December 2020 Faculty Highlight: Molly Ness, PhD

1. Tell us more about your background and areas of expertise.

I began my teaching career in Oakland, California – when I joined Teach For America and taught 6th grade. Initially, I thought that teaching would be a springboard into law school. However, when I continued to teach in Los Angeles, I realized that education would be my career. I spent four years earning my doctorate in Reading Education at the University of Virginia. For the past 15 years, I’ve been an associate professor at Fordham University. I teach masters and doctoral courses in the areas of language and literacy development.

"I am very much committed to all children having the right to read – so my research is always connected to that mission."

My research agenda broadly looks at literacy as a vehicle for social justice and equity. I am very much committed to all children having the right to read – so my research is always connected to that mission. I launched my early research in reading comprehension instruction and have expanded to study best practices in literacy teacher education. A good portion of my work focuses on how to best help teachers understand and recognize dyslexia, and I’ve authored papers that aim to help pediatricians join the movement towards early identification. I also love working with parents and school communities about the work to raise readers at home. I’ve authored books about literacy practices – focusing on comprehension, effective use of instructional time, and inquiry-based instruction.  But I have the most fun when I get to combine my professional voice and my parenting experiences to write articles for mainstream audiences about reading and literacy practices.
 

2. How did you connect with The Windward Institute?

As a lifelong teacher educator, I believe that the power of effective teaching is lifechanging. I’m entirely committed to teachers being armed with knowledge and research – a vision shared by Windward. Many of my graduate students completed field placements at Windward, and so I began exploring the offerings at The Windward Institute as well as their fabulous speaker series. As a self-professed reading geek, it’s a real thrill to attend lectures – virtually and in person – from the groundbreaking experts that I’ve long studied, read, and followed.

"As a lifelong teacher educator, I believe that the power of effective teaching is life changing."

I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about research and the science of reading, so I connected with The WI as a way to share that knowledge to teachers and to classroom practice. I like thinking of myself as a connector in the research to practice pipeline. If any teachers take new information from my writing or presentations and apply it to better serve students in their classroom, then I will have served as a literacy changemaker.
 

3. What areas of research are you most passionate about right now? What specific areas of your work do you enjoy communicating to families and educators?

My passion project for the last few years has been my podcast, titled End Book Deserts. A book desert is a geographic area where books are scarce; pre COVID, 32 million children lacked access to books in their homes, schools, or communities. Imagine living in an area where you struggle to get your hands on books! How can we expect children to embrace reading as a lifelong pursuit unless they are flooded with books?

"As someone who equates literacy and equity, I hope to draw attention to the inexcusable fact that kids today cannot develop as readers simply because of a lack of books."

In my podcast, I feature the innovative people and programs who work to get books into the hands of kids all over the nation. I’ve hosted everyone from large organizations - like Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, Jet Blue airlines, Reach Out and Read – to smaller grassroots efforts.  I’ve interviewed the fantastic children’s book authors who go to great lengths to get their books to young readers  – I’ve chatted with Nic Stone, Matt de la Pena, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and my idol, Jason Reynolds. Lately I’ve been exploring how organizations have shifted their work to get books to kids with the challenges of COVID. As someone who equates literacy and equity, I hope to draw attention to the inexcusable fact that kids today cannot develop as readers simply because of a lack of books.
 

4. You will be teaching an upcoming workshop with The WI, “Understanding the Literacy Development of our Youngest Readers.” What do you hope participants gain from attending the workshop?

I hope that participants takeaway the magical process of how reading develops from birth, how oral language is the foundation of literacy, and how many easy, practical ways there are to infuse literacy into every moment at home or in the classroom.

 

5. What are your favorite resources that you are currently recommending to families and educators during this time?

I want every family to know about the rich variety of children’s and middle grade books that reflect diverse backgrounds and cultures today. The publishing world has come a long way since I was a kid – and I read more middle grade books these days than adult ones. I’d like every parent to know about the power of reading aloud at home – with children of all ages.

I want all educators to know places like First Book and Book Source – to fill their classroom libraries with high-quality, engaging, and relevant books. There are also a few podcasts that sustain me as a reading geek (of course, other than READ!) – Amplify’s Science of Reading, APM Report’s Educate, and Jennifer Gonzalez’s Cult of Pedagogy. And the books that I recommend to every teacher that I encounter are written by legends in the field – Daniel Willingham, Maryann Wolfe, David Kilpatrick, Louisa Moats, and Mark Seidenberg.

 

Dr. Ness’s suggested resources for families and educators:

Book Recommendations:

For Educators:

Recommended Podcasts: