Harper delivers keynote address at Annual Literacy Leaders Conference

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Dr. Rebecca Harper

Dr. Rebecca Harper, professor of Education, was recently invited to give the keynote address at the 4th Annual Literacy Leaders Conference at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Harper has been passionate about literacy for years, starting with her time as a classroom teacher.

“I taught writing to below-grade-level middle school students who struggled and hated it,” Harper said.

That experience energized her to begin meeting students where they were. Instead of teaching from a traditional set of titles and with traditional writing prompts, she reached out for more modern, personally relevant titles and writing engagements that appealed to her students. In encouraging children to engage with the world through language, experts like Harper encourage not only that students should master reading and writing, but that they should also explore how to convey and interpret meaning from a variety of symbolic systems. And, in doing so, educators actually encourage a mastery of reading and writing in additional ways.

“I know that when you look at engaging students and meeting them where they are, plus, use literature that is high interest and relevant – they will read and they will write,” she said.

She took this message to the audience at the Literacy Leaders Conference, a gathering of hundreds of the area’s top literacy researchers and educators, showing them how to use different unique approaches and contemporary literacy strategies. She recommends books that speak to the modern childhood experience, including “The Crossover,” by Kwame Alexander; “Ball Don’t Lie,” by Matt De La Peña; and “Luna,” by Julie Anne Peters.

For example, the book “The Crossover” is contemporary story about a middle school basketball player that is written entirely as a series of stand-alone poems that, in order, also progresses into a larger story about the main character.

“You can open it at any place and read a single poem, or read it all together and it reads like a novel,” Harper said. “But it also contains wonderful figurative language and alliteration, and all of the literary techniques that we try to teach. Plus it offers endless opportunities for writing connections.”

And while it is crucial that educators find stories to which their students can relate, it is also important, she said, that educators validate multiple literacies, including visual, digital, textual and technological. As enormous social, cultural and economic changes have altered the world, globalization and the expansion of information technologies have contributed to cultural and linguistic diversity. And with that come different ways of experiencing the world.

“So we talked about different kids of literacies, what they look like, and how to encourage those,” Harper said. “For example, some students come from families where storytelling is highly valued, but they may not posses the academic literacies that we focus on in schools.”

And validating those different kinds of literacies encourages student academic success in more traditional ways. Studies encouraging multiple literacies show that doing so validated the worth of students own experiences and interpretations, giving them confidence to move forward with future literacy learning.

In short, they believed in themselves and their reading abilities, so they enjoyed learning more and sought it out more as a result. And that, Harper said, is what it’s all about.

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