Through research, outreach, and engagement, the College of Education is empowering students of all backgrounds through literacy and literature.

By Kate Conlow

Reading and comprehending written language are critical skills.

Literacy can empower children and adolescents to perform daily tasks and navigate life as they grow into adulthood, while literature can offer insight into other people’s lives that a student may not have otherwise known—it is a way of passing along important stories and lessons.

Having the ability to read is also a foundation for success in virtually every facet of life, both personally and professionally.

At the University of Iowa College of Education, reading programs, faculty research, and outreach initiatives are empowering students and offering them new perspectives. From the Iowa Reading Research Center’s literacy research and reading support services across Iowa and the nation, to community engagement programs that inspire young students to become successful citizens, to faculty who are teaching future teachers to become leaders in reading and literacy education, the College of Education is invested in and committed to ensuring all students are not only literate, but that they have the opportunity to learn and grow from what they read.


Video by Mei-Ling Shaw Williams

Growing Literate Citizens

Long before Deborah Reed was the Director of the Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC) at the University of Iowa College of Education, she was a teacher for 10 years. Reed worked primarily in inner city high schools and also with juvenile offenders. Although it was a difficult job, she loved teaching her students.

The moment that would impact the trajectory of Reed’s career came when she was working at a private school in California. One day she kept one of her students, a 16-year-old boy, after class to discipline him for what she had perceived as dodging her questions and fighting her instruction.

“I don’t know what it was that made me stop when I was dressing him down, but it suddenly hit me,” says Reed, “and I said ‘You can’t read, can you?’ and he burst into tears in front of me.”

“It’s really sad to see little kids struggle,” says Reed, “but it’s almost demoralizing to see adults — young adults and adults — struggling with reading and to know how their lives have been so profoundly impacted in very negative ways by not having what is in most places a basic skill and a basic necessity for functioning.”

At that time, she hadn’t gone through training in young adult literacy instruction, but she promised her student that she would find a way to teach him to read, and she did.

To this day, Reed keeps that California student’s teacher evaluation framed in her office as a reminder of why she’s committed to the work that she does. “He’s one of many kids like that out there who needs help,” says Reed.

In fact, across the nation, nearly two-thirds of students are not reading proficiently, according to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Education. These statistics and personal experiences fueled Reed’s interest in addressing literacy issues on a larger scale.

Debora Reed interacts with student

Deborah Reed works with Iowa elementary children
during the Summer Reading Pilot Program.

Reed went on to receive her Ph.D. in special education from the University of Texas at Austin and led the Texas Adolescent Literacy Academies, a major statewide initiative that provided reading instruction training to over 26,000 middle school teachers. From there, Reed became a researcher and faculty member at Florida State University’s Florida Center for Reading Research, and today is one of the foremost childhood literacy experts in the nation.

The IRRC at the College of Education is a partnership with the Iowa Department of Education and was created as a result of 2012 legislation that mandated schools across the state address pre-K through 12 literacy issues. In 2015, Reed came on board to lead the center and its reading initiatives. She now has a team of five who are all dedicated to improving student literacy across the state of Iowa.

The IRRC provides resources to parents, teachers, students, and school districts across the state. They have also compiled an online database of reading resources (tips for reading to children at varying grade levels, exercises for students, as well as articles and guides for parents and educators); they conduct ongoing research initiatives; and publish their research findings in both national journals and on the IRRC website.

The state of Iowa is concentrating efforts on improving outcomes for students in lower grades, and specifically third grade, which Reed says is a pivotal time for student learning.

According to 2014-15 state testing results, roughly 25 percent of Iowa third graders were not reading proficiently, and the IRRC is testing methods and initiatives that would improve literacy for the state’s elementary students and eventually become a model for school districts across the nation. One of the center’s literacy initiatives included a summer pilot reading study conducted in 44 Iowa school districts where 120 classes were offered to an estimated 1,300 students.

Kelly DePalma (B.A. ‘13, Elementary Education), a second-grade teacher in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was one of the participating teachers in the summer pilot program.

IRRC literacy site map

The IRRC Summer Reading Pilot Program included 120
classes in 44 school districts across Iowa

“We are glad to be part of something that teachers want to do that’s in the long run going to help kids.”

— Kelly DePalma

“We are glad to be part of something that teachers want to do that’s in the long run going to help kids,” says DePalma.

But Reed says that the center’s work is ongoing and more research will likely need to take place to determine the best techniques and methodologies to ensure students become proficient readers.

“One of the things we know from research is that even if we are successful in getting students on grade level by third grade, it does not inoculate them against any future problems,” says Reed, explaining that literacy is a skill that needs ongoing attention and instruction. “Some of the same reasons that resulted in them having some difficulties in K-3 still surface and cause difficulties after the students transition into 4th grade.”

While there are many factors that influence student literacy, Reed says teachers can have a powerful impact by delivering instruction to students, day in and day out. “It’s the student outcomes that we’re really concerned with,” says Reed. “But, we often have to work through the teacher in order to realize those outcomes.”

She says that reading improvement happens when the teachers are empowered with the tools and knowledge to effectively teach, and that offering professional development opportunities needs to be a continuous effort in districts across the state.

“Many teachers are craving ways to help more students on a daily basis,” says Reed, and the IRRC intends to provide the support and resources to Iowa’s teachers, parents, and students.

Empowering through literature

In addition to providing leadership, scholarship, and innovation in the field of literacy, the College of Education is engaged in literacy research and outreach programs that empower students with skills and confidence through the content of the literature they read.

One such initiative is Strong Girls Read Strong Books. Founded nearly five years ago by Amanda Thein, associate professor in Language, Literacy, and Culture and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Graduate Programs, and Renita Schmidt, associate professor and Program Coordinator for the Language, Literacy, and Culture program, the research project and afterschool reading program brings fourth- through sixth-grade girls together every Friday to read about and discuss books that feature positive female protagonists.

“Strong Girls is about reading, but it’s also about growing up whole, becoming the best you can be.”

— Renita Schmidt

“Strong Girls is about reading, but it’s also about growing up whole, becoming the best you can be, and trying to introduce girls to all different kinds of women,” says Schmidt, who also teaches in the Language, Literacy, and Culture program and serves as chair of the Notable Books for a Global Society Committee.

Schmidt and Thein were inspired to start the program after the tragic and violent death of a colleague.

“She was a woman at another academic institution,” Schmidt says, “and we began to have conversations and ask questions. If women are struggling to be safe living in the United States, what is it like if they don’t live in the U.S. and what is the work that we still need to do for girls who are growing up in the U.S.?”

Strong Girls resulted from these conversations as a way to create a space where girls could talk about what it means to be strong and empowered in the United States today, and as a research project analyzing the impact literature can have on perspectives of ourselves and others.

On the first day of Strong Girls, Schmidt and Thein were expecting 10 girls. When 70 ended up attending, the two professors decided they needed to get more people involved, and ended up recruiting graduate and undergraduate students to help facilitate reading groups and assist with the research.

Strong Girls is held at a racially and socioeconomically diverse Iowa City elementary school. Thein says that while many of the students in the program may come from households that foster rich literary lives, they may not include print literature.

Renita Schmidt interacts with students

Renita Schmidt discusses literature one-on-one
during Strong Girls.

“To read an entire novel might be something new for some of these girls,” says Thein, who says the books help the diverse students better understand their own lived experience and that of those around them.

One of the things that Schmidt and Thein observed soon after they started the program, is that Strong Girls offers girls a space where they feel comfortable talking about their own lives. “We noticed right away with Strong Girls that when the girls started reading the stories, they wanted to talk about their lived experiences,” says Thein. “A lot of our girls have hard stories to tell.”

Schmidt and Thein, along with the preservice teachers that help facilitate Strong Girls, have found that by engaging in what can at times be difficult and emotionally challenging conversations about their lives and what it means to be a strong girl, they have been able to garner greater engagement from the students.

“Participating led to higher readership,” says Thein. The girls showed more interest and investment in literature after participating in the program.

Schmidt says that the students’ elementary teachers also witness positive changes, not only in their academic performance, but also in their identity and self-esteem.

“The teachers tell us that they notice test score changes and that they notice changes even in the way they are at school,” Schmidt says. “If they are showing more engagement in school, and we’ve had a small part in that, I’m happy and thrilled with that.”

Connecting with communities through books

Another project that fosters empowerment through connecting with literary characters is the African American Awareness Program (AAAP), a College of Education partnership with middle schools in the Cedar Rapids Community School District. Started 10 years ago, AAAP brings students who identify with African-American culture together in groups to read and discuss books that focus on positive black protagonists with the goal of offering students the opportunity to be proud of their cultural identity.

“What this group allows them to do is be a cohesive group, to feel safe, and to talk about their cultural experiences, and they’re all different,” says Kim Abram-Bryant, a teacher at Cedar Rapids’ Taft Middle School who helps facilitate AAAP. “In the last 15 years, we’ve noticed our students don’t see positive imagery very often of African Americans, it’s usually something very violent.”

With hundreds of middle schoolers in the program, Abram-Bryant says there are students from different backgrounds, experiences, and understandings of what it means to be African American.

students listen to Kim Abram-Bryant in the classroom

Kim Abram-Bryant leads the AAAP group at
Tate Middle School in Cedar Rapids.

“They’re still searching, and they’re looking, and they want to be proud of who they are,” says Abram-Bryant. “I think that AAAP allows them to grow into that, and to be able to communicate that to other people is important.”

AAAP is also intended to inspire and inform students about attending college. Each year, all participants across the school district come to the College of Education for a day of reading and conversation. During their visit to campus, faculty members lead book discussions, and current undergraduate and graduate students host a panel to talk about the African American experience at a university and answer practical questions like the process to apply for college.

“The book discussion and interaction with University of Iowa staff and students is a great way to build a culture of college preparation for these middle school students, no matter where they decide to go after high school,” says Clar Baldus, AAAP event co-coordinator and clinical associate professor of art education in the College of Education.

Kim Abram-Bryant leads the AAAP group at Tate Middle School in Cedar Rapids.

Through the literature they read in their book sessions and the opportunities they have to learn more about attending college, AAAP has had a real impact on student confidence and what they go on to achieve.

“We know that AAAP is something that our students enjoy having, and we know that it actually helps them in their academic career to seek out other opportunities and to know that they are still capable of reaching for the stars, regardless of the struggles that they face,” says Abram-Bryant.

Training Future Literacy Teachers 

As the College of Education looks to the future of literacy education and research, faculty members are training preservice teachers and literacy scholars to be expert leaders in their fields.

To teach preservice teachers to have a greater impact in their future classrooms, Thein challenges them to question their own perspectives when they discuss literature with students.

“I want my student teachers to go out and be people who think hard about a text and ask, ‘What are my authentic questions? How do I bring them to my students? And what kind of questions will they have?’”

— Amanda Thein

“I want my student teachers to go out and be people who think hard about a text and ask, ‘What are my authentic questions? How do I bring them to my students? And what kind of questions will they have?’” says Thein.

Thein teaches pre-service teachers not to generalize their students by race, sex, age, or other factors, but rather to think in more nuanced ways about who their students might be and what they might be experiencing.

“My goal in all of my teaching is for my students to learn practices of questioning their own perspectives—constantly questioning what they believe,” says Thein.

Thein says that through her work with preservice English teachers, she aims to help students access big ideas, and help teachers learn to engage students in these ideas.

“People often talk in my field about literature being a mirror or a window or both of those things,” says Thein. “But I also think that literature shouldn’t just be about finding something that you can relate to, and it shouldn’t just be about seeing someone who’s really different than you; it should be about experiencing a tension between those two things at the same time.”

“Reading literature in that way, should make you feel uncomfortable,” says Thein, “and that discomfort is where learning and growth come from, and that’s a skill that I’d like my students to take out into the real world.”

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