Transitions and Journeys to Whole Language

One College Professor's Journey
Shirley Ernst

My journey to whole language has taken place over 40 years, and is still (I hope) continuing, and I need to go back to the beginning of my teaching to describe it. (Actually, perhaps it was the beginning of my own formal education that started me off. I lived in England until I was nine and thus am a product of the British Primary School of the late forties...before the US brand of education began to corrupt it.) Learning (as I recall it) for me started out as a hands on wholistic experience.

I never intended to teach, a decision which was firmly reinforced in my mind by university faculty members who would approach me with words such as "you must be an elementary school major." I hated the idea of being typecast that way. Even more deadly were the words of my major professor, which were "You should take education courses because every woman needs to have something to fall back on." I guess I was a rebel early on because I decided that children should have teachers who wanted to teach, not who had to teach because there was nothing else they could do.

So, of course, after cutting off my nose to spite my face, I found myself deciding not to go away to graduate school (Radio & television work was my interest at that time.) and stick around home base to keep an eye on a "romantic interest." (That didn't work out so well; after 13 years we parted ways...but not before having a wonderful 31...who has
become a veterinarian.) In the summer of 1964 I found myself walking into the Catholic school system main office and applying for a teaching position. At that time they were taking anyone with 2 years of college. I had four years and a BA in speech. They hired me to teach fourth grade.

What an experience that was. I had 52 fourth graders in my class. (That's right....and no aide or co-teacher either.) I have no idea how I made it through that year. I know I was not a good teacher. I did what I knew, which was the kind of learning experiences I had had as a child. However, I knew, deep down, that this wasn't right, so I went back to pick up the
education courses I needed.

After somehow making it through that first year I was asked whether I would consider teaching in the diocesan gifted program. This put me with a much smaller class of 5th graders (around 17 I think) and it was here that I believe I really began to understand what learning and teaching was all about. I learned so much from these students, especially to trust them and give them room to experiment and grow. It was a good year for me, and I
hope for the students.

At this point I got married and moved to another state. Here I taught seventh graders (again in a parochial school) and had a perfectly miserable year. There were 15 boys (who had been known as troublemakers since their first grade year) and 4 girls....or something like that. Any ideas I had about teaching in a less traditional way were discouraged. I endured one
year and found another position in a neighboring town. Here I spent the next three years and positively enjoyed teaching. I started as a 6th grade science teacher....but soon found out that I was allergic to mold (in the middle of a mold garden experiment) and so we (the three 6th grade teachers) revised our assignments and I became the reading teacher. At the same time
I completed my certification coursework at the nearby university. If I look back at my teaching during those three years I can see that much of what I did in my classroom was learner centered and involved authentic learning experiences that would fit within a whole language framework. I didn't know that at the time, of course, and so I would not have been able to talk about what I did in those terms, nor would I have been able to defend it.

After three years of teaching 6th grade another move took place as my husband at the time completed his Ph D, and he took a job out of state. This was my chance to go back to school, and I took it, planning only to work on a master's degree. However, circumstances (I was pregnant at the time) and interest kept me in school until I completed my doctorate. During that time , with a few exceptions, my coursework was pretty traditional, and it wasn't until I attended a conference in which Ken Goodman was one of the presenters that I had an introduction to a whole language perspective. At the time nothing major happened as a result of this experience; life went on and I completed my degree, eventually teaching at a small nearby college. While my teaching would not have been considered traditional, I still didn't have a framework that I would now call whole language informed.

And then, in 1980, sixteen years after that first fourth grade teaching position, a colleague encouraged me to attend the Miscue Conference in Tucson, Arizona. Wow! What a revelation that experience was (Thanks, Nancy Shanklin for guiding me that way, and thanks, Ken & Yetta for giving me a "new start.") Halfway through the conference I called my college and cancelled the textbooks I was going to use the next semester and since I didn't have enough lead time to select different texts, I organized a series of article for the students' reading instead. Then I began the task of understanding what whole language was. (Actually, I'm not sure that the term was being used yet. Does anyone remember where it started, and with whom? I remember Yetta using it in the 80's, but not exactly when.)

I remained at this college for ten years and then moved to Connecticut where I was lucky enough to find a one-year position at a university where whole language was understood, and then a permanent position where I currently teach and where one of the frameworks for our department is a constructivist perspective. I've now been here fifteen years.

Since my first venture into whole language I have attended several Miscue Workshops and at IRA and NCTE conferences have focused on attending sessions that support a whole language theory base. I read professional journals and books, and the writings of people such as Frank Smith, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Jerry Harste, Denny Taylor, and of course, Brian Cambourne, among many others, have informed my understanding and the way I try to teach. (But I can't keep up with all of you TAWLERs out are often way ahead of me, as I teach courses in Children's Literature and also have to try to keep up with children's books published each year.) Of course I also participate in the TAWL list serve (I can't remember for how long, but several years anyway, with time off when I'm away for a long period of time cause the posts really pile up.) and try to do more than just be an invisible participant.

So, where am I right now in my whole language journey? In my classes I don't use traditional college textbooks. All the course readings come either from books such as the ones you are all talking about on the list, or from professional journals. I think this is important because I believe that traditional college texts are parallel to basal readers, and I don't want to demonstrate the use of basals as something I value. I try to instill in my students, both undergraduate and graduate prospective teachers and practicing teachers who are in the graduate reading program, the understandings about learning that support a whole language framework. It's always been difficult to do this, but it's getting even more so as schools
and classrooms become more restrictive, and many teachers aren't as willing to "go against the flow." Colleges and universities are being pushed into more restrictive teaching as well, so, I try to keep a small TAWL group going....we struggle, but have been around for over ten years. The email group gives me the support I need as well as, I hope, support to the other members. I also try to get out into classrooms of children as often as I can (which is getting more difficult to do as it is not often valued by the university) so that I can continue to grow in my understanding of how children learn and how classroom teachers manage to continue to provide an authentic learning experience for children in spite of the restrictions placed on them.

Shirley Ernst is currently teaching at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, CT. She is president of the Children's Literature Assembly of NCTE and is on the IRA Children's Book Award Committee.

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