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Patricia Scanlan, Ph.D.

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Frost fogged the windows of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Nursing Education building, where Dr. Patricia Scanlan, her graduate students, 10 children from 1st–4th grade and their parents were gathered for a celebration of literacy.
Patricia Scanlan, Ph.D.

Patricia Scanlan, Ph.D.

Patricia Scanlan, Ph.D.
College of Education and Human Services
by Tierney Cigelske and Samantha Diersen
Student Features Reporters

finding inspiration

Frost fogged the windows of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Nursing Education building, where Dr. Patricia Scanlan, her graduate students, 10 children from 1st–4th grade and their parents were gathered for a celebration of literacy.

It may have been under 20 degrees outside, but inside, the warmth was felt as the elementary-aged students took turns reading aloud to the 30 or so people there. Each younger student was paired with a graduate student, who is working toward a master’s degree in Reading Education. For 13 weeks, they’ve spent time together exploring the world of reading and writing. Many of the elementary students had been reluctant readers, but you couldn’t tell from their smiling faces.

As she scanned the room, Scanlan’s eyes rested on the next reader, a boy named Tyler. Only 13 weeks earlier, Tyler avoiding reading. It was his least favorite part of the school day.

She looked at the third-grader, whose knees bounced up-down-up-down-up-down in anticipation for this next big step. He took his tutor by the hand, graduate student Lisa LeRoy, and together they faced the crowd.
Tyler opened his book, smiled and read the title: Looking at X-Rays. The boy looked up shyly, and turned the book so his audience could see the photographs showing X-ray pictures of a hand, a foot, and a mouthful of teeth. “Look at the hand.  Look at the foot. Look at the teeth.” He continued confidently to the last page.

As soon as he finished reading, he closed the book, grinning, soaking up the applause.

Scanlan looked on proudly. She caught LeRoy’s eye and they too exchanged smiles. They knew how big a feat that was for the young reader. He wasn’t required to read that night. None of the young students had to. He and the others all chose to. Scanlan flashed back to what Tyler said to his tutor as they wrapped up the semester. The boy exclaimed, “I love reading! I don’t have to be done, do I?”

Scanlan, an associate professor in the UW Oshkosh College of Education and Human Services, treasures such moments. “These are the rewards of teaching,” she said of that moment. “It just doesn’t get any better.”

Scanlan and schoolchildren
Patricia Scanlan chats with a student and a graduate student tutor.
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In this audio-only podcast, Patricia Scanlan talks about what attracted her to the field of teaching. Podcast produced by student features reporter Noell Dickmann.

The Principal’s Daughter

Scanlan grew up in Preston, Minn., a city of 1,500. The only child of two educators, one of whom became her high school principal, Scanlan spent much of her young life resisting the idea of becoming a teacher herself. “My reluctance to follow in my parents’ footsteps was more my attempt at ‘being my own person’ than it was anything else,” Scanlan said. “My mom and dad were fairly protective, and I wanted the freedom to do my own thing. However, I really had no idea what  ‘my own thing’ was.”

In junior high after reading a series of books, Clara Barton Student Nurse, Scanlan toyed with the idea of being a nurse–nursing and teaching were two popular options for college-bound girls at that time–but quickly abandoned that idea because of two reasons. “My gag reflex is pretty sensitive and I panic in situations that even hint of medical emergency,” she said, adding, “I was probably more drawn to Clara Barton’s love life than her work as a nurse.”

Scanlan credits her mother for instilling a lifelong love for reading. When she was in grade school, Scanlan had to read a minimum of 20 minutes every day during the summer. For young Scanlan, reading, prior to that summer, meant being placed in an average reading group, answering questions at the end of a story, and completing workbook pages. Nothing too exciting.

Something happened during that summer of reading. “The fact that what I was reading was supposed to make sense and communicate a message wasn’t something I learned until I discovered it on my own,” she said. “It was then that I found myself immersed in a book, unaware of the time and enjoying the story.”
As the principal’s daughter Scanlan felt, at times, as if she lived in a glass house. “It’s a small town, everyone knew the family, and I was the principal’s kid,” she said, adding that she was a student who was good at “doing school.”

Two high school teachers, however, forged her growing love for reading, and, in some ways, teaching.
Her English teacher, Mrs. Elsie Husom, assigned the students to read a book of their choice and then present it to the class. Scanlan and a friend read To Sir With Love by E.R. Braithwaite. Scanlan played the song of the same title sung by Lulu on a vinyl record. She and her partner used the music as an interlude between parts of the story that they acted out. Their presentation received raves from the class.

Another teacher, Mr. Frank Jaszewski, who taught U.S. History, challenged her and the students to speak with authority on a current event issue. “I remember talking against the death penalty, and feeling quite brave about it,” she said. “I know Mr. Jaszewski was for the death penalty. I didn’t care. I respected Mr. J., and I trusted he would respect my ideas. I think I got an A, or maybe an A-, on the assignment.”

While those two teachers gave Scanlan positive learning experiences, she points to her parents as the ultimate paradigm for educators. “Despite my resistance, I think I am a teacher because of my parents,” she says. “Perhaps it’s a gift I inherited from them–maybe it’s even in my DNA.”

Learning to Teach

Scanlan left Preston to attend the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minn., about an hour away from home. After earning her elementary teaching degree, she spent 12 years teaching in Catholic schools in central Minnesota. She earned her master’s in Curriculum and Instruction at St. Cloud State University and her Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. (It was at Iowa where she met future husband Michael Ford, then also a doctoral student in education. Ford is a Reading Education professor at UW Oshkosh. They are parents of Vladimer and Pavel, both 21.)

Scanlan’s first position as a teacher educator was at Mankato State University in Minnesota. After a couple of years, she went to UW–La Crosse where she taught for five years and earned tenure. Then in 1995, she joined the Reading Education faculty at UW Oshkosh where she earned tenure for the second time. Currently, Scanlan teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in reading education.

Scanlan with kids' group
Scanlan with children from the reading program.
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In this audio-only podcast, Patricia Scanlan explains why she teaches. Podcast produced by student features reporter Noell Dickmann.

The Fox Valley Writing Project

When Scanlan is not teaching future teachers, she is teaching and collaborating with teachers as the director of the Oshkosh-based Fox Valley Writing Project, which offers professional development for teachers of writing as well as leadership development for educators. This is done through summer seminars, radio broadcasts, outreach programs and meetings. The Writing Project, which is housed in the College of Education and Human Services, also hosts young writers programs.

The Fox Valley Writing Project began in 1986 as an affiliate of the National Writing Project, a collaborative network that empowers teachers to grow as writers, teachers and leaders. Nationwide, there are 200 such projects; the Oshkosh campus site is one of four in the state of Wisconsin.

Scanlan believes that the field of education is always in a state of change. To address such changes, teachers must be constantly learning, Scanlan said. Her position as the director fits in perfectly with this philosophy.

“I appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with the best K-12 teachers in the Valley,” she said. “My work is always new. It gives me ongoing opportunities to study teaching, to discuss professional reading, and to write about my own experiences and practice.”

Scanlan renews her passion for teaching each time she works with teachers at the Writing Project events. “That knowledge and teacher expertise is valued,” she said. “We have a lot to learn from each other whether we are elementary teachers, or whether we’re middle school teachers or whether we’re high school teachers.”

The centerpiece of the Writing Project work is the Invitational Summer Institute, a six-credit course in which teachers become part of a professional learning community, where they write every day, read professional literature, and inquires into their own practices. “Writing Project work is about problem-solving,” she said. “It’s about asking questions; it’s about inquiry.”

Through the Writing Project, teachers can solicit help from peers about teaching challenges or curriculum changes. “Teachers are asking how they can do something differently or do something better,” Scanlan said. “We’re always in the process of supporting one another and learning from one another.”

Growing Lifelong Readers

Once a week Scanlan and her Reading 410 students head to Webster Stanley Elementary School to participate in the Lighted School House Program, which matches future teachers with elementary students for an hour. During that time they read together and play word games. “Our goal for the elementary children is to have enjoyable, individualized reading and writing experiences that enable them to take on new learning,” Scanlan said. “Our goal for the college students is to provide them with the opportunity to apply their knowledge of assessing children’s literacy development and to use the results of those assessments to plan appropriate instruction.”

Program coordinator Kaytie Storms at Webster Stanley is a big fan of Scanlan and her students’ work with the kids. “They’re gaining the experience as future teachers and our students benefit because they get extra help with school that they can’t get during the school day,” Storms said.

At each tutoring session, which is held at the school’s library, Scanlan spends her time circulating among the clusters. At one table, Scanlan watched her student work with the younger child as they took turns reading aloud. After the younger student rushed through her section, Scanlan smiled and said, “Try it again. Take your time.”

UW Oshkosh student Jill Berens sat with a kindergartner reading I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. After Berens and the young girl finished reading, they practiced writing sentences using the words they read in the book and then wrote the sentences on paper hats. Scanlan approved, saying, “Jill was still teaching her, but she was using a fun activity to do so.”

Scanlan at table
Scanlan works next to an elementary student and her gradute student tutor.
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In this audio-only podcast, Patricia Scanlan tells what she hopes students take away from her classes. Podcast produced by student features reporter Noell Dickmann.

Scanlan’s own teaching experience spanned grade-school kids to adult professionals, however she believes teaching is teaching regardless of the student’s age. “Teaching means, first of all, knowing the students–both what they can do and what they are on the brink of learning–and then providing them the support that is needed to take on new learning,” she said, adding that support can come in the form of resources, the modeling/demonstrations, the coaching, the assignments, etc. “The thing that’s especially exciting about teaching adults who are tutoring children, however, is that it’s possible to observe a parallel learning process. The adult learns and that results in the child’s learning. It’s simply amazing.”

Growing Lifelong Learners

As an educator Scanlan wishes the same thing of all of her students. “I want my students to leave my courses with the sense of the importance of literacy in their own lives, and also with the knowledge that they are lifelong learners,” she said. “Once we allow ourselves to stop learning, we inevitably lose our effectiveness as teachers.”

Student Tyler Demeny has put many of Scanlan’s lessons into his teaching practice. “Dr. Scanlan has also taught me the importance of being an approachable teacher,” said Demeny, who is both a general education and a special education major. “She has taught me the importance of talking to and listening to students and showing them I value their feedback, concerns and input.”

Scanlan is heartened when she hears student feedback like that. While she encourages her students, who are new teachers, to be confident in their newly learned skills, she also suggests they temper their confidence with a dash of humility. “I want them to recognize that they still have a lot to learn, and to know that’s OK,” Scanlan said. “Good teachers ask questions, and they are always seeking to do what’s best for kids. That means teachers need to be learners. It doesn’t stop with the baccalaureate degree.”

research matters

by Patricia Scanlan, Ph.D.

Currently I am studying the inquiry work of high school teachers who are participating in a three-year grant project (Wisconsin Improving Teaching Quality) from UW System. ELSAC (Enhancing Learning in Subject Area Classrooms) has provided professional development for content area teachers as they study how to use reading, writing, speaking, listening, and visual representations to improve students’ learning. With the support of a team of Fox Valley Writing Project teacher leaders and UW Oshkosh professors, the high school teachers have developed and implemented numerous teaching projects; they have also studied the work their students have done as a result of these projects. We are investigating the teachers’ work to learn about specific ways that literacy processes support learning in various content areas, and how the interrelationships between reading, writing, speaking, listening, and visual representations can deepen students’ understandings and their engagement.



Student Assistant Features Editor Noell Dickmann also contributed to this report.

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