“I’ve been involved in whole language projects in Cambridge and New York Citybut I’m more excited about the Milwaukee project. The Cambridge and NYC projects were top-down. We had to go convince teachers that whole language was a good idea and that they needed to collaborate. Here I have teachers saying, ‘It’s bottom up. We had to do it. All you have to do is listen to us and support us.’ And we [the administration] promise to be there.” –
Dr. Deborah McGriff, Executive Assistant to Superintendent Peterkin at a pre-service training session on whole language for 100 elementary teachers at North Division High School.
The participating teachers were from the 10 whole language pilot project schools and Fratney Street School, a two-way bilingual, whole language school. Their presence at the inservice and their involvement his year in whole language pilots are the result of persistent work on the part of classroom teachers over the past few years.
Whole language is a name given to an increasingly popular trend in language and reading instruction. Proponents believe that children acquire reading and writing in a way similar to how toddlers acquire oral language – through use in a meaningful context. The whole language classroom is a print-rich environment and situates language learning in the life experience of the students.
The issue of whole language versus a more traditional basal textbook approach came to a head this past spring when the Reading Textbook Evaluation Committee produced both majority and minority reports. The committee’s report recommended the adoption of the McDougal, Littell Reading Literature program in the middle schools and the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Reading Program in the elementary schools.
The minority report, written by three committee members, recommended that teachers be given the option of using either a whole language or basal approach in their classrooms. The minority report also proposed systematic and teacher-led inservicing for those interested in whole language teaching.
Other classroom teachers also organized to voice their support for more creative approaches to the teaching of reading. In testimony before the School Board’s Community Relations and Instruction Committee last February the Ad Hoc Committee for Whole Language Instruction called for the use of emergent reading techniques in kindergarten. A few weeks later the reading committee of the MTEA called for postponement of adoption saying teachers hadn’t had sufficient opportunity to examine the proposed texts.
In May teachers from a variety of groups including Teachers Applying Whole Language (TAWL), Rethinking Schools, the Ad Hoc Committee for Whole Language, and the Milwaukee Kindergarten Association organized a group called the Alliance for Whole Language. The new group called on Dr. Peterkin and the School Board to postpone the basal adoption in the elementary schools, to implement the Minority Report to the Milwaukee Reading Textbook Evaluation Committee, and to give teachers the option of spending money on either workbooks or tradebooks in their classroom.
At its May meeting the School Board postponed action in order to wait for the opinion of the incoming newly-hired Superintendent Peterkin and asked that he be sent both the majority and minority reports.
The last week of school Dr. Peterkin flew in from Cambridge and met with top MPS administrators and representatives of the Reading Textbook Evaluation Committee, including two of the authors of the minority report. Victory Elementary school teacher Mary Ann Padol, who had co-written the minority report, insisted that the whole language option be considered before school recessed for the summer. “If the option is going to be a possibility next fall, we need to know who is interested now,” she argued. Dr. Peterkin agreed and ordered the Curriculum and Instruction Department to conduct a survey.
Survey Showed Support for Whole Language
Despite the fact that the survey was conducted on the last day of school, 43 elementary schools responded, 32 of them expressing interest in being a whole language pilot school.
In late June the School Board made its decision. They adopted the literature based series of McDougal, Littell for middle schools and postponed the adoption of a basal series for the elementary schools. They also directed the administration to establish a whole language pilot program.
During the summer the administration chose 10 of those schools who responded favorably to the survey to be pilots for the 1988-89 school year. Those ten schools are: Bryant, Clemens, Garfield Avenue, Grandview, Hi-Mount, Lincoln Avenue, Lloyd Street, Palmer, Thirty-eighth Street, and Victory.
Although 82 classroom teachers are directly involved in the IO pilots and Fratney Street School, all teachers can benefit from the activities of the whole language proponents this year through the trade book option. The advocates of whole language convinced the Reading Textbook Evaluation Committee to recommend that “elementary teachers should be given the opportunity to indicate to their principal if they wish to use workbooks or spend the equivalent funds to purchase books for their classroom libraries (eg. trade books, big books).” Several School Board members spoke in favor of this option and pressed the administration to implement it. At the August 17th Community Relations and Instruction Committee meeting School Board members Mary Bills, Joyce Mallory, and Tom Pajewski again raised the issue with the administration and 53rd Street teacher Fran Breest questioned the administration’s failure to act on this recommendation.
The administration agreed that it would do so, although in its memo of August 30th to principals it misinterpreted the Board’s decision and implied that the decision had to be school-wide instead of the original intent o( allowing individual teachers to make a professional decision. This was brought to School Board members’ attention who in turn received assurances from Central Office officials that every individual teacher had the right to exercise the tradebook option. “I find it really unfortunate that this significant decision by the Board wasn’t explained clearly or in a timely fashion,” Fran Breest commented. “Some teachers were never informed and others informed too late, after the workbooks had been stamped making it impossible for them to be returned for credit. As a result many teachers who would have chosen to spend the equivalent monies on trade books now face a year of using workbooks.”
The California Reading Initiative
The future of reading instruction remains unclear. A Whole Language Advisory Council is being established with representatives of the pilot schools and Fratney. Its task according to Deborah McGriff, will be to “define what whole language means for Milwaukee Public Schools” and help plan and implement the whole language program in MPS.
Textbook evaluation committees for elementary reading and language arts are also being set up. Whether or not the these committees will have an in depth discussion of approaches to the teaching of reading and alternatives to the basal remains to be seen. One of the reasons the School Board decided to postpone adoption was so that MPS would be able to review the materials prepared for the California adoption last spring. The California legislature passed “The California Reading Initiative” which directed schools to emphasize more holistic approaches and literature in the teaching of reading. A similar framework was established for language arts books as well. Education Week (9/14/88) recently quoted Bill Honig, the California’s superintendent of public instruction as saying “These recommendations give us books with real literature – with real values and ideals – not soft, shallow children’s stories. They restore high quality literature to its key place in the curriculum.” The California recommendations went so far as to suggest the possible requirement that publishers affix a “consumer warning label” to books indicating if the literary works contained within them have been abridged or adapted.
Two years ago an editorial in the first issue of Rethinking Schools urged that teachers, parents and students begin rethinking the basal reader. Much progress towards such a rethinking has taken place. Let’s continue that progress.