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Comments on receiving the Whole Language Umbrella 2016 Lifetime Membership Award

Reprinted below are the comments delivered by Whole Language Umbrella Past President Debra Goodman upon receipt of the Whole Language Umbrella 2016 Lifetime Membership Award.

Version 2When I was young, I liked to read.  (Go figure.) I read A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth, and I learned that tyranny can be conquered by love and chaos by rhyme and reason.  I read The Grapes of Wrath and the Autobiography of Malcolm X and learned about human suffering and the human growth.

I also read Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Up the Down Staircase and Death at an Early Age.  And I knew that when I grew up I wanted to be a revolutionary teacher.

Of course, I did have a few influences beyond my reading.  I grew up in Detroit in the 1960’s & 70’s in a community of political activists.  I was also fortunate to grow up surrounded by gifted and caring teachers and researchers. I experienced the craft and art of teaching, the interplay of research and pedagogy.  But, perhaps more important, I experienced a community of friendship and camadarie; a professional family.

I was lucky to come of age as a teacher in the 1980’s during a revolution. A revolution of understandings into reading and writing process and literacy as cultural practice; and insights into linguistic and cultural resources of all children and families; A revolution of teachers fighting for meaningful and purposeful learning for all children; A revolution of teachers fighting to become learners.  A revolution we came to call whole language.

Today’s dark times are reminiscent of my first years of teaching in the 1980’s, when cries of “back to the basics” constrained learning and teaching. As we worked towards democratic classrooms and joyful learning, the principal popped in to check on the noise level.  I struggled to help every child grow and succeed, while being attacked for giving high grades.  We explored family histories and thematic inquiry studies while administering objective reference tests on countless sub-skills.  And we pretended to use basal readers.  (My colleague, Toby Curry, said they were just the right size for propping open the windows.)

Everyone needs someone who gets the joke, sees the irony, recognizes the breakthrough. We need a space where it’s safe to be a learner; where we can share rough draft thinking and admit to our mistakes.  We can’t do it alone.

So we began to meet with colleagues during our 25 minute lunch breaks.  We formed local support groups called Teachers Applying Whole Language.  We held Sunday morning meetings with coffee and bagels – commiserating, sharing books and children’s work, and learning together.  These local groups began to connect at conferences of the National Council of Teachers of English and International Reading Association.  And from these meetings the Whole Language Umbrella was born.

I’ve recently been reviewing accounts of whole language classrooms and schools in the 80’s and 90’s.  I am struck by stories of brilliant teaching and learning, as well as the reflection and constructive critique within the whole language community. Carole Edelsky writes that whole language classrooms “brought greater access to rich, complex curriculum for all students; diminished hierarchies in the classroom; promoted greater respect for varied literacy and language practices; and increased the likelihood that more students would try on academic literacies and see that they fit.” (p. 220)

The political backlash against whole language throughout the 1990’s was, in part, an indicator of the potential of whole language as a democratic pedagogy that creates spaces for learners to address issues in their community, ask critical questions, and take action.  Critical conversations occur when teachers and students are subjects of their own teaching and learning.

Today, creating curriculum that values all learners often seems like an impossible dream, even irrelevant, when teachers are required to follow commercial programs “with fidelity” and punitive evaluations motivate teachers through fear of poor ratings and losing of their jobs. If we are to return to joyful learning and democratic classrooms, we must fight against the corporate reform agenda.  Whole language perspectives provide critiques of the regressive content and mistaken theories underlying standards and tests; as well as the imposition of know-nothing views of reading on learners and their teachers.  I am proud to see whole language educators in the forefront of anti-reform protests, particularly in coalition groups such as Save Our Schools.  I am encouraged to see our Whole Language Umbrella member TAWL [Teachers Applying Whole Language] groups grow from four to seven this year; and by the young teachers I’ve met today who are joining us at the Literacies for All Summer Institute during their summer vacation.

Thank you to the WLU board for recognizing thirty some years of work on behalf of whole language education and WLU. But it has been a labor of love to work for a cause I believe in so strongly.  And it has given me the opportunity to work, play, draw, sing, and dance with my WLU friends and family.

The struggle to protect public education requires that teachers have agency in classroom decision making, and support in gaining and refining their understandings and expertise.  The Literacies for All Summer Institute is a space for inquiry and rejuvenation; making new friends and forming communities.  Please join us next year for the 2017 Literacies for All Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

Work Cited

Edelsky, Carole. With Literacy and Justice for All: Rethinking the Social in Language and Education, 3rd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006. Print.

Debra Goodman is an Associate Professor of Literacy Studies at Hofstra University.  She is Past President of the Whole Language Umbrella.  Prior to her work in teacher education, she was a teacher in Detroit Public Schools.  She is author of The Reading Detective Club, encouraging teachers and children to explore reading together.