We met Dana Reisboard at a recent International Reading Association (IRA) event and were immediately impressed by her enthusiasm and dedication to literacy education. In this Member of the Month interview, she shares her path from a special education teacher to an assistant professor at Widener University in Pennsylvania, how to engage students in reading, and of course her excitement for the IRA 59th Annual Conference in New Orleans!
How did you begin your career, and what led you to your current position?
I began my career as a teacher at the Benchmark School, a primary and middle school devoted to teaching students who learn differently. It promotes reading development through research based best practices. Since I have two Masters Degrees, one in applied psychology and the other in special education, Benchmark provided a great opportunity to practice what I had learned in school and to develop new reading instruction methods that I’ve incorporated into my critical literacy teaching as an assistant professor of education.
What are you reading (personal, professional, or even children's/YA)?
I read a lot of children’s books. I regularly go to my favorite children’s bookstore and select books that demonstrate good character development and critical literacy. For example, I presented R.J. Polacio’s Wonder to my adolescent literature class at Widener University. We discussed how August Pullman, a 10 year old boy with facial deformities, coped with school bullying and social ostracism. These are issues which my students will have to address in their careers as teachers. I have two young children, 10 and 8. They are valuable book critics. The key to teaching reading is to find books that are authentic and engage the student while they access critical literacy skills. Personally, I’m re-reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Teacher Man by Frank McCourt, a book that has been on my “must read” list for years.
What do you consider to be your proudest career moment?
I have been fortunate to work with great educators at Benchmark School and to be a ninth-grade reading teacher in a public school in an urban area. As a teacher, I had proud career moments when I saw my reading methods having real success in practice. I would apply cognitive strategy instruction pedagogy and saw my students succeed. I always knew I would be a teacher, and earning my Ph.D. at Rutgers University was certainly a proud moment. However, my proudest career moment occurs every time when I see my students applying what I have taught them with success. Now, as an education professor, I enjoy seeing students learn how to be great teachers. When my student teachers win awards for being great teachers, this will be my proudest career moment. I am still early in my career and cannot wait to see that happen; I know it will.
At Widener, our students are teaching at an urban charter school. I experience proud moments when I see how we are both helping our community while learning how to be great teachers together.
What can literacy educators do to motivate kids to want to read?
Dana Reisboard with her students and their
We must engage students with authentic literature that highlight reading as a powerful transformative tool that can change their lives and views of the world. We are reading specialists who have learned how to teach literacy strategies. Our work and methods are constantly evolving. Through professional associations, like IRA, we can learn new practice methods and developmental tools to help us motivate kids to want to read.
Motivation starts with recognizing student diversity. Engagement occurs whenever students have the opportunity to read books that speak to their unique situation or others where they have personal interests. Classrooms provide the best learning environment where we can engage students to learn from one another and about the world we share together. Providing access to an engaging learning environment requires group teaching methods, such as read arounds, which provide a great way to introduce a new text.
What do you believe is the biggest challenge in literacy education today?
Providing access to education to children who learn differently and others who are economically disadvantaged is the biggest literacy challenge today. The news is filled with facts demonstrating that America’s income stratification is an impediment to literacy education. For example, today’s newspaper presented a story about how America’s middle class has, for the first time, lost economic ground when compared to other developed countries. Literacy education is a key ingredient necessary for America’s economic development. As educators, we possess the power to evoke real change by teaching effective reading methods. Public policies promoting preschool education and full day kindergarten are also steps which will help to bridge these social and economic gaps.
As literacy professionals, our biggest challenge is to engage students to master phonics when they enter the formal primary literacy environment. This is the key to their learning through our society’s text-based education pedagogy, used in secondary education and through professional development. The inability to access text content because of underdeveloped literacy skills is an achievement gap that presents our biggest literacy challenge.
The longer I am in the field, the more convinced I become of the need for affordable, high quality, early childhood education. An enormous challenge educators at all levels face is that children arrive to kindergarten and/or first grade without the prerequisite emergent literacy skills needed for reading. Without these skills and emergent literacy experiences, children enter school at a significant disadvantage to their peers who have engaged in early childhood education programs and have been exposed to the prerequisite concepts and experiences to facilitate reading.
How long have you been a member of IRA? How has membership influenced your career?
Delivering books on World Book Day, April 23, 2014
I have been a member of IRA for fourteen years. Dr. Lesley Morrow was my primary faculty advisor and chair of my dissertation committee when I attended Rutgers as a Ph.D. student. She encouraged me to attend the annual conference. I am grateful for this suggestion and also for her sharing her professional relationships with me. My experience with the IRA has had a profound impact on my career.
Fourteen years ago, at the IRA conference in New Orleans, I met Dr. Michael Pressley. He became my “unofficial” advisor and helped craft reading lists and guided me as I learned more about reading comprehension instruction. At an IRA conference in San Antonio, I met Dr. Gerald Duffy. Like Mike, Gerry provided ongoing and substantive support during my doctoral education and helped me to better understand and use direct explanation methods. He also served on my dissertation committee.
IRA supports a great professional learning environment. It has helped me to achieve professional goals and has provided many examples of great student teacher relationships.
We hear you're attending the IRA Annual Conference in New Orleans. What are you looking forward to doing there?
Apart from eating delicious food and enjoying New Orleans culture, I am looking forward to two LEADER-SIG events. I am the President of this IRA special interest group. We have exciting events planned in New Orleans. The LEADER-SIG Awards and Reception on Friday, May 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Marriot Hotel will be a great opportunity to meet new people, including IRA LEADERS, past and present. At this event I will happily present the well deserved, Distinguished Service Award to a colleague who is also mentor, and friend.
I am also looking forward to participating at the LEADER-SIG symposium on Sunday, May 11 at 3:00 p.m. in the Ernest N. Morial Conference Center, facilitated by LEADER Vice President Jenny Roca Mills. Notable reading scholars Patricia Edwards, Kathy Headley, David Monti, Elfrieda Hiebert, Rita Bean, and Bonni Botel-Sheppard will share their teaching experiences.
What do you like to do when you’re not wearing your educator hat?
I enjoy being with my family. My kids are very active. My son does karate and soccer. My daughter does gymnastics. Together, we travel, go to the beach, ride bikes, play tennis, garden, and cook. We like to laugh a lot. Personally, I also enjoy meditation and yoga.
What’s the best advice you could offer someone new to the profession?
Teaching is a hard profession, but the rewards are great. Don’t compromise your ideals or belief in a better tomorrow. Be yourself and keep working towards this goal.
During this process, take care of yourself. Self-care is often overlooked, yet it is an essential characteristic of all happy and healthy educators. Keeping yourself physically and mentally healthy and personally inspired is imperative if educators are to convey these qualities to our students.
Sara Long is a content manager at the International Reading Association.