Research Institute Participants Delve into Topics While Polishing Their Skills
October 20, 2023

As a student, Stanislaus State alumnus Rafael Gomez found he was not alone in placing faith in suggestions from Liberal Studies faculty member Brett Ashmun. 

“He has a really good rapport with his students, and we all looked up to him and wanted his approval,” said Gomez, who graduated in May and started teaching at Ballico Elementary School in August. “I always try to do the things he invites me to because I know if he is suggesting it, it is worthwhile.” 

When Ashmun, who is also director of the Great Valley Writing Project (GVWP), suggested Gomez participate in a GVWP research institute for current and soon-to-be teachers in June, Gomez jumped on the opportunity. 

“I knew right away that I wanted to do it,” he said. “I immediately texted my manager where I worked and told him the times I would need to be off.” 

GVWP programs focus on improving the teaching of writing so that educators can better help their students. Once the research institute got underway, Gomez found it did not disappoint. 

Each day, the institute’s 10 participants spent four hours learning the finer points of developing a research question, topic exploration, paper writing and publishing. They also shared their research with each other and explored various educational topics in group discussions.  

At the end of the institute, participants’ papers were posted in the GVWP blog “The Write Voice,” and the group celebrated with a hot dog lunch at Costco. Ashmun plans to offer the institute every summer and said there is plenty of room for new participants as well as past attendees who want to return. 

“This was a start, and they know they can always come back and pick up where they left off,” said Ashmun, who noted this most recent program was the first to feel like “getting back to normal” since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.  

“I really enjoyed being part of that community and hearing very rich, diverse perspectives from others. It really widened my range on how other people see education issues that I may not have thought of."

- Rafael Gomez, Alumnus and Sixth-grade teacher 

Gomez, who teaches math, science and creative writing to sixth graders, said he found the institute valuable and hopes to return. His research topic explored how students’ writing skills are affected by the shift from mostly fiction to nonfiction reading assignments as they progress through elementary, middle and high school. He said the topic is close to his heart because he loves to read fiction and feels it became less enjoyable when he entered high school and was assigned to read mostly nonfiction. 

While his research gave him a greater understanding of how students are affected by teaching methods as they grow up, Gomez also found group discussions provided valuable information about other educational issues and helped him develop into a better, more aware teacher. 

“I really enjoyed being part of that community and hearing rich, diverse perspectives from others. It really widened my range on how other people see education issues that I may not have thought of,” he said. “I wasn’t that well informed on dual immersion, but there was a lot of discussion about it. Also, I got to hear from people who taught in other parts of the world and learned a little about how things are done differently in those places.” 

One of those participants who taught in another part of the world is Melissa Borillo, who graduated from Stan State with a bachelor’s degree in 2019 and earned a teaching credential in 2021. She taught for a year in South Korea before returning to Modesto and a job as a long-term substitute teacher at Great Valley Academy. 

A second year GVWP participant, Borillo chose to research teacher burnout. 

“I was wondering why so many teachers leave the profession after they worked so hard to get their degree and credential,” she said. “Why did they lose their passion?” 

As she delved into the topic, she found a bounty of information on the causes and effects of teacher burnout. But what seemed most valuable to her was the information she found on ways to prevent it and continue finding joy in the profession. 

Borillo said she would like to participate in the institute again next year, but she’s considering changing her research topic to explore the methods and benefits of intrinsic motivation for students, as opposed to extrinsic motivation. 

“I don’t want to give kids candy or other extrinsic motivators as incentives. I feel that defeats the purpose of them practicing how to be human beings, and then they always expect to get something when they do well,” she said. “It’s hollow. I want to change that.” 

The better incentive, she said, comes from within when students feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in a job well done. 

Borillo hopes researching the topic of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation will uncover useful information she can use as she practices her profession, much like the information she uncovered while researching teacher burnout. She said the ongoing learning process is what she likes most about the GVWP institutes. 

“I get to learn more every time.”