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Learning Through Reflection: A Graduate Student's Story of Reciprocity

My pursuit of a Ph.D. is grounded in a desire to study how research-informed school- and community-based programs can foster meaningful literacy learning for young learners. I focus mostly on how to address the needs of children who have been traditionally underrepresented in the academy (e.g., racial/ethnic minority, those from under-resourced communities). As a current candidate in the Combined Program in Education and Psychology, many of my achievements to date demonstrate how I strive for academic and personal excellence in my work and how I seek to embody the characteristics of Dr. Edward A. Bouchet and the Bouchet Honor Society. However, it was not until I recently reflected on my roles as a community member and a researcher during a pivotal point in my graduate career that I caught glimpses of Dr. Bouchet’s characteristics of service and scholarship in my own experiences.

Last winter Rackham partnered with the Ginsberg Center and invited members of the Rackham Volunteer Corp to help with a family reading night in a neighboring town. I love to volunteer, especially if the opportunity is related to my passion, so this was perfect. The timing was also ideal, given that I was wrapping up my dissertation proposal at the time, in which I proposed a series of family literacy workshops for African American elementary-aged children. I saw this as an opportunity to see a reading program in action and observe how to best engage children and their families. The volunteers and I had just finished setting up the activities and food when families began to trickle in. Of the families present, one caught my attention. It was a young mother with her three children: an infant girl who she fed on her lap, and the mother’s two sons, who looked to be in elementary school. As the boys made their way to the activity I was facilitating (a bingo game), it was clear that the youngest brother was only in preschool. The older brother was determined to help his baby brother sound out all the words on his bingo card and he told me that he always helps his brother read. At the end of the program, I spoke briefly with the mother about how she supported her sons at home with reading and writing, and we went our separate ways.

Throughout the next few months the brief interaction I had with the family at the reading night kept coming to mind. I attributed this to me wanting to make my workshops as inclusive as possible (e.g., open to all members of the child’s family). I spent the rest of the semester preparing to defend my proposal and finalizing the workshop series for a summer pilot. As the start date of the sessions approached, I was excited to see that families had signed up and were eager to attend. I was so overwhelmed at the first session that I didn’t realize that one of the attending families was the same family from the Rackham reading night. As it turns out, the oldest son was in first grade, one of the grades I targeted for my dissertation. The family and I grew closer and I even served as a literacy tutor and advocate for the youngest son as he started his kindergarten year. With his mother’s consent, I met with his teacher to better understand his reading and writing needs in the classroom. I also shared materials and strategies for literacy engagement with the family that were aligned with what the baby brother was learning in school. In this way, I saw first-hand how the supports I offered were taken up from week to week and I could anticipate some of the real-life challenges facing the families who attended my sessions. I am almost certain that improvements I made to my dissertation project were because of the tutoring and debriefing sessions I had with the reading night family.

I can’t help but think about Dr. Bouchet’s characteristics of scholarship and service as I reflect on this experience. To me, it is clear that the relationship I built with this family had a direct impact on my scholarship. It is imperative, however, as I consider my dissertation’s broader impact that I also use my scholarship to inform how school districts can support young literacy learners and their families. It allows for my service to extend well beyond the one-on-one between a family and a graduate volunteer, and my scholarship to extend beyond the families that participated in my workshop series: I can maximize opportunities for service for school officials committed to serving families and identify areas of inquiry for future education scholars. As I begin my career, I look forward to carrying Dr. Bouchet’s legacy as a vital part of the early childhood research agenda I have begun to pursue.