Five Questions for Shelby Wolf

Professor, School of Education, University of Colorado at Boulder
Shelby Wolf Professor, School of Education University of Colorado at Boulder
Shelby Wolf
Professor, School of Education
University of Colorado at Boulder

Shelby WolfProfessor, School of EducationUniversity of Colorado at Boulder

On any given day, you might find University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education Professor Shelby Wolf hidden behind a tome of children's or young adult literature. It's not simply the innovative illustrations or prose she finds of interest, but the way children interpret, engage in and respond to the words and pictures. She's written numerous books, including one that was a nine-year case study of her two daughters and their responses to literature she read to them.

As an educator, she hopes to train others to teach more than grammar, punctuation and sentence structure in the classroom. The No Child Left Behind policy has pushed literature into the back seat, she says, which is a devastating choice. "Teachers concentrate on getting children to decode, but it should be about getting children to want to read." Wolf has won numerous awards and accolades, including being named a member of the University of Colorado's President's Teaching Scholars.

- Cynthia Pasquale

1. What made you focus on youth and literature in your career path?

I never expected to be a teacher. I went to school in a period of time when I felt that women who went into teaching weren't serious. I got a degree in psychology and that garnered me nothing more than the ability to be a cocktail waitress. So I went into the Peace Corps where they told me I would be a teacher. I loved it. I went back to school and loved it and kept going and going. (She earned her Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1992.) It was a slowly growing passion that went all afire.

2. You have a book that will be published this year. What else are you currently working on?

The book is a very exciting project. It's a handbook of research on children's and young adult literature. Typically, these kinds of books are dusty tomes that no one reads. But we've asked our authors to write elegantly about subjects, including the genre of young adult novels, the art of the picture book and museums around the world. The scholars are well-known in the field, and so are the book authors and illustrators.

I'm also doing a study in London with two visual artists who are working in two inner-city schools. The students (now in fifth grade) are highly diverse but have been denied opportunities that others have been given. The children make art and talk about and analyze art and visit the Tate Modern. I began following them three years ago. I'd ask them, "What is the artist trying to say?" And they would say, "I don't know," expecting me to have the answer. Now these children go to the museum and find a piece of art that intrigues them and plop themselves down and sketch for 45 minutes. It's exciting to see them tackle complex symbolism. They are given space at the Tate for their own gallery and are gearing up for their final exhibition this summer.

3. What are your teaching duties at CU-Boulder?

I teach graduate and undergraduate children's literature and literary response. I love teaching. With pre-service teachers, if you can make a difference in their curriculum and ways of assessment, then maybe that will transfer to the way they work in class, and that will move literature from the backseat to the passenger seat. I show them how they can help children engage in literature, not by simply doing reports, but by inviting them into literature, using drama or visualization and really doing cognitive work. Children are eager to pick up that cognitive challenge if they are given the chance.

Teachers feel afraid to be independent thinkers. We tend to de-professionalize teachers, giving them books and telling them here's what to ask and here's how they should respond. That just closes down the mind. We don't prepare children to be creative, collaborative, flexible thinkers and that's what we'll need in the future.

4. What have been some of your experiences as a member of the University of Colorado President's Teaching Scholars program?

The central goal of the program is to promote teaching throughout the university. It's one of the most exciting things that has happened to me because I love teaching so much. The guild members are interested and intrigued by teaching. To be with them is always very enlightening. They come from fields very different than my own. They are a lovely blend of people and, at the heart of it, they are all dedicated to fine teaching.

I have a connection with the schools of business and journalism, helping to choose recipients for prestigious teaching awards. And through the Faculty Teaching Excellence Program, I've begun helping other teachers by observing their classes and videotaping lectures (to help assess classroom learning and effectiveness).

5. What are some of your hobbies and what books are you reading now or do you recommend?

I love watching TV, especially HBO and programs like "The Wire." That's such astonishing TV. I love going to movies, too.

Some of my favorite books: "The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963," by Christopher Paul Curtis, an incredibly funny book that helps you to love a family before you go into tragedy with them; "The Book Thief," by Markus Zusak, which is the most sophisticated and complex of novels that I teach; and "The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate," by Jacqueline Kelly, which is a book about a girl who (in 1899) is fascinated by Darwin.

Right now I'm reading books about the lives and internal thoughts and emotions of children on the autism spectrum. One is "Marcelo in the Real World," by Francisco X. Stork, about a young boy whose father refuses to accept his differences, and the other is "Anything But Typical," by Nora Raleigh Baskin, which discusses labels and perceptions.

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