Professor Cindy O’Donnell-Allen

DESCRIBE YOUR RESEARCH/AREAS OF EXPERTISE?

I taught high school English for 11 years, so some of my research has to do with looking at small group discourse, or how students in classrooms make sense of the texts they read while collaborating in a small group. My dissertation work focused on a small group of teacher-researchers, all teachers who were teaching at different levels, so I looked at how we used discourse to navigate our way through the world of teacher research. I am very interested in how people use spoken language and how it interacts with other texts they are reading or creating to achieve something, whether that be an interpretation of a literary character or an understanding of their own field of study.

Right now, I am looking at how students in book club settings in secondary English classrooms use this approach to literature to make sense of the texts they read. I am also the director of the CSU Writing Project, and I work with teachers who are looking at questions about their own teaching. So most of the research I’ve done influences the settings we develop for the teachers involved in the Writing Project to help them grow in terms of their professional development.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE COMMUNITY LITERACY?

When I think about community literacy, I tend to think outside of the school setting. Community literacy programs may have connections to a school or an institution like CSU, but the programs tend to be grounded primarily in an out of school context.

HOW ARE YOU INVOLVED IN COMMUNITY LITERACY?

Community literacy is becoming a component of the CSU Writing Project. We do professional development work with teachers, but as we get into school settings, we discover ways in which schools can serve as resources for parents. For example, Irish Elementary is looking to us as a consultant asking, “What can have parents, especially parents of second language learners, do with their kids outside of school that will support what’s happening at Irish Elementary?” So, we are looking for ways to support and develop parent literacy outreach efforts.

I’ve also done out-of-school book clubs. These book clubs tended to relate to books students were reading in school, but nobody required the students to participate. The students were also working with CSU students, so to me that has some elements of community literacy because the book clubs were done in collaboration with an external setting and were not directly connected to something that a school was requiring the students to do.

The CSU Writing Project also hosts a young writer’s workshop every summer on the CSU campus. Junior high writers are invited to CSU for a large part of the day and they work with writing project teachers to write about their own interests, so it’s not connected to school in any way (except that teachers have recommended them). They have readings and meet with workshop leaders and published authors to get them connected to the larger community of writers and to help them develop their own identity as writers. Next year we are going to hold a workshop in Longmont as well.

WHAT ARE SOME OBSTACLES TO COMMUNITY LITERACY?

I think funding is a major obstacle. It is becoming more difficult get funding for these kinds of projects because agencies and foundations are tightening their own bootstraps, so something that doesn’t connect immediately to a child’s development in terms of reading and mathematics and won’t have some measurable form of achievement on a standardized test is less likely to receive funding.

Another thing to realize is that in any type of collaborative work, it’s going to be difficult to coordinate everyone’s schedule, find facilities, and pay for materials. Other contextual factors often come into play, but they are usually connected to time, money and facilities.

WHAT CASES STAND OUT IN YOUR MIND (PEOPLE YOU HAVE HELPED, SUCCESS STORIES, ETC.) THAT EMPHASIZE THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY LITERACY PROGRAMS?

I would consider almost every book club that I or my students have done a success story, and that’s because learning takes place on both sides. There has to be that reciprocity there. If you come in as the benefactor, thinking you’re going to give this tremendous experience to these underprivileged people and you don’t have anything to learn from it, you are doomed to fail. But if you come into the project knowing you have as much to learn from these people as they have to learn from you, and you see yourself as a partner in that learning, great things can happen.

You also have to go into it thinking of problems that arise not as disasters but as opportunities. If you look at things from an inquiry sort of perspective (Isn’t this interesting? I wonder why this happened?), then it doesn’t feel like a negative experience.

I worked with a group of 7th grade boys at Lincoln Jr. High several years ago. When we went around the circle and introduced ourselves the very first day, one of the kids said, “Reading sucks, and I’m not going to do it, and you can’t make me.” This set me back a little bit, and I thought What are we going to do with this kid? So I asked what kinds of things he liked to do outside of school. I thought broader than just reading an actual book and found out he loved to read comics, but he didn’t think of that as reading. He also loved to draw, and the other boys that were in his group loved to draw too.

The other thing about this group was that I had kids who were totally disengaged readers, and then I had a student who was reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula on his own as a seventh grader, so there was a huge range even in this really small group of kids. The thing they shared in common was they loved to draw and to see the world in graphic ways. So, I came back the next time with books I thought would connect with their interests. They listened very politely and then asked if we could read Edgar Allen Poe. This was fine, but I would never have thought about Edgar Allen Poe for 7th grade boys because the language itself is so difficult and dense. They did have trouble with the language, but the reason they liked it was because the images were so clear.

So when they responded to texts, they responded visually and drew pictures about what they saw. Then I would trick them into writing just a little bit, and that would fuel our discussion. We decided to read the graphic novel Mouse. We divided the book into sections so it would be manageable for them to read, and the second week, the “reading sucks” boy came back and had read the entire book. I mentioned there was a sequel, and he wanted me to bring it for him.

With almost everything I tried with that group of boys, they had to tell me, “This is how you teach us, Cindy.” All the assumptions I went in with wound up being wrong, but this was a success story in the sense that they taught me so much. From that group, I learned about figuring out who your learners are, figuring out what kids of things they find to be appealing, and looking for texts that match those interests. That is how you take someone from completely disengaged reader to “Can you give me more?”

WHAT CRITERIA DO YOU USE TO EVALUATE YOUR PROGRAMS/PROJECTS?

For some projects like the writing program, we have straight forward evaluation materials. In my book clubs, it’s been far more organic. Students kept field notes journals where they would write about what went well, what didn’t go well, and why they thought that was. They would develop questions for the next session to help focus what they were looking for. Then at the end of the book club, they wrote a reflective summary based on their journals.

In terms of the CSU Writing Project, the National Writing Project provides us with evaluation materials. We conduct a careful and detailed evaluation each week of the summer institute where people give us feedback on the content of the institute, how they feel that people are working with one another, and what they think needs to change. Then we go through this very structured process where we compile the comments, have a conversation about them, and create an action plan together to help us think about what we need to revise.