UB literacy learning specialist chosen for prestigious mid-career award

Mary McVee in the Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction.

Graduate School of Education researcher Mary McVee has been recognized for her work on important issues in teaching and teaching education by the American Educational Research Association. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

Release Date: April 14, 2014 This content is archived.

“The selection committee noted that Mary’s scholarly work integrates several strands of literacy education, from work with in-service and pre-service teachers to research on student literacy learning processes. ”
Jaekyung Lee, dean, Graduate School of Education
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Mary McVee, whose work in the University at Buffalo’s Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction (CLaRI) has earned praise and publicity from educational experts as well as mainstream media, has received the Division K Mid-Career Award from the American Educational Research Association (AERA), a national honor recognizing an outstanding researcher in the intermediate stage of her career.

The award recognizes a significant program of research on important issues in teaching or teaching education, says Jaekyung Lee, dean of UB’s Graduate School of Education.

“The selection committee noted that Mary’s scholarly work integrates several strands of literacy education,” says Lee, “from work with in-service and pre-service teachers to research on student literacy learning processes. They’re all ways that problematize and expand our knowledge base about the intersection of identity, context and literacy cognition.”

The selection committee praised McVee’s “profound commitment to issues of equity — both in public school settings and through her own work mentoring graduate students in the educational research field.”

McVee, an associate professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction in the Graduate School of Education, was herself once a first-generation university student.

“In a time when transitions to college are receiving renewed attention,” she says, “it has been interesting to think about how I ended up in Buffalo at a research university.”

McVee was raised on a cattle ranch in remote eastern Montana. One of her first college experiences was to take a timed writing exam, something she had never done before.  

“I just remember looking around the room and thinking, ‘There are more people in this one room than there were in my whole high school.’ It wasn’t a great start, so I’m sometimes still a little surprised how things ended up.”

McVee recognizes the mentors who guided her from high school through college — she graduated with a degree in English and certification in teaching English as a second language from the University at Montana, Missoula. 

“After graduating, I took the next logical step of leaving Montana to go to China.”

McVee admits what seemed to make sense to her seemed a bit crazy to everyone else in her rural community. She was leaving one of the least populated states in the U.S. to go to one of the world’s most populous countries. She taught in China from 1988-89, returning to the U.S. during the summer due to uncertainty caused by pro-democracy activities in China. She then returned to Asia to teach again in China and Hong Kong for five years, eventually returning stateside to earn a doctorate from Michigan State University in 1999. 

“By the time I returned to the states, I had begun to see the world very differently,” she says, “and I was particularly interested in how culture and lived experiences frame the ways teachers approach teaching and learning.”

Nancy Bailey, an associate professor of education at Canisius College and one of McVee’s first doctoral students at UB, said one of McVee’s early projects was very influential in her professional development. The research focused on the use of personal narratives to help teachers uncover their own cultural experiences and filters related to race, class and language use so that teachers could better meet the needs of diverse students in their classrooms.

“This raised my awareness as well,” Bailey says. “And it has been something I’ve carried into my own classes.”  

David Fronczak, a recent graduate of the Literacy Specialist EdM program, used this technique of using narrative to surface issues of diversity in his role as a student and a novice researcher.

“It really felt like there was a safe space where diverse points of view could be talked about and unpacked in a respectful way,” Fronczak says.

McVee and Fronczak co-authored a chapter on the topic with two other students in a book to be published soon.

“It’s important to have a role model and to have a down-to-earth personality; someone who says ‘this is how it is.’ ‘Here’s how it works.’” Fronczak says.

McVee says she learned the importance of mentors from those who guided her.

“I feel very lucky to have had mentors who guided me,” she says. “They weren’t just good researchers and teachers; they were good people.” 

McVee also was cited by the award selection committee for her commitment to issues of equity in public education, particularly through the literacy center’s focus on helping struggling readers in need. CLaRI has had a significant impact on the lives of children, focusing particularly on families in financial need. CLaRI runs summer programs in the Amherst and Maryvale schools, and summer and academic year tutoring on UB’s North Campus.

“Congratulations to [UB] for supporting a faculty member with such an impressive record and with such prospects for continued significant work,” McVee’s award letter stated.

McVee accepted her award April 4 at AERA’s annual meeting in Philadelphia. 

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