Dr. Lawrence R. Sipe, a professor in the Graduate School of Education and chair of the school’s program in Language and Literacy in Education, died unexpectedly March 11, 2011, at his home in Philadelphia at the age of 61.
A scholar of education and literature, Dr. Sipe focused on how children engage with literature. He was particularly interested in how young children talk about and respond to picture books in the classroom and how those activities enhance their literary understanding.
Born in 1949 in York, Pennsylvania, Dr. Sipe graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in English. For two years, he taught in a one-room school in Newfoundland, Canada, then returned to earn his second bachelor’s degree, this one in elementary education, at Bloomsburg State College in Pennsylvania.
After graduating from Temple University with a master’s degree in psychology of reading in 1980, he returned to Newfoundland, where he was a coordinator for in-service and professional development for a local school board for 13 years.
After earning his PhD from Ohio State University, Dr. Sipe joined Penn GSE in 1996 as an assistant professor and rose to the rank of professor in 2009. He received numerous University, national and international awards and fellowships, including the 1998 Salzburg Seminar Presidential Fellowship of the University of Pennsylvania, the 2001 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference and Penn’s 2007 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. In 2008, his book Storytime: Young Children’s Literary Understanding in the Classroom won the Edward B. Fry Book Award for Outstanding Contributions to Literacy Research and Practice from the National Reading Conference. He was also North American editor-in-chief of the journal Children’s Literature in Education.
Geoff Fox, the former editor of Children’s Literature in Education, said that Dr. Sipe’s experience as a classroom teacher deeply affected his scholarship, which centered around “real children as readers” rather than dry academic theorizing. Indeed, at the heart of Dr. Sipe’s work was a determination to learn from young children’s own thinking about literature. Children, he wrote in Storytime, have a “sophisticated and critical literary insight” from a very young age, and he took that insight seriously.
Margaret Mackey, a University of Alberta professor who preceded Dr. Sipe as North American editor at Children’s Literature, said he “did the best job anybody has ever done of gathering, respecting and letting people hear the voices of children.”
To Dr. Sipe, children’s picture books, with their complex interweaving of text and visual elements, are in many ways more sophisticated than the text-heavy “chapter books” that are often seen as the next stage for young readers. Picture books, he said late last year, “invite all sorts of higher-level thinking skills,” and he objected to the recent trend among parents of pushing children to read chapter books at earlier and earlier ages. “Let children be children for a while,” he added.
Dr. Sipe was a strong advocate of reading books aloud and discussing them with children in the classroom, and he was opposed to scripted, “teacher-proof” curricula that reduce or eliminate the opportunity to do so.
Associate Professor Gerald Campano, who served as Dr. Sipe’s first graduate assistant in the 1990s and returned to Penn GSE last year, called him an “amazingly supportive and generous human being” who went out of his way to help graduate students advance their careers.
Another colleague, Penn GSE Professor Vivian Gadsden, recalled Dr. Sipe’s “generosity, support and deep commitment to helping grad students become scholars.” When Dr. Sipe received Penn GSE’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 2005, the students who nominated him cited “his rigor, clarity, sensitivity, and thoroughness” and described him as the “model of a scholar who challenged students to think more deeply and broadly.”
In addition to his academic career, Dr. Sipe was called to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church. During the 1980s, he studied for the priesthood at McGill University’s Montreal Diocesan College and was ordained in 1989. He served as an honorary assistant priest at St. James’ Anglican Church in Newfoundland and later at St. Clement’s Church in Philadelphia.
Dr. Sipe is survived by his mother, Dorcas Sipe Transeau; his sister and brother-in-law, Judy and Steven Steinke; nieces, Emily Steinke and Katherine Steinke Morris and her husband, Ben.
Donations can be made in Dr. Sipe’s name to the “Helping Others Fund” of St. Clement’s Church, 2013 Appletree St., Philadelphia, PA 19103 or to All Saints’ Episcopal Church, 890 McCosh St., Hanover, PA 17331.