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The Professor Is In: Peter McDermott

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SOE's Peter McDermott chats with Opportunitas about technology’s growing role in literacy education, ways teacher-educators can truly make a difference, and more in this month’s Professor Is In.

School of Education Professor Peter McDermott, PhD, has been a teacher-educator for several decades, specializing in literacy education. Having seen many changes in the field, McDermott talks about the essentials of literacy education, and technology’s growing role in teaching both students and future educators best practices for reading, writing, and language-learning.

Is there anything you’re currently working on that you’re particularly excited about?

My colleagues and I recently published an article in  Educational Leadership about culturally responsive teaching—getting new teachers to learn about the communities and cultures where children live.

We required our graduate students to make community maps. The community maps are supposed to identify arts and literacy sources available in a neighborhood, describe what they are, and then students interviewed someone in the community about those resources. That was an exciting project. Almost all the students liked the activity. It’s part of culturally responsive teaching, and knowing about the children you teach.

You've published research about technology in literacy education. Can you discuss what you found?

I’m a literacy educator—so reading and writing in regards to both conventional print and digital texts constitute literacy for today's world. Myself and a colleague decided to interview children in suburban and urban schools and see what they knew about technology. The theoretical framework was that children in middle-income schools have many benefits in education that lower-income children don’t.

We did personal interviews. We chose two low-income urban districts and went to the elementary schools. We had children sit down in front of a computer and have them complete a number of tasks. We did the same thing in middle-income districts—the same tasks—and we found great disparity in children’s knowledge in regards to using new literacies.

You’ve been teaching for number of decades now. How has literacy education changed over the decades?

When I became a teacher-educator in the 1980s—then they called it “whole language.” Everything in regards to teaching reading and writing was literature and language based. This mostly meant you’d get a good book, and develop lessons around that book to engage and excite children about reading and learning in the content areas. There was also a lot of language play; songs, riddles, integration of the arts.

Then, in the '90s, with the increased use of testing—showing that children aren’t performing as well on tests as they should—a lot of blame was placed on that theoretical movement (literature based), of course. More testing was then required of children; specific standards, dividing literacy into skills and sub-skills. Now, literacy instruction, to a good extent—particularly in low-income schools, is studying to pass the test.

In recent years, data-driven instruction has received more prominence. Teachers have to collect data every night and then use that data to inform their lessons for the next day. Theoretically it sounds good, but the focus is on data rather than engagement and motivation.

What are important qualities to have for future educators?

An appreciation for social, cultural, and ethnic diversity. As a literacy educator, I would like future educators to be readers and writers themselves, and value that, rather than solely focusing on testing.

It’s important to have respect for, and value, children, and understand that all children can learn. Most of the time, the reason a child doesn’t learn isn’t because of the child. It’s because of external factors—the quality of teaching, or difficulties at home or in the community.

You could invite any for people, living or dead, to a dinner party. Who would you invite?

I like digital technologies; I am interested in that line of research and would invite researchers who are producing papers that I find interesting and stimulating with the digital literacies.