Coffee Break with Dr. Nancy Frey

Relationships are foundational to everything single thing we do.

Nancy is kind, patient, insightful, and incredibly knowledgeable about all things literacy. She cultivates an environment that supports her students academic and emotional well-being. These qualities are what make her an effective practitioner, researcher, and a highly influential literacy leader.

Since I’ve known her from the early 2000s, she has advocated for quality instruction and equity for all students. Nancy has helped in my personal growth and development as a literacy educator, and I was fortunate enough to have her on my committee for my dissertation. Of her numerous published books and articles, one of my favorite literacy books is Rigorous Reading: 5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Texts, written by Nancy and Dr. Doug Fisher. 

Nancy Frey Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. Previously she was a professor of Literacy in the School of Teacher Education. She is also Dean of Academic Affairs at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego.

At ILA in Austin, I had the pleasure to sit down with Nancy and talk about why it's important to know your impact in teaching and learning, leadership in literacy, social-emotional learning, and whom she’d invite to her dinner party.

Pour yourself a cuppa and enjoy my findings!

What resources, for example, books, researchers, journals, etc. do you find most supportive for literacy leadership, and why are they important to you?

An essential and critical resource is continually reading what's in front of you and making sure you are deliberately exposing yourself to new ideas. What that means is not only professional reading and staying up to date with journals, but also being able to read the world. What I'm referring to is educators needing to be around teachers, students, schools, and always with the idea of challenging themselves in what they don't know, and not expecting what they already know. Ask, "What is happening here that I need to learn more about?" I think we can all get stuck in this idea that I have this frame and we can go around this world expecting to see the things we already know, and it's very different to try and stay open to things we don't know and don't understand. Hanging out with young people helps.

I think those are the most valuable resources, along with professional resources, and making sure to immerse yourself always in the world of teaching and learning. Stay open to that question, "What is it that I don't know what's going on in this space that I need to know more about?" 

What is one piece of advice you would share with other educators in the field? 

Relationships are foundational to everything single thing we do. Whether we're talking about working with students or the collaboration we do with colleagues, relationships are central. 

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You know it's become fashionable to talk social-emotional learning (SEL). I think a shortcoming is in the way it's often implemented, and that is, it's a Thursday afternoon curriculum. But social-emotional learning is permeating throughout the entire day, throughout the whole week, whether you're working with children or adult colleagues. SEL permeates everything. We can all say that we are either teaching SEL or not, but the truth is that even if you don't think that you're teaching it, you are with every action, with every word. You're teaching your students and your colleagues what it means to be a person walking in the world. So, you have to think about, "What do I want that to look like?" The relationships, and your cultivation and nurturing of those relationships, that's everything. 

LJ: SEL is a buzzword right now. Do you think it is because we've gotten away from it or its part of our culture?

NF: I think part of it is where our culture is right now. People are feeling that people are talking at one another, not with one another. People are worried about what they're going to say next rather than listen for ideas that may be uncomfortable. We see it in our children too. They have an increasing amount of difficulty in being able to listen to one another. I think it's a heightened time, certainly in the world in terms of relationships that we have with one another. I think we see that more so than ever. Our schools need social-emotional development. 

What do you believe is especially crucial for educators to understand about literacy leadership?

What's not fully understood in literacy leadership is that it doesn't come with a job title. Very often, I hear teachers, coaches, and other educators, say, "Well, I'm not a leader, I'm just a teacher, I'm just an instructional coach." First of all, we have to get rid of just from our language. We have to stop apologizing for who we are. As literacy leaders, we're leaders in our classrooms, we're leaders in our schools, and one doesn't need a job title to make that happen; to become a leader. 

I think what holds people back sometimes is the profound knowledge that if I actually led, that I would be a force to be reckoned with, and that is something that can be scary to understand, "Oh no, I really do have a lot of power and influence." I don't mean power in terms of lording it over people, but a power that is a tremendous influence on the lives of other people. That can be intimidating because there's a huge responsibility that comes along with that influence. My advice in terms of literacy leadership is to embrace your inner leader. Know that there are a hundred different ways you can show your leadership before there is a job title or a business card that goes along with it.

 LJ: That is good advice. Along those lines, what would you say are the similarities and differences between an advocate and a leader? 

 N: That's a great question. I think advocacy and leadership are related to one another, but there is a different stance to each one of them. They are not mutually exclusive. I believe in advocacy in particular, you have adopted a specific frame or position, and you help forward that position. For example, as literacy advocates, we all advocate for access that all students should have access to literacy lives. That's not something we have to stop and question. On the other hand, with leadership, it’s as much about listening as it is about stating a position. The leadership side of it is listening, considering, filtering, and asking questions in order to figure out what are the crucial and critical things that you want to advocate for, and the people you want to advocate on behalf of. 

How or what do you do to ensure all students are learning?

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I'll refer to John Hatti's work: Knowing You're Impact. You have to know your impact on your teaching and learning. It can be fearful to have to confront whether a group of people learned what you believe you taught. There's a firewall that I think all of us keep up, and what we want to say is, "I taught them that. I don't know why they didn't learn it." It's crucial to take down that firewall and say, "I have to know what my impact is. I have to be willing to measure what it looks like." Whether it is something as formal as pre- and post-assessments or gathering up exit slips from kids and reading them, not just from the lens of 'who got it and who didn't get it', but how does that feedback reflect on what it is that I'm doing. How can I improve? Unless we are willing to take that firewall down and say, "I have to know what my impact is," we stall on our ability to get better. 

 LJ: You have to be able to be reflective and move forward.

 N: Let the ego go, and confront when it doesn't work so well. 

Do you have a book that changed your life? It doesn't have to be iconic, but something that 'got you' or affected you creatively, personally, or professionally?

Dr. Nancy Frey and I at ILA Austin 2018

Dr. Nancy Frey and I at ILA Austin 2018

I had to give some thought to that question because on the one hand my favorite book of the moment is and fill in the blank, but as I really thought about something that changed my perspective, I would say, the four-part graphic novel series, The Dark Knight Returns, which Frank Miller wrote in the 1980s. The reason for me is that this was a massive shift because I never identified with the superhero genre. Quite frankly, to this day I don't identify with that superhero genre. But those set of graphic novels was an elevation from comic book to this iconic story of what had happened. Whether it was the illustration or the layout, it changed my perception about a whole genre that I would never have identified with. It was the start of reading Graphic Novels all the time. I would never have wandered into a comic book shop until I met The Dark Knight Returns. That for me was a real game-changer.

If you hosted a dinner party, for literary heroes? Tell me who'd be on your guest list?

I love this question, and I realized I couldn't have a huge dinner party because then you don't get a chance to talk to everybody and have everybody talk with one another. 

The first person I would invite would be Murasaki Shikibu. She was a courtesan living in 11th century Japan. She was a lady in waiting in the Royal Court, and was credited with being the person who invented the novel. I would love to talk with Murasaki Shikibu about what inspired her and what her life was like. She wrote a book titled, The Tale of Genji, that is widely viewed as the first novel, and I love that idea of inventing a genre. The next two people that I would want to invite are the Brontë Sisters. Again, this idea of writing as a woman from a place where you don't feel like you have a lot of power, whether we're talking about Murasaki Shikibu or the Brontë Sisters, and really changing the world through their writing from a very disempowered position is fascinating.

Then I would like to invite Angie Thomas. I've never met her, but I hope I get to one day. Angie Thomas wrote, The Hate You Give, which has taken off with adolescent and adult readers. It's an amazing book with a black on blue theme about police violence and what happens with black bodies. What is extraordinary to me is that she was 22 years old when she wrote it and never left the state of Mississippi. 

I'm really intrigued by these quite figures that changed the world through their writing without anyone necessarily looking at them and saying that's a powerful person. I guess this links back to my idea of leadership - you don't need to wait for a job assignment to say I'm a leader… these people led from the page. The last person I would invite is Oprah because she's OPRAH. I can't imagine having a dinner party without Oprah. What she's done to advance reading through her platform! With these amazing women around, I think that would be a fantastic conversation, and a sensational dinner. 

This idea of writing as a woman from a place where you don’t feel like you have a lot of power, whether we’re talking about Murasaki Shikibu or the Brontë Sisters, and really changing the world through their writing from a very disempowered position is fascinating.

Final thoughts…

Literacy and access to literacy is a social justice issue. The more literate we can help young people and older people become, the more they are able to ensure their own freedom.

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Freedom of thought. 

Freedom in terms of the way they live. 

Freedom in the decisions they make. 

These freedoms are not made by other people. 

Literacy is a social justice issue, and we're all soldiers in that fight.

Nancy will be at the ILA Conference in New Orleans October 10-12, 2019.

Follow Nancy on Twitter @NancyFrey

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