Teaching Teachers: Dr. Marla Mallette on Reading, Education, and Books That Grow

An Educator’s Educator

When you teach college classes and it’s the middle of winter in Binghamton, New York, nothing warms your heart quite like walking into a classroom of bright-eyed, future educators who are ready to learn. Although professors of weaker stock may be tempted to trade in Binghamton’s snow-clad valley in favor of sunny beaches and palm trees, Dr. Marla Mallette isn’t daunted by the weather because she’s on a mission.

Dr. Mallette is an Associate Professor of Literacy Education in the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University. Prior to joining the faculty at Binghamton University in the fall of 2012, Dr. Mallette taught for 12 years at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She earned her PhD in Literacy Education from UNLV and taught first grade in the Clark County School District. Currently, in addition to her work at the university, Dr. Mallette serves as a co-editor of The Reading Teacher, a practitioner journal, published by the International Literacy Association, an organization committed to “ensuring that literacy is a fundamental, inalienable human right worldwide.”

Binghamton University consistently ranks as one of New York State’s best public universities, with low professor to student ratios. Along with other State University of New York (SUNY) schools, Binghamton University is becoming a highly sought out institution for students, and has more recently been referred to as a public Ivy. Fortunately for Dr. Mallette—and future students of America—this means her graduate education courses are filled with intelligent and thoughtful students. Her students are both certified inservice teachers, who are returning to graduate school to seek professional certification in literacy education, as well as, preservice teachers who are entering graduate school with bachelor’s degrees from other fields and seeking initial and advanced certification. These preservice teachers bring an array of educational backgrounds to their teacher education studies, with bachelor’s degrees in areas ranging from history to English to human development. About one half of the students are returning to Binghamton for a second degree, with the other half beginning at Binghamton as graduate students as they completed their undergraduate work at institutions throughout New York state, and, sometimes beyond – one of her current students studied applied psychology at Sun Yat-Sen University, in China.

We corresponded with Dr. Mallette’s students about their decisions to pursue graduate degrees in education. What becomes apparent, however, is that these students share an unwavering faith in the transformative power of education, a desire to share their own love of learning, and a keen awareness that today’s children are tomorrow’s future. For example, graduate student Natalie Baker remarked that, “Working with children is one of the most fulfilling careers one can choose. While it is hard work, there is constant joy in seeing children learn. That joy alone fuels you with the energy and motivation needed to keep planning and teaching.” This sentiment was echoed by Caitlin LaFergola, who added, “I want to inspire my students and let them know that they can accomplish anything they put their minds to and to never doubt themselves. I want to make learning fun and interesting.” And Xi Yan’s sentiments ring true for the rest of her peers—and educators everywhere—when she wrote that, “Scaffolding children to be better educated can bring a country a better future, and I want to be a part of that.”

In addition to being passionate about pursuing careers in education, these students don’t seem to fear overextending themselves. They are part of a specialized cohort that, upon graduation, will receive a Master of Science in Education degree (MSEd) and teaching certifications in three areas: early childhood education, childhood education, and either special education, or literacy education. After two years of rigorous coursework and fieldwork, Dr. Mallette’s students will be qualified to work with children from birth through Grade 6 in a number of capacities.

Community Engagement / Service Learning for Future Teachers

Understanding the literacy development among children whom experience difficulties, is  one focus of Dr. Mallette’s research and teaching. As such, she reminds her students about the importance of recognizing that striving readers span a large spectrum when it comes to individual differences. As a result, literacy instruction requires considerable individualized attention. Dr. Mallette and her students embrace this ideal in their spring semester course, LTRC 518: Literacy Assessment and Teaching. As part of the course requirements, her graduate students are participating in Bearcats’ Kids Academy (BKA), an afterschool program sustained by a partnership between the GSE and the Windsor School District. In BKA, the graduate students meet once per week at Floyd Bell Elementary School in Kirkwood, NY. They spend two hours of the course time as students, learning about how to assess and instruct children who struggle with reading; and they spend one hour of course time applying this knowledge, by providing one-on-one instruction to third-grade students.

During the first few sessions of BKA, the graduate students administer multiple literacy assessments, and then they analyze the assessment data to determine the children’s strengths and needs as literacy learners. One of the assessments they use is an informal reading inventory, which the students administer to determine the children’s independent, instructional, and frustration reading levels:

●           A student’s independent reading level is the highest level a student can read without support, and is characterized by 99%-100% oral reading accuracy and excellent comprehension (i.e., 88%-100%).

●           A student’s instructional reading level is the level in which a student would benefit from instruction while reading, and is characterized 95%-98% oral reading accuracy and good comprehension (i.e., at least 75%).

●           A student’s frustration reading level is the level at which the reading is too difficult for the child, even with instruction, and is characterized by less than 90% oral reading accuracy and limited comprehension.

In terms of reading levels, Dr. Mallette reminds her students that, “a child’s reading level is neither static nor fixed; rather, it is quite fluid and can fluctuate based on a number of aspects, for example, the child’s familiarity with certain words and phrases, prior knowledge, interests, motivation, and/or amount of practice.”

Going back to her point about literacy instruction requiring significant amounts of individualized attention, Dr. Mallette acknowledged that she wasthrilled that [her] students can access the texts from the Books that Grow library for their tutoring instruction.Because each text in the Books That Grow library can be accessed by multiple reading levels, the process for choosing text is streamlined. Tutors can choose which level they want to match, and then with great ease, provide the children with texts at that level. Tutors can now plan instruction more effectively. That is, they can very easily match the type of reading level to the instructional focus.

Stay tuned for the second half of our interview with Dr. Mallette, where she speaks in greater depth about Independent and Instructional Reading Levels, and research-based strategies for assisting children in developing their reading fluency.

Teaching Women's History, Books That Grow Style

    As February starts to draw to a close, and we pay our respects to the passing of Black History Month, the Books That Grow team has been looking ahead to the month of March, also Women’s History Month, for support. To commemorate the month, we’ve highlighted a number of books from our library written by or about women, and women’s issues. Some of these books underscore some of the innumerable contributions—artistically, politically and sociallywomen have made to society, while others bring gender issues to the forefront for a closer look. We hope you and your students enjoy!

 Biography

    When biography began to come into its own as a genre in the late 18th century, there were a few fundamental assumptions made about it. First and foremost, biography had to be morally justified as a rising literary trend. The famed poet, essayist and literary critic, Samuel Johnson, asserted that a biography must aim to depict a subject—and his/her words and deedsworthy of emulation. A biography that failed to do so, Johnson claimed, was not only morally dubious, but also dangerous. Although our view of biographies have evolved since Johnson’s time, I think he would look upon Susan B. Anthony: Women’s Rights, Helen Keller: My Soul’s Birthday, and Harriet Tubman: The Line to Freedom, with a smile and a wink. The real-life protagonists of these biographies share a few things in common: unwavering determination in the face of adversity, and an unfailing commitment to social justice, irrespective of the law.

      Helen Keller's story, complete with setbacks followed by a triumph over the odds, resonates with the American faith in rugged individualism. That fact aside, it’s worth noting that Helen’s successes were not entirely her own; they also belonged to Anne Sullivan:her teacher and mentor. Through education, or in her own words, the “light of her soul,” Helen not only began to make sense of a previously unintelligible world, but she also began to think about her rightful place in it. Helen came to the realization that education saved her from a life of perpetual loneliness and ignorance. After graduating from college, she became dedicated to making the opportunities she had, available to all. To this end, Helen became an active suffragist, labor union activist, socialist, and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU).

      Susan B. Anthony, who lived over 50 years before Helen Keller, never got to see the fruits of her labor, or the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Growing up in a liberal Quaker household, Anthony’s father saw to her education personally, thinking that the schools for women at the time were inadequate. After Anthony’s family lost nearly all their belongings during an economic collapse in 1837, Anthony sought out work as a teacher to help ameliorate her family’s financial losses. After realizing that she was paid only a quarter of what was paid to her male colleagues, for the same work, Anthony began to learn as much about women’s issues as possible. Her research led her to one conclusion: that the U.S. government had failed to meet its responsibility to provide for its constituents. As a result, Anthony began a life-long crusade to champion women’s rights. Anthony’s activism didn’t stop there, however. She saw women’s suffrage as intimately associated with abolitionism. In Anthony’s mind, the unequal treatment of women and African Americans had similar causes and required similar remedies.

     Although she lived contemporaneously with Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and her accomplishments, take on an extra dimension of significance when we consider that she was not only a woman, but an enslaved African American woman. After escaping slavery in Maryland via the underground railroad, Tubman made her way to Philadelphia as a newly freed woman. Shortly after, however, Tubman felt it was her moral duty to help other slaves win their freedom. To that end, she became a conductor on the underground railroad, and in her day, helped lead thousands of slaves to freedom. In addition to providing a window into Harriet Tubman’s life, this biographical piece is also valuable for the snapshot it provides into the life of a slave in nineteenth-century United States—particularly, the life of a slave in the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland.

 Classic Fiction

      Good literature takes life as we know it, and mirrors it back at us. But beyond that, literature has the potential to wipe away the ordinariness from what has come to seem a matter of fact, and in its place, coats it with a fresh paint of enchantment. Often, what we think of as ordinary, we also think of as natural. Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, force us to question the naturalness of traditional gender roles ascribed to men and women. Gilman is interested in the psychology of male/female relationships, and her work reads like the private journal of both a patient and a clinician. The story is told through the journal entries of an unnamed female protagonist who is suffering from a vague nervous disturbance. As a remedy, her physician husband, John, prescribes her a steady regimen of regular bedrest at the ancestral home the family has rented for the summer. Despite her protests, and her expressed desire for air and exercise, her husband continues to keep her cloistered away in a solitary room adorned with yellow wallpaper. As the protagonist’s mind begins to unravel, Gilman challenges the reader to think of mental illness, in this case, not as an irrational response, but as a rational response to an inherently oppressive male culture.

     In contrast to the Yellow Wallpaper, which explores the mental processes of a woman in an unhappy marriage, Chopin’s The Story of an Hour explores the mental processes of a newly widowed woman right after receiving news of her husband’s death. After an initial bout of grief, the woman, Mrs. Mallard, begins to contemplate her situation in solitude and finds herself feeling something unexpectedunbridled joy! Despite loving her husband, Ms. Mallard is elated by the prospect of a future where she can live for herself, and only for herself, without being hindered by a “ powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose... upon a fellow-creature.” Because of how well these pieces complement each other, the Books That Grow team recommends teaching them in conjunction, and using them as a platform to discuss gender relations. Because of the sophisticated level of social analysis this would require, however, we recommend reserving these pieces for older high school students(ages 16-18).

      Less critical of the status quo, but still critical, is famed novelist and short story writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his short story, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Fitzgerald traces a shift in feminine values by comparing two young socialites, Marjorie, the “modern” woman, and Bernice, her old fashioned cousin. Bernice, although wealthy and attractive, is unpopular with young men because of her inability to stay up to date with social trends. Marjorie is also wealthy and beautiful, but in contrast to Bernice, she has fully embraced the controversial value system, and subtle rules and regulations, governing feminine behavior in the 1920’s. In attempting to be more like Marjoriesexually aggressive, cold, calculating and aloofBernice sacrifices the very qualities that make her a breath of fresh air in a vapid world of debutantes and Harvard educated polo players.

      Last but not least is Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece The Mark on the Wall. Virginia Woolf, by wide acclaim, is a household name in English literature, and quite possibly one of the most famous female authors ever. Her short story, The Mark on the Wall, relies on the stream-of-consciousness narrative technique to meditate on a seemingly innocuous smudge on a wall. Less important than Woolf’s subject, though, is her perception of the subject. Through this work, Woolf muses on the inherently subjective nature of individual reality. This piece, because of its unconventional, and oftentimes confusing, narrative structure, is best suited for older high school students(ages 17-18).

Myths and Folktales

     Although we don’t typically conceptualize fairytales and myths as being true accounts of women’s history, they do provide insight into attitudes towards women during different time periods, and in a way, are a form of symbolic history. Before the creation myth of Adam and Eve, there was the Greek creation myth of Pandora’s Box. The story of Pandora’s Box not only serves as a creation myth about the origins of human suffering, but it also helps account for the origins of man’s other half: woman. And according to this story, the two are intimately linked!

      In a different way, Hans Christian Andersen’s classic, The Mermaid and the Prince, also known as The Little Mermaid, is profound in its feminist implications. On the surface, The Mermaid and the Prince is a love story that lauds sacrifice as a virtue. There is enough evidence, however, to perform a much darker reading of this story. Significantly, in order to join the human world, the little mermaid has to change her fundamental nature, and sacrifice her voice. Instead of being content with her identity, the mermaid elevates her love for the princeand all that he representsover the love of her family. As part of her bargain with the witch, the mermaid willingly subjects herself to a life of incessant physical pain in order to maintain her human form, which she describes as feeling like “walking on knives.” In addition, she must also give up her voice to the witch, leaving her as a literal and metaphorical empty vessel. Although these stories are age appropriate for children as young as eight, reading them through this critical lens is best suited for high school students (ages 15-18).

Miscellaneous

         Anyone who has ever read an original fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, and then seen the Disney film version, is bound to notice some glaring inconsistencies. Many of these inconsistencies are particularly salient for women. To use just one example, in the Disney version of Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty, the title character is awoken from her enchanted sleep by True Love’s kiss. In the original version of Briar Rose, however, not only is the dashing prince of lore absent, but Briar Rose is awoken by one of her newborn twins. In this version, Briar Rose is raped by a king, who takes advantage of her incapacitated state. It’s worth mentioning that the original Grimm’s tales were associated with the German peasantry, and were designed to expose children to some of the harsh realities of life. The Books That Grow original piece, the Disneyfication of Fairytales, explores the causes and consequences of Disneyfication. The Books That Grow team recommends using this piece as a framework from which to approach other fairy tales in our library, particularly The Mermaid and the Prince. Once again, this piece is most appropriate for high school students (ages 15-18)

 Social Studies

       These Books That Grow original pieces provide a cultural analysis of the role women play in contemporary books and films. The piece, What if Harry Potter Had Been Named Harriet? forces the reader to think about gendered expectations in novels by describing the different narratives that male and female characters often conform to, and the stigma attached to defying these narrative conventions. In this piece, Greg Kirmser uses the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games series to illustrate his point.

      The other piece, Forget About Sex Or Violence: Movies Now Rate For Gender Bias places special emphasis on a test designed to gauge the degree to which a film is gender biased. The test was popularized by the American writer and cartoonist, Alison Bechdel. Bechdel’s test, originally intended as a joke, is as follows: a movie must contain at least once scene where two female characters talk to each other about something other than men. The test became so popular that it was adopted by film critics in Scandinavia, who made it a standard part of their review process. Other critics were less enthusiastic about the test, pointing out that many movies with strong female protagonists often failed the test. These same critics maintain that the test is an imprecise measure of gender bias, and that the Hollywood film industry needs to be reformed a whole, not just individual films. These pieces are best suited for middle school, and high school students (ages 12- 18).

 Primary Source Documents

      When you’re teaching women’s history, especially in the United States, few events are as monumental as the passage of the 19th amendment—which secured women the right to vote. As a result, few figures command as much respect as two of the amendment’s chief proponents, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. In her Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton intentionally mimics the language and structure of the Declaration of Independence. By doing so, she lends additional credibility to her arguments championing women’s suffrage. Stanton logically asserts, quite convincingly, that the U.S. government’s authority is null and void for subjecting women to laws, which they have no power in shaping. She goes on to argue that “That the laws which conflict with the true and substantial happiness of woman are contrary to the great laws of nature and have no validity.”

       In a similar vein, in her speech Are Women Persons? Susan B. Anthony draws heavily on the nuances of the language in the Constitution to further her own ends, and to justify her decision to cast a ballot in the presidential election of 1872. By recognizing that the  U.S. preamble explicitly states “We the people,” Anthony not only removes herself from culpability for “breaking a law,” but argues that she was simply exercising her Constitutional rights. Even more amazingly, with one swift rhetorical move, Anthony shifts culpability to the United States government for directly defying “the supreme law of the land.” In Anthony’s eyes, and in the eyes of thinking people everywhere, the U.S. government had failed to “secure the blessings of liberty” to over one half of the country’s population.  These pieces are ideal for lessons on the history of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States, and gender relations in the United States. Additionally, because of their compelling arguments, and unique rhetorical styles, these piece works well as part of a lesson on english composition, rhetoric, public speaking, and speech writing.