Skip to main content

Award pays tribute to professor's seminal work

February 02, 2010

Karen Smith, an associate professor of language and literacy with the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education, has received her second of two prestigious awards in less than two years recognizing her distinguished work in literacy education.

Smith, known for her mission to empower teachers through her work with public school throughout the 50 states, was presented the 2009 Outstanding Educator in the English Language Arts award by the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) at the organization’s November convention. 

“They called me, and I was shocked,” Smith said.

A year earlier, Smith received the John Chorlton Manning Public School Service Award from the International Reading Association for her work with teachers and students in public schools.

The NCTE praised Smith for her “major contributions to the field of language arts in elementary education,” including her seminal 1995 article, “Bringing Children and Literature Together in the Elementary Classroom.”

The article has become a primer for teachers and teacher educators who want to tune into Smith’s theoretical and practical methods of teaching.

The latest award came just as Smith transitioned to retirement this academic year after 40 years in education.  

“One of the things I admire most about Karen is that she is the kind of professor who practices what she preaches,” said Linda Crafton, a professor of teacher education at the University of Wisconsin and longtime colleague of Smith’s. “You can see that she has an informed or examined reason for everything she does.”

Crafton and Smith have worked together on a number of projects, but she said their “biggest and most intense work" was done the years Smith spent working with the NCTE.

Prior to her tenure at ASU, Smith served as the organization’s associate executive director, where she carried out board policy; developed professional development programs and publications to enhance literacy teaching at the elementary and middle school levels; and worked to influence public policy related to literacy education.

Smith has forged that same spirit of cooperation and ingenuity during her decade of work as a professor and researcher in urban public school classrooms.

On a recent afternoon, Smith sat with teachers at the Silvestre S. Herrera Elementary School at 11th Street and Buckeye Road, in Phoenix, listening to their approaches to “interactive writing” – code words for teaming a teacher or aide with students to build their confidence and abilities as writers.

During the professional-development conference, Deirdre Sanchez talked about a new technique to encourage her kindergarten students to expand simple sentences into full-bodied stories.

For example, she said, the first-graders could write a first-day sentence that might begin with, “I went to the park,” and over the next four days add more detail about what happened at the park until they had a complete story.

Smith called Sanchez’ technique “good demonstration in what comes first.”

Sanchez said Smith made her remember how much support kindergarten children need to express themselves and “not to worry so much about the conventions. They were petrified, so worried about spelling, so I told them to use whatever they know.”

Smith agrees, telling teachers it is important to “get the pen in the child’s hand so they are doing the work, letting the kids use and know all the knowledge they have.”

In Smith’s book, praise trumps criticism.

“There are no red pens here,” she said. 

In the classroom of kindergarten teacher Esperanza Gonzales, students create their own books, carefully drawing pictures, and writing about what inspired them: Halloween costumes or a popular theme such as a trip to the park. 

The technique, Gonzales said, “allows them to see themselves as a writer even though many barely speak English.”

Smith was impressed.

“They take ownership,” she said. “That’s huge.”

Smith became immersed in Phoenix public schools in 1973 when she left Michigan to work on her master’s degree in education at ASU.

“I subbed in all of the districts to supplement my income but most of my years were at Herrera, a bilingual school where I taught fifth and sixth grade,” she said. Smith was working on her doctorate in education at ASU when she was hired in 1991 by the NTCE to become its associate executive director. She returned to ASU in 1999. Smith, who has done professional development across the United States, went global 1996 when she accompanied a world education organization on a three-week trip to meet with Moscow teachers.

“They were shifting and changing and thinking and changing after being immersed in communism for so many years,” she said. "It was probably the most interesting three weeks of my career.” 

Her work has reached beyond coaching teachers. Over the years she has also become their strong advocate, urging education policymakers to listen to what they have to say.

“I think in all cases teachers’ voices are not as prominent in the educational conversation as they ought to be,” she said.

As for her retirement, she said she is “going to take it one day at a time.” She is drawn to travel, reading and movies.
“But right now, I’m not going to think about it.”

Carol Sowers
Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education