Photo from linkedin.com
By Nick Kalantzopoulos
As a little girl, Patricia Dunn and her twin sister would go outside their house in the summer, onto the porch and play with their friends, like any other healthy, young children would.
However, they did not have dolls, board games, or any other generic toys that one might play with as an adolescent. Patricia and her friends read books.
Patricia Dunn, PhD, grew up in Albany with parents who read to her when she was just a child. With help from her mom and dad, Dunn and her sister were given plenty of time to explore in the world of literature, and they made sure to bring their friends along for the ride.
This little group of girls would go to the library, fill their hands with as many books as possible, go home and begin to trade.
They read a lot of Trixie Belden, their favorite author, who wrote several mystery novels aimed at a young female audience. The books brought Dunn and her friends to a place of wonderment and imagination, and they were inspired.
Dunn grew up in a household that included her grandparents. Neither they nor her parents had gone to college before, but there was no question what Dunn and her sister would do after graduating high school. They were inspired to write.
With the help of a mechanical printing press from her parents, Dunn and her friends started up their own teen magazine while Dunn was in seventh grade. She used that inspiration to continue to do what she loves today: teach english.
Dunn has taught at Stony Brook University as an Associate Professor of english since 2003, coming from Illinois State University. She decided to pursue English at the University of Albany, choosing to stay close to home.
In a world in which many students speed through their undergraduate college experience, and continue to blindly look forward to a dream future, Dunn enjoyed where she was. She went on to receive a bachelor of arts, a master of arts and a doctorate of arts. Meanwhile, her love of young adult literature still holds true.
Dunn teaches EGL 360, the undergraduate English Young Adult Literature class, on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
She continues to attempt to guide students towards reading and writing more, but stresses that she cannot push them. Knowing that students will push back if forced and begin to resent her field, Dunn focuses on not putting too much on her students’ plates.
“In some ways, some of the things that are done in schools kill that love for reading,” Dunn said. “They’re scheduled for a lot of different things… I wasn’t that scheduled when I was a kid. A lot of people are still reading, but they might not be reading what they want their teachers to read.”
Dunn went on to say that pressure put on teachers to give their students reading material that may be above their level is deterring kids from reading for pleasure.
However, Dunn has seen a bit of a transformation over the last decade, during what she called, “the Harry Potter craze.”
“It’s wonderful,” Dunn said, “Having people talk about it, and get excited about it… I think that’s a great thing.” This sharing of stories is what Patricia Dunn grew up on, and what she continues to focus on today, as a professor.
In a recent Young Adult Literature class, Dunn spent the first quarter of the time reading a story out loud, much like a mother would read to a child before they go to bed.
She read “Holding,” a short story by Lois Lowry, which was taken out of the book “Am I Blue,” a collection of small stories dealing with gay and lesbian relationships and tendencies in the lives of teens from a variety of lifestyles.
After finishing her reading, she split up her students into groups of two and had them discuss the meaning of the story before engaging in a group discussion. The story centers around Will, a 17-year-old boy from California, who flies to New York to be with his father after the death of Chris, his dad’s significant other. A friend of Will’s refers to Chris as “Will’s dad’s wife,” and Will merely responds with “They’re not married.” As the story goes on, it becomes apparent that Chris was a man, and that Will’s father was gay.
Dunn often chooses these types of stories, which focus on minorities, feeling like they have been underrepresented in books.
In 1995, Dunn completed the first of her four books, titled “Learning Re-abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies.” Dunn believes that disabled characters have never had the chance to be front and center in literature, and even when they are, are cast stereotypically and generically.
Dunn feels comfortable talking about what may be uncomfortable, and her students feel the same. Cheron Reid, a student in her class noted that, even though Dunn’s teaching is “college styled,” Dunn “gives the feel of a high school teacher because she gets personal with her students. We actually discuss what we read in class rather than just go through the ideas behind the literature.”
Reading and writing are not Dunn’s only passions. Among the four books she has written, a common theme is disability. She mentions the characters that have them, as well as the readers that endure them.
In her latest book, “Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature” Dunn dissects the nature of disabled characters being treated as secondary elements, and not having enough of a voice for today’s youth.
Having a close relative with a disability, Dunn chose pursue this topic further. When mentioning books she has read and conferences she has attended, she grasps an understanding about the issue. A main theme for her is that disability is a social justice issue, and one that is frequently overlooked.
Patricia Dunn continues to teach her students, many of whom she believes will someday follow in her footsteps.
As for how she believes others should help young children get into reading, she stresses not to force them, but to get them involved and try to find ways to get kids interested in reading and writing.