Using the Constructivist Approach in Family & Consumer Sciences

Vol. 18, No. 2
ISSN: 1546-2676

Guest Editor:
Jacquelyn W. Jensen

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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM, Vol. 18, No. 2. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member, Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2009. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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Student Teaching: A Constructivist Context

Cheryl Mimbs-Johnson
University of Kentucky


This study examines the student teaching experience and the process of becoming reflective practitioners as a constructivist context. The journal entries were examined for evidence of transformed practice as a result of their reflections on open-ended prompts over 4 intervals throughout their student teaching experience. Evidence of the pre-service teachers’ critical science curricular orientation is shared.


Experiences as a family and consumer sciences (FCS) teacher educator for over twelve years provides the opportunities to study pre-service teachers and the student teaching process. Developing a better understanding of the lived experiences of pre-service teachers may assist us in reconstructing our knowledge and improving teacher preparation.

Observing this context through the journals of two pre-service teachers over a sixteen-week experience is the focus of this study. The reflections of the journal readers illustrate further the development of a constructivist teacher. A discussion regarding the role of the university supervisor in modeling a critical science curricular approach and the evidence of the pre-service teachers’ abilities to problem-solve, make change, and improve their teaching is the focus of this article.

Related Literature

An operational definition for a constructivist context for this project is the basic assumption that the pre-service teachers construct meaning from their experiences during student teaching, both from the lived context in the classroom and from their personal reflections on those experiences. Nuthall (2002) described social constructivist teaching as “The content and processes of the mind that reflect the cultural and social contexts in which they develop” (p. 43). Although we cannot assume that all student teaching classrooms are constructivist, the direct teaching of critical thinking skills was described by Gabler and Schroeder (2003) as one of the key goals for providing a constructivist environment.

Recent studies have examined the student teaching and practicum experiences of student teachers through their journals (Kvaska & Lichty, 2004; Moore. 2003). Kvaska & Lichty (2004) studied journals of 13 family and consumer sciences (FCS) pre-service teachers over a 15-week student teaching experience. They found several themes within two key categories: those that dealt with instructional issues such as classroom behavior management and student motivation concerns, as well as lesson preparation and resources for teaching assistance; and those that dealt with communication issues such as interactions with administrators and cooperating teachers.

Meister and Jenks (2000) studied the experiences of 42 new teachers through their reflections and found that student classroom behavior was the number one issue or concern. Watzke (2003) studied stage theory within the model of a 2-year field based program for teacher preparation and found that classroom management was the issue of greatest concern for pre-service teachers in the initial stage of the program, However it diminished as students continued through the rest of the 2-yr program. It was suggested that the reflective action taken by the pre-service teachers to understand the larger issues underlying the behavior such as student learning, motivation, and their emotional development improved their success in the classroom.

Moore (2003) specifically set out to determine if constructivist learning was actually happening for pre-service teachers and studied practicum experiences of 77 future language arts teachers and 62 of their mentor teachers. The pre-service teacher’s journals were one piece of the larger study. It was found that the practicum students, mentor teachers, and the researcher tended to address concerns in practice that related more to classroom and time management procedures and lesson content and planning then on constructivist theory process and application (Moore, 1993). Brookfield (1995) distinguished between reflections on the technical activities of teaching versus the critical refection of questioning our beliefs about how we teach. Brookfield indicated that analysis of autobiographies is one of four ways to examine practice.

When pre-service teachers think about their experiences in the classroom and reflect on how those experiences challenge their assumptions and beliefs, it is reflective practice and should be an integral part of the teacher preparation process. Bullough and Gitlin (2001) used a method in teacher preparation called personal teaching text (PTT). This method included journal writing assignment, their own critical reviews of what they wrote, and other periodic written assignments throughout their experience. The focus was on the process of becoming a teacher.

Journaling provides a tool to help capture this reflective process. Proefriedt (1994) described journaling by teachers as a way to neutrally examine their communication with themselves. The learning from the journaling process can be described as constructivist. It is essentially teachers telling their story while constructing their knowledge about who they are as teachers (McLean, 1999). It is the process of thinking, asking questions, rethinking, problem-solving, making different decisions, trying new things, and reflecting again that becomes the action which contributes to teachers’ understanding of their roles, the construction of their knowledge. Calderhead (1992) indicated that “the reflective teacher is one who is able to analyze [his/her] own practice and the context in which it occurs” (p. 141).

The process of reflection includes an examination of student learning and classroom behavior as well. Described by Moore (1999) as reflective discourse, it also involves the teacher’s application of appropriate models of effective practice. Student behavior becomes clearer to the teacher when the event is described in an objective way in a journal (Proefriedt, 1994). Foote et al. (2001) described the use of journals as an effective way to use metacognition, which is constructivist.

McIntyre and O’Hair (1996) studied ten reflective roles of teaching. These roles are integrated throughout a teachers practice and include the role of the teacher as organizer, communicator, motivator, manager, innovator, counselor, ethicist, professional, politician, and legalist. When teachers assume these roles and reflect on them, it improves their practice and helps construct their knowledge about being a teacher. A reflective practitioner takes a comprehensive, holistic approach to examining practice and making positive change. Reflective practice requires taking action to improve on what you have learned. Orlofsky (2001) indicated that curiosity and the desire to make change are both needed for competence in reflective practice. Loughran (2006) wrote that teaching “should encourage students to dissect and analyze the assumptions, practices and structures that together form the basis of that discipline’s approach to the construction and use of knowledge” (p. 28-29).

The critical science perspective in FCS is an integrative one (Thomas, 1998). More directly, the practical problem solving perspective includes a reflective component, one that requires action. It also has a constructivist orientation, as it directly teaches critical thinking skills (Gabler and Schroeder, 2003). Reasoned action to meet valued ends and making decisions based on consequences to self and others characterizes the critical science perspective. These characteristics complement the constructivist approach to teaching and learning and the process of reflective practice and are applicable to the journaling process used in this study.

The determined effort in the FCS discipline to embrace the critical science curricular perspective is well documented (Fox & Laster, 2000; Ley, 1998; Litchy & Johnson, 2006; Mimbs, 2005; Rowley, 1998; Thomas, 1998). Litchy and Johnson (2006) did a follow-up study of FCS teachers who had completed training in the critical science perspective and found that ten years later, most participants had made long term transformation in their teaching, which reflected their values. Mimbs (2005) did a follow-up study of teachers who participated in a FCS Teacher Leader Institute, which emphasized a critical thinking curricular perspective. Teachers shared that it was difficult to model the critical science perspective without directly teaching students how to think critically and learning how themselves. The purpose of this study was to take a closer look at the pre-service teachers’ own construction of knowledge and to examine the context of the constructivist experience of student teaching. The following questions were used to guide the study:

  1. Does the student teaching experience support a constructivist context?
  2. Does reflective journaling support a constructivvst context?
  3. Does the modeling of a critical science perspective by a university supervisor/instructor have an impact upon the development of pre-service teachers’ curricular orientation?



Weekly journals were collected from ten family and consumer sciences secondary education pre-service teachers during their 16-week student teaching semester in the spring of 2002. All of the pre-service teachers in this study were Caucasian women in their final semester of their bachelor of science in education degree program leading to certification, at a large university in the Midwest. Two of the ten students were specifically selected for the purpose of this study reported here. Their names have been changed and are described here as Gina and Julie. I selected these students for several reasons. They both wrote pretty extensively in their journals, were very strong students in my courses, were taught from the constructivist perspective, and were intrinsically motivated. I also selected Gina and Julie as they both exhibited high abstraction and commitment. These are desirable characteristics for student teachers that are categorized by Glickman (cited in Henry and Beasley, 1996). The categories are based on student teachers aptitudes, attitudes, and actions, and Gina and Julie both reflect on their teaching, take action to improve their teaching, and have the motivation and ability to be very competent teachers. Henry and Beasley (1996) described those with high abstraction as teachers who can see the alternatives and are better able to “discriminate, differentiate, and integrate” and those with high commitment “are high energy persons who plan to make a career in teaching” (p. 122). They both completed their student teaching in large suburban, multicultural diverse schools. They both had demonstrated an affinity with the critical sciences curricular perspective modeled and taught in my classes, and they both evidenced a passion for teaching as their calling.


All pre-service teachers were asked to respond to the same five reflective prompts each time they completed an entry. The Critcal Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) technique developed by Brookfield (1995) used five open-ended prompts as well, and was intended for teachers/professors to use after a week of teaching to have their students identify when they most felt connected to the events of the class, when they most did not feel connected, what actions they found most beneficial, what actions they did not find beneficial, and what shocked them the most. Kvaska and Lichty (2004) used ten open ended prompts for FCS student teachers’ weekly journal reflections to encourage them to share their feelings and perceptions related to the experiences of student teaching, cooperating teacher interactions, resources, opinions, and as an opportunity to ask for advice.

The specific prompts for this study were those suggested in the College of Education Student Teaching Handbook (MSU, 2001) that the pre-service teachers were given and which I had used for several years as a university supervisor.

  1. Most significant learning experience this week was…
  2. Lesson I was most proud of…
  3. My biggest discipline concern and solution this week was…
  4. I’m going to improve my teaching performance next week by…
  5. I need advice and help with...

These open-ended prompts encouraged the teachers to reflect, think about, and examine their weekly experiences related to their learning, their teaching, their classroom management issues, and improvement of practice and offered an opportunity to ask questions of their university supervisor. These open-ended prompts facilitated communication between the student teachers and the journal was a requirement included in their course syllabus and therefore a situational choice for the instrument.

Data Collection and Analysis

Journal entries were collected by email and saved electronically and grouped by student. I responded to the student teacher’s questions regarding advice as needed (reflective prompt five) via email, telephone, and when making supervisory visits. Gina completed two 8-week experiences at two different schools and Julie completed one 16-week experience, all at one school.

Student teaching experiences vary over the sixteen-week practicum, as the student teacher becomes more practiced and competent. The complete journals were read separately by myself and reread. Because of the length of the journals, it was difficult to make meaning of the entries. Therefore, the journals from weeks one, four, seven, and twelve were pulled out and given to additional readers. This provided a systematic way of reviewing the same entries by several different readers as well as looking at the same intervals for each student teacher.

The journal readers included two experienced FCS teacher educators from two different states, a practicing FCS teacher in her 2 nd year in the classroom, and two pre-service teachers. It was important to include readers who are similar to the student teachers being studied to provide a different interpretation of the journal entries than that of teacher educator or practicing teacher.

Journal readers were asked to read the journal entries for weeks one, four, seven, and twelve for one student teacher, and to reread them and write down their comments regarding that student teacher’s journal entries. Then they were to repeat this for the second student teacher. Then they were asked to reread both to look for any common themes or repeated ideas, shared by the student teachers, and to send all their comments to me via email.

I then reread the journals from the intervals along with the written comments from the readers. The findings are described in general terms in response to the research questions and more specifically by intervals and prompts where needed for understanding. Direct quotes from the journals of Gina and Julie, responses from the readers, and a revisit of the literature are provided for support in examining the context of this constructivist experience.

Findings and Discussion

Research Question One

Does the student teaching experience support a constructivist context? Construction of knowledge, changing their ideas, challenging their assumptions and practices, and re-examining their experiences, then trying new things and thinking through situations were themes reported by all the journal readers as evident in the journals. Three of the journal readers all commented on the unrealistic expectations and assumptions that were described in the journals. For example, in Gina’s journal she wrote,

Why don’t students’ care? Where does the lack of motivation come from? Surely they do not all have learning disabilities…when I was in high school I couldn’t work hard enough to raise my GPA, do my best, and be as ‘perfect’ as I could be. I learned this week that my frame of reference as a teacher needs to be altered.

In the beginning of the very first week, Gina was constructing her knowledge about teaching and learning. She had assumptions and preconceived expectations that were unrealistic and noted how she needed to rethink this very basic of concepts. Although in week one, Gina had admitted her expectations were something different than reality, in week seven she was still not able to change that basic belief about student motivation. She wrote,

In one of my classes, 16 out of 29 students have an F. I told them my policy on late work and continue to reinforce it, but they just don’t seem to push harder…perhaps I did not emphasize well enough how much of their grade it was. Perhaps it was my fault…I gave them sufficient time and was clear on the due date. Homework is unheard of to many of them…What’s the catch? Am I missing something? I caved in a little and gave the students who had turned in their assignments by today half credit for the two big assignments, but they still have F’s. Am I too hard?

It is evident that Gina is using her critical thinking skills and is constructing knowledge about her experience by thinking about her strategies, considering her policies, and even changing them. But it feels as though she is still in conflict with her basic belief that kids should come to school ready to learn and care about their grades. The journal reader who is the new teacher shared from the perspective of her own experience, “It doesn’t take long to see that you have to set aside how you think things should be and figure out how to make things work.” Julie also showed how her prior expectation of the identity of her students had to be modified to meet the reality of what the students expected for their lives. She learned this through a constructivist timeline group activity.

Most students had similar goals of graduating from college, getting married and having kids. What really surprised me was the order they chose to do these activities in. There were several students who wanted to have children before getting married and some who planned on children with different fathers…I guess my narrow view of life told me that students would want to aim for the traditional route of marriage, then children, and all with the same person…more than one student plotted out divorce and re-marriage on their timelines…At first I found it sad that they would plan on going through the pain of a marriage that doesn’t work out, but then I realized that because it is so prominent in our society, students may just see it as a way of life.

This experience challenged Julie to examine her own assumptions and consider new perspectives, just as she expected her students to do. Foote et al (2001) described these as constructivist learning characteristics, important to cooperative learning activities.

Gina and Julie became more competent as teachers, as problem-solvers, with practice across the 16-week experience. This was evident in several statements in their journals. In one such example in week twelve Julie expressed her ah ha moment for the week.

I made the mistake of telling the students that because [of time, due to school testing] we were not going to plan the lab as we usually do…That was a big mistake…Without that sense of order they did not handle themselves well…I have learned from now on, we will always take the time to plan. It is not worth the disorder and stress it causes!

A similar lesson learned by Gina regarding planning and preparation was, “I really do a much better job in teaching if I prepare well in advance. Although I can pull it off in class to fly by the seat of my pants, I am much more relaxed and flexible if I am fully prepared and totally knowledgeable about the content.” This lesson Gina learned is supported by Foote et al (2001) who emphasized that rules, procedures, and being well prepared, are necessary for a constructivist teaching environment.

Research Question Two

Does reflective journaling support a constructivist context? The act of writing and sharing their experience was obviously of interest to Gina and Julie. They wrote 15 and 19 pages of mostly single spaced type respectively (which is why only 4 intervals were examined by multiple readers). The bigger story, or personal experience of each pre-service teacher, helps one understand that every experience is unique; as identified by several studies that have examined or used this case study approach (Bullough Jr. & Gitlin, 2001; Hansen, 1995; Mimbs & Gillespie, 2002). Using journals is a way to design a planned, procedural process to assist pre-service teachers to be curious, to seek to do well, to reflect on their progress, to ask for advice, and to ultimately make meaning of their experiences in their process of becoming a teacher. Ayers (1993) expressed the importance of reflecting on the process of teaching: “teaching is an eminently practical activity, best learned in the exercise of it and in the thoughtful reflection that must accompany that” (p. 12).

Gina evidenced an example of using the journal to think through a problem in week four. “Lately (she) has been jumping in more and more and it disrupts the flow of the class. For some reason it just bothers me…Oh well, she knew I was frustrated today and by the second block she did a little better. I know it’s her classes. I’ll just work on my patience.” As the university supervisor, I noticed the cooperating teacher’s (CT) resistance in giving up control in the classroom while I was observing and discussed the situation with them both. It was interesting to see that even though Gina had already discussed the situation thoroughly with me in person, she felt it important to write in her journal too.

Confidence in the classroom takes time and student teachers have the added pressure of wanting to please their university supervisor and their CT and all the while consider the learning needs of the students and develop a relationship with them. Gabler and Schroeder (2003) wrote, “Continual reflection on practice is a vital part of effective teaching, an activity that promotes the learning of students and the empowerment of teachers as professionals” (p. 5).

This empowerment builds teachers’ confidence. Kvaska and Lichty (2004) also found that student teachers felt more confident over time and expressed less feelings of being overwhelmed as their experience progressed. Some of the experiences shared by Gina and Julie prompted reactions in the journal readers. One of the preservice student readers wrote “This made me want to cry, her lesson worked and her students were engaged. This is what we all want, at least I do.”

Research Question Three

Does the modeling of a critical science perspective by a university supervisor/instructor have an impact on the development of the student teachers curricular orientation? Yes! Julie wrote some very specific examples in her journal that illustrates her critical science curricular orientation that I had taught and modeled in class. In week one she actually attended a district teacher meeting and was surprised to find some teachers did not use the state curricular guide and some did not even know there was one. She was also able to share with them about using the National Standards of FCS. In week four she described some change her cooperating teacher made based on something she had taught her.

I am starting to rub off on [cooperating teacher] a little. She used a practical perennial problem in her lesson this week and also used my activity on I-Messages with her Advance Child Development class. I helped her out with it, but she wanted to have a chance to teach it with my advice…It made me feel good to know that she liked my ideas enough to use them right away and with other groups and I think it made her feel good to try something new when she used the practical perennial problem idea.

Practical perennial problems are a key component of the critical science curricular approach. In week four Gina described creative activities using role-plays, games, computer labs, and infant simulators and the lessons she learned from each. In week seven, Julie described her lessons in nutrition as projects, which included a variety of learning activities that tied the subject matter to student’s lives. These included journaling or personal reflection, lab time, Internet research, and analysis on the computer. In the same week, Gina turned a traditional wedding planning unit into a consumer critical thinking unit. She wrote, “They gruffed and groaned a little due to the work, but each day they were busy getting businesses, getting on the internet… to make their analysis.” In week twelve she used a creative newspaper activity that was successful in provoking discussion and interaction.

I believe both Gina and Julie have a critical science curricular perspective and that the modeling they experienced in their teacher education program made a difference. It appears that Gina and Julie both have a disposition for and an ability to think critically. Having an attitude accepting of critical thinking is not the same as having the skills to think critically (Williams, 2005). I believe as Loughran (2006) wrote, “Modeling is inherent in all that we do in teacher education. Intended and unintended learning about teaching occurs through our modeling whether we are conscious of our actions or not” (p. 95). Mimbs (2005) found that experienced FCS teachers who have had training and practice in the critical science curricular perspective, indicated that modeling and flexibility were the most important teacher behaviors needed for success in helping their students develop critical thinking skills. These teachers further indicated that even with practice and experience, motivating students is still the most challenging (Mimbs, 2005).

Theme of Journaling

Prompt three, “My biggest discipline concern and solution this week was… became an obvious theme that was threaded throughout the experiences of both Gina and Julie. It crossed over into all the prompts and was noted by all journal readers as the most obvious theme or issue for the student teachers. One of the preservice teachers who served as a reader wrote, “I would say that the biggest theme overall dealt with issues of classroom management. Respondents wrote about behavior for much of their journal entries.”

Gina and Julie were able to identify discipline concerns and find workable solutions. Some of the incidents included general disrespect, unprepared for class, not taking the learning seriously, and not listening to instructions. In week seven Julie described her experience at length.

I have two boys who cannot sit still to save their souls…They dumped out two huge boxes of puppets, knocked over a can of paint by “accident,” and chased each other around the room with a toy drum…I told them to…do their lesson plans…or take a zero…and write me an essay on the definition of maturity…They decided to put everything away and sit down and do their work. Afterwards, a female student who is their friend called me a choice word, and I heard her. I told her to apologize…or go to the office…she apologized, and the class was amazingly quiet for twenty glorious minutes until the bell rang.

In week seven Gina set a specific goal to deal with student behavior by “addressing individual student problems outside of class or privately instead of letting them take up so much class time.” In week twelve Julie started using a seating chart to control behavior. “I had one student who was so upset about the seating chart that he decided not to speak to me anymore. He sat and wouldn’t do his work…I found it hard to believe that a seating chart would make him so upset.” Julie continued communicating with the student and questioning him and learned that he was upset by many changes she had instituted since coming into the classroom. (The full account is too extensive to share here.) One of the teacher educator journal readers wrote, “Julie found out that being persistent in talking to a student who resented her rules paid off. She really wanted to get to the bottom of the problem and finally she did.” The other teacher educator reader wrote the following about the same journal entry.

Amazing job of questioning student and his resulting behaviors, questioning her own decisions and the impacts of it, continuing to question from different perspectives until she finally was able to connect with the student and achieve mutual understanding, great example of communicative action at work.

In week twelve in response to prompt four, “I am going to improve my teaching performance by…” Gina and Julie continued to link their teaching performance with their success or challenges in classroom behavior management. They both indicated their goal was to be better planned in advance for the lessons, including having materials gathered and copied, planning extra projects as lessons end sooner than expected, and to be more knowledgeable and informed on the content matter. Gina expressed it this way, “working harder to prepare my lesson in full well in advance so that my energy can be expended on the student’s needs more so during the class period.” The student teachers attention to detail and awareness of the importance of daily tasks of teaching and student behavior in this study was also illustrated by Hansen (1995) who examined in-depth the lives of experienced teachers and their stories.

Mimbs and Stout (1998) studied 14 graduate student teaching interns journal reflections tied to McIntrye and O’Hair‘s ten reflective roles. It was determined that, although the teacher interns were to be reflecting on different roles, their role as classroom manager seemed to be a persuasive controlling factor in most of the incidents. Mimbs (2000) who surveyed certified FCS teachers who were not teaching, found one of the themes for the reasons they were no longer in the classroom was because of problem student behavior. The success story here for Gina and Julie is they were able to demonstrate the power of reflection by examining their practice, which is the reactive response and determining to make change, which is the proactive response (Orlofsky, 2001).

Conclusions and Recommendations

The learning that takes place in the student teaching environment takes work. It takes time to reflect and question what occurred, evaluate action as the teacher, and try new things. This, in and of itself, lends a constructivist context to the student teaching experience. Teacher education preparation remains a challenging enterprise. Classroom behavior management was an overriding concern and ongoing challenge that affected all parts of the teaching process as evidenced by Gina and Julies’ experiences . The student teachers reflected on what happened, based on a given prompt, and shared their own understandings of what it meant, set goals, took action, and reflected yet again. They used their critical thinking skills, looked at their assumptions, examined their practice, made changes, and added to their construction of knowledge of what it meant to be a teacher.

A limitation of this study was the small sample, only the stories of two students. However, using “true stories” to connect the meaning of the learning to the real lives of teachers can inform practice and improve the process of developing reflective practitioners. Journals provided a means to hear that story. More structure might be provided by a concrete journal format with more explicit instructions to students to write in their journals on a more regular basis, or as a planned exercise as part of a seminar. However, this might limit the openness of the process. Adding a component that requires students to go back to their journal entries for more metacognitive thought and reflection might further help us understand their understanding, their reality.

The challenge is to develop a systematic, consistent method of collecting reflective thoughts, the actions taken, and the learned experiences that facilitate the teacher’s construction of new knowledge. More extensive studies of student teachers and teachers reflective practice should be investigated. The challenge is to find a way to garner the constructed knowledge of individual teachers and groups of teachers to improve teacher preparation practices in a measurable way. Comparisons of the stories of experienced teachers with those of pre-service teachers would also shed some light on the change in context, the knowledge as lived experience, and the assumptions held—all in the search for how to do teacher preparation.


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Kappa Omicron Nu Forum Volume 18 No. 2

Student Teaching: A Constructivist Context

Cheryl Mimbs-Johnson, University of Kentucky

Laying the Foundation for Professional Competence in Family and Consumer Sciences: A Contructivist Approach

Barbara A. Clauss, Indiana State University

An Example of Constructivism in FCS Teacher Education

Jacquelyn W. Jensen, Eastern Kentucky University
Maxine L. Rowley, Brigham Young University

Constructivist Learning Theory in an Interior Design Program

Candace Fox
Mount Vernon Nazarene University

Application of Constructivism by Students Majoring in Early Childhood Education

Jaesook L. Gilbert
Northern Kentucky University

Reflections on Using Constructivist Techniques to Teach Constructivist Teaching

Gale Smith
University of British Columbia

Last Word

Dorothy I. Mitstifer, Kappa Omicron Nu