Tag Archives: John Dewey

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).

Beyond Caricatures: On Dewey, Freire, and Direct Instruction (Again)

A former colleague while we both taught high school in rural South Carolina, Ed Welchel, and I addressed [1] the continuing importance of both John Dewey and Paulo Freire, despite the decrease in requirements for education philosophy in certification and degree programs, in “The Practitioner Has No Clothes: Resisting Practice Divorced from Philosophy in Teacher Education and the Classroom” for Kincheloe and Hewitt’s Regenerating the Philosophy of Education.

While Dewey (Progressivism) and Freire (Critical Pedagogy) share significance for how we should implement universal public education, they also share a pattern of being discounted and discredited through caricature more often than through valid criticisms of their faults.

I have noted several times the work of Lou LaBrant, who I would identify as a “true” progressive, specifically her own efforts to unmask misguided and mislabeled progressive practices (see “Masquerading”). LaBrant’s work and career help expose (i) that progressive claims have often been misrepresentative of progressivism and Dewey and (ii) that some progressives (LaBrant) offer more accurate representations of just what being a progressive educator looks like in the real-world classroom.

Complicating the matter is the century-plus struggle to reform education, which I have represented as four competing arenas (also well teased out by Jack Hassard):

Education reform camps fall into two broad categories—Mainstream and Radical—with two divisions within each broad category: Mainstream Reform includes bureaucratic reformers and technocratic reformers; Radical Reform includes libertarian reformers and critical reformers.

Whether debates are addressing Dewey/progressives or Freire/critical educators, the issues tend to focus on the role of the student, the role of the teacher, the nature of curriculum, and the nature of instruction.

As a thirty-plus year educator who has worked through my progressive stage and settled solidly into critical pedagogy, I want to highlight the central misrepresentations of Freire with the following excerpt from the co-authored chapter noted above:

“My theoretical explanation of such practice ought to be also a concrete and practical demonstration of what I am saying,” Freire (1998) explains, thus connecting the philosophical with the practical (p. 49). Without a careful consideration of what we believe about teaching and learning, we are ill equipped to measure what we do with any precision, a precision unlike the traditional view of the term (not mechanistic quantification, but holding the real against the ideal as an act of qualitative validity). Teaching and our classrooms, then, must be “something witnessed, lived” (Freire, p. 49).

The progressive challenge that pushed against the traditional and mechanistic assumptions of teaching and learning offers practitioners a consideration of alternative views of education, but without a critical perspective, practitioners are left vulnerable to a dualistic and thus incomplete understanding of a classroom that creates the conditions necessary for the pursuit of democracy and freedom. Here, we find the necessity for the critical perspective that becomes a way of being, one that is “ethical” as teaching and learning are acts of empowerment—“to ‘spiritualize’ the world, to make it either beautiful or ugly” (Freire, 1998, p. 53).

The most damning result of either/or thinking is believing, falsely, that classrooms must be either authoritarian or chaotic. Freire (1998) explains the critical alternative:

“It is in this sense that both the authoritarian teacher who suffocates the natural curiosity and freedom on the student as well as the teacher who imposes no standards at all are equally disrespectful of an essential characteristic of our humanness, namely, our radical (and assumed) unfinishedness, out of which emerges the possibility of being ethical.” (p. 59)

The empowering classroom is far more complex than any either/or dynamic as such dynamics oversimplify and necessarily distort human endeavors (Kohn, 1993). But it is Freire’s recognition “of being ethical” that poses the greatest argument for the need to explore philosophy fully and rigorously.

A wrestling with the ethical implications of teaching and learning exposes “the dilemma arising from the tension between authority and freedom. And we invariably confuse authority and authoritarianism, freedom and license” (Freire, 1998, p. 60). And this, I believe, is the crux of why practitioners balk at any pursuits they deem impractical. They are trapped by the false dichotomy of what a classroom can be, primarily because they themselves have experienced and excelled in those exact settings that critical pedagogy challenges for being mechanistic and oppressive. When practitioners call for “practical” over “philosophical,” that call is masking a fear of deconstructing the exact assumptions that housed their own success as students—and often their own physical and psychological safety as professionals.

The practical becomes in effect a perpetuation of the status quo, a fixed thing. A philosophical perspective, one augmented with a critical lens, however, is an embracing of a state of flux: “This permanent movement of searching creates a capacity for learning not only in order to adapt to the world but especially to intervene, to re-create, and to transform it” (Freire, 1998, p. 66). With the practical, we have a sense of security; with the theoretical, a sense of risk. The classroom that seeks and embraces risk is a classroom that confronts authority; thus, the practitioner trapped by dualistic assumptions believes confronting authority can only lead to chaos. Without a critical perspective, the practitioner is left without the possibility of authoritative (instead of authoritarian), without the possibility of freedom (without slipping into license).

Classrooms guided by practitioners who have ignored a careful consideration of philosophy—of progressivism and critical pedagogy—slip into an authoritarian, and thus oppressive, dynamic that contradicts democratic ideals by silencing students. The mechanistic assumptions of these classrooms embrace a traditional view of objectivity as both attainable and preferable to the contextual arguments made by critical pedagogy: Freire (1998) maintains “that the school. . .cannot abstract itself from the sociocultural and economic conditions of its students, their families, and their communities” (p. 62). Education without a rich philosophical understanding embraces a clinical view of humanity—oppressive in its narrow view of “scientific.” [2]

And thus we come to some clarifications:

  • Progressive educators and critical educators—while embracing many overlapping concerns, beliefs, and practices—are not the same as unschoolers, exsitential educators, and “naturalist” educators.
  • For critical educators, a teacher seeks to serve as teacher/student while a student serves as student/teacher. Key here is where authority lies (not that it is absent). Authority for a teacher should grow from that teacher’s expertise, and not primarily or solely from that teacher’s status as “teacher.” Critical educators are skeptical of authoritarianism, but embrace their authoritative status.
  • Progressive and critical educators do not reject direct instruction, but are skeptical of direct instruction that is isolated and determined for students without any evidence of student need/interest or input. Again, the problem is isolated direct instruction, and the question is not if we use direct instruction, but when, how, and why. (Read carefully again the quote from Freire [1998], p. 59.)

So rejecting Dewey/progressivism or Freire/critical pedagogy with caricatures ignores the need to criticize both on substantive grounds (bell hooks has taken Freire to task well, and Lisa Delpit has dismantled failed progressivism, for example) while also perpetuating a reality that I find most troubling: Neither progressivism nor critical pedagogy has ever had any real and substantial place in U.S. public education.

The irony of this is that those who are most apt to criticize both progressivism and critical pedagogy by relentlessly calling U.S. public education a failure are in fact criticizing the policies and ideologies they claim will “reform” schools because those classrooms have been dominated by transmissional practices, content- and teacher-centered commitments, and technocratic policies driven by prescriptive standards/curriculum and high-stakes testing.

I end, then, with the final paragraphs in the essay excerpted above:

The empowered student necessarily requires the classroom offered by the empowered teacher. Any who teaches must first work through the philosophical evolution that Dewey and Freire represent—as well as continuing beyond the possibilities offered by Dewey’s progressivism and Freire’s critical pedagogy. The pursuit of an educational philosophy, then, is a journey that inseparable from being a practitioner—not something we “finish” in undergraduate courses and then mindlessly build upon.

Choosing between the status quo (norms and traditions) and progressive as well as critical possibilities is a choice between the moribund and the fecund. Norms and traditions are moribund—but the mind requires the fecund classroom that works against norms and traditions (thus progressive and critical) instead of bowing mindlessly to them. Philosophy is not something merely academic, something that wastes a teacher’s time better spent on the practical. Again, as Freire (1998) argues, “Critical reflection on practice is a requirement of the relationship between theory and practice. Otherwise theory becomes simply ‘blah, bah, blah,’ and practice, pure activism” (p. 30). The soul of teaching, then, is an act of the mind and the heart that rises above the limitations falsely separating theory from practice.

[1] Co-authored with Welchel, E. (2011). The practitioner has no clothes: Resisting practice divorced from philosophy in teacher education and the classroom. In Eds. J. Kincheloe & R. Hewitt, Regenerating the philosophy of education: Whatever happened to soul (pp. 43-54). New York: Peter Lang USA.

[2] See Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. (Trans.) P. Clarke. New York: Rowman & Littlefield;

Kohn, A. (1993, September). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan. Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/cfc.htm

Maxine Greene and the “Frozen Sea Inside of Us”

The image of Franz Kafka that captures most clearly Kafkan for me is the one of Kafka himself coming to consciousness in the morning, numbed from the waist down after sitting in one spot writing all night. He, of course, was lost in his text in a way that is something like dreaming—a hybrid of consciousness and unconsciousness.

The text of Kafka that speaks most directly about Kafka for me is his January 1904 letter to Oskar Pollack:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

And although Kafka is writing here specifically about fiction, I think the core sentiment (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”) is the perfect entry point into why Maxine Greene’s works remain more important than ever, her voice the axe against the frozen sea of relentless but misguided education reform.

Greene’s Releasing the Imagination, a collection of essays, is one such book.

Releasing the Imagination: “Breaking with Old Quantitative Models”

Published in 1995, Releasing the Imagination speaks from the middle of the current 30-year cycle of accountability-based education reform driven by standards and high-stakes testing. But the volume also speaks to the resilient nature of the fundamental source for why education reform remains mired in the same failed policy paradigm that is repackaged over and over:

In many ways, school restructure does, indeed, mean breaking with old quantitative models; but countering this break is an anxiety that is driving people into what John Dewey called “the quest for certainty” (1929). Present-day economic uncertainty has much to do with this anxiety as does the current challenge to traditional authorities. In response to school changes, many parents yearn not merely for the predictable but also for the assurances that used to accompany children’s mastery of the basics. (p. 18)

Threads running though Greene’s work are powerfully weaved into this important recognition of the Siren’s song of “certainty” that appears to be captured in quantitative data (think test scores as evidence of student learning and teacher quality): Greene’s existential philosophical lens, her rich progressive commitment, and ability to frame education within larger societal and cultural realities.

Greene continues her examination of breakthroughs by referring to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and Denise Leverton (again, the style that distinguishes Greene), which she incorporates seamlessly with the framing of Dewey and then Paulo Freire. By example and then explicitly, Greene is making a case for setting aside the veneer of certainty presented by measurement and numbers for the ambiguity and unexpected of art:

In contradicting the established, or the given, art reaches beyond what is established and leads those who are willing to risk transformations to the shaping of social vision.

Of course, this does not happen automatically or even naturally. Dewey, in Art as Experience, talks about how important it is for people to plunge into subject matter in order to steep themselves in it, and this is probably more true of works of art than other subject matters….In our engagements with historical texts, too, with mathematical problems, scientific inquiries, and (not incidentally) the political and social realities we have constructed along with those around us, it is never enough simply to label, categorize, or recognize certain phenomena or events. There has to be a live, aware, reflective transaction if what presents itself to consciousness is to be realized.

Dewey asked for an abandonment of “conformity to norms of conventional admiration” in approaching art; he asked that we try to avoid “confused, even if genuine emotional excitation” (1934, p. 54). The beholder, the percipient, the learner must approach from the vantage point of her or his lived situation, that is, in accord with a distinctive point of view and interest….Imagination may be a new way of decentering ourselves, of breaking out of the confinements of privatism and self-regard into a space where we can come face to face with others and call out, “Here we are.” (pp. 30-31)

From A Nation at Risk and then No Child Left Behind as that morphed into the Common Core movement, education reform has remained focused on the exact measurement (“label, categorize, or recognize”) Greene warns against while that reform has also concurrently erased the arts from the lives and education of children (more often than not, from the lives and education of the most marginalized children).

Along with the allure of quantifying as the pursuit of certainty, of control, bureaucracy is also exposed as a recurring flaw of education reform: “Community cannot be produced simply through rational formulation nor through edict,” Greene recognizes (p. 39), adding:

Community is not a question of which social contracts are the most reasonable for individuals to enter. It is a question of what might contribute to the pursuit of shared goods: what ways of being together, of attaining mutuality, of reaching toward some common world. (p. 39)

The bureaucracy of education reform built on recycling the accountability paradigm also fails because we remain committed as well, not to community and democracy, but competition and market forces (charter schools and dismantling teachers unions and tenure, for examples). Education reform is, in fact, not reform at all; education reform insures that public institutions, such as schools, maintain the status quo of society. As a result, students are being indoctrinated, not educated—as Greene confronts about the trap teachers face:

This brings me back to my argument that we teachers must make an intensified effort to break through the frames of custom and to touch the consciousness of those we teach. It is an argument stemming from a concern about noxious invisible clouds and cover-ups and false consciousness and helplessness. It has to do as well with our need to empower the young to deal with the threat and fear of holocaust, to know and understand enough to make significant choices as they grow. Surely, education today must be conceived as a model of opening the world to critical judgments by the young and their imaginative projections and, in time, to their transformative actions. (p. 56)

Education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, may at best be preparing students to make choices between buying a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry (which is no real choice at all), but education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, is not empowering students to choose not to own or drive a car at all, not empowering them to imagine another world, a better world.

Greene recognized that we are tragically paralyzed by the pursuit of certainty and the need to complete our tasks; as a result, we remain trapped like bugs in the amber of capitalism, never freeing ourselves to pursue democracy:

Dewey found that democracy is an ideal in the sense that it is always reaching toward some end that can finally never be achieved. Like community itself, it has to always be in the making. (p. 66)

And so we stand in 2014, in the wake of Greene’s death, and before us is the frozen sea of education reform. Greene’s Releasing the Imagination is one of the axes waiting for us to take it in hand, to break us free.

These essays now about two decades old serve as foundational explorations of all that is wrong with how we fail to re-imagine our schools in our commitments under the misnomer “reform.” In “Teaching for Openings” (Chapter Nine), Greene presents a tour de force for those of us who embrace the label “teacher,” and it is here that I argue for the enduring importance of finally listening to Greene:

Still, caught in the turmoils of interrogation, in what Buber called the pain, I am likely to feel the pull of my old search for certainty. I find myself now and then yearning after the laws and norms and formulations, even though I know how many of them were constructed in the interests of those in power [emphasis added]. Their appeal to me was not only due to the ways in which they provide barriers against relativism. It was also due to my marginality: I wanted so much to be accepted in the great world of wood-panelled libraries, authoritative intellectuals, sophisticated urban cafes….

That means that what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has called the elite culture must be transformed. This is the culture white male scholars tend to create, one that has “functioned in relation to women, the lower classes, and some white races analogously to the way in which imperialism functioned for colonized people. At worst, it denied the values of all others and imposed itself as an absolute standard….As a set of techniques, literacy has often silenced persons and disempowered them. Our obligation today is to find ways of enabling the young to find their voices, to open their spaces, to reclaim their histories in all their variety and discontinuity. Attention has to be paid to those on the margins [emphasis added]…. (pp. 114, 120)

As I wrote to implore us all to beware the roadbuilders, as I drafted that piece while skimming through Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to find the truth I felt compelled to offer, I stood on Greene’s shoulders, as I often do, trying in my very small way to pay attention to those on the margins because with the axe Greene provided me, I was able to begin breaking the frozen sea of my privilege.

In her death, then, we must return not only to Greene’s words, but to the alternative she points to with those words:

Art offers life; it offers hope; it offers the prospect of discovery; it offers light. Resisting, we may make the teaching of the aesthetic experience our pedagogic creed. (p. 133)

Teaching Reading and Children: Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

Well into my 30s and during my doctoral program, I was finally afforded the opportunity to read carefully the work of John Dewey. This late scholarship on my part is an indictment of teacher certification, but it is also a window into the historical and current misinformation about the state of reading and the teaching of reading in U.S. schools.

Dewey, the Father of Progressive Education, I discovered, believed that we do not need to teach reading; Dewey noted that reading just happened, basing this claim on his own inability to recall having been taught to read.

The first time I came across this—considering I was then and remain primarily a teacher of English—I was puzzled that Dewey could be so wrong about reading and so compelling* about education in general.

With time, however, I realized that my initial rejection of Dewey’s belief about reading sprang from my perspective as a teacher: Teachers are predisposed to seeing themselves as change agents, as causational in the learning of others.

As an avid reader and writer, if I am honest, my perspective on reading isn’t all that different from Dewey’s. It is likely that Dewey and I experienced similar conditions of privilege that allowed something like a natural learning of reading, and literacy in general.

And it is here that we must confront a foundational question: Why have we declared a perpetual reading crisis in the U.S. throughout the last century?**

Lou LaBrant: A Progressive Voice

Lou LaBrant began teaching in 1906—in a one-room school, nonetheless. LaBrant’s career spanned most of the 20th century, ending in 1971.

Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, LaBrant built a substantial publishing record that focused on a few powerful commitments: (1) Endorsing progressive education, (2) calling for free reading, and (3) highlighting the importance of libraries and the role of librarians as teachers (LaBrant, 1940).

Progressive education and Dewey became and often remain targets of traditional claims that U.S. public education is a failure. But, as Alfie Kohn has detailed:

Despite the fact that all schools can be located on a continuum stretching between the poles of totally progressive and totally traditional — or, actually, on a series of continuums reflecting the various components of those models — it’s usually possible to visit a school and come away with a pretty clear sense of whether it can be classified as predominantly progressive. It’s also possible to reach a conclusion about how many schools — or even individual classrooms — in America merit that label: damned few. The higher the grade level, the rarer such teaching tends to be, and it’s not even all that prevalent at the lower grades. (Also, while it’s probably true that most progressive schools are independent, most independent schools are not progressive.)

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

LaBrant’s career and her scholarship, then, represent both an accurate case for progressive approaches to teaching reading and a record of how U.S public schools have failed the promise those practices offered.

More so than Dewey, LaBrant’s scholarship and practice represent a practical progressive pedagogy that rises above “natural” and includes “critical”:

Two adults speak of “progressive education.” One means a school where responsibility, critical thinking, and honest expression are emphasized; the other thinks of license, lack of plans, irresponsibility. They argue fruitlessly about being “for” or “against” progressive education. (LaBrant, 1944, pp. 477-478)

Dewey’s claim of “natural” learning has led critics to demonizing the latter, while LaBrant’s practices are grounded in the former. In reality, again as Kohn shows, neither the misapplication of a laissez-faire progressivism nor holistic, child-centered progressivism has ever characterized the learning experiences of most U.S. students.

And thus, LaBrant’s arguments throughout the first half of the twentieth century remain relevant.

“[L]anguage behavior can not be reduced to formula,” LaBrant (1947) argued (p. 20)—emphasizing that literacy growth was complicated but flourished when it was child-centered and practical (for example, in the ways many privileged children experience in their homes because one or more of the parents are afforded the conditions within which to foster their children’s literacy).

By mid-twentieth century, LaBrant (1949) had identified the central failure of teaching reading: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

In fact, many years before this observation, LaBrant (1936) confronted the failure of implementing progressive philosophy in the real-world classroom:

An Experience Curriculum in English [A Report of a Commission of the National Council of Teachers of English. W. Wilbur Hatfield, Chairman. D. Appleton- Century Company, 1935], published only a the year ago, is already influencing the course of study in many schools. There is always danger in popular revision that the change may be confined to stated objectives and superficial devices, and that basic understandings may not be involved at all. A teacher eager to join the ranks of progressives recently asked the question: “How can I put the teaching of The Lady of the Lake on an experience basis in my ninth grade class?” The question is but little less absurd than the procedures of many curriculum revisers who re-arrange old materials, add a little in- formality to class discussions and present the result as a mark of progress. We must consequently beware lest many so-called “experience curriculums” be set up without recognition of opportunity for normal, strong and complex experiences, within which language development in reading, writing, talking and listening is an integral factor. (p. 295)

Despite LaBrant’s optimism above about the impact of NCTE’s report, the history of reading programs in the U.S. remains a disappointing trail of costume parties. In fact, the history of reading instruction as little more than a masquerade was tackled by LaBrant (1936) just five years before:

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. At almost any meeting of teachers of English one may find, somewhere near the main entrance, a room full of exhibition work. This will include models of the castle from Ivanhoe, miniatures of the lake with Ellen’s isle, weaving ma-chines like those at Raveloe, and soap reproductions of Camelot. Recently a teacher attempted to protest against such an exhibition. The reply was that such materials always drew attention from teachers, more attention than lectures probably, and that pupils also found them interesting. …

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. Good work in handcraft would best be accomplished by a teacher trained in that field. The sand table, the soap for carving, the tiny mirrors for lakes, and the rest of the paraphernalia belong, certainly, outside the literature class. (pp. 245, 246)

The misapplication of the project method as arts and crafts (instead of reading) is a close cousin to what passes for reading instruction today: Test-prep for reading tests (instead of reading).

Reading Programs as “Costume Parties”

If LaBrant were alive today, I suspect she would express the same wrath for Common Core and the high-stakes testing that are the source of the materials bonanza now sweeping across the U.S.: This is once again allowing reading programs to masquerade as reading instruction—except these costume parties are incredibly costly in terms of time and public funding and detrimental to the exact students who need genuine progressive learning environments the most.

Why, then, are we failing reading once again?

There is no market incentive for doing what is right in terms of reading.

New standards and new tests feed our consumer culture, but genuine reading reform would not.

In short, the sort of reading practices we have known to be effective since LaBrant’s career (and echoed by leading literacy experts decade after decade) simply don’t sell:

  • Alleviate poverty and inequity so that all children live in homes that foster early reading development.
  • Choice reading, not prescriptive reading programs, is essential to reading development.
  • Access to books, such as libraries as well as books in the home, is also central to reading growth.

Thus, if genuine social and school reform focused on the above, instead of new standards, new tests, and new materials, consider the consequences:

If all children entered schools as literate as most affluent children, the reading program industry would be destroyed.

Just as the market economy of the U.S. depends on poverty to thrive (and thus market forces will never overcome poverty), the reading program industry depends on struggling readers and thus will never seek ways to foster reading among all children.

The choice before us is to continue the masquerade that is Common Core—one that lines the pockets of curriculum consultants, textbook and testing companies, and government bureaucrats—or to make a truly progressive commitment to both the lives and schools of all children, lives and schools that allow learning that seems natural.


LaBrant, L. (1949). A genetic approach to language. Unpublished manuscript, Institute of General Semantics, Lakeville, CT.

LaBrant, L. (1947). Um-brel-la has syllables three. The Packet, 2(1), 20-25.

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant, L. (1940, February). Library teacher or classroom teacher? The Phi Delta Kappan, 22(6), pp. 289-291.

LaBrant, L.L. (1936). The library and “An experience curriculum in English.” The Elementary English Review, 13(8), pp. 295-297, 305.

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). MasqueradingThe English Journal, 20(3), pp. 244-246.

Thomas, P. (2001). Lou LaBrant—A woman’s life, a teacher’s life. Huntington, NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

* For the record, I am not a progressive, and I remain about equally disappointed in traditionalists and progressives in terms of educational practices. When I must acknowledge a label, I am most comfortable with “critical.”

** Without a historical perspective of education, the public may be unaware that at any moment throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, the public and professional claim about reading always includes: (a) children today aren’t reading as much as they used to, (b) our literacy rate is in crisis, and (c) we must make sure that all children can read [insert grade level here; in 2013, 3rd grade is the emergency year].