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Lessons in Literacy: Tom Grasso, L&L'16

Tom Grasso
Like many students entering new schools for the first time, Tom Grasso came to HGSE last fall hoping to fit in.

“My greatest fear was that because I am an older student, I would not fit in or be able to keep up academically with my younger, more energized peers,” says the master’s candidate in the Language and Literacy (L&L) Program’s Reading Specialist strand.

But, as it turns out, those fears were unfounded. “Because HGSE values diversity, I have never felt out of place as a result of my age,” says Grasso, who has taken a position as a literacy specialist at an elementary school in Lexington, Massachusetts. “With respect to keeping up academically, I quickly learned that HGSE is a very noncompetitive environment in which fellow classmates support and help one another a lot. Contrary to what I had envisioned, I really benefitted from the many opportunities for collaboration and actually felt energized when working with my colleagues.”

Those feelings were echoed by Grasso’s L&L cohort-mates and Ed School faculty, who truly valued his contributions to discussions both in class and outside of it.

“Tom Grasso is a thoughtful contributor to class discussions, who integrates concepts from various sources and poses questions that foster critical thinking in his instructors and in his classmates,” says Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason, faculty director of L&L. “His instructors and cohort find that Tom has brought a depth and breadth of knowledge regarding literacy pedagogy and has been a generous collaborator. In class, Tom will speak into the silence to kick off a discussion and then step back creating space for other voices and perspectives…. Tom will take his reading specialist and classroom teacher skills to his next position and will be a literacy leader for teachers and an advocate for students.”

Upon learning that he had been honored with the Intellectual Contribution/Faculty Tribute Award for L&L, Grasso answered some questions about his time at the Ed School and beyond.

What was your goal upon entering the Ed School? After being a classroom teacher and a content-area teacher (math and science) at the early childhood, elementary, middle, and high school levels for over 10 years, I wanted to specialize and gain expertise in an area that I was passionate about: literacy. Besides seeing the importance and ubiquity of literacy in school settings, I also experienced the field from a different angle as an editor for an academic book publishing company. My goal for the year was to merge my interest in literacy from these two perspectives, gain expertise in the area, and bring all of these experiences into a school setting by working with students and teachers.

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education? The RAND heuristic for thinking about the complex and interrelated elements of reading comprehension.

For those not familiar with the RAND heuristic, it encapsulates three components — the reader, the text itself, and the activity or purpose for reading — that are interrelated in reading comprehension and all situated within a larger sociocultural context throughout the process of reading, i.e., extracting and constructing meaning through active engagement and interaction with written language.

Because we saw, referred to, and used this heuristic (attributable to HGSE’s Catherine Snow) so many times in class lectures, discussions, presentations, and assignments, one member of the cohort joked that the reading specialists should all get tattooed with this image before leaving HGSE!

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School? Professor Nonie Lesaux’s J-term course, Connecting Literacy Assessment with Instructional Improvement: Response to Intervention in Practice. Nonie and the course made me look at assessment through a whole new lens, which has affected my thinking as I have been working through the program and will continue to do so as I move forward. In particular, I have a new perspective about simultaneously looking at assessment both in terms of whole-school literacy reform and improved academic outcomes for individual students. Nonie’s work is particularly powerful because it helps one keep the big picture in focus while at the same time allowing one to zoom in at a more micro level. Nonie’s work and course are a perfect marriage of theory and real-world practice.

What will you change in education and why? I am not really sure if I myself can do this “in education,” but I would really like teachers and families to realize how complex the reading process is and move away from using terms such as “good reader,” “poor reader,” “one of my high readers,” or “one of the kids in my low group.” Because the reading process is complex and dynamic, those terms are so reductionist and cannot even begin to tell the story (or profile) of an individual reader.

If you could transport one person/place/thing from HGSE and/or Cambridge to your next destination, what would it be? The Jeanne Chall Reading Lab, more commonly known as the JCRL. For those who do not know about the JCRL, it is on the ground floor of Larsen (G10) and full of hundreds, maybe thousands, of all kinds of books. The JCRL also has tons of great resources — besides books — that are really helpful for reading teachers, and people who may be volunteer literacy tutors, to use with their students or as resources for course assignments. Finally, the JCRL is a wonderful space, which is really conducive to building camaraderie, community, and friendships.

The number one, biggest surprise of the last year was … The cookies at Gutman — the quality, size, taste, and variety. I really loved the toffee cookies!

Read about the other recipients of this year's Intellectual Contribution/Faculty Tribute Award.


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