When I entered the Literacy Specialist program, the school where I worked expected me to take on more of a leadership role around its high needs in literacy. Before I could do this, I knew I would need to take a step back from my day-to-day work to rethink my teaching practice and beliefs. Doing so turned out to be the smartest professional decision of my career.
Every evening, my thinking was stretched through readings, discussion, debate and instruction. What I loved most was that these conversations weren’t contained within the walls of classrooms, but instead travelled down the street, into subway cars, coffee shops, emails. Each morning, I tried out my latest thinking with children in public school classrooms, and each evening, I took new observations back to my courses. This balance of theory and practice, and the learning that happened as the two intersected, is one of the reasons I was drawn to the program and one factor that makes it unique.
Also unique to this program is its close partnership with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. The opportunity to intern with TCRWP during the second half of my year not only allowed me to study literacy instruction taught by one of the best in the field, it also gave me insight into methods of staff development. I was then able to try out some of this work myself, coaching teachers as they worked with emergent readers, supporting the development of assessment tools, and contributing to the writing of curriculum. The experience was invaluable.
After a while, working in an environment this intellectually engaging begins to feel normal—that is, until you take a moment to pause and reflect. This happened one afternoon when I struck up a conversation with a visiting professor who asked about my program. In a rush to resume my work, I gave her a quick description and concluded by saying that it was overall pretty great. “Pretty great?” she responded, and then shook her head at me. “You do realize that you have won the literacy lottery…don’t you?”
I had to laugh. A few minutes earlier, I had finished revising a piece of writing for a course with Lucy Calkins. At that moment, I was preparing for a discussion on multimodality in a class taught by Marjorie Siegel. The next morning, I was going to be shadowing staff developer Amanda Hartman as she worked with teachers in one of New York City’s highest needs schools. Over the course of the year, I had participated in workshops led by a veritable who’s who in the world of literacy—the likes of Peter Johnston, Stephanie Harvey, Charlotte Danielson, Kylene Beers, Ellen Keene, Timothy Rasinski, Smokey Daniels. I had also met and learned from beloved children’s book authors Kate DiCamillo, Pam Muñoz Ryan, and Sarah Weeks. She was right. I had indeed won the literacy lottery.
I entered this program as a teacher committed to the importance of literacy in the lives of children. I left with that conviction reaffirmed, the skills to do something about it, a network of people to support me, and a vision for what is possible in schools. But I also left with something more—a sense of possibility for the future that comes with seeing myself in ways I had never before considered. Yes, I am a teacher with a commitment to the importance of literacy, and now, I am also a researcher, a leader, a writer. I have Teachers College to thank for that.