Sunday, March 18, 2007

Whole Language

Doug Noon has an excellent post at Borderland today which considers the "reading research wars" now being fought in the national newsmedia and on countless local fronts. Even though I've been a high school teacher for some years now, I get pretty easily worked up when I have to listen to people who whose vision of quality and accountability in education is driven by their obsession with standardized testing, people for whom the words "whole language" are some sort of obscenity.

I've been at this for a long time. I started out as an elementary school teacher in 1969, and did my master's degree project by designing a series of pre-reading books that were basically templates within which emerging readers were asked to create the content, in the form of pictures, sight words, and, if they were ready to give it a shot, sentences that could either be dictated to the teacher or written out, invented spellings and all, by the student. I also worked with elementary school students as K-6 writing coordinator for six or eight years in the Canton, MA public schools. As one of my functions in that role, I helped teachers to set up student-based writing programs in every grade from kindergarten on up. Some of the programs were successful, some weren't. The ones that were successful were the ones where the teacher did the necessary followup work on the days when I was not in the classroom, making free-choice writing and author's chair and individual conferences a part of the daily routine. The ones that didn't work were the ones where the teacher, all too happy to have me come in and "take over" the class for an hour here and there, would pointedly be correcting worksheets in the back of the room while I was there, and then simply wait for me to show up again the following week.

My program was based both on my own intuitions and experiences as a K-1 teacher in Nanakuli, HI in 1969-70, and on the work of Donald Graves at the University of New Hampshire (I've written about him before), and it was rooted in the assumption that students have a great deal more knowledge of the way that language works than we give them credit for, or that they are even aware of. One of the most revelatory pieces of writing I have ever run across in this regard is Jerome Harste's "Lessons from Latrice," which is chapter 4 in Language Stories and Literary Lessons. In it, Harste looks closely at what appears to be a set of "meaningless" scribbles from a pre-schooler and begins to unpack the competencies already on display. Latrice knows, for example, that marks have significance. If you ask her to "read" what she is written, she can tell the story she had in mind. She knows that reading is done from left to write and top to bottom. If you ask her to read it again, she knows that the marks do not have arbitrary significance; she tells the same story, and points to the same passages. And so on. What struck me about this essay, which I am recalling from memory at a distance of twenty-something years, is that it was based not on a deficit model (what Latrice doesn't know and can't do—and therefore must be "taught") but from an asset model: look at all she can do already, with no formal instruction at all. Latrice, like every other child, was capable of creating meaning before she was technically capable of reading and writing. So when she hits kindergarten, what do we want to start with, her deficits or her strengths. Do we assume that she knows nothing, and proceed with an instructional program that has that assumption embedded in it in such a way that the message is made quite clear to her? Or do we start with what she already can do and ask ourselves what she might be able to try next? That, for me, was the essential question driving the whole language movement.

A friend of mine was in the doctoral program at UNH while Graves was there, and I went to visit him several times. On one of those occasions I visited a public school first-grade class that was conducted completely as a whole language environment. This was in springtime, and it was a warm day. I arrived at 8:00 in the morning to find the door open. The classroom seemed to consist mostly of bookcases filled with children's books, each with a colored band on the side. The bookcases divided the room up into perhaps eight or nine mini-zones, in each one of which there were students were already at work, reading silently on pillows or reading quietly out loud to one another in corners. Some had their journals out and were writing with great concentration. They didn't look up as I entered. The kids who arrived after me hung up their coats and went immediately to the bookshelves, took down either a book or their journal, and found a place to settle down to work. But where was the teacher? It took several minutes of scouting around before I found her in a corner behind a bookcase, conferencing with a student about her book. She would have each student read out loud from the book they had chosen (it was up to the student to select the book). The she would ask some questions, make some notations on a chart she had set up with each student's name on it, and tell the student to get back to work and send another student over. I wound up sitting down with a number of these students, listening to them read and watching as they wrote. It was incredible. I was working in a third-grade classroom at the time, and there wasn't one of these first-graders who was not reading and writing as well as the best of my third graders.

I talked with the teacher afterwards and she shared with me the considerable amount of work that had gone into setting up the structures that appeared to be so natural. The colored bands on the books, of which there were hundreds and hundreds, were an indication of the reading level. Students were free to choose whatever level they liked, but in the daily conferences the teacher would monitor how well the student could read the book and would sometimes suggest a harder, or an easier, replacement. She knew exactly where each student was, what he was reading, and what he would have to learn to be able to move to a more challenging book. Part of the morning was given over to small group instruction to students who needed to have their attention directed to one skill or another. She would meet with the small groups while the other students continued to read, or write, or share what they had read or written. Some students were working from entries in their journal which had been corrected in order to make a book. (Many of the books that were on the shelves had in fact been authored by members of the class.) There were clear expectations that each student would complete a certain amount of reading, writing, and sharing each week, and the students were responsible for keeping their own records. (They also kept their own attendance by turning over their picture in the chart the door when they arrived.) The entire morning, from 8:00 to 11:30 each day, was a reading-writing workshop. In the time I was there, I didn't see a single student goofing off or acting bored. It was, quite simply, one of the richest educational environments I've ever seen. And there were no worksheets, no workbooks, no texts other than the real books the kids were reading—and writing—and no standardized tests.

I've been around the block a few times since then, and nothing I have seen or experienced as a teacher or a parent has led me to believe that young children are better served by a deficit model rather than by an asset model, by batteries of tests rather than by informed interactions with teachers, by skills and drills rather than by focussed strategic interventions, by standards set by state or federal legislators rather than by individual classroom educators.

One further obliquely relevant observation. When I came back to Hawaii nine years ago, after close to 30 years of experience in Massachusetts, including twelve years as a K-12 English coordinator, I applied to the Hawaii Public Schools, which is chronically short of qualified teachers, for a job. One might have thought that with my background, and Hawaii teaching experience to boot, I might have at least gotten a cursory look by someone in the bureaucracy. I was told by mail that before they would even look at my application I would have to take and pass three different Praxis exams. I took the tests, which were monumentally irrelevant in every respect, and never heard back from the public school system. In the meantime, the private school at which I now teach hired me on the spot, no tests required, thank you very much.

There's a point at which our growing national obsession with credentials and "evidence-based" competency simply wipes out anything resembling common sense. IMHO, we're already way past that point now, and it seems that the debate is just warming up. My heart is with the legions of terrific, dedicated public school teachers who have to fight against all manner of bureaucratic stupidity in order to try to do their jobs well under conditions that are just tremendously discouraging. I wish you luck. I'm afraid you're going to need it.

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