BOOK EXCERPT: Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum: On Literacy, Diversity, and the Interplay of Children’s and Teachers’ Worlds – by Anne Haas Dyson (Author) & Bobbie Kabuto (Editor)

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About the Book

Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum: On Literacy, Diversity, and the Interplay of Children’s and Teacher’s Worlds is part of the Garn Press Women Scholars Series.  Originally printed in 1993 in the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Concept Paper Series, Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum revisits Dyson’s powerful concept of a permeable curriculum, a socially constructed learning space created by teachers and children.

negotiating-a-permable-curriculum-garn-pressNegotiating a Permeable Curriculum: On Literacy, Diversity, and the Interplay of Children’s and Teachers’ Worlds by Anne Haas Dyson (Author) & Bobbie Kabuto (Editor)

20% off the paperback book through January 2, 2017 on Amazon, just $11.00.

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-942146-43-8
Paperback: Amazon
Purchase: $11.95 – on sale!
Imprint: People & Society
Genre: Non-Fiction
Anne Haas Dyson (author) & Bobbie Kabuto (editor)



Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum is a timeless piece as it is relevant to current moves in education with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  In 2010, the CCSS were released as a set of standards devised to create national benchmarks of student knowledge and skills in literacy and math.  While not specifically mentioning curriculum, the CCSS explicitly outlines what should be taught from kindergarten to grade 12 and, therefore, it has had a major impact on establishing a national curriculum and assessment system led by private, corporate companies.

Challenging the standardization of learning, Dyson asks readers to push back the “curricular curtain” to wonder about the complex social and intellectual work in which children engage when they become writers.  The emphasis on becoming focuses on how learning to write is always a dynamic state, as children learn about themselves while they learn about written language.  In Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum, Dyson provides concrete examples of the social and cultural challenges learning to become writers entails.  Dyson highlights how teachers can enact a permeable curriculum so that the worlds of teachers and children come together in instructionally powerful ways.


Book Excerpt

Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum: On Literacy, Diversity, and the Interplay of Children’s and Teachers’ Worlds

“An Interview with Anne Haas Dyson”


Bobbie: You have been researching and writing about children’s writing since 1981when you published your first article in Language Arts titled Oral language: The rooting system for learning to write. You are a prolific writer! Since that first article, you have published 12 books and over 100 journal articles and book chapters all regarding children’s writing, or what you have learned from observing and researching children’s writing. Can you talk a little about how you became interested in children’s writing?

Anne: I became incredibly interested in children’s writing when I started teaching in El Paso in the early seventies. When I gave my 6- to 8-year olds a piece of paper and a request that they write, I was amazed at the differences in how the children responded. My children, all without economic advantages but with the gift of bilingualism, responded in all sorts of ways.

One little one made quick work of the task, filling line after line with letter-like marks and then asking me to read what he had written (as would be the title of Marie Clay’s 1975 book, What Did I Write?). Others drew, some copied whatever words they could find in no particular order, and then there were those who sought out words to write a bit of a message. It was if I had stepped into another world – what was happening here?

In time, as I learned to set up daily writing and sharing routines and to respond to a diversity of child approaches to writing, I started to notice all the talk accompanying writing and, then, how wrapped up in children’s worlds writing could become. To understand these latter phenomena, I would need to sit and watch, but not from the teacher perspective but from – best I could – the child perspective.

I wasn’t sure how to do this but, at the University of Texas at Austin, I took an anthropology and education class with Doug Foley and learned about an ethnographic stance and a critical frame as well – working toward a more just world; then I took an applied sociolinguistic class with Celia Genishi (my good friend was in her first years of a professorship then, to my great luck), and I learned how language could reveal children’s worlds, including children whose voices were ignored in the literature (e.g., children who spoke a disrespected vernacular). And I was on my way.

I have never stopped being curious about writing, which I think of now as a mediator of children’s relationships, and the relationships that matter in school most definitely include those among peers.

Bobbie: Who were the early influences in your academic career that pushed your thinking about children’s writing?

Anne: I would say the first academic influences (aside from the two people mentioned above) were not about children’s writing but about language as a social tool – Dell Hymes especially and what was then the new field of sociolinguistics (and, of course, his colleague at the time, John Gumperz).

Then there were the folks following little children around with tape recorders, respecting their language – Roger Brown, Susan Ervin Tripp, and Courtney Cazden, a one time early childhood teacher too who has contributed so very much to our respect for classroom language. And certainly I read lots about (and knew from listening) the deficit language ideology applied to “other” children – Labov and Smitherman are two who influenced me in the seventies. Finally I have to mention Bill Corsaro, whom I met when I first went to Berkeley and who helped illuminate children’s cultures.

As for writing, I was mesmerized by Marie Clay’s books in the mid-seventies. She paid such careful attention to young children’s production of text. I am of a different generation, so I am interested in how those text production decisions mediate children’s social lives, but I learned to appreciate children’s exploring of written text from Marie Clay. I knew from teaching that drawing was also important and there were scholars who located writing in children’s use of other symbolic modes (an old but favorite is by Helen Eng).

And here I must mention Lev Vygotsky – Mind in Society was barely out but I read it when I was doing my dissertation and from Vygotsky I learned that, to understand writing, one had to see it within children’s symbolic repertoire for representing and reconstructing and communicating about their worlds.

On a more practical side, I was inspired by Connie and Harold Rosen’s book The Language of Primary School Children, whose chapter on children’s writing I read and reread and read again. It was so practical and so child respectful –all about listening to a child and helping the child find a way into text and also about respecting children’s playful interpretations of new kinds of writing tasks across the disciplines.

Perhaps because of my own humble roots – and my becoming a teacher in the late sixties early seventies, a time of great idealism among many of my generation – I have always been interested in children’s resources that are not respected by the dominant ideology of school literacy (back to Labov, Smitherman, and Cazden too).

When I was organizing my dissertation, I kept reading about children speaking vernacular Englishes (especially African American kids) and emerging bilingualism. At this time, Graves was starting his studies of children’s writing processes. I loved the respectful observation but still, I was finding my way out of the notion of a child author as an individual interacting with a paper into one of a child player, peer, and learner learning writing as a means of engaging with, and playing in, the world. So I was looking in another way. Sometimes realizing that one’s path is different from another’s is very useful – it pushes one to articulate and clarify one’s path.

Later on, well into the eighties, I discovered Bakhtin on a table in a Berkeley bookstore and I felt my ways of looking at children expand. Voices answering voices, words echoing past conversations, people talking from somewhere addressing someone on their horizon – all of this helped me talk more confidently not only about writing as interaction but also about societal discourse of race, class, and gender – children were positioned in a world of differences but they were not stagnant representatives of some social group. We all move in space, finding different aspects of ourselves as we reach out to diverse others. The complexity of children of and in the experienced world became more manageable.

Bobbie: One of my favorite aspects of your writing is how you bring children to life. When I read your writing, I feel like I am in the classroom sitting next to you watching the scene unfold. I can feel the very unique and individual personalities of the different children. Do you have any particularly memorable experiences of the children?

Anne: Oh, I have lots of kids I remember like I knew them yesterday. I can measure out my adult life by the children I knew at one time and then the next. I get so close from that sitting and observing; I don’t choose as focal children those who overly attend to me as opposed to their peers.

But still, I am not invisible. I am there “doing my job,” as 6-year-old Jameel once said, and my job was “not to tell [him] what to do,” as he explained to a peer he was annoying. Indeed, among the most memorable children was Jameel. He was a homeless child in the East Bay, initially kind of on edge, sensitive to being bumped or otherwise disregarded. But once he relaxed, this amazing child emerged; he used every bit of textual resource he had to imaginatively make a world on paper – cartoons from the TV, and commercials too (he had the used car salesman language down pat), soul songs, school books, and he could sometimes talk with the performative intensity of a preacher. When he was performative on paper, of course he didn’t like his audience talking back. He called into question some taken-for-granted pedagogical practices – like the daily sharing time being conceived of as an editorial feedback time. Not for a performer.

I was fascinated by Jameel’s playfulness with language, and he took to my interest in him. One day he was super excited because he was going to a pizza party for children who had had an especially great week in school. He told me this and then stopped, looked at me ever so sympathetically and said with great kindness “I don’t think you’re invited.” (He is in Social Worlds of Children Learning to Write….) Jameel did SO well in his first grade with his fabulous teacher but then he was taken from his mother and put in foster care; given this regulation and that one, it was impossible to find out where he was.

Years later, I asked a former student who was working for the district central office to try to find Jameel in the system. He found out that Jameel was attending an alternative high school for children who were having troubles in school. Such a smart child should not have been having troubles in school, but there it was.

I have had that experience more than once, of having young children with fabulous starts to schooling somehow defeated, not so much by academics, but by the experience of schooling amid life and its troubles. I dislike the rhetoric that if children somehow learn their letters and sounds at younger and younger ages, oh they’ll progress through school with no troubles at all. Ridiculous.

Bobbie: The life that you bring to the children on paper often begins with your titles. You often quote them or use their words in the titles. Just to name a few titles:

“N spell my grandmama”

“Oh ppbbt!”

“I’m gonna express myself”

Donkey Kong in Little Bear Country

The stolen lipstick of overheard song

The case of the singing scientist

How do you come up with fantastic titles that capture the heart and soul of the piece that you are writing?

Anne: Oh thanks so much for the compliment. I don’t have any particular strategies. A child will say something that keeps reverberating in my head as I think about the project (Jameel referring to himself as a “singing scientist”) or an image will appear that can be translated into words (Noah’s drawing of Donkey Kong in Little Bear Country). Book publishers seem to like straight forward titles for educational books. Not so much space for play.

Bobbie: I was a classroom teacher in the late 1990s and now I am a teacher educator. It’s interesting to see how so many things have remained the same when it comes to writing in school, especially in the lower elementary grades. My two children brought home workbooks pages that I could have given to my students when I was a classroom teacher.

And my undergraduate and graduate students want to give their students similar types of workbooks pages. In working with pre-service and in-service teachers, I find that they want to teach in a way that is ‘safe’ for them or teach ‘what they know or what they experienced’ instead of trying to push the boundaries of their own comfort level.

What advice do you have for teachers and teacher educators that can help them move away from traditional workbook-style teaching to seeing writing as part of a permeable curriculum?

Anne: Well, there are three ideas that are important for me and perhaps may be helpful to others:

First, writing is an intention-driven symbolic tool, through which we participate in particular kinds of social events.

What drives writing – what makes working to orchestrate this complex system worth it – is an intention. So this means, skills are just skills, writing is communication. So, from the beginning this matters. The little ones often chat with each other as they write, sometimes developing complex kinds of play within which the writing and drawing play a role. (There are lots of examples of this in ReWRITING the Basics; my favorite example is two little kindergarteners who are “playing sisters, on paper” – one adds the other to her drawn family and then writes [with mock writing combined with the other child’s exactly written name] about how she loves her “best sister.”)

If we do not let the children talk when they write, we may get no writing; the intentional context may be destroyed, along with the help and feedback children offer each other. If we have a daily sharing time, children may anticipate that sharing time and whether or not others will laugh or otherwise like their work.

Second, as Jimmy Britton said, we as teachers can’t teach children we don’t know. This makes teacher observation basic to teaching writing.

We can learn of children’s interests and their chosen companions or what language they use to comfortably discuss their writing or even collaborate during writing in some way. We learn about the social arrangements that prevail when they are most participatory – small groups? of which children?; pairs? of which children? We may learn too about their chosen symbolic tools for representing. (how might writing be incorporated in multimodal productions – comics? digital stories? murals or collages? picture books?)

Obvious in what has been said, I do not think we should look at children only in terms of some checklist of competencies. We have to know our children as human beings with interests, dispositions, friends and avoided peers, symbolic preferences (drawing, singing, dancing, sculpting), and particular sensitivities, based, perhaps, on their sociopolitical position in society or particular complexities of home life. If we know our children, then we can figure out possible social arrangements (kids can collaborate, for example), possible genres, including multimodal ones, particular inquiry projects that children may find compelling for the daily writing period or for writing across the curriculum.

Finally, teaching means, within one’s goals, responding to and building on what children are trying to do.

Whatever our plans, if the bulk of children’s writing time does not include intentional writing – intentional being defined from children’s view point – supported by their teacher and their collegial peers, then, in the end, we are not teaching writing at all.

Bobbie: You began your teaching career in 1972 and then received your Ph.D. in 1981. How has the research on children’s writing evolved since that time?

Anne: I do want to begin by saying that I think researchers interested in children’s writing – and contributing to our collective knowledge – should, in my view, do two things:

(a) know the literature in the area and, also, the particular theoretical and conceptual tools that particular research literature has used; and

(b) locate the studied children in the complexities of how the children are situated in society.

The latter has definitely evolved dramatically in the research area on children’s writing. I remember when I ventured into doctoral work, there were articles being published with titles like “the six-year-old writer” and some such. Not only is there no one path into writing, and no one “six-year-old writer,” our children, like children the world over, are specific individuals located in particular sociocultural and geographic locales and carrying particular cultural resources (chief among them, their languages but also their experiences with varied sorts of texts, whatever their medium); too, their teachers are under varied pressures to teach and demand particular kinds of academic performances.

When we read research, we want to know, how are these children located in the sociocultural and linguistic world? And since their knowledge of school writing will be formed through particular educational activities, what is the teacher’s curriculum like and what pressures is she under (e.g., to have children pick out from a selection the correctly punctuated sentence – since that will be on a test). I think our expectations as readers of research are more sophisticated now. We need all this information, since any generalizations to be made will depend on comparison of children engaging in writing activities across settings.

Another change, I think, has been a widening interest in children’s engagement with and use of popular culture. I can go back to the early studies I did in grad school in the late seventies – they are full of popular culture, but it never occurred to me to ask questions about what children’s participation in popular culture meant to the children themselves, as well as to their teachers. This was most certainly to change (e.g., Writing Superheroes).

There is now a recognition that contemporary childhoods tend to be infused with the popular media (although that media will vary across geographic and sociocultural sites; for example, in my current global project on children learning to write, children in a Kenyan village did not have access to television, but they did listen to the radio; that radio was the source of their popular songs; few U.S. studies would highlight the radio as a central media source for child affiliation and pleasure [although it certainly was among the children in The Brothers and Sisters Learn to Write].)

Related to this has been the interest in issues of young children’s use of digital media –the media itself or the experience of engagement with the media – in their ventures into writing. These studies in the U.S. have not usually been located in low income communities, where I think access to particular media may be limited by economics. Still, I think studies that plan projects to engage children with composing tools via computer and tablets are interesting – they may demonstrate new possibilities, particularly for multimodal composing.

Finally, I want to comment on the changing role of drawing and, more broadly, multimodality. When I first began my studies, drawing was seen as a temporary form of “writing,” to be replaced by written text. This no longer makes sense. I think (tied to the comments above) now there is an interest in how children differentiate their symbolic repertoire, so that they understand the particular strengths and limits of varied symbolic tools.

Bobbie: What do you think about the state of education today?

Anne: I think it should be a time of excitement – when child agency is realized across the curriculum through inquiry projects, even as the arts play a huge role as playful children are guided into new forms of expression and learning. But it is not. I think, spurred on initially by No Child Left Behind, the push toward accountability through standardized tests narrowed the educational curriculum and contributed to the intensity of the push-down in isolated academic content.

Children are greeted into kindergarten with tests of letter names and sounds and, from the get go, may be judged as “bright” or “not” on the results of narrow testing before anybody’s tried to get to know the children as human beings, players, friends, and learners, indeed, before anyone’s tried to teach whatever it is judged as critical for young children to know and to learn. And play, that mainstay of child learning, may be absent from the kindergarten.

Narrow curricula that provide little space for children to negotiate their ways into school activities and that provide a crimped view of who children are and what they know may eliminate children from powerful learning from the get go. I know there are teachers and programs that are full of lively, engaged children. But too often, there is a mandated “pedagogy of poverty” (to borrow Martin Haberman’s phrase), of low level teaching of aspects of literacy that allow no agency for children to figure out what literacy is about and how it works and how it can work for them as children.

I just returned from a trip to South Africa; in the township schools, children were being taught through a rote recitation method the conventions of English literacy; in the more affluent city school that I visited, there was lively engagement of children in all manner of activity – and there was play. Some children are being taught superficial facts and to follow orders; others are being socialized as agents of inquiry and public expression. This has been true in may own lifetime when I read as a teacher-to-be the appalling book by Bereiter and Engelmann Teaching Disadvantaged Children in the Preschool, with its breathtaking ignorance of language, literacy, and sociocultural difference.

We all still have work to do.

I take inspiration from the educational reformer Deborah Meier, who, in her book The Power of Their Ideas, talked about how the kindergarten – the old fashioned kindergarten – was a model for all of education. Attention to imaginative play and to making friends is the beginning of empathetic concern for the world and the capacity to imagine it differently.

“As we eliminate from our schools and from children’s after-school lives the time and space for exercising their creative imagination and building personal ties, we’ve cheated our children and our society in a far more critical way than we’re inclined to understand” (Meier, 1995, p. 63).

Bobbie: For those who are interested in researching and studying children’s writing, what advice would you give them?

Anne: There is room for all kinds of work on children’s writing. I think, though, that what is key is understanding that the heart of the story is not on the page but in the world being mediated by the page. Observational skills matter. And the observer cannot attend only to one child writing but to the larger social happening in which the child is (or is not) participating by means of that writing.

If writing is situationally merely a task or a set of rote skills, then the researcher may have no access to children’s intentions, agency, and social lives, nor, in fact, to composing at all. Of course, in the cracks of the curriculum, children may be found composing as part of their unofficial worlds – love letters (and their opposite), birthday party invites, funny stories …

Bobbie: What areas of further research would you like to see in the area of children’s writing?

Anne: I think all the trends mentioned above are good ones. As for me, I have just finished a project (I believe I already mentioned it) in which children’s early entry into school and school writing was described as it unfolded in 8 very different sites around the globe.

I think the notions of how children move into writing are too narrow, given that ideologies of childhoods, schooling, and writing itself are different across the globe, as are children’s textual resources. Finding common themes and different articulations of child writing is to the benefit of us all; narrow notions of how children begin, of useful resources, of “best” home supports leave some children’s entry into composing outside the realm of curricular imagination.

Most of all, I would like to see researchers approach children’s writing as embedded in their lives as friends, players, and scholars across the curriculum. The questions then open up, limited only by the researchers’ curiosity and imagination.

LIVE READING: Garn Press Author Reading Series: Bobbie Kabuto & Kathy Olmstead (Reading for Anne Haas Dyson) Reading from Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum

Join Bobbie Kabuto & Kathy Olmsted (reading for Anne Haas Dyson) reading from the book Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum: On Literacy, Diversity, and the Interplay of Children’s and Teachers’ Worlds, part of the Garn Press Women Scholars Series. Written by Anne Haas Dyson, Ph.D and Bobbie Kabuto Ph.D (Senior Editor).

About Anne Haas Dyson

Anne Haas Dyson, Ph.D., is Faculty Excellence Professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign. She began her career in education as an elementary school teacher at the El Paso Catholic Diocese in El Paso, Texas in 1972.  Dyson received her Ph.D. in Education from the University of Texas in Austin, Texas in 1981.

In 1984, she published her first book with her good friend and colleague Celia Genishi titled Language Assessment in the Early Years.  Since this first publication, Dyson has published 12 books.  Her most recent book will be an edited volume titled Child Cultures, Schooling, and Literacy: Global Perspectives on Composing Unique Lives, which will be published by Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group in 2015. Dyson’s latest book will feature her collaborative global research project on children learning to write.

In addition, Dyson has written over 100 journal articles and book chapters all regarding children’s writing.  In 2015, Dyson, along with Celia Genishi, will receive the prestigious Outstanding Educator of the Year Award from NCTE.  This award recognizes the distinguished careers of Dyson and Genishi and their major contributions to the field of English Language Arts.

About Bobbie Kabuto

Bobbie Kabuto, PH.D., is Associate Professor of Literacy Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Education Department at Queens College, City University of New York. She teaches and advises in the B-6 Literacy Program that leads to New York State certification as a B-6 Reading Teacher.

Her research interests include the relationships among early bi/literacy, socially constructed identities, and language ideologies. She currently works with families of struggling beginning readers and writers.

Her work has been highlighted in journals such as The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, andEarly Childhood Research and Practice. Her book Becoming Biliterate: Identity, Ideology, and Learning to Read and Write in Two Languages was published by Taylor and Francis in July 2010.


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