Shea Kerkhoff and Cassandra Suggs launch ‘Show Me Literacies’ podcast

Show Me Literacies blue and yellow podcast logo

This May, Shea Kerkhoff, an assistant professor of literacy at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and Cassandra Suggs, a graduate of UMSL’s Heritage Leadership EdD program and principal at Wildwood Middle School, launched the “Show Me Literacies Podcast.” The podcast aimed at bridging the gap between education research and practice in the field. (Graphic and photos courtesy of Shea Kerkhoff and Cassandra Suggs)

When Shea Kerkhoff first came to Cassandra Suggs for help on a new project, Suggs assumed she’d be conducting interviews for Kerkhoff. But she had no idea they would be on mic.

“I was like, ‘Oh, it’s a podcast! How cool is that?’” Suggs recalled. “I thought I was just doing some freelance research.”

This spring, Kerkhoff, an assistant professor of literacy at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and Suggs, a graduate of UMSL’s Heritage Leadership EdD program and principal at Wildwood Middle School, launched the “Show Me Literacies” podcast, which is available to stream on numerous platforms such as Anchor, Google Podcasts and Spotify.

The project is part of a $5.1 million federal grant the College of Education received in 2020 to help promote evidence-based literacy strategies among local educators and to create online literacy resources.

The podcast is one such resource and is aimed at bridging the gap between education research and practice in the field. In service of that goal, Kerkhoff and Suggs have interviewed academics, educators and librarians in Missouri about research-informed strategies for teaching literacy in K-12 classroom settings, as well as the changing face of literacy in the digital age.

Cassandra Suggs and Shea Kerkhoff

Cassandra Suggs (left) and Shea Kerkhoff met when Suggs was a doctoral student in UMSL’s Heritage Leadership EdD program and took Kerkhoff’s course on educational research methods.

“We define literacy comprehensively – reading, writing, speaking, listening with traditional print texts – but we live in a digital age, hence the podcast,” Kerkhoff said. “In addition to those traditional literacies, in today’s world, students need to be able to create, consume and communicate with digital text.”

Kerkhoff and Suggs also noted that podcasting is an accessible medium ideal for reaching a wide audience, especially busy parents and teachers.

“I really enjoy podcasts because we’re all so busy, and teachers are so busy,” Kerkhoff said. “There are tons of journal articles out there that are great, but you have to stop what you’re doing and read. With a podcast, you can be driving, you could be walking the dog, you could be cleaning the house. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing. That was the draw to doing a podcast.”

The duo posted the first “Show Me Literacies” episode on May 25, and over the course of five episodes, the podcast has touched on topics from culturally responsive literacy to literacy in middle grades. While it’s been available to download and stream for two months, the final product has been two years in the making.

In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Education awarded 11 state education organizations sizable grants for its Comprehensive Literacy State Development program. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education received $18 million to be distributed over a period of five years, and UMSL received $5.1 million via two sub-awards.

UMSL’s projects include partnerships with 40 schools in the St. Louis region to provide coaching for local educators on culturally relevant practices and practices associated with a concept called the science of reading.

However, Kerkhoff and her co-principal investigators also wanted to make an impact beyond St. Louis. It led them to include a six-episode podcast series on research-informed literacy practices in the grant proposal.

“In the grant, we knew we needed a stopgap measure,” she said. “We needed something that reached the broader audience in the state.”

At the time that UMSL secured the grant, Suggs happened to be a student in Kerkhoff’s course on educational research methods. Suggs, who had a 20-year career as a television host before going into education, utilized her media skills to conduct video interviews about teaching during the pandemic for a class project.

After reviewing the assignment, Kerkhoff learned more about Suggs’ background and knew she could help bring the podcast to fruition. With Kerkhoff’s connections to education researchers and Suggs’ position in K-12 education, they would be able to tackle literacy topics from multiple perspectives.

Though Kerkhoff has been a guest on several podcasts and Suggs has a background in media, neither had any previous experience producing a podcast. However, they were able to get up to speed with the Office of Student Involvement’s “Lights, Camera, Podcast” workshop in spring 2021.

Additionally, the pair recruited Suggs’ sons Cason and Skyler to lend a professional air to the podcast. Cason, a musician and filmmaker, recorded the podcast’s intro and outro music, and Skyler, an aspiring voice actor, recorded the voiceover intro.

“I mean, it was perfect,” Kerkhoff said with a laugh. “If you listen, it’s on point.”

Suggs felt her interviewing skills were a bit rusty at first, but she quickly found her footing.

“The interviews have been going really well,” Suggs said. “What I like about it is giving teachers an opportunity to tell their story, how they’re using literacy. At the same time, they’re speaking to parents about the importance of it in a timely manner.”

She explained that some parents don’t know how to support literacy development at home and might be embarrassed to bring up the issue at a parent-teacher conference. But they can listen to a podcast and get tips from experts.

Kerkhoff has also enjoyed the process and showcasing the wealth of knowledge available in the state.

“The interviews have been a lot of fun because these people are passionate about literacy,” she said. “There’s such a joy in language. It’s something that you can play with, and there’s such fondness for books and reading and writing. It’s really shone a light on the joy and love in literacy and not just that skills-based, standardized-tests part of literacy.”

Guests have included experts such as Julius B. Anthony, president of the St. Louis Regional Literacy Association and St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature; Bill Bass, innovation coordinator at the Parkway School District and former president of the International Society of Technology in Education; and Robert Petrone, associate professor of literacy education and critical youth studies at the University of Missouri–Columbia.

Suggs is particularly proud of the episode on emergent literacy – or early reading and writing development – with Joy Rogers, an elementary teacher in the Hazelwood School District and Suggs’ dissertation partner at UMSL.

“She really gave some insight into the importance of helping young children learn how to read and what happens when they get behind,” Suggs said. “She spoke to parents and shared how parents can learn how to help their students and what’s required.”

The hosts are also excited about an upcoming episode with Melanie Barrett, librarian at Wildwood Middle School, who spoke with Suggs about attracting students to the library at a time when screens are ubiquitous.

“She spoke about books and literacy and how it’s changing to get kids to come in and read more,” Suggs said. “With all these distractions, with these phones, kids don’t want to necessarily pick up a book anymore. Libraries are coming up with creative ways to bring kids in. And she spoke on the taboo topic of banned books.”

Six episodes were necessary to fulfill the terms of the grant, but Kerkhoff and Suggs have already produced nine. They plan to continue working on the project for the foreseeable future and encourage anyone interested in literacy to take advantage of the state’s homegrown experts.

“It’s a podcast for people in Missouri,” Suggs said. “It’s your own people sharing with you, their knowledge. We are the Show-Me State, so check us out and see if we’re showing you the real truth about literacy.”

Stream or download “Show Me Literacies” on Anchor, Google Podcasts or Spotify.


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