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Creating Doors: Heather Elgin, L&L'15

Heather ElginWhen thinking about what she will change in the field of education, Heather Elgin draws upon the words of activist and civil rights lawyer Monica Ramirez – a recent guest in her Ethnic Studies course — “Sometimes there aren’t doors. You have to create them.” San Francisco native Elgin has taken Ramirez’s words to heart.

“I aim to create doors,” she says. “More importantly, I aim to support young people to walk through the doors that their elders put in place for them and break down the walls where they think other doors ought to be.” 

Having come to the Ed School with 12 years of classroom teaching experience, Elgin enrolled in the Language and Literacy (L&L) Program looking to, as her program director, Lecturer Pamela Mason puts it, “dig deeper into her craft.”

“Out of respect for her students, Heather strives to be a reflective practitioner and an informed consumer of current literacy research,” says Mason.

Elgin’s courage was apparent in many ways over the course of the year, says Mason, as she served as the L&L representative on the Diversity & Inclusion Council, and “by standing in solidarity with people from all walks of life and all walks of struggle as they stand up for justice in Ferguson and all over the States.

“It takes courage for a backpacking, river rafting, hiking, nature loving, marathon runner, and mountain climber to leave the comforts of San Francisco to brave the snowstorms of New England’s cold winters,” Mason continues, “but Heather’s enthusiasm for learning was a warm spot for her cohort.”

Described by her peers as “an invaluable colleague,” Elgin was named recipient of the Intellectual Contribution/Faculty Tribute Award for L&L. Here she answers some questions about her time at the Ed School and beyond.

What was your goal upon entering the Ed School? While working in schools in the United States and abroad, with few or abundant financial resources, with little or significant accountability, I puzzled over these same questions: How can educators support the literacy development of students, particularly those who tend to struggle in their school contexts? Given the outdated model of many school systems, what kinds of learning environments might better serve all students? I came here aiming to explore these questions, and I was not certain what that would mean for me after graduation. 

Is that goal any different now? I can say with confidence that I have explored those questions and am leaving with even more questions!

What is something that you learned at HGSE that you will take with you throughout your career in education? I learned to be a critical consumer of educational research and question everything posed as “best practice.” In the words of Claude Steele, I learned time and time again that, “a shared puzzle gets solved much faster.”

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School? Deeper Learning for All with the teaching team of Jal Mehta, Dan Wise, Katharine Carter, and Sarah Fine was a formative experience because we rigorously toyed with the purpose of education and asked, “What if?” The selected readings and visits to area schools took over my life, but in retrospect, that single class provided me with a rich perspective on education. I am grateful for the relationships forged, and I look forward to collaboratively pushing the boundaries on what teaching and learning can look like.

Terry Tivnan’s passion for his subject, effusive encouragement, and generosity of time affirmed my love and capacity for mathematics. I particularly value this given the dominance of males in math teaching positions and the internalized oppression of many of my female peers in regard to their aptitude for mathematics, even at HGSE.

I am grateful to be ending the year in class with Paola Uccelli who, in her unassuming manner, calls a spade a spade when it comes to cultural bias in literacy education. She encourages us to ground our thinking in research and to complicate that thinking by remaining vigilant about the ever-present sociocultural context.

How did you stay inspired throughout the year? Punctuating my days with brownies.

What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program? You are at Harvard, and that means you have unparalleled access to learning opportunities beyond the classroom. Classes are an important but small part of this experience. See and do as much as you can both at HGSE and in the university at large. You can sleep after you graduate.

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