AIW Changes the Quality of Learning—Even at the PhD Level

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AIW Changes the Quality of Learning—Even at the PhD Level
By: Dana Carmichael / May 17th, 2016 / Feature

Have you had a moment in life when someone you’ve known well shines more magnificently than you could have ever imagined? For those of you in our AIW family who know Jehanne Beaton Zirps, she is now officially Dr. Beaton Zirps!


Before she and her committee proceeded with her defense, she held a one-hour public overview of her thesis. Her topic, student teaching, might sound rather ordinary, but Jehanne’s approach turned it into extraordinary.


In essence, after three years of field notes and coursework, she wrote her dissertation as a postmodern novel.  Can you imagine? So extraordinary. This was primarily to expand the audience from committee members to the broader education community of teachers, university teacher education program and policy makers. As we know in AIW schools, this scores high in Value Beyond School.  But it really does have value. A few lucky candidates get their dissertations published. Most of us are content to get the committee’s feedback and, in all honesty, just be done.


I’ve known about her novel for a long time, and I kept wondering how she would pull this off within a tier-1 research institution where research rules supreme. Yet, Jehanne did it. She combined four types of knowledge and skills: (1) creative writing, developed when she earned her MFA; (2) scholarly research, acquired during her PhD coursework; (3) field experience she gained on location while coordinating the urban co-teaching program; and (4) her teacher’s heart, full of passion from an extensive background in urban teaching. Here is the technical description:

The dissertation uses postmodern complex critical feminist epistemologies, which include:

  • a disruption of singular, linear, grand narratives
  • the co-existence of multiple truths
  • the acknowledgement that all knowledge is partial


Before she began to read excerpts to the audience, she explained the rationale for her dissertation’s format. Since her context would be urban and consist primarily of non-white students, story-telling seemed the best way to represent her findings since it honors the way knowledge is shared and transmitted in non-white cultures. Then she explained she had combined three styles of creative writing within the novel: (1) ethnographic poetry, to represent one character’s voice, named by role, giving the reader access to the interior world; (2) portraitures, which were composites of students, that though fictional, would ring true as representative from the broad spectrum of students any urban teacher would recognize; and (3) the fictionalized narrative, which was the heart of the novel itself.

In order to utilize and reference the extensive teacher reform research she uncovered for her literature review, Jehanne used footnotes throughout the novel. It’s almost as if the bottom half is the scholarly rationale, the unfolding story on the top half of the page.

I was only vaguely familiar with the technical vocabulary Jehanne used to describe the rationale for her format. But none of that mattered when she started reading. Instantly we were there, with the characters, almost as if they were talking right to us. So honest and real, embodying a distinct perspective, but only as a partial truth. I won’t mar her brilliance by paraphrasing the story.

Suffice it to say that when she finished the whole presentation, the audience erupted in loud applause, prompting a spontaneous standing ovation, which according to the committee chair, has never happened. I personally was moved to tears and thankful Jehanne chose to present her findings in a way that will reach a larger audience. Truly, this could change the student teaching experience as we’ve known it.

Kudos, Jehanne! You chose the path less travelled—and it WILL make all the difference!


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