This post is by long-time members Deborah MacPhee and Sally Brown, editors of Talking Points.
As we were scrolling through the Literacy & NCTE blog in preparation for introducing Talking Points, the journal of the Whole Language Umbrella, and ourselves as editors, to blog readers, we found post after post addressing literacy as a tool for understanding and responding to the local and global issues of our time. In addition to being inspired by bloggers thinking and writing about “September 11”, “Writing through Conflict”, and “Reflecting on Democracy”, we were struck by the mismatch between how literacy is positioned in the official blog of the NCTE and how literacy is positioned in the schools we visit and teach in every day.
Prior to becoming teaching educators, we were both elementary classroom teachers in public school settings. We earned our doctoral degrees from the University of South Carolina. It was at USC where we engaged in academic challenges and inquiries supported by a whole language philosophy. We had mentors who inspired us to think deeply about the sociocultural, political, and economic issues impacting literacy instruction. It is from this background that we continue to move forward in our whole language practices.
As whole language educators, we believe that the potential for learning literacy, and anything really, is highest when learners inquire about topics of interest in authentic contexts, practicing and mastering skills and strategies as needed to communicate within these contexts. We find this to be reinforced by NCTE’s views about literacy education. This belief, however, is not in alignment with how we experienced school or how we see students experiencing school today. When we enter schools, as teacher educators and researchers, what we often observe is quite the opposite: learners practicing discrete skills in contrived contexts in hopes that they will be able to draw on these skills and strategies sometime later, when there is an authentic need to do so.
The world, and how we come to understand it, has changed drastically in recent years, yet the institution of school has remained relatively consistent in its policies and procedures for educating the citizenry. As literacy learners and educators, how can we bridge the gap between literacy in the world and literacy in schools? How can we engage all students, authentically, in learning and using literacy as a tool for meaning-making in schools, which have historically focused on the acquisition of knowledge and skills (Cambourne, 2017)¹, often in meaningless contexts?
Even though we know teaching today is challenging, we believe there is hope. We are inspired by educators who find space in the system for authentic literacy instruction. Each and every day these educators engage students in social justice projects, inquiries into real world questions, and important discussions that arise from quality literature, all the time explicitly teaching the skills and strategies needed to communicate. These are the stories we share in Talking Points.
If you recognize yourself as one of these educators, we invite you to write for Talking Points, a forum where you can engage colleagues who are whole language practitioners and researchers in dialogue about how, in schools, we can prepare students to use literacy to understand and shape a rapidly changing world.
¹Cambourne, B. (2017). Reclaiming or reframing? Getting the right conceptual metaphor for thinking about early literacy learning. In R. Meyer & K. Whitmore (Eds.), Reclaiming early childhood literacies: Narratives of hope, power, and vision (pp. 17–29). New York, NY: Routledge.
Deborah MacPhee is an Associate Professor of elementary education and literacy at Illinois State University. She learns, teaches, and conducts research in Professional Development Schools.
Sally Brown is an associate professor of literacy at Georgia Southern University where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in reading and language development.