Making Strides in Literacy

Dr. Kellee Jenkins

As the journey of a thousand miles can begin with a single step, it is fitting that Dr. Kellee Jenkins’ upcoming trip that spans more than 4,000 miles began with just a few steps across the room to her officemate’s desk—the School of Education’s Dr. Helen Bond. Jenkins, an assistant professor and literacy education expert in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, will be traveling to Brazil to fulfill her 2015–2016 Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholar Award, thanks—in part—to the enthusiastic suggestion of Bond, a 2011–2012 Fulbright-Nehru Fellow to India. 

Bond, who teaches many of the international and technology courses in Jenkins’ department, described her experience to Jenkins as great and supportive.

Dr. Kellee Jenkins

“And then I just said [to Jenkins], ‘Why don’t you apply?’ ”

After some months of tenure-track-safeguarding hesitation, Jenkins finally conceded to Bond. She was looking for a way to balance her teaching with research, through a structured, supportive and immersive medium. At first, Jenkins' top choices were France, due to her instructional-level linguistic prowess with French and undergraduate experience in the country, and South Africa, to satisfy her curiosity surrounding the educational legacy of apartheid. She eventually selected Salvador, a region of Brazil known for having the highest number of people of African heritage and for retaining the greatest amount of Afro-Brazilian culture.

“Brazil has such a complex history with colorism, racism, self-identity, how people see themselves, whether they think of themselves as Brazilian or Afro-Brazilian or mixed race,” said Jenkins. “So, I thought Brazil would be the perfect place to go to—in a sense—run a parallel study. I’m studying teachers here in the States, so let’s go to a foreign country that’s dealing with similar issues and see how they’re dealing with their own literacy lineage.”

With research and development of literacy instruction as her passion, Jenkins’ Fulbright research will focus on investigating the relationship between literacy instruction and those for whom literacy is the pursuit.

“We know 70 percent of [U.S.] students leave high school not really prepared to go to the next step,” said Jenkins, “whether that’s a job or to go to college. ... We know that research sup- ports that once students get into college, 70 percent of those entering freshmen, oftentimes, need a kind of transitional course, and oftentimes, it’s in a transitional English course. ... So we see these effects in K–12 schools, and we see them again in universities. ... This has been happening for decades, at least the last 50 years, and we still haven’t been able to get a true handle on the literacy achievement of students.”

According to Jenkins, these effects, even more pervasive for minority students, are exacerbated by teachers who are uncomfortable teaching literacy through writing, because they’re uncomfortable with writing themselves and often don’t believe themselves capable of teaching it well.

“People who declare themselves as Afro-Brazilians have an opportunity to get into [the] university that they didn’t have before,” said Robert Varhine, a professor in the School of Education at the Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA)— at the time, vice provost for graduate studies—a member of the Brazil Fulbright Commission and a 2012 member of the country’s visiting Science Without Borders contingent to Howard’s campus.

Varhine also described a significant percentage of the population as function- ally illiterate, despite current trends in K–12 educational improvement.

“Focusing on children is one thing, but

we also need to focus on how students are being taught,” Jenkins said, “and I think that’s probably ... not as much talked about.”

Having a never-questioned pride and comfort in her own skin, with her own gender, with her own identity as an African-American female, Jenkins was eager to explore the teacher-to-student translated impact of variance in the willingness, wish and application by other teachers to identify in terms of African-ness or Blackness.

Now preparing with the accelerated study of Portuguese, as well as a historical overview of education for minority groups, student and teacher achievement gaps and Afro-Brazilian acceptance rates into university-level school of education programs, Jenkins is looking forward to her typical day in Salvador. She predicts this will entail working with UFBA faculty, firming up survey interview protocols, practicing Portuguese, and, later, going into communities and classrooms to observe and interview a sampling of 20 teachers—giving them surveys about their self-identity, self-efficacy, instructional practices and routine literacy activities.

Jenkins will limit her stay in Brazil to seven of the 12 months of her award term, so that she can return to teach her Howard students in the fall 2016 semester.

“It doesn’t matter what language you speak, it doesn’t matter what color you are, it doesn’t matter where you live,” Jenkins said, “literacy is really the pathway to an accessible life.” 

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