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Alan Davis

Professor, Educational Psychology/Research Methods

My story:

I grew up west of Denver between Wheat Ridge and Golden, riding my horse in the Lakewood Westernaires precision riding team, and attending Wheat Ridge High School. I went on a high school tour of Eastern Europe and Russia the summer after my sophomore year of high school, and became hooked on travel, languages, and learning how other people thought and lived. I majored in economics in college, specializing in third world development, taught English in the Philippines, studied at the University of Moscow, lived with a family in Mexico City, coordinated a summer school program for migrant workers in Burlington, Colorado, and became proficient in Spanish and Russian. I wanted to try teaching middle school or high school when I graduated. Hitch-hiking in New Mexico, I met a guy who told me I might be able to get a job teaching in San Luis, Colorado without a teaching certificate. I went to San Luis, rented a little adobe house, and got a job teaching 8th and 9th grade math and language arts. It was a life changing experience. I was bilingual, and so were all but four of my students, but the culture of the San Luis Valley, with its old Spanish verb forms, subsistence farming in the valleys east of town, Penitente Catholicism, love of boxing, and legends like La Llorona were new and wonderful to me.

I got a teaching certificate and a masters in social studies teaching at Harvard, and then headed down to take a look at Ramah Navajo High School (now Pine Hill School), the first Indian controlled secondary school in the US. Gloria Emerson, A Navajo friend of mine from Harvard was teaching art there, and another friend, Tom Cummings, was teaching there, and I wrote about the school. At Ramah, living between the Zuni pueblo to the West and the Pine Hill Navajo community to the East, I developed a life-long connection to those very different cultures. I fell in love with Tessa Stanwood, who was teaching English. We got married and moved back to Colorado where I taught world history and Russian at Columbine High School for several years. Teaching at Columbine was a lot less intense than teaching in San Luis, and I left after 8 years to get a PhD in Research and Evaluation Methodology at CU.

Two questions have intrigued me throughout my life as a teacher and a researcher. One is: What is a good teacher? I have spent many years studying teachers whose students learn a lot and like to learn. They teach in very different ways, which proves to me that there is no best way to teach and has left me highly suspicious of "best practices."; What excellent teachers do is create a coherent social environment in their classroom in which learners want to learn and the students themselves sustain the activities through which they learn. The key to improving learning is to understand and attend to the social contexts of learning environments.

The second question is: Why do youth of different home backgrounds perform differently in school? In my first teaching experience in San Luis, I noticed that the students who lived near Main Street usually got higher grades than the ones from rural farm areas, although all were Latino. When I taught English in the Philippines, it was "understood" that Catholic students from the northern islands did well in school, and Muslim students from the south did poorly. At Ramah Navajo High School, I found that many students were suspicious of the school and resisted it despite efforts to make use of Navajo language and culture in the classroom. I now understand that nothing exists outside of culture, that schools and classrooms are themselves micro-cultures within larger cultural contexts, and that adolescents experience schools through lenses of identity-in-progress and loyalties and imagined futures. We will never eliminate an "achievement gap" if we continue to think the problem is mainly one of cognitive skills.

My students at University of Colorado Denver:

I enjoy teaching very much and always look forward to making connections with new students. I particularly enjoy it when my students bring the perspectives of different cultural backgrounds. The doctoral students I have advised have contributed greatly to my life and scholarship, and working closely with a small number of doctoral students is central to my satisfaction in being a professor.

Classes I teach at the University of Colorado Denver School of Education & Human Development:

  • Basic Statistics
  • Doctoral Seminar in Research Methods
  • Methods of Qualitative Inquiry
  • Introduction to Measurement

My research interests:

  • High school dropout, school transitions
  • Personal narrative, life trajectories, digital storytelling
  • Immigrant experience, educational environments for English language learners
  • Social contexts of learning, classrooms as social systems
  • Effective teaching

My hobbies:

I love to sing, and I sing tenor in the Boulder Chorale and play the guitar and the piano. I love the Southwest, and head down to New Mexico every spring, and visit the Navajo Nation from time to time, and I keep accumulating pots and rugs and old baskets. I like personal narratives, and my interest in narratives and digital storytelling associated with my work blends with periodic forays into documentary videography, geneaology, local history, and interviewing older relatives. I really enjoy downhill skiing, a meaty tamal, and a bottle of Peter Lehman's Shiraz.

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