Schwartz (academic advisor, KNPE); and
  • Rachel Bicksler, Lauren Leifheit and Jacinda Starr, three of the freshmen who were among 2016-17’s inaugural group of Dean’s Achievement Scholarship recipients.

Congratulations to all!



Laura Ruth Johnson to study civic engagement, advocacy of young parents in Humboldt Park

Laura Ruth Johnson

Laura Ruth Johnson

Laura Ruth Johnson has spent two decades observing the lives, struggles and triumphs of young parents in Chicago.

Throughout those years, the associate professor in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment has seen many young parents thrive in spite of a lack of programs that could help them.

“Some of them are missing school to work, but not because they don’t value education,” Johnson says. “It’s because they’re extremely responsible. Some are working an extra job to provide for their children or help their parents pay the rent.”

Johnson will turn her attention this summer to how young parents in Humboldt Park engage with their community – and if that civic engagement can inform and enhance their advocacy skills, for themselves and their children, as well as for other young parents.

Findings from a Youth Participatory Action Research study, funded by a summer Research and Artistry grant, hope to “inform services, programs and policy aimed at young parents, and challenge pejorative stereotypes of young parents as having ‘ruined’ their lives with little hope of academic or professional success because of their ‘bad’ choices.”

Instead, Johnson strives to show that young parents can be deeply involved in their communities and academically successful, if provided with the appropriate supports and resources.

Humboldt Park

Humboldt Park

Data will come from interviews, focus groups, observations and written assignments completed by young parents. Over the summer, a small group of young parents will work with Johnson to collect and analyze data, in the process gaining valuable research skills.

Research will take place at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative high school that currently serves about 190 students pushed out of the public school system, through its embedded program the Lolita Lebron Family Learning Center, which serves the needs of young parents attending Albizu Campos, which make up about 20 percent of the student body.

Many students there are familiar with Johnson’s topic: Parents attend a class, co-taught by Johnson, called “Social History of Parenting,” which helps them develop advocacy skills and involves them in creating campaigns that confront pejorative stereotypes about young parents.

But the need lies beyond Albizu Campos High School and the Family Learning Center.

“Having young parents involved in community and civic engagement is important, but their voices are largely absent,” she says. “So much policy is made for them, but they’re not included as a part of the conversation – and they need to be. They’re the ones these programs are aimed at.”

Quality mentorship offers a start, says Johnson, who has implemented such programs in Chicago for the last four years.

campos-2One goal of her upcoming project is to gather solid data on the impact of efforts like hers.

Whereas much of the civic engagement literature has focused on more traditional sorts of activities, such as voting, this study aspires to document how students’ involvement in community-based projects and grassroots activism that address issues that are meaningful to them can help them to develop leadership skills.

Among her questions: How do young parents view their communities? What issues are important to them? In what ways are local projects involving and engaging young parents? What skills do they gain from participating? How does their involvement shape their identities as active citizens? What role will it play in their postsecondary pursuits?

“Very few programs are aimed at young parents,” Johnson says, “and it’s harder for them to become involved. Most work. They have to take care of their own expenses. They have a child. And, as a result, they’re rendered invisible.”

Compounding the problem, she says, is that many programs focused on young parents are designed merely to prevent teens from becoming parents in the first place. Only a few mentor teens who already are young parents, she says.

Unfortunately, she adds, not many high schools offer child care.

Nonetheless, young parents can and do defy the odds. Four recent valedictorians at Campos High School have been teen parents, she says.

Laura Ruth Johnson

Laura Ruth Johnson

“Young parents right now see education as more important than ever,” Johnson says, “but for teen parents, it’s a challenge. They have to take care of a child and go to school. It’s a challenge of having support, of having child care or of having transportation. I know some young parents who walk, with their children, to school in the cold because they have no money for the bus.”

In the Puerto Rican community where Johnson conducts her advocacy and research, she witnesses some attitudes of fatalism among youth.

What difference can we possibly make outside of our neighborhood? How can these projects really change the way things are? Why don’t politicians actually care about us? They say what they think we want to hear, but they don’t know what we go through or actually listen when we tell them.

Even external forces are contributing, she says, pointing to a recent teen pregnancy advertisement that featured pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen and the message, “You’re supposed to be changing the world … not changing diapers.”

“As if mothers can’t be activists and be involved!” Johnson says. “We’re really trying to change that narrative and paradigm.”

She finds signs of optimism in Humboldt Park, where teen parents are thinking about greater social issues and historical events in relationships to their neighborhood – where they can act locally.

veggies-2Others are connecting the dots, she says.

“They’re invested even more when they have a child because they want to have a better future for their child, and they see that they can link all of the issues,” Johnson says. “Now they have a child to think of. Having safe parks. Having access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Healthy food, for example, offers lessons of urban agriculture, such as community gardens and greenhouses. It reinforces the importance of healthy food for growing children. Politically, it illustrates the social problem of “food deserts” or the public health crisis of diabetes.

Projects that Johnson has worked on with students include public service announcements filmed and posted on YouTube, social media postings and participation in hashtag campaigns such as #noteenshame and #teenparentpride.

Other young parents are podcasting.

“They’re interviewing one another and creating podcasts on their lives, collecting and editing their own stories,” she says. “I see that as a method of civic engagement because it’s having them participate in larger conversations, something that will help other young parents find resources that are of assistance to them.”

Johnson (right) with young parents, mentors and teachers in San Antonio.

Johnson (right) took young parents, mentors and teachers to the annual meeting
of the American Educational Research Association in San Antonio, Texas

She also hopes to host community events where she – and the teens – present their findings.

A few of those involved in an intergenerational mentorship project for current and former young mothers recently took a national stage, presenting their work and research at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Antonio, Texas. Johnson received funds from the NIU College of Education and the Youth Connection Charter School to bring young parents, mentors and teachers to the event.

“I know some who really found that through their participation in a project, it expanded their view of their ability to make a change in the world, and they’ve taken that to their families,” she says. “Most of the students are really excited to become involved, and they have a lot of great ideas.”



K-12 teachers to explore equity at Social Justice Summer Camp

Joseph Flynn

Joseph Flynn

Question: Can K-12 teachers without a deep understanding of social justice concerns effectively engage and enlighten their students on those topics?

Joseph Flynn, James Cohen and Mike Manderino would say “no.”

But the three professors from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction are ready to start equipping teachers to tackle those tough conversations from a well-rounded perspective of the issues.

Nearly 60 teachers and other school professionals will arrive June 11 at NIU for the inaugural Social Justice Summer Camp for Educators, a four-day, three-night, candid and nonjudgmental exploration of multiculturalism, privilege, identity, oppression and more.

“Practicing K-12 teachers and administrators typically have the best of intentions, but it is important for them to also have experiences that can help further their understanding of various forms of oppression and social justice in general,” says Flynn, who first proposed the summer camp.

“Regardless of what people might have to say, or whatever political stripe they may be, social justice issues are actually happening to people,” Flynn adds.

“And if we really believe in social justice and equity, it becomes imperative for students to actually engage in these issues. Offering students opportunities to explore problems helps them with critical thinking and helps them understand their world.”

James Cohen and Mike Manderino

James Cohen and Mike Manderino

Manderino and Cohen are excited to join in Flynn’s vision.

“Schools are a microcosm of society. They’re not this separate place where the world doesn’t exist anymore,” Manderino says. “And whether it’s racism, sexism, discrimination against one’s gender identity, sexual preference or religious background – these are systemic issues. Schools, and the school system itself, really have to confront the fact that these issues are present.”

“In an age of emboldened racism, and emboldened discrimination in our society, we have to be equally emboldened to fight back all of this racism, discrimination and injustice,” Cohen adds. “What better way to spread that message of social justice than to work with teachers?”

The camp, which will take place in New Residence Hall, will feature keynote speakers JQ Adams and Stacey Horn, panel discussions, film screenings and, most importantly, long and pointed conversations followed by opportunities for reflection.

Discussions will probe the historic development of multicultural and social justice education and key ideas; the nature of privilege across identities and how privilege impacts policy and practice in schools; and the ways in which school policies foster inequity and how to reform such policies.

“We have a whole range of issues that these schools can think about,” Manderino says. “Some schools might be struggling with equity gaps in suspension rates, or in who gets access to some classes. It could be writing more gender-inclusive policies, or providing safe spaces.”

sjsc-logoKey to those talks is coming up with a definition of oppression, Flynn adds.

“Oppression happens when prejudice against a group is backed by historical, social and institutional power. It’s much more than feeling mistreated,” he says.

“Affirmative action is not a form of oppression against white males, for example, as compared to the ways the LGBT+ community has been marginalized for decades, let alone centuries, in American culture,” he says. “When you have a series of laws that are consistently passed that have a negative impact on your community – even if that’s not intentional – then those are markers of oppression.”

Films on the summer camp’s evening schedule include the powerful documentaries “Color of Fear,” “Cracking the Codes” and “Precious Knowledge.”

Campers will set goals for their schools and, before they leave June 14, explain how they will begin making a difference for students in the fall.

cracking-the-codes“One of the six goals of multicultural education is to act on your knowledge,” Cohen says. “They will create action plans for how to advocate for linguistically and culturally marginalized students in their respective schools.”

Teachers who attend will learn to reduce their reticence toward taking on this challenge.

“I’ve met a lot of teachers who feel like, ‘Yeah, what the Black Lives Matter movement is saying against police brutality is really important, but I don’t know enough to say anything about it,’ ” Flynn says.

“We can help them become more comfortable with, one, approaching the subjects in general; two, how to engage their students in discussions; and, three, and perhaps most importantly, in admitting that they don’t know everything, and that’s OK,” he adds. “It’s OK to say, ‘You know, I don’t know. Why don’t we figure that out together?’ ”

Flynn’s journey of turning social justice issues into teaching tools began in 2000, the year he began teaching in higher education.

His first course covered human diversity, power and opportunity in social institutions, a focus that prompted him to become more conscious and thoughtful of how various groups are positioned in society.

“I do believe that the United States, if it really believes what it professes in our founding documents, like the Declaration of Independence, that it’s incumbent on us when we can to help people understand how various forms of oppression work,” Flynn says.

“I believe that doing everything we can to make life better for all people is incumbent on us as citizens. We as a society cannot just keep saying that it’s terrible that these things happen if we’re not going to further educate ourselves and create spaces for kids to talk about these things.”

JQ Adams and Stacey Horn

JQ Adams and Stacey Horn

The professors are eager to welcome the campers, lead and participate in their conversations and, ultimately, see positive results begin to blossom.

Campers should regard the event not as “come and learn everything in a few days” but as the catalysts for expanding their mindsets, they say.

“Public education, and education in general, has the promise and potential to provide opportunities for people to pursue their passions and their interests. It gives people choice and agency over their lives, and it has the potential to broaden the perspectives of students much earlier in their lives,” Manderino says.

“But as participants in a societal institution, we as educators must become mindful of these issues. Then I think we can start to grow people’s participation in our democracy because it becomes more inclusive.”

For Cohen, the answer lies in rising above the notion that “there’s no such thing as white rule.”

“When teachers understand how white privilege plays a role in their teaching, how misogyny plays a role in their teaching, how linguistic privilege plays a role in their teaching – if they can gain that awareness, they will be teaching students multiple historical perspectives,” he says.

“Students will be much more aware of the realities of people who don’t think and look and act like them,” he adds, “and that’s what this really comes down to.”