Episode 41 - An Integrated Approach to Supporting All Readers with Lakeisha Johnson, PhD
Lakeisha Johnson, PhD, Assistant Professor, Florida State University, Affiliated Faculty, Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR).
Lakeisha Johnson, PhD is an assistant professor in the School of Communication Science and Disorders and affiliated faculty at the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR). Dr. Johnson's primary research interests include language and literacy development and executive functioning in African American children and others from underserved populations. She is the Director of The Village and creator of Maya’s Book Nook, which seeks to promote language and literacy skills through diverse children’s literature.
[00:00:00] Danielle Scorrano: Welcome to the READ Podcast, all of our READers in the research, education advocacy world. READ connects you with prominent researchers, educators, and thought leaders who share their work insights and expertise in education and child development.
I'm your host, Danielle Scorrano, The WI’s Research and Development Director, and I have to stop with all the adjectives because I am delighted, inspired, in awe of my guest for this episode, Dr. Lakeisha Johnson. Dr. Johnson, welcome to the READ Podcast.
[00:00:32] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Thank you so much and please do call me Lakeisha.
[00:00:35] Danielle Scorrano: Okay, great. Thank you. So, Lakeisha, honestly, when I was reading about you, learning more about you, I couldn't stop. And so I feel like we just have to jump into the episode because there's so much that I want to talk to you about. And before I do, I do want to introduce you to our READ listeners with a short bio that you provided.
So thank you. So [00:01:00] more about Lakeisha. Lakeisha Johnson is an assistant professor in the School of Communication Science and Disorders and affiliate faculty at the Florida Center for Reading Research. Dr. Johnson's primary research interests include language and literacy, development and executive functioning in African American children and others from underserved populations.
You are also the director of The Village and the founder of Maya's Book Nook, which I am so excited talk to you about. And again, I'm, I had to set my own parameters for this conversation because there's so much that we're going to talk about today. And I just want to start with the softball question. Tell us your story, your background, what is driving your work?
[00:01:41] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Well, first, thank you so much for having me and for, you know, even thinking that my work is interesting enough to your listeners to hear from me twice. So, I came into the field of speech language pathology by chance. Growing up, I wanted to be a journalist, and I [00:02:00] was super enthused and really wanted to go on that path.
But the college that I got into at South Carolina State, which is a small HBCU in South Carolina, didn't have that as a major. And so I was an English major and it just so happened that, and I'd gotten a scholarship there. My family said, you're going right. So, I just so happened to meet an SLP and she introduced me. And I fell in love with it. She took me on a tour of our speech and hearing clinic. I got to see therapy happening right there on campus and it blew my mind. So from that second semester, my freshman year, I changed my major and I've just been all in on the field of communication science and disorders.
As I came to graduate school at Florida State, I was really, really interested in vocabulary and language and literacy and just kind of the differences that you'd hear around achievement gaps and student performances. And I was always really kind of [00:03:00] intrigued by that. So, I knew that I wanted to do some research in the field. I did a master's thesis, ended up going straight through. Right after I finished my master's, I got my PhD. I stayed for my PhD and worked on a language and literacy grant that was also at the Florida Center for Reading Research. And through that time, I really learned that I wanted to be an SLP who had worked in the schools.
So I worked while I was doing my PhD, I wanted to make sure that I had practical hands-on knowledge that I could really apply, not only to the research, but to the students that I would hopefully mentor in the future. And I've really just been in love with this field in terms of the progress, the impact that we can have in, sometimes what appears to be really small, incremental kinds of ways, but that can really make a change in the trajectory of a person's life just in terms of their communication skills. I fell in love with the literacy side of things because I've always been [00:04:00] an avid reader myself. I was that kid reading with the flashlight under the bed under the covers when it was time to go to bed. And so I was fascinated by wanting to learn more about literacy and dialect, why some kids used it, why some didn't. Even in families, my own family in particular, some people used a whole lot, some didn't. You know, I was really interested and I had lots of questions. So that's really kind of how I got into the field and how I kind of found a niche area within literacy and wanting to do more on that side.
[00:04:33] Danielle Scorrano: Mmm. I love how you talked about so much. First of all, I'm an avid reader too, so that must be why we connect immediately. And a lot of our READers probably, as they're listening and or maybe even watching, connecting to you through this. I want to talk a little bit more about your school-based SLP work, and you said that it provided this benefit of having this practical application, putting you sort of in the ground of how your research was informing [00:05:00] different areas of education. And I heard that you had 45 students on your caseload. Was that right, at the time?
[00:05:05] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Yes, I was a part-time, SLP doing my clinical fellowship year. Florida does not have a cap, and so I had 45 students as a first year SLP, also in my first year in my PhD program. It was crazy, but I didn't know any other way. And, thankfully I had experience doing therapy because in South Carolina at that point, you could be a full SLP with just your bachelor's degree in our state.
That law has since changed. But, as an undergrad I had a client caseload at an elementary school of about 50 students. My senior year I had to take our final kind of certification exams as an undergrad. So when I came into the master's program, I didn't have to do any of that stuff again, and my scores were high enough, and when students were all nervous, like, oh, we're going get our first client, I'm like, one, I've had like 30.
I'm okay. [00:06:00] I'm okay with this one client. Right? But yeah. My school-based experience was amazing. I worked at a Title One school here locally in Tallahassee, and it was really impactful because I could just see that these were such amazing kids with amazing families, but there were a lot of inequities just across the board. And even though I was only there two and a half days, it was always just, it was always just super cup filling, for lack of better words. It was one of those things to where, I could really work as hard as I could and help to make some of those small kinds of incremental changes that would really be impactful.
And I still keep in touch with a lot of those students and the teachers that worked at that school for those few years that I was there. And it really did inform kind of the work. It really solidified why I knew I wanted to think about literacy and then the SLP’s role in literacy because I had so many [00:07:00] students on my caseload who had language issues, but who are also, of course, struggling with, with, literacy development. So that was one of the things, because my, my caseload was primarily pre-K to second grade.
[00:07:13] Danielle Scorrano: Oh wow. Yeah. So you're right in it. And really seeing those students that are struggling and providing that support. I side note love, I should have become an SLP. I mean, I love the work. I worked as a teacher at Windward and it was so fulfilling and a lot of my professional development work was, through our school where our SLP provided direct professional development to me. So I always consider myself like maybe an SLP in some ways, though I didn’t go to grad school. So that's interesting that you talked about that literacy support. As you're talking, I was thinking about where you are, and we talked about a little bit about this before we started recording about where your work intersects.
And we can [00:08:00] talk a little bit more about this, but where I see a lot of your work is, you're framing it as this “both and,” and not even maybe “both, and,” that it's comprehensive in the way that you're looking at research and child development through this integrated systems approach. Do you want to talk a little bit more about what we mean by integrated systems approaches?
[00:08:20] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Yeah, I think it's really important that we think about all of the things when we look at academic outcomes, because of course, even for our students with communication disorders, our students with disabilities, our main goal as educators and practitioners are those academic outcomes and life goals, being able to participate as fully in the community as much as possible. And it is bigger than just this one child. Of course we think about individual child kind of characteristics. So a lot of the work that we do intersects with thinking about the child level, the home level. So what's happening with [00:09:00] parents, what are the things that parents are dealing with, right?
Even, you know, parental education levels, parent literacy levels. All of those things are important, but that's also not the end, right? It's not just this one teacher. It's this school, this whole school environment. What the school culture is around literacy in particular. And then community factors, the things that are, happening in terms of, how close is the nearest public library, community centers, activities that are safe and nurturing for kids and their families within the community. Access to healthcare, crime, welfare on the other side, crime, maltreatment, all those kinds of things, those community level factors that may not be specifically impacting this one child, but can have a greater impact in terms of the system as a whole. So it's really this integrated approach that we like to think about when we do our work.
It's not, what is it happening [00:10:00] with this kid? Of course, we look at the individual child, but also seeing that this is a very holistic process where we're looking at the child in the scope of, this kind of integrated ecological system. And a lot of the work that we do, which with The Village, which we'll talk about a little bit later, we framed in kind of the Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model.
[00:10:19] Danielle Scorrano: Mm. Yeah, I'm glad that you talked about ecological systems theory. It's one that I've been looking into as I'm finishing my doctorate program. And, I just a little shout out to one of the papers that you co-authored, with Nicole Patton Terry in 2022 of building this framework to understand and address vulnerability to reading difficulties among children in schools in the United States. And so I like how you frame that because when you think about the number of students who are vulnerable to poor reading achievement in school, it's large and increasing, and there's wide disparities that just continue to exist, and you wonder how and why are those areas being [00:11:00] addressed. When you talk about vulnerable populations, what do you mean by this in your work?
[00:11:04] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: In our work, we consider vulnerable populations to be those, children and families that are traditionally underserved. Our expertise, areas focus traditionally on African American students, students growing up in poverty, and of course students with disabilities. The work that we do is very interdisciplinary, which I love.
We have, those like myself who are in communication disorders, special educators like Nicole, who's now in reading education. And so we really like to have a team of people that, have these different perspectives. We have social workers, we and even like in that paper that you mentioned, one of the co-authors is in the College of Information Science. And so, we have a wide range of students also in psychology, one of the other authors. So we have this framework that also is helpful that we don't all come from the same background and training, which [00:12:00] allows us to think about it from different perspectives and through different lenses, which helps us be more aware of all of these factors because I'll be honest, initially before we started working with some of these other students thinking about child welfare, right? And economic vitality, those are not things that were on my radar around how kids learn to read. But they clearly make an impact because like you said, despite all that we know around how kids learn best to read, there are still widespread disparities. And throughout some of this country's best efforts to provide funding and to do all the things that we know we should be doing, we still have kids not reading. I mean, you know, the, the numbers don't look good for any racial demographic group. I mean, it's even poorer for, students of color students who are poor. But that 45% ain’t good for anybody , right? So that's, that's not like something we want to hang our hats on. right?
[00:12:59] Danielle Scorrano: Yeah. And [00:13:00] that's, that's why I, I like how you framed this ecological systems approach similar to how you think, so this is yes and approach of we have ta strong body of evidence in the science of reading of how reading develops and what best practice or effective practices are, as well as how we can sort of identify and remediate students with disabilities, and how do we look at that within a comprehensive framework of identifying all those other factors you talked about?
Because I think it's important to consider – access to library, to libraries or to books. Dr. Molly Ness, who has been on the podcast and is an instructor at the Windward Institute, talks about this aspect of book deserts, but you talked about in the paper, incidences of gun violence and how that affects marginalized communities, students of color, students in poverty.
[00:13:50] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Yeah, that's trauma, right? That’s trauma. And when you bring that to school, no matter, despite best efforts from that teacher who may be there, who may have the [00:14:00] high quality training around science and reading and instruction, and have the materials that they need, when you have All of these other things to keep in mind, when you have kids who are hungry. Our schools here are, are creating parent resource rooms. They're ensuring through local organization that kids who get to school late still have breakfast after breakfast even if it is no longer being served in the cafeteria. At some point that has to stop, right? The cafeteria has to close, but if kids get there later, they still need to eat, right? So thinking through all these other factors, and sometimes as researchers, I don't think we keep those things in mind when we think about the day-to-day needs of the schools that we go into. One of our local schools just created this parent room that also has a laundromat. So they have a bunch of educational resources in the front of the room. They have computers, they have materials that FCRR has helped to kind of curate in some other [00:15:00] organizations for educational things. So if you're there with your kid, but you can also do your laundry, you can also get food from the food pantry. All this stuff literally right there in the school building. So it's amazing when we start to think about this from a larger kind of a framework that is not just what are we doing to impact what's happening just in the classroom because it's, it's the both and, like you said.
[00:15:22] Danielle Scorrano: Mm-hmm. So, I mean, we've talked about this, but I do want to ask you explicitly, when you think of ecological systems frameworks, what is it that educators and leaders should keep in mind? I mean, I guess we already talked about this, but again, what should they keep at the forefront, really in their mind as they think about this EST, this ecological systems framework? Because I think sometimes it could feel like, yes, that makes a lot of sense. We should think comprehensively. But sometimes when you're like, okay, we're thinking of a systems framework, it can sometimes feel like, how does that connect to my [00:16:00] day-to-day? So you were to have some insights, explicit things for us, for educators and really leaders in education to think about, what should really be at the forefront there?
[00:16:10] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Well, I think the first thing is always intentionality, right? When you start to think from this more of an ecological framework, from the systems framework, from all of these different factors that can be impacting the kids and families that you're working with, it's hard to turn that off, right?
So when you have this intentionality around ensuring we're thinking about all the things that could have an impact on this child's day-to-day life, that could impact how they're learning, it's really hard to turn away from that, even in your day-to-day kinds of things. So we're always thinking from this lens of, if we provide this educational opportunity right on one side, okay, we have this really amazing thing. We're going to partner with this museum, and we're going to give kids background knowledge, you know, around it and build exposure, you [00:17:00] know, take them on this field trip. Or give them tickets to this event that's happening on a Saturday, that sounds amazing. But when you're thinking about it from this more integrative framework and a holistic framework, we're thinking about barriers too, right? How are they going to get there? Is it for just this one kid? Is it for the kid and a parent, or is it for the whole family, right? There are all these factors that then you really just start to become more aware of. And when we also think about this through the lens of asking parents what they need, being able to ensure that we are looking at this from a needs assessment that values parental input, right?
We know best practices of course, but this parent also knows their child. They know their family situation. And I think it's really important that as researchers, when we go into communities showing that we value the community, right? We attend the events of the community. We are responsive to the needs of, you know, both what the school said, not just what you know I want [00:18:00] do as the researcher, which is important to me, right?
Like we want to answer great questions that inform and keep the field moving forward, but also what matters to this school and to this community. And how can we build a partnership that's mutually beneficial to allow the work to move forward and also impact those kids this school year, these teachers, this administration, you know? I think that part is really important in the role that, that we play in our local communities.
[00:18:28] Danielle Scorrano: That's really interesting. I've been invested much more recently in maybe over the last few years in translation and implementation science. And I think that it’s a body of work that I think that benefits researchers and also educators. And so I've been trying to figure out ways that we as educators can be informed by the work that you are doing. And I like that aspect of community partnership. I, I keep itching to jump to The Village because you're talking about it. But I [00:19:00] want to dive into your research a little bit more. And I think this will continue to follow the conversation that we've been talking about, having this holistic systems approach. And lot of your research has focused on language and executive functioning development, particularly in underserved communities. And you know, I read that you had a grant,I guess it was in 2017 that was exploring language and EF in preschoolers and urban settings. So tell us what you've been learning about in this area.
[00:19:29] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Yeah. And even before that grant, my dissertation focused on executive functioning in kids who were dialect speakers, AAE and Southern White English. we're here in Florida. So iit's a mix. It's an overlap of all the things that sometimes happen with dialect. And it's not, of course, just African American kids that are using AAE. It's the communities that they're in. So I was always really intrigued on this concept of dialect shifting and code or code switching. You know, it's known by a bunch [00:20:00] of different names. But I was always really intrigued by just this concept of being able to use dialect and language in many different ways.
And that led me to think about this from the executive functioning lens. And so is this a higher order kind of planning, you know, working memory, these things that we have to use that are clearly executive functions that these children who are by dialectal as we call them, kids who use more than one dialect, that they're able to use and, and that they're successful in using it.
And so, a lot of the work that we've been doing has been looking at executive functioning skills like planning and working memory inhibition specifically because those are the three that we kind of feel are important when we think about what you would do if you were trying to maneuver, holding two different language systems in your head while you're responding. Those are some of the ones, and we know when it comes to executive functioning, it's so hard to tease them apart. But I'm really, really [00:21:00] intrigued in whether or not we see the same cognitive advantage that's been found in other populations, like in Spanish speaking populations, in, uh, Greece and other countries even where they have multiple dialect systems and kind of these, systems of hierarchy for, for a lack of better words that, people have kind of created, around these non-mainstream and mainstream dialect.
I think it's fascinating to think about whether we could see that same thing because here in the United States for so often dialects like African American English, Southern white English, even those like Gullah, Geechee, or Appalachian English – they’re often so heavily stigmatized and looked at in negative ways that, I'm really interested in not just that. We have amazing researchers like Nicole Patton Terry, Julie Washington, Holly Craig, who've done the heavy lifts of the work around African American English and dialect and those child characteristics and [00:22:00] features so that we can help identify them. I'm more so interested now in how do we leverage the unique skills that they bring to the table and talk about this from, because so often a lot of that work is consumed in a deficit-based narrative, right? If I'm Black, if I have high density dialect, if I'm growing up in poverty, I'm not going to be able to read. And while we know that there are these positive, correlations between these that, you know, there are these correlations between these things, that's not the end of the story, right? Dialect in and of itself is not what's causing this child not to be able to read proficiently. We know bilingualism, right?
It’s not any of those things. That's the one thing that's causing it. And so I'm really, really intrigued. And we have some pilot work where we've looked at some samples of students, some who were high dialect speakers where they used a whole lot of dialect. Some who are more lower density dialect speakers. We used the [00:23:00] DELV, the diagnostic evaluation of language variation screener to kind of categorize into that strong, some dialect variation, or no variation from mainstream. And what we kind of found was that students who were high density users, so they used a whole lot of AEE, had stronger executive functioning skills on their Wisconsin card sorting task. So they were able to take a task where you have to have planning, inhibition, working memory, and they performed better on that task, which is similar and aligned to what we've seen in Spanish speaking populations with where, it's often called the cognitive advantage. And so I like to talk about it as leveraging this unique superpower that Black kids have, that AAE speakers have.
Like you can do some pretty amazing things with your language. And if we think about it and come from that perspective, as in these kids are able to do some really, really cool stuff when it comes to metal linguistics, being [00:24:00] able to do all this stuff with language. It's a superpower. And if we leverage that as educators, we can use those systems to then help inform how we teach them academic language, right? How we teach them these rules and principles for phonological awareness and even comprehension of the materials that they're reading, right? So I'm really, excited to spend a little bit more time. We've got a lot of other projects happening, but that's one of the, that's one of the initial areas of research that really, really, piqued my interest the most in terms of dialect and this cognitive advantage.
[00:24:36] Danielle Scorrano: Mm. There are… Yes, I'm fascinated. And I was mmm, I'll give you a little side note in, I don’t if you listen to Brené Brown's podcast, but she has something called a sacred pause because of something that has just happened where you're just processing. And I'll tell you, my mind is firing in like 15 [00:25:00] different directions right now. So I just had to take a breath and pause and think about this because it's fascinating. And I think I'll start with my first thought was on this intersection between language and EF and I mean, it's so fascinating when you think of, when I first learned about executive functioning, I'll tell you this, I, I learned about it as a purely cognitive skill. That, you have students that need help, like you said, planning, that there's some working memory aspects. And then as I started teaching at Windward, I started learning about the elements of how working memory can affect language, processing speed and all these things. And then you bring in obviously the social emotional piece of it. But I really like how you showed this clear connection between EF and language because I think it does provide this other element of this cognitive resilience. I know that a lot of others, like Lori Cutting and Fumiko Hoeft have talked about in terms of strong EF [00:26:00] skills, providing this element of cognitive resilience for language and literacy development.
Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Absolutely.
Danielle Scorrano We're now in a whole new area, like a ballgame where now I just need to lock myself away and just research more about what you're talking about.
[00:26:14] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Well, and even thinking about it, we know, there are these connections. I teach a lot of language development classes. We know that cognition and language are developing in parallel. And so there are these, you think about Piaget’s stages of cognition and what's happening in terms of language development in the first five years of life. They're going in parallel. And when we think about what we also know around what makes up the most variants when it comes to reading performance, it ain't dialect. It's language, it is oral language skills. And that's been proven time and time again in the LARRC consortium, with Jessica Logan and others, they've done some amazing work around thinking about [00:27:00] what are the things that are impacting reading performance.
And when it comes down to it is oral language skills, right? And so the SLP in me is always, when we go out to certain school, because we do a lot of partnership work where sometimes they say, I don't know something. We've tried all the interventions, can you just come? And sometimes that's me. I go to the school and just sit and, and watch. I go look at the kids’ case history, their MTSS and look at everything. And then I'm like, y'all never tested language. You don't know anything about this child's language skills. You can try all of these interventions, these specific reading interventions, but if you aren't targeting some of these basic or foundational kinds of oral language things, the interventions, you're going to sometimes feel like you're spinning your wheels. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don't. And so, it's such fascinating work and I think I'm most intrigued by it because it is [00:28:00] not from this deficit perspective. I am a speaker of African American English. Your listeners have heard me use dialect today.
I think it's important, as a black woman in this field, to always show up as my authentic self. I'm from a rural town in South Carolina. So when you hear me, you hear all of those things. And I think it's important. Even when I talk to my students, I say, if they can't take me as this person who's their professor, who's been doing this work, who has these extra letters behind their name, using some AAE in class, how are you going to respond to that client in front of you? If it's cringey when I do it, how are you going to respond to this client, to this family, to this community member? And so trying to destigmatize these things, but also knowing that it's so important because there are these unique parts of it that we can leverage to then teach and open up even [00:29:00] more.
Because my goal as an SLP, and even as an educator in this space, is I'm never wanting to remove any of the things. I'm just adding to your toolbox. And then the student gets to decide, the family gets to decide when I use it, when I don't use it, when I want to use it. Right? That's, that's not my role as the SLP. I'm just giving you more tools for your toolbox.
[00:29:23] Danielle Scorrano: Mm-hmm, I love how you talked about this added approach, this strength-based approach. And as you were talking, I think to even highlight, like you said, AAE and looking at dialectical difference, has been stigmatized in the terms of this de deficit-based model. And that reminds me back to the ecological systems framework. As we look at this, when you and Nicole and your colleagues wrote the article approaching ecological systems theory within reading, you explicitly talked about that, that, these outlining all of these factors is not [00:30:00] the way that you're going to then explain a deficit.
It's really looking at what are those potential risk factors? What are those protective factors. I just used my hand again. Sorry, Harry. I should just leave that in for all our READers. I have an AI camera that makes me look a little better at nine o'clock in the morning, but sometimes it makes me move. But anyways, back to it, and I talk with my hands, but when you look at this ecological systems framework that you have protective, you have risk factors, do you see that similarly as what, what Dr. Catts and Dr. Petscher are doing with the resilience framework?
[00:30:32] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Yeah, definitely. We've worked together with them both. Nicole and I were on one of the technical working groups for that project that they have where they're looking at some of those frameworks. I think it's important to think about it as we can identify what some of the risks may be, what some of these factors may be. But also then what are the solutions. Because so often sometimes we're just identifying this kid [00:31:00] is all these additive risks, right? I'm doing the same thing as you now. It's all these risks, right? But what are some of the things that we can do, or maybe perhaps it's not in our wheelhouse to do, but we help make the school, the systems aware of these things so that then we can plan accordingly to help then set kids and families up for their most successful kind of academic, years.
When we think about it from, well, if we know some of these risk factors may be this stuff around, because we haven't really talked about like early learning, right? Because that's another part of a lot of the work that we do through The Village. If we know that there are these factors around kids or risk factors around the community, like no high quality preschool, right?
Then what are we doing? How are we answering some of these things? And well, it may not be directly correlated to the one research project you came [00:32:00] there for. We can start to think about, here are these things that we can do, right? Here are the systems that could be in place around preschool education, pre-k education to help. So I think it's really impactful to think about not just those risk factors, but also then how do we provide some solutions towards them, realizing that as the researchers, we may not be able to mitigate them all, but when you know them, you're able to help think through and help administration maybe think through some of those from a different lens.
[00:32:32] Danielle Scorrano: Right. I think that's an interesting point. I wanted to circle back when you said that they may have these risk factors. It's not say, that they're going to have them definitely but there is a probability, and so I think that's interesting. I think important, even neurobiologically to environmentally.
[00:32:48] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Yeah.
[00:32:49] Danielle Scorrano: I like what you said, too, is we already have these tools, like I'll say the laser focus around classroom instruction and high quality instruction. When I spoke to Dr. Catts, he was talking about [00:33:00] of dyslexia and we really need to make sure the students have access to high quality reading instruction. We have those things, right? We have the supports, like you said, creating areas or family centers in schools so that families have this additional support that they may need or providing breakfast for students so they're not hungry so that they can sit there and access the high quality curriculum that is in place. And so I think that's an important part, is where we have those supports. How are we then leveraging them so that they are there for children if and when they need to access them?
[00:33:37] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Right, and that may, I don't know where we're going, but that could be an excellent tie to what the work of The Village is.
[00:33:43] Danielle Scorrano: Yes. I want to talk about The Village.
[00:33:45] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Excellent tie in, right, because The Village is, a relatively new division for the Florida Center for Reading Research. It was just created in 2019., and essentially Nicole and I wanted to, it was somewhat of a replication from the center that she started at Georgia State University, the Urban Child Study Center where I worked with her there.
I did my postdoc with her and Julie Washington there. And then I stayed on as a research scientist for several years. And, when she came to Florida State, a part of that was trying to recreate this thing. And the local community where we are in Tallahassee is the poorest zip code in the state of Florida. So you have several well renowned universities, you know, Florida A&M, Florida State University. We have another community college. We also have an internationally known research center, but three of the schools that I passed on my way to work had failing grades when we moved here.
[00:34:44] Danielle Scorrano: Yeah.
[00:34:45] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Poor zip code in the state right here where we are.
And The Village, as it is called, is simply a response to, we can't have all this knowledge at the university level that [00:35:00] impacts what people are doing across the country around how kids learn how to read, but not make more of an impact locally. So it is truly a place-based, very centralized and focused on Tallahassee in our surrounding counties, but very much vocalized on helping and providing community engagement and outreach. And so The Village works, in three ways. I'm the current director of The Village now that Nicole has moved on to being the Director of FCRR. So, I've been the director since 2021. And, our goals are really to, we call them, our three Cs: Connect, Champion, and Collaborate.
So we want to connect to our different partners and stakeholders. And those can be any people. It could be our local school district, but it could also be the public media system. Right? It's our local PBS station. It's our public library. It's organizations that are specifically focused on advancements [00:36:00] for health outcomes for young children like doing community screening for birth to five. All of those different organizations are our partners, and we connect with them simply by being thought partners a lot of the time. If you have a question about is this the right curriculum that we should be using, is this intervention appropriate for this thing or is this what we should be doing? We can help you think through that using the evidence, right? So connecting our partners to evidence, that's around the reading and language research, but also when they have questions that are clearly not in our wheelhouse. We work at an entire university. Somebody knows, I can't tell you about the STEM stuff, but I'm sure we can find someone who can help you. So being that connecting factor I think is important because a part of any research-practice partnership is building relationships. And so that is the way that we truly do that. We build relationships and we did that for a full year and a half before we even broached any subjects of any kind of actual research.
The second C is for champion. There's a lot of amazing work happening in local communities all over the country. And so we wanted to ensure that we were coming in to support and have the seat at the table, but not necessarily pull the table away and say, hey, these researchers are coming in. They know best y'all listen to us. That's not our role at all. So if that means I get to go judge the Tropicana Speech Context or the spelling bee, or we host a literacy night or partner with them, we've been doing some amazing parent engagement events. We've been doing community like kids kinds of events where we bring books to life, where we provide the information to families, but also then, that's evidence backed, but also show up in our community, feeling like we are touchable and that's what a reading coach said to me. She said that she didn't think that we were touchable, that they couldn't just send an email and ask a question to someone, you know, [00:38:00] at our center. So The Village is kind of helping to bridge and be that liaison. And then of course, It is a research center. We got to do research. So that's when we have true relationships where we create and build studies based on the needs of our partners. So the work is really, really exciting and I love it because I I get to do the research, but I also get to do the things that, disseminate our work in such a way that it impacts these families right now, these kids, students, these teachers right now, which I think is always really, really helpful. And it's meeting their needs. And so, we've had a great last few years since we've started, even through COVID, we've had some projects that we've kicked out specifically based on the needs of our partners.
We're working with our local school district. Like I said, we've got projects with so many different partners. I'm even serving as a member of a leadership circle for this organization called Sister Friends, which is a Black [00:39:00] maternal health outcomes organization that's really just focused on improving, we know all of the disparities around maternal health outcomes in Black women. And so it's an organization specifically around that. And you're like, well, what does that have to do with FCRR? We know how important healthy language is in the first year, in the first five years. So we serve in this role to be able to create, pull together workshops, presentations, information, all of these things that are impactful for new moms who may not have ever heard this before. It's not that they don't want to do it, they've never been shared this information. So I get to and build a lot of these partnerships and help to kind of sustain them. So it's really, really fun work.
[00:39:44] Danielle Scorrano: Yeah. And again, speaking to this intersection from a systems framework, I want to dive further into The Village. You already gave it away, which I'm so happy you did because I'm sure our READers are at the edge of their seats or if they're walking, maybe they're jogging at this they're so excited. [00:40:00] You will be on for a second episode where we will dive deeper into The Village on partnerships and implications for leadership. I'm so excited to talk more about that. And we have limited time, so I want to talk about Maya's Book Nook I first learned about you through finding Maya's Book Nook, and I know you talked about how you were just that avid reader, you know, reading with your flashlight on into the wee hours of the night and you, you started this Maya’s Book Nook for your daughter Maya. Is that right?
[00:40:32] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: That’s right.
[00:40:33] Danielle Scorrano: Tell me more about that.
[00:40:34] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Okay, so it's named after my daughter Maya. She's currently seven years old. Back in 2017, when she was two, it was really just a way of me on my personal social media feeds I was sharing, I think during Black History Month, I said, Hey, I'm going to share all these books by Black authors. Because I'm also one of those creatives. I like to make things. And for baby shower gifts, I was [00:41:00] always given these books of like super diverse kids and like creating little onesies and stuff. And I kept saying, I'm going to do something. So Black History Month in 2017, I literally every day shared books by Black authors and so many parents were saying, I've never seen so many books that featured black and brown characters. And I'm like, they're out there, have to look. But they are out there. And, I kept hearing, you should create a website. I'm like, I don't have time for that. Right. But in 2018, Black History Month rolled around again. I did it again, and then I shortly thereafter decided to start the website. And it is truly, grown and, and flourished and blossomed. And it really is a way to just promote strong language and literacy skills through diverse children's books. And so, on the website and through the social media pages, there's everything from book themes, book lists, recommendations, but also then [00:42:00] guides to support the book. We call them “Beyond the Book Guides,” because it is not just, of course, let me just read this book or get access to books.
It's so much more than what we're doing beyond the book, the conversations that surround the text. So we create these completely free guides that are available on the website that get shared, that are useful for both teachers and practitioners as well as families because we want the information to be accessible to all who are interested in kind of reading those books and author, reviews, all kinds of things, Crafts, any and everything you could think of that's related to books. But then also how can I use them to be you know, educational. So I have picks around like, how you choose good books when you're reading with your kids or when you want to use them at schools.
Because every book is not a good book for a teachable moment or for a classroom setting. So I think that it's a little, it's a passion project, but it is one that I've been grateful to kind of [00:43:00] start to also merge. And as Maya, of course has gotten older, the website and the information kind of changes. We're, she's reading chapter books now, so we do feature things from zero to probably about eight, sometimes maybe about 13 or so. So you can see book recommendations and lists for that group.
[00:43:20] Danielle Scorrano: Oh, I love that. And we'll definitely have the website up on readpodcast.org And what I really think that was most fascinating to me is you said it does provide these areas to facilitate language development and intersecting the work of creating diverse books so that people, that children can see themselves in books. Right. I think that's one sort of thought about, like in terms of thinking about like cultural hegemony, of seeing how literature can, or that literature should be more diverse, that children of color should be seeing themselves in the story. And you're intersecting with this language, this aspect of language development. [00:44:00] So I thought that was really fascinating. Was that your original idea, when you, when you first created it, was that something that you were thinking about in the forefront? Yeah. Tell me more.
[00:44:09] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Definitely. Mostly because, I mean, I didn't want it to just be another kind of book blog. I mean, and I followed tons of book bloggers, but I wanted it to always be, and I’m just a person who's always thinking about language and knowing about just the importance of literacy skills and how I can use this book, the same book from when the kid's three to now when this kid is six or seven, the same book, how it can grow with the child.
I can do different things with it if I could be, you know, a conduit to help parents kind of think through that. And even practitioners. As an SLP, I use books throughout therapy. So I do a lot of talks around how do you incorporate books. And I think that it's important as we strive to be more culturally responsive using authentic materials.I always talk about ensuring the materials we use reflect the students that are in front of you, right? So ensuring [00:45:00] students not only see themselves, but they see themselves in ways that are valuable. We're not just doing this during these historic kind of heritage months, and it's from these historic perspectives, but kids doing regular things and we use them in the same way that we would use Click Clack more or any other book. Right? You know, there are all these amazing stories that are starting to be written, and the publishing world has a lot of work to do. That's a whole other podcast around diversity in children's books. I mean, it's increasing, but there are still more books that are written about, animals and non-human things like unicorns, robots, transformers than when you tally up all the percentage of students of color or characters of color, more about animals,
[00:45:46] Danielle Scorrano: Wow.
[00:45:47] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Right? And we're not even going to talk about the percentage. I think it's maybe 4 or maybe 3%. I don't have the graphic in front of me, but it's, it's definitely less than five students with disability or characters with [00:46:00] disabilities, Characters that represent LGBTQIA+ populations. It is small. Small. And so when we think about it, it's important to know there's research that shows children are more engaged with the text that they're reading when they're characters that look like they've been in. Morgan and Morgan have done some work in that area, and if we want to meet children where they are, find stories that are representative of their culture, of their values. And then of course, once you do that part, let's expand it even more and introduce other cultures, groups, other ways of doing life because it just expands their horizons for other communities that they may never access.
Maya knows way more about so many things than I ever do, than I ever did as a kid her age, simply because we read so many books. So, I love it. It's a passion project and it takes a lot of time. I wish I had more time that I can dedicate to the website and to the [00:47:00] social media pages, but it's definitely a passion project for sure.
[00:47:04] Danielle Scorrano: Oh, I'm so glad that we talked about it. And again, in our next episode, I do want to dive into Maya’s Book Nook a little more, and we have limited time. I wish I could just spend the entire day with you just talking.
[00:47:16] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: We have tohang out.
[00:47:17] Danielle Scorrano: I know this felt like, just like the two of us just having coffee or tea or whatever we are drinking, and like on a cloudy day in New York and you're just like brightening my day. But I have one more question for you. What are you and Maya reading right now?
[00:47:32] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: You know, that's a terrible question to ask a book blogger. What are we reading right now? Right now, right now she's really into series. So she is loving the Magnificent Makers Series. I cannot think of the author's name, but she is a scientist and it's a book about this classroom of kids, three in particular.And they go on these like super adventures, it's a chapter book, an early reader [00:48:00] chapter book. And so they go on these amazing scientific adventures. They have themes around either coding or engineering but they're all really science focused. And then they have some experiments in the back. So she's making her way through the series.
I think she's on book five right now that just came out earlier at the beginning of the year. So she's really, really loving that. We always love to read books that are affirming. So we love any kind of a book that affirms hair and skin and, you know, being who you are. I'll say that what I'm reading currently is I'm reading Michelle Obama's most recent book. That's my current read. And we're excited about the website. she has some things that she wants to do now that she's older. She wants to start a book club. She wants to go live more often. So you know, we’re shifting as she gets older, and adding and incorporating in some other things. But yeah, she's really, really begging for [00:49:00] a book club and to do weekly lives. So if anybody wants to be her manager, I reach out. Her mom doesn't have time.
Danielle Scorrano: Right. Well, you all READer heard it here first, and I, I can't be a manager, but I'll definitely be a someone who tunes in, so I'll be your audience, and I know all of our READers that are listening will definitely be your audience as well. Okay. So I think we just skimmed the surface of this conversation. There's so much more to learn from you. I'm so excited you're coming back. Thank you, Dr. Lakeisha Johnson for being on the READ Podcast.
[00:49:32] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Thank you so much, Danielle, for inviting me. Thank you to the listeners for tuning in.
[00:49:36] Danielle Scorrano: Of course. Yay. So thank you all for listening to this episode of the READ Podcast with Dr. Lakeisha Johnson. You can learn more about Lakeisha's work, by visiting my top READ bookmarks or top moments from each episode. Those can be found at readpodcast.org. You can also access all my top read bookmarks from experts from our past episodes.
I continuously strive to connect you and [00:50:00] learn from inspiring leaders like Dr. Lakeisha Johnson. If you have any thoughts, questions, or ideas of topics and speakers, feel free to reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also invite you to like, subscribe, and share the READ podcast with friends and colleagues.And you can also follow or like Windward’s social media pages to find out more about upcoming speakers, episodes and events.
So with that being said, Dr. Lakeisha Johnson, can you do our sendoff, Until next time, READers?
[00:50:29] Dr. Lakeisha Johnson: Until next time READers!
What does it truly mean to invest in the livelihood of all children? Lakeisha Johnson, PhD, joins the READ Podcast for a timely and important discussion on an integrated, systems approach to supporting all students in schools, with a focus on vulnerable populations.
Utilizing an ecological systems framework to reading, Dr. Johnson explains the “both, and” of applying the Science of Reading in classrooms while ensuring that educators understand and invest in community-wide supports and programs to address other factors that could influence reading outcomes. This integrated approach both broadens and deepens the collective impact on the livelihood of children and families. Dr. Johnson cites her research on executive functioning and language, particularly exploring dialectical variation, and reflects upon her work as Director of The Village and creator of Maya’s Book Nook.
Top READ Bookmarks
Each episode, host Danielle Scorrano identifies key takeaways or “READ bookmarks.”
1. An integrated approach to understanding reading and child development
Listen to 7:49 – 18:28 and 29:28 – 33:37 to learn more.
Approaching reading and child development through an integrated, systems approach enables researchers and educators to understand the ecological factors that may impact a child.
“[We need to understand that] it is bigger than just this one child. Of course, we think about the individual child’s characteristics, but a lot of the work that we do intersects with thinking about the child and their home [and community life]. It’s also not just about one teacher. It’s the whole school environment. What is the school culture around literacy?”
Ecological frameworks provide insights to the risk and protective factors in a child’s development throughout classrooms, schools, communities, and society. Read more about this framework:
Building a framework to understand and address vulnerability to reading difficulties among children in schools in the United States
Terry, N.P. et al., 2022
Special Issue: Education and Intervention in Vulnerable Student Populations: Science and Practice (pp. 9-26)
“There are also community factors... [which] may not be impacting this one child but can have a greater impact in terms of the system as a whole.”
An ecological framework model helps educators to increase their intentionality toward how they support for children in schools.
“Educators can have increased intentionality toward thinking about all of the things that could impact a child’s day-to-day life and how they’re learning.”
2. Executive Functioning and Language Variation
Listen to 18:59 – 29:23 to learn more.
Dr. Johnson’s research explores executive functioning development and cognitive advantages for children with English language variation such as dialect use.
3. Community Partnerships at The Village
Listen to 33:37 – 39:44 to learn more.
The Village at Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) leads community engagement and outreach through three C’s: connection, champion, collaborate. Learn more about The Village here.
“The Village is simply a response to, we can't have all this knowledge at the university level that impacts what people are doing across the country related to how kids learn to read, but not make more of an impact locally.”
4. Maya’s Book Nook
Listen to 40:11 – 47:17 to learn more.
Dr. Johnson started Maya’s Book Nook (named after her daughter, Maya), to promote strong language and literacy skills through diverse children’s books. Maya’s Book Nook started in 2018 after Dr. Johnson started sharing books by Black authors during Black History Month.
"I always talk about ensuring the materials we use reflect the students that are in front of us. So [it’s important] that students not only see themselves, but they see themselves in ways that are valuable."
The site is now a space for families and educators to find books that celebrate diverse children’s literature while providing hands-on guides and resources to build early language and literacy skills.
“We want to meet children where they are, and find stories that are representative of their culture and values. Once you do that part, let’s expand it even more and introduce other cultures, groups, and other ways of doing life because it expands their horizons to other communities that they may never access.”
Learn more from Dr. Lakeisha Johnson’ work at:
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About READ: READ, the Research Education ADvocacy Podcast connects you with prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators who share their work, insights, and expertise about current research and best practices in fields of education and child development.
Note: All information and insights shared demonstrate the expertise and views of our guests and does not constitute an endorsement by The Windward Institute or The Windward School.