Dr. M. Jerry Weiss Helps Literacy Grow in New Jersey
Dr. M. Jerry Weiss
If it weren’t for M. Jerry Weiss, young readers may never have heard of Amber Brown. In 1972, the late Paula Danziger was Dr. M. Jerry Weiss’ student in an adolescent literature class at Montclair State University. She’d just thrown her oversized pocketbook at a fellow student who stated he wouldn’t ever let students read a book about homosexuals. Dr. Weiss suspended Danziger from class for three weeks with these orders: “Go home. Read. Write.” Danziger returned with the draft of what later became “The Cat Ate my Gym Suit;” launching her career as a children’s author. Danziger wrote more than 25 books, including the popular “Amber Brown” series, and is among hundreds of authors whose works were discovered by Weiss.
Now students and teachers can avail themselves of thousands of books at the recently opened M. Jerry Weiss Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature at New Jersey City University. Weiss, Professor Emeritus, taught at NJCU for 33 years, encouraging education students to use young adult literature. In addition to encouraging new authors, he’s nationally recognized for promoting the use of trade paperbacks in classrooms. The center will provide resources and offer professional development workshops for students and educators.
Weiss has devoted his career to literacy. He’s written and edited dozens of books, including short story anthologies geared to young adults, and has held leadership positions in the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association. The New Jersey Reading Association honors him with its annual “M. Jerry Weiss Book Award.” Affectionately known as the “The Jerry,” the award-winning title is selected by the state’s school children. He grew up in North Carolina, left high school to enlist in the Navy during World War II, and then entered college under the G.I. Bill. “I entered education because I wanted to make sure I could get a job. Teaching seemed a good bet,” he told Education Update. At his first job in a small, rural Virginia town, he quickly learned the politics of education—parental and administrative pressures and a stagnant curriculum. Always an avid reader, he began introducing his own paperback books “so students didn’t have to read books they had little or no interest in.” Since the books weren’t part of the approved curriculum, he wasn’t rehired. He applied to Teachers College at Columbia University, where he says he found “true inspiration.”
In addition to promoting the use of trade books and encouraging new writers, Weiss has fought censorship nationally and served as a consultant in many countries and for many publishers. He donated his personal collection of autographed children’s and adolescent books to the Center. Publishers have augmented the holdings with thousands of titles. “To meet the diverse and changing interests, needs, and abilities of students, we must bring new books into classrooms,” Weiss said. “Good books make meaningful reading happen” He worries that the obsession with testing “has little to do with the impact of learning upon the learner,” and emphasizes that “children enter the classroom with different abilities, interests, experiences, attitudes. We can’t expect any one method or set of materials to meet their needs.”#