Assistant Professor Erin Washburn
Literacy specialist Erin Washburn has been an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education (GSE) since 2010. She came to Binghamton from Texas A&M University, where she earned both a master's of education degree and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction in literacy education. Washburn also holds a bachelor's degree in speech communications from Baylor University and worked as a high school reading teacher for several years in Texas.
Learn why Washburn left the Lone Star State and how she combines her love of teaching, research and community service here in the Empire State.
You're a long way from Texas! What brought you to Binghamton University?
My cousin has a PhD in history from Harpur College and my dad's family is originally from upstate New York, so they were familiar with Binghamton University and the SUNY system. My cousin sent me an ad for a faculty opening at GSE and when I saw this was a research-focused university, I applied. I wanted to be somewhere that values scholarship and teaching.
What courses do you teach?
I teach a course called Content Area Literacy, which is for content teachers in the older grades (6–12). I also teach Literacy Assessment and Teaching (grades K–5) and Literacy Assessment and Instruction for Secondary Students (grades 6–12).
Literacy Assessment and Teaching is taught during the academic year; we work directly with 2nd through 5th graders in the Johnson City school district. Literacy Assessment and Instruction for Secondary Students is taught during the summer at Windsor High School. In that course we work directly with 8th graders who are transitioning to 9th grade.
What do you like about these courses?
I'm really passionate about these courses because they are designed to be clinically rich classes — classes where the students are not only learning the theory and the practice, but also are able to apply their knowledge in real time and get guidance from the instructor. This kind of teaching is much more integrated; I love that. I believe teacher preparation should be both about learning the research and the theory and also having opportunities to apply those understandings and to do so with mentorship and feedback.
You developed one of these courses. Can you explain why?
When I got to Binghamton I wanted to create a course and a community partnership at the same time, so that my research, teaching and service all align. I did that with the Literacy Assessment and Instruction for Secondary Students course. The fieldwork for the course is in conjunction with the Windsor High School Transition Academy.
The course and Transition Academy were offered together for the first time last summer to give GSE students and Windsor middle and high school teachers a meaningful experience working with kids who have difficulty reading and writing. The Transition Academy focuses on 8th graders moving to 9th grade — entering high school. The students completed research projects centered on an aspect of "Life in the Southern Tier." They selected a specific topic and did a lot of reading, writing and multimedia presentation work to complete their project. There was also a social transition component to the course, where students were involved in a series of experiences to prepare them for high school such as team building and completing a mock high school schedule.
Is the transition from middle to high school a time when deficiencies in literacy become more problematic?
In high school the focus is on learning content, so students do not typically receive explicit literacy instruction. However, there are many secondary students who need literacy support to learn content. Further, New York state has adopted the Common Core State Standards, in which there is a clear focus on reading and writing in content classes, so it is as important as ever that secondary students have teachers who are prepared to provide literacy instruction.
How many students participated in the Transition Academy last year?
We had four GSE students and five Windsor teachers [the Transition Academy was also used as a professional development course in the Windsor Central School District and was open to Windsor teachers] who worked with 20 Windsor students. These 20 students were placed into small groups; each Windsor teacher and GSE student had students they were responsible for. They initially assessed each Windsor student's reading, writing, interests and self-efficacy toward literacy to find out about the student's strengths and areas of need. Then, they provided literacy instruction throughout the project, guiding students through the process. They tailored each student's plan so the student had extra support in areas where they needed it.
What has the feedback been and will you run the course again this summer?
The feedback has been very positive. The GSE students said it was one of the most beneficial classes they've ever taken because it was a direct opportunity to apply what they learned and see their students grow.
We will offer the Transition Academy again this summer. I'm altering the structure a little, making it a bit longer and more spread out, because we covered a lot of ground in only two months last year.
The Transition Academy is part of Project LEARN. Can you explain what that is?
For the past two-and-a-half years, Candace Mulcahy [assistant professor of special education at GSE] and I have thought a lot about how we want our research, teaching and service to impact the community, specifically striving learners and teachers, and how that effort could be centered at Binghamton University. Project LEARN is what came from our numerous conversations and planning sessions. Project LEARN is not an official research center yet, but rather a combination of research, teaching, and service efforts to support the academic growth and development of children, adolescents and teachers in the Greater Binghamton area. Our goal is to serve students who strive to have the necessary skills for success in reading, writing and math. The development of the Windsor Transition Academy — a collaboration among Binghamton University, Windsor Central School District and the Liberty Partnership — is just one of those efforts.
What drew you to teaching and research?
Ever since I was 16, I had been working with children in preschools and subbing in local middle and high schools during college breaks, and I loved it. So, I became a teacher and started teaching high school English language arts and reading. There, I met many high schoolers who were reading at fourth-grade level and below and who were, unfortunately, struggling in every aspect of school and in life. I wanted to know how this could be. That prompted me to take some courses at Texas A&M. I teamed up with a researcher and eventually became a full-time doctoral student. I found that doing research in education was really exciting; it helped me start to answer some of the questions I had.
Are you still looking for answers?
Yes, and I think I always will be! What's interesting is that once you get into research, you have more questions.
Would you tell us about your current research projects?
Right now I have projects in three key areas that fall under the same umbrella: how can we best serve readers and writers who struggle and who do so in the older grades, where historically they haven't received much support. Many of these projects are being done in collaboration with Candace [Mulcahy].
Examining teacher knowledge: Candace and I are trying to obtain a national sample of reading-related teacher knowledge. We're looking at both special educators and literacy educators who work with older students (grades 6-12). We want to examine what they know about teaching reading to older striving learners.
Instructional interventions: I've done some work recently on how we can support older striving readers and writers in their classrooms through the use of instructional interventions for writing. I have collaborated with a former GSE student, Caitlin Thompson, and a local social studies teacher, Chris Sielaff, to create instructional interventions based on the Self-Regulated Strategy Development framework specifically for argument-based writing.
Examining student support systems: As a reading teacher and reading clinician at the Texas A&M Reading Clinic, I became interested in how a family comes together to support a child with a reading-related learning disability and how can we, in the educational research community, learn from that? I have been specifically interested in how mothers support and advocate for their children who struggle with reading and writing. I believe that we, as teacher educators and researchers, have a great deal to learn from individual children and adolescents and their families.
What draws you to a particular research project?
There are kids that I have worked with who deeply impacted my life and to whom I feel a great responsibility. I believe my work in higher education is to serve them and others like them. I also feel it's an issue of justice — I don't think it's fair to see a student make it to high school with a fourth-grade reading level.
What do you see as the greatest challenge facing literacy teachers today and how do you address that in your teaching?
I think the greatest challenge facing literacy teachers has always been the same: How do I provide intentional instruction for all children?
There are a lot of "one size fits all" literacy programs, and I think a literacy teacher has to be able to see the value and the limitations of those programs. You can't lump all the kids who struggle with reading and writing together and give them the same type of instruction and expect that to help all of them. You have to think about each individual learner, and that's a challenge because it requires a teacher to be knowledgeable, thoughtful, resourceful, and flexible. In my courses we talk a lot about the individual learner. We look at how instruction works in that specific context as well as in a greater classroom context for individual learners.
Interestingly enough, I think this challenge will always be a struggle for literacy teachers; I don't think it will ever go away. But that makes our job at the GSE so important, helping teachers become not only knowledgeable, but also critical and thoughtful teachers and advocates for children and adolescents.