Rider professor strives to enhance literacy in the classroom

Dr. Heather Casey is the coordinator of Rider’s graduate-level literacy concentration
Keith Fernbach

From a young age, Dr. Heather Casey had a love for the English language and dreamed of someday becoming an author. “I wanted to be a full-time fiction writer or a poet,” she says.

As an undergraduate at Rutgers, she majored in English, and because she also loved working with kids, she added a minor in secondary education. “I had this vision of teaching and then doing lots of writing on the side,” she says.

After graduating, she began her career as a teacher, intent on sharing her passion for English with her students. “I was in an inclusion classroom, and while I felt well prepared to support readers and writers who were engaged, I realized how much I didn’t know about helping struggling readers and writers,” she says. “There was so much more to learn. And the more I learned, the more I realized there was so much more to know.”

So she went back to school to earn a master’s in reading education, followed by a doctorate in education with a literacy concentration. She began as an assistant professor at Rider in 2007 and is now a professor in the College of Education and Human Services.

In the Department of Graduate Education, Leadership and Counseling, Casey teaches graduate courses in the literacy specialist concentration. She is also the coordinator of Rider’s graduate-level literacy concentration, where she works with students interested in pursuing their reading specialist endorsement. This concentration is designed specifically for practicing teachers and is offered in both online and hybrid learning formats so as to accommodate their busy schedules.

While Casey initially focused primarily on helping struggling readers and writers, now her research primarily deals with how to motivate and engage all adolescents, with particular emphasis on how new technologies are influencing literacy development.

To help with literacy development across all curricula, Casey came up with what she calls “literacy learning clubs,” which are small groups of students who share an interest in a topic. The students work together to learn more, using digital tools as well as print resources to deepen their understanding. When connected to a discipline (such as science, social studies, or math) teachers place topics of study on a "menu" from which students select and groups are created. When groups meet, teachers facilitate the process by modeling strategies to use when reading and writing in the discipline. They also prompt learning through questions to support the students' ability to think carefully and critically about the new information.

Casey offers the following advice for supporting adolescents in their reading and writing development:

Choice matters: Students should be offered a menu of options. Everyone may need to learn about a particular subject matter, but they don’t all have to be reading the same text to get to that same knowledge.

The way instruction is organized is important: Learning is social and there is a lot of opportunity for kids when they’re engaged collaboratively. At the same time, it’s important to allow for the students to work independently. There needs to be a mix of all kinds of learning experiences — whole group, small group and one on one.

Offer relevant and engaging materials: There are a lot of great young adult texts and resources out there, and we need to bring more of that inside schools — across all genres and content areas. It’s important to put this material, both print-based and digital, in kids’ hands in order to support their motivation but also support where they are as literacy learners so they can continue to progress.

Provide individualized instruction: Not all students learn at the same rate or have the same needs, so it’s important to have skilled teachers who understand adolescent literacy development and are able to work with kids differently based on what each child knows and still needs to learn.

Q&A with Dr. Heather Casey:

What’s one thing you love about your job?

I love the students, and the fact that I have the opportunity to work with graduate students interested in building their knowledge of literacy instruction. There’s no more engaged audience than a practicing teacher coming back to school to learn more to support their students. I love that I get to coach them in the field, right alongside them as they’re developing and moving towards student teaching or online in our new graduate program.

What professional achievement are you most proud of?

Publishing my first book, Literacy Learning Clubs in Grades 4-8: Engaging Students across the Disciplines. It’s about a subject I’ve been interested in since that first moment when I stepped into the classroom and realized there was so much more I needed to know. So having the chance to write that, to develop it, to share it in a way that is accessible (and hopefully helpful to kids and teachers!), is something that I feel really proud about. Recently, I was awarded the Rider University Dominick Iorio Research Award and I was deeply grateful to be recognized by the University and my colleagues.

What advice do you have for students interested in entering the teaching profession?

A woman who was named teacher of the year in the area several years ago said something that stuck with me. She said that if you’re going to be an effective teacher you have to love all kids, even the ones who sometimes make it difficult. I think that’s really important. I think being a good teacher is about working hard to build relationships with all kids and families and colleagues, not just the ones who are easy to connect with. It’s about not giving up on students, even if it looks like they’re giving up.

How do you see the teaching profession evolving over the next few years?

I think we’re going to continue to figure out how to work with digital tools and texts. With the opportunity, these platforms offer come tremendous responsibility for helping adolescent readers and writers learn how to navigate them. The challenge, for those who teach, is to help students develop the skills to critically and carefully evaluate, read and respond to these texts in these online environments. So I think we’re going to see more emphasis on how we help students navigate these tricky waters across disciplines.

What sets Rider apart from other universities?

The term "student-centered" is used a lot to describe Rider, but we really are so student-centered. I am so connected to my students not only in their classes at Rider but also in their field settings and classrooms, which makes a huge difference. This helps to build a really strong relationship, and it helps me stay really well informed. Those personal connections and relationships that develop are just really transformative and powerful and help all involved.

At the graduate level, these relationships are formed both through virtual platforms as well as on-site connections. We make use of synchronous classes and recently have collaborated with graduate admissions to offer literacy symposiums to create learning and networking opportunities for Reading Specialists and those moving into positions of literacy leadership. My work as site director of [email protected] also offers an opportunity for educators at all levels to come together to collaborate and learn through the various on-campus offerings provided throughout the year.

Rider offers both credit bearing and non-credit bearing literacy learning opportunities for educators designed to support educators and the students with whom they work.