Alumni Perspectives

Havilah Jespersen, M.A. 2014
Literacy Coach, Edmonton Public Schools in Edmonton, Canada

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.

Gita Varadarajan, M.A. 2013
Author and Second Grade Teacher, Princeton, NJ

The two years I spent as a student of the Literacy Specialist program was a journey of insight, new opportunities, and discovery. I had the honor of learning from inspiring professors, who not only challenged my assumptions about literacy practices, but also helped me gain deeper insights into how theory and practice can be synthesized. During my internship, I worked in some of the best classrooms in New York City with master teachers of literacy. I learned, too, alongside peers who represented diverse backgrounds and perspectives. But perhaps the greatest gift of the program was the discovery I made through it of the writer in me. Since graduating, I have written two children’s books—one fiction, one nonfiction—which are soon to be published.

As a graduate student, I also had the invaluable chance to work closely with the Reading and Writing Project. My role there as a research assistant and part-time staff developer positioned me to learn from a special community of experts in the field of literacy led by Professor Lucy Calkins.

Last summer, I took part in these two influential communities simultaneously; I taught at the TCRWP Writing Institute and was also a student teacher supervisor for the Literacy Specialist Program.

When I moved from my home country, India to the US four years ago, I had over ten years of teaching experience. But today, I feel like a new teacher. As I begin a new role teaching second grade in Princeton, New Jersey, and continue spearheading reading and writing projects in K-8 classrooms in India, I bring renewed vigor, knowing I belong to a community that cares about students, teaching, and continuous learning.

Anna Gratz Cockerille, M.A. 2009
Supervising Editor, Calkins Team at Heinemann Publishing

I actually began my studies at Teachers College in the Developmental Psychology department. It was during a TCRWP summer reading institute, an elective for my program, that I recognized the need for a new path. The methods of teaching I learned during that institute resonated powerfully with me, and I found that I wanted to be part of this thinking and work. Soon after, I made the switch to the Literacy Specialist program.

During my subsequent courses, I was exposed to key theories and research, and, perhaps more importantly, to critical instructional techniques and strategies that immediately improved the quality of my teaching, many times over. I attended the program part time, while teaching fifth grade in New York City, and it was a wonderfully rich experience to be able to apply what I was learning at TC in my own classroom.

After completing the program, I moved to Sydney, Australia, but I made it a point to keep in touch with the TC faculty. While there, I had the opportunity to contribute to Units of Study in Teaching Reading, Grades 3-5. When I moved back to New York in 2010, I realized my dream of working at the Reading and Writing Project as a researcher and staff developer. One of my proudest professional moments was being asked to co-write a book, Bringing History to Life, part of the Units of Study in Teaching Writing, Grade by Grade series, released in 2013.

Today, as I continue to draw on the rigorous literacy work that characterizes Teachers College, I’m aware of how lucky I am—the LITI program opened doors for me that were far beyond anything I’d hoped for when I sat as a student in that summer institute years ago.

Nivan Khosravi, M.A. 2012
Principal, Maxwell Elementary, Denver

I am honored and excited to begin my service as the principal of Maxwell Elementary in Denver Public Schools this fall. I come to this work after three years of learning, engaging with, and leading work related to outstanding reading and writing instruction at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

I’ve spent the past two summers teaching at the TCRWP Reading and Writing Institutes. My current path has, in many ways, been defined by the thoughtful work of the TCRWP, by the learning experiences and one-on-one guidance afforded me by my time as a Literacy Specialist at TC, and by my deep-rooted beliefs in balanced literacy and in an authentic, engaging reading and writing workshop. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to work with teachers affiliated with TCRWP as they rethink and grow their instruction. Now I eagerly anticipate my opportunity to do the same with my school community at Maxwell Elementary.

Dana Johansen, Doctoral Student
Middle School English Teacher, Researcher, and Author

There is nothing quite like watching my fifth grade students’ eyes sparkle as they read literature that captures their imaginations, and as they write their own stories they’ve carried in their hearts and minds. As Albus Dumbledore says, “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.” They are indeed. After seven years of teaching, I became a doctoral student in the C&T department in order to deepen my understanding of teaching reading and writing—of close engagement with words.

The course work in the Literacy Specialist Program has transformed my teaching and research. Being mentored by Lucy Calkins and Marjorie Siegel has been an invaluable experience. These professors each pushed me to work hard, to ask the tough questions, and to reflect in meaningful ways on what is happening in the classroom. The work I did in this program not only shaped my teaching, it changed the course of my career. The discoveries, discussions, and course work ultimately led to the publication of my first book,Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning, co-authored with another TC colleague, Sonja Cherry-Paul.

The work you do in the Literacy Specialist Program will forever shape you as a teacher and a learner. You will come away knowing how to foster a love of words in your students, bringing magic to your classroom.

Sonja Cherry, Doctoral Student
5th and 6th grade Teacher, Researcher, and Author

I began my studies in the Literacy Specialist department already a seasoned teacher, having taught middle school for more than a decade. I entered the program craving challenge, knowing that good teaching is about revision. The coursework in the Literacy Specialist department does exactly that. It has invited me to examine my work as a teacher again and again and to make the changes necessary to improve my practice. Rigorous courses such as Constructing Critical Readers place pedagogy front and center, and are designed to directly inform classroom practice. This program has set me on a renewed course of reflection and learning that continues to push my teaching to new heights.

It was at Teachers College, over dynamic interactions with professors and students, where I was encouraged to publish my first book, Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning, co-authored with Dana Johansen. I have also been invited to lead workshops at several TCRWP events and to present at national education conferences such as IRA, AERA, Tech Expo, MRA, and Literacy for All. And for a second year, I will be teaching a course for the Literacy Specialist department.

Throughout my doctoral work, I have been lucky to have one of the faculty as a mentor, continually challenging me to reflect on how the work I do as a scholar can help me develop the analytic tools to inform and transform curriculum. I am an infinitely better teacher for this reflection.

Staci Kaplan, M.A. 2013
Elementary School Teacher, Summit, New Jersey
New Jersey Certified Reading Specialist and K-12 Teacher of Reading

I was drawn to the Literacy Specialist program by reading work authored by one of the faculty members. Those professional texts inspired me to study as much as I could about literacy instruction. I wanted to learn directly from the people at Teachers College—people who have pushed forward the craft of teaching and curriculum through theoretical and practical instruction and research. I especially value the program’s focus on social action. Through interactions with teachers and other members of the program, I’ve acquired the tools to better understand my students’ unique and diverse backgrounds, and have learned to embrace their various voices, needs, and experiences. I now work and collaborate with other educators in my school district to close the achievement gap. The guidance and support I received at TC helped me become a teacher-leader in a new school district that works closely with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. I am forever thankful to the Literacy Specialist department for helping me realize my dream to become a literacy leader.