The Power To Be A Professional

August 01, 1991 14 min read
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Kitagawa didn’t learn about sharing power in education school. During her first decade of elementary-level teaching, she used fairly traditional materials and methods, but she objected to the way teachers’ guides emphasized getting children to answer questions correctly rather than getting them to think critically. “The implication was that the manuals had all the answers,’' Kitagawa explains. “But that’s an abnormal situation for life. We ask questions not because we have an answer. We ask questions to raise a discussion.’'

Now, Kitagawa teaches at Mark’s Meadow Elementary School in Amherst, Mass., but she first learned about whole language from a series of workshops she attended in 1980 while teaching in Tucson, Ariz. Although Kitagawa had never heard of whole language, the workshops, organized by professors Kenneth and Yetta Goodman of the University of Arizona, confirmed something she had always intuitively known: Teachers should be less like technicians, implementing programs and strategies without questioning their effectiveness, and more like explorers, observing and responding to students.

After the workshops, Kitagawa began to redefine her role in the classroom. During the 1980s, she was able to experiment with whole language fairly freely within her own classroom. “I’ve had principals say to me, ‘Leave your basal in an obvious place, and don’t tell the other teachers you’re not using it,’' Kitagawa says. “Somehow, I’ve been trusted.’'

During her first few years as a whole language teacher, Kitagawa didn’t find many kindred spirits in the schools where she taught. But that is not the case now. Mark’s Meadow, the public K-6 school where she has been teaching a combined 5th and 6th grade class for the past year and a half, is practically an ideal place for whole language teaching. Of her 10 colleagues, Kitagawa describes five as whole language teachers. And the others, she says, are more child-centered than most teachers.

Kitagawa’s principal, Michael Greenebaum, doesn’t label himself or his school whole language, but he does provide the kind of leadership that enables whole language to thrive. For one thing, teachers are treated like professionals. They aren’t required to sign in, stay until 4 p.m., turn in lesson plans, or use basals or textbooks. Teachers issue report cards twice a year, but they aren’t expected to keep an elaborate grading system or give commercial tests. Instead, emphasis is placed on parent conferences. A state-mandated achievement test is foisted on certain grade levels once a year, but Greenebaum pays as little attention to it as possible.

Although Mark’s Meadow is located in a college town, the 230-pupil school serves more than the children of local intellectuals. It’s a neighborhood school: Two-thirds of its families live in rental units and one-half of its children qualify for free or reduced meals. Although the majority of the students are white, 17 languages are represented among the large, diverse ethnic population.

Overall, Mark’s Meadow is a bright, vibrant place. Designed as a laboratory school for the University of Massachusetts School of Education, the rooms are equipped with huge two-way mirrors so that college students, parents, and fellow teachers can easily observe any classroom at any time.

On this spring day, a quick peek from behind the “magic mirrors,’' as the children call them, provides a dynamic picture of life at the school: In the various rooms, children are singing, dancing, acting out fairy tales, playing chess, reading, writing, and talking in small groups.

Kitagawa’s classroom looks whole language. Her yellow walls are plastered with stories written and illustrated by her students. An encyclopedia of the tropics, which her students wrote, produced, and “published’’ themselves, sits on a table. Taped to the chalkboard is a Manila envelope for pen-pal letters; in a corner are the children’s writing portfolios. And in the back of the room, bookcases overflow with paperbacks--more than 600 of them and not a basal in sight.

But Kitagawa points out that the most important aspects of being a whole language teacher are not always visible. “Sometimes, whole language gets defined by superficial things, by what books or writing approaches a teacher uses,’' she says. “But there’s another element that’s very intangible: It’s a political stance that the teacher takes in relation to the children.’'

This morning, it’s not easy to spot visual clues of what Kitagawa is talking about. Sitting in a circle with a group of children discussing a short story they’ve just read, she looks like any other teacher. But she’s thinking like a whole language teacher. Kitagawa is not just asking comprehension questions to make sure they’ve understood the story, she is observing her students very carefully, looking for clues that will help her build broader, deeper definitions of her students as learners. Whole language researcher Yetta Goodman has dubbed this “kidwatching.’'

When the recalcitrant reader suddenly devours a book or when a good speller makes a mistake, the kidwatcher makes a note. “I look at what’s happening, and ask myself, ‘Why is that happening?’' Kitagawa explains.

For example, she noticed that one of her students consistently misspelled the word “closet.’' Instead of merely correcting the child or taking points off for the error, she tried to discover why he was making the mistake. “He was writing ‘clothit,’' she explains. “So I tried to listen to him to see if he was saying it that way. But he didn’t have a lisp.’' When she realized that he learned the word clothes first, she suddenly saw the logical leap he was making. “Instead of saying, ‘How could he be so dumb?’ I was saying, ‘How could he be so wonderful!’' Kitagawa exclaims.

Clearly, each kidwatching event is an adventure for Kitagawa. “It’s not just that you observe children,’' she says. “You do it because you have lots of theories, and you’re testing those theories every time you interact with the child.’'

This constant “playing,’' as Kitagawa calls it, with her own theories and the work of other educators, adds a richness to her professional life that she can’t imagine being without. She bridges the gap between theory and practice by testing new ideas in the classroom and sharing her discoveries at conferences and in the articles she writes. “I feel I have a voice,’' she says. “I am a part of a professional community.’'

The way Kitagawa has trans- formed her classroom from a teachercentered environment to one in which children are the focus is as important as her shift from technician to kidwatcher. Again, the visible signs of her commitment to share in the ownership of the classroom are not immediately apparent.

Today, students are busy preparing oral reports for a unit on Hispanic-Americans. At first glance, they seem to be doing what students do in any classroom: They are huddled over books, filling up pages of notebook paper with information about Cuba, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico. As for Kitagawa, she doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything. She hasn’t said a word to the class as a whole; she just saunters around, chatting with individual children and offering advice.

What makes all this unusual is that these students have just returned to the classroom from lunch, gym class, and recess. Getting 23 kids to crack open their books after they’ve let loose for three periods in a row is usually a teacher’s nightmare. But these children begin working independently almost immediately-- without the typical, “All right, boys and girls, settle down.’'

This kind of motivation is one sign that these students feel connected to their work and enjoy what they’re doing. When asked about an assignment, the students do not say they’re writing a report “because it’s due’’ or because “my teacher wants me to.’' Instead, they say they are doing the work because they’re interested in the subject matter. After all, they decide what to research, how to research it, and the length and form the reports will eventually take.

Kitagawa believes that allowing her students to make choices gives them a lot of responsibility. She explains: “They have the freedom to make decisions, but they don’t have the freedom not to make decisions. They need to choose books, topics, genre and decide how it will play itself out.’'

For this project, a wiry girl named Anjeli is using travel brochures, books, and her “head’’ to write about the fruits and vegetables of her native Puerto Rico. Elisha, who is not Puerto Rican, is writing a poem about discrimination that Puerto Ricans experience in the United States. She says she is basing her poem on interviews she conducted with Puerto Rican acquaintances. And, in penciled cursive, bespectacled Bobby is filling his second piece of paper with information about the Cuban missile crisis.

Bobby is surrounded by a large pile of library books and articles that he found independently. When asked if he is copying facts from the books onto his paper, the 10-year-old looks suddenly offended. “No, that’s plagiarism!’' he exclaims. And, when asked how many pages the report is supposed to be, he looks a little confused by the question. “It’s finished when you have good information,’' he says. “When you share it, someone will learn from it.’'

One of the ways Kitagawa shares power is by giving her students a say in what they research in social studies and science. Assessment is another. She has students use self-surveys to evaluate their reading and writing. “They rate themselves in a whole lot of categories,’' she says. “I rate them on the same measures, then we see where we match. It’s fascinating because we almost always match, or I give them higher scores.’'

In math, problem solving is emphasized. Kitagawa doesn’t look for perfect papers. Instead, she looks to see how hard the children try and what strategies they’re using. “I tell them the only thing they can do wrong is to quit,’' she says. “I want to see if the blood, sweat, and tears are on the paper, whether the answer is or not.’'

Regardless of the subject matter, Kitagawa believes that every experience in a child-centered classroom is an opportunity for children to learn lessons about themselves. Some teachers try to make sure experiences will be successful for children, but Kitagawa argues that children need to find out for themselves what they can handle. “My natural style is to let kids jump into the water and find out that they need to learn to swim,’' she declares. “I want them to learn to cope with frustration. In this instant age, there aren’t always instant answers.’'

Of course, Kitagawa wants children to use her as a resource if they need help, but she is pleased when they turn to their peers instead. One of her most valuable teaching strategies, she says, is to keep her hands in her pockets and her mouth closed, so the “kids will do more.’'

Kitagawa knows that some edu- cators don’t think much of whole language, but she believes it’s often because they misunderstand the ideas behind it. “Many people think whole language is all ‘do your own thing’ and that whole language teachers don’t care,’' Kitagawa says.

Special education teacher Terry Johnson, who team teaches with Kitagawa every morning to give extra support to the dozen special-needs children mainstreamed in the class, testifies to the whole language teacher’s high standards. Kitagawa, Johnson says, doesn’t accept rude behavior, nor does she allow students to make mistakes out of laziness or scribble out a half-finished poem and call it a day. “Mary challenges students academically,’' she says. “She expects kids to be on task, to be prepared with materials, to take academic risks, and to ask questions that deal with the topic.’'

Coming from Johnson, the affirmation is a quite a compliment. Johnson admits that she wasn’t a “gung-ho, whole language person’’ when she first approached Kitagawa about team teaching. In fact, Johnson still believes that children benefit from practicing isolated skills. If there were more hours in the day, Johnson would like the additional time spent on skills. “Part of me, and it just might be my old training, says maybe we should be doing some more isolated-skills work in grammar and spelling,’' she says.

But Johnson’s broader goals for her students outweigh her concerns about specific skills. Her top priority is for students to participate and learn critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. In Kitagawa’s class, she says, they do. “It’s great,’' she says. “They are reading and writing more than we ever thought. And what has really struck me is the depth that all students can begin to see in the literature. The questions about a particular work of literature that they want to discuss are really amazing.’'

Although the class does not have regularly scheduled periods set aside to practice grammar and spelling in isolation, the students do get a lot of practice when they write reports, stories, journal entries, and research projects. “Everything is done through writing,’' Johnson explains. “It’s such an integral part of the whole day that kids who will usually do anything to avoid writing can’t avoid it in here.’'

And the quality of the writing has improved. Student performance is on the rise, Johnson says, “from basic handwriting and cursive fluency to paragraph structure, the use of abstract language, and mechanics.’'

Kitagawa does pay close attention to details such as verb agreement, comma placement, and other grammatical conventions. But instead of using a district curriculum guide to dictate what she teaches, Kitagawa gets her cues from students. Take semicolons, for example. “As some kids analyzed sentences,’' the teacher says, “they had a strong sense that they didn’t want a certain sentence separated by a period. I introduced the semicolon, and it caught on.’'

But if a teacher waits until students feel the need to use semicolons, isn’t it possible that semicolons won’t get taught that year? “Yes, it’s possible,’' Kitagawa admits. But it’s also true, she points out, that skillsbased teachers can’t guarantee that their 6th graders will learn how to use semicolons simply because they do a unit on them. “The kids probably won’t really understand them until they’ve been using them in their writing.’'

Kitagawa doesn’t worry that she is leaving anything out of her curriculum or that her standards aren’t rigorous enough. She convinces her students that grammar, spelling, and punctuation are important by asking them questions: “Do you want to be taken seriously?’' “Are you being fair to me as a reader?’' “Do you want to get your message across, or do you want me to be distracted?’'

She admits, however, that there isn’t enough discussion within the whole language community about such practical concerns as teaching grammar and punctuation. “I hear people say, ‘Don’t criticize the spelling yet, don’t criticize the punctuation yet, you might jeopardize their writing. That’s because whole language is still concentrating on the primary grades. But there comes a point in the upper grades when the teacher has to tell children what society is going to expect from them.’'

Even though Kitagawa’s princi- pal and colleagues are receptive to the whole language approach, it’s not always easy for her to use it as fully as she would like. For one thing, the old teacher-centered habits die hard. She says she is still sometimes tempted to jump in and play the leading role.

But external forces create pressures, as well. Kitagawa has to conform to some district standards. In science, for example, the district expects teachers to choose study units from a particular list.

Furthermore, Kitagawa’s large class size makes it difficult for her program to be as individualized and student-driven as she would like it to be. “I cannot follow every child’s interests,’' she explains. “We studied space last year at Bobby’s suggestion. But what if somebody right in the middle of that wonderful unit had been desperate to study something else?’'

But even if Kitagawa had fewer students and a boatload of teaching assistants, another reality would interfere: Children aren’t always the best judges of what they should study or read. When given the opportunity to pick topics to study, children often choose what they most enjoyed studying the year before, she says. In such instances, she thinks, it is more valuable for her to steer students toward another topic.

As Kitagawa responds and adapts to the flesh-and-blood variables affecting her classroom, she has moments when she doesn’t feel much like a whole language teacher. It’s a feeling many whole language teachers share. “If we are honest with ourselves,’' she explains, “we’ll always feel as if we’re not there yet.’'

These doubts arise, Kitagawa says, not because she doesn’t understand the whole language philosophy or like the label, but because she feels she isn’t meeting her own high standards. She knows, however, that some teachers have trouble with the whole language label itself. Some reject it because they don’t like the ways that whole language has been defined or misunderstood. In fact, some whole language teachers prefer to call themselves “process oriented’’ or “literature based’’ because those terms are less loaded.

Regardless of what outsiders think of or call Kitagawa’s philosophy, she feels comfortable with the term whole language and is proud to be a part of the movement. In fact, if she hadn’t discovered whole language a decade ago, she isn’t sure what she would be doing today. “I know one thing,’' she says without hesitation. “I wouldn’t be in the classroom.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as The Power To Be A Professional


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