Class of 2021: Alexa Quinn


"I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to teach a variety of courses with so many excellent mentors." Alexa Quinn is graduating with a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction.

Why did you choose the UVA School of Education & Human Development for your program of study?

My advisor, Judy Paulick, is one of the main reasons I enrolled in the Curriculum & Instruction doctoral program at UVA. I was drawn by her commitment to elementary educators and work to identify promising practices and prepare teachers to recognize, value, and learn from the assets of culturally and linguistically diverse students and families. I have been deeply influenced by her critical lens, commitment to social justice, and efforts to develop sustainable and ethical research partnerships.

What is the most significant thing that has shaped your time while you’ve been here?

First and foremost, it’s the people – Judy, my co-advisor Peter Youngs, course instructors, department staff, and fellow students.

Another thing that really shaped my time while I’ve been here is teaching (as a TA or lead instructor) every semester of my doctoral program. From the Elementary Teaching Seminar and Language Arts Methods in person with Judy, Elementary Social Studies Methods in person (and then emergency remote) under the mentorship of Patrice Grimes, to Understanding Educational Contexts online asynchronous with the support of Stephanie Van Hover, and then teaching solo sections of Language Arts and Social Studies online synchronous this past fall and spring, I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to teach such a variety of courses with so many excellent mentors.

Consistently working with elementary teacher candidates has been hugely influential, both for honing my own instructional practices and for remaining connected to the daily joys and challenges of teaching elementary school. Working with our candidates has made me a stronger researcher of curriculum and instruction.

What is one thing you learned during your studies that surprised you most?

I mean, so many things, but I guess maybe most surprising to me was how difficult it is to “know” something. In my previous work as a fourth-grade teacher, school leader, and curriculum specialist, I had this idea that all I needed in order to know how to best support elementary teachers was dedicated time, access to experts, and new skills to engage with existing research. Obviously, these elements were an important part of my doctoral studies. But over the course of this program, I learned how complicated it is to research curriculum and instruction: how much school context varies, and matters; how much teachers’ knowledge and beliefs vary, and matter.

I was looking for answers about how to prepare elementary teachers for instruction across content areas, how best to integrate social studies and literacy, how to support new teachers’ curriculum use, and it was all more complex than I anticipated. So, I dedicated my time to learning from existing research and considering what I could add to our collective understanding. The goal of my dissertation research, for example, was to better understand effective teaching and planning practices for elementary informational reading and inquiry-based social studies instruction.

In my first first-author publication, I shared what we learned about informational reading instruction from studying classroom observations of 77 first year teachers’ -- how often informational reading occurred in the sample (spoiler alert: more than previously reported!), and what it looked like when done well according to existing measures for English Language Arts instruction. I’m hopeful that this work highlighting a combination of strategy instruction and content instruction grounded in authentic text is helpful as the field continues the uphill climb in a quest for knowledge that can improve elementary teaching, especially for students who have been systematically excluded from access to excellent education.

How are you feeling about being a member of the Class of 2021, completing your program during a pandemic?

I remember my heart going out to the Class of 2020 when their in-person doctoral hooding was postponed. The thought didn’t even cross my mind that the Class of 2021 would be in a similar position a year later. The pandemic has taught me about the limits of my imagination (“There’s no way they cancel AERA,” she insisted during a late February 2020 lab meeting) as well as the extent of my adaptability (“My Zoom or yours?” she asks colleagues and friends, pretty much daily.)

It also forced me to reckon with my unearned privilege in a way I don’t think I had before. I was incredibly fortunate to have financial security and the support of extended family to care for my son, Owen, who will be two in June, while our daycare was closed. I have faced no barriers accessing technology, information, or high-quality healthcare. These factors (and many others) really matter for success in a Ph.D. program, and the pandemic revealed and exacerbated the systemic barriers that exist for so many in accessing them.

COVID-19 changed the plan for my dissertation, but my committee and the CISE department were really supportive as I made shifts to study the experiences of students in my social studies methods course rather than in-service teachers. I had the opportunity to teach online in a variety of formats, a skill set I’m glad to have developed, though obviously I wish the context hadn’t necessitated it.

I feel similarly about the Hunter Student Research Conference, which I chaired this past year: the pandemic forced us to envision and enact a completely online conference. It was disappointing not to be able to gather in-person, but I was also grateful for the opportunity to envision new possibilities. 

What will you be doing next?

I’m not going far! I’ve accepted a postdoctoral research associate position at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) under the mentorship of Julie Cohen. I’ll be supporting projects related to elementary teacher preparation, simulations, instructional design, and developing tools to assess the quality of elementary literacy instruction. It really fits in with my goal of helping integrate theory and practice across disciplines to support elementary teachers, and I’m so excited to learn from Julie, the other PIs, and fellow postdocs on the projects.

I also hope to continue studying inquiry in elementary social studies – potentially in local classrooms. This past year, I supported John Hobson and teachers at Albemarle County Public Schools in the development and implementation of Inquiry Design Model (IDM) units, and I’m interested in learning more about the successes and challenges of this model for teachers and students.

In the immediate future, I’m excited to teach EDIS 5800: Understanding Educational Contexts to new master’s students this June. It’s the first course that all one-year elementary Post-Graduate Master of Teaching students take in the teacher education program – an overview of education history, policy, law, and the local context with material developed by CISE Chair Stephanie van Hover. I had a chance to adapt it for online instruction last summer, organizing it around big questions (What’s the purpose of education? Is education a constitutional right? What makes a good teacher? What makes a good school?) and I’m looking forward to kicking off the summer with some philosophical debates!