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.”

Dr. Brittnie Watkins: A Passion for Court Education

UNLV alumnae, Dr. Brittnie Watkins is inspiring tomorrow’s leaders.

Brittnie T. Watkins, Ph.D., Esq. ’14, a dual degree graduate from UNLV’s College of Education, having earned her doctorate in Educational Psychology in 2014 and her Juris doctorate in Law in 2014, is inspiring many of tomorrow’s educational leaders in Nevada law and education. As a graduate of UNLV, Brittnie was active within the university and held offices in many student organizations. She was a member of the Nevada Law Journal, Vice President of the Public Interest Law Association, Marketing Coordinator for the Child Advocacy Law Association, and President of the Black Law Students Association. On top of that, she was awarded the “Outstanding Dissertation Award” for her dissertation titled, “Reducing Court-Related Stress through Court Education: Examining Child Witnesses, Attorneys and Parents.” Brittnie credits her extensive research training within the College of Education and her direct advising for her dissertation success. She acknowledges Dr. Rebecca Nathanson as her Advisor and Mentor and recalls Dr. CarolAnn Kardash as instructing her in cognitive research.

Currently, Brittnie is completing a clerkship with Justice Michael L. Douglas of the Supreme Court of Nevada where she conducts legal research, drafts bench memorandums, and attends oral arguments as a Judicial Law Clerk. Upon completion of her clerkship in August 2016 Brittnie hopes to “Take the next step and get some experience at a law firm and then open up her own firm,” she said.

For additional information about UNLV COE Dual Degree, visit

COE Spotlight: Sukhjit Kaur Narwal

Narwal, a Secondary Education major, views the teaching profession as her way to give back as a mentor and advocate.

Narwal, a College of Education undergraduate Secondary Education major, views the teaching profession as her way to give back as a mentor and advocate to students in Las Vegas, a community where she was born and raised by immigrant parents. She aspires to become a high school English teacher for Clark County School District, where she found great mentorship and acceptance from her English teacher through the magnet program at Clark High School.

Narwal is currently en route to obtain her Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education. She is vice-president of her dance club, a member of Ewalu club, and plans to get involved in the Office of Student Engagement and Diversity. Her favorite class thus far has been in Women’s Studies and sees what she has learned in the course to be very applicable to teaching. Narwal admits, “I’ve never been comfortable talking about gender or class, but taking this course has broadened my knowledge base and I feel more comfortable speaking about these issues.” She adds that she is passionate about fighting the injustices women suffer across the world, including in education.

Narwal currently works for the UNLV/CSUN Preschool as a teacher’s assistant. She enjoys working with children and reports she has learned so much on the job. In her spare time, Narwal volunteers at Jack Daily Elementary School and the Animal Foundation. She stays connected with excellent mentors and advises peers to remain close to their mentors. Narwal looks forward to student teaching and taking courses offered through the College of Education.

For more information on degree programs in secondary education, please go to