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MCRR Quarterly Reader, Fall 2015

Message from the Director | Research Brief

Message from the Director

Dear Readers,

Lori HelmanAs you settle into the start of a new academic year I want to thank you once again for all the work you do to improve literacy outcomes for Pre-K to 12th grade students in your classrooms, schools and organizations. At the Minnesota Center for Reading Research we are here to support you in that mission. In this issue of our electronic newsletter you’ll have a chance to learn more about the ongoing work the Center does in the community through projects such as the Path to Reading Excellence in School Sites (PRESS) and CEHD America Reads, as well as through our partnerships with the Minnesota Reading Association and MN Department of Education to hold professional development events as part of the Leaders in Reading Network. There are a lot of initiatives going on in our region, and you can check our website to keep informed about these many opportunities and resources.

We also use the newsletter to share information with educators about recent research that may be helpful to you in your work. In this newsletter we want to focus on a topic that was highlighted at the MCRR’s annual Summer Literacy Workshop that was held in August. Our keynote speakers for the day were Dr. Vichet Chhuon, Associate Professor in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Minnesota, and Ahmed Amin, Teacher at Roosevelt High School in the Minneapolis Public Schools. They spoke on the topic of Youth of Color and Being Known: Teaching and Learning in Racially Diverse Classrooms. In the Research Brief below doctoral student Annie Ittner and I share some of the key ideas from their talk, provide a link to read a more-expansive research article on the topic, and share implications for classroom practices for addressing the limited inclusion that many students of color feel in their classrooms. Nationally, Minnesota has some of the most problematic outcomes in academic achievement for students of color as compared to White students. We have much to learn from following the lead of scholars such as Dr Vichet Chhuon and Ahmed Amin.

If you are interested in exciting presentations of research such as these that connect directly to improving schooling for Pre-K through 12th grade students, save the date for our Summer Workshop next year: August 8, 2016. We will have a an engaging keynote co-presented by a University of MN researcher and a practicing educator, as well as workshop sessions showcasing the research of affiliated faculty members from the MCRR.

With best wishes for a productive and powerful academic year,

Lori Helman, Ph.D.
MCRR Director

Research Brief

Youth of Color and Being Known: Teaching and Learning in Racially Diverse Classrooms

Vichet ChhuonWhat kind of knowledge do students gain from school about themselves? What can teachers do to get to know their students? These were questions explored during the MCRR Summer Literacy keynote address given by Dr. Vichet Chhuon, Associate Professor, Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Minnesota and Ahmed Amin, Teacher at Roosevelt High School, Minneapolis Public Schools. The presentation was based on research the two have done together in schools.

Dr. Chhoun began the discussion by presenting student perceptions of how teachers understand and know their students. Some students perceive that their teachers already have their minds made up about the success and futures of students. This can be an unfair starting point for the student-teacher relationship. Dr. Chhoun pointed out that the need for belonging in classrooms is inherent in youth, and that teachers are tasked with fostering care, avoiding assumptions, and connecting with students. “Being known” by teachers can be an essential starting place for effective teaching. To read more about Dr. Chhuon’s work on the importance of teachers truly connecting with their students, see here (PDF).  

Ahmed AminIn Ahmed Amin’s classroom at Roosevelt High School it is evident that students are able to share their voices and feel “known” by their teacher. In his presentation, Amin described an assignment that he gives every year in his secondary Social Studies classroom. Amin shared the important implications for creating a classroom culture where there is a sense of belonging from the beginning. Students start each class with a learning biography, where they explore who they are as learners and read several excerpts from significant texts such as “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paolo Freire, “Diary of a Part Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, and “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Amin uses these texts because they foster thinking around students' learning identities. In small groups, students meet to examine teaching and learning from the diverse perspectives presented in the texts and also dig into their own schooling experiences. The assignment culminates with the writing of an “I am from” poem that allows students to share who they are, and helps them be known to their classmates and teacher. This assignment is a powerful example of how teachers can nurture student voice in the classroom.

Teachers in the audience wondered how Amin’s work as a secondary teacher might be translated into elementary contexts with younger students. When elementary teachers are intentional about getting to know about the lives of their students opportunities abound throughout the school day. Tapping into the lives of their students and cultivating student voice can happen is a variety of ways and can be manifested in the classroom when teachers make connections to student lives throughout classroom instruction. In a forthcoming book co-authored by Lori Helman, Dilemmas and opportunities: Close looks into language and literacy learning for linguistically-diverse elementary students (Helman, Rogers, Frederick, & Struck; Teachers College Press, 2016) the authors share several examples of how teachers can be intentional about getting to know their students:

Throughout all of the activities noted above it is important that you remain open and positive as students express their background experiences. To ensure that students continue to share who they are and what they know with you, acknowledge what they share in a positive way. As you become aware of the background experiences, languages, cultural practices, and interests that your students possess, you can also learn more about them yourself. If you find that a number of your students speak a common home language, say Hmong, you can do a bit of research on line about the history or sounds in that language. Find a picture book written in Hmong and share it in class to see if it elicits excitement or sharing on the part of your students. Begin to include discussions about things students do at home that sound interesting to you. Connect their interests in sports or nature with the topics you are studying in class.

Many of the educators in our state are White and bring a particular set of cultural, economic, and linguistic backgrounds with them to their teaching roles. By finding out more about our students, and helping them to feel known in their classrooms, our schools can become more inclusive and, therefore, more equitable. 


MCRR Quarterly Reader, February 2015

Message from the Director

A time for action

Lori HelmanAs winter seems to plod along with no end in sight, many may feel their energy fading when it comes to making a profound impact on the literacy learning of students in their programs. When this feeling emerges, it is a good time to stop and reflect for a moment on the hard work going on in schools and at the university that shines a light on how to increase our impact with students, and maintain the urgency to do so. In this Winter/Spring MCRR Newsletter you’ll have an opportunity to hear of the work of several recent visitors and current resident scholars in the College of Education and Human Development who focus on ensuring that culturally-diverse students have the opportunities to excel even though the environments and experiences they encounter at school may be very different from their home experiences. Follow the links included below to find out more about the work of these fine academics who have a lot to share with us as we work to ensure that every student has access to the materials, instruction, and opportunities to become capable and engaged readers.

Dr. Alfred TatumDr. Alfred Tatum, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, delivered a keynote address at the January 20th CE+HD Policy Breakfast Series on framing responsive literacy instruction in the national policy context, co-sponsored by the MCRR. Dr. Tatum’s talk focused on advancing the reading, writing, and intellectual development of African American boys and rebuilding boys’ reading and writing relationships with texts (textual lineages). Dr. Tatum questioned the authorization of underperformance and slow growth models, opting instead for transformative approaches to literacy instruction that aim for exponential growth. He described how the use of powerful texts that challenge students and connect to their lives help them define themselves through their reading and writing, and become more resilient in the face of conditions inside and outside of school. Dr. Tatum’s PowerPoint slides may be found at the MCRR website (PDF). Segments of the talk, as well as the full event can be watched on video. Dr. Tatum writes more about his work in the books Fearless voices (Scholastic, 2013) and Reading for their life (Heinemann, 2009) among others.

Dr. Richard MilnerDr. Richard Milner, Helen Faison Endowed Chair in Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, spoke on the importance of increasing racial diversity in the teaching force and making a difference in the lives of students of color on February 5th as part of the Emma Birkmaier Speaker Series at the university. See here. Dr. Milner drew on his own work as well as that of Gloria Ladson-Billings and Jacqueline Jordan Irvine to help the audience think beyond a single “achievement gap,” but rather consider the opportunity gaps that impede student success in school. These opportunities gaps include a teacher quality gap; a teacher training gap; an effective leadership gap; a challenging curriculum gap; a school funding gap; a digital divide gap; a wealth and income gap; an employment opportunity gap; an affordable housing gap; a health care gap; a nutrition gap; an instruction gap; a school integration gap; a quality childcare gap; and a school and pop culture gap, all leading to an overall opportunity gap for accessing challenging curriculum and engaging in rigorous academic learning. By lumping all of these disparities in resources into an “achievement gap,” the focus is incorrectly placed on an individual student- the implication being he or she is simply not working hard enough. Dr. Milner proposes several pathways to improving education for students of color including increasing teacher racial diversity, looking beyond the characterization of students as merely test scores, a focus on teaching rather than testing, and seeing students’ race and ethnicity as essential to who they are and what they bring to the classroom. Dr. Milner writes more about this work in his book, Start where you are but don’t stay there (Harvard Education Press, 2010) and a number of individual papers that can be searched on line.

Sirad Shirdon, PhD student in Language, Education & Society at the Ohio State University, and a Visiting Scholar with the Minnesota Center for Reading Research, studies how Somali families with special needs children understand and navigate school readiness. The MCRR is honored to support Sirad in her dissertation work this semester at our center. Sirad describes herself as first and foremost an activist and community member, and she is passionate about ensuring that her research empowers the Somali community. She doesn't seek to be the voice for the community, but rather to use her privileged position in service to her community. As a part of her commitment to the Somali communities in the United States and globally, she recently co-founded the Somali Literacy Project. The initiative seeks to educate Somali families about school readiness, literacy and disability, as well as informing professionals who work with Somali families about how to provide culturally responsive care and education for Somali children. See more at Sirad’s website.

One of the key messages that has come through from each of the scholars I mention above is their call to not only learn about students’ backgrounds and cultures, but to take action to make our teaching powerful and engaging for them. If what we are doing in our programs is only having small incremental effects, what might make the success more compelling for a greater number of students? These three researchers have some important suggestions for us. I hope you’ll take the time to pursue some of their ideas through the resources noted above.

Best wishes for a productive and transformative spring!

Lori Helman
MCRR Director


MCRR Quarterly Reader, Fall 2014

Research Brief: Literacy Instruction in Full-Day Kindergarten

Full-Day K in MNCapable and motivated readers and writers do not just “appear” once they have a reading book put in their hands at school. Readers and writers are cultivated from their earliest conscious moments through verbal and visual interactions with text in their homes, communities, and preschool classrooms. A strong emergent literacy foundation is built on the language skills that children bring with them to school. Kindergarten presents an ideal context for bridging the language and emerging literacy capabilities of children to the more structured curriculum of letters, sounds, words and texts. In order to maximize children’s opportunities to experience a language-rich structured academic environment, the Minnesota Department of Education has offered some full-day kindergarten support for teachers and administrators. On August 23, Dr. Debra Peterson of the MCRR interviewed Debbykay Peterson, a Minnesota Department of Education Early Childhood Education Specialist who is leading the efforts at the department to support schools and districts as they are implementing full-day kindergarten. Here is a summary of their conversation, with helpful insights and links to further information.

Q: How has the change in MN law impacted the implementation of full-day kindergarten?

 The state has set aside $134 million per year for full-day K!  Last year only about 62% of Minnesota kindergarteners were in full-day kindergarten.  This year it will be about 95%.  Now schools will have the time to provide the depth of instruction that will benefit all our students.  This includes instruction that is integrated, provides a balance of child-centered and teacher-directed activities, and is developmental.  Instruction that can go deep into the content, expose students to 21st Century skills like critical thinking and collaboration, can fully engage them as learners.  This legislation gives us a wonderful opportunity to examine our practice and incorporate change.  We can think about instructional design and learning environments in new ways.

Q: What kinds of questions are schools and districts asking as they move to full-day kindergarten programs?

: They are saying, “Now that we have this time, now what do we do?  How do we use the time meaningfully? What should our schedules look like?  Do we need to have 90 minutes of reading? Do we provide interventions? How do we incorporate child-focused activities, inquiry and mature, purposeful play? How do we align with the standards?” 

Q: What research or resources would you recommend for teachers of full-day kindergarten?

 MDE is offering a series of seminars on full-day kindergarten.  The next one will be on Oct. 21 and the topic is “Transformational Full-day Kindergarten Teachers: Motivating the Learner in EVERY Child.”  The keynote presenter will be Dr. Adam Holland, from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  He is a researcher and a former kindergarten teacher.  Registration is open here. We have also started a Wiki that is open to everyone.  It can be accessed here.

In the future, we hope to develop guidance documents on curriculum, designing environments to support all learners, especially our students of color, males, and students of poverty.

Some resources that I would recommend are: Developmentally Appropriate Practices: Focus on Kindergartners by Copple, Bredekamp, Koralek & Charner from NAEYC* and Basics of Developmentally Appropriate Practice by Eva Phillips and Amy Scrinzi from NAEYC.*

Full-day kindergarten provides extended time for children to use language at school, connect this language to meaningful reading and writing activities, and experience systematic, developmentally-appropriate instruction in the code and meaning of print. Here at the Reading Center, we look forward to working with teachers, literacy coaches, schools, and the MDE to take advantage of this opportunity to reach our state’s early literacy goals.

*National Association for the Education of Young Children, see

MCRR Quarterly Reader, Spring 2014

Research Brief

Learning on the Blue Line: Crossing Borders of Race, Class and Social Relations

By Yolanda Majors, MCRR Associate Director for Adolescent Literacy & Learning

It is the end of the fall term, classrooms are empty and I am alone, appreciative of the quiet and accepting of an opportunity to reflect. In the quiet I can reflect on my sophomore Language Arts classroom at the Chicago Public High School where I’ve taught for several years. The Lawndale community, where the high school is situated, is one of historical significance, particularly with regards to the social, cultural and racial economy of the City (see Kozol, 1991). It sits just west of where my university office is located within the College of Education. 

Outside my office window, it would appear that there is no distinction between the brick and mortar of the University and the east-west bound public rail, (specifically the public transit system), whose “blue-line” runs along the northern edge of the Chicago campus. In the solitude I can no longer avoid the audible irony of color-blind conceptions of space and time and of the social and cultural borders I traverse as an African American mother, teacher, scholar etc. This border crossing is most tangible on the east-west bound commuter rail, whose “blue-line” runs along the northern edge of the campus.  

I’ve found inspiration in this rail system, particularly its map posted on the platform and how its intricate, color-coded and deliberate lines and directionality traverse this sprawling city’s borders of race, class and social relations. As such, riders from all walks of life interface with diverse geography, people and social phenomena, which are largely reflective of the section of the city in which the train is traveling. As the red line train moves through each community, beginning in Ravenswood and moving along the ‘magnificent mile’ through Bronze Ville heading south; or as the blue line train from Halsted Street through Lawndale and into to historical Oak Park heading west, each community is a picturesque representation of the social world order (and dis-order), harmony and disharmony. This social order is constructed through a series of tacit agreements and mediated by images, tales and scripts. Riding these trains one can observe the disparate, physical condition of the trains, train stations and commerce -  kiosks, coffee stations and newspaper stands. Thus, the commute is a subtle social commentary on the political and social economy of the city, moving through a complex, interwoven maze of social inequality, privileging and cultural interaction (Kazembe, personal communication). In all that is ordered and color-blind one would assume that all the rail cars and stops along each route are equally resourced. After all, so much time and space separates my (our) commute from the days of Plessey v. Ferguson. Delgado and Stefancic (2001) remind us that:

In Plessey, a black man had challenged a railroad’s rule prohibiting him from riding in a car reserved for whites. The railroad replied that it had set aside identical cars for black passengers, hence its practice did not violate the Equal protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court opinion agreed with the railroad, establishing the principle of separate but equal that lasted until the Brown decision of 1954…Supreme Court Justice John Harlan’s scathing dissent rebuked the majority’s decision. He pointed out that history and custom rendered preposterous the majority opinion’s blithe denial that anything untoward had happened. The railroad’s separation of the races occurred against a background that made its symbolism and insult unmistakable (p. 103).

Decades later, riders, for their part, have the opportunity to engage and interrogate the commuting experience, through a kind of border-crossing, where people actively move across the socially, culturally and politically constructed divides that separate cultural groups and discourse communities, one from another. Taking note of pending destinations, white men and women in business suits exit the south-bound train, while black and brown bodies sink into seats and opportunities deferred.

As a High School Language Arts teacher, I’ve strived to better understand and traverse such borders and social locations. My high school classroom is a site where day-to-day border crossing--police brutality, residential violence and abuse coincided with subject-matter learning. As Lee, et. al. (2002) point out, youth from marginalized minority group face additional “mixed messages about appropriate belief systems and cultural displays—as they move across settings, and uneven and sometimes confusing responsibilities for peripheral participation in adult life activities” (p. 6).

Researchers have documented how African American adolescents have assumed tasks that were once the responsibilities of their parents (Burton, Allison & Obeidallah, 1995; Ginwright, 2004; Lee, Beale-Spencer & Harpalini, 2004). The struggles of finding decent work, paying rent, and juggling child-care have undoubtedly placed greater challenges on youth in urban communities. For these students, who often assume adult-type roles at home (e.g., parents, economic providers, child-care providers) while at the same time they are expected to assume docile, child-like, passive roles within the social organization of the school, academic achievement is often delimited by the economic conditions of the communities in which they live (Ginwright, 2004; Lee, Spencer & Harpalini, 2004). These shifts are daily acts of border crossing.

As a class we collectively cross borders through subject matter and literary texts and make use of available tools of literacy and life problem solving that transform the classroom into a community site for learning. Here students interrogate life’s challenges, which include tending to color-blind discourses instantiated within texts, drawing on forms of prior knowledge for the consideration of alternative perspectives. Interventions and educational research that do not reflect young people’s histories and their unique cultural niches often miss opportunities to influence generative change. Thus, any intervention whose goal is to increase life chances and decrease gaps in achievement ad opportunity cannot ignore students’ perceptions of what is threatening (whether it is what and how they are being taught in school or their relationships with adults and peers) and what is supportive to their own development (p. 6).

In the act of literary problem solving, students carry out epistemological roles demanded by the subject matter within culturally familiar participation structures. Together they digest (even assume) multiple points of view in order to counter hegemonic dominant themes of word and world —skills that mimic and at times exceed those required in any Language Arts classroom. As teacher-researcher, I attempt to understand how the complexities inherent in life problem solving intersect in positive ways with their literate achievement, as well as teachers’ perceptions of, individual social, cultural and institutional underpinnings that impact that achievement.

The demographic, historical, and ideological contrasts between my university and high school classrooms, however, are alarming, even as one population prepares to service the other. McCarthy (1998) suggests, “Education is indeed a critical site in which struggles over the organization and concentration and emotional and political investment and moral affiliation are taking place” (cited in Winans, 2005, p. 254). For the most part, my university students are crossing borders, sometimes for the first time, but they frequently lack the tools for negotiating their own questions and confronting their own struggles to reconcile new knowledge with what they thought they knew about the world. As a result, many students who have not experienced dissonance may not be willing to talk about their ideas as part of their execution of privilege and willful ignorance.

The challenge for secondary and post-secondary educators who traverse the borders of race, class and social relations is to unpack assumptions but, at the same time, create a space that allows for transformative conversations. This should be an integral part of the socialization process of all students, and it’s an area in desperate need of further exploration and research. As Gutierrez and Jaramillo (2006) suggest such work, both theoretical and practical, could unveil the silenced and unaddressed ideological and historical factors that inhibit and complicate our abilities to create and sustain rich transformative learning communities.

The persistence of the normative discourse around non-dominant youth and schooling has led to impoverished representations of what it means to know and to teach, though such representations are continually viewed as normative. As a result, “educational policies and practices will not seek to leverage the full range of repertoires available to all human beings as they navigate what is entailed in learning new things, including learning the disciplines of the academy” (Lee, 2009 p. 66). As suggested by Lee (2009), not only do we need to account for the full ecologies of peoples’ lives, we must also account for the fact that vulnerability is endemic to being human, for everyone not just those facing domination. A fundamental task of life-course development, including all the tasks associated with learning in schools, is to manage vulnerability in ways that facilitate what we perceive to be positive outcomes across the life course. The nature of the challenges and triumphs we face and the resources available to us to respond to those challenges will vary according to the cultural and ecological contexts in which we live. As a member of a teaching community, you can:



Delgado, R. & Stephanic, J. (2001). Critical race theory: An introduction. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Ginwright , S.A. (2004). Black in school: Afrocentric reform, urban youth, and the promise of hip-hop culture. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Lee, C.D. (2009). Historical evolution of risk and equity: Interdisciplinary issues and critiques. Review of Research in Education: A Publication of the American Educational Researchers Association., 33, 63 – 100.

Lee, C.D., Spencer, M.B., & Harpalani , V. (2003). “Every shut eye ain’t sleep”: Studying how people live culturally. Educational Researcher: A Publication of the American Educational Research Association, 32 (5), 6.

Majors, Y. (2014). Joy and the Smart Kids: Competing ways of being and believing. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 57 (8), 633-641.

McCarthy, C. & Dimitriadis, G. (2000). Art and the postcolonial imagination: Rethinking the institutionalization of third world aesthetics and theory. Review of International English Literature, 31 (1–2), 232 – 253.

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MCRR Quarterly Reader, Winter 2013-14

Research Brief

Bradford Holt and How Money Matters in Learning to Read

Catherine Compton-Lilly, University of Wisconsin Madison, Curriculum and Instruction

Bradford was a student in my first grade class when I taught in a high poverty, inner city community. At the end of a ten-year longitudinal study, his mother, Ms. Holt, blamed teachers and school policies for the difficulties her son faced in school and with literacy learning.

I don't know. They said [that] they had his best interest at heart but I didn't believe that. Because he's been, been in that program No Kids Left Behind. They kept leaving him behind!. . . I never did understand that. I still don't. That No Kid Left Behind. I have no concept of it whatsoever.

  Sociologists and educators (e.g., Bourdieu, 1986; Luke & Carrington, 1997) have used the construct of capital to understand the challenges children from some communities face in school. As Bourdieu (1986) explained, capital makes it “possible to explain the unequal scholastic achievement of children originating from different social classes” (p. 243). Capital identifies factors that extend beyond personal failure or inferiority as the reasons for a person’s success or failure within educational, social, and economic fields.

Drawing on Bourdieu, I define economic literacy capital as including possessions and experiences that require economic investment and are convertible to literacy success. In some cases, accessing these resources is contingent on being able to afford housing in economically healthy communities or attend well-funded schools. Examples of economic literacy capital include computers, electronic educational toys, significant numbers of quality books, and private tutoring.  Social capital, in contrast, provides opportunities for agency and advocacy. It is significant to note that a lack of economic capital did not prevent Ms. Holt from advocating for her children and that social capital, when available, was accessed and valued.

Recommended Strategies and Practices: Rethinking the Classroom and Beyond

While discussions of capital might explain the success of some children, it does not absolve teachers of their responsibilities. Below, I explore the responsibilities teachers have relative to students who bring different cultural and socio-economic experiences to classrooms. Specifically, I highlight strategies for learning about and responding to children from low-income communities.

Recognizing mismatches between teacher and student experiences

When Bradford entered middle school, his mother expressed concern about teachers whose experiences were different from those of their students:

Some of these kids, they come from hard, hard, hard lives. And these teachers aren’t educated to deal with the hard life that this child is going through. . . Because a lot of teachers don’t live around the kids in the inner city so they don’t know, they don’t go through this every day. They don’t. They are there from what 8, 7:30 to 3:30?  They [are] inside the school. They don’t come outside. (Ms. Holt laughs) . . . I’ve never seen a teacher walk to the corner store in the city out of schools in the neighborhood.

Ms. Holt makes a compelling case that teachers need to know more about their students’ lives and experiences. Differences in economic capital result in teachers and their students living in different communities and contribute to a disjuncture between the experiences of children and their teachers.

Find informants in the community 

Among the paraprofessionals who lived in the school community and worked in my school were a dancer, a singer, and several part-time college students. Some staff members also had amazing life stories. Our elderly school crossing guard survived World War II concentration camps, and our school custodian was a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights Era. These informants brought rich experiences and challenged the assumptions that are often made about paraprofessionals in low-income schools. These individuals brought a wealth of knowledge about their passions and their experiences and about the community surrounding the school.

Visit homes to learn about students

Parents are also important resources. During home visits, Ms. Holt alerted me to Bradford’s love for baseball and current events. She helped me to understand some of the challenges Bradford faced with reading and notified me when I sent home materials that were either too difficult or too easy.

Working with local organizations

Families in high poverty communities face many challenges that are often beyond the experiences of middle class teachers. Local organizations not only provide opportunities for teachers to volunteer in communities, but they can also provide rich knowledge about communities and the challenges families face. Working with organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, can provide information related to housing while local health organizations can teach us about the health challenges faced by urban residents who are either un- or under-insured. Local cultural organizations are particularly rich resources that can help teachers to understand and appreciate the cultural ways of being that students bring to classrooms.

Engage students as ethnographers exploring their own communities

Finally, and perhaps most exciting, students can be taught basic ethnographic techniques and can enter their local communities to gather information. I had my first grade students interview parents about their reading practices, how they learned to read, their occupations, and the potential roles their family members played in civil rights history. On other occasions, I asked my students to work together to craft surveys related to issues we were studying in class. One particularly effective strategy involved providing students with disposable cameras that they could use to document their favorite things or places. These pictures provided insights into students’ lives that were often invisible to teachers.  

The range of available texts

I tell you what would work with inner city kids, with Black children. Let them read about black people. If they read more about their own culture and things that they’re doing.

As Ms. Holt argues, teachers can strive to find books that are of interest to their students. Touchstones such as culture, pop culture, and sports can engage young readers who struggle with traditional school texts. These books can invite children to engage with literacy activities and to see themselves as readers. Teachers can acquire these books for their classroom libraries, work with librarians to identify texts for the school libraries, and work within their schools to include these texts in curricula.

Inequities in Economic Literacy Capital that Defy Teaching Strategies

            While Ms. Holt clearly holds teachers accountable for fulfilling their obligations, there are other challenges she names that are beyond the control of individual teachers. In these current times of school budget austerity and discourse advocating for the privatization of public services, conversations about school funding have been stymied, while many focus on teacher quality and accountability rather than shared societal obligations to children. Ms. Holt’s voice highlights several economic challenges including equitable school resources, the lack of community resources such as local libraries, the technology gap, and a set of particularly challenging life experiences that are ultimately related to economic capital.
Advocacy and Agency: Highlighting Social Capital

While dominant discourses tend to blame families and teachers for the literacy challenges faced by children in low-income communities, Ms. Holt identifies disadvantages related to a lack of economic literacy capital (e.g., closing libraries, underfunded schools, a technology gap) and suggests that there are responsibilities that extend beyond the control of teachers that affect the literacy learning of students in high poverty communities.  This lack of economic capital resulted in Ms. Holt accessing social capital when needed to help her children. When Bradford was in fourth grade, his mother, with the support of his teacher, confronted the school board to attain special education services for Bradford.  Just as Bradford’s teacher assisted Ms. Holt in getting around the “brick walls” at school, her son’s doctor helped her to access a specialist when Bradford’s older brother was injured.  In these examples, Ms. Holt accessed social capital to achieve her goals. Although financial limits were very real and had real effects, Ms. Holt was savvy and harnessed social resources as needed to address the challenges her family faced.


Although No Child Left Behind made rhetorical promises to students, its accompanying policies and practices related to scientific instruction and test scores generally failed to address the real challenges faced by Bradford. Teachers who are knowledgeable and have a deep understanding of children are essential, but teachers alone will not address economic inequity. We must not forget that societal issues require societal changes in addition to changes within schools.

Over the ten years that I worked with Bradford and his family, his mother repeatedly identified money as a challenge related to schooling and literacy learning. I argue that some of her concerns require and deserve attention from the larger community and are related to the allocation of resources in urban areas, school funding, and social equity. Although teachers can and should play a role in these conversations and their roles can be powerful, solving these problems requires a social commitment from the larger community.


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. G. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241–258). New York, NY: Greenwood Press.

Carrington, V., & Luke, A. (1997). Literacy and Bourdieu’s sociological theory: A reframing. Language and Education, 11(2), 96–112.

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MCRR Quarterly Reader, Spring 2013

Research Brief

From Print to Apps:  Bridging Traditional Literacies with 21st Century Literacies to Support Learning through Teacher Design and Re-design

David O’Brien, Professor of Literacy Education, University of Minnesota

In their relatively brief existence, iPads are increasingly appearing in classrooms, schools, and even entire school districts.  Android and Windows tablet devices will follow.  School administrators, education technology integration specialists, and teachers are optimistic about anticipated improvements in the quality of teaching and learning that the devices will provide.  But before they move textbook funds or other monies toward the purchase of iPads or other tablet devices, or BYOD programs drawing heavily from online tools, and invest time and other resources in teacher development and purchasing apps to install on the devices, educators want assurances that the devices will improve teaching and learning.  Such definitive assurances will not be coming anytime soon.  The reason is that research, at this very early stage of the transition from print to digital literacies, provides few clear answers about the impact of relatively new devices like iPads.

That said, there is a lot of research and a host of validated theoretical frameworks that clearly support moving from print to multimodal environments, providing access to more information presented more dynamically, and supporting more student collaboration through online communities, to mention just a few affordances.  In short, there is clear evidence that moving into the digital realm has huge potential benefits with careful curriculum planning and bridging, rather than abandoning or replacing sound instructional practices and time-tested approaches to engaging students.

Below are tips to keep in mind when making the transition to 21st century digital literacies in support of learning.

For elaborations of these and related topics and specific research, visit, the site my colleague Rick Beach and I constructed. You will also find a link to our new e-book: Using iPad and iPhone Apps for Learning with Literacy Across the Curriculum.      

  1. Textbooks are not universally inferior curriculum materials. iPads and apps must bridge qualities of existing textbooks with the new, dynamic qualities of iBooks and other e-Textbook platforms. Textbooks are an integral part of the existing school curriculum defined by their content, structure, and organization; they are usually designed to promote learning.  Textbooks, although portrayed as inherently outdated, boring, and lacking in interactivity, are backed by about a century of research supporting features like (a) organization of the top-level structure with coherent prose to make ideas accessible; (b) signaling through headings and subheads to cue important ideas; (c) adjunct aids like marginal gloss, vocabulary keys, advance organizers, review tools, and a host of others features that support comprehension.
  2. Adopting digital curricula as a “replacement” for so-called “outdated” texts is shortsighted. As teachers, schools, and districts look at multimodal, multitouch devices as replacements for printed curricula, they need to plan very carefully how to both retain effective components while excluding features that do not promote learning.  Recently, a rush of Apple Author-produced curricula has appeared on iTunes U from K-12 educators who have decided that they can publish curricula that replaces existing materials. But their “curricular design” is often the result of firing before aiming, aided by the ease of design tools that permit cutting and pasting, dragging and dropping media, and moving elements around rather than considering how information needs to be organized, and how specific modalities support certain learning processes.  We elaborate on the needed multimodal affordance designs in the book and will also extend the topic in future blog posts.
  3. Adopting commercially produced digital curricula is not the most effective route. New digital texts are likely to continue the long-held notion that “experts” working for commercial publishers certainly know more about curriculum design and development than teachers; the complementary meme is that teachers cannot produce such materials.  Our caveat from point 2 notwithstanding, neither Apple, nor commercial publishers (who unlike Apple, do have a long history of producing print curriculum materials) are uniquely qualified to produce dynamic, interactive, engaging iBooks that also employ sound principles of instructional and learning design.  Moreover, commercial publishers know nothing about your students in your curriculum against the backdrop of your communities.  That said, with the right expertise and careful design guided by research, publishers have the potential to produce engaging high quality materials. The verdict is still out.
  4. Step by step – bridging of affordances and modalities is a must. We take the position that each app, enhanced textbook, or digital version of a previously print-bound curriculum material will, just like other apps, provide both positive and negative affordances and will retain or exclude some positive features of traditional curricula.  Bridging between traditional print materials and new multimodal media materials must be systematically applied.  For example, in the book we discuss frameworks, planning, and implementation of apps with attention to multimodal affordances against the backdrop of what we know about traditional curriculum, teaching and learning.
  5. Teachers as designers must establish the “value added,” potential of a digital curriculum. Teachers-as-designers, or teachers-as-critics of commercially published materials will need to systematically evaluate all affordances – not just design features but  understand affordances-in-use of apps and, when necessary, re-design the affordances. 


In the next blog post on the site we will start to discuss specific aspects of bridging design and the role of teachers as designers. 

Stay tuned and subscribe to the blog at to get updates and give us and other readers feedback via comments on posts.   

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Last modified on July 14, 2011.