Kay Persichitte, Dean
1000 E. University Ave.
Laramie, WY 82071
The opportunity to continue a lifetime’s research in disciplinary literacy, and the chance to engage others in that process in ways that benefit Wyoming school children, brought the College of Education’s newest Wyoming Excellence Endowed Chair of Literacy Education to Laramie this fall.
Victoria Gillis wasn’t planning a next career step when the college’s search committee called to ask her to consider applying for the Excellence Chair vacancy. Already retired from Clemson University, Gillis had hoped to find time to explore long-burning literacy questions in the next phase of her life.
“I was retired, but I wasn’t really mentally ready to retire,” Gillis says. “I felt like I had just begun to figure some things out in my field.”
Unfortunately, Gillis’s heavy post-retirement workload made balance difficult.
“I was teaching – and teaching a lot (for Clemson) – which left me with little time to write, to do research, to turn around,” she says.
When the UW committee persisted, and when she pondered a range of personal and professional possibilities that a new life in Laramie represented, Victoria decided to take a look. She admits to being non-committal on the prospect of a move going into the visit. That changed once she arrived on campus.
“The democratic nature of the entire campus, and the collegial stance of the faculty so impressed me that when I got home, it was a different thing,” Victoria says, “I started thinking, ‘I really, really hope I get that job.’”
She got the job, moved to Laramie in August, and began getting acquainted with her new faculty colleagues and the state she now calls home. Gillis brings with her deep expertise in disciplinary literacy, an approach only now gaining the national spotlight.
“The field of content-area reading is undergoing huge changes right now – a sea change,” she explains. “The focus is less on ‘let’s make reading important in every content area,’ to more ‘let’s find out about the discipline, and find out what literacies are embedded in the discipline. That’s the way to go.’ That had been my stance all along.”
Gillis was a skeptic when a supervisor in her Florida school district assigned her to help pilot a new approach to literacy in the early 1970s, in response to the state’s legislature mandated content-area reading training for all teachers. While most districts took a centralized approach, bringing teachers to district offices to be trained by the reading supervisor, Gillis’s district opted for a different way. Victoria and seven other expert teachers were introduced to a basket of innovative literacy practices, charged with trying some of them in their classrooms, then asked to report back with the results.
“I thought, ‘Okay lady. I’m going to show you that you need to just stay in your little reading lab and leave me alone,’” Gillis recalls. “’I’m teaching science. I don’t need reading.’ That was my idea.”
Victoria implemented two of the recommended changes (the two requiring the least amount of effort) in a class drawing students identified as low achievers, gave a common test to that class and one for “gifted” students, and was shocked by the results. The class average for the “underachieving” students – a group she assumed was mostly illiterate – exceeded the “gifted” class average. A student in the former class wrote the best exam essay in both classes.
“That brought home to me that the problems in this class were not the kids,” Gillis says, “The problems in this class were directly related to the way I was teaching. I needed to do something different. So I did.”
Years later, in South Carolina, that experience prompted grant-funded research in her school, which yielded remarkable results: the percentage of ninth graders failing mathematics dropped from 30 percent to 3 percent during the first quarter of the project.
Victoria had opportunities to extend her work to an international setting. While on the Clemson faculty, Gillis volunteered for the Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking Project in Eastern Europe and Central America. Through that project, she worked with teachers in both Latvia and Guatemala to implement a comparable train-the-trainer model, preparing teachers to lead their peers in a different approach to literacy and critical thinking.
“We focused less on infusing reading into content areas and more on infusing critical thinking and democratic thinking into the classrooms,” she says.
Gillis describes her Excellence Chair role as one of “mentoring and giving back to the community” – both the academic community and the state of Wyoming. Victoria says she looks forward to exploring opportunities to adapt a similar approach in Wyoming, gauging interest by fellow UW faculty and among teachers and administrators in local school districts.
“Vertical teaming is really important,” she says of her vision of an ideal research collaboration. “We have education faculty members, we have arts and sciences faculty members, and we have teachers and communities – all could be involved in a grant effort that is targeted toward improving the disciplinary literacy of children in Wyoming.”