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Professor's research leaves room for 'literacies'

Kristen B. Morales

December 17, 2018

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It's a bit ironic that the word literacy has so many meanings.

On its face, it's the ability to read and write. But it also represents competence, code-switching, speaking and listening, and understanding. On one level, it's reading a book—but it's also representative of cultures, societies and even pop culture.

The depth of this word also represents the range of research tackled by Donna Alvermann, the Omer Clyde and Elizabeth Parr Aderhold Professor in Education and Distinguished Research Professor in the University of Georgia's College of Education. Over the decades of her career, which includes classroom teacher, school administrator and faculty member, her inquiry has centered on literacy—but her focus has shifted to reflect the needs of the students she's serving, as well as changing trends in the larger landscape of our society.

"I always tried to know historically what the research said, but I can also take something and conceptualize it in a positive way to show how the field is changing and what we would need to change," she said. A large part of her career has been spent looking for ways to make classroom lessons and materials more engaging for students. "If you give students a voice in what they're doing, then they're interested in it—even at the doctoral level. They will work to find out what they don't know."

Alvermann, who began teaching at UGA in 1982, recently shepherded the seventh edition of "Theoretical Models and Processes of Literacy," which printed in October and features a range of theories that frame both quantitative and qualitative research. Earlier this year she also added the International Literacy Association's "Thought Leader Award" to her roster of accolades. The award was given at the organization's annual conference in July, where Alvermann also gave a keynote address inspired by the work of one of her recent doctoral students, Rachel Sanders.

Sanders' thesis, which broadened the term "literacy" into more tactile modes of communication, represented how Alvermann's own work in the realm of literacy continues to push boundaries, stretching and metamorphizing to reflect new technologies and cultural shifts around the world.

Classroom inspiration Alvermann's love of history was what first drew her to teaching, and even though she ended up in language arts classrooms, her lessons often found a tie to social studies. Alvermann calls this reconceptualizing, and it's a theme she returned to often in her career. History has no beginning and no end, she said—it's not a cause-and-effect progression. Instead, it comprises patterned and networked influences—the "middles"—according to Michel Foucault, a French philosopher who has been influential in Alvermann's thinking.

She taught in K-12 public schools in Texas and New York for 12 years, and also spent a year as an assistant principal before enrolling in a doctoral program at Syracuse University. During this time she realized a passion for teaching children in middle and high school—adolescent ages—and how they learned from text. She worked her studies into her classroom lessons and learned as much from her students as she did from her university coursework.

"I always taught reading with social studies as much as I could—in those days you could build your minor into what you taught. So I would challenge myself to make the students love it," she said. "We devised many activities and strategies. One day we had a Roman banquet in the cafeteria and they were hooked—I hooked them into loving social studies."

She took that same line of inquiry to her college-level students once she arrived at UGA. No matter the age, she realized, students could easily become bored with reading text books. While they were learning the material, they just weren't excited about it.

So, she went back to middle-school classrooms to re-center herself on literacy and textbooks. While observing at a high school in Greensboro, she began looking at text structure and the idea that books—especially history textbooks—written in sequential order were much harder to retain information from. "So I would give them a different structure. I would write them in the format of compare and contrast, because the research I was reading at the time was saying compare and contrast was one of the easier text structures to remember."

For example, concepts were easier to remember if you knew both supporting and non-supporting facts. Her work, which involved doing quasi-experimental studies, is still cited today.

But then, Alvermann pivoted toward qualitative research. Moving beyond the notion of text as it appeared on a page, she conceived of students' interactions during classroom discussions as texts. What moved students? What topics did they want to discuss? As it turns out, students were willing to discuss most anything—as long as the teacher made it interesting.

While classroom discussions bridged language and literacy, at the time the College of Education's departments focusing on each were separate. Not everyone made the connection between language and literacy at the time. So Alvermann began collaborating with colleagues down the hall in the educational psychology department, combining her qualitative-focused research with quantitative methods for a new line of inquiry that linked classroom discussions with reading materials.

Seeking engagement This connection also helped forge a partnership that put UGA on the map in terms of reading and literacy instruction. At the time, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was receiving federally funded grants for the Illinois Center for the Study of Reading. But when the U.S. Department of Education called for the next round of funding, Alvermann and her colleagues at UGA teamed with colleagues at the University of Maryland, which included John Guthrie in educational psychology, to pitch a new type of center—one that focused on K-12 students' motivation and engagement in reading. Their proposal received a five-year, $7.8 million grant—a sizable sum in 1992. The UGA-University of Maryland team named it the National Reading Research Center.

"I had a school teacher background that I could bring to the center that my co-director in Maryland couldn't, because he was an educational psychologist and didn't go the teacher route. So, I had him and he had me," she said. "In my earlier days I studied text and how we could restructure it, but then I shifted, but always with the idea of wanting to know what it was that caught students' attention. Our National Reading Research Center was founded on that principle."

Guthrie said Alvermann's classroom perspective was what helped give their research center an edge. Also, the broad theme of engagement helped unify the work done by the two universities—something that hadn't been done before.

"We pursued these themes with slightly different methods—(Georgia) might study a classroom for a year and use a qualitative approach to study how a third-grade teacher teaches a child to read, whereas we (at Maryland) would conduct an experiment looking at one teacher providing certain instruction and another won't—and yet we're both looking at reading instruction," said Guthrie, Professor Emeritus in Maryland's College of Education.

"I do think (Alvermann) did bring a new dimension to a lot of people's thinking about this," he added. "One of the things she brought to the field and to the grant was the students' perspective, essentially paying attention to and giving life and voice to the students' perspective to why reading might be important, or what kind of instruction is going to be helpful, or what kind of relationship with a student is going to help make literacy meaningful. I would say she was articulate in pursuing the world from the students' view."

The National Reading Research Center collaboration was in place for five years. At the end of the grant, politics and funding had shifted to new models, and so it wasn't renewed. But its timing helped build a bridge between disciplines—one that continues today as a unified department of language and literacy education in the UGA College of Education.

Going digital One of the benefits of staying connected with youth in the classrooms is the ability to tune in to trends and current events. In more recent years, Alvermann has done this and has reconceptualized her research to reflect the larger scope of "literacies" to include cultural, digital and social justice concepts.

In a series of columns she wrote for the International Literacy Association's Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Alvermann reflects on "the M word"—multiliteracies—and how it's used to engage young learners. It's an acknowledgment that literacy goes far beyond text, to include ways we interact with the world around us. This includes rapidly changing technology as well as increasing local diversity and global connectedness.

Her experience advising Rachel Sanders, her doctoral student, also helped expand the meaning of the word. Sanders, who had a background in texture and clothing design, worked with the UGA Graduate School to rework her dissertation from a written piece to one that was on display at the Georgia Museum of Art.

"Rachel would say, 'You're great about talking about all the changes for literacy, but you're still very much oriented toward language," said Alvermann. "She said, 'Texture is in my blood, and I can read texture in things.' I think language can get in our way, and I think Rachel was accurate."

Today, Alvermann prefers to view how we read the world as "multiliteracies"—not to be confused with digital literacies, new literacies, or even multimodal reading and writing, all of which carry a more specific focus relating to a form of expression. "Multiliteracies has much more of a social justice thread to it."

It's also a concept that connects back to her own time as a K-12 teacher looking for ways to connect with her students. As a teacher in Texas, she used personal narratives from family members to help the children of migrant farm workers make their own connections to the valley in which they lived during the winter months, after returning from picking crops up North. In New York and Georgia, she found threads in what adolescents said to help connect them to deeper learning. And even today, with kids digesting information from social media, text messages, YouTubers and Vine videos, there are ways to keep them engaged and learning about the world around them.

And it works for learners of all ages.

Alvermann recalled one time she was sitting with a high school student in the local public library. She had a grant to study ways to engage students in topics that interested them, and yet she was struggling to read a newspaper story on her laptop. "He could see me working on the screen, and he'd say, "Dr. Alvermann, you're over here—here's what you need to do," she said. "He taught me to read quickly and skim. I was trying to read every word, and it was just the wrong way to approach it. So, I do learn from students and how they engage with reading."