Maggie McConnaha, CISJ Graduate Winter 2022
I began working on my master’s in Curriculum and Instruction for Social Justice at Loyola in January of 2020, taking exactly one course in person before going completely online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t long after my first semester at Loyola and my second full year teaching that I started to think about continuing on for a PhD. I missed being able to spend so much of my time doing research and studying like I had in undergrad and was being given the opportunity to do at Loyola, so I made a plan of how I could move from teaching to academia. I connected with former professors who gave me advice on applying and began to research different programs. I took the GRE (twice) and then examined my courses at Loyola.
Because I knew that I wanted to apply for a PhD program, I asked to take both the research courses offered at Loyola in the CISJ program: ED600 (Foundations of Research in Education) with Dr. Patrick Dempsey and ED776 (Theory and Research on Teaching) with Dr. Marie Heath. Usually, students only take one of these classes. Taking two allowed me to see two different styles for reading academic literature and keeping track of sources and gave me double the practice of writing a literature review. I explored two different topics: how does offering students choice over the books they read in English classes lead to higher engagement and secondly, how can Restorative Justice interact with a middle school English curriculum?
It was during my second research project that I learned there are academics in the United States questioning how Restorative Justice practices can work in tandem with the content areas. Specifically, Dr. Maisha Winn of University of California - Davis has written on Restorative Justice practices in Language Arts classrooms. Ultimately, I used this literature review (written in ED776 with Dr. Heath) to prepare my capstone curriculum project under the guidance of Dr. Stephanie Flores-Koulish, which became the writing sample I submitted for my doctoral program applications. The capstone curriculum outlined a book club unit for a middle school or high school classroom that would promote Restorative Justice values of community and relationship building, taking ownership over one’s actions, and critical self-reflection while also bolstering literacy skills of reading, reflective and analytical writing, and participating in large and small group discussion. In the future, I may return to this capstone curriculum by asking a local teacher to run the unit in their classroom and see how students are impacted.
The research courses also taught me to read academic literature quickly and effectively. This came in handy when I decided that the best way I could set myself up for success in the graduate school application process was to read the literature of every professor I was interested in working with. Originally, I had twelve schools and programs I was considering applying to, found two professors at each school I could connect with academically, and found at least two of their articles to read. All in all — in the summer of 2021 I read and took notes on 48 academic articles, keeping them all organized in a Microsoft OneNote notebook by theme, surviving mostly on Starbucks’ strawberry refreshers. I’m not sure I would have had the stamina or strategies to complete this without Dr. Heath and Dr. Dempsey’s courses. All this work let me reach out to each professor individually and personally, and for the several professors who were able to have a Zoom meeting with me, I was able to bring up their work and how it could connect to my own. I could draw on the citations again when I was writing my application essays and had to name preferred faculty advisors. I think it was likely the best decision I made during the application process.
Ultimately, I applied to ten schools and was accepted to six. Five of those six programs offered me full funding, even two sending back more competitive offers when they heard what a particular program had offered me. I ended up choosing Michigan State University’s Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education program — a five-year, fully funded program. There, I was awarded a University Distinguished Fellowship, which allows me to attend classes and receive a stipend for my first and fifth year without any teaching or research assistantship post. During my time at MSU, I hope to continue to study children’s literature, Restorative Justice, curriculum planning, youth justice, and more that I haven’t even thought of yet. I’m so appreciative of the foundation that the CISJ program at Loyola gave me because I know it has set me up for success in this next stage of my life.
(Mary) Maggie McConnaha, CISJ graduate Winter 2022