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A Woman of Influence and Grace: ILA Remembers Past President Dorothy S. Strickland

By Colleen Patrice Clark
 | Apr 22, 2020

Dorothy StricklandDorothy S. Strickland, a renowned advocate of equitable literacy instruction and of improving the quality of teacher education programs and professional development, passed away earlier this week at the age of 86.

Her influence in education extended far and wide. She served as president of the International Reading Association (IRA, now ILA) from 1977 to 1978 and also as president of the Reading Hall of Fame from 1997 to 1998. She served on several prominent task forces and committees, including the National Early Literacy Panel and the Common Core State Standards Validation Committee.

As P. David Pearson, a fellow titan of the field, said: “Dorothy was a doer.”

“She came to the table to get the work done,” said Pearson, emeritus faculty member in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. “She didn’t walk away when things didn’t always go exactly the way she wanted them to. I am sure that her determination to finish the work, along with her collaborative disposition and her wisdom about policy and practice, were the reasons she was in such high demand as a member of these national panels.” 

Another word used to describe Strickland: grace.

“Dorothy Strickland was a lady of brilliance, grace, and courtesy,” said Diane Lapp, chair of ILA’s Literacy Research Panel. “Above all, Dorothy always had her focus on what was the best and most equitable instruction for all children, while also staying equally attentive to the preparation of their teachers and administrators. The literacy world has lost one of its giants.”

A pioneer in many respects

Strickland’s career began in 1955 as a fourth-grade teacher. One of the things she valued most was ongoing learning, and she lived by example. She went on to be a reading consultant and learning disabilities specialist, to earn her master’s and doctorate, and to teach courses in reading, language arts, and children’s literature. She taught at Kean College of New Jersey, Teachers College, Columbia University, and Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. She made sure that her work took her away from campus and into schools across the United States so she could remain entrenched in the everyday challenges faced by teachers and administrators and work with them on their professional development efforts.

She added several awards to her name, including National-Louis University Ferguson Award for Outstanding Contributions to Early Childhood Education, IRA’s Outstanding Teacher Educator of Reading Award, and the William S. Gray Citation of Merit—our organization’s highest honor.

Strickland was an especially beloved literacy advocate in New Jersey, where she dedicated much of her career to the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education and served as the inaugural Samuel DeWitt Proctor Professor of Education.

Proctor was the first African American to have a professorship named in his honor at Rutgers, making it fitting for Strickland, also a pioneering African American educator, to be the first bestowed with the title.

Strickland was the first African American president of IRA when she served the organization in the 1970s, a time when the field was largely dominated by white men, and she did not take this position lightly. Along with her many contributions to the field, she served as an inspiration for countless women, particularly those of color, who followed in her footsteps.

One in particular was Patricia Edwards, who served as president of IRA from 2010 to 2011.

“In 1978, while a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had the opportunity to attend the Great Lakes Regional Conference,” said Edwards, a professor at Michigan State University. “I had never seen a person of color on the big stage. When I first saw Dorothy on the center stage, I decided that I wanted to follow in her footsteps by becoming a leader in the organizations that focused on literacy.”

Edwards added that when she went on to become the first African American president of the National Reading Conference (now the Literacy Research Association) and later president of IRA, Strickland—who had become her friend and great mentor—was right there to cheer her on.

“Dorothy was not only a great mentor but also she made significant contributions to the field of literacy research. Her 1994 seminal article, ‘Educating African American Learners at Risk: Finding a Better Way,’ had an indelible impact on my research agenda,” Edwards said. “Dorothy’s integrity and her scholarship inspired many people. She impacted the lives of  her students not only as a teacher but also as a counselor, mentor, and friend.”

Rutgers is where Strickland become a close colleague and friend of Lesley Mandel Morrow, distinguished professor and director of the Center for Literacy Development at the university.

“Dorothy was an inspiration for me and others,” Morrow said. “We worked together on research projects, books, and articles. We edited an early literacy column in The Reading Teacher journal for several years. I learned so much from Dot and feel very fortunate I was able to work with her.

“Dorothy is one of those people that you think will always be there,” she added. “She was and always will be an icon in the literacy community.”

Shelley B. Wepner, dean of the School of Education at Manhattanville College in New York, referred to Strickland as her “ultimate role model.” She said with Strickland, every conversation turned into a discussion about the latest research on literacy and what was and still needed to be achieved to help children develop into readers and writers.

“To say that she was passionate about literacy for all is an understatement. She lived and breathed literacy and did extraordinary things on behalf of our profession because of her influential advocacy across the nation,” Wepner said.

Strickland’s influence reached far beyond the professional realm. Many commented on how she touched their lives personally, including Morrow, who said she borrowed Strickland’s “shameless grandma” persona when she too become a grandmother. She added that no professional accomplishment for Strickland could compare to how proud she was to be a mother and grandmother.

Lee Galda, the Sidney and Marguerite Henry Professor of Children’s and Young Adult Literature, Emerita, at the University of Minnesota, echoed those sentiments.

“Dorothy was a wonderful woman, both personally and professionally,” Galda said. “Dot also helped me learn how to combine being a scholar with being a wife and mother. She was one of those special people who handled life with grace and dignity, who made others feel respected and cared for.”

Nancy Roser, distinguished teaching professor at the University of Texas at Austin, called Strickland “a woman for whom superlatives are made.”

She was “a leader in literacy, an expert in young children, an advocate for equity and opportunity,” Roser said. “A wife, mom, friend, teacher, writer extraordinaire, who entered a field dominated by male icons and carried the banner for women scholars, people of color, and especially for children, advocating access to literacy in preschools, homes, and classrooms everywhere.”

A powerhouse reputation

One of Strickland’s frequent collaborators was Timothy Shanahan, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“In all the work we did together and all of the hundreds of hours that we spent together, you’d think that I could describe her complex of personality features and professional capacities. But when I think about Dot, only one word comes to mind: grace,” Shanahan said. “She envisioned a world in which everyone was fully included and valued. She was always looking for the choice, decision, or policy that all could share. She treated everyone with respect and that meant she wanted to hear their position and tried to see their point of view.”

But “that doesn’t mean she never held anyone’s feet to the fire,” Shanahan recalled. “Oh, she could be tough, but that was never her starting point. She always gave you a chance to see your own shortcomings and to be reasonable before she’d go there. I watched many a passionate hardcase melt when confronted with her thoughtful questioning and her grace. I miss her.”

That fierce side of her personality came down to her advocacy for equity both in classroom instruction and in teacher education. Strickland had a reputation as a powerhouse when it came to recognizing the connection between student achievement and quality teacher preparation programs. She also knew that preparation didn’t end with the earning of a degree, and as such, continued learning opportunities needed to be improved as well.

“Dorothy knew student learning was tightly linked to teacher learning,” Pearson said. “So she focused her energy on improving the quality of teacher education—by providing more rigorous and more empowering teacher learning in both preservice credential programs and professional development settings.”

That impact, felt across the United States and worldwide, especially leaves a hole at Rutgers, where Strickland was a teacher and mentor to countless doctoral students and other literacy professionals.

Wanda Blanchett, dean of the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, like many others referred to Strickland as a giant of the profession when she announced her passing in a notice to the faculty.

“Dr. Strickland will be missed by all of us fortunate enough to have known her,” Blanchett said. “However, her legacy of literary advocacy and excellence, along with her many scholarly and professional contributions, will inspire generations of students, educators, and scholars for many years to come.”

Colleen Patrice Clark is the managing editor of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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