BOOK EXCERPT: Teachers as Reflective Practitioners: Achieving Social Justice and Equity by Bess Altwerger

Excerpt from the book What’s Whole in Whole Language in the 21st Century? by Ken Goodman. Paperback book 20% off on Amazon.

What’s Whole in Whole Language in the 21st Century? by Ken Goodman. Purchase the paperback book on Amazon, ON SALE 20% off $19.95.

By Bess Altwerger

When I was working with teachers at an elementary school in Arizona to learn about and implement whole language in their classrooms, many local educators asked if they could visit the school to observe this new way of teaching.

One day, I escorted a group of visitors down the hallway toward Karen’s Chapter I Resource room. Like previous visitors, I knew they expected to see a teacher standing in front of the room delivering a lesson on phonics, vocabulary or comprehension to a quiet class of “at risk” students.

The visitors expected to see colorful charts on phonics rules or common vocabulary words hanging on the walls and shelves of commercial reading materials. Maybe they expected to see the teacher meeting in a corner with one of her ability groups while the rest of the class was filling out worksheets at their seats.

I knew that if these visitors were expecting “whole language” to just be a new method of teaching reading, they were in for a big surprise. And they were. As they approached Karen’s room, the hum of children’s voices grew louder, but it sounded more like a concert than chaos.

Once in the room, the first thing the visitors noticed was that the arrangement of tables and desks were not in rows, but grouped in various corners of the room and that they were stacked high with books, art supplies, odd shaped black objects, and audio equipment. There was also a large empty space in the middle of the room where small groups of kids were sitting together with their heads bowed over some books, pointing to the pages and talking quietly. Chairs were arranged around some of the tables, but the visitors wondered aloud if there was an assigned seat for each child. And then came the question that I expected.

“Where’s the teacher’s desk?” they asked. “Where’s the teacher?”

I looked around and pointed her out, crouching down to the height of second graders helping them build some kind of paper mache model out of wet strips of newspaper.

Meanwhile, the kids were anything but stationary. As a very intent little boy walked by them on his way to a center, one of the visitors stopped him to ask about the folders many of the students were holding or consulting.

“This is my Archeology folder,” he said confidently, holding it up for the visitor to see. “We all have one, but what’s inside of them are different.”

“Oh”, the visitor said, opening and leafing through it. She leaned over to show the others the handwritten list of questions stapled to the inside cover and neatly organized drawings and “notes” pages stuffed inside.

Looking around the busy room, the visitors pointed out kids reading all kinds of books from formal looking reference books to picture books to poetry anthologies. They noticed two children watching a slide show projected on a wall, and three others sitting around a table in an area labeled “Listening Center”, listening intently on headphones while jotting down notes.

One of the visitors pointed to a child reaching up to add sticky notes to a large sheet of chart paper with a timeline drawn on it. Around the room there were more charts with titles like “What we want to know” and “What we found out.”

“These kids seem so busy doing different things,” one visitor remarked, “but they all seem to know what they are supposed to do!”

And she was right.

When Karen looked up and noticed the visitors, she dried her hands and walked over to greet them.

“Is ‘Archeology’ a unit from the district’s language arts curriculum guide?” one of the visitors asked, referring to the “theme units” meant to provide practice in applying “reading skills” assessed on year-end standardized tests.

“Not really,” Karen answered, and then she began to explain that everything the visitors were observing in her reading resource room, including the questions, centers, materials, and information displays.

“Everything we are doing here is aimed at answering a key question that was raised by the students themselves,” Karen said, and then she told the story of how it all began.

“One day during recess after lunch, a group of students found some broken pieces of pottery surfacing from the dirt of the school yard,” Karen explained. “They became curious about them, collected as many pieces as they could and ran in after lunch to show them to me. Together we brainstormed ideas of what they might be and where they came from. We grew excited at the thought that maybe these were pieces of ancient pottery, or artifacts, left by those who lived here long ago.”

Karen told the visitors that the children asked, “Did someone once live here and could there have been a pueblo where our school now stands?”

“Their question,” she explained, “became the basis for what we call a ‘theme cycle.’ This is an extended search for answers to questions posed by the kids themselves. They brainstorm ways to answer their questions and suggest experiences and materials that will help them do that. Of course, I contribute to this myself and guide them along the way.”

“My goal is to help them ‘learn how to learn’ so they can feel competent and confident about their own abilities,” she said. “Reading and writing is integrated into the whole process because it is a natural way to learn, record and report what we are discovering. We named this theme cycle ‘A Dig in Our Own Backyard’ and turned our classroom into a kind of laboratory for archeological exploration.”

Karen went on to explain that after they posed the question they decided that the first step was to talk to an expert on the people who once lived here. Karen suggested they needed to talk to an archeologist who could verify and identify the broken pottery and answer some initial questions.

They found an archeology professor at the local university and invited him to their class. Given that he only agreed to meet with 15 of the students, they had to choose representatives who would interview the professor using the questions all of them would brainstorm together. They decided that the interview should be audiotaped so they could all use it later as a resource for their research.

“Excitement grew,” Karen said, “when they learned from the interview with the archeologist that they had indeed discovered artifacts from the ruins of an ancient Anasazi Indian pueblo that had once stood on the very site of their school. That discovery led to many more questions.”

I recorded these questions and included them in a book, Whole Language: What’s the Difference? that I later wrote on whole language with two great educators, Carole Edelsky and Barbara Flores. Here’s what we wrote:

Mostly these questions concerned the people who had been there (Where did they come from? Where did they go? How did they live? Did they have gardens? Did they use bows and arrows? Did they dance? What language did they speak? Did they write to each other? Were they happy?) and the pottery they had made (Who made it? Can we make our own? How old is the pottery? What do the designs mean? Why is it on the playground? How was it made? Who made it? Can we make our own?).

Karen organized these questions and many others generated throughout the process into conceptual categories for students to investigate. They gathered resources of varying levels of complexity and set up learning centers to help find answers to their many questions.

As the visitors circulated around the classroom, they observed students at the “Listening Center” probing the taped interview with the archeologist for answers to their questions.

At the “Shard Center”, a small group of students were using reference materials to identify the former function of the pottery pieces and the meaning of their designs.

At the “Native American Home Center” three students were studying pictures of pueblo homes that might provide clues to the nature of Anasazi dwellings. “What are you going to do with these pictures?” one of the visitors asked. “We’re going to use all these art materials to create our own models of Anasazi houses.”

At the “History Center” several students were busily plotting their findings regarding the history of the Anasazi people along a timeline representing the period of 1400-1500. One student explained, “We found out that a long time ago there were 12 other pueblos around here and we’re trying to figure out where they were and what happened to them. We’re writing our guesses on this bulletin board and then we read stuff to find out if we were right or wrong.”

A visitor walked over to two children listening to something on headphones and asked them what it was. They explained that they were listening to recordings of Anasazi chants and poetry that their teacher found in the library, and that they were going to try to make up their own. They wanted to make an Anasazi poetry book for the whole class. In another area, two students were looking over samples of ancient pictographs that were used by the Anasazi. When asked by a visitor why they were studying these pictographs, they replied that they were learning about how the Anasazi wrote and how it is different from the way we write now. They intended to write a story in pictograph writing on one page, and a “translation” of it in their own writing on the next.

Karen told the visitors that some serious questions arose during the time spent investigating this topic. The students wondered if the disappearance of the Anasazi had anything to do with their interaction with Anglo people who began to arrive on this land. Did the Anasazi have difficulties similar to today’s pueblo people who experience poverty and other social problems? These kid-posed questions touch on real social, economic and political issues regarding the impact of minority cultures living in the context of a majority culture.

Karen related that some of her students began to wonder about their own histories and identities as Mexican Americans who are often partly of Indian descent. When one of the visitors asked Karen if she tried to avoid these types of “touchy” issues and questions, she replied that she welcomed their investigations of the real world around them and hoped they would continue to do so throughout their lives.

She explained that she believed this was the best way to prepare young people to grow into adults who can solve critical problems that face our society and improve it for everyone.

“Are you sure those were “at risk” kids we observed?” the visitors asked when I escorted them out of Karen’s room and back down the hallway.

“Yes” I said, “but they will never know it.”

Excerpt from the book What’s Whole in Whole Language in the 21st Century? by Ken Goodman. Paperback book 20% off on Amazon.

Author: Ken Goodman
ISBN: 978-1-942146-04-9
Paperback ON SALE on Amazon $19.95
Paperback: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound (local bookstore) | Books-A-Million | Indigo Books
eBook:  Amazon – Amazon Kindle discounted ebook just $2.99 with a purchase of the print book.


“I think the essence of his work is the ethical and the moral dimensions.” – Jerome Harste

“What’s Whole in Whole Language is must-reading for parents, teachers, school administrators and legislators–anyone who would like deeper understanding of the process of how we make sense of written language. Ken Goodman is one of the most important reading researchers of the last hundred years. Includes interviews and commentaries by leading literacy scholars.” – Alan D. Flurkey

“My admiration is for his political acumen. Education does not just take place in classrooms. It is a political situation.” – Frank Smith

“In the American phrase that I’ve learned to love, ‘we need to wise up’. This book helps us do just that.”- Michael Rosen

“This is an important book for anyone engaged with children and literacy. Goodman’s insights have stood the test of time, despite a vigorous politically and economically motivated attempt to discredit them” – Amazon Customer

“I have found that with Ken it is about making learning to read barrier free.” – Brian Cambourne

“His main contribution is freedom for teachers.” – Jeanne Chall

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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