An Interview with Jenny Albro, Ph.D. candidate in Language, Literacy and Social Inquiry

Jenny Albro

After working for five years as a classroom teacher and a reading interventionist in Missouri, Jenny Albro became a student again when, in the fall of 2014, she started her doctorate in Language, Literacy and Social Inquiry in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership. Albro is the founder of the nonprofit Pages and Chapters, which aims to improve students’ reading skills by building collaboration among teachers and families to draw on and to strengthen literacy habits in the home. The International Literacy Association included Albro on its inaugural 30 Under 30 List in 2015 for her work with the nonprofit. In addition to her graduate studies, she works as an academic specialist for Partners in Learning, working one-on-one with students in several Washington, D.C., schools. Albro is a recipient of the Dean’s Scholarship. 

[This interview has been edited and condensed.].

Could you talk about your program and area of study?

I am in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership, and my area of concentration is in Language, Literacy and Social Inquiry. My research interests are around family literacy and how we can learn about family literacy practices in diverse families, which includes a range of factors, such as race/ethnicity, language, culture, socioeconomic status, and parent sexual orientation. I’m interested in the diversity in what those literacy practices look like and how teachers at the elementary level can learn about those practices and use them to guide their literacy instruction in the classroom. My proposal is looking at preservice teachers (student teachers or someone in a teacher education program) and how we can prepare them to consider family literacy practices in their teaching.

Why did you decide to pursue your doctoral studies at the University of Maryland?

I had been a classroom teacher and a reading interventionist in Missouri for five years and I always wanted to obtain my Ph.D. My husband’s job brought him to D.C., so I saw the move as an opportunity to pursue an advanced degree that I had dreamt of obtaining. I thought it was a good time to transition, and then I applied to University of Maryland knowing it was a really good school and had a great research community. It was a good time to go full-time into the doctoral program.

What person or experience has had the greatest impact on your studies at Maryland?

People-wise, my adviser, Jennifer Turner, has been amazing. She’s very supportive, encouraging and gives me tons of advice. She’s been a significant mentor for me in the journey thus far and at this moment, she plays a critical role in my process. Among my colleagues, I feel like we have a pretty good community of other doctoral students and even master’s students in our program. I’m part of the TLPL Graduate Student Association that plans events and happy hours and stuff like that, so I feel like I have support, encouragement, and friendships.

Any other related experience that played a profound role in your academic/career path?

I was teaching at a charter school in inner city Kansas City, and I realized pretty quickly how important my students’ families were to their development overall, but specifically to their literacy development. I knew their families had assets that I could tap into. I started doing home visits to learn more about my students and also to bring resources to them, bring books to them, as well as to their parents. It was mutual. I was learning just as much from them, as they were learning by developing their literacy further. I wanted to recreate that, to allow other teachers to feel they were supported or had resources to reach out to students’ families, so that’s where the idea for Pages and Chapters started.

Now, five years later, we have a curriculum that teachers can use that makes it easier for them to work with students and their families. It gets rid of a barrier. We also provide funds and resources like food or snacks or books for home visits or family literacy workshops in their school, so that they are building those relationships. It makes it easier so teachers don’t feel like they have to go chase down funds or spend their own money or use their own resources. We’re trying to empower teachers by engaging families through literacy.

How does it work to have the teachers and the families work together?

For example, one of our schools in Kansas City holds six family literacy workshops throughout the school year, on a monthly basis. The teachers who run it go to our website, and they get the curriculum they need. Our curriculum is broken down into six sessions, so it makes it pretty easy to get it to the families at the workshops and work through strategies and tips to help their kiddos with reading. We have an application on our website where teachers can ask for what they need. Do you want books? Do you want food? Do you want a Target gift card so you can get prizes or incentives? If teachers want to do something other than a full-on workshop, they can do a small group or a one-on-one family session in their classroom or they can do a home visit. It’s really tailored to whatever that specific teacher feels he or she needs to help his or her students and to engage families.

So the Pages and Chapters’ program helps families encourage literacy and reading together at home?

Yes. We really want to focus on the relationship piece too, the teachers building relationships with the families and getting to know them. We don’t want it to be one-sided. We want it to be mutually beneficial for the teacher and the family. The families have said the program is great, and they’re building their home libraries, but teachers have also said that they have learned more about the lives of their students outside of the classroom, too. The curriculum is structured on the five components of reading —phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension — so they’re getting tips along the way. Say, if your child’s comprehension is not as high as their fluency level, how can we use fluency to help them strengthen their comprehension?

Do you see any other big issues within the field of study or in literacy studies in general that you view as a big issue within your work?

I think across the board when it comes to teachers, many feel the most unprepared in engaging families and knowing what to do to reach out to them or help them, or what to say when you do reach out to them. I think there is a huge need to bridge the home and school environment to where students don’t feel like they’re two very separate places, but so that they do feel there’s some continuity between the two settings.

Do you see major differences in literacy practices at home based on a family’s culture, structure or other differences?

There’s a lot of literature that shows differences between socioeconomic statuses and certain practices in the home. I think that’s where if teachers aren’t aware of the family specifically, then they may assume certain things. I’ve heard teachers say, “They don’t read at home,” or “They don’t do this at home.” Maybe they do—you just need to ask, or find out that information for sure without just assuming certain things are or aren’t happening.

What do you hope to do after graduate school?

There’s a part of me that wouldn’t mind going back to being a reading specialist or a reading interventionist in a school, and maybe working with teachers and preservice teachers doing professional development, writing curriculum. I’m undecided on my exact plans following graduation.  

Any advice for someone who wants to go into this field?

Be open to other ideas and frameworks that might not fit your original outlook. It’s really easy to think about your upbringing or your education experience, and then to try to use that lens to look at students or even families. Be very open to thinking of other ways that things may not be traditionally done or done the way you think they should be done. Be creative. Maybe the slightest little change could make a world of difference. Even in my example, just asking preservice teachers to think about the role that family literacy practices can play in planning their daily lessons, that’s something that I think is sort of small. I think it’s doable, but I think it makes a world of difference in the way students feel. Be very open to ask questions, to think about other possibilities. It doesn’t have to be a big invention. It can be something slightly different than the everyday norm that we’re used to, but think a little bit outside the box.