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Learn about the effects of educational injustices on the lives of urban youth, primarily youth of color, in order to interrupt cycles of miseducation. David E. Kirkland focuses on the education and miseducation of Black males and highlights how cycles of inequity (i.e., racial injustice) influence how, why, and what youth of color learn to read and write. Second, he will analyze how critical educators can disrupt such cycles to empower urban youth to transform their own communities, lives, and educational destinies.

Kirkland is an associate professor of English and Urban Education and the executive director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. He received his PhD from Mighican State University in Language, Literacy, and Urban Education. His research broadly examines the intersections of race, gender, and education.

Associate Professor Allison Skerrett’s research includes examining the educational experiences of transnational youths, students who live across two or more countries, for some of whom formal schooling across different countries is part of their transnational lifestyle. Since 2016, she has been part of a 10-member International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA), advising the Scottish government on issues related to education and inequity. Her second two-year appointment begins in September.

The following is a Q&A in which Skerrett explains her work with the ICEA and its potential to impact education in Scotland as well as her own research and teaching.

How have you applied your research interests within your work in Scotland?

The Scottish government’s goal for the ICEA is to provide them with the best evidence-based advice on improving their education system, and educational and social outcomes for all K-12 students. A major focus of the Scottish government’s educational improvement plan is increasing all students’ literacy achievement and, in particular, closing (an ideal) the achievement gap between students living in poverty and those with more advantages.

I have been able to draw from my research on Allison Skerrett with the council in Scotlandadolescent literacy to broaden our conversations about literacy achievement. For example, I have spoken about the significance of ensuring that the literacy curriculum students receive in school connects to the ways in which students use literacy in their personal, social, community, and work lives. I have also advised the Minister and Deputy First Minister of Education and their staff that there are multiple approaches to reading instruction and that teachers must be knowledgeable about when and how to draw on different approaches. Additionally, I, along with the entire council, have advised that curriculum policy must provide the flexibility as well as support for teachers to be decision-makers in their classrooms based in their knowledge of their students and their needs.

Participating in the ICEA has given me an insider’s perspective on how pivotal empirical research and expertise drawn from many contexts can be in helping policymakers understand the changing landscape of education and educational knowledge, and be willing to work toward educational improvement. In short, my work on the ICEA encourages me greatly to press forward with my research with the hope that it, along with other research in this area, certainly can ultimately influence educational policy.

Much of the work in Scotland seems focused on the disparity in academic performance between low-income and high-income students. How have you applied your expertise in transnational students and their education?

Scotland, like many other world nations, has a growing population of students that are sometimes labeled as migrant or refugee students. I have asked questions of our Scottish colleagues about whether and in what ways this particular demographic of the student population is in need of or receiving special consideration in policy and practice. The Scottish educational culture is very much grounded in conversations about inequities stemming from poverty and while the recognition of the entanglements of class, immigrant status, and other social differences is acknowledged in education and society, these intersections or transnational students in particular have not been a major part of policy conversation.

I keep raising discussions about transnationalism and student diversity more generally with educators I interact with and asking questions and providing insights about the diversity that exists within student populations and why it’s important to attend to those differences when seeking to improve educational practice and student learning.

How have you and the group begun addressing the equity gap between students?

In our first term (2016-2018) as a group of international education advisers, the council strongly recommended against standardized assessments as a way to “measure” and “close” the “achievement gap.” I place all these words in quotation marks because of the problematic beliefs and educational practices such ideas have propagated in many contexts, including in the U.S. The council worked with the Scottish government to consider the kinds of data they needed about student performance and how that data would be used by schools and teachers and urged the government to stay the course with a commendable flexible national curriculum already in place, Curriculum for Excellence.

Allison Skerrett being interviewed in ScotlandIn short, based in our experience we urged the government to do nothing that would make teachers and students feel a restriction of literacy and numeracy curriculum because of national testing but be clear that data would be used to guide individualized instruction for each child while all students continued to experience a curriculum with broad learning goals (academic, social, and civic) with continuing flexibility for teachers to innovate how to teach in ways that helped students accomplish those goals. I believe this was one of our most important early achievements because we know that once particular students have been identified by a particular measure of being on the “wrong” end of the “achievement gap” that schooling can quickly become a soulless experience that actually pushes students out of school, psychologically and physically, achieving the very opposite of equity.

Over the first two years of our term we have also advised the government on how to make Scotland a stronger school and teacher-led educational system with strong professional learning supports at all levels of education and with minimum legislation. The committee’s first full report on our advisory work with the Scottish government was recently published on June 26, 2018.

Based on your research, how can teachers and policy makers better understand the educational needs of multicultural student populations?

I think seeking out the voices of students, families, and communities is key to understanding the educational experiences, cultural strengths and resources of diverse student populations, and their expectations of education. Doing so will provide insights to teachers and policy makers about how to be thoughtfully responsive in ensuring that diverse populations experience an education that is representative of who they are and are becoming and support them in meeting their goals. Beyond inviting these parties into conversations into educational policy conversations, I believe that teachers and policymakers need to better understand diversity by actually spending a great deal more time in communities and schools (in the case of policymakers) to truly understand the strengths and needs of diverse students, families, and communities. One positive outcome of those interactions is that teachers and policymakers will be exposed to the richness and strength of diverse students and their communities allowing them to view these communities from an appreciative perspective and as partners, rather than a narrow view of them being in need of “help.” It will promote thoughtful development of educational experiences that are in alignment with who students are, what they know and can do, and where and how they need and wish to grow.

Final thoughts

Being a member of Scotland’s ICEA has been one of the most unique and important professional learning opportunities for me. As researchers and teacher educators, we often view educational policy making at a distance. We may analyze, critique, and commend policy and their affects, and teach our students how to negotiate with curriculum policy in their teaching but few of us have the opportunity to actually participate in educational policy making at a national level with government officials who create them.

It has been tremendously encouraging to work with a national government deeply interested in dialogue with a range of educational scholars and who are sincerely careful that policy serves the goals of educational justice and does not cause unintended harm.

Skerrett is Louise Spence Griffeth Fellow for Excellence in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

Including Race in Literacy Instruction Opens Up the World

On a Thursday afternoon last fall, approximately 20 pre-service teachers arrived for class at Guerrero-Thompson Elementary in Austin. They were students in the College of Education enrolled in Literacy Methods, a course on reading methods in elementary school.

Their initial assignment: critically analyze non-fiction texts.

The goal was for the pre-service teachers to experience the same kinds of assignments they might give their future students. As they balanced in chairs meant for learners half their size, they read articles in small groups and discussed and debated their peers.

They were guided by doctoral student Natalie Svrcek, while Curriculum and Instruction Associate Professor Melissa Wetzel provided assistance.

After they finished, they fetched their fourth-grade reading buddies and positioned themselves on a large colorful rug at the front of the classroom. That’s where the read-alouds—and the fun—began.

One youngster shared with her pre-service teacher a new pun she’d learned. She’d been learning and sharing a new pun each week. Svrcek reminded the younger students about the books she’d read and they’d discussed in the last weeks. Each book was related to UT’s tagline, What Starts Here Changes the World.

The students talked about what that meant to them: “What starts in your heart as something small can become a passion that creates positive change for others,” says one.

“Which stories do you like to hear the most?” Svrcek asked the group. “Ones with characters similar to you or ones where the character is different from you?”

One young girl says, “I like to read stories about people who are similar to me because I like to relate to what they did to fix their problem. I can do what the person did and follow in their footsteps.”

Another says, “I like to read about people different from me because I get to learn about different cultures.”

“Reading a book with characters similar to you is like looking in a mirror,” Svrcek says, “while reading one with characters who are different is like looking out a window.”

Previously, she’d read to the group, Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers, which recounts a story of children whose parents are migrant farm workers and are not paid fairly. In the book, Dolores works to gain fair treatment for the families.

This day they were going to hear, The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth and Harlem’s Greatest Book Store.

Students listening to a reading exercise.

Curriculum for Our Times

Although the format is similar to courses that have been taught in the College of Education for years, the intentional addition of themes of racial equity and social justice is new, says Wetzel. “After Charlottesville, the election, and anti-immigration reforms, I really thought a lot about what it means to be a teacher in these times and how to prepare our students to respond.

“Elementary teachers are often motivated by their love for students. They often want to help. But what does it mean to help?” Wetzel says.

“Many of our students will teach children who come from diverse backgrounds, who face challenges, who are refugees impacted by war or other trauma. We are challenged to take those passionate feelings of people who want to be teachers and help them understand what it means to care for these children. We want to help them shore up their abilities to be a teacher in the complex classrooms they will find in Texas,” Wetzel says.

An Opportunity for Collaboration

As Wetzel and other colleagues across the department were modifying the methods course to address these time-sensitive issues, their colleague, Associate Professor Keffrelyn Brown, had been named a UT Austin Provost’s Teaching Fellow.

The prestigious teaching fellows program empowers faculty to advance education through individual initiatives that improve teaching and learning at UT, and through participation in campus-wide events that promote the quality of education and its status in the campus culture.

Brown’s research for the two-year fellowship focuses in part on the sociocultural knowledge of race in teaching and curriculum. She wants to use her fellowship as an opportunity to facilitate working groups for faculty who are interested in infusing anti-racist teaching and practices in their coursework.

The timing was ripe for college faculty collaboration on the topic. Says Brown, the faculty working groups “meet monthly in an intentional learning community. Faculty share their work sample or challenge. We listen closely to each other. We use inquiry within the learning community. Then we add the theoretical work and revise the curriculum around race,” she says.

“We also discuss strategies to better facilitate conversations around race as well as ideas such as what it looks like to take an asset-based stance with our students,” a view that each student comes from a community with assets rather than deficits, she says.

This spring, Brown is extending her reach beyond the College of Education across the university campus.

“I personally want to develop a stronger theoretical understanding of race, better understanding and use of important theoretical constructs, and means of having better conversations about race,” Brown says.

Passion Leads to Change

Brown sought an opportunity to work with Wetzel on the methods course and Wetzel participated in these faculty learning communities last fall.

She and Svrcek added concepts to the literacy methods curriculum—racial and social equity, and intersectionality.

“Students’ experiences are complex,” Wetzel says. “We all live complex lives, experience complex factors, and have complex classrooms. Our pre-service teachers need to be able to address that.

“The Literacy Methods course’s read-alouds create a space, or tutorial, to model these ideas. Each text has an intersectionality topic—race and gender, for example—along with the theme that “’I can be anything.’ We want to disrupt racial stereotypes,” Wetzel says.

She adds, “The theme highlights that small change makes big change. We can feel disempowered and all feel oppressed by systems we are involved in, but the things we are passionate about can make big change.”

Pre-service teachers and their co-operating teachers have found the methods and conversations with students to be surprising and meaningful to their work. “I didn’t know the kids could go that deep,” one cooperating teacher says.

Change-based Teaching

Pre-service teacher Collette Nguyen, a senior who plans to teach 3rd grade, says, “I didn’t really know what to expect from the students, but they have been very insightful. I read The Memory Coat; Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America; The Lotus Seed, and My Name is Sangoel. We explored the big questions—‘Why did people have to leave their home country to go to America? What struggles did they face and how did they feel?’ This allowed the students to develop empathy for others who had to flee because they were in danger. It opened a window for them to look into other cultures, and the severity of the situations they were put in that was out of their control.”

Nguyen adds, “By having them learn about these situations, my hope is that they will be tolerant people from the get-go and continue being people who embrace and respect differences in others. With that, they can learn to use their voice.”

Says Wetzel about her work with Brown and the incorporation of racial equity into the Literacy Methods curriculum, “As a department, anti-racist work is part of what we do. Teaching about diversity and sociocultural knowledge will be different in different times, shaped by a particular historical moment, in a particular context and place. It will never be just one syllabus.

“As knowledge in the field is changing and the social context is ever–changing, the teaching will always be change-based,” Wetzel says.

The goal of the Department of Special Education is to be a bridge of expertise for families of children with autism, and for the community. We provide a space for our faculty to conduct basic and applied research. We also prepare our students to create and deliver best practices in a variety of environments: the home, community settings, and as researchers at other institutions. Mark O’Reilly, Chair, Department of Special Education

Basic Research

Baby Talk

Micheal Sandbank, assistant professor, is studying how typically-developing children and those withan illustration of a baby with a thought bubble containing jibberish words developmental disabilities distinguish between words and non-words in child-directed speech, or baby talk. These studies may provide researchers with insights into predicting language in children with autism, eventually leading to earlier diagnoses and therapeutic treatment. They may also inform intervention practices for children with autism.

In her Brain and Language Lab, Sandbank and her team use electroencephalography—or EEG— to study the way young children process words. Specifically, they are studying event-related potentials—brain responses that are the result of sensory, cognitive, or motor events.

It’s the first such lab in a college of education in the U.S. that studies brain activity in children as young as 12 months.  The children sit on a parent’s lap while 64 sensors are placed on their head using something resembling a hair net. As researchers read real and non-real words, they record children’s brain responses.


What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), describes a set of behaviors associated with specific differences in how the brain perceives and processes environmental input.

1 in 68
children have been identified with ASD.

Boys: 1 in 42 | Girls: 1 in 189
It’s around 4.5 times more common among boys than girls.
of children with ASD have average to above-average intellectual ability.

Source: Centers for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network


How is autism diagnosed?buckets that say social communication and behavior, with strands of paper in them

Autism Spectrum Disorder is diagnosed by looking at criteria in two categories: Social Communication and Behavior.

What are the major transitions in the life of someone with autism?

1. Diagnosis (Typically age 2-4)

Research has shown that most children are diagnosed with ASD around age 4, though a diagnosis of autism at age 2 can be reliable, valid, and stable.

2. Transition to Schooling (typically age 5-6)

Parents and guardians begin to navigate the school system.

3. Transition to postsecondary life (typically age 18-22)

Early interventions, public awareness and K-12 support have increased educational opportunities for children with autism. But what are the options for life after high school?

An illustration of the progression of a child's age

Applied Research

Bluebonnet Trails

The Department of Special Education collaborates with Bluebonnet Trails Community Services in Georgetown. This collaboration allows doctoral and master’s students to provide family-centered applied behavior analysis (ABA) in home and community settings for children between the ages of 3 and 15 who have a diagnosis of autism and live in Williamson, Travis and surrounding counties.

Programs are embedded into daily routines. Graduate students may accompany a family to the grocery store to work on making a successful shopping trip, or to the library to follow rules in the community related to staying with a parent.

This collaboration offers families interventions that reduce challenging behaviors and increase and improve communication, daily living skills, and abilities related to health and safety. They also increase social opportunities that children and young teens have through their relationships at home and in the community.

The result is long-lasting change. Parents learn to implement strategies rooted in behavioral principles that are supported by applied research in the field of autism, behavior analysis, and special education.

“Families get immediate solutions to challenging behaviors that may be occurring throughout the day. Our children learn skills and behaviors that support higher learning at home, in the community, and at school.” – Suzy Albarran, BCBA Second-year doctoral student, Field Supervisor, Bluebonnet Trails


“Everyone I worked with helped my family so much. My child is now able to take care of his basic needs without my help because of their guidance and interventions.” – Noemi,mother of child with Autism

Next Generation Research

Special Education graduates are leading research at major universities across the country, including:

A U.S. map with a star in texas and numbers throughout the country

  1. Wendy Machalicek, M.Ed, ’04, Ph.D., ’08, University of Oregon—Effective behavior analytic assessment practices and interventions addressing the behavioral and educational needs of young children with ASD and other developmental disabilities.
  2. Mandy Rispoli, M.Ed. ’04, Ph.D. ’09, Purdue—Functional behavior assessment and function-based intervention for challenging behavior in children with ASD and developmental disabilities
  3. Helen Malone, Ph.D. ’05, Ohio State University— Teaching new skills to individuals with severe to profound disabilities and assessment/ treatment of challenging behaviors
  4. Colin Muething, Ph.D. ’16, Emory University— Novel treatments for severe problem behavior, the mechanisms that mediate their effectiveness and reporting large outcomes from these treatments
  5. Tonya Davis, Ph.D. ’08, Baylor University— Treatment of severe challenging behavior among individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities

Beyond Autism

Faculty in the Department of Special Education and its associated centers provide research across the spectrum of learning and behavioral disorders—focused on topics like intensive math and reading interventions, design and evaluation of assistive technology, supporting bilingual students, and the transition to post-school employment for people with disabilities.

Research on learning and behavioral disorders is a growing need. In 2014–15, 13 percent of all public school students—ages 3–21—received services for learning disabilities and/or behavior disorders.  Learning disabilities in particular are the most prevalent; children with learning disabilities represent more than one-third of all school-age students with disabilities.

Photo of Melissa WetzelMelissa Wetzel, associate professor of language and literacy, shares research-based ideas about the literacy “crisis” and how understanding diverse literacies is a stronger educational approach.

Children come into the world with a set of language and literacy practices. Young children are always learning to name their world and discovering how language works. As they grow, they learn the words that are important to their worlds, what Paulo Freire called their “word worlds.”

When they enter school, they are often assessed in terms of their letter and word recognition, their phonemic awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and letter and word writing. These are measures of literacy.

However, there are other aspects of literacy that are not measured because test developers cannot have a window into the world of words that surrounds each child. What we know, for example, is that there is not a word gap, as many researchers have found, between students who speak English as their first language and second language learners.

In fact, the number of words that bilingual and multilingual students know might far exceed the number of words that an English monolingual student knows. In addition, multilingual students have the additional knowledge of how to navigate their social worlds using more than one language!

Line of colored Candies and kid counting

Photo by Patrick Tomasso (@impatrickt) on Unsplash

One thing we are pretty sure of in the field of literacy is that teachers who know how to find out what a student knows and how they are literate—rather than gaps in their literacy—will be much better equipped to build on what the students know and help them to be successful.

Illiteracy is an unscientific concept and very political. Literacy rates were used to document literacy during a politically constructed “crisis of illiteracy” in the latter part of the 20th century. For example, under the Reagan Administration, many organizations began receiving funding from the federal government for programs designed to provide basic literacy education for those people who were identified as illiterate.

Like other “crises,” a crisis of illiteracy is dangerous for many reasons, primarily because it positions some people’s languages and literacies as deficit and narrowly defines what it means to be literate. It positions students who leave school as illiterate, which is often untrue, and shifts responsibility and blame onto the young person who may have been miseducated in many ways.

In a binary of literacy/illiteracy, we have to ask, “what counts/doesn’t count as literacy” and “who benefits from literacy programs and initiatives,” among other important critical questions. In a dynamic society in which what it means to be literate is always changing, it is hard to see how narrow measures of literacy (reading and writing assessments) might be meaningful to public conversations or policymakers in productive ways.

Organizations that are focused on literacy often rely on discourse from the literacy crisis to make claims about literacy rates and why they are a problem. This discourse appeals to those who want to help—through volunteering and monetary support. That can be a good thing. The danger, however, is that each time a literacy crisis discourse is evoked, dominant and narrow views about what counts are reproduced. That means we may move further and further away from understanding diverse literacies, what and how students know, and what literacies will support them most for participation in a changing world.

Wetzel is Judy Spence Fellow for Excellence and Associate Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Her research and teaching focus on how pre-service teachers integrate critical literacy and culturally relevant practices into their field-based literacy teaching experiences. 

-Feature photo of books by Patrick Fore (@patrickian4) on Unsplash

In a recent survey, Austin Independent School District teachers, reading coaches, and administrators reported that the Texas Literacy Initiative has significantly improved student literacy.

The Texas Literacy Initiative (TLI) is a professional development and technical assistance project launched by The Meadows Center at UT’s College of Education. The initiative works to improve school readiness and success in language and literacy of disadvantaged students, and it has benefited more than 20,000 Austin ISD students since it was implemented two years ago.

In November 2013, AISD’s Department of Research and Evaluation conducted a survey of 297 teachers, 51 literacy coaches and reading specialists, and 48 administrators.

Across the board, AISD educators reported being well supported in their efforts to improve students’ reading outcomes. In the survey, 93% of teachers and 94% of reading coaches said that their campus administrators supported their TLI work, and 83% of administrators reported that they received “the support I need” from district-level TLI staff.

An impressive 98% of administrators reported that TLI improves student literacy at their school. A substantial majority (81%) of teachers noted that TLI reading coaches are important to the academic success of their students.

TLI’s emphasis on data-informed decision-making is one of the factors driving improvement in student achievement. Data meetings helped 87% of teachers “drive my instruction to support the needs of my students.” One surveyed teacher explained that a benefit of meeting with reading coaches is “…being able to sit down and review the data showing student progress and being able to work together to collaborate on different activities that will help support our students’ learning.”

Teamwork and collaboration play key roles in TLI’s success. With a high number of AISD schools and educators involved, the implementation plan depends on consistent communication across the school sites and strong professional learning communities.

The Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts at The University of Texas at Austin works closely with the leadership at AISD to develop effective grant implementation teams and prepare literacy coaches to support teachers in meeting their instructional goals. As Marissa Campbell, the reading coach at Guerrero Thompson Elementary School, said, “Often, I feel my job enters uncharted territory—yet the [TLI] training and support help me find my path.”

To ensure that best practices for instruction, professional development, and community involvement are consistently employed, similar surveys and student data reporting will continue to track TLI’s progress in the district.

Dr. Deborah Palmer is a leading national expert on creating bilingual education settings where students can thrive and training teachers for multilingual and multicultural classrooms.

What way of teaching a second language works best with early elementary children?
A: Research shows two-way dual language bilingual classrooms seem to be most effective.

What is a two-way dual language program?
A: In two-way dual language bilingual education classes you have English-speaking students and non-English-speaking students in the class, and all students are taught in English as well as the minority language. In Texas schools the most common non-English language in these programs is Spanish.

How much time is devoted to teaching each language?
A: In a well-implemented two-way dual language program, language use is intentional. As far as how much time is devoted to each language in class, there are “50/50 programs,” which divide the time evenly between the two instructional languages. There also are “90/10 programs” and the positive learning outcomes for these appear to be more powerful. In the 90/10, children start out in pre-K or kindergarten working in the non-English language for 90 percent of a day or week and in English for 10 percent of the time.

They continue to do this through 12th grade?
A: In the ideal 90/10 program teachers gradually progress to a 50-50 approach, and by fourth grade students are working in English half of the time and in the other language half of the time. This continues through 12th grade, and they graduate with a dual language diploma. There aren’t many programs in Texas – yet – that do this through graduation.

Even though they’re only hearing and using English 10 percent of the time, the students still manage to become proficient in it?
A: Definitely. Studies show that students in 90/10 programs gain English proficiency at the same rate as they do in 50/50 programs.

That’s very surprising – why is it the case?
A: One extremely important fact to remember is that skills in a first language seem to predict your level of skills in a second language. Research shows that if your first language is strongly supported, respected and honored in the classroom – and you’re immersed in it there – you’re going to learn a second language quicker, easier and better. Children also perform better academically and build stronger language skills if their native culture is respected and recognized in class.

Do you have any current projects in the works that address early elementary dual language programs?
A: I do, in fact. I’m working with Austin ISD to examine the ways in which the implementation process for a two-way dual language program affects its success, and we’re doing a district-wide survey of teachers’ language ideologies as they implement dual language. I should have some results to report in the very near future.

On the topic of learning additional languages in general, is it true that it’s much easier for children to learn a new language than it is for adults?
A: It does tend to be but not for the reasons most people think. Before children are five, they’re still acquiring basic grammar and vocabulary in their primary language If children are exposed to a second language before the age of five, then I like to think of it as a “two-fer” – they can become fluent in two languages and be considered “primary bilinguals.”  Another reason it may seem like children learn a new language more easily is because they tend to be more open and less anxious or inhibited when it comes to trying something new – they’re willing to jump right in. Also, young children have less to learn in order to sound like their age-peers in a second language, so their language agility can be deceptive.

The truth is, adults or older children with more fully developed primary languages have more tools to draw on to learn their second language, and they often do it better and faster than young children.

Photo by: Christina S. Murrey

Dr. Melissa Mosley Wetzel and Saba Khan Vlach
Language and Literacy Studies

Melissa Mosley Wetzel is An Associate Professor of Language and Literacy. Her research and teaching focus on how preservice teachers integrate critical literacy and culturally relevant practices into their field-based literacy teaching experiences.

Saba Vlach taught elementary school for 17 years.  She is currently in her first year of Ph.D coursework in The University of Texas at Austin’s Language and Literacy Studies program.



Title: “Fly Free”
Author: Written by Roseanne Thong, Illustrated by Eujin Kim Neilan
Age range: Grades K-3
Publisher: Boyds Mills Press, 2010
“Fly free, fly free in the sky so blue. When you do a good deed, it will come back to you.”  Mai softly sings these words when she invites Thu to help feed the caged sparrows outside the Buddhist temple in Vietnam.  Mai’s invitation begins a circle of kindness that will help all who join to “fly free” (including the readers).



Title: “This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration”
Author: Written by Jacqueline Woodson, Illustrated by James Ransome
Age range: Grades K-3
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2013
According to the illustrator, “I wanted to tell the story of how some Black people came to New York City. When I began writing it, my mom was still living. She didn’t live to see the final book but I think it would make her very proud. She came to Brooklyn a long time ago and if she hadn’t come to New York, I wouldn’t have grown up here! I couldn’t even imagine that!”



Title: “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale”
Author: Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
Age range: Grades 2-5
Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013
Pancho, a young rabbit, sets out on an adventure with the reader to find his papa. His story is one of migration and an emotional journey. Readers will delight in Tonatiuh’s beautiful illustrations and word choices. Pancho’s story has won numerous awards, including the Pura Belpré Author and Illustrator Honor book for 2014 and most recently, the Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award.



Title: “Parrots Over Puerto Rico”
Author: Written by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore
Age range: Grades 2-5
Publisher: Lee & Low Books, Inc., 2014
“Parrots Over Puerto Rico” is a nonfiction picture book that recounts the history of the Puerto Rican parrot and the efforts of the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program to save these beautiful birds from the danger of extinction.  The illustrations, created with paper and fabric collages, are breathtaking and unforgettable. “Parrots Over Puerto Rico” won the 2014 Robert Siebert Award by ALA as the outstanding informational Children’s Book.

“Read. Read widely. Read beyond the syllabi. It will pay off in ways you can’t imagine.”

Program Area: Language and Literacy Studies

Tom’s Story
I was 25 when I entered the Ph.D. program, after having taught three years in a pretty desperate high school in


Dr. Newkirk taught a graduate seminar in the history of composition at the University of New Hampshire in the fall of 2011. He was inspired by a UT class he took the summer of 1973 taught by Geneva Pilgrim.

Boston. During those three years I was immersed in African American speech and forms of behavior that intrigued, puzzled, and (occasionally) tormented me. Graduate school, I hoped, would help me understand this situation better—particularly ways in which these oral performances and rituals could map onto reading.

Why UT?
I loved Austin from the moment I set foot there, and I loved the freedom of the doctoral program. Geneva Pilgrim, Jim Kinneavy, and Bob Kline were supportive and accessible, yet gave us all great freedom to find our way in a great and rich university. Kinneavy had recently published his magnum opus, The Theory of Discourse , which to this day shapes my map of language use. I also benefited tremendously from taking courses in the Speech and Communication Department, especially working with Beverly Whittaker who helped me understand the rhetoric of fiction.

NewkirkLife After UT
In the years, now decades, since I graduated I find myself coming back repeatedly to the work I read there. It seemed to me an age of “big” thinkers—along with Kinneavy there was James Moffett, John Dixon, Wayne Booth, James Britton, and Louise Rosenblatt. I know that the term “foundation” gets thrown around a lot, but I truly gained a foundation at the University of Texas.  For example, in my writing this week I revisited Kinneavy’s concept of “surprise value” in informative writing (timely because of the Common Core emphasis on non-fiction). It’s always with me.


NewkirkAdvice For Students
As for advice, I would say stay open to new directions; don’t get locked into a set project too early. Although I came to Texas with an interest in reading, it was writing and writing development that came to excite me—following that new interest was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  And read. Read widely. Read beyond the syllabi. It will pay off in ways you can’t imagine.

Finally, for heaven’s sake, enjoy your time in graduate school, enjoy Austin. And if you can find your way to the Scholz Garten, lift a Pearl for me.

Photos by Melissa Cooperman

To read more about our Curriculum and Instruction Alumni, go to: http://www.edb.utexas.edu/education/departments/ci/alumni/

Originally published in November 2011

In order to become better writing teachers, around 160 education students in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education recently gathered on a Saturday at Sanchez Elementary in Austin to walk the surrounding community and record thoughts and impressions that later could be incorporated in their writing.

The project, called “Writing Communities,” was designed to:

  • give future teachers an opportunity to be part of a community of fellow writers
  • help teacher education students as they work with Austin ISD students to complete writing projects focused on the people, places and history of Austin and determine how best to record and publish the children’s voices
  • emphasize the importance of writing in teacher education and showcase the outstanding work that UT is doing in Austin schools

Students at the Saturday event were introduced to the East Austin community they’d be visiting through brief narratives from three natives of the area – entrepreneur and philanthropist Juan Mesa, teacher and artist Raul Valdez and AISD parent support specialist Jennifer Riojas.

Writing Comm Books

The future teachers who participated in Writing Communities have been working with students in area school districts, helping them become better writers and produce works like the illustrated books that were on hand for viewing at the Saturday event.

“I grew up down the street from this school,” said Riojas, “and I have to say that the neighborhood has changed a great deal and is very different from the place I experienced when I was young. I remember getting up early in the morning when I was little, walking down the street to meet my friends and consistently encountering two distinct smells: the tortillas being made in each house and Pine-Sol.

“It was an extremely close-knit community, with everyone knowing everyone else. The adults watched out for all of the children, and we were all like one large family. My grandfather was not just a car mechanic – he was the person who fixed everyone’s cars in the community. It’s still a wonderful place, a place that you can return to and be greeted with open arms.”

Students also had the pleasure of hearing an inspirational talk by author, teacher and writing instruction expert Katherine Bomer. She encouraged attendees to think about the “power of place” and demonstrated to them how they could inspire their young students to draw upon their own lives to amass rich subject matter for writing.

Bomer urged the future teachers to contemplate their “heart places,” those sacred and special spots that they carry inside of them over a lifetime, and shared several excellent children’s books that address the importance of place. The students were urged to jot down thoughts about place as she made her presentation.
“I’m talking to you as writers today and also honoring you as future teachers of writers,” said Bomer. “I want to help you write about who you are and the things that you discover and for you to know how to help your students write about who they are, what they think and how they feel.

“As you walk these neighborhoods today you’ll be looking for what holds meaning, looking through the eyes of a writer. You’ll be describing the smells, sounds, sights, maybe even the foods, weather and the people who live here. What is the history of the place? How is it different from the way it used to be? Think about all of the lenses through which you can view a place – it might be through the lens of politics, language or cuisine. If you use this activity with your students, it’s also very powerful to help them generate memories by bringing in and showing photos or DVD’s, listening to music or telling family stories and singing songs.”

Following Bomer’s talk the large group broke up into smaller color-coded groups, and discussed what it means to use a writer’s notebook as a place to plant the seeds of ideas, as well as what it means to model “the writing life” for students.

“If you are a teacher asking your students to be writers, it’s very important for you to model that for them,” said Dr. Ramon Martinez, an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and leader of the “magic mint green” group. We shouldn’t ask our students to do anything that we haven’t even done once.

“As you do this activity, think about what you carry inside of you as far as past places you’ve been and lived, and what the relationship is among place, identity and writing.  You’ll plant these ideas in your writer’s notebook and then go back to revisit them and cultivate them. Doing this will help you be much more effective when you’re working with your students and they’re planting their own seeds in their own notebooks and then build them into poems or stories, for example.”

Mini groups of six or seven students were each given a map with one of three different routes to follow. Groups had an hour in which to make the mile-long trek, explore the neighborhood and stop at designated spots to write and reflect. After the walk, the students once again gathered in their color-coded groups at Sanchez Elementary. They shared ideas that they had jotted down on the walk, talked about how the writing had shaped their views of the community and how viewing the community with other group members influenced what they saw.

As a wrap-up activity, the entire group reconvened and Language and Literacy Program professor Bonnie Elliott, along with several of her students, shared some of the colorful, illustrated story books produced by elementary students who wrote with a focus on place. All of the UT students who attended the event currently are implementing community writing projects with students across several school districts, including AISD. The students’ work will be featured in an anthology and on a website this spring.