Great Women Scholars: Yetta Goodman, Maxine Greene, Louise Rosenblatt, And Margaret Meek Spencer. Part One of a Four Part Series, Yetta Goodman.
Great Women Scholars: Yetta Goodman
“Can’t contain my excitement and apprehension,” Margaret Meek Spencer wrote to me in an email on September 19th, 2001, “but I’m packing my suitcase with joy. Tomorrow! It’s a great program. If you could leave me with ‘reading’ as the general title, I’ll be fine. If not, no matter. Love to you all. Expectans expectavi. Margaret.”
On September 20, nine days after the Twin Towers fell, Margaret flew from London to New York on her own. The plane was empty except for twenty passengers who sat in silence as they reached New York and looked down into the crater seven floors deep and saw the smoke rising from the twisted metal and rubble. At 79 years of age it was an act of courage when most did not feel courageous. She gave us hope when we were not hopeful. Louise Rosenblatt, Maxine Greene and Yetta Goodman did the same. It is not possible to talk about the historic moment when these four great women met at an International Scholars Forum at Hofstra University without talking about September 11.
Hofstra cancelled classes on September 11, but on the September 12 we met with graduate students. That night they too had stories to tell. Students in my Wednesday class had children in their school classes who had lost a parent and one child whose parents had both been killed. They spoke of looking out of their classroom windows with their students watching the floor by floor, slow motion, collapse of the first tower and then the rapid descent of the second, of the ways in which they comforted children, of the chaos and the confusion as parents came to get their children–or didn’t. When the class was over we talked a bit about how helpful it was to meet and we were all aware that we were in the company of beginning teachers who also live courageous lives.
We discussed cancelling the Scholars Forum–it was a difficult decision to make–but our experience with the students in our classes in the days after the tragedy encouraged us to go ahead. Margaret Meek Spencer’s decision to come from London if planes were flying also influenced our decision, and it would never have occurred to Yetta Goodman not to come. She also flew into New York with Ken Goodman. And teachers came to hear them. They flew in too, from across the US and Canada, as fearful and brave and just as excited as Margaret Meek Spencer. There were no cancellations.
Many teachers came from the metropolitan area, and although they were tired, worn out, many personally affected by September 11, there was energy in the room that comes of being with others who share a sense of common struggle. We were/are a community of scholars who have similar understandings of language, literacy and learning as well as deep concerns about the politics of public education.
At a time when many of us seemed to have diminished in size, Yetta appeared to stand taller than before, her hands clasped together in front of her body, she looked resolute, ready to hold steady, to shore-up those around her whether she talked about her research, her life, or led us in song.
Maxine Greene lived in Manhattan and was immersed in the aftermath of September 11. Maxine was an indomitable spirit, bent and physically frail, but she rose up with a voice that was Jessie Norman strong and she took our breath away when she spoke.
“I have been doing philosophy all these years and I have more questions than when I started,” Maxine said. And then she told the participants that she was rethinking her life’s work to include the existential consideration of the dark side of imagination.
The contradiction–Margaret’s excitement and apprehension–in that moment in time, between the lives we had lived and live is reflected in Louise Rosenblatt’s e-mail correspondence with me before and after September 11. Louise, whose scholarship has become a part of our lives in the ways in which we think about and transact with texts, was 97 in August 2001.
“My birthday was spent mostly in a speedboat on the Lake, which is so large it behaves like an ocean, with waves through which our boat rode like a bucking bronco,” Louise wrote in an email on August 26. “There were interludes picnicking under the trees on an island in the middle of the lake.”
Louise’s zest for life was matched by her unwavering determination to educate politicians. On September 16 she wrote in an email.
“I must admit that I have been so busy before September 11 faxing letters to the members of the Education Bill Conference Committee and to other legislators and then after that, responding to events, that I have not been able to prepare for the forum. But I think it is more important than ever!”
It was a historic moment, a sharing of the lightness of being as well as the dark side of imagination. Together, without knowing what the future would bring, but concerned about the possibilities of the wars that were to come, we rewrote our own personal and shared narratives to include the terrible consequences of September 11.
Without naming what we did we spent our time re-examining our thoughts and beliefs, re-describing our work as activists and advocates, reinventing ourselves as teachers and scholars. We explored the ethical stances that we take, our philosophical beliefs and pedagogical practices. From the intricate recesses of our personhood, ideas that had become part of our identity, part of our consciousness, so much so that we had taken ownership, became available to us in way that we had not anticipated.
Reading as a transactional process, reader-response, the ways texts teach, miscue analysis, kid watching, social responsibility and imagination, our existential existence, I am not yet, not yet, are all ideas that are part of who we are, but would not be without Louise, Margaret, Yetta and Maxine.
On Friday night, after a moment of silence Yetta Goodman began in Yiddish. She told us about her parents and her grandparents and the town in Russia that her family comes from. “I introduced myself through my culture, Yetta said, “and through my language, my first language, because they are part of my history, and formed so much of who I became as a teacher, a teacher-educator and a researcher.”
“I’m going to start by singing in Yiddish, a song that I remember my mother used to sing to me and that I translated and published as a children’s book.” Yetta held up the book and began moving across the front of the room singing “Joseph had a Little Overcoat” and with her arms held wide she encouraged us to sing. By sharing the story of her childhood she helped us begin the process of making connections in a time of uncertainty, embracing the inherent ambiguity of our lives.
“My parents were Eastern European immigrants,” Yetta said, “who came here as adults. Working class poor, and I emphasize working class poor because they were uneducated. In many people’s eyes, even today, they were considered illiterate. My teachers always thought my parents were illiterate. I always wondered about that stereotype. None of my teachers appreciated me very much. My teachers thought I was obnoxious.
“On my report cards they would write that I was ‘fussy.’ ‘Yetta ’s too fussy.’ ‘If only Yetta would sit still she’d do better.’ ‘If only Yetta would mind her own business she’d do better.’” We laughed and Yetta laughed with us. Then more serious, she said, “You know all these statements helped me grow up. I believed all those things about myself. My mother was a wonderful warm, caring person who worried about me a lot. I know I didn’t make her life very easy. All through high school I thought of myself as obnoxious. Talkative. Loud. Fussy.”
“I remember teachers who were anti-Semitic,” Yetta’s eyes let us know how she felt, “who told me to tell my parents to go back home where they came from, who talked about my mother as if she was a rich Jewess, all kinds of things like that. And mostly I was a bilingual child and we know about those bilingual kids, don’t we. They don’t know grammar. They don’t know how to write. They’re not very bright.”
“I did have some good teachers,” Yetta paused, “Maybe four,” and we laughed again as she smiled at us. “When I work with teachers and we talk about our autobiographies, our growing up, I try share my own educational experiences because I think it’s those experiences that I have to account for in who I am today as a teacher, a teacher-educator and researcher.”
Yetta spoke of moving with her parents to California. “At that time in California there was a growing development of junior colleges, the junior colleges that elitist professors at my university sometimes attack. But that was very important moment in my life because it was a system that provided me with an opportunity to discover myself as a learner and to have a new way, a different way, into the university system.”
“Another thing that happened when I went to California,” Yetta continued, “was that I began to work with the Jewish Association’s day camps and overnight camps. I became a camp counselor. They needed a song leader. They needed somebody who was crazy enough to get up in front of a group of about a hundred to two hundred kids and lead them in song.” Again Yetta’s arms were wide as if she was embracing us.
“And I loved that idea. I never had any singing lessons, a little bit of piano. I don’t know. There are certain things that I can’t piece together as I try to think about the kind of a person I became, but camping was very important to me. It took the energy that I had and all those negative things that I thought about myself as a kid. Obnoxious. Fussy. All those terrible things became positive things. All of a sudden people began to say, ‘Boy! Are you energetic!’ ‘Boy! Are you precocious!’ ‘Boy! Are you a leader!’”
“That’s what it took,” Yetta said. “I tell students to stop and look at the things that they think are the most negative about themselves and to ask how can they can use those things in positives ways, as strengths. The negative things that we take for granted are also our strengths. That’s what I began to learn, little by little. It took me a long time to overcome the negative feelings I had of myself as a student.”
“It was outside of those school settings that I realized kids can do things in non-paper and pencil ways that show their strengths and their abilities, and that there are situations when they have more expertise than we do. I learned that from watching kids when I was a camp counselor.”
Yetta talked about meeting Ken Goodman who was also a camp counselor, and how they had become teachers participating in the progressive education movement in California. Then she spoke of progressive education and McCarthyism.
“‘Progressive’ and ‘liberal’ had become a dirty words,” she said. “McCarthy was saying nasty things about progressive education and that it was an awful thing to be a liberal. We were beginning to be afraid of these words.” Yetta looked thoughtful. “I’m going to tie it to whole language.” She looked around the room. “For those of you who are being told that we don’t use whole language,” she paused, “why are we afraid of whole language?”
“Kids have needs,” she said, as she talked of the progressive educators with whom she studied and of John Dewey and his concept of the ‘power of experience’.
“Kids want to use literacy for important purposes. And so I became a constructivist. I probably didn’t know the term at the time, but I knew that’s the kind of teacher I wanted to be, and I walked into classrooms where I was encouraged to be a progressive educator.”
Yetta talked about Bank Street School of Education and Lucy Sprague Mitchell.
“I know a lot of you think that it’s just now and just new, but this was the early fifties, and we thought it was new then too, I learned later that was going on fifty years earlier in the 1900’s in other places.”
“Teachers were working in similar ways when I became a teacher,” she said, “and so I began to be immersed in the idea of letting kids discover knowledge, getting kids involved in all kinds of experiences.”
Yetta talked at length about the progressive movement in California and then took the audience to Detroit, Michigan where Ken Goodman, after he finished his doctorate, became a professor at Wayne State. “That was another wonderful opportunity for me,” Yetta said, “because I ended up working with student teachers and then with a lot of push I got my doctorate.”
“Wayne State was a marvelous environment,” she said. “Denny talks a lot about the importance of building communities, every time I look back and look at the periods of time that were important to my own growth, it was because I had somebody else to talk to, somebody else to work with. I belonged to a learning community.”
“It was at Wayne State,” Yetta said, “within that community, where I worked with Ken and with other graduate students, Carolyn Burke, Dorothy Watson, Bill Paige, a whole group of people working on miscue analysis, that I remember developing an understanding that I was doing research.”
“I can remember the first time I used the word researcher for myself,” Yetta spoke quietly. “I whispered it to myself when I was asked if I would give a talk on miscue analysis and when I spoke someone called me a researcher.” Her voice grew loud. “Of course, teachers are doing research all the time when you’re working with your kids. Every time you ask a question about your students you are doing research.”
“It was at Wayne State that I began to realize that miscue analysis itself is a heuristic tool that allows us to understand the nature of error in language learning, to understand that nobody can achieve language without making error,” she said. “I learned that experience is a teacher, through experience you build greater opportunities to know, greater opportunities to work with kids, and greater opportunities for yourself to learn and grow.”
“And so, I too, like Denny, would like to dedicate this forum to the wonderful teachers who have done such heroic things in the past two weeks, who put aside the scripts that in some schools they had to follow, and made the decisions that nobody could ever put into a book, to use their own professional knowledge to advocate for the children that they teach.”
Part Two of the International Scholars Forum in which Yetta Goodman, Maxine Green, Louise Rosenblatt and Margaret Meek Spencer talked about their lives, language, literacy and public education will focus on Maxine Greene. A PDF of the entire conversation will be made available as a gift from Garn Press at the end of the series.