About Accountability

Whole Language Teachers and Their Knowing
Pat Cordeiro; Rhode Island College
reprinted with permission from the Whole Language Teachers' Association Newsletter

When Ken and Yetta Goodman gave their collaborative keynote speech at the spring 1996 meeting of NCTE in Boston, their message resonated with support for whole language teachers. Presenting a multimedia event, they featured clippings from media attacks on whole language on one screen while quotations from published whole language teachers appeared on a second screen. What was most striking was the solidness and the support underlying the quotations from whole language teachers, the strong database drawn from both theoretical literature and actual practice. Contrasted with this were the unsupported, inflammatory statements from media clippings.

The presentation clearly showed that whole language teachers know what they're talking about -- and how do they know? Because they are good observers of children, classroom life and schools, and good readers of their published colleagues who develop theory around good practice. Most importantly, they think about and implement -- they pay attention to
translating thought into theory-based action.

In these days of constant criticism of whole language, it's hard sometimes to continue. It's hard to do what Regie Routman, in her important book, Literacy at the Crossroads, speaks of as "continu(ing) to do what's right and best for children." Many of us have spent many years in an evolutionary process, developing classroom practice and ourselves as teachers to know ho
to provide to children what we believe is the very best of literate practice. We have read and listened and though hard, talked to colleagues, and traveled many, many miles to conferences to spend weeks at a time "talking shop" with each other and listening to new ideas. Lives there a
whole language teacher who hasn't' invested large amounts of time, energy, and yes, money to develop the best possible, most effective and fruitful classroom setting? And yet we lose heart sometimes, find ourselves talking around the phrase "whole language, " and occasionally, we wonder if we can persist in our beliefs.

A long time ago now, John Dewey argued from the national podium about his unfailing belief in the power of experience, authenticity, community and literacy in the lives of children. He, too, had plenty to argue with, but the persistence and power of his beliefs resonates across this century and with many of those who are reading this and will carry those beliefs into the next. Good teachers who hold their beliefs highly and support those beliefs actively are, I believe, America's most important resource. And most of the good teachers I know call themselves whole language teachers.

Recently, I was talking with a group of teachers who were all experienced by many years and recognized as leaders and thinkers in education. One made a point about children and then said, "Of course, I haven't done any research on it -- I don't have any data." I was so stuck by this comment; of course she has "done research" and has lots of "data" --she's a teacher, and that's
what teachers do. Good teachers are continually doing research and collecting data -- on children, on content and process, on classroom life, on social interactions in and out of school, on their own teaching. Teachers are walking databases and they know a lot.

Every so often, I get a call from someone inquiring about whole language-usually a reporter and usually someone who's setting up an argument. One of the first questions asked is often, "Where's the research in support of whole language?" I answer now that it's in the mind of every whole language teacher, it's in the database from which each of those teachers operates every day. And if we want to see those databases in print, then we have the wonderful accounts of teachers like Nanci Atwell, Bobbi Fisher, Linda Rief, and Mary Ellen Giacobbe, case studies every one. In those case studies we read of the power of whole language and the
importance of powerful teachers.

I think that it's always a good time to remember back to why we became whole language teachers to begin with, because we wanted to preserve learning as a whole process. We found no gain in fragmentation. I believe the same is true for teachers today ­ there is no gain in allowing ourselves and what we believe in to be fragmented, to be broken off into little pieces. We need to keep our own practice intact. Through preserving our own community and
authenticity, we, too, will continue to be whole.

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