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ILA 2018 Featured Speaker Colleen Cruz on Anticipating Barriers, the Reading-Writing Connection, and What it Means to be a Changemaker

By Alina O'Donnell
 | May 03, 2018

2018-M. Colleen Cruz-headshotIn addition to her upcoming title, Writers Read Better: Nonfiction, M. Colleen Cruz is the author of several professional development texts, including The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, Independent Writing and A Quick Guide to Helping Struggling Writers, as well as the young adult novel Border Crossing, a Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children's Book Award Finalist. Cruz was a classroom teacher in general education and inclusive settings before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as director of innovation. She currently supports schools, teachers, and their students nationally and internationally as a literacy consultant.

As director of innovation for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, much of your work is focused on increasing access to literacy through digital devices and tools. What do you believe are some of the tallest barriers?

“I think one of the biggest obstacles is the notion of us, as educators, looking at the students and what’s going on with them as opposed to what obstacles we’re putting in their way. It’s looking at our classroom libraries and thinking not only about diverse books, but how do we make our libraries more inclusive? How do we make sure they are accessible to everyone—even to students we may not yet have in our classrooms? We want to be constantly inclusive of more voices and topics and interests, and make sure that we have audio books, visually supportive texts, and the like. We want to be sure that there are as few obstacles to learning as possible. I think sometimes we see an issue or a problem that shows up in our classrooms and we try to solve it as it comes up, but I’m definitely a fan of anticipating barriers before they come up and designing our instruction with access. Setting up our teaching to be inclusive of various learning needs, cultural backgrounds, economic experiences… It’s hard for me to not think of everything together. I’m a big intersectionality person; if there’s barrier for one there’s a barrier for all.

I’m someone of mixed race, who grew up in a working-class home and is not straight. I saw how many obstacles showed up in my own path growing up, and it’s sort of hard for me to forget about them. Or even to decide which obstacle was harder or not as hard as another. I know firsthand it isn’t about ‘I just need to have these people in my seats’ or ‘I just need to have these books on my shelf and then everything will be OK.’ It’s about actively making sure there is access to literacy. For every kid.”

Your sessions at the ILA 2018 Conference will focus on how the teaching of authentic writing with reading can help develop students’ reading comprehension. This is also the topic of your upcoming book, Writers Read Better: Nonfiction. What led you to write this book?

“This is something that I’ve been playing around with personally and professionally for years. There was a game I would play with my friends, where we would read newspaper headlines and then try to guess the lede. It was pretty obvious that anyone who wrote would do it really well—it’s the idea that when you make something, you’re a better consumer of it. If you’re a chef, you know food better. If you sew, you’ll understand fashion in a different way.

I never really thought about the instructional ramifications of this game until one day, a third grader was struggling with talking about structure in a nonfiction book she was reading. I looked around the classroom for something to help her, and I realized there were no reading charts to help with structure, but there were writing charts. I asked her to pull out the nonfiction book she was writing herself and to talk about the structure she used, and she was able to make the connection between her writing and the book she was reading. I started experimenting—if a kid was struggling with finding text evidence, I looked at the ways he used text evidence in his writing. As I started playing with this I found this whole body of research that I didn’t even know was out there—not just about how reading supports writing, but the other way around.”

What can attendees expect to walk away with?

“One of the things I’m emphasizing is how today, more than ever, educators are struggling with how we can get kids to be more critical as readers and not just passive receptacles of content. One of the ways to ensure our kids are wide awake and critical readers—and I think this goes to the notion of social justice as well—is first to teach kids how to find their own voice as writers and then to channel that know-how toward being more savvy when taking in content.

[Attendees] will walk away with new tools they can use to teach critical reading comprehension. My hope is that they’ll leave with new ideas for how reading comprehension and writing skills can be tools for supporting student voice and a source of power in the world. These are things they can use tomorrow—strategies, resources—things they can do in real classrooms with real kids, even if their resources are limited.”

What does it mean to be a changemaker?

“This is where I lean on one of my biggest mentors, Lucy Calkins. One of the things she has said is that she wants to be known as a 'star maker,' someone who makes someone else’s voice heard, someone who lifts other people up. Part of being a changemaker isn’t necessarily going out and doing one specific thing, but rather, opening up doors for other people. Allowing kids to see what they’re capable of, giving them the tools to make the changes they want to make. I’ve always been about students’ independence and agency—my goal is to put myself out of a job. To make them so independent and skilled that they don’t need me.”  

M. Colleen Cruz will be a featured speaker at the ILA 2018 Conference, July 20–July 23, in Austin, TX. To learn more, visit

Alina O'Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.

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