Changing lives one reader at a time

December 9, 2016
Brandi Garcia teaching kindergarten
Brandi Garcia teaching kindergarten

Brandi Garcia and Robert Thelen, two of the many dedicated teachers in CU Denver’s Reading and Writing master’s program, share a singularly vital goal: to bolster students’ reading and writing outcomes.

Garcia fuels the fires of intelligence in kindergarten. Thelen inspires the confidence and imagination of middle school students. Both know that reading and writing skills can be the difference between wasted potential and a world of possibilities.

They chose the supportive, research-based environment of CU Denver to expand their knowledge of literacy because they wanted to learn from top faculty and to positively impact the lives of all learners in their classrooms.

“Students in this program are passionate about propelling their careers forward,” said Nancy Shanklin, associate professor emeritus and recipient of the School of Education & Human Development’s 2016 Lynn K. Rhodes Faculty Service Award. “They are intellectually curious and eager to learn practical ways to connect with students from diverse backgrounds, including English language learners. They want to broaden their perspectives and instructional strategies to help the students in their classrooms move forward. As well as becoming better classroom teachers of reading and writing, many hope to become Title I or intervention teachers, literacy/instructional coaches or literacy leaders in their schools and districts.”

Brandi Garcia, Adams 12 Five Star Schools

Brandi Garcia at classroom table
Brandi Garcia teaching in a multicultural classroom

Joy and excitement to learn is what reading is all about 

Brandi Garcia relished the thought of becoming a teacher before she could even spell the word. Teaching reading and writing, she says, is the perfect opportunity to forge meaningful bonds with energetic kindergartners. It is also her way of trying to reduce the racial disparities in education.

Her students come from diverse backgrounds and languages, and also include native English speakers.  “When the light bulb comes on and they get it, it makes me feel super excited and proud,” said Garcia.

Garcia received her undergraduate degree and teacher licensure through CU Denver. When the time came to go back for her master’s degree, she chose CU Denver again because she knew the Reading and Writing program faculty would help her understand the intricacies and the bigger picture of teaching literacy to her students who most needed help.

Many things have changed in Garcia’s classroom since she started her MA program at CU Denver.

“I’ve been more meaningful and targeted with my lessons,” she said. “I understand where students come in, how they bring funds of knowledge with them and how I can bring that into the classroom to help them succeed in reading and writing.

Everything that we’re learning, I’m taking right back to the classroom … just simple things like organizing a classroom library all the way to working with struggling students.”

Garcia wants her students to see themselves as learners, believe in themselves and see all the assets that they bring.

“At the end of the year,” said Garcia, “I hope that my students leave full of joy and excitement to learn. And, I hope that they feel successful for all they’ve accomplished for the one year of schooling that they’ve had.”

Robert Thelen, Littleton Public Schools*

Robert Thelen teaching kids
Robert Thelen is a literacy instructional coach for Littleton Public Schools.

Targeting reading disparities and changing the odds for middle school students

Robert Thelen admits that he had a fault in his teaching before he started his master’s degree at CU Denver. He wasn’t able to dig deeper when a student in his middle school classroom was struggling with reading and writing.

“I could collaborate with my peers,” said Thelen. “I could ask questions. But I didn’t know where to go with that information.”

Thelen did extensive research about potential MA programs in the area. He was searching for a program that would allow him to explore, understand and impact the ways children learn language in all its forms. He wanted a program that would take him the extra mile and treat him like a professional. And he wanted to make connections, personally and professionally, that would last a lifetime.

Since he started the reading and writing program, his teaching perspectives and approaches have changed and he has seen himself grow professionally.

“Now, I do a lot of qualitative analysis,” said Thelen. “I want to know who my students are. I want to know what languages they speak. I want to know what cultures they celebrate. I want to know what ethnicities they identify with. I want to analyze and assess the different phonemes in each student’s language. When I walk into my classroom, I don’t just see a group of kids anymore. I see individual students, and each student has unique needs.

“The thing that gets me out of bed every morning is knowing that I’ll see the excitement on my students’ faces as soon as I walk in the door. I’ve built a relationship with my students so that while I’m their teacher, I’m also their mentor.

They just need a goal. They need a starting point. And I want to give them that confidence. It doesn’t feel like work. It feels like I’m making a difference.”

* Since this article was written, Thelen has graduated from the Reading and Writing master’s degree program. As a result, he has received a promotion. He is now a literacy instructional coach at East Elementary, a Title 1 school in Littleton Public Schools. He is also furthering his education in SEHD’s EdD doctoral program.

 New Fully Online Reading and Writing MA

This MA degree is designed for working teachers who want advanced knowledge and training to work with diverse student populations as they develop reading, writing and oral language skills.

This fall, the School of Education & Human Development will launch an online 30-credit-hour master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in reading and writing. The program provides educators with advanced knowledge and training to work with diverse student populations as they develop reading, writing and oral language skills. Adding the online offering allows teachers across the state and the Rocky Mountain region the opportunity to obtain a quality master’s degree and endorsement as a K–12 reading teacher from the reading and writing program at CU Denver.

“Our students’ time feels exceptionally precious, which is why we decided to create this fully online MA,” said Nancy Shanklin, associate professor emeritus. “The new online format, in addition to our on-campus hybrid program, allows teachers more flexibility to achieve a work/life balance. Both designs offer them academically rigorous content, thoughtful faculty engagement and an invaluable personal and professional network that they can depend on long after graduation.”

“The online reading and writing program at CU Denver is unique in that it is not a self-guided program,” said Isabelle Smith, course instructor and developer. “When I create online modules, I’m thinking about a variety of things. How am I going to get the students to interact with each other and the content at the same time? What can I present to them in the form of a prompt to get them to think about their own experiences, their own beliefs and connect with each other around those beliefs in a way that they can take it forward and apply to their teaching?”

For more information and to apply, visit

Guest Contributor:  Julia Cummings, Marketing Director, School of Education and Human Development