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An Interview with Michelle P. Lia, EdD

by Gordon Nary



Gordon: When did you attend Saint Mary's College what degree did you earn, what was your favorite course, and why was it your favorite?


Michelle: I graduated from Benet Academy in Lisle, IL, and then graduated from St. Mary’s College in 1992 with a degree in Elementary Education. I studied at Maynooth College in Ireland for my sophomore year. People often laugh when they hear this since Maynooth was primarily a seminary at the time!


My favorite course at St. Mary’s was a Theology and Philosophy co-taught course. All first-year students at St. Mary’s had to complete and pass a “W” or writing requirement course. Most students took a straight writing course but I chose the Theology-Philosophy course for my W requirement. It was a really challenging course since I had to comprehend material that was really new to me (philosophy) and write coherently about it. But the course only had 12 students and two instructors. We sat around a large wooden table in a small library at St. Mary’s and had these deep conversations about faith, philosophy, and life. My favorite part was when the Theology professor shared a slideshow of different images of Jesus from around the world: an Inuit Jesus, a Swedish Jesus, etc. One of the texts was a large blue book that when you opened it had four columns, one for each gospel. We would compare and contrast a story like Jesus’ birth from the perspectives of the four Gospel writers. I am so mad at myself that I sold that book back to the bookstore at the end of the semester!


Gordon: When did you attend Northern IllinoisUniversity, what degrees did your earn, and what is one of your favorite memories while you were there?


Michelle: After I had been teaching for six years, I decided that it was time to start my master’s degree, and my love of teaching reading spurred me to get a master’s (2001) and a doctoral degree (2010), both in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Literacy Instruction. Driving to DeKalb from Wheaton in the evening after a full day of teaching was not fun, but in the summer when I took a full course load and graduate school was my job, I actually liked being “out in the country” and being on a college campus again. I had an amazing advisor, Dr. Laurie Elish-Piper, who knew so much about literacy, but also really knew how to gently guide and advise her students. It took me longer than most to complete my dissertation, and I appreciated her tough love to get me to the finish line. One of my favorite memories was going to workshops with a friend I met in class. We both really loved a particular vocabulary researcher, Dr. Timothy Rasinski, so we found when he was presenting in the Chicago area and would attend the workshops, buy one of his books, and ask him to sign the books. At one point, he kindly told us to broaden our horizons!


Gordon: When were you Second Grade teacher at St Joan of Arc School and what did you enjoy most while you were there?


Michelle: St. Joan of Arc was my alma mater, so when I returned to teach there right after college in 1992, it was like coming home. My former teachers were now my colleagues, and it was so hard to call them by their first names! I had 40 second graders which is a lot of seven-year-olds in one place. Yes, it was like herding cats! I loved being able to lead my students through First Reconciliation and First Communion. My favorite priest, Fr. Paschal Honner, OSB, who taught me Latin for four years at Benet would pop into the gym to hit tennis balls every once in a while, and that always made my day.


Gordon: When and what did you teach at Community Consolidated School District 93 and what did you learn while you were working there?


Michelle: I taught fourth grade at Western Trails School in District 93, which was my first time in a public school other than my student teaching experience in South Bend. I had 22 fourth graders each year. At first, I was afraid the fourth graders would be too mature for me after teaching 2nd graders, but I really love the age group. I could joke around with them but they still wanted a hug before they left for the day. I also worked as a reading specialist at Western Trails which was a great way for me to apply what I was learning in graduate school. I loved getting to know students in Kindergarten through 5th grade and watching them learn and grow.


I learned quickly that not everyone grew up the way I did, but that didn’t mean that their growing up was wrong or less than. I learned so much about the world from my students. I had students whose parents each worked multiple jobs, students who lived with grandparents because their parents had passed or were incarcerated, students who had just arrived in the United States from Somalia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Pakistan, or Mexico. Western Trails had families who spoke Albanian, Arabic, Gujarati, Hindi, Polish, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu – I think there were 25 different languages spoken at home. We also had a 30% mobility rate, which concretely taught me how poverty impacts education.


Gordon: When were you a Presenter National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) and what topics did you address?


Michelle: When I started at the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness – now the Greeley Center for Catholic Education – in 2012, I attended the NCEA Convention during Easter Week. I presented at the NCEA Convention in 2013, and then at three mini-conferences in the summer of 2013, on the topics of using standards to teach the most important learning and teaching vocabulary. I have presented at each NCEA Convention since. In addition to vocabulary, the topics have included book talks on picture books and novel sets, aligning the English language arts curriculum to standards, backward design curriculum planning, Universal Design for Learning, small-group instruction, and essential instructional practices. At 2023’s NCEA Convention, I will co-present the revised National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Schools with Dr. Ronald Fussell from Creighton University.


I have also written two books for NCEA: Core Reading Instruction and Getting Started with Backward Design.


Gordon: When were you a Professional Development Coordinator and Clinical Assistant Professor, what were your responsibilities, and what courses did you teach?


Michelle: As Professional Development Coordinator, I led professional learning and served as an instructional coach at schools mostly around the city of Chicago. I was in schools 4-5 days a week, and some days I was at two different schools – one during the day as a coach, and then I would lead professional learning at a different school after the students were dismissed. I felt a bit like a traveling salesperson, with a bag in my trunk for each school so I could keep all of my materials straight! I loved being at each school, but sometimes I would miss having a ‘home’ school. It’s a perfect example of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ When I was a classroom teacher, I would feel a little stuck in the day-to-day routine, and when I was traveling from school to school, I missed that routine. Chicago traffic definitely did not help!


Gordon: You have held several positions at Loyola University in Chicago. Please provide an overview of each position.


Michelle: After I was the Professional Development Coordinator, I shifted to Assistant Director for Professional Learning. The change in title didn’t really change my day-to-day responsibilities. We shifted from the term professional development to professional learning since ‘learning’ sounds more asset-based - teachers already know a lot, and our goal is to continue and nurture that learning.


In 2020, Dr. Debbie Sullivan and I became co-directors of the Greeley Center, and we continue to work to forward our strategic goals of supporting Catholic schools through innovative professional learning, sustaining and enhancing Catholic school leadership, challenging schools to pursue equity by removing barriers to support each student to thrive, and producing practical research publications.


In all of my jobs in the Greeley Center at Loyola University, I have been a clinical professor teaching 1-2 classes per semester. I typically teach classes on curriculum and instruction and literacy. I have had the amazing opportunity to teach at Loyola’s John Felice Rome Center three times. Each time I co-taught a course for school leaders about making decisions using culture as a context. Using the city of Rome as our classroom, it’s incredible to be immersed in churches, architecture, and history.


Gordon: What are the primary differences between Catholic Education and non-Catholic education?


Michelle: Every child deserves a great teacher and an excellent education within a caring community. Both Catholic and non-Catholic schools can deliver this, but Catholic schools have the ‘and’ - great teachers, excellent education, a caring community, AND an education founded in faith and living Gospel values.


Being able to name that the prayer and service to others is following Jesus’ teaching is powerful to young people starting their faith journey. It is uplifting to know that prayer and service, nurtured in elementary, secondary, and college years, can sustain you throughout your adult life.


Gordon: Who is your favorite author, why is that author your favorite, and which of that author's books do you enjoy most?


Michelle: My favorite author - this is a really hard question because I love to read. I’m going to say Jason Reynolds, my favorite author of children’s books and YA books. The first book I read by him was The Boy in the Black Suit and I was drawn in by his effortless storytelling and compassion. My favorite book by him is As Brave As You about twin boys from Brooklyn who spend the summer with their grandparents ‘in the country’ in Virginia. It’s a beautiful story and because of his incredible writing, I felt like I was a kid again visiting my own great-grandparents’ house in Minneapolis. I had so much in common with Ernie and Genie. Jason Reynolds writes economically and hooks you in the first pages so you can’t put his books down until you devour them. I think I held my breath the entire time I was reading Long Way Down.


Gordon: Thank you for a great interview.

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