Naomi Watkins is an assistant professor in the Department of Education and Teacher Development at the University of La Verne, which is located in the Los Angeles area. She conducts research in adolescent literacy and children’s literature and teaches literacy pedagogy courses to teacher credential students. In June of 2013, she co-founded Aspiring Mormon Women, a non-profit organization and web site with the purpose to encourage, support, and celebrate the educational and professional aspirations of LDS women.
What formal education have you received?
- B.A. English Teaching | Brigham Young University | 2001
- M.Ed. Language & Literacy | Arizona State University | 2004
- Ph.D. Teaching & Learning: Literacy | University of Utah | 2010
How did you become interested in your area (s) of expertise/specialization?
My interest in education. I swam competitively from the age of nine thru my first year of college. My participation in the sport meant that I attended both early morning and after-school swim practices. These early-morning practices conflicted with early-morning seminary two-three times per week. My parents received quite a bit of pushback from the local seminary leadership and some seminary teachers about my swimming participation and its conflict with seminary. They thought I should be at seminary every day; my parents were adamant that I should be able to do both. And so, in order to graduate from seminary, I had to make up my absences either through independent study or by actually teaching my seminary class. I received like three days of seminary attendance for each lesson I taught. I remember spending a lot of time preparing those lessons and creating visuals for my peers—much more effort than I spent as an actual student. But I learned that I enjoyed teaching—not just the preparation of lessons—but also standing up in front of and leading a discussion with a group, helping students make connections, and discovering new insights and information. I really felt alive when I taught, and I also knew that I was good at it. I also taught swim lessons during the summer months, and while a completely different venue, I enjoyed that as well.
However, as an undergraduate, I had little interest in teaching as a profession. I was an English major with a Spanish minor, but I only had vague ideas of what I would actually do with these degrees. I viewed teaching as a stereotypical school path for women, especially Mormon women, and I had little desire to follow that stereotype. I also didn’t like the false notion that teaching was the only viable job option for English majors. And so, I resisted the teaching track up until the time I needed to apply for graduation. Thankfully, I decided to listen to what I knew deep down—that not only was I a good teacher, but it was the path I needed to take.
My interest in literacy. Fast forward to my first year of teaching. I had six periods of seventh grade English (a grade level I once swore I would never teach, but ended up loving). And I quickly discovered that even though I had been charged to teach the “great works of literature” to 12 and 13-year-olds, many of them did not have the reading skills to actually comprehend these texts. Any visions I had of my students reciting “O Captain, My Captain” to me while standing on their desks a la Dead Poets Society were quickly discarded. As someone who loved reading, who was surrounded by readers, and who was a strong student, these students of mine who struggled with reading and who hated it bewildered me. How could they hate or find boring something that I so loved and found easy? I started a master’s program in language and literacy during my second year of teaching to help me better teach my students. I focused my master’s studies on vocabulary instruction, mostly because I remembered such poor vocabulary instruction during my K-12 schooling, and I wanted to learn how to do it better, especially since vocabulary knowledge is such a strong influencer of comprehension.
I eventually left K-12 education to pursue a Ph.D. I entered K-12 education around the same time that No Child Left Behind legislation was passed, and I increasingly found myself within a system of which I did not agree, and I felt powerless. I also did not foresee myself teaching middle school for an additional 20-30 years. I viewed academia as a way to affect bigger change. I now tell my teacher credential students that if I can help them be strong teachers, then I have also affected the lives of their future students. My research is a continuation of my time in my middle school classroom. I research adolescent literacy issues, specifically looking at literacy instruction in content area classrooms. And my English background influences my interests in children’s and adolescent literature, specifically the use of global literature and informational texts in K-12 classrooms.
What are you currently studying, or what are some of your current projects (papers, books, dissertations, etc.)?
A colleague and I are in process of sending a manuscript out that examines how English teachers select texts for instruction, especially in light of the Common Core State Standards. I also am currently working on a paper with an undergraduate student that explores literacy in physical education classrooms. Some of my other research involves working with practicing math and science teachers on improving the literacy instruction that is inherent in their respective disciplines.
I’ve also done content analysis work examining the types of texts in middle school literature anthologies, the themes and the amount of “globalness” in award-winning children’s global literature, plus studying multicultural aspects of the texts in K-6 basal readers.
What has your experience been like “in the academy”? What roles has gender played in those experiences?
I am in a field dominated by women—even most of my students are females—so I haven’t experienced the type of discrimination that I have heard about from women in other disciplines. However, education is still considered “women’s work,” and doesn’t always earn a great deal of respect from others in the academy or the public. But my experiences have been largely positive. I enjoy a great deal of autonomy and flexibility—probably one of the better perks—and I also get to associate with smart people working on exciting projects and studies.
Who are some people (living or dead) in your field you admire? Why?
- Sirpa Grierson—Sirpa was one of my BYU professors when I was a student in the BYU English department. We reconnected when I returned to graduate school, and she served as an invaluable mentor and friend to me. Her current work on the literacies specific to the English discipline has influenced how I teach my students who want to be English teachers.
- James Gee—Gee’s work in new literacies and in social linguistics really influenced my thinking about what constitutes “literacy.”
- John Guthrie—Guthrie is a leading researcher in reading engagement and motivation—two facets of instruction that are often illusive to teachers, especially new teachers working with adolescents.
- P. David Pearson—While in graduate school, I felt like everything I read was authored by Pearson. He’s an institution in the reading field.
For someone who is interested in studying what you do, what are some books or experiences you would recommend?
My first thought was “I can definitely tell you the resources I do not recommend,” which would be any resource supported or written by The Gates Foundation or Michelle Rhee or Arnie Duncan, for example.
- Draper, R. J., Broomhead, P., Jensen, A. P., Nokes. J. D., & Siebert, D. (2010). (Re)imagining content-area literacy instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Gee, J. P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (2nd ed.). London: Taylor & Francis.
- Lehman, B. A., Freeman, E. B., & Scharer P. L. (2010). Reading globally: Connecting students to the world through literature. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
- Lee, C. D., & Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the disciplines: The challenges of adolescent literacy. New York: Carnegie Foundation. Retrieved from http://carnegie.org/fileadmin/Media/Publications/PDF/tta_Lee.pdf
- Moje, E. B. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching & learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(2), 96-107.
- Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of literacy work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Tracy, D. H., & Morrow, L. M. (2012). Lenses on reading: An introduction to theories & models (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
- Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world and education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Ravich, D. (2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.
What has your experience been like as a Mormon in the academy? How have your Mormonism and sex/gender intersected in the academy?
Just recently, I was asked by a colleague in my department, “How did you as a Mormon woman end up here? Because the path that you’ve taken is so different from the norm for Mormon women.” He didn’t ask this question in disbelief necessarily, but he had personally never met another LDS women academic before. So I do field a lot of questions about how I am different from what they expect of Mormons, especially Mormon women, but these conversations are largely positive. I have been asked by those outside of the academy if I’ve ever been afraid of discrimination due to my LDS faith. And, sure, there’s always a possibility, but I also don’t want to work for a university or department where my LDS faith wouldn’t be accepted.
The founding of Aspiring Mormon Women is the intersection of my Mormon faith and my professional self, and it represents the type of support that I in some ways had and also wanted as I pursued a Ph.D. as an LDS woman. It’s an attempt to provide mentoring and networking to other LDS women, to support and help make possible their educational and professional goals. I hope that this organization not only supports other LDS women in the academy, but also shows those in and out of the LDS Church that my life path is not an exception, but a reality and possibility.