Dr. Gwendolyn Thompson McMillon is an Associate Professor of Literacy in the Department of Reading and Language Arts and has been at Oakland University since 2001. She's a co-author of Change Is Gonna Come, which was just given the Edward B. Fry Book Award, by the Literacy Research Association.
What is Change is Gonna Come about?
After decades of research on the achievement gap between African American students and their counterparts, the enigma remains. In Change Is Gonna Come, my co-authors and I address this issue explicitly by discussing the source of the problems and specifically how many of the problems can be solved. Recognizing that many issues have existed across generations, we look back to go forward as we address four major debates: 1) the fight for access to literacy; 2) supports and roadblocks to success; 3) best practices, theories, and perspectives on teaching African American students; and 4) the role of African American families in the literacy lives of their children. These debates are highlighted within valuable lessons learned from the past and include real stories from our own diverse family histories and experiences as students, teachers, parents, and community members.
What do you think the book's most important message?
I believe the most important message in the book is that African Americans have a rich culture that provides the context for unique literacy experiences. Culturally responsive teachers can utilize this information to develop instructional strategies that prepare African American students for success in a global society; however, teachers who lack this knowledge continue to perpetuate the inequities in our society. Closing the achievement gap requires teachers to move from rhetoric to action by incorporating best practices that engage diverse, African American learners. In other words, race matters.
What compelled you to write this book?
We wanted to write a comprehensive document that looked back at the history of our struggle for access to literacy, discussed various issues across time, and specifically highlighted solutions. We realize there are many problems, but the literature did not include realistic, practical solutions. Our shared experiences spanned more than 125 years and we felt that it was time for someone to specifically talk about “how” to solve the problems. We realized our personal and family stories could provide valuable examples and therefore, chose to make our own “pathways to success” transparent to others.
The opening of the book, tells of your family saying, “When you make it, reach back and help someone else.” Can you tell us a more about what that means?
My motivation to become an academician was driven by a passionate desire to find ways to reach and teach the children from my old neighborhood – an impoverished, inner-city area with crack houses on every block, where gang violence is common, and hopelessness has overshadowed childhood dreams of success. Growing up in the ghetto and attending inner-city schools, I have seen firsthand, the endless cycles of poverty that many researchers write about.
However, as unlikely as it may seem, the inner-city was also the place where I learned to set goals that seemed unattainable, rise above the pressures of everyday life, and exercise faith in a power much greater than my own. As the daughter of a Baptist preacher and primary Sunday School teacher, I was taught that attaining a good education was the means to liberation – it was the only way out of the ghetto.
After becoming liberated, it was my responsibility to reach back and help others succeed. Writing Change is Gonna Come is one of the ways that I have contributed, however, I am also the principal investigator of the Saginaw/Oakland Literacy Project – a research project that focuses on improving literacy teaching and learning in urban schools.
In 2006, I started with two schools – including Houghton Elementary where I received my K-6 education. The project has expanded to eight schools and includes a 6-week program during which we collaborate with the Houghton-Jones Resource Center to offer K-8 students intensive academic instruction during the summer. The project has been funded by several Michigan Department of Education Improving Teacher Quality grants. We are currently in our implementation phase of the academic school year.
I am passionate about my work. When I was young, someone helped me. Now, it’s my responsibility to use my gifts, talents, resources, skills and abilities to reach back and help others. I consider it a “calling” not just a career.
What are you hoping this book will accomplish?
I hope Change is Gonna Come will help teachers understand the importance of making sacrifices to help their students. If they keep teaching the “same old way” they will get the “same old results.” They have to “do something different” to get different results.
Last month, my co-authors and I received the 2011 Edward B. Fry Book Award for Outstanding Contributions in Literacy Research & Practice. The award was presented at the Literacy Research Association Conference in Jacksonville, Florida. The Literacy Research Association is the professional home to the largest number of literacy researchers in the world and it is an absolute honor to receive accolades from those whom I hold in high esteem because of their significant contributions to the field. According to the criteria, the book that receives the Edward B. Fry Award will:
- Advance knowledge about literacy
- Display inquiry into literacy
- Show responsible intellectual risk taking
Receiving the Edward B. Fry Book Award is encouraging because it provides evidence that readers understand our message. Also, Change is Gonna Come has been on the “best seller” list for more than 6 months.