School & District Management

Janette Klingner, Scholar, Teacher, and Mentor, Dies at 60

By Holly Kurtz — March 27, 2014 6 min read
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Janette Klingner, a prominent scholar of special, bilingual, and bicultural education and developer of an instructional method known as Collaborative Strategic Reading, died March 20 at her Littleton, Colo., home. She was 60.

Her death followed a five-month battle with brain cancer.

Klingner was a professor in the educational equity and cultural diversity program at the University of Colorado Boulder’s school of education, where she had worked for 13 years. She developed Collaborative Strategic Reading as part of her dissertation research at the University of Miami. At the time of her death, she was a principal investigator on a $25 million i3 validation grant to scale up the approach in Denver Public Schools. She was also a principal investigator for a U.S. Department of Education grant-funded research project examining the use of the Response to Intervention special education model with English-learners.

Klingner was the author of 15 books and more than 115 articles and book chapters. She was president-elect of the Council for Exceptional Children and had served as vice president of the International Academy for Research on Learning Disabilities, of which she was a named fellow. She was an associate editor for the Journal of Learning Disabilities, on the editorial boards of ten other journals, and was a past co-editor of the Review of Educational Research.

To be honest, Janette Klingner was such an accomplished scholar that I could continue on for several more pages with this dry recitation of the facts of her career, which is detailed here. But I’m finding it difficult to do so because, to me, Janette was not a name on a journal masthead or a citation in a literature review. She was my mentor. She was my teacher. And she was a member of my doctoral dissertation committee at the University of Colorado, where I currently work as a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Public Affairs on the Denver campus.

Janette Klingner. Photo courtesy of The University of Colorado School of Education

For such an accomplished scholar, it would have been understandable if instructing and mentoring students had taken a back seat to research. But I know from personal experience that for Janette, this was simply not the case.

Here’s an example: A week before she died, at a point in time when she already knew she had just days to live, Janette insisted on meeting with her student Amy Boelé to discuss Amy’s upcoming dissertation defense.

“She wanted me to call her before the defense and was hoping to be a part of it in some way,” Amy recalled. “The night before my defense, she went into a coma, but surrounding the events of the day, we sensed her presence in many ways.”

From left, Karen Tracy, Amy Boelé, Sue Hopewell, Allison Gould Boardman and Kris Gutiérrez stand in front of a picture of Janette Klingner at Amy’s dissertation defense, which she dedicated to Janette. Photo by Subini Annamma.

This would appear to fly in the face of the old cliché about the improbability of death bed regrets about not spending more time at the office. But Janette was one of those fortunate people who enjoyed her work to a point that it was not always work for her. For this reason, she maintained a unique balance that gracefully mingled multiple aspects of her life. For instance, when her advisee Nicole Sager needed help finalizing her prospectus (the research proposal for the dissertation) Janette invited her camping.

“Seeking shelter from the chilly rain, we crawled into her little camper with our laptops and worked side by side,” Nicole reminisced. “When I thanked her, she replied, ‘Oh, this is fun for me. I just really love my work.’ ”

Another advisee, Subini Annamma, recalls meeting with Janette many times over lunch while their dogs played outside in Janette’s yard.

Janette Klingner, her former advisee Subini Annamma and Janette’s dog, Trekker, at the Klingner home in Littleton, Colo., in January, two months before Janette’s death. Photo by Don Klingner.

Other times, the two would swim laps, stopping in between to take a break and “talk about ability, language, and equity.”

“No place was off limits when an idea came to one of us and she was never too busy to talk something through,” recalled Subini, who flew to Colorado from her new job as an assistant professor of special education at Indiana University in Indianapolis earlier this month in order to spend time with Janette just before she died.” Janette taught me about being accessible as a scholar and a person; she taught me about always being willing to learn from someone else.”

Multiple advisees recalled that Janette treated them with love and care.

“Janette often talked about her academic family,” Amy Boelé said. “Those of us who were privileged to be her advisees were afforded the distinction of Janette’s academic children. Janette was deeply invested in us... She had such high expectations and confidence in her students, the kind of confidence that parents have for their children, and our accomplishments always made her so proud.”

Janette did not just treat her students like family. She also expressed a genuine interest in the lives of their own families. My classmate Sue Hopewell was a former student of Janette’s who went on to become her colleague at the University of Colorado’s school of education. She recalled how Janette supported her when her son went through a rough patch four years ago.

“Every time I’ve seen her since, she begins by asking about Patrick,” Sue said “She listened. She cared. And, she didn’t forget. She even asked about him when I visited her while she was sick. She took so much joy and pleasure from hearing about his growth and success, AND she didn’t really know him. She helped me to see my success as a mother in the very moments I most thought I was failing.”

I think it’s necessary here to add that, despite all this talk of family and mothering and camping and swimming laps, Janette was not just a sweet lady who was nice to her students.

She was a meticulous and collaborative researcher who helped others become meticulous and collaborative researchers too. My first hint of this was in the required course she co-taught, where we read Why Are so Many Minority Students in Special Education?, a qualitative research study Janette conducted with Beth Harry. That study drew upon 272 open-ended interviews, 627 classroom observations, and accounts of 90 meetings and psychological evaluations relevant to 24 classrooms at 12 different schools. Did I mention that it was incredibly well-written, too? My first thought was, wow. My second: I want to do research like that. Thanks to her guidance, I left her class with a paper I presented at two different academic conferences.

Which was why I asked Janette to be on my dissertation committee. I thought she would probably say no since I was not enrolled in the concentration in which she taught. Nor had I selected a topic related to special education or bilingual or bicultural education.

Yet Janette welcomed me with open arms. Even after I graduated, she was still helping me. Here’s how she responded in June when I asked if she’d provide feedback on the first journal article I had ever written without the help of co-authors:

Hi Holly, Yes, I would be glad to look at this. Thanks for asking. (smiley face) Janette

Then, she responded with her trademark constructive-yet-kind advice, which included reminding me that not everyone was as immersed in my topic as I was.

I should add here that Janette’s relationship with me and other members of her “academic family” was in addition to the love and support she provided her family family.

As University of Colorado School of Education Dean Lorrie Shepard wrote:

"[Janette] was not only a cherished colleague and friend, but also a deeply loved professor, advisor, and mentor to countless students. More importantly, she was a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, aunt, and cousin in a close-knit family that was at the center of her life.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.