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A Need For Revolutionary New Schools

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Some educators are understandably worried that this increased frustration will lead to the "ready, fire, aim'' approach too often followed in solving complex problems. They note that grand ideas--like choice, merit pay, a national curriculum, and high-stakes examinations--will not necessarily change what takes place in the classroom, which is where education succeeds or fails.

Because they believe reform begins at home, thousands of teachers across the country--many of them participants in the whole language movement--have transformed their classrooms into exciting, stimulating, student-centered places of learning. As often as not, they are bucking the system--risking their jobs, spending their own money on books, working overtime to devise creative and challenging lessons for their students.

When we set out to produce the special report in this issue of Teacher Magazine, we thought we'd be writing about a new way to teach children how to read. But as our writers interviewed teachers and researchers, visited schools, and pored over books and articles, it became clear that whole language is really about much more: It's about how children learn and how teachers teach. Indeed, whole language is ultimately an attempt to change the ways schools are organized and operated.

The ideas embodied in the whole language movement echo many of the ideas now being embraced in the larger school reform movement--giving teachers more authority and flexibility, encouraging students to take more responsibility for their own education, replacing standardized multiple-choice tests with performance-based assessments, and relying less on textbooks. The difference is that whole language is a movement of and by teachers. In a very real sense, they are doing precisely what President Bush is urging--building revolutionary new schools from the bottom up, classroom by classroom.

Building a new school system is a daunting task--not so much because we don't know what to do but because it is so difficult to change what we've always done. Many of the teachers interviewed for this report describe the apprehension they felt as they took the first tentative steps toward a new way of teaching. How could they possibly give up their instruction manuals, basals, and workbooks? How could they maintain control in the classroom if they allowed students to sit in a circle, move about, work together, and talk freely? What would happen if they shared power with students and gave them more say in what and how they learn? How would they know whether students were progressing without continually testing them?

Whole language teachers acknowledge that the new way of teaching is more demanding than the old way. They work harder. They are sometimes unpopular with colleagues and administrators. They have to win the confidence of parents. But to a person, they say it's worth all the effort. They talk about feeling like a real professional, about being more alive, and about the thrill of seeing their students excited by learning.

In short, whole language is about the joy and fulfillment of teaching and learning--something that too many teachers and students find missing in the present system.

Ronald A. Wolk

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