Global problems, community praxis: April 19 conference set to explore world conflict, peace

globe-2Scholars from NIU and Macedonia will convene Thursday, April 19, in DeKalb to discuss local, national and international approaches to peace and transcultural communication.

“Global Problems and Community Praxis” is the second annual conference – but the first in the United States – organized on that topic by the Center for Peace and Transcultural Communication, a collaboration between NIU and the University of Tetovo.

“We’re really excited. These are particularly timely issues these days,” said Patrick Roberts, a professor in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.

“Our key goal is to facilitate scholarly exchanges, to foster public awareness of global conflicts and to examine, ‘How can I make a difference in my local community? How does local action have global impacts?’ We want to broaden awareness of what the issues are.”

The conference, which will include four professors from Tetovo among the presenters, begins at 9 a.m. in the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, 231 N. Annie Glidden Road.

James W. Pardew

James W. Pardew

Keynote speaker James W. Pardew, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria from 2002 to 2005 and the author of the 2017 book “Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans,” will talk at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of Barsema Hall, 740 Garden Road. A reception begins at 5 p.m.

Both events are free and open to the public. Call (815) 753-9359 or email proberts1@niu.edu for more information.

Roberts believes that people who attend, whether as participants or observers, will walk away with a clearer understanding of modern conflict and ways to resolve it from a “think globally and act locally” perspective.

Among the daytime presentation topics: “Does Torture Work: An Empirical Test Using Archival Data,” “The Balkans – A Matching Point of Two Controversy Theories,” “Migration as a Social Phenomenon and Refugees as a Contemporary Reality” and “The Politics of Food Diplomacy.”

Presenters also will discuss “Fleeing from Danger: Refugees’ Stories in Elementary School Classrooms,” “Religious Violence and Peacemaking: Rethinking Contemporary Conflicts,” “Between Mao and Gandhi: Social Structure and the Choice of Violent and Nonviolent Resistance,” “How Do We See Our Neighbors? Youth Inclusion, Participation, and Collaboration in Moldova” and “Sport for Development and Peace.”

NIU College of Education presenters will include Teresa Fisher, Carolyn Pluim, Teresa Wasonga and Paul Wright.

Laura Ruth Johnson

Laura Ruth Johnson

Laura Ruth Johnson, a professor in the college’s Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment, believes the interdisciplinary nature of the presenters and topics will illuminate connections “between these different struggles, both globally and locally.”

“Many times, when we have these types of conferences, they just focus on one distinct area,” she said. “This conference represents areas from all over the university. The topic is very broad – it covers a lot of ground – and allows us to explore common and divergent interests.”

Johnson’s own work in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood provides a good example.

Her research studies civic engagement, community involvement and advocacy among Latino and African American youth, with a focus on young mothers, and sees a bridge to the University of Tetovo’s battle for justice in higher education.

Use of social media and other media, she added, is making the planet a smaller place.

“What happens in one place often resonates in other locales in terms of climate change, economic and food insecurity or fights for human rights and gender equity,” Johnson said. “The Me Too movement has resonated internationally.”

Emily McKee

Emily McKee

Emily McKee, a professor in the Department of Anthropology of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who holds a joint appointment with the Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy, studies resource conflicts and environmental peacebuilding.

Her students, who are learning about access to clean water, climate change, fracking, mining and more, will participate with students of Department of Sociology Professor Laura Heideman in a roundtable discussion on conflict and peacebuilding.

McKee’s students learn about “conflicts that involve access to resources around the world. Resource conflicts and environmental peacebuilding are buzzwords that get thrown around, such as wars between two countries,” she said. “We explore some of these tropes that are not so easily pigeonholed as resource conflicts but built into other conflicts, such as social, religious and economic.”

The roundtable “is looking at our pedagogy and how we teach these courses,” she added.

During the roundtable, students will speak about their semester-long research projects on cases of resource conflict around the world and reflect on the impact that this engaged learning has had on them. “That’s relevant to them as they go on in their lives as citizens and in their careers,” McKee said. “I’m particularly excited about that.”

Patrick Roberts

Patrick Roberts

For his part, Roberts is excited by the potential for motivation, whether in DeKalb, Chicago or Macedonia.

“We don’t want be a conference where people just get up and read papers,” he said. “I’m hoping to learn how understanding becomes action and the strategies people employ. None of that can succeed if there aren’t people – communities – willing to put these principles and polices into action.”

NIU and the University of Tetovo were introduced in 2014 through the work of Anthony Preston, director of Global Programs in the NIU College of Business.

The Center for Peace and Transcultural Communication was dedicated in 2015, when Acting NIU President Lisa Freeman visited the University of Tetovo. The center aims to foster better social platforms for younger generations and a better society.

A current exhibition in the College of Education’s Blackwell History of Education Museum tells the story of Tetovo through nearly 70 reproductions of photographs that depict the university’s tumultuous existence.



User Experience Lab debuts

Fatih Demir

Fatih Demir

Students in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment (ETRA) and all of NIU returned from Spring Break to find the cutting-edge literally at their fingertips.

Located in Gabel 212, the ETRA Innovation Lab features not only 3-D printers, Lego Education WeDo 2.0 sets, Google Home and Amazon Alexa but also eye-tracking systems that enable significant research into the real-time effectiveness of online learning models.

The increasingly affordable technology comes on a headband with tiny, spatial cameras pointed at both eyes and a third camera over the nose that captures an accompanying video of the environment – or, in other words, whatever the wearer is seeing in the moment.

“We’re tracking the eye movements of the user,” says Kyung Kim, assistant professor in ETRA. “In this way, we can understand how these people are interacting with the learning environment.”

Video of each interaction provides strong analysis of what aspects of the program design are working, and what needs improvement, through unparalleled data on user behavior while learning online.

Data will include valuable information on how long users stare at the screen without acting, where their eyes go when distracted and more. “We need to understand these things to design something better,” Kim says.

Kyung Kim

Kyung Kim

Potential applications of eye-tracking systems go far beyond online learning.

For example, motorists who wear the devices can discover what distracts them while behind the wheel, whether it’s billboards, traffic signs, dashboard readings or other things.

Major League Baseball players can wear them in the batter’s box to create videos of how to best hit the pitches. Surgeons who wear them while in the operating room can create videos of how they conduct their life-saving procedures.

Kim, whose research focuses on the intersection of visualization, knowledge structure and design, is eager to see how students use the powerful tool.

“I hope this lab serves as a venue where we can investigate learning processes, human-computer interactions and some hidden sides of the learning process better than before,” he says.

ETRA Assistant Professor Fatih Demir agrees: Students preparing for careers in online learning must recognize, and harness, the critical perspective of the user.

etra-legos“In today’s world, we are seeing that to just design a product is not enough,” Demir says. “My students can use this lab to collect data, create better products and test existing products to see if those products work well.”

He believes the lab will put NIU students ahead in the field.

“The options are endless if you can find a good research topic,” he says. “This technology allows you to achieve your goal.”

Areas of inquiry tailor-made for the lab’s technology include aging and disability.

Voice-activated devices such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa enable users to accomplish tasks without physical touch, whether it’s accessing the Internet or turning off the bedroom lights.

Meanwhile, the ETRA lab is awaiting delivery of brainwave monitors that can also measure the mental engagement of those who wear them. It also allows wearers to move something, such as a computer mouse, with their mind.

“It needs analysis,” Demir says, “but you could design that type of product using this lab.”

Chris Kraner

Chris Kraner

Chris Kraner, a graduate research assistant in ETRA who is pursuing his master’s degree in Educational Research and Evaluation, works in the lab as a trainer and researcher. He primarily works with the 3D printers.

Kraner, also a collaborator with NIU STEM Outreach to promote science to K-12 students in the region, loves what is blooming in the Gabel 212 space that is open to all.

“We want our students to do some interesting problem-solving here. We want our student to be comfortable if they come across this technology in their professional careers,” he says. “I’m really hoping to have teachers in here to show us what they’re doing and to tell us what we should be doing.”

The lab also provides study carrels, a poster printer and a soundproof lab for online teaching recording.



Sit or stand? SCOPE research examines sedentary behaviors of older adults at Oak Crest

Marianne Sackett, a resident of Oak Crest, participates in the SCOPE test under the direction of NIU graduate student Josh Pak.

Marianne Sackett, a resident of Oak Crest, participates in the SCOPE test under the direction of NIU graduate student Josh Pak.

Excessive sitting, some say, is the new smoking – in other words, something that insidiously contributes to shortening a lifespan.

Indeed, says Emerson Sebastião, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, at least one decade of research into physical activity behavior shows that “sitting too much is going to be detrimental to your health.”

But what does that mean for elderly people who live in nursing homes or retirement communities, where very little time is spent standing or moving?

Little scholarship on this matter exists on that population, Sebastião says, who are different from their counterparts still living at home in their communities.

“Physical activity is reduced drastically, and the amount of time spent sitting is higher,” Sebastião says. “Someone is going to cook for you. Someone is going to clean for you. Someone is going to do your laundry.”

Residents of DeKalb’s Oak Crest Retirement Center are participating in Sebastião’s current research project to help him understand how sitting impacts their lives and what “interventions” he can develop or suggest to get residents to sit less and move more.

Called “SCOPE” (Sedentary Behavior, COgnition and Physical Function in OldEr Adults Living in a Retirement Community), his work examines how sitting affects not only the physical fitness of the Oak Crest residents but their mental fitness as well.

Tests for physical fitness gauge upper- and lower-body strength, record how many steps they can take in two minutes, county how many times they can stand up from a chair in 30 seconds, assess their gait while walking a straight line for a certain distance and pivoting for a return and how far measure they can lean ahead without losing their balance.

Emerson Sebastião

Emerson Sebastião

Speed is a critical factor, Sebastião says: People who walk quicker live longer.

Cognition, on the other hand, is evaluated through verbal and visual memory skills. Sebastião recites 16 words to the test subjects and asks to hear them repeated back to him in any order.

Declining memory is something Sebastião understands personally through interactions with his late grandmother. “I would say to her, ‘Grandma, you need to buy your groceries. Grandma, you need to pay your bills. Grandma, you need to clean room.’ ”

When he completes his study – he’s hoping to examine 100 people, and is about three-quarters of the way there – he will have valuable data for the next step.

“I’m trying to establish a connection between scores on these tests and the amount of time residents spend sitting,” he says. “We don’t have any recommendations on how long people should spending sitting to protect them from adverse health outcomes. We don’t have such a thing for older adults.”

Possible “interventions” to help those in need include wearing Fitbits or similar devices that track footsteps, standing or walking around the living room during TV commercials, engaging in exercise that improves cardiorespiratory or muscle fitness or seeking counseling to help them understand the importance of moving more and sitting less.

scope-2Unfortunately, he says, much of physical activity behavior or the lack of it is most likely predetermined by personal habits earlier in life.

Human beings who are physically active and fit in their younger years “are building up a savings account. Their rate of slowing down as they grow older is slower,” Sebastião says. “Those who are active at a young age are more likely to be active in older age.”

Sebastião, who studies elderly and clinical populations by exploring factors that influence physical activity as well as creative ways to promote physical activity among older adults, received a six-month Dean’s Research Grant to conduct his work at Oak Crest.

Two graduate students and one undergraduate student are assisting him.

All will write their own papers; they also will combine to pen a group paper, with Sebastião as lead author, for submission to journals on gerontology and geriatrics. The undergraduate student, meanwhile, will present at the College of Education’s Third Annual Student Research Symposium, scheduled for Friday, April 20.

scope-3“My students are learning important elements within the research process – how to design a study, how to select instruments for data collection, how to collect data,” he says. “They’re also learning how to talk with our participants throughout the testing to provide motivation.”

Josh Pak, who is pursuing a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology, is enjoying his chance to work with the senior citizens.

He believes that his collaboration with Sebastião will equip him well in his eventual career, in which he plans to work with elderly adults on cardiac rehabilitation.

“Some have no idea of how to go about fitness. A lot of them just go around their apartments,” says Pak, who is from Arlington Heights, “but a lot of them surprise me with how much they can do. A lot of them love to be active.”



KNPE reserves grad program spots for NIU Honors students

honor-programHonors students at NIU now can gain direct and guaranteed admission into most of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education’s graduate programs.

Reserved seats are available in the department’s M.S.Ed. in Kinesiology and Physical Education and M.S. in Sport Management degrees. The upcoming master’s program in Athletic Training, which involves a strict vetting process and a specific set of prerequisite courses for admission, is not part of the deal.

Although it’s assumed that students interested in careers related to fitness, human performance or sports are most likely to take advantage of the new benefit, Honors students graduating from any bachelor’s program are welcome.

Todd Gilson, director of the Honors Program, believes that this agreement and the two others like it will position his students for productive futures.

Todd Gilson

Todd Gilson

Chad McEvoy and Steve Howell reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we heard what you started with Political Science, and we’d really like to get in on that as well,” says Gilson, who also is on the faculty of KNPE.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Gilson adds. “Honors students can come to NIU, work on their University Honors requirements and know that when they want to advance their career – to take that next step – that it’s already locked in for them. The department then can get that better quality of students.”

Howell, associate professor of Sport Management and director of Graduate Studies, says that he and McEvoy, chair of the department, are eager to harness such potential.

“We thought it would be a good idea to incentivize Honors students to attract high-quality, top-notch students into our master’s programs,” Howell says.

“And this is not only to attract those highly qualified students but freshmen and sophomores who are looking ahead a couple years and seeing that automatic feed,” he adds. “More students need to look into these avenues as they want to make themselves marketable.”

NIU’s M.S.Ed. in Kinesiology and Physical Education prepares students to work in the exercise science or Physical Education-Teacher Education communities. Specialties are offered in Adapted Physical Education; Exercise Physiology and Fitness Leadership; Pedagogy and Curriculum Development; and Sport and Exercise Psychology.

The M.S. in Sport Management equips graduates for a variety of careers, including professional sports, college athletics, campus recreation and parks departments.

Chad McEvoy and Steve Howell

Chad McEvoy and Steve Howell

Honors students who pursue these degrees through the direct admissions program will become pioneers of sorts, Gilson says.

“It’s very uncommon,” he says. “We (Honors) have benchmarked 131 institutions – peer institutions to NIU, a lot of the flagship schools, directional state schools – and only two offer programs like this. I think it says that we’re thinking forward.”

Gilson also hopes that Honors students realize what an advantage the program offers.

“College degrees become harder to acquire as adult life begins, but when you’re still a student and you know how to do it, go and do it,” he adds. “This is not for your first job, but for your third job.”

Interested students are encouraged to contact their Honors advisors or the KNPE department at knpe@niu.edu.



KNPE inks transfer agreement with Rock Valley for Kinesiology

rvcRockford-area students with plans to major in Kinesiology now have another option toward NIU Student Career Success.

NIU’s Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education has signed a “2+2” agreement with Rock Valley College to provide a smooth transition between its associate degree and our bachelor’s degree.

The agreement helps students to identify relevant and recommended RVC coursework that transfers to NIU.

Future Huskies must complete the Exercise Science option of Rock Valley’s A.A.S. degree in Fitness, Wellness and Sport; with the 2+2 agreement, they are able to earn their NIU bachelor’s degrees within two years.

Chad McEvoy, chair of the NIU department, said that he and his colleagues at both schools saw not only a pressing need but also an exciting opportunity to provide a strong and comprehensive academic experience.

Chad McEvoy

Chad McEvoy

“More students than ever before are choosing to attend community colleges,” McEvoy said.

“But when community college graduates explore how to continue their higher education at a four-year institution, a major challenge is finding a program that will allow them to count their full two years of community college work toward the four-year bachelor’s degree,” he added. “Our partnership delivers a seamless transition.”

Shaine Henert, professor and chair of the RVC Department of Fitness, Wellness and Sport, said he and his Rock Valley colleagues were motivated by two factors.

“We connected with NIU for the high quality of education we think students will receive, not only at NIU in general but in the Exercise Science program, and we wanted to provide a local option. NIU has a well-established and well-respected program,” Henert said.

“Our students who complete the two-year program are essentially completing the first two years of NIU’s four-year program,” he added, “and when they transfer, this will help them complete the four-year degree in four years.”

Meanwhile, Henert said, the 2+2 makes financial sense for his students.

“Bachelor’s degrees definitely increase their earning potential,” he said. “The majority of our students want to continue on. They understand that with a two-year degree, they’re looking at entry-level positions. With a four-year degree, they have a substantially higher median salary.”

Courses taken at Rock Valley include communication; composition; statistics; life science; anatomy and physiology; biochemistry; psychology; sociology of sport; sport and exercise psychology; exercise and sport science; nutrition for fitness and sport; and nutrition, exercise and weight control.

Shaine Henert

Shaine Henert

At NIU, Rock Valley graduates who transfer their credits will enter the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education ready for 300-level courses in the Kinesiology major.

Kinesiology majors explore scientific principles that regulate behavior change and performance, such as physiology, biomechanics, psychology, measurement, gerontology and nutrition, while they engage in a variety of clinical experiences and an industry-related internship.

Graduates are equipped to work in a variety of health, wellness and sport performance settings. Students also can prepare for graduate school in exercise physiology, physical therapy, athletic training and sport and exercise psychology

The kinesiology major received the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) Education Recognition Program award for meeting established criteria in strength and conditioning.

For more information, call (815) 753-8285 or email wharris3@niu.edu.



Community Learning Series will explore ‘transitions’ to adulthood for students on autism spectrum

dotsDuring the first 21 years of their lives, individuals with autism are offered critical support services through their local public schools.

By law, those services must include “transition” planning that begins when the students turn 14½, providing nearly seven years of preparation for the next stage of their lives.

Yet when that assistance ends, many of those young adults and their parents are left with the same question.

Now what?

“It’s a very important topic right now because there have been some changes in the legislation,” says Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez, associate professor of Special Education. “One change goes back to 2004: the IDEA law on special education, which changed the language to really focus on transition and on meaningful outcomes in the three areas schools are accountable for: community living; careers and employment; and postsecondary education.”

Modifications to the Higher Education Act, meanwhile, require that access to postsecondary education is available to students with intellectual disabilities.

And, in 2017, Illinois become an “employment-first” state to promote “community-based, integrated employment as the first option for employment-related services for individuals with disabilities, physical, intellectual or behavioral.”

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

The NIU College of Education’s upcoming Community Learning Series – “Transitioning to the Adult World: Connecting the Dots for Young Adults with Autism” – will help parents, students, teachers, employers and future educators make sense of it all.

Scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 10, the event takes place at the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, 231 N. Annie Glidden Road. A reception begins at 5:30 p.m.

Free and open to the public, the event will feature six forward-thinking panelists who will share their innovative and exemplary approaches, supports and successes that have empowered their students to achieve productive lives.

  • Khushbu Davi, program coordinator, Parents Alliance Employment Project
  • Kori Jung, teacher/case manager, District 214 Transition Program, Arlington Heights
  • Christine Putlak, assistant director, A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative
  • Benji Rubin, attorney, Special Needs Legal and Future Planning, Rubin Law Offices
  • Toni Van Laarhoven, professor, NIU Department of Special and Early Education
  • Traci Van Laarhoven, vocational coordinator, Waubonsie Valley High School

“There are so many resources that teachers and parents need to plan ahead,” Toni Van Laarhoven says, “so we’re looking at what’s out there: What are some of the benefits available? What are some of the legal things people need to think about, such as guardianship? How do we prepare individuals if they choose to go the college route? These are things people really have to start thinking about.”

“We’re really focusing on services that are innovative and community-based,” adds Johnston-Rodriguez, who considers transition a matter of civil rights and social justice.

“Some states have done away with all of their ‘sheltered workshops,’ and the emphasis now for schools is to prepare these students for some kind of education, career or employment in the community.”

Toni Van Laarhoven

Toni Van Laarhoven

Van Laarhoven, a Presidential Teaching Professor at NIU, and her identical twin sister will talk about their Project MY VOICE – a person-centered planning tool that equips high school students with autism, and/or intellectual disabilities, to participate and have a voice in their own Individualized Education Programs via multimedia.

Johnston-Rodriguez, meanwhile, is also piloting a program that challenges students with disabilities to create their own PowerPoint presentations based on career exploration and creating a plan for where they want to go with their lives and how they plan to get there.

Lisle-based Parents Alliance Employment Project is partnering with Cadence Health in Project SEARCH, to offer internships at Central DuPage Hospital to young adults with developmental disabilities.

Many corporations “have gotten on board with employing people with special needs in meaningful kinds of jobs,” Johnston-Rodriguez says. “There’s also been a lot happening at the federal level with research and programs on customized employment. We’re seeing all of this come to fruition.”

Both professors say the evening will enlighten everyone, from those adolescents, parents, families, teachers, service providers and employers already engaged in transition to future teachers of individuals with special needs.

“Preparing for adulthood is extremely important, and has its challenges for people with autism as it does for any young adult, but it really does take a lot of planning, support and resources,” Johnston-Rodriguez says.

dots-2“As for any adolescent, these years are very formative. But for students with disabilities, they are even more so, because this is their last chance to get really intensive academic preparation and independent living skills and really focus on career and employment skills,” she adds. “In school, everyone gets a free education, but when you get into the adult world after 21, that all changes.”

Van Laarhoven especially wants teachers and future teachers to attend the Community Learning Series.

“Even though teachers of Special Education are aware of transition and what goes into it, that’s an area where they need much more support. There’s so much to think about, and there are so many moving parts,” she says. “I would like them to be able to think outside the box.”

For more information, call (815) 753-1619 or email seed@niu.edu.



Sports Diplomacy course scores with great timing, conversations

Paul Wright

Paul Wright

Paul Wright has no problem stirring a lively conversation.

Not only is NIU’s EC Lane and MN Zimmerman Endowed Professor in Kinesiology and Physical Education a deft moderator, but the students in his KNPE 399: Sport and Diplomacy course are Honors Program students.

They’re opinionated, they’re smart and they want to talk.

Beyond that, the topic of the day Feb. 12 is a hot one: South Korea, North Korea and the Olympics.

During that class meeting just a few days after the torch roared to life to start the winter games, the discussion of possible reunification crackles with different opinions.

Alexandra Zdunek deems the Olympic-borne olive branches between the Koreas nothing but a publicity stunt perpetrated by the North. As the TV cameras gradually disappear, she says, so will the sudden show of cordiality that stunned the world.

“I don’t think reunification would be possible under this regime,” says the senior Political Science major from Crystal Lake, who plans to become a lawyer. “As soon as North Korea gets what it wants, they will pull out.”

Others in the NIU Honors course, having just watched the Korean athletes march together under a unified flag in the opening ceremonies, aren’t so sure.

unified-flagFundamental pride of nation, one classmate says, will begin “to win out” thanks to athletes from both Koreas competing together as teammates. Inspired by that solidarity, the student says, they will “drop the small stuff and go for it.”

Gestures of unity “really match the ideals of the Olympics,” another offers, talking of countries building bridges of cultural exchange in celebration of human potential and human performance.

Maybe the recreational aspects of sports and the “safe space of competition” would give Korean athletes from both sides of the demilitarized zone a good excuse not to talk policy or politics, another suggests.

Standing aside to let the conversation flow, Wright loves it all.

“What I really like about working with this group of students is that because they are confident about putting their thoughts out there, we are getting a range of opinions,” he says. “The rightness or wrongness of their answers is inconsequential. We’re having a good, rich discussion.”

January’s out-of-nowhere goodwill between the Koreas came as “a welcome surprise,” he says. He had developed the curriculum months earlier.

“That was serendipitous. We had no idea what was about to start brewing,” Wright says, “but this course is a natural extension of what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. It’s sort of a progression in my scholarship. I have a solid grounding in, and a long history of, using sport for positive youth development.”

Students in Wright’s class come from several majors – none in the College of Education – that include Accountancy, Electrical Engineering, History, Marketing and Political Science.

Their textbook, the newly published “Case Studies in Sport Diplomacy,” includes a chapter Wright wrote on his three-year (2013-16) project in Belize. It also examines similar work in Brazil, Central America, China, Haiti, Iran, New Zealand, Russia, South Sudan and, appropriately, Korea.

Class sessions are filled with history lessons.

o-ringsLaying the groundwork to make sense of the current Korean situation began with a look 5,000 years in the past, tracing through the “Three Kingdoms” period of Korean history and centuries of interference or rule from China and Japan. The time of Japanese Colonial Rule, from 1910 to 1945, ended with World War II.

Wright then outlines the events that precipitated the Korean War and the various stages of its aftermath, including the three-decade struggle over communism and democracy and the decade of “co-existence” following the 1987 end of the Cold War.

Engagement began to improve in 1998, stopping in 2008 as North Korea found its footing and started to grow in power as it no longer found itself desperate for cooperation or help.

A decade later, the North is driven to acquire, keep and assert power – military, economic and political – while the South adheres to democracy and positive relations with other countries.

The Olympics have made ripples in the past, Wright says, but none like 2018, which “seems on track to be a vastly different story.”

Unification was planned for the 1960 games in Rome, for example, but the North abandoned those talks when the International Olympic Committee recognized both countries. When Seoul hosted the games in 1988, North Korea boycotted.

Despite those misses, he adds, a certain set of statistics reveals an interesting picture.

case-studiesEighty-five percent of the 55 socio-cultural exchanges between the Koreas between 1971 and 2017 involved sports. This includes unified teams for the 1990 Beijing Asian Games and the 1991 FIFA World Cup in Portugal.

“I am a lover of history, and I feel comfortable talking about those issues and my own curiosities and interests,” Wright says. “In much of the work I do with education, curriculum and schooling – that is my field – there are many things you can’t understand without first understanding the historical context: What shaped our school system? What was going on at the time?”

Building on the Olympics, he asked provocative questions during the games.

Do you think North Korean athletes will try to defect? If so, how do you think North Korea will go after them? What kind of “welcome home” will North Korean athletes receive if they fail to medal? How does the presence U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s sister play into all of this?

He’s also assigned students to watch sport-related movies, report to the class on what they saw and give the films a rating of “gold thumb, silver thumb or bronze thumb.”

“I try to mix things up a bit, have some fun,” Wright says. “We’re lucky to have several more weeks in this class to follow up on the Olympics: After all he bluster and all the drama is done regarding North and South Korea, what do we see sticking? Does the momentum fade and die? Does it take on new life?”

Students are gaining ideas of how the notion of diplomacy through sports can empower their future careers.

Maria Fracassi, a senior with a major in Marketing, calls Wright’s course “interesting.”

football-fansAlthough she considers herself a “mediocre sports fan – I watch when it’s exciting,” she knows that capitalizing on the universal affinity for sports can help to build the business relationships that she will depend on as a marketer.

“I never thought much about how sports can unify people,” Fracassi says. “I enjoy the conversations.”

Zakyrah Harris, a junior studying Political Science and Philosophy, enrolled in Wright’s class because of her interest in the Colin Kaepernick-led NFL protests.

Before Kaepernick and his followers began kneeling during the national anthem, Harris says, she believed that sports always brought fans together. Now she’s surprised to learn that sports can cause military conflict, such as the “Hundred Hour War” between Honduras and El Salvador “over something as small as a soccer game.”

“Dr. Wright is an amazing professor. He makes each class interesting,” she says. “He shows you how sports can bridge gaps and how different countries are able to come together politically or completely destroy each other.”

Zdunek agrees.

“He is really good at getting us engaged, especially when we’re all different majors,” she says. “He is very knowledgeable, and he wants to understand how we can use sport to better each other’s lives. That is such a big care for him.”

Wright is enjoying the class as much as his students.

“They’re really bringing in their different disciplines, and it’s fun to see what they’re being trained in. They’re talking about social issues around race, such as Brown v. Board of Education. They’re seeing connections to other courses they’re in that aren’t normally in our conversation about sport,” he says.

“I’m really pushing them to see behind every one of these stories and case studies we look at, to understand the motivation of the people we’re talking about, to connect the dots, to see what’s driving them,” he adds. “If you understand those things in the background, you can practice critical thinking and look behind the obvious. I’m sure they can apply that in every one of their different disciplines going forward.”



Early Childhood majors visit Riverwoods Montessori School

Stephanie DeSpain

Stephanie DeSpain

Thirty-nine Early Childhood Education students from NIU recently enjoyed inside looks at a Montessori school.

Donations to the NIU College of Education from alumni Anthony L. Kambich (B.S. ’59, Physical Education) and Carolyn A. Kambich (B.S. ’60, Elementary Education), founders of North Shore Montessori Schools in 1966, financed the Feb. 13 and Feb. 27 trips.

“Students in my class last year were asking more about Montessori,” says Stephanie DeSpain, an assistant professor in the Department of Special and Early Education.

“When I talked to our chair, Greg Conderman, he said, ‘Well, we happen to have this funding to start to infuse some of the Montessori style and approach to teaching and learning in our classes to just expose our students to this other world of teaching young children,’ ” she adds. “This semester was kind of our first step in doing that.”

NIU students watched demonstrations by the school’s teachers and were able to ask questions of the faculty.

Montessori education, according to the North Shore website, “is based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s scientific observations of the young child … young children learn with great ease by simply ‘absorbing,’ like a sponge, everything to which they are exposed, rather than learning through logical analysis.”

Riverwoods Montessori School – one of three under the North Shore umbrella – provides a toddler program for 2-year-olds, a preschool classroom for ages 3 to 5 and a school-age classroom for children kindergarten through sixth-grade.

Arranged “in a homelike fashion for students to feel like they’re home,” DeSpain says, it features a living room of sorts in the middle of the school. Other familiar spaces include a regular kitchen, a dining room and a laundry room.

“It really does feel kind of like a home,” she says.

On the bus to Montessori

On the bus to Montessori

Called a “prepared environment,” the classroom is, according to the website, “designed to support these (developmental) periods of the children and allow them to easily learn at their own individual rhythm.”

A few Huskies were able to watch children in action as they stacked blocks and counted colored rods – these are called “manipulative materials” – to learn concepts such as quantifying and fractions.

Manipulatives, according to the website, are located “low on small shelves which are easily accessible to every child. This gives the children freedom, within the limits of safety and respect, to choose activities for themselves that they will succeed in doing. Many little successes build self-confidence and develop knowledge.”

“They have a three-stage lesson: I demonstrate, I have you show me and then I have you do it. That’s kind of how all their teaching is,” DeSpain says.

“When it’s introduced in our textbooks, it’s as a very child-directed approach to teaching, a natural environment where the teacher just serves as a guide and the children watch that guidance,” she adds “We’ve not necessarily had that as a component of our program before. It’s a little bit outside of what our students are familiar with. That prompts a really good discussion, like, ‘Wow, how do I do these things when they’re child-directed?’ ”

Lauren Van Havermaet, a junior Early Childhood Education major from Inverness, enjoyed the trip.

“I thought it was very insightful because I hadn’t known a lot about Montessori,” Van Havermaet says. “They did a good job of showing us what the teachers do and what the kids do, and they showed us a different way of teaching.”

binomial-cubeVan Havermaet was fascinated to see the Montessori teachers “never telling the kids that they were wrong” but focusing on “more of what they’re doing right.”

Children were interested in learning, she says, partly because they were able to choose their activities. One 4-year-old girl even was learning to sew using a shoelace.

She also noticed parallels between the Montessori method and the education of her boyfriend, who was homeschooled by his mother.

“The children were so well-behaved,” adds Van Havermaet, who appreciated that the children were generous in their sharing of toys and manipulative materials. “The whole classroom is very calm.”

NIU students also were curious about how Montessori schools serve children from diverse backgrounds, DeSpain says.

“When we talk about working with young children with special needs, we talk about supports and modifications,” she says. “In a Montessori school, children all work very independently. They grab the materials they want. They do the work they want. For a child with a disability, that might be more difficult.”

Those students who visited were grateful and excited by the opportunity to do so.

Early Childhood is a unique field, DeSpain says, that offers careers in public preschools, private preschools, church-based preschools, Head Start programs and, of course, Montessori.

“Our candidates get a chance to go into a lot of Early Childhood settings, but Montessori is not one they typically get. With the donor funding, it really allowed us to go in and get that exposure to this other type of programming,” she says.

montessori-logoSome already have expressed a desire to undertake their student-teaching in a Montessori school, she adds.

“If a few students in your cohort walk away feeling inspired, empowered and passionate about the job they want to do, then these trips are worth it,” DeSpain says.

“At the end of the day, we want our students to go and get jobs. Everyone needs to feel like they’re going to work somewhere that fits them, and this gives them that exposure and helps them to understand what they need to do to become a credentialed Montessori teacher, which requires some more training,” she adds. “Or, if they found ideas to implement in their future teaching, but realized that Montessori was not the right fit for them, then that’s empowering as well.”

DeSpain hopes to make the field trips to Riverwoods a regular event, and also is planning to use some of the donor dollars to purchase some Montessori materials to place in a designated NIU College of Education classroom or the Learning Center.

That is likely to please Van Havermaet, who is open to borrowing Montessori concepts for her classroom.

And no matter where she finds work, she is eager to start.

“You get to teach kids the first things they learn, and that’s something they’re always going to take with them. They’re always going to need their social skills. They’re going to need their numbers, colors and words,” she says. “That just kind of draws me there, just to see the kids grow.”



Faculty, student podcast probes portrayal of mental illness in film

Scott Wickman

Scott Wickman

People who love movies love to talk about movies.

Sometimes it’s the plot. Sometimes it’s the acting. Sometimes it’s the cinematography or the music or the special effects.

But for NIU’s Scott Wickman and his cohort of film buffs – colleagues, students, longtime friends – the topic of conversation explores how movies portray issues of mental health and its professional treatment.

Wickman, an associate professor of Counseling in the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, is the co-creator of the “Mental Illness in Pop Culture” podcast, available for free through iTunes and heard around the world.

Now in its third season, the podcast currently features 22 episodes that dissect feature films, documentaries and even classic Saturday morning cartoons in the belief “that public perception is both reflected and influenced by popular media.”

“Even though this is really fun to do, there’s an educational component to this,” Wickman says. “Listeners just feel like they’re sitting in the room with us, engaging in the conversation. We’re like the Siskel and Ebert of Counselor Education. It’s become an international phenomenon.”

Two of his frequent collaborators – Adam Gregory, an NIU Ph.D. candidate in Counselor Education and Supervision; and Leanne Deister-Goodwin, a consultant, group facilitator and public speaker on leadership and management who is also pursuing a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling – bring different perspectives.

podcast-logo

Gregory, a seasoned cinephile, previously was a member of the Cleveland International Film Festival for five years. He also once drove from Cleveland to Detroit simply to watch “Brokeback Mountain” before the Oscars.

“I watch maybe five or six movies a week. It’s my self-care,” Gregory says. “This has never felt like work.”

Deister-Goodwin, on the other hand, calls herself “just a consumer” of movies. She became a fan of the podcast at the urging of Wickman, who had been her high school Spanish teacher in downstate Robinson.

Joseph Flynn

Joseph Flynn

Joseph Flynn, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction with an interest in pop culture, media and critical race theory, has joined the panel for Season Three.

Recordings are made in Wickman’s Graham Hall office on his Samsung phone. There are no rehearsals or preparation beyond watching the movies in advance; the conversations are unscripted and free-flowing with no set time limit.

Films discussed so far include classics such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Ordinary People” and “Harold and Maude” as well as contemporary works such as “Moonlight,” “Manchester By the Sea” and “Inside Out.”

Others include “Good Will Hunting,” “Girl, Interrupted,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

A December 2017 episode on “Looney Tunes” analyzed Pepé Le Pew’s predator tendencies, looked at gender identity issues concerning Bugs Bunny and mused that Wile E. Coyote has a schizoaffective disorder, positing that the roadrunner existed only in his mind: “It’s a compelling argument!” Wickman says.

Honesty and courage are key to the podcast’s authenticity. The panel members are candid when their life stories offer parallels to the characters and plots they are analyzing.

manchester-by-the-sea“Manchester By the Sea,” for example, is a 2016 film about a man’s struggle with unbearable grief. The recording of that podcast came only two or three days after Wickman lost two close friends; part of the discussion prompted Gregory to tell a story of when he answered his father’s cell phone one day after his father died.

Panelists wondered why no character in the movie suggested that the man, played by Casey Affleck, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal, seek professional help. They discussed themes of the movie – abandonment, forgiveness, suffering is universal – and hoped that healing came for the characters after the movie’s non-Hollywood ending.

During their recording session one week later on “The Soloist,” which stars Robert Downey Jr. as a print journalist who encounters Jamie Foxx, whose character is a homeless musical genius, it was Deister-Goodwin’s turn to share something personal – and to grasp again the power of the podcast.

“There’s so much of us in this thing. Being real, true and authentic is always our goal, and we try to bring that,” she says. “When I was young, I had some years of my adolescence when I lived in a van.”

Wickman believes that such revelations boost the podcast’s impact, along with the mix of professionals and students and the “split-level talking” theory of chatting with each other while simultaneously addressing a much larger audience.

Leanne Deister-Goodwin

Leanne Deister-Goodwin

Using film as the foundation helps as well. “We all watch movies. We just do,” Deister-Goodwin says, “and you can enjoy the podcast even if you haven’t seen the movies or know about counseling.”

Members of the panel, who clearly have become tight friends, also hold each other in high regard.

“Scott always makes sure that everyone’s voice is important and heard,” Deister-Goodwin says. “When you’re in an environment where you’re valued, and you’re heard, you want to give more. You really do.”

It originated with a course Wickman offered under the same name – Mental Illness in Pop Culture – that didn’t attract enough students to make it viable. Those who had signed up, however, still were interested and asked if it could become an independent study.

Ph.D. student Gregory was there, too, and had been ready and willing to co-teach with Wickman.

When the two met at Starbucks to brainstorm ideas of how to salvage the concept, they hit upon the idea of the podcast – something that now has reached ears on every continent except Antarctica.

Adam Gregory

Adam Gregory

NIU’s podcasters, meanwhile, have presented at a Chicago conference of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision; they’ve also been told that faculty at other colleges and universities have required the podcast as part of academic courses or have awarded extra credit for listening.

“It’s just an amazing adrenaline rush. I sit back and watch us go from 200 to 300 listens over a 48-hour period,” Wickman says. “It’s why I got into counselor education – to contribute knowledge and dialogue on these topics.”

Upcoming films will include “Still Alice,” “Room” and “Nebraska,” and Wickman is hoping that the podcast can also expand its scope.

“These are really compelling films, and we’re looking at them through a critical lens that helps certain elements pop out,” he says. “We all have ideas. We talk about what we’ve seen, what’s resonated with us. I have a dream that this moves us into other pop culture – songs, books, TV.”



NIU College of Ed joins coalition calling for more Illinois teachers

Laurie Elish-Piper

Laurie Elish-Piper

Laurie Elish-Piper has put the support and expertise of the NIU College of Education behind a new alliance calling on leaders to address the state’s urgent need to increase the number of teachers and to elevate the teaching profession in 2018 and beyond.

Members of the diverse coalition – Teachers for Illinois’ Future: Investing in teachers for all students today and tomorrow – include teachers, K-12 administrators, higher education institutions and advocacy organizations.

Higher education must “help young people and career-changers see that being a teacher is a noble, rewarding and exciting profession,” says Elish-Piper, dean of the College of Education.

What that requires is “mentoring and induction support to help new teachers be successful,” she adds, along with professional development for educators across their careers to keep them in the profession.

“Entry into the teaching profession needs to be more accessible so motivated, qualified individuals can become teachers. Additionally, we need to diversify the teaching profession so it more accurately reflects the PK-12 student population,” Elish-Piper says. “There is so much we need to do, which is why I’m thrilled to be part of this statewide coalition that represents multiple sectors, all working together to benefit education in the state of Illinois.”

advance-illinoisThe coalition has a vision that all students, especially those who need the most, have access to the teachers they need to prepare them for college and career.

Over the last decade, the supply of future Illinois teachers has tightened. This shortage varies by region and subject area and is most acute outside of the Chicagoland area in rural and suburban districts. The subjects where this shortage is most severe include special education, bilingual, high school STEM teachers, and career and technical education.

All students are impacted: Schools are forced to hire substitute teachers in lieu of fulltime teachers, cancel classes and convert classes to online instruction.

The Teachers for Illinois’ Future coalition is a collaborative effort to:

  • Ensure students have the teachers they need in order to learn.
  • Support teachers’ growth from exploration of profession and throughout their career.
  • Increase the respect for and the desirability of the teaching profession.
  • Provide school and program leaders with systemic flexibility to meet their students’ needs.