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June Member of the Month: Barbara Ward

by Sara Long
June 2, 2014

If you're a fan of Reading Today Online, you will recognize this name. Barbara Ward has been coordinating the weekly K-12 book reviews from the International Reading Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) for about three years. In this Member of the Month interview, we learn about Barbara's path from a journalist to a middle grades educator to a professor, from Tennessee to New Orleans to Washington State, all the time reading and sharing a love of literacy with those around her. 

You're quite a bibliophile. Describe your relationship to reading. 

Barbara WardI’m an avid, passionate, daily reader. If I’m not reading something for pleasure each day, I actually start to feel grouchy. My eyes and brain crave that form of mental and physical exercise.

How did you begin your career, and what led you to your current position?

I have been a reader, writer, and actress pretty much all of my life. Since I grew up on a farm in East Tennessee, I didn’t have a lot of playmates other than my younger brother, Mike, during my formative years. I loved where I lived with all those woods and pine trees, and my parents encouraged me to fill my time doing the things I enjoyed. I discovered characters that were similar to me in the books I read while also learning about experiences foreign to me. Reading and writing took me to different places, places far beyond those lovely mountains that surrounded me, and I dreamed of seeing what was on the other side of them once I grew up. I always knew that I would be a writer someday, and my first career in journalism allowed me to accomplish that dream. My second career as a middle grades language arts teacher in New Orleans gave me the opportunity to share my passion for literacy with youngsters who had no idea that they could get lost—or found—in a book. Teaching, whether as an eighth grade teacher or as a university professor, lets me build community, and rekindle the love for reading and writing in my students. I affectionately call them “born-again readers” because that is exactly what they are—readers who have lost the way and no longer enjoy reading. I blame the current focus on high-stakes testing and the use of reading programs that require students to regurgitate trivial facts rather than encouraging deep discussion and exploration of those important ideas and big questions that good books can raise. I also think that there are many purposes for reading. Reading for enjoyment or relaxation is usually a different experience than reading for information or for test items.

Although I loved teaching middle grades and high school in New Orleans, I always knew that I wanted to teach at a university at some point. I thought that the methods and passion for literacy that I shared with my students might transfer well to a university setting. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed my home and all my possessions in August 2005, Dr. April Whatley Bedford, one of my doctoral committee members, shared my dramatic survival story with Dr. Terrell Young at Washington State University, and he helped bring me to Washington State University to teach literacy courses in Tri-Cities, the branch campus, and later, in Pullman, the main campus. It’s interesting how connections influence where we end up working.

What are you reading (personal, professional, or even children's/YA)?

As you know, I’m always reading. My list of books from last year consisted of 1,476 titles. It was a great reading year. I like to read several books at the same time since I feel rather depressed when a book comes to the end, and the characters I have come to care about are no longer part of my life. If I have several reading relationships going on at the same time, I can stave off the depression. I’m reading Lies My Girlfriend Told Me by Julie Ann Peters and Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch, and I’m wading through a nice stack of picture books. I just finished Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is a Monster! and hooted all the way through. My passion is young adult literature, probably because I relate so strongly to the characters and their experiences. I jokingly tell my students that I am probably thirteen emotionally.

You have been the CL/R SIG president for several years. How did your interest in children's literature develop?

Barbara WardBooks have always provided me with the answers I seek about life’s mysteries and offer me hope. Children’s literature is simply amazing because today’s writers are tackling tough and important issues and telling stories that have often been left out of history books. To be succinct, these are the books that speak most powerfully to me and provide an accessible way to raise questions about important issues or themes that matter to me. For instance, Eve Bunting’s Fly Away Home and Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog challenge assumptions about homelessness. I can’t think of an issue that can’t be addressed in some way through a picture book or chapter book.

What is your favorite theme for the CL/R SIG's book reviews on Reading Today Online?

I love many of the themes used in our weekly book reviews, but my favorite one has to be “Books That Make Us Linger.” There are thousands of books published each year, and while each one of them has someone who enjoys reading it, I am drawn to those rare books that stay with me long after I reach the final page. It could be that I want to linger with a book because of how it ends or because I have fallen in love with a character or because the author has raised issues that I know I will need to continue to explore. As a writer, I relish the idea that something I have written stays with a reader for a while, maybe even returning to haunt him/her days, weeks or years later. I prefer books that make me think and don’t offer me all the answers. If an author leaves me pondering questions or wondering about what I might do or trying to resolve complicated issues, then I am happy.

Are there any stellar new books that you'd recommend to students (and teachers) who don't like the "classics" traditionally used in classrooms?

My list of favorites would be far too long for this column. The CL/R SIG provides weekly reviews centered around one theme each week that offer recently-published titles that teachers may want to read and/or share with their students. While I love much of the classic children’s literature that I read as a child and know it has a place in today’s classrooms, I would encourage teachers to branch out and read books that are hot off the press as well. I once thought that everyone needed to read the same books for class discussions, but now I like to choose a theme and offer my students several choices of books dealing with that theme. For instance, we may explore through reading “What Are the Many Ways to Love?” or “How Is Disability Explored in Children’s Books?” and my students choose from six or seven books for that week. When they come to class having read different books, their definitions of disability or culture, for instance, have expanded greatly, and the subsequent class discussion allows their definitions to expand even more. That’s a powerful, life-changing experience.

What are your favorite lessons to connect literature with reading and writing skills?

I love to use mentor texts so that my students learn to read like writers. By examining the craft of writing through published books, they learn to recognize good writing and try similar writing techniques for themselves. I also love to use what my colleague and former CL/R SIG president Carolyn Angus calls “Perfect Pairs.” I like to identify two books dealing with the same theme or topic and have my students read both books and then critique them. What do they notice about each book or how the author approaches the topic? What does one book include or omit that the other one does not?

What do you consider to be your proudest career moment?

I’ve had many great moments—and hope to have a few more. Receiving my doctorate was a great achievement since I went back to school for that advanced degree late in life. I loved every moment of my doctoral journey and worked with some terrific professors, including Dr. Patricia Austin and Dr. Wilma Longstreet of the University of New Orleans. I am proud to have received the Celebrate Literacy Award from the Washington Organization for Reading Development as recognition of my passion for literacy. I was honored to receive the Excellence in Teaching Award from the WSU College of Education and have a lovely plaque attesting to that award on my office wall. Finally, I am thrilled whenever I receive a card or email from one of my students thanking me for teaching them and helping them fall in love with reading again. Just the other day I had an email from a student that I taught fifteen years ago when I was in New Orleans. She thanked me for teaching lessons that mattered to her, lessons that are still with her, and relying on class discussions to tackle issues. I was blown away—and you can bet that I kept that email. My office door at WSU is covered with cards, letters, and photos that attest to how I have made a difference in my students’ lives. It is very humbling. 

What do you believe is the biggest challenge in literacy education today?

I worry that for many students today reading as a chore and not something that can be pleasurable. Reading really should be the love of a lifetime, and I hope that more individuals will come to realize that the romance between readers and the texts they choose need never wane.

How long have you been a member of IRA? How has membership influenced your career?

I’ve been an IRA member for 13 years. Being a member keeps me aware of current research and teaching practices, and it has given me the chance to expand my intellectual horizons. I love the publications and enjoy the conferences. In fact, I’ve met many dear friends through IRA, including Dr. Deanna Day, Dr. Nancy Hadaway, and Karen Hildebrand.

What do you like to do when you're not wearing your educator hat?

I think I’m always wearing that educator hat and suggesting books and teaching strategies to everyone I meet. But I love to travel and chat with friends. I waste a lot of time online too, searching for stories about strange happenings.

What's the best advice you could offer someone new to the profession?

You may find your “tribe” or the group of individuals with whom you connect most strongly through professional organizations such as IRA. Make the most of those opportunities, and don’t be afraid to share what matters to you with others. Make reading a daily habit. Becoming a reader is not negotiable, and we teachers must be reading and writing models for our own students. Above all, develop a sense of humor, and don’t take yourself so seriously all the time.

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