Keep Imagining a Bright Future

Advice from Ruben Kihuen, College of Education Alumnus of the Year

Read article on UNLV News Center.

Ruben Kihuen, ’05 BS Workforce Education, has been a Democratic senator in Nevada since 2010. Prior to that, he served in the Nevada Assembly from 2007 to 2010. He is also a principal with Ramirez Group, a public relations, advocacy, and multicultural outreach firm. Kihuen began his career with College of Southern Nevada as a recruiter and advisor.

The advice I’d give myself as a new graduate … is simple: You never know where life will take you, all you can do is work hard and success will follow.

Since I was a young boy, I had dreamed of playing professional soccer. I was the star of my high school team and just a few weeks before my big professional tryout, I broke my foot, ending my soccer career forever. If you’d asked me for advice then, it would have been darker. You’ll face times in your life where you can’t imagine a bright future ahead. In those moments, put your head down and focus on the task in front of you.

I finished college and worked as a student recruiter and academic advisor at the College of Southern Nevada, helping thousands achieve a college degree. A few years later, at the encouragement of my mentor U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, I ran for the state Assembly. No one thought I could win. I was too young, too inexperienced, had an accent, and no money. But with hard work and discipline, I won with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Today I am a sitting state Senator, a candidate for U.S. Congress, and most proudly a UNLV College of Education alumnus of the year. Regardless of what adversity may arise, work hard and success will follow.

New Faces: Sharolyn Pollard-Durodola

Find out what inspired this Education College professor to focus her research on children, especially English language learners, who struggle to read.

By Diane Russell • Read on UNLV News Center

Sharolyn Pollard-Durodola says one reason she chose to move to UNLV from Denver is an opportunity she saw to partner with the Clark County School District, which counts many English language learners among its 300,000-plus students.


I selected UNLV because of the newly developed English Language Learning program, the expertise of the faculty in that program, opportunities to develop and expand the program, opportunities to bridge theory and research via community partnerships (Clark County School District has a large population of English language learners) and because of an opportunity to take part in conversations related to the Tier I status goals. I liked the fact that the university seemed to be thinking about how to create an environment that would attract new hires that were also interested in moving forward with research and scholarship goals.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Houston during a time that the school systems were still segregated. I attended elementary school where my mother taught and then changed schools when she was sent to a different school as part of an initiative to integrate schools. Those experiences taught me much about life and getting along with people despite differences. Growing up in a segregated school, however, resulted in strong identity formation and a belief that we as children could make a contribution to developing a better world. Our teachers protected us from the negativities of the outside world — they taught us to stand before an audience and make speeches, to be curious about new books (I loved having a library card and being able to check out books), and to be proud of who we were.

Where did you work previously? 

I worked in the bilingual education program in the educational psychology department at Texas A&M for eight years and for three years at the University of Denver, Colorado, in the child, family, school psychology program.

Tell us about your field of research. 

My scholarship attends to the prevention/intervention of language and literacy difficulties (Spanish/English) among students at risk of academic difficulties. Central to my scholarship is developing intervention curricula that build on validated instructional design principles, evaluating their impact on the language and reading development of struggling readers, and investigating how to improve the quality of language/literacy practices of teachers and parents of preschool English language learners.

I am interested in bridging research and practice by examining the feasibility/usability of research-based practices. My scholarship for years has focused on children who struggle to read and how to assist them in having greater access to the curriculum.

What inspired you to get into your field?

I have always been interested in issues related to language acquisition from my father’s own travels to Mexico to my undergraduate major (romance languages with an emphasis on comparative linguistics). My interest in understanding the intersection of language and literacy development was a result of my initial teaching years in New York City in Harlem with diverse learners (speakers of Spanish, speakers of African-American dialect, etc.) and wanting to understand why some students struggled to become fluent readers — what interventions, techniques, strategies could be used to overcome these obstacles. This influenced me to obtain a masters degree in developmental and remedial reading (City College of New York).

What’s the biggest misconception about your field?

The biggest misconception about second language learners is that they cannot learn academic content until they are completely English proficient. Another misconception is that families of ELLs are not interested in their child’s education when they are perceived as not being involved in school matters. Families from other cultures view their role and the role of school systems very differently than we do in Western society. Parents may not be involved because it is not a cultural expectation — not because they are not interested in their child.

Proudest moment in your life?

Giving birth to my two children.

One tip for success

To persevere despite obstacles and to not become sidetracked with activities that in the long run are not meaningful but prove to be superficial.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I love to sing and would like to continue with voice lessons in the near future.

Who was your favorite professor or teacher and why? 

John Grayson, professor of philosophy of religion at Mount Holyoke College. He approached abstract and complicated ideas in innovative ways. He inspired students via his depth of knowledge and how to apply the intersection of theology and philosophy to understand contemporary issues in society. He provided opportunities for us to develop as analytical writers and thinkers.

Who is your hero?

Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day. Dorothy Day was a U.S. social activist and journalist who was known for her writing in the Catholic Workernewspaper during the Great Depression. She was very outspoken on issues related to social justice and known for her commitment to the poor.

Pastime or hobbies?

Photography of nature and lighthouses, reading (history, theology, historical fiction, Eastern religions), visiting museums, traveling, and exploring new places.

Bridging the Achievement Gap through Project-Based Learning

Alumni Erik Shoemake develops STEM laboratory for middle school students.

Research shows that early literacy experiences shape students’ level of academic and career motivation and development, along with future interactions with teachers and peers. As indicated by new research from one recent UNLV graduate, early literacy skills applied to academic contexts for some students foster what he terms as literacy confusion. What is most paramount in his research is the need for educational experiences to be located socio-politically to prevent the School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP).

Dr. Tarryn McGhie, a recent Ph.D. graduate of the Cultural Studies, International Education, and Multicultural Education (CSIEME) emphasis in the Department of Teaching and Learning, coined the term literacy confusion from his dissertation research, “Forecasting the School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Generative Case Study of the Early Literacy Experiences of Black Male Youth.” In this research, McGhie focused on how six Black males’ early literacy experiences at home influenced their educational trajectory; he identified that literacy confusion as a phenomenon concerns how teachers interpret/misinterpret students’ literacy skills- causing both teachers and students to react in ways that conflict with some students’ educational progress. More specifically, literacy confusion and related teacher communication, or lack thereof- coupled with unfair school policies- disproportionately leads Black male students into educational default. This finding indicates that early literacy is a key factor in further understanding, and in seeking to dismantle, the STPP.

Dr. Christine Clark, UNLV Professor and Senior Scholar in Multicultural Education, notes the significance of McGhie’s work: “As [his] faculty advisor, I have been fortunate to bear witness to his extraordinary development from a master’s student into a post-doctoral scholar. Inspired, in part, by his own educational biography, Dr. McGhie’s powerful generative case study examined the educational challenges that black male youth in U.S. schools faced as a result of their divergent, conflicting experiences of literacy development between home and school. As a result of these experiences, these youth confronted what Dr. McGhie’s study coined “literacy confusion”-recognition that when they spoke at home and among peers, they were easily understood, but when they did the same in school, their teacher’s expressed an inability to comprehend them. Dr. McGhie’s study design-generative case study-was both unique and complex; it combined elements of multiple case study and grounded theory, enabling emergent themes to surface, and for the possibility that Dr. McGhie’s theory of literacy confusion would be grounded as one of those emergent themes. Theoretically complex and conceptually rich, Dr. McGhie’s study engaged Critical Race Theory and was informed by the research bases in Stereotype Threat, Adolescent Development, Critical Literacy and Multicultural Education, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”

In essence, McGhie’s research revealed that participants did not find connections with what they were being taught in public school and their “real world,” largely due to the lack of criticality in their learning experiences (e.g., the absence of teacher critical pedagogy, inadequate focus on developing student critical literacy, instructional confinement by scripted standardized curricula). Further, the lack of criticality in participants’ school experiences negatively impacted their racial identity. For example, they reported they rarely felt affirmed in school because there was a lack of positive racial/ethnic images of themselves in learning materials or school personnel, and they had limited culturally relevant interactions with teachers, through classroom pedagogy, or in the school culture at large. As a result, the participants found little motivation to succeed in school and left school.

McGhie’s research has significant curricular and pedagogical, as well as policy, implications. These involve the manner in which teachers interact with communities of color in multiple contexts, creation of classroom and school cultures that are “identity safe spaces” for students and families, and development of rigorous curricula and pedagogy that equitably affirms all student identities and are relevant to all of their out-of-school experiences. Clark adds to these implications: “Perhaps most significant, Dr. McGhie’s study identified a widespread illegal practice occurring in juvenile detention center-based high school programs that has serious negative consequences for the youth in his study and others like them. Fortunately, Dr. McGhie has already been contacted by educational policy makers to support their efforts to eliminate this practice. Dr. McGhie’s research is ground-breaking in that there are very few scholars currently examining these issues; thus, his research will substantially augment the paucity of literature currently available in these areas and, in so doing, will facilitate the continued growth and development of the knowledge bases in multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural education, among many others.”

COE Spotlight: Marquin Parks

COE Alumnus, Marquin Parks is a fifth grade teacher and author with two established young-adult book series.

The Comedy and Drama of Fifth Grade

By Brian Sodoma

When Marquin Parks challenged his class to read more, he found his own voice as a writer. Now the College of Education alumnus has two book series under his belt.

About a decade ago, Marquin Parks was a young teacher just trying to connect with his room of fourth and fifth graders. More than anything, he wanted students to read independently. So Parks made a pact with his students: If they read quietly for an hour, he would use that time to write a book. Then, when the session was up, he would read his work to students and let them offer their critiques.

This was the genesis for the Wrinkles Wallace books, a series whose main character is sent back to fifth grade (at age 28!) after finding out that he had failed due to not turning in enough homework. The characters tackle plenty of tween-year issues along with their 11-year-old teacher named Mr. Sittin’ B. Quiet.

Parks’ first two Wrinkles Wallace books have been published and a third is on the way. In his new series, Annie Ruth, slated for later this year, the lead character attends a school field trip and suddenly becomes a key player in solving a bank robbery.

Parks found his career path at the age of 14, when he helped at an after-school program, but becoming an author was never part of the plan. “I was always a writer but I would keep it to myself,” said Parks, ’02 BS Elementary Education. “When I wrote the first book, I didn’t see myself becoming a professional author. I was just trying to help my students from an academic standpoint.”

A Publishing Journey

Parks’ students — and their families — nudged him into the publishing world. His students would talk about Wrinkles Wallace at the dinner table, and soon those parents became some of his biggest fans. “They challenged me to get it published. So, I entered it into a contest run by the Michigan Elementary and Middle Schools Principals Association in 2009,” he said.

The story didn’t take the top prize, but it finished in the top four and led to a job offer and a raise. “It ended up putting me in a better position financially, and I felt I could focus on the book and take it to different levels,” he added.

Parks eventually caught the attention of Cleveland-based publisher Meridian, to whom he sent his first and fifth books in the series. The first book, Wrinkles Wallace: Knights of Night School, was published in 2012, about a year-and-a-half after his first meeting with Meridian. The follow-up, Wrinkles Wallace: Fighters of Foreclosure, was published in 2014.  He wrote it to help kids around the country understand what can happen when a financial change forces a move.

Parks shared, “Foreclosure hit states like Michigan and Nevada really hard. I had students who had to move due to their loved ones losing their jobs. Sometimes it’s hard for a parent to tell their child why they had to move. I wanted to write a book to help explain the situation.”

Parks wasn’t warm to the idea of revising and editing his original work, but learned to embrace it. One late edit in the first book came only two months before publishing, and it created one of his best comic moments in the story — where a porta-potty ends up in a school classroom.

“I hated revisions — even as a kid, I just wanted to be done — but it allowed us to create something new and it made it better,” he added.

Parks also attended the Eastern Michigan Writing Project in 2011. It was there that he learned about not keeping his writing bottled up inside of him, an issue that plagues many would-be authors. “They talked a lot about how you can’t just keep your talent to yourself and be whimsical about it. It was about me learning how to give what they perceived as my greatness to the world,” he added.

Extra Eyes

With a decade of classroom teaching under his belt, Parks now serves as a behavior intervention specialist with the Ann Arbor School District. He works with seventh- and eighth-graders who require extra mentoring.  On any given day, he may meet with teachers to help match instruction with learning styles or be that parent-like voice reminding a student of their responsibilities. Sometimes helping a kid’s academic performance requires more than teaching: He’s bought students plenty of lunches, either as a reward for good work or just because a kid is  hungry.

“These are just students who would benefit from an extra set of eyes and hands,” he explained, while eschewing the at-risk label.

Parks received a his own “extra set of eyes” at UNLV. His first college try at Eastern Michigan University lacked academic focus but after a short time away from school, he enrolled at UNLV.

“It was the best decision I made. Some professors saw something in me,” he said. “They wanted to see me successful and would take the time, whether it was office hours or after class and even during class, to make sure I was OK, that I was understanding things and going on the path I wanted to go on.”

Literacy and Diversity

Growing up, Judy Blume and the Choose Your Own Adventure series drew Parks into reading. Young readers today, he said, need to be afforded the time and flexibility to find their own reading interests.

“Reading is like food. We all don’t have the same taste buds,” he noted. But encouraging kids to talk to each other about the stories they like and why helps inspire nonreaders to pick up a book.

Parks also advocates for more diversity in young adult literature. With Annie Ruth, he developed an African American protagonist, and he was focused on making diversity an important part of the narrative.

“Wrinkles Wallace doesn’t have culture — it’s all about topics we tackle in society,” he said. “My goal with Annie Ruth was to introduce more culture to reading, especially for youth. There isn’t enough out there for them.”