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Born to Teach—Literacy and, Sometimes, Knitting

When Diane Anderson listened to her father read stories to her, a passion for reading developed that evolved into a passion for teaching literacy.

By Carol Brévart-Demm
Photograph by Eleftherios Kostans

anderson_diane.jpgONE DAY IN THE EARLY 1990s, while out playing with her two young daughters in Triangle Park in Rutledge, Pa., Diane Anderson, then a K–12 curriculum director in New Jersey schools, chatted with a man who was also in the park with his child. Anderson—now an associate professor of educational studies—made a deep enough impression upon the man that he spoke of her to his wife, Anne Renninger, who is a Swarthmore professor of educational studies. Later, Renninger met up with Anderson and eventually invited her to take on the part-time job of supervising the department’s student teachers. Anderson gradually eased into more teaching in the department, including a curriculum and methods course, followed by an elementary education course that is now known as Teaching Diverse Young Learners.

Delighted with what she describes as “a fabulous gig,” Anderson decided—encouraged by her husband and mother-in-law—that she should “go get myself a Ph.D.,” so she could stay at Swarthmore. So, at age 43, with two young children, she gave up the New Jersey job that paid the bills to enroll in a full-time doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, while continuing to teach at Swarthmore. She received a doctorate in education in 1998 and was awarded tenure at the College in 2008.

Anderson says that Swarthmore inspired her to create a more scholarly life for herself. It also stimulated her to return to a deep interest in literacy, which she says she’s nurtured since childhood. A popular and passionate professor, who first became interested in teaching while tutoring in a housing project in Allentown, Pa., as an undergraduate at Muhlenberg College, Anderson believes that she was born to her profession. Some of her courses include a digital storytelling component and—believe it or not—in another one, she uses knitting as a teaching resource.

In 1999, Anderson, who is also currently serving as associate dean of academic affairs, helped found the College’s successful Learning for Life Program, in which students and staff members engage in one-on-one mutual learning relationships, each mentoring the other in an academic, technical, or life skill.

When did your interest in literacy develop?
Probably when I was 5, sitting on my father’s lap while he read to me. I grew up in a working-class community, and books were my way to experience vicariously worlds that I couldn’t experience in reality. I believe that reading saved my intellectual life.

During your time as a dean, have you missed teaching?
I do actually teach one course a year. Last spring, I taught Literacies and Social Identities and, this spring, I’ll teach my Literacy Research Seminar. It’s hard, because it takes my brain in a completely different direction from my work as a dean—although I think it does help me with the work. But I love teaching. I have to do it. It’s not a choice for me.

Do you use any unconventional methods in your teaching?
In my Teaching Diverse Young Learners course, I teach my students how to knit—as a way for students to become novice learners again and remember what it’s like. Our students are pretty text and book savvy, so the activity needed to be something quite different that could present a challenge and foster empathy for the joys and struggles of learning as well as its processes. Learning to knit becomes the common touchstone for the learning theory we use in this course. Most students really love it. Another professor told me that one of his students was knitting in class and that it really seemed to help him become more focused during class discussions.

What has been your most exciting moment in teaching?
Last term, when I taught Literacy as Research, we published a paper. This is part of mentoring students to be scholars. A lot of teachers in the sciences publish papers with their students, but it doesn’t happen as much in the social sciences, so it’s quite exciting. The paper came out in the September 2010 issue of Language Arts magazine. How cool is that?

Do you enjoy your role as a dean?
I love working and talking with students, helping them solve academic or personal problems, access resources, and make important decisions. We laugh a lot together. It’s a wonderful age of student to work with. They’re on the brink of all kinds of interesting adventures and decisions. It’s also an area of work that I believe still exhibits the Quaker influence of holding a person “in the Light” and seeing goodness in all of them, no matter what their difficulties are. That feels right to me.

Who has influenced you most?
Since age 5, I’ve always been around or worked with school leaders who were women. Both my elementary school and high school principals and the high school superintendant were women. When I was a teacher, the curriculum director who mentored me was female. This was just serendipitous, but it never occurred to me that there were things I couldn’t do in school because I was a woman.

Can you imagine pursuing a profession other than teaching?
I can imagine being an anthropologist who works for NPR, a female version of Ira Glass on This American Life, observing, recording, and presenting the complexity and richness of life to a public audience; or a novelist, though I can’t sit still long enough to do that; or, if I could be a musician, I’d be Brian Rosenworcel, the drummer in the group Guster, who plays with his hands wrapped, using them as drumsticks. While they were in high school, my daughters took me to a Guster concert, and I liked them—especially Brian.

Who’s your favorite artist?
I love Thomas Eakins, especially his portrait of his wife. It’s breathtaking. My daughter Morgan is also an artist, and I love her art because it’s very sociological. Brueghel’s art is also sociological in a different way, and I really like that kind of painting.

Whom would you trust sufficiently to give your power of attorney?
My younger daughter, Hillary. She’s really solid, organized, and dependable. She wants to be a lawyer and has just taken the LSAT.

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