Transitions and Journeys to Whole Language

The Search For Answers
Ruby Clayton

I did not set out to become a Whole Language Teacher, I just evolved into one. Knowing there were children in kindergarten and first grade that read and wrote better than my students propelled me into a hyper alert state, forcing me to keep my eyes and ears open for new an innovative ways of teaching.

I had a chance to attend NCTE Nashville in 1998. It was my first national reading conference and I was impressed by two things --the huge number of people in attendance and that they had a complete day devoted to just Whole Language. Finally I could get a better understanding of what was so special about whole language.

I remember listening to Regie Routeman's packed session and although I didn't understand everything she was talking about, I left with a sense of awe about the things the children were accomplishing. I remember one of the teachers showing us fifth grade student writing where the students had copied the style of Donald Crews, author of Big Mama's, into their own writing, and I wondered how you got students to do that. I got to see Eloise Greenfield, and she spoke about how she came to write her latest book, and what she was thinking about as she wrote it. I was excited that I could bring back to my students the words of an author they adored.

The cohort of student teachers, as part of their course work, was reading Creating Classrooms for Authors and Inquires by Jerome Hartste, and that summer, I dove into that book, determined to understand what whole language was and wasn't. Reading it from cover to cover brought so many questions to my mind. There was so much there that I was learning about for the first time -- author's circle, the inquiry cycle, responding to literature, alternative assessments of student work, strategy lessons. I was totally amazed at what could be done but overwhelmed at the possibility of my doing it all. I needed to learn more, and just try a few things to start.

So I began with Author's circle, a process of having the children come together in small groups to share their own writing pieces and to ask their peers for feedback. This was a big hit with my children, having a real audience with which to share their writing. Right away I found out I didn't know much about modeling helpful questions. We seemed to be stuck on questions like "Can you say more?" Or the children would say "I like what you wrote." I didn't know how to help the children ask the questions that would enable the author to think deeply or to revise the piece in a more interesting way.

That November I attended NCTE Denver 1999. I met Bobbi Fisher and bought her book Joyful Learning in Kindergarten along with Katie Wood Ray's Wondrous Words. They were two of the people whose sessions I missed, and I was mad that I missed hearing their good ideas, so I had to have their books. And again, although I was comletely engaged in the reading, I still didn't believe I could make their ideas work for me in the classroom.

Overwhelmed with so much info, I felt like I would never learn to be a whole language teacher. There was just too much expertise needed and I didn't know what to try next. So I coasted, until I found out in January that my kindergartners were learning to read P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother. I was surprised to learn that it was a book leveled for the second half of first grade, and I thought, "Wow! Maybe there is something to this supporting a child's reading." I didn't know how helpful hearing the story over and over is to supporting a beginning reader's growth. I didn't know that my helping them to read the first five or six pages on chart paper would motivate many of them to persevere until they could read the whole book. I hadn't anticpated having to go out and buy multiple copies. I didn't know that my buying multiple copies would lead the children into reading with buddies or to helping each other with difficulties. And I didn't know that once they could read Are You My Mother I'd have to go out and buy multiple copies of The Best Nest and Go Dog Go, which were the other two books on the P.D. Eastman video I played most Wednesday mornings. I had kindergartners that were "really" reading and I had to figure out how to keep up with them.

Surfing the net, I ran across the NCTE website, and from there I found a link to Whole Language Umbrella. Curious about the whole language listserv link, I quickly went to the page and subscribed. Teachers Applying Whole Language -- TAWL, it was called. My very first listserv.

I've learned whole languge through trial and error, reflection, collabortive discourse, and by reading many, many books. Hopefully my path will light the way for others to begin their own trek of learning what works well for children.

Prior to 1999, most of what I learned about teaching reading was obtained through workshops, classes I decided to take on my own, or books I read. I had no philosphy I could name or that I'd even thought about. Just my intense desire to know. Today's new teachers have the chance of beginning, by standing on the shoulders of those who have come before, so that tommorows students will be able to learn in ways I have never dreamed.

Ruby Clayton is a looping, kindergarten/first grade teacher in Indianapolis, Indiana. As a veteran teacher of 29 years, she has used some pretty interesting methodologies to teach reading. Her continuous quest for producing better readers has led her to love being a whole language advocate, and teacher.

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