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While the idea of a research institution may call up visions of microscopes, sterile labs, and isolated professors in their offices, the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) is pursuing something more holistic. There are plenty of labs and microscopes on campus, and one of UTSA’s programs is giving them an elevated sense of purpose in service to the community.
UTSA’s quest for Tier One status has already yielded national recognition and subsequent funding streams in fields like cybersecurity and biomechanics. It was recently named among the top 100 universities in the United States and top 400 in the world by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017. UTSA scored particularly strong in citations, a measure of the quality and impact of a university’s research.
The Center for the Inquiry of Transformative Literacies (CITL), formerly La Plaza de Lectura, now unites the school’s research aspirations and their commitment to community outreach under the banner of the humanities.
According to CITL Director Misty Sailors, UTSA wants its research to contribute to the human experience not only for San Antonians but for people around the world. University of Texas System Chancellor Adm. William McRaven’s call for system-wide literacy outreach efforts hit the sweet spot for UTSA.
In 2016, the university received the Carnegie Community Outreach Classification thanks in part to the incorporation of progressive research into outreach goals, which has vastly improved the quality of services available to the community through UTSA programs.
CITL made the official transition to a research center earlier in September, marking its official launch with a USAID book-a-thon that reinforced the program’s overarching mission.
“At our root, we serve our community,” Sailors said.
As La Plaza de Lectura, the program offered literacy tutoring and professional development, serving around 2,000 students during its run as a volunteer-based literacy center. These services will continue as will the staffing by pre-service teachers and education students pursuing master’s degrees. The difference, Sailors explained, is that now all services will be “lock-step in line with research.”
The value of the research component goes beyond the university’s internal goals. By documenting and disseminating its findings, UTSA will contribute to the field of literacy building, and, thus, improve services to students across the world.
One example of these symbiotic goals was the summer reading camp at the UTSA Downtown Campus. During the camp, researchers studied student “disruptions” during the reading process.
A disruption, for example, would occur when a child made a seemingly tangential comment that took focus away from what the instructor was teaching. Rather than refocusing the child on the task at hand, Sailors and her colleagues pursued the child’s disruption as a line of inquiry.
They found that often disruptions occur when the content being taught bumps up against something in the child’s experience. If teachers can be flexible, they have the opportunity to help that student build on the connection and build literacy beyond the technical process of reading.
“We have to look at each other as something bigger than letters and sounds,” Sailors said.
Ultimately, the connections that build multiple literacies – technical, social, emotional – only increase a child’s motivation to continue “learning to read.” For Sailors, this concept comes full circle to the point of education, which is to become more human.
“Literacy helps you become the person that you want to be, that you will be,” she said.
Sailors hopes that findings from this and other research projects will help educators improve the education experience through what she calls “socially just pedagogies.” Often, curriculum is designed with one demographic in mind, and those who fall outside of those parameters struggle because they do not demonstrate the same benchmarks or strengths, but rather “disrupt.”
In a city like San Antonio, these populations are often disparaged.
“We have all these (statistics) that people put on top of us in this community,” Sailors said, and people tend to miss the many layers of culture and community.
She hopes that the CITL’s research can help educators expose that richness in students.
The reclassification of La Plaza as a research unit helps Sailors and her colleagues streamline their research and apply for more funding so that they are ready to deploy services when opportunities arise. As they continue to “get their Ps and Qs in order,” Sailors said the institution will demonstrate the capacity to make good use of grant money, which will flow directly into real-time research in the form of community services.
CITL also can channel its efforts into broader partnerships around the community. The center is currently working with Somerset ISD to improve the district’s Pre-K-12 literacy instruction, with Harlandale ISD and South San Antonio ISD through Write for Texas, and with North East ISD through the San Antonio Writing Project. Sailors would like to see more activity at off-campus locations as well as effective involvement in the school districts.
As CITL forms partnerships with other literacy organizations and professionals, it becomes “smarter,” Sailors added. Like a living organism, the institution is always growing and evolving toward increased effectiveness across multiple forms of literacy.
In order to succeed in today’s society, citizens need to be able to read across multiple formats – they need to know how to utilize information technology and how to read images and non-verbal messages. Student participation builds social, emotional, and cultural literacy and opens up opportunities to bring art, music, and social media into the conversation and enrich learning.
“There’s a side to our work with teachers that is re-professionalizing teachers so that they can create spaces where dialogue takes place …,” Sailors said. Together, students and teachers create “little democratic environments.”
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Top image: Students reading at UTSA’s La Plaza de Lectura, now the Center for Inquiry of Transformative Literacies. Photo c0urtesy of UTSA.