On Pedagogy, Race and Class

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Harvey Daniels

Professor, National-Louis University

Co-author, Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools.

Q What would [whole language] mean in terms of classroom practice?

A whole language classroom has less teacher-directed and controlled instruction, like lecturing and talking at children. It has less student passivity and less rewarding of sitting and silence. It has less time given to worksheets, dittos, and workbooks. It has less time spent reading textbooks and basal readers. It has fewer attempts by teachers to cover huge amounts of content area. … It has less rote memorization and less stress on competition and grading. …

[It has] more hands-on, inductive, active, experiential learning. … There is more emphasis on higher-order thinking and a deeper study of fewer topics. There is more time devoted to whole, original, real books, as opposed to short little basal stories that are disconnected from each other. …

Most of all—and my feeling is that this is the single most important element—in a whole language classroom, kids have more choices. This means that much of the time they pick their own books to read, their own subjects to write about, their own partners to work with, their own projects to research. …

Whole language is not just about reading and writing. It’s about what learning is, what teaching is, what the classroom should be like, what education should be about. I read a survey today in which 82% of fourth-grade teachers claimed they were whole language teachers. That’s ridiculous. Maybe 5% of the teachers in America are doing something that I would call whole language.

Q One of the key criticisms of whole language is that kids need phonics to learn to read and that whole language doesn’t teach phonics.

The phonics approach to reading was popularized only since about 1915. So the first question is, how the hell did everyone learn how to read in the 4,000 years of written language before phonics was invented?

In fact, whole language is a return to the eternal fundamentals of education: kids reading whole, original books, writing whole, original texts of their own in a community of fellow learners with an experienced adult guiding them. That’s whole language. That’s the ancient way, the “primitive” way, the truly back-to-basics form of education.

This idea of breaking language down into its parts and teaching the individual pieces—dipthongs and gerunds—is a product of twentieth-century behavioristic psychology that’s already discredited in most quarters. Twenty or thirty years from now it will be gone. However, we have a problem, which is that a whole generation of parents and taxpayers had lots of phonics instruction and they think they turned out pretty well. … Maybe 10%, some people say 20%, need some formal phonics instruction in the first two years of school and, at the most, ten or fifteen minutes a day.

Q What about the argument that kids are going to have to take standardized tests . . . and whole language doesn’t adequately prepare them for the tests?

… You don’t need to study only the test and distort your entire curriculum eight hours a day, 180 days a year, for twelve years. We’ve got very interesting studies where teachers do thirty-five or thirty-eight weeks of what they think is best for kids, and then they’ll give them test cramming just before the test. And the kids do just as well as kids who have forty weeks of test-driven curriculum.

Q Let’s talk about the spelling controversy. It’s one thing for kids to use invented spelling when first writing … but by the time children are in fourth grade, shouldn’t they be given spelling tests?

Spelling tests are not spelling. I’ve got a son who’s gotten 100 on every spelling test he ever took. But when he is doing an original piece of writing, his spelling isn’t nearly as good. … I don’t care whether anybody can spell or not. I care whether they can edit [and] that they know how to find the help they need to turn their misspellings into correct spellings before they release their writing to the public.

Q Another criticism of whole language is that … the lack of structure … might be great for white, middle-class kids but a disadvantage for poor kids, particularly students of color.

There’s lots of structure in a whole language classroom; they’re just different structures from what people are used to seeing. … Some of these new, different structures include teacher-student conferences, collaborative group investigations, thematic units, partner reading, dialogue journals, portfolios, observational assessment, and dozens more. These are each carefully crafted activities with complex rules, procedures, and norms; they just happen to be different norms from the ones in the traditional classroom.

I don’t think that these structures have any racial dimension. … However, [they] do have a cultural or economic class dimension, and therefore racial and ethnic politics do enter the picture indirectly. Because many urban children of color are poor, and because poor families often endorse authoritarian discipline styles, the decentralized whole language classroom sometimes seems to clash with family or cultural values. It is often said, especially by educators of color, that minority inner-city kids need more discipline, more authority, more control than middle-class suburban white children.

So this creates a real problem. Should schools recreate for kids the same culture found in their neighborhood, even if that means omitting the best educational models we have and use for other children? Or should schools exclusively operate according to middle-class values, styles, and standards?

I think that, especially for minority children, schooling must be both a mirror and a window. … [Schools should] positively reflect their heritage, their community, their culture. But at the same time, the school must also provide a window for looking at the rest of society, at other ways of being and thinking, and offer youngsters a genuine chance to enlarge their repertoire. Valuable schooling helps kids extend their range, their ability to operate and succeed in a widening arena. Still, we have to admit that many African-American teachers are wary and skeptical about whole language.

… In my experience working in Chicago’s schools, many black public school teachers are middle-class people who have worked their way up the socioeconomic ladder for the first time to that level. They tend in general to be quite conservative educationally, and pretty cautious. One of the comments you’ll sometimes hear from African-American teachers about whole language or other experiments is, “You might be right, but we can’t afford to take a chance with our kids.” And the question I ask in return is, “Are you arguing that the system of education we have devised for inner-city black kids in America is so effective that we should keep it up because it works so well?”

… By and large, urban education has been both more oriented to skill and drill approaches and generally less effective than middle-class suburban schools. … Whole language is not part of the problem of urban education; it’s part of the answer. We are offering an option that we think is far, far more promising than the skill-and-drill that has dominated education for 75 years.


Professor, Georgia State University

Author, Other People’s Children: White Teachers, Students of Color, and Other Cultural Conflicts in the Classroom

Q Several years ago, you wrote an article challenging the way the process approach to reading and writing affected children of color. Can you summarize your main points?

I don’t agree with placing oneself in a political camp, be it process reading and writing, or skills reading and writing. The best strategy depends on what a particular child needs. …

Teachers with many strategies will be less likely to blame the child for not learning, because they can continue to pull something else out and try. …

Q Some people have inferred from your article that you support more of a basal reader approach that emphasizes short, sanitized reading selections and fill-in-the-blank workbooks. Do you?

I believe just the opposite. I believe, first of all, in an approach that seems to work for the child you are working with. But I also believe literacy instruction should be in the context of real reading and real writing, and reading and writing for real purposes. This means using literature that children like and that connects with them in their homes and lives. It means writing for purposes the children find useful. …

Q Do African-American teachers feel estranged from progressive white educators on issues of learning to read and write? If so, why?

The African-American teachers I am in contact with … feel that white progressive teachers seem to believe they know better how to teach African-American children than the African-American teachers. … Many progressive teachers … believe that in order to maintain their identity as a progressive, they can only teach in a certain way. …

Q [Is the disagreement over] an emphasis on skills?

It’s not really just so-called skills, it’s the explicitness that’s important. And this … applies to whatever you’re teaching, whether it’s a process or an item of information.

For example, one of the African-American teachers told me how to explicitly teach first grade and make use of an open classroom. She told me to have the children practice going to a particular center, working there, cleaning up. Otherwise I had kids who were taking the materials and throwing them around the room, particularly the African-American kids, who may not have had the chance to work in those kinds of settings as much as the white middle-class kids did. There’s also explicitness to the point of saying, “Well, yes, there are such things as capital letters and here’s when you might see them.”…

Essentially, it is the opposite of assuming that everybody is going to discover everything on their own. I found that the people who appear to be discovering everything on their own have actually received direct instruction at home, although it’s not in a way that parents might think of as direct instruction. … All day long there is direct instruction that middle-class parents provide for their kids. And then the kids go into a “language-rich environment” and appear to achieve without any kind of explicit instruction. So that leads people to think, “What we need—all we need—are these language-rich environments, or science-rich environments, or math-rich environments, and kids will just excel.”

What they fail to realize is that there are other children who haven’t come in with the same kinds of explicit instruction or direct instruction from parents. By not providing it for them, along with the language-rich environment, what teachers are doing is putting those children at a disadvantage.


English teacher, Portland, Ore.

In our society language classifies me. Generosity, warmth, kindness, intelligence, good humor aren’t enough—I need to speak correctly to make it. … Grammar [is] an indication of class and cultural background in the US, and there is a bias against people who do not use language “correctly.”… It would be misleading to suggest that people in our society will value my thoughts or my students’ thoughts as readily in our home languages as in the ‘cash language’ as Jesse Jackson calls it. … [But] English teachers must know when to correct and how to correct. … When more attention is paid to the way something is written or said than to what is said, students’ words and thoughts become devalued. Students learn to be silent, to give as few words as possible for teacher criticism.

Students must be taught to hold their own voices sacred, to ignore the teachers who have made them feel that what they’ve said is wrong or bad or stupid. Students must be taught how to listen to the knowledge they’ve stored up, but which they are seldom asked to relate.

Too often students feel alienated in schools. Knowledge is foreign. It’s about other people in other times. … As teachers, we have daily opportunities to affirm that out students’ lives and language are unique and important. We do that in the selections of literature we read, in the history we choose to teach, and we do it by giving legitimacy to our students’ lives as a content worthy of study. …

I teach [students] the rules. It’s the language of power in this country, and I would be cheating him if I pretended otherwise. [But] I don’t humiliate [students] or put down [their] language. I’m also more effective because I don’t rely on textbook drills; I use the text of [their own] writing. … I also teach [students] that language … functions as part of a gatekeeping system in our country. Who gets managerial jobs, who works at banks and who works at fast food restaurants, who gets into what college and who gets into college at all are decisions linked to the ability to use Standard English.

So how do we teach kids to write with honesty and passion about their world and get them to study the rules of the cash language? We go back to our study of society. We ask: Who made the rules that govern how we speak and write? … Who already talks like this and writes like this? Who has to learn how to change the way they talk and write? Why? We make up our own tests that speakers of Standard English would find difficult. We read articles, stories, poems written in Standard English and those written in home language.

We determine when and why people shift. We talk about why it might be necessary to learn Standard English. …

We must teach our students how to match subjects and verbs … because they are the ones without power and, for the moment, have to use the language of the powerful to be heard. But in addition, we need to equip them to question the educational system that devalues their life and their knowledge.

These interviews are excerpts from the new book Rethinking Schools: An Agenda for Change (The New Press, New York), edited by the editors of the activist periodical Rethinking Schools. Reprinted with permission from Rethinking Schools, 1001 E. Keefe Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53212. (414) 964-9646.