Anita Senentz

a brief professional biography

I first wrote this autobiographical sketch of my professional and educational life as an introduction to my dissertation and my choice of research. I chose to study the notion of community in education, the idea and experience of which still captivate me. For me, community, learning, and education go hand in hand.

This piece highlights what has been important to me about community at various stages of my life. Since its inception, I have subsequently edited and updated this sketch. I think it gives a thorough and frank introduction to the professional and educational paths I have walked.

Home & Early Schooling: Invisible Community

I cannot pinpoint the precise moment when I first became aware of the concept of community, but the experience of community is deeply rooted within me. I suspect that I did not begin to think seriously about the idea of community until a time in my life when my sense of community was lacking.

Community as a construct was not apparent because it was embedded within my family life and early education. Growing up in a closely-knit nuclear family, I have a strong sense of what it is to be a part of a loving, interdependent group. I spent thirteen years in small parochial schools surrounded by the same peers and school families. As a scion of one of the founding families of these schools, and a member of the school-church community, I clearly felt my belonging as part of the inner workings of the group. I grew up with the responsibility and confidence of being a vital part of a community. Community was given.

However, amidst this cocooning community, I recall an emerging sense of self that seemed at odds with my environment. I always felt somehow different from my classmates. School was easy for me, though I was interested in things my peers never were, and to depths that were unusual for my age. Though passionate about learning, I was incredibly shy and quiet, withholding the interests and differences that were not well served by my environment. I was not aware of an alternative. Community was all encompassing.

Early College: Broken Community

This small bubble of community was punctured during my undergraduate years. Entering college for my undergraduate studies, I joined a world very different and much larger than I experienced before. While each of the schools I attended previously had a total population of only 200 students, this public university boasted a population around 15,000. While this swirl of diverse people and thought intrigued me, something was missing. Especially in the early years of college, I felt I was meandering through a random collection of isolated classes and content areas. I continued to do well in school; I continued unchallenged by much of my academic work.

Though I did not call it community, I struggled to figure out what was missing. I realized I was not part of anything I could apprehend or embrace — I had no experience of belonging, no cause or group to which to contribute, and no background against which to view my experience. There was no connection, no way of relating myself to the whole. My experiences severely challenged my sense of agency, my feelings of efficacy.

Teacher Education: Incipient Community

These ideas were firming in my consciousness as I began to take my core teacher education courses. After several classes, I began to see familiar faces, and began to feel a connection with other teacher education students. This period marked my first venture in finding and forming a community of peers. While my old school community had shared elements, our parents’ beliefs, choice in school, income, and geographical location often dictated them. I participated in a new community brought together this time by similar educational majors, seemingly similar interests.

I collaborated with other students as we worked our way through our teacher preparation program. During student teaching, an often isolating and trying time, I sponsored a weekly get together of preservice teachers in my subject area. Meeting over dinner, we vented, compared notes, problem-solved, and provided the support for each other that I felt we were not receiving from our university supervisor.

In retrospect, these experiences mark a decisive moment in my understanding of community as an important element for me and in my learning. I now realize my propensity to seek community, and when not found, to build community around me.

At the time, I also realized that this community did not really meet my particular interests. The community of student teachers I helped form arose out of feelings of discontinuity with our education courses and professors. It was a community of survival that formed in spite of our surroundings. Even among these other education majors, there was little sense of shared pursuit in learning to teach. No one seemed to share my passion for talking about our professional and personal development as teachers. While I appreciated the connection to others in a similar bind, this community lacked the rigor that I wanted, needed, as I explored what it meant to teach. Again feeling that I was different, I kept my musings silent.

Teaching: Loss of Community

After graduation, TeachingTeachingTeachingI found a teaching position in a parochial school in the same school-church branch that I attended in my youth. It seemed I had come full circle. When first deciding to be a teacher, I often had imagined going back to teach at the same type of school from which I graduated. I wanted to find a means of giving back, of contributing to the sort of familiar, supportive environment I enjoyed.

My illusions of homecoming were unfounded. The school was very different from one I had attended, caught in its own period of leadership and membership transition. I grappled with the technical and emotional difficulties of a first year of teaching. I discovered that I had changed, and no longer valued many of the same things that other school staff did. I no longer belonged to this community.

I was unwilling to sacrifice my beliefs and visions of teaching, and yet, as a first year teacher and a newcomer to this staff and school membership, I felt awkward about asserting my voice. Who was I to demand change? What right did I have? What did I know? Again feeling different, I endured silently, unsure of my ability to realize change in the group. This experience left me shaken and disillusioned. Rather than question the match between the school community and myself, I only questioned myself, my abilities, my strength as a teacher, my differences that did not allow me to fit into the school community.

The Master’s Program: Articulating My Need for Community

I entered graduate school the following year following a great urge to explore more fully my choice of a teaching career. When first returning to school, my concern was less for finding community and more for becoming a better, stronger teacher. The feelings of disappointment that I held about my teaching experience drove me to become actively involved in learning what I needed to again be satisfied and successful.

Falling back into a familiar environment, I began looking for ways to fortify myself, to strengthen my teaching. I gathered a repertoire of activities, created a number of themes and units, and honed, in the rarified environment of graduate classes, a host of skills to improve my teaching. I remained unsure of how all this activity connected to my strength and fitness as a teacher, but I maintained belief in an imminent leap of faith, in the implicit guarantee that the sequence of coursework seemed to promise. It seemed clear to me that all this thinking, reading, creating, mock practicing, and gathering would certainly synthesize and somehow, in some way, transform me into the teacher I so wanted to be. As I neared the end of my studies, I waited anxiously for the catalyst to trigger my metamorphosis.

The catalyst came quite coincidentally, it seemed. My Master’s program demanded a core of nine hours taken in a related field outside of my secondary social studies major. Realizing my attraction for challenging work and creative, intelligent people, I began coursework in gifted and talented education. The second course in the sequence, a course in strategies for teaching gifted, marked a profound change in my thinking and experience of myself as a teacher.

Unlike my other courses, both undergraduate and graduate, the course focused on my experiences and thoughts as a human, a learner, and a teacher. I was urged to look inside, to consider my own roles, motivations, interests, and beliefs about teaching. I was introduced to the notion of reflective practice, the thoughtful and purposive examination of my thoughts and actions as a teacher, as a teacher who wanted to work with gifted children. I engaged in a powerful written dialog with the class professor, getting feedback on the emerging ideas and questions expressed in my writing.

The inner orientation helped me transform the conception I held of myself as learner and teacher. I was encouraged to refine my own vision of what good teaching was, to become cognizant of my strengths and weaknesses, and to re-craft who I wanted to be as a teacher as well as to consider how I would strive towards that ever elusive goal. I became the means for integrating all the techniques, strategies, and lesson ideas that I had been exposed to, created, or gathered for many years. I began to see myself as an active, life-long learner, responsible for becoming the person and teacher I wanted to be.

This class marks a pivotal point in my development. It seemed the first time that someone had responded to me about the process of my thinking rather than on the completeness of a product I generated for an assignment. I learned of the power of shared, responsive writing. Finally I experienced an interaction that brought out the passion for learning, the desire for intense exploration and discussion that I wanted but never found, never dared to seek.

This class experience gave me an outlet for the flood of questions and interests I wanted to explore about teaching and learning. A part of me remained dissatisfied, however, feeling alone with my wonderings. With the exception of the class professor, no one else in our small class seemed genuinely interested in exploring the substantive issues that seemed vitally important to me, issues that I assumed would be important to anyone who was a teacher. In fact, many of them seemed indifferent at best; others were angry and confrontational. I wondered why they did not want to be a part of that conversation, why exploring these questions held such power for me and so little for them. Like I had in many situations, I chose to remain silent, to withhold my dissatisfaction with the group of which I was, albeit sometimes reluctantly, a part.

I continued taking other graduate courses in gifted education, completing and then exceeding the nine credit hours I needed. In those classes, I encountered a second professor whose classes focused upon many of the same topics of interest I had discovered in my strategies class. In one of these courses, I engaged in a shared dialog journal with a small group of other class members. I remember feeling some satisfaction in expressing my thoughts about the topics raised in class, sharing my writing with other teachers, but the assignment again left me feeling troubled. While the level of discussion was better than I had encountered before with other peers, I felt the depth, focus, and responsiveness that I desired was oddly lacking. At the end of the semester, I began writing about my frustrations with marginal response from the journal group. Pleased at finding the intellectual, cognitively stimulating type of dialog that previously eluded me, I remained disappointed that I had not found others also interested in this conversation.

The Doctoral Program: Rediscovering Community

Retracing this story reveals my increasing awareness and interest in experiences of community. My development exhibited a movement from passive acceptance of the community that surrounded me towards an active quest for community experiences that satisfied my interests. From being insulated in an inclusive environment, becoming aware of missing a sense of community, forming a community when I found one lacking, and trying to fit back in a community that was no longer my own, I realized the power community has for me as a teacher and learner.

Towards the end of my Master’s program, I began to reassess myself as a teacher and a learner. Comparing how I perceived myself upon entering graduate school, I now felt re-awakened, enlivened, and empowered. I believed that an inner orientation would improve my outer actions, that I would be a stronger teacher because I was a stronger person, more in touch with my values and beliefs, more aware of my styles and interests in learning. While I considered returning to a full time teaching position after graduation, I was loath to leave the new connections I was making. I felt I had finally just begun to learn; there were questions about my own learning and teaching, along with larger issues about the purpose and function of education in society that I wanted to explore. I applied and was admitted to the university’s doctoral program.

The summer session between my Master’s degree graduation and the start of my doctoral work, I participated in the last course in gifted education that I had not taken, the teaching practicum. This practicum takes place in the SPARKLE program. It was in this setting that I first reconstructed the life story I just unraveled, realizing how strong a role community played in my life. It was in this setting that I became particularly aware of the concept of community, and of my interest in building a satisfying community of learning.

Living with SPARKLE: My Immersion in Community

Experiencing the Practicum

Before beginning my doctoral work in the Fall of 1994, I participated in SPARKLE teaching practicum. I knew very little about SPARKLE when I entered the program, except that practicum teachers wrote reflective journals, as in my other gifted classes, and taught two enrichment program groups during their experience. I felt both nervous and excited in anticipation of working with kids again.

When I walked into the first orientation session to the SPARKLE practicum experience, I was pleased to be introduced to a third component of the SPARKLE program. In addition to the teaching and writing I was expecting, I learned of the importance placed upon the creation of an ongoing and active community of inquiry as a major focus of our collective endeavor.

This community would be built among the eight practicum teachers and with a larger, core group of approximately fifteen to twenty individuals. This ongoing community group included certified teachers of the gifted, other curriculum area specialists, high school and undergraduate college students in a leadership development program, and university professors. I learned that the whole group, practicum teachers and core group members, would write reflective journals, simply termed “reflections”, and that all of these writings would be shared with the entire group as a means of building community.

The community of inquiry notion was powerful for me, as it spoke of the kind of environment and interaction I always wanted to have, but felt lacking in so many of my classes and other experiences. More than just a social or circumstantial bonding, the concept implicated a deep and personal exploration of issues important to our current experience, and in the larger world of experience, a commitment to the continued learning and professional development of all staff members. I felt urged to express my unique voice as part of the larger group. I began to break through the silence I had always held regarding my needs, wants, and observations, and to listen to the divergent viewpoints of others in the community, as expressed in our shared reflective writings.

For me, SPARKLE was the culmination of several years of thinking, theorizing, and reading. It strung together theory with practice, working in a community with real students, real teachers, exploring issues of interest through our shared writings. It also helped me realize what a powerful part community had played in my life. I made the connections to the past experiences I have described here, and realized my tendency to want to create a community around me.

Returning to SPARKLE: Doctoral Program

After I successfully completed my practicum semester, I started my doctoral work, confident that I would maintain a relationship with SPARKLE in the future. Skipping one semester in which I got settled into my new program, I became a more or less permanent volunteer with SPARKLE. In subsequent semesters, my doctoral committee and I built a slowly increasing involvement with SPARKLE into my program. I became a part of the long-term core group and a faculty member, teaching an occasional group, working with subsequent cycles of practicum teachers, and serving as the program director.

During this time, I encountered both the difficulties and successes of participating in a continuing community of inquiry. I feel I have continued to evolve, to learn, to make personal change, to revise my vision for what teaching and learning should be like. I grew in the development of skills used when working with children and adults, and discovered a few curriculum area passions. However, the most critical transformation I made during my time with SPARKLE has more to do with orientation toward teaching and learning than with skills or content knowledge. I felt the compelling freedom to actively change the environment in which I was participating; to shoulder the responsibility of crafting a space that met both my needs and the needs of the others in that context. Rather than just bemoan the lack of quality, rigor, or community, or to suffer silently and passively, I learned to adjust my participation in a shared learning environment. I gave voice to my questions and fears, needs and wants, collaborating with others to create the kind of community that best challenges and supports us.

That adjustment has not come easily for me. I still hold strong notions and high expectations of what I want my participation to be and of the kind of community I want to maintain and improve. It is difficult to truly listen, to open our minds to someone else’s needs and expectations, and to accommodate those divergent viewpoints into our thoughts and actions. What is fascinating to me is the fuzzy process of community — how what each individual wants and hopes for becomes realized, modified, or denied in the lived reality of the community group.

Post-Doctoral Work: Community Calling?

This is where I update this piece. I carried out my dissertation research within the SPARKLE context. I wanted to explore experiences of this so-called “community of inquiry,” knowing that teachers experience the practicum and related programs in a variety of ways. I learned a great deal about how different individuals view the notion of community and experience that specific “community in action,” and I am working on incorporating those insights in to my current work.

I completed and received my Ph.D. in the Fall of 2000. After finishing the very intensive doctoral program I helped to create for myself (along with a great deal of personal change over the last couple of years), I gave myself a bit of time to recuperate and regroup before moving on to the next incorporation of community in my life. I wasn’t exactly sure where my next calling would be. In the meanwhile, I taught a few graduate courses (Educational Strategies for Gifted and Talented, Curriculum Development for Gifted and Talented, and a doctoral readings seminar in Curriculum & Instruction) at UNO, and fully and officially assumed the job as SPARKLE Program Coordinator.

Being responsible for all aspects of SPARKLE has been difficult in the past few years. While the experience of community with the students and staff of SPARKLE remains interesting and valuable to me, the increasingly restrictive bureaucracy and politics of university life can be tedious and draining. And yet this situation has been very illuminating and informative for me. I’m interested in creating a new environment with less restrictions and wider possibilities than what can be housed in a summer and Saturday afternoon program. Again, I feel drawn to create a strong, diverse community of individuals who are interested sharing our life long pursuits of learning.

I am mostly interested in creating and maintaining alternative educational settings. I have struggled many times with the notion of returning to a classroom in “the system” or assuming a full time tenured university role, and while I have several close colleagues and friends who do amazing work in such settings, I do not believe that my work lies there. I want to create and participate in programs that fit my ideological beliefs, and allow me to work with both adults and children who are chronically interested in learning. I want to be a critical, constructive part of a meaningful community that is stronger, broader, freer, and more inclusive that those I’ve previously experienced and created.

And that’s where life without school comes into the picture.