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Getting to know Dr. Caitlin Law Ryan

I have lived in…

Home for me is Columbus, Ohio. I grew up there and ended up (totally as a surprise) back there again as an adult for graduate school. In between, I lived in Charlottesville, VA, and Washington, DC. Now I live in Greenville and Wilmington, NC.

My favorite place to eat or favorite food to eat / prepare is…

My favorite place to eat in Greenville is GK's Catering and Café on 10th. It's delicious and really welcoming. My favorite foods are guacamole and ice cream, just not together.

Some cultural experiences who make me who I am…

In terms of cultural experiences, I'm fluent in American Sign Language and have spent a lot of time in the Deaf community throughout my life. Also, I grew up Catholic in a town that was over 30% Jewish and nearly all my best friends were Jewish. These experiences helped me learn early on that there existed a wide range of ways people could experience and talk about and move through and celebrate the world. I found it fascinating to think about, so when I got to college I decided to study linguistics so I could learn more about relationships between language and culture. I also minored in African American Studies, where I learned more about race, racism, and the histories of people of color that had been left out of my predominately white school experiences. After college, I worked in significantly under-resourced schools in African-American communities in Washington, DC. My coworkers, my students, and their families were incredibly generous in helping me learn about the realities of life as people of color in under resourced schools and communities. In addition to that, being a lesbian and identifying as queer has shaped the way I understand cultural ideas like power and marginalization and family.

Dr. Caitlin Law Ryan's Biography and Background

Caitlin Law Ryan is an Associate Professor in Reading Education and is a part of the Literacy Studies, English Education, and History Education Department. Her research interests include multicultural children’s and young adult literature, literacy as social practice in elementary schools, interdisciplinary literacy studies, and queer theory.

Dr. Ryan obtained her Ph.D in Language, Literacy, and Culture and her M.Ed. in Teaching and Learning from The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. She has been a faculty member at ECU since 2010. She received the 2014 Article of the Year Award for the Queer Studies SIG of the American Educational Research Association and the 2015 East Carolina University Alumni Award for Outstanding Teaching.

Professional Work

How do your beliefs about diversity, social justice, and equity manifest themselves in your research, teaching, advocacy and/or service?

My research focuses on how to make literacy learning accessible to and equitable for all students the elementary school level, particularly those who have been traditionally marginalized in classrooms. This includes LGBTQ children and families, children of color, and children in poverty. I am particularly interested in using qualitative methods and critical, sociocultural, queer, and poststructuralist perspectives to look at the ways in which identity categories are constructed for and by children via texts and classroom practices. In other words, I examine the messages children's literature and school curricula send to young readers and the effects those messages, particularly ones about gender and sexuality, have on students' perceptions of themselves and the world around them. Once we learn to see these messages more clearly, figure out how they work, and think about who they affect, we can help teachers find ways to teach that expand who is included in books and language arts instruction so more students are represented and valued. My research is social justice-oriented; its goal is to help teachers design curricula and teach in ways that better serve students and families who are relegated to the margins or excluded from schools altogether as a result of who they are.

Much of my research is built on listening closely to children and teachers. For example, I did a long-term study with young children who had lesbian mothers. Since the psychological research has been overwhelmingly clear that children with LGBTQ parents have equal (or sometimes even better!) life outcomes than children with straight parents, I wanted to move beyond just asking if these kids were alright. Instead, I wanted to see how they used literacy as a way of sharing (and not sharing) information about their families.  The study showed that while these children had the ability and desire to read and talk about their families in many spaces, their elementary school classrooms were places where experiences of LGBTQ people were frequently put down or silenced. Even teachers with good intentions did not have the knowledge, texts, or pedagogical tools necessary to read about or discuss LGBTQ topics in their classrooms. The majority of my scholarly work since then has been focused on providing teachers with a wide variety of texts and tools so they can make their classrooms more inclusive and equitable no matter the specific context in which they teach.

For the last few years, I have worked with a 4th and 5th grade public school teacher to learn more about the kinds of things teachers might do to teach about LGBTQ topics in elementary schools. This teacher, Maree, addresses many issues of diversity and identity in her teaching, including LGBTQ identities. This included reading books with gay characters and LGBTQ-headed families in addition to an extensive focus on transgender and gender creative/gender non-conforming people. Over several years, I documented how she taught about these topics and how students responded to this more inclusive instruction. Working in her classroom has led to several articles that illustrated how ready students are to read and discuss books that include diverse people and families. They understood ideas like gender identity and gender expression. They compared and contrasted the experiences of different characters and made many text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections. Being trusted with these sensitive topics also helped students feel important and respected. They were also deeply engaged in their reading during these units because Maree's facilitation helped them think critically about the world around them and they got to draw from and build on experiences they'd already had around these topics through media, pop culture, and their own families.

I try to bring these stories of teachers and students into my teaching. I think pre- and in-service teachers need concrete stories of how this kind of teaching looks and why it's important. I talk a lot in my teaching about the importance of engaging students, particularly those whose communities have been historically marginalized from schools. One way of doing that is by being sure that all students have access to books that are "mirrors" for them – that reflect their lives and identities and experiences – and books that are "windows" for them – books that help them move beyond their lives and learn about the experiences of others. Too often, some students get mirrors and some students get windows, but I challenge my students to be sure that all their students get both. I want my students to learn the technical aspects of reading instruction, but I also tell them that none of that will matter if you don't have the trust and respect of your students, if you ignore their identities, if you're continually sending them messages that they aren't worthy of being included in the classroom, or if you're teaching who you think they should be instead of who they are. I try to teach that by modeling it. I want my students to feel cared for and valued and seen while also challenging them to stretch and grow and be better because that's what they and their future students deserve.

Share with us an example of that kind of work that you are proud of or committed to.

My current cover photo on Facebook says:

In this house we believe:

black lives matter
women's rights are human rights
no human is illegal
science is real
love is love.

I think that pretty much covers it. I'm committed to that. I want to help make those things true in the world and in our schools, so I'm committed to supporting the communities facing these issues and the teachers who will teach and support the children in the communities facing these issues. And by "the communities facing these issues," of course, I really mean everyone, because these are societal concerns that can't ultimately be fixed until those in power are convinced to change.

Whose work or research do you draw on to inform or support your work in areas of diversity, social justice, and equity?

My work is situated in and builds off of many qualitative, critical sociocultural literacy researchers, queer theorists, and scholars of multicultural literature. There are too many to name, but a few who I got to work with in graduate school who encouraged my focus on diversity and equity work include my advisor, Mollie Blackburn (and Caroline Clark and their Pink TIGers inquiry group), Cynthia Dillard, Cynthia Tyson, and Patricia Enciso.

In the larger world, Rudine Sims Bishop's idea of books as windows and mirrors and Chimamanda Adichie's idea of the danger of a single story have proven to be a great tools when talking about the importance of diversifying our classroom bookshelves. I am sustained by the work of education researchers like Christopher Emdin, Elizabeth Dutro, Ernest Morrell, Marcelle Haddix, Emma Renold, Karen Wohlwend, Amanda Thein, Bettina Love, and Kevin Kumashiro. I also believe that theory can help us think otherwise, so I make use of literacy theorists like Shirley Brice Heath and Brian Street; queer theorists like Judith Butler and Bill Pinar and Michele Foucault and Mindy Blaise; feminist poststructuralist theorists like Patti Lather and Deborah Britzman; race theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Gloria Ladson-Billings; and literature theorists like Dennis Sumara and Mikhail Bakhtin.

Who are your collaborators in this work? Who - in the field, at ECU, and/or in the College of Education - also does diversity and equity work that you respect?

This work is meaningful and rewarding, but it can be very hard. There's no way I could do what I do without the help of the communities I work in and the collaborators I work with. In the larger field, I am incredibly grateful and indebted to my writing partner, Jill Hermann-Wilmarth of Western Michigan University, and Maree Bednar, an elementary school teacher who has invited me into her classroom and allowed me to document her amazing work for the last several years. They make so much of what I do possible.

At ECU, I am especially appreciative of Christina Tschida, Anne Ticknor, and Ben Blaisdell because of the ways they continually and explicitly center social justice and equity work in their teaching and research and for the ways they communicate explicit allyship across areas of difference. They are also all really generous about letting me talk through the frustrations and stuck spots that inevitably happen when you're trying to make change in the world. My work is better because I've gotten to collaborate with them. Will Banks has also been a great model for ways to teach and write about LGBTQ literature.

My mom has also been a really strong guide for me in this work. We have different vocabularies for what we do, but as a social worker, she always modeled a strengths-based approach to children and families. Learning that way of seeing the world was really key for me. I always heard her acknowledge the challenges that people in poverty face; she valued people's resiliency, respected their tenacity, and did what she could to ease individual and structural barriers. I will always be grateful for what she modeled.

Sites that I like related to my work:

Selected Publications

Ryan, C. L. (2016). Kissing brides and loving hot vampires: Children's construction and perpetuation of heteronormativity in elementary school classrooms. Sex Education: Sexuality, Society, and Learning, 16(1), 77-90.

Hermann-Wilmarth, J., and Ryan, C. L. (2015). Destabilizing the homonormative for young readers: Exploring Tash's queerness in Jacqueline Woodson's After Tupac and D Foster. In D. Linville and D. Carlson (Eds.), Beyond Borders: Queer Eros and Ethos (Ethics) in LGBTQ Young Adult Literature (85-99). New York: Peter Lang.

Hermann-Wilmarth, J., and Ryan, C. L. (2015).Doing what you can: Considering ways to address LGBT topics in K–8 ELA curricula. Language Arts, 92(6), 436-443.

Hermann-Wilmarth, J., and Ryan, C. L. (2016). Queering chapter books with LGBT characters for young readers: Recognizing and complicating representations of homonormativity. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 37(6),856-866.

Tschida, C., Ryan, C. L., and Ticknor, A. (2014). Building on windows and mirrors: Encouraging the disruption of "Single Stories" through children's literature. Journal of Children's Literature, 40(1), 28-39.

Ryan, C. L., and Hermann-Wilmarth, J. (2013). Already on the shelf: Queering award-winning children's literature. Journal of Literacy Research, 45(2), 142-172.

Ryan, C. L., Patraw, J., and Bednar, M. (2013). Discussing princess boys and pregnant men: Teaching about gender nonconformity and transgender experiences within an elementary school curriculum. Journal of LGBT Youth, 10(1-2), 83-105.

Hermann-Wilmarth, J., and Ryan, C. (2013). Interrupting the single story: LGBT issues in language arts classrooms. Language Arts, 90(3), 226-231.

Ryan, C. (2012). Queerspawn speak out: Encouraging community and activism among youth with LGBTQ parents. Journal of LGBT Youth, 9(4), 397-401. [Book Review]

Ryan, C. (2010). Talking, reading and writing lesbian and gay families in classrooms: The consequences of different pedagogical approaches. In C. Compton-Lilly and S. Greene (Eds.), Bedtime Stories and Book Reports: Connecting Parent Involvement and Family Literacy, pp. 96-108. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ryan, C., and Dixson, A. (2006). Rethinking pedagogy to re-center race: Some reflections. Language Arts, 84(2), 175-183.