Middle-Class Assumptions Fail Literacy Instruction

My doctoral work was anchored significantly in John Dewey—highlighted, I recall, by discovering that Dewey had claimed we need not teach children to read because reading was something that naturally developed in children (and since he could not recall being taught explicitly to read).

I was struck by such a tremendous failure in a great thinker, one that exposes the dangers of assuming “my” experiences prove a generalization, especially when “my” experiences are ones of privilege.

When I posted Encouraging Students to Read: A Reader, this odd fact about Dewey came back to me when Peter Smagorinsky called me out, appropriately, for failing to acknowledge the middle-class assumptions beneath endorsing holistic approaches to teaching reading, ones that far too often have failed students who struggle to develop literacy due to class, race, gender, and other challenges.

I have noted before that progressivism, whole language, and balanced literacy have been misunderstood by politicians, the media, and the public, but we must also confront that practitioners have misunderstood and then implemented progressive and holistic approaches to literacy instruction in ways that have been extremely harmful to the exact students most in need of formal schooling.

The Dewey Paradox

Two aspects of Dewey’s progressive education philosophy are key in that context: (i) Dewey’s progressivism is steeped in idealism, leaning precariously on the edge of naturalistic views of children and learning (one that may be true if a child lives in privilege), and thus (ii) Dewey’s progressivism has mostly been misinterpreted and implemented in ways that do not reflect Dewey’s foundational commitments or serve many students well.

Not to be an apologist for Dewey, but to help clarify what many of us who stand on Dewey’s shoulders embrace (noting that I am a critical educator, and not a progressive), I recommend Dewey’s Experience and Education as well as Alan Ryan’s biography of Dewey (specifically his Chapter Four: The Pedagogue as Prophet).

For me, Dewey provided the seed for critical pedagogy to grow out of the soil of progressivism:

It is not too much to say that an educational philosophy which professes to be based on the idea of freedom may become as dogmatic as ever was the traditional education which is reacted against. For any theory and set of practices is dogmatic which is not based upon critical examination of its own underlying principles. (Experience and Education, p. 22)

In the reading wars, then, dogmatic commitments to either whole language or isolated phonics instruction instead of addressing the needs of each individual student to become a reader is the great failure Dewey himself would have acknowledged.

Misreading Dewey, however, has a long tradition itself. Lou LaBrant, a fervent Dewey progressive, wrote in 1931 a scathing attack on the project method, which claimed to be in the Dewey tradition:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

Ryan’s biography achieves a manageable and complex picture of Dewey—one that Dewey failed to express clearly. But in that picture, we see the idealism noted above as well as a level of sophistication (for example, seeking to honor both the individual and community, instead of bowing to either/or thinking) that made Dewey hard for a general public and often inaccessible for practitioners who want the practical and not his pragmatic [1].

However, “Dewey himself argued that it was not enough to repudiate traditional education,” Ryan explains, adding:

It was not enough for progressive teachers to throw out everything the old schools had done, to replace discipline by chaos, a rigid syllabus with no syllabus. And Dewey was inclined to think that many schools had done exactly that and had used his name to justify it. The difficulty was to give an account of the educational experience that would elicit a kind of discipline, an approach to the syllabus and to the authority of the teacher in the classroom that would grow out of experience itself. (p. 282)

And it is here that I can speak directly to the great paradox of progressive and critical commitments in education, especially in terms of teaching literacy, as expressed by Dewey himself:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

Teaching for over thirty years while attempting to avoid prescription and indoctrination, to foster joy and pleasure in learning, and to provide all students with the content they deserve and need has often lead to paralysis since those commitments are overwhelming in their contradictions. I have never settled for decoding or even comprehension in any student—always demanding we rise to include critical literacy that requires that students have the decoding and comprehension as well.

Despite Dewey’s warning, dogmatism is easier, and as Ryan warned, Dewey’s progressivism demands more of teachers than traditional approaches. And thus, when faced with the most challenging populations of students, we too often take the path of least resistance, mis-serving those students along the way.

Enter Delpit: Middle-Class Assumptions Fail Literacy Instruction

What appears to have happened in formal education throughout the U.S. is that literacy education has increased the gaps among social classes and racial subgroups because too often than not we have failed to honor the balance between fostering a love and joy for language with the necessary skills to read and write—and the students who suffer the most in that failure have been racial minorities and impoverished children.

Affluent students are allowed to relish in the joy of language (reaping the advantages of their privilege, which includes a literacy growth that seems transparent to them, as it did to Dewey) in formal schooling, while struggling students (disproportionately children of color and impoverished) are sentenced to drudgery masquerading as literacy instruction, further disadvantaging them.

Middle-class norms drive a great deal of practice in formal schooling since the wider U.S. society is trapped in those middle-class norms (ones that include not only socioeconomic but also racial [read “white”] expectations) and since the teacher workforce in the U.S. is itself a middle-class profession dominated by white females.

These middle-class blinders can be observed in the misguided embracing of Ruby Payne’s stereotypes about poverty, the nearly universal acceptance of the “word gap,” and the “grit” narrative as a veneer for white privilege.

Just as Dewey’s progressivism needed a critical re-imagining from Paulo Freire and others, Freire’s critical pedagogy needed bell hooks and others to confront Freire’s paternalism.

Then, enter Lisa Delpit, who provides the confrontation of the failures of misunderstood progressivism and holistic approaches to literacy instruction—the failures that often misrepresent whole language but exist under that terminology (see Ryan’s point about Dewey’s complaints above).

Writing in 1996 about Delpit, Debora Viadero explains:

But Delpit is best-known for the bombs she has lobbed at some of contemporary education’s most sacred cows.

A decade ago, Delpit started penning a series of eloquent, plain-spoken essays in the Harvard Educational Review that questioned the validity of some popular teaching strategies for African-American students. The essays were spun off into a book, Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, that was published last year by The New Press.

The problem, Delpit says in those writings, is not that whole-language reading instruction techniques or the process-writing approach to teaching writing are inherently bad. They work for some students–possibly most. They just do not work for everybody. And often the people they do not work for are children who, like Delpit herself, were born black and disenfranchised. What is more, these strategies might not work for children of any group that has strong, distinctive cultural roots and that stands on society’s perimeter peering in.

And while some continue to misrepresent Delpit in similar ways to how Dewey was/is misrepresented, Delpit offers to me the best understanding of achieving the balance Dewey sought.

The powerful phrase “other people’s children” comes from the work of Delpit, who confronts the inequity of educational opportunities for minority and impoverished children. Delpit highlights that marginalized students receive disproportionately test-prep and worksheet-driven instruction, unlike their white and affluent peers. While some have claimed her as a champion of traditional practice because her criticisms have included failures by progressives, Delpit counters:

I do not advocate a simplistic “basic skills” approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background [emphasis added], but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

And I do not advocate that it is the school’s job to attempt to change the homes of poor and nonwhite children to match the homes of those in the culture of power [emphasis added]. That may indeed be a form of cultural genocide. I have frequently heard schools call poor parents “uncaring” when parents respond to the school’s urging, saying, “But that’s the school’s job.” What the school personnel fail to understand is that if the parents were members of the culture of power and lived by its rules and codes, then they would transmit those codes to their children. In fact, they transmit another culture that children must learn at home in order to survive in their communities.

And Monique Redeaux clarifies:

When Delpit began her work on “other people’s children” she predicted that her purpose would be misunderstood. People criticized her for “vindicating” teachers who subjected students of color to isolated, meaningless, sub-skills day after day. However, what she was actually advocating when she referred to “skills-based instruction” was the “useful and usable knowledge that contributes to a student’s ability to communicate effectively in standard, generally acceptable literary forms” and she proposed that this was best learned in meaningful contexts. In other words, Delpit argued that both technical skills and critical thinking are essential: a person of color who has no critical thinking skills becomes the “trainable, low-level functionary of the dominant society, simply the grease that keeps the institutions which orchestrate his or her oppression running smoothly.” At the same time, those who lack the technical skills demanded by colleges, universities, and employers will be denied entry into these institutions. Consequently, they will attain financial and social success only within the “disenfranchised underworld.”

Like my progressive muse LaBrant, I remain convinced that reading programs—including prescriptive, systematic phonics programs—are “costume parties” that fail our students—and waste a tremendous amount of funding and instructional time, money and time better spent with authentic texts.

But when I endorse choice, independent reading, and access to books, like Delpit, I am not excusing those who idealize those commitments (through middle-class lenses) and then fail to teach reading (or writing) based on the needs of each student, some of whom will flourish with little guidance and some of whom need intensive and direct instruction.

It is no petty thing to acknowledge that a hungry or abused or frightened child will not find joy in reading when allowed choice, independent reading, and access to books because those do not address the burdens denying them that joy and learning opportunity. It is no petty thing either to note that taking struggling students and simply demanding they ignore their life’s inequities and complete phonics worksheets will not work as well.

As Dewey would stress, either/or thinking and dogmatism serve no one well when we are teaching children to read and write. Too often, that dogmatism has its roots in our middle-class privilege that, as with Dewey, blinds us to what our students need most from our teaching.

[1] As Ryan explains: “Dewey spent a great deal of his adult life explaining that ‘pragmatic’ did not mean ‘practical’ in a merely utilitarian and down-to-earth sense” (p. 225).

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