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ON THE PODCAST: The Dispatch with Katie Kelly and Lester Laminack

The Dispatch: A Heinemann Podcast Series

Welcome to The Dispatch, a Heinemann podcast series. Over the next several weeks we'll hear from Heinemann thought leaders as they discuss the most pressing issues in education today. In this episode, we hear from co-authors and longtime friends Katie Kelly and Lester Laminack about the importance of treating teachers like the professionals they are and celebrating the incredible work they do. Our conversation begins with Lester's reflection on his 46 years in education, and his counter metaphor to the pendulum metaphor we so often hear.


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Below is a full transcript of the episode:

 

Lester Laminack:

Why do we feel the need to constantly point out the flaws in something? It degrades the profession. It degrades confidence of the public in the profession. It takes the professionals and demeans them to the place where we now have the largest exodus of teachers in US history.

Edie:

Hi, this is Edie. Welcome to The Dispatch, a Heinemann podcast series. Over the next several weeks, we'll hear from Heinemann thought leaders as they discuss the most pressing issues in education today. In this episode, we hear from co-authors and longtime friends, Katie and Lester about the importance of treating teachers like the professionals they are and celebrating the incredible work they do. Our conversation begins with Lester's reflection on his 46 years in education, and his counter metaphor to the pendulum metaphor we so often hear.

Lester:

I think right now that tension is felt very heavily by people who are in classrooms and those who prepare teachers and those who work in school districts. And I think that pressure comes from intense media attention. So people couch that in the phrase of a reading war. And I think war is a really severe way of describing that because I don't see teachers at war with one another. I don't see college professors at war with one another. Academics by nature debate ideas and challenge one another's thinking. That's the nature of their work. But it isn't a war. I think that's a media constructed piece that has placed a hyper focus for the public on how we teach reading. And so this is my 46 year as an educator. I began teaching first grade in 1977 and have taught a number of things and ended my career as a teacher in the university. And since 2005, I've been working as an author and a consultant.

In those 46 years, I have watched this debate are one, like this one emerge about four times. So people talk about the issues with that debate being like, oh, the pendulum is swinging back to this and away from that, whatever, this and that are, point A, point B. It can't be a pendulum. If it were a pendulum, we're simply moving from what we used to do to what we're doing, which is what we used to do before we did what we used to do. So we'd just be moving back and forth between the same things, which would make all of us pretty stupid. There would be no evolution of your thinking. There would be no change in our practice. It would just be moving between this and this constantly. So I reject the notion of a pendulum.

Edie:

We're much smarter than that.

Lester:

I agree.

Edie:

Yeah.

Lester:

I think it's more like a Ferris wheel. And so just a picture a Ferris wheel someplace in an amusement park, it's a giant round circle. And if you think about its laid out pretty much like the face of a clock. And you've got major positions like 12, 3, 6, 9, all the little hash marks for the seconds going around. And every one of those is a car on the Ferris wheel. So there is always one car that for a while is in the 12 o'clock position. There's always one car that for a while is in the three o'clock position, the six o'clock position, the nine o'clock position.

So as an analogy, I would argue that what's in the 12 o'clock position is the new it thing. It's what's getting all the public attention. It's the current new best way to do something. What's in the three o'clock position is the former best way of doing something, something that is gradually falling out of favor. And now in the six o'clock position, it's something that used to be in the 12 o'clock position that is now rejected as, "I can't believe we used to do that." "Oh, I hope I didn't harm children when I did that in my third grade classroom." And then there's something in the nine o'clock position that is being retooled, tweaked, reorganized, researched, and is slowly on the rise. Now, if you've been around long enough, you've watched that Ferris wheel make full spins, and it takes anywhere between five and 10 years, usually about a 10-year span to make a full circle.

But what we understand, if we look at the notion that how we teach, what we teach, what we think about, how we teach should be like any other professional practice ever evolving, ever-changing. So when something comes up, the thing that's at the three o'clock, we'll eventually make it back to the nine o'clock and we'll come back around to the 12 o'clock, but it will not be the same as what it was when it was in the 12 o'clock slot. It'll be revisited. It will have had all that time floating around to examine what was argued against it, what was put forth as the flaws with it. And it'll fine tune, refine, repackage, because we're arguing basically about two different ways of approaching the teach of reading. And in doing that, what we see is that moving around and refining itself, and there's every little variation, little nuance between the pieces.

I like the idea of the Ferris wheel because when you look at that circle and it's always evolving, every single car is attached to the same hub by a spoke, and those spokes touch a hub. So you could ask 15 different people if this analogy works for you, what's the hub? And they might give you different answers. But since I'm making up the analogy, the hub for me is kids. I believe that everybody sitting in any car on that Ferris wheel believes with all their being that what they are advocating is the best thing for kids. And they pull their body of research, they pull their set of practices, they pull their set of materials to the forefront and say, "If you just did this, it'd be best for kids."

But no one is willing to say, wait a second, if we stand back, if we move up to the edge of the fairgrounds and we look at the Ferris wheel, wow, it's one giant big thing. All of the pieces are present. If we would talk to one another. I'm not arguing this is right, this is wrong. I'm not arguing, oh, we should just throw it all in one big bath. I'm arguing that we should pay attention.

Edie:

And that some of that, not couching it as a war, but as a conversation with each other, no matter what car you're in, it feels like that would bring more focus to the center of the hub.

Lester:

And to recognize, for me, I think as somebody who's played with this for 46 years, if you talk more than a year, then no one thing works for every kid. And when we start arguing, the argument always focuses on what's wrong. We always, all the news focuses on what's not working in education. The first election for president I was old enough to vote in is the election that put Jimmy Carter in office. So every year since then, I've paid attention to presidential elections. I have never heard a candidate for president stand up and say, "I am running for President of the United States of America, and I am proud of what we do with our educational system." Every single one of them in my history has said, "Education in this country needs work and I'm going to fix it."

Why do we feel the need to constantly point out the flaws in something? It degrades the profession. It degrades confidence of the public in the profession. It takes the professionals and demeans them to the place where we now have the largest exodus of teachers in US history and no one wanting to be a teacher. It's not because we took people out into the workforce because we took people out into wars. It's because no one wants to teach. Why? Because we have made it sound like the worst job on the globe.

Edie:

And I know, Katie, you wanted to speak to that a little bit today.

Katie Kelly:

Yeah, that might be a good place for me to jump in.

Edie:

Thank you, Lester.

Katie:

I think there's this... Yes, thank you. There's this narrative around teaching that it's the most underpaid profession. And yeah, that's true. Teachers don't make a lot of money. But I think part of the reason why teachers are leaving the field and why teachers are not entering the field, which I see directly as somebody who works in higher education, is not about the money. I mean, we knew that going into education, right? You don't go-

Edie:

It's not a secret.

Katie:

You don't go into teaching to make the big bucks. You go into teaching because you truly believe in children and making a difference in their lives and in the world. And so I think really folks are leaving the profession because of the de-skilling and the de-professionalization that's happening with teachers right now.

I have not been teaching for 46 years, but I've been teaching for 26 years. We have 20 year difference between us. And so I too have seen differences in how we approach things. But I have never, in my experience, seen such a heavy emphasis on scripted instruction. There were times in my career where I was in a district and we had different programs that were adopted, but there was always a sense of teacher autonomy where we were viewed as professionals to make the decisions that were appropriate to meet the needs of our students. And so one of the things I've always thought about is how we teach kids, we don't teach programs. But we are in a place now where there is this heavy emphasis on very skills-based instruction, and following a script with fidelity and this idea that everybody should be teaching the same thing at the same time, which is what's coming out of what Lester was talking about with this current movement in education.

And what concerns me most about that is this tension between what is best for children and all of these voices that are coming from places outside of the classroom, outside of the school building from legislation, from people and positions of power, in politics. I mean, education is very political, and we have seen the ways in which historically political movements have influenced the kinds of things that are happening in the classroom. For instance, when Sputnik went up, it was this fear that the US isn't quite where it needs to be. We need to beef up what we're doing. In 1983 and Reagan's Nation at Risk, that came out. And then even Obama era with Race to the Top, it was always just never, like Lester said, are we doing amazing things? There's something missing we need to do better. And so it creates this sense of we've got to fix it and we don't need to fix kids. We don't need to fix teachers.

There's this focus on blaming when really I think what we need to do is look at the system and the way in which it is almost like force-feeding this kind of curriculum and these ideas, and it's coming from the outside, not the inside. It's not student-centered. It's not teacher-centered. I think that is one of the tensions that teachers are experiencing where they feel that they can no longer do what is best to meet the needs of kids.

Whether that's the scripted curriculum or the limitation of access to books in the classroom, how are we going to create engaged, motivated, lifelong readers if they don't have access to materials that interest them, where they can see themselves in the pages of the books, where they can, you were talking about war, when we are in a place in our world right now where we are not seeing eye to eye, where there are so many differences among us and we're not willing to sit down and have conversations, books can be such a powerful place for children to see someone who is unlike them, somebody who lives somewhere around the world, somebody who has different ideas and different perspectives.

And there is research that shows that reading fiction specifically builds empathy. But if we don't give kids access to books, they are not going to feel validated. They're not going to see other ways of being. And therefore I really fear that we are going to be become even more, what's the word I want to use? This chasm, separated, divided. So yeah, the censorship that's happening I think is another piece of these tensions. It's like how do you engage readers if you don't have access to books? And that too is very political. There's no-

Edie:

Access to books.

Katie:

Yes. And the censorship and the book banning movement that we're in right now. We've always had censorship, censorship is not new, but to the extent in which they are pulling books off the shelves in schools and in public libraries is like something we have not seen before. And I have concerns about the ways in which we are moving to this very skills-based approach where frankly, anyone can pick up these programs and read a script.

Edie:

Can you define that a little bit when you say skills-based? And you say script-based, are you using those sort of synonymously or...

Katie:

In some cases, yes.

Edie:

Okay.

Katie:

Not always, but the scripted curriculum is something that somebody could pick up and read like a robot. You don't have to have the skills and the knowledge about teaching nor about children because there's this notion that anyone can pick this up and do this. This is what I mean by kind of the de-professionalization and de-skilling, and that there's this misconception that there is this one-size-fits-all approach. So I think those are two big pieces. In addition to these challenges of the current iteration of the reading war is the scripted approach that really leaves little wiggle room for teachers to have the autonomy to make the decisions that are best for students, student-centered teaching and learning. And then how do you teach reading when you don't have access to high-quality literature?

Lester:

And the one-size-fits-all, the scripted program is to make sure that we control the teachers so that you don't bring in anything that is not on this line. And so again, you have people leaving because they're not getting to be teachers.

Katie:

Teachers.

Lester:

So we are putting teachers in a position where they have knowledge, they have credentials, but they're not given the authority to use their knowledge of the child. This child is not understanding. Left to my own devices, I would pull these materials and I would help build those concepts and that vocabulary. I would help them make sense of something. But I'm afraid to make that call. And so if we de-skill teachers, if we take away their autonomy, if we remove the notion that you have a professional credential, that this actually is a profession, and then your job is to come in here and to dispense curriculum that someone else has thought through for you, sequenced for you as if every child should learn in the same way.

Edie:

So I'm going to pivot a little bit. I mean, what banned books are you both reading right now? No, but truly, what's on your bookshelf? What are your influences right now?

Katie:

Yeah, in fact, Lester and I were talking about how we both, I mean obviously no surprise, we both love books, right?

Edie:

Yeah.

Katie:

And we both have this never-ending to read stack. So many books to read. But I like to think about it whenever people ask this question, what I just finished, what I'm reading now and what's on the to read list stack, but we don't have enough time for that 'cause that stack is huge.

Edie:

Can I get it from you after this?

Katie:

Yes, of course. Absolutely. So I just finished a book called Compassionate Conversations, How to Speak and Listen From the Heart. And this is a book that's written by three professional mediators. And I chose the book because, one, I want to learn how to engage in these kind of compassionate conversations, particularly when I'm interacting with folks who may have different ideas than I do, which frankly, that's going to be everybody, right? As you're saying, we're all unique. We all have our own ideas, but I guess more so when we're talking about very polarizing issues and where we might disagree on things, I personally would like to learn more skills for how to engage in those kinds of conversations. So there's that lens, reading it through the personal reader's angle, but also from a teacher's perspective. I wanted to read that book so that I can help educators help children engage in these kinds of compassionate, critical conversations.

One of the things that I've been thinking about, and this connects with what we were just chatting about, one of the things that I've been thinking about is how I don't think we are doing enough work in the classrooms today, whether that's K-12 or even in higher ed, with helping young people to simply engage with one another, to engage in meaningful conversation, to truly actively listen. And I don't know, maybe there's research out there that supports this, I don't know. But I suspect that perhaps the pandemic played a little role in this. We all kind of had to shelter in place and really were truly in our own spaces. And when we were connecting with others, it was over the phone or on Zoom. And so what I'm noticing is with our younger students who are first year sophomore students and at the university level, they very rarely look at one another. When somebody is speaking, there's just always kind of down and looking at their phones or in their computers, and I literally have to teach them what it looks like.

Edie:

Because it is a skill.

Katie:

Right, right.

Edie:

I mean, I've even thought about that... I mean, haven't traveled to a national conference since the pandemic, and it's a skill, and I really felt that being here. So just remembering that it is one.

Katie:

So simply how do we talk with one another, and then how do we talk with one another, particularly when it's hard and uncomfortable. I think sometimes it's easier to just avoid it and sweep it under the rug and not talk about things, which I don't think is helping in any way. So that was kind of what inspired me to want to read that book. What have you read recently? I just took over Edie's job. Sorry.

Edie:

Please do. I love it.

Lester:

I have this incredible habit of seeing something on social media that this person that I admire is just reading this book and I have to have it. So without thought, you order that book and then you get it and it's like, wow, this is really thick. And it's like, I can't read that this weekend, and I have to fly someplace on Monday. I'll put it in the stairwell,

Edie:

The growing pile.

Lester:

Yeah. I told my husband the other day, I was like, "I need six months off to read these books, to do nothing but just read these books." So what I've done, I took a little step back from reading professional books because I need some space. I need to kind of clear my head and get my thoughts straight and then stepped back into it.

Edie:

In a very human way, right?

Lester:

Yeah. I am rereading a book by Roy Peter Clark called Murder Your Darlings, which is about looking at your own writing process and becoming conscious of things you rely on too much and realizing, you should pull this out. As a southerner, I have a habit of using the word just, like, "You could just put that over there." You don't need the word just in the sentence, but I write as I speak, and I just picked up, and we'll start The Caretaker, which is written by Ron Rash. And Ron Rash is an Appalachian writer, a New York Times bestseller, actually. And he has a new book out, and I've read everything he's written.

Edie:

Oh, you have?

Lester:

And he was one of my son's writing teachers, so I follow his work. And so when I saw there was a new one, I picked it up. But those are those things, and I think sometimes we forget this with kids, the idea that sometimes the reading you do is just to step away from life. And I know that people who see you in a conference or something think, "Oh, you must have read every professional book about everyone here," and you try to, but there are times when it just gets so intense that you just have to sort of unplug from that for a bit and step away. Or you get to the place where you feel like, "I just can't read another page."

But when you fall inside a story, then the world... You live in Ireland for that book, and you live in Ireland in the 1800s, and you follow four generations through to something, and all of a sudden you put the book down and look out the front door and go, "Oh, it's 2023 and my dryer just went off. I've got to go fold the laundry."

Edie:

Oh my gosh.

Lester:

Those people didn't even have a dryer. And it just kind of puts you back in the world. And I think there were times when you need a little fiction break.

Edie:

Absolutely, yeah.

Lester:

So that's sort of where I am at the moment.

Edie:

Absolutely. It's one of the great joyous outcomes of learning to read, is that. So, yeah.

Katie:

The book that I'm reading currently is the book that I brought on the plane with me, so I haven't gotten too far into it. And it is one of those books that I have to pause and ponder a lot because it's nonfiction. It's called Punished for Dreaming by Bettina Love, and Bettina Love is brilliant.

Lester:

Brilliant.

Katie:

Literally, I mean, I find myself reading a sentence and just stopping and letting it linger. I think this is going to be a book that's going to take me a while to process. And so she writes about her school experiences and she writes about basically Reagan era, education policy and how it was very harmful for Black students specifically. And so it's just one of those books that it's like, dang, I can see the history of the ways in which we've done school and the ways in which politics have affected the lives of so many people, and how that's carrying over to today.

Edie:

When we're thinking about how we do school now, and across the broad spectrum of education, really, my last question for you today is what are you excited about? What gives you hope?

Katie:

Can I start? Well, I'll say being at this conference always brings me hope. Just being around other educators who are so passionate and excited and are here for all the right reasons. Every year when I come to NCTE, and especially now that we're back in person, it just fills my cup to be around people who are doing such great things. And I think of the quote by Amanda Gorman. She says, "There is always light if only we're brave enough to see it, if only we're brave enough to be it."

And that's how I feel about the teachers and the educators who are out there doing this work. We have to be brave enough to not only empower ourselves, but to empower our students to go out there, to take action, to take a stand, to do what's right. And I think what gives me hope are the young people, the young people like Amanda Gorman, who's the youngest inaugural poet, and the young people, the kids we featured in our book in Reading to Make a Difference. And so young people, the way they band together, the way that they want to make this world a better place, and the teachers who create spaces in their classrooms for them to be able to do that kind of critical inquiry work, that's where the meaningful reading and writing and discussion happens. And that's where I think not only they're going to grow as readers and writers, but as human beings who ultimately strive to make this place a better world for all of us.

Edie:

That's true.

Lester:

First, I would say that whenever I'm doing a presentation like a keynote or PD, I always start by saying, "Thank you for being here." And I used to say that, "Just thank you for being here with me in this room." Now I pause and say, "Thank you for being here, not just here, but for being here in this profession at this time when so many people are leaving, you have chosen to stay." The fact that there are people who continue to stay tells me that they understand their job is bigger than some of the ridiculous things that are happening, and they have hope and they have faith that they can make a difference by being present and by leaving is an admission of this is hopeless. Their presence is hope.

My granddaughter brings me hope. She's seven. She believes that when she says the word spiders, the garage door opens automatically because I have a remote in my pocket and she's never seen it. She holds the notion that words are magical, and she suspends logic even though she's seven and understands that some of those things can't be real. At my house, that word opens the garage door. She's full of wonder. She's not afraid of curiosity. She loves openly and deeply. All of her little friendship circles, there is no such thing in her head as categories. No. Seven-year-olds love who they love and they have deep abiding friendships, and they hurt when their friends are hurt.

Humanity gives me hope. The notion that pieces of childhood that are most precious are the pieces that are untainted by the adult world, and that they give us an opportunity to look at who we could be if we got greed out of our way. And so it's children who give me hope. The fact that it rains, that the sun rises every morning, that the rivers continue to flow, that old birds die in new ones come back, that the tree turns green every spring and gorgeous ruby red in the fall, gives me hope. There's evidence that everything moves through some sort of renewal cycle. I have to believe that where we are is in a place that is putting us on the edge of renewal. You get to the end of something for renewal to happen. So I am waiting for the renewal and I believe it is coming.

Edie:

Thank you for tuning in to this podcast series. We would love to hear from you. And specifically, we'd love to hear what you think are the most pressing issues in education today. Please reach out to us anytime at podcast@heinemann.com. For more information and a full transcript, please visit blog.heinemann.com.

Reading to Make a Difference_Book Cover

 

Katie and Lester are co-authors of Reading to Make a Difference: Using Literature to Help Students Speak Freely, Think Deeply, and Take Action.

 

 

 


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katiekelly

Katie Kelly is an Associate Professor of Education and Coordinator of the Literacy Graduate Program at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina where she teaches literacy methods for elementary learners, literacy assessment and instruction, and practicum with an emphasis on literacy coaching. As a former elementary teacher and literacy coach, Katie’s teaching and research interests include teacher preparation and development in the area of engaging literacy instructional practices with emphasis on children’s literature, diversity, inclusion, and social justice. She examines ways to engage diverse learners through culturally relevant practices that value all individuals while fostering compassionate global citizens who advocate for social justice and equality. Additionally, Katie is interested in exploring ways to integrate technology to mediate literacy practices to prepare today’s global learners.

Katie consults with schools across the United States and is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English. She serves as a coeditor for NCTE’s Early Childhood Education Assembly Journal Perspectives and Provocations. Katie is an active member of the International Literacy Association, contributes regularly to the ILA Literacy Daily Blog, and serves as a reviewer for a number of journals including English Journal (NCTE), Voices From the Middle (NCTE), Reading Horizons, Journal of Teacher Action Research, Georgia Journal of Reading, and Texas Journal of Literacy Education.

lesterlaminack

Lester L. Laminack is Professor Emeritus at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina where he received two awards for excellence in teaching. Lester is now a full-time writer and consultant working with schools throughout the United States and abroad. He is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English and has served three years as coeditor of the NCTE journal Primary Voices and as editor of the Children’s Book Review Department of the NCTE journal Language Arts (2003–2006). He also served as a teaching editor for the magazine Teaching K–8 and wrote the Parent Connection column (2000–2002). He is a former member of the Whole Language Umbrella Governing Board, the Governing Board and Secretary of the North Carolina Association for the Education of Young Children, and the Board of Directors for the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking. He served as the Basic Reading Consultant to Literacy Volunteers of America from 1987 through 2001 and is a former member of the Board of Directors of Our Children’s Place. Lester has served as editor (2017) of the Writing Department for the ILA Journal Reading Teacher.

Lester currently lives in Whittier, North Carolina with his husband Steve and their two dogs, Bailey and Sora. They are the proud grandparents of an adorable little girl named Everette. You can connect with Lester on his website, LesterLaminack.com

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Lester Laminack, Katie Kelly, Reading To Make a Difference, podcasts

Date Published: 03/21/24

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