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Dr. Kelly Johnston Receives Laska Award for Doctoral Research [10/05/2020]


Dr. Kelly JohnstonDr. Kelly Johnston, Assistant Professor in the Baylor School of Education, won the 2020 John Laska Distinguished Dissertation Award in Teaching from the American Association for Teaching and Curriculum (AATC) for her recent dissertation research. Johnston joined the Baylor SOE faculty in 2018 and currently teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction.

Johnston’s dissertation, (Re)Imagining Possibilities for Youth in Schools: A Rhizomatic Exploration of Youths’ Affective Engagement with Literacy, focuses on youths’ different forms of literacy engagement in the classroom and how these understandings can be used to rethink literacy teaching and learning in and out of schools. Johnston’s dissertation was part of her Ed.D. in Curriculum and Teaching, which she earned in 2018 at Columbia University’s Teachers College. She previously earned her M.Ed. in Reading Education from Texas State University in 2011 and her B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies from Baylor in 2004.

Johnston described how, as a student growing up in the K-12 education system and as a middle school teacher performing literacy coaching and intervention, she was already exploring literacy from broader lenses. A motivating factor for Johnston when performing her more in-depth research was how she observed students that did not fit the “ideal perception of someone that can engage with literacy.” She commonly observed how these students would get marginalized in schools by being labeled as “struggling” or “behind.”

“[This research] was really used as an opportunity to think about how we can explore literacy to create a more humanizing and enjoyable experience for students,” Johnston said.

For example, one of Johnston’s research findings focused on the embodied, felt reactions that students demonstrated and experienced through a multimodal literacy project. She observed and analyzed student reactions and engagement with a documentary film, evaluating both their written and spoken engagement. She explained that a documentary film is only one example of multimodal literacy evoking feelings or emotions; potential others may include digital storytelling, comics or manga, photograph analysis, or web content analysis. Johnston believes that, by using different methods to foster meaning-making and critical thinking, teachers can make connections between the multiple and varied ways students engage with literacy and school-based literacy practices, leading to more significant and enjoyable learning experiences for students.

Dr. Brooke Blevins, Chair of the Department of Curriculum & Instruction, said Johnston is doing meaningful work both in and out of the classroom and has the potential to continue making a great impact within the education field.

“Kelly develops the conversation [of literacy] to help educators recognize how it occurs in a number of ways and to empower learners that have been marginalized in the past,” Blevins aid. “We are fortunate to have her with us [in the School of Education].”

The topic of literacy engagement is important for future educators to understand and explore in depth because of the way it is often over-simplified, Johnston said. For many students, literacy concepts may be taught in a more traditional “reading and writing” setting, constraining what counts as literacy and who counts as literate. However, both Blevins and Johnston believe there are many ways to become literate in the world and that all students, especially those who have traditionally been underserved or marginalized due to race, ethnicity, language, or ability, may benefit from learning in innovative ways.

“Schools aren’t set up to value [underprivileged students’] lived experiences or to encourage the literacy practices that they already developed in their younger years,” Blevins said. “Kelly is helping to expand the conceptions of literacy to value and affirm all children in productive ways.”

The AATC describes its award criteria as recognizing researchers who have performed “outstanding doctoral dissertation research.” The dissertation awards recognize the founder of AATC, Dr. John Laska. His publications were extensive, as was his supervision of doctoral students from all over the world.

Blevins is also a recipient of the Laska Dissertation Award in Teaching, being honored in 2013. In addition, several other faculty members of Baylor’s School of Education have previously won Laska Awards — Dr. Kevin Magill, Assistant Professor of Secondary and Social Studies Education; Dr. Jessica Meehan, M.S.Ed. ’08, Ed.D. ’13, Lecturer in the Ed.D. Online in Learning and Organizational Change; and Dr. Wesley Null, Professor of Education and Baylor’s Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Institutional Effectiveness.


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For more than 100 years, Baylor educators have carried the mission and practices of the School of Education to classrooms and beyond as teachers, leaders in K12 and higher education, psychologists, academics/scholars and more. With more than 50 full-time faculty members, the school’s growing research portfolio complements its long-standing commitment to excellence in teaching and student mentoring. Baylor’s undergraduate program in teacher education has earned national distinction for innovative partnerships with local schools that provide future teachers deep clinical preparation, while graduate programs culminating in both the Ed.D. and Ph.D. prepare outstanding leaders, teachers and clinicians through an intentional blend of theory and practice. Visit to learn more.

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 16,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 80 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

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