After graduating from Johns Hopkins, Molly Ness '95 worked with Teach For America in East Oakland, California and learned firsthand about the difficulties facing many public schools and their students. This experience inspired Ness to resume her own education, earning a PhD in Reading Education from the University of Virginia. Today, Ness is an associate professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on reading comprehension instruction, the instructional decisions and beliefs of teachers and how struggling readers are approached in the classroom.
My interest in community service began during my time at Bryn Mawr, when I became very involved with community service organizations. As a senior, I spent every Saturday on the fields of Gilman, mentoring and playing with kids from an East Baltimore community center who lacked safe playgrounds and recreational equipment. I saw teaching as a natural extension of this community involvement. I was also profoundly grateful for the outstanding education I had received at Bryn Mawr, and teaching gave me a way to extend that education to those who were not so fortunate.
Fresh out of college, I was an idealistic do-gooder who truly believed that I had the potential to make a difference in the lives of children. Teach For America provided me with a support system of other like-minded individuals, a way to grow and learn as a young adult, and a perspective about the world. Initially, I saw TFA as a stepping stone to law school, but once I spent times in schools I knew that education was my long-term career.
When I started TFA in 1999 in East Oakland, California, I was absolutely shocked by the educational inequity in our nation’s public schools. I simply could not believe that well over half of our nation’s urban and rural students cannot read at a basic level, or that children growing up in low-income communities are seven times less likely to go to college than their upper class counterparts. I was also completely shocked by the dire circumstances of the conditions of our schools – classrooms crumbling ceilings and without books or even enough desks for each student. Another thing that I found, and that I don’t think many people appreciate about teaching in general, is what a craft it is, and how long it takes to refine that craft. People assume that just because they love kids, that they are capable of being an effective teacher, and that teaching is a 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. job with three months of the year off. In reality, teachers are constantly learning and growing and planning and pursuing their own professional development.
After my time with Teach For America, I was fascinated by the processes of how children learn to read and by the diagnosis and remediation of struggling readers. While working on my doctorate at UVA, I learned to be a producer and consumer of peer-reviewed research, which was an entirely new kind of writing for me. I knew that I wanted to be an educator in a university setting, where I could influence K-12 students by helping prepare highly effective teachers. I also wanted to be at a university that was committed to social justice, that invested in training doctoral students, and that pushed me to research and publish my writing. What has been fun is that my professional life seems to have come full circle since 1999, when I joined Teach For America. A significant number of my current students are Teach For America corps members who are teaching in charter schools in Harlem and the South Bronx.
I really love the independence of my job now – I can set my own goals and expectations for myself as a writer and teacher. If I am interested in a particular topic, I can design and teach an entire course around it. For instance, I’ve recently become fascinated with the topic of neuroscience and its implications on teaching and learning. In the spring of 2016, I am teaching a class on the topic to third-year doctoral students. I love that I am hands-on with teachers all the time. It is very rewarding to have my students tell me about a strategy or method that I taught them and that they used successfully with their own students. It is also very rewarding to spend an extensive amount of time conducting research and publishing a book or article, and then to read emails from teachers who took your ideas and applied them successfully.
I also find inspiration for my research in other aspects of my life. My most important job is as the mother of a five-year old. I begin every morning with her rapid-fire questions: If I have a stomach ache, will it help to swallow a Band-Aid? Why does the moon follow me in the car? How do dolphins sleep? Her questions made me start looking into the frequency with which young children generate questions and I was floored: the average four-year-old asks about 200 questions a day! But in my work in classrooms, I noticed an interesting paradox: while children are naturally curious, there is not a lot of time or space for their questions in the classrooms. In fact, teachers do the vast majority of question asking in today’s classrooms. I also started thinking about myself as a reader, and noticed that when I read I am constantly asking questions about the text. Much of my initial research for my new book focused on reading comprehension. All of these interests seemed to intersect in a book about using student-generated questions as a means to promote cognitive development, student motivation, and comprehension of text.
When I think back to my time at Bryn Mawr, there are so many little things I remember: how the cherry trees seemed to snow pink petals in the spring. Spending Sundays at the computer lab as the yearbook editor with Mr. Stephens. Playing squash (I played collegiately and still play today!). Running cross country on the course at Boys Latin. The walk to Gilman – long before there was a pedestrian bridge! Buying imitation Mentos from the Lance machine in the gym lobby. The sight of backpacks lining the tiled porticos. Every word to the school prayer. The holiday concert with Dayseye’s rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Dissecting a fetal pig with Mrs. Thomlinson. Searching for my blob on the field at Gym Drill. Trying to hide my out-of-uniform items and hoping not to get caught. Every time I hear Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, I think of the Graduation Garden.
Academically, the workload at Bryn Mawr was significant, particularly the writing component. Bryn Mawr taught me to be a strong writer and researcher – skills I used all the time in college, graduate school, and my work today. It also taught me to use my time effectively – to balance athletics and academics and other extracurricular activities. As a working mother, I am constantly juggling my personal and professional demands, and those time management skills stem from Bryn Mawr. Bryn Mawr taught me to be a determined, outspoken young woman who contributed to her community, was intellectually curious, and could hold many roles: as an athlete, an artist, a scholar, a mother.