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Literacy's Democratic Roots

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This week Ralph Fletcher talks with Thomas Newkirk about his new book Literacy's Democratic Roots: A Personal Tour Through Eight Big Ideas.

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In this delightful conversation between two old friends Tom and Ralph discuss the importance of narrative, the resources students bring to any curriculum, and how the marriage of the two is imperative in facing the current challenge to democracy—to bring everyone in, to make everyone welcome.

 

 

Below is a transcript of this episode.

Brett:

The pleasure of storytelling is the entry point for everyone into writing, as well as what propels the writer as they move into different genres.

Hi everyone, I’m Brett from Heinemann. Today we’re hearing from Tom Newkirk about his new book  Literacy's Democratic Roots: A Personal Tour Through Eight Big Ideas.

Tom is interviewed by fellow Heinemann author Ralph Fletcher. In this delightful conversation between two old friends Tom and Ralph discuss the importance of narrative, the resources students bring to any curriculum, and how the marriage of the two is imperative in facing the current challenge to democracy—to bring everyone in, to make everyone welcome.

 

Ralph Fletcher:

So Tom, I read, I think, all of your professional books, and your thinking aligns with me most of the time. So it was fun for me to read your book, because it allowed me to reexamine my own ideas about reading and writing and the language arts classroom. So I found myself asking myself questions about what I really believe, and I think that's one of the values of your book.

There's a couple of great quotes that I wanted to just get your thoughts about. Of course, you talk about it in your book, but just to get you to expound on them a little bit. I love this quote, "The unifying principle for the book comes down to a core belief that as humans, we have the great gift, the great evolutionary achievement of speech and story. It's what we do best, and all literacy instruction needs to honor and build on that gift."

Tom Newkirk:

Well, sometimes I think we treat students, they don't bring in a lot of resources, and particularly the notion of story. I mean, that's central and that's threaded through the whole book. And one of my earlier books is, Minds Made for Stories, and I think our minds are made for stories. So stories are important, both in terms of what students should be allowed to do. And in writing the book, I tried to walk the walk, I tried to have stories be threaded through the book so that I'll maybe introduce a point and then I'll tell a story. So you're going to get a lot of family stories, a lot of Ohio stories that are threaded through this book, to kind of personalize and to ground some of the ideas. So, I think it's what we bring. And I think if we get too far away from story, we just lose contact with human reality. So, story is our home base.

Ralph:

Yeah, I read somewhere that story is the mother of all genre.

Tom:

Yeah, I heard that and I've used that and pretended like I'd invented that, but I'm sure it comes from somewhere else. I say in another part of the book that my advisor used to say his original ideas are those for which he's forgotten the source. And I think that's probably true here. I probably stole that from somebody, but I really think that narrative is the mother of all genres, and all genres really rely on story.

Ralph:

So, I was also struck by the concept of a permeable curriculum. And the way you talk about it is, you say, "Permeability is the openness of the official curriculum that allows some of the unofficial in, so that we can use it in the school-based expectation for writing."

Tom:

Mm-hmm. Well, permeability comes from Anne Dyson who's a researcher who I revere, and so I give her all credit for that one. No attempt to steal that term or pretend that it's totally mine. But I think there's a corollary here that to teach students to write, you have to know something about what they bring in about their loyalties, loyalties to popular culture or experiences they've had that have been central to their lives.

As an example, one of my students when I was teaching writing, I learned early on that she had blown out her knee when she was a junior or senior in high school, I forget which. And knowing that fact, because she rehabilitated and played division one college soccer...

Ralph:

Wow.

Tom:

... which is a tremendous achievement. That was the achievement of her life, that was the event of her life. Knowing that, I could then work with her to design assignments that made sense to her. So, the research project she did was investigating why women are much more vulnerable to ACL injuries, which I didn't know. And it's partly the hip structure so that it creates more pressure on the knee. And so I think she had a good writing experience, but she had it because I was lucky enough to learn that fact early on. So the outside came in, and I could use that knowledge to construct the kind of assignments that she wrote on.

Ralph:

Yeah. And I think that, I mean, you don't really say this exactly in the book, but I think that the underlying subtext is that schools may be oblivious to kids' knowledge that they bring in, and their histories and all that rich information that could really be part of their learning experience.

Tom:

Yeah. And like Don Graves, this task that I'm sure you're familiar with, he would say, "Okay, take your class and first write down all the names of the students in your class, without looking at your roster. Maybe in the first or second week." And when I tried that, there'd be two or three students, I couldn't remember their names. Most of them I'd have down, but there'd be two or three students, I really didn't have their names down. That was something to learn.

Then he said, "Okay, the second column, write something that they know or can do, some talent, some interest. And then the third column say, 'Does that student know that you know that?'" And I thought that was a tremendous exercise, 'cause once you know that information, then you can use it. You can suggest topics. Because often students come in, as you know, and they say, "I don't have anything to write about." But of course they do, they just have to have finding it. And so, knowing these facts about them gives us a chance to help them find that good topic to write about.

Ralph:

Yeah. So Tom, the philosophy in your book, the philosophy that you argue for is very child-centric. I mean, that's the way I read it, and I resonate with that idea. But I guess I wanted to ask you, in a democracy, 'cause sort of the overarching structure that you look at, the literacy classroom, in a democracy, is it also important to help students move beyond the me to understand the other? In other words, isn't part of what schools are about is to help students widen their circles of reference?

Tom:

Oh, I think absolutely. And that's why I don't think I would say it's child-centric, because before, I was saying that it's essentially an exchange. The students bring in interest, passions, but it doesn't end there. It's really the issue that Dewey had to deal with, because Dewey, people read his work as if it was child-centric, as if it's just basically you're accommodating the interest of the child. And basically the role of the... as he was understood or misunderstood, that the role of the teacher is maybe just to be a facilitator.

And I remember talking to Nancie Atwell and others who argued that basically, the role of the teacher has to be more than that. The teacher's not just to facilitate the interest of the student and to accommodate the interest of the student. There is such a thing as a curriculum, and you have expectations, and you have genres that you want students to try out. You want them to learn how to do research, you want them to craft arguments.

So the thing is, that you can't teach those things in isolation from the autobiographical interests of the student. It's a dialectic, it's those things coming together. And the problem is, when you have one part of that dialectic kind of taking control, you say, "Okay, here's the format. Here's the assignment, here's the topic, write on this." Well, you're maybe ignoring the interest of the student. Or you can say, "Okay, pick your own topic, write what you think, enjoy the writing." And if that's the end of it, then you're really ignoring the curriculum.

Ralph:

Yes.

Tom:

So, it's how the two come together.

Ralph:

In chapter four, you talk about the writing process, and there's a section about choice. I explore this idea in my book, Joy Write, the whole issue of choice. So, what do you think? You think choice has become an endangered species in the classroom?

Tom:

I think it's probably always been an endangered species.

Ralph:

The reason I ask... Well, let me just jump back, because it seems like with Common Core, for example, there's more emphasis on having kids write argument and expository informational writing, less about narrative. So, it seems like some of the choice for students has been restricted.

Tom:

Yeah. And I think Common Core is so focused on preparing students for the demands of college and the demands of life, so-called. And so I think that the pleasure in writing kind of gets washed out a little bit, as I read the Common Core. And the focus on reading is to just read harder and harder texts. Which I think in some cases, it's good, particularly if you take a hard text and read it as a class, and let's work through. In eighth grade, let's work through this op-ed piece of the New York Times. I think that's a great thing to do. So I mean, I am totally in favor of some harder texts. But I'm not sure that just giving kids harder and harder stuff is really the answer in our educational system.

So I think that the common core, maybe in a lot of cases, took the pleasure out of writing. And if you don't find a way to make writing pleasurable, to make writing meaningful, in the moment, not just to prepare for the future in the moment, if you'd never experienced that pleasure, I don't think you're ever going to become a writer. You have to experience the pleasure of writing on something you care about, and then the experience of as you're writing, finding that you have things to say that you hadn't anticipated that you're going to say. So the writing takes on a life of its own, just as a reader, when you're getting lost in a book. If you've never had that experience, can you become a reader? I don't think you can, because I think it's always going to be the skill that you wonder why, what's in it for people?

Ralph:

Oh, I really agree. I mean, I think that if students can enjoy reading, for example, they will read at home on their own. If they enjoy writing, they'll write on their own. If they don't enjoy it, I agree that they're going to look at it as something they have to do in school, as little as possible, but they're not going to really immerse themselves into it.

Tom:

Yeah. And it just makes me mad. It makes you mad 'cause writing's this great thing, it's this great possibility. And when you turn it into something disagreeable, something where you feel like you're just vulnerable and somebody's going to correct your errors, it's like you're violating this activity, that to me, has such potential. Has such potential for understanding yourself, understanding the world, and understanding your capacity as a language user.

Ralph:

Can you say something about, I've been thinking a lot about identity as a reader, but mostly as identity in writing. There are certain kids who come to school, going back to the idea of the funds of knowledge. And you can see they have certain identities, like I'm somebody who plays soccer, I'm somebody who really knows how to play these video games, or whatever. But I think part of what we want to do is, we want students to begin to see themselves like, I am a writer. Is that a realistic goal? Is that something that teachers can aspire to in their classrooms?

Tom:

I think we do aspire to, we should aspire to it. And I think that's been the great contribution of people like Don Murray and Peter Elbow. And Peter Elbow, when he collected his essays called it, Everybody Can Write. So I think that there is the goal to democratize writing, everybody can find their way in. We can develop invitations, possibilities to invite you in. And I think you've written about it and other people have written about it, a lot of these free writes where you just kind of take a topic and just write about it for 15 minutes, then share it in the class.

And another thing I've done that I talked about in the book, is when a student writes a piece of writing, often a lot of it's just okay. But often, there's something in it that's really good, a paragraph, a sentence.

Ralph:

Yeah.

Tom:

And one of the things I would do, and I probably didn't do it as much as I should, but I would just stop and read that paragraph as if it's literature, as if I'm reading Shakespeare, as if I'm reading Dickens, to read it to that student and have that student hear it as literature. And just say, "That's really something." And I think hearing that is a way of saying, "Okay, you're a writer because just listen to what you just did. You don't need my approval, Just listen to what you just did."

Ralph:

I had the chance to spend some time with Ralph Peterson in Queens in some classrooms one time. And he would walk around with me and he would read the kids' writing, and he'd say to me and say to the kids, he says, "That's book talk right there. That's book language."

Tom:

Yeah. That's it. That's it.

Ralph:

And he was impressed and he was excited.

Tom:

Yeah. And when they could hear that it's book talk. So it's not just you saying, but they can hear it.

Ralph:

Right.

Tom:

Yeah.

Ralph:

So it's interesting, I think a lot of people who talk about writing, I'm going to sort of go Meta a little bit here, take a step up. A lot of people talk about writing, talk about writing as achievement, the NAEP scores, test scores, adequate yearly progress, all that kind of stuff. I feel like I'm more interested in writing as participation in our democracy. And I try to say that whether or not you go to college or grad school or whatever, or become a novelist, which most people won't, everybody's going to need writing in their lives in different ways. So, I just wanted to get you to react to that. Is my thinking off track in this regard. And you can tell me if it is. But also, is this a false dichotomy between achievement and participation?

Tom:

I think that a lot of what gets tested in tests like that, I'm not sure how significant that is in terms of real life capabilities. So I think often in a testing situation for writing, writing is a hard thing to test, frankly. Because depending on how much knowledge you have about that topic, it's hard to find a topic that everybody has equivalent knowledge about. And then you're putting somebody in a situation where they're getting no feedback. You're putting somebody in a situation where they have some kind of time limit that they're writing on. You can't even talk to somebody while you're writing. You can't look up any facts, usually. You can't do almost everything you do when you write. You're stripping all that away. And then you're going to say, "Okay, this is a measure of how you can write."

So, I mean, I'm sure better writers do better on it than weaker writers. But I think to have real audiences. For example, Jessica Early has a book where she looks at real life genres, the public service announcement. And having students write public service announcements where they're actually using that genre to do some work in the world.

So I think the more you can have situations where you're writing for real audiences, doing real work in the world, I think that's thrilling. Because I think sometimes if the teacher's the only person that reads it, or in some of these essay assignments, if some machine can read it, you know, that doesn't feel very authentic. But if you can have real audiences for your writing and have situations where real people are reading it and maybe acting upon it... If you're speaking before preparing remarks for a school board meeting or something like that, that kind of stuff is so important.

Ralph:

Yes. So I was intrigued by your chapter about story, and as you said, you've written about this before. And one of the things that you say in the chapter is that story is one of those, I don't know, elements that sort of permeates all good writing. But I guess I want to challenge that idea that I've had, and maybe you have a little bit in the book. I just want to ask you, is there also a value in pointing out distinctions between genres and not just commonalities?

Tom:

Oh, yeah. Yeah. I think-

Ralph:

That whole idea that, not this, but that.

Tom:

Yeah. And I think if you're looking... That goes back to what I was talking about, this inductive principle of reading various genres and then identifying the characteristics of those genres. I'm not saying there's no distinction among genres. And I think that there are often subtle distinctions about genres. A book report and a book review are different. And a book review in the certain one journal is different than a book review in a... These distinctions are really important. So I think, absolutely. But I think that there are certain principles that all good writing have. And one of the principles is, you have to sustain the interest of the reader.

Ralph:

Yes.

Tom:

If you're going to have sustained reading, you have to keep the reader moving through what you're writing. How do you do that?

And I think you have to have some kind of plot. And it doesn't necessarily look like a short story, but there has to be some way in which you create expectations or some problem, what Janet Burrows calls trouble. There's some trouble. So, how do you construct writing so that there's movement forward, where there's movement from tension to resolution?

Now I'm thinking that's like a story or kind of plot element that all writing has. Now, people can say I'm misusing the word story, but at least it's a plot that keeps you going. There's a problem that creates anticipation, and there's some kind of resolution of the problem. That's what keeps us going as readers.

Ralph:

So I'm intrigued by this idea of tension or problem and resolution. So, what would you say is the tension and resolution that you're working toward, working out in this book?

Tom:

I think there's a challenge in democracy of bringing everybody in, that that's the promise of democracy, that there's no admissions office in a public school. You come in and you're there, you're admitted. And so we have to find a way as educators, to make everyone welcome. And that's a huge challenge, and we failed in so many ways.

And one of the things I thought was that each of these eight ideas help students find a place in the curriculum. They invite students in, they say, "What you bring in is valid, is useful. It might not be English, it might be Spanish, might be some other language that can be of use. You have these experiences, that can be of use. You have these loyalties to movies or sports, that can be of use. We'll find a way to bring you in to this academic world, to this world of learning. All of you, all of you." So, that's this huge challenge that public education faces.

And when I first started the book, I saw all these ideas as just interesting, important ideas. And the more I worked on it, I think all of these are democratic ideas. So, they're these democratic ideas that can make that being at home in school possible. And then also, I call each chapter a journey, 'cause I knew I couldn't be exhaustive. 20 pages on the writing process, we spent our lives on that, Ralph. Right? But I'm saying, I'm just taking you through this house, and start with the definition I'm going to walk you through some ideas and how they've helped me as a teacher.

So, we're going to walk through this house in 20 pages. And so for me, the idea that is a story, it's almost like a journey, I'm walking you through these rooms. And I've known people who've lived in these rooms, I've known people who built this house, who reconstructed this house. So I hope there's a kind of a story feel to each chapter. Okay, I'm your tour guide. We're taking a walk through this house. Hope you enjoy it.

Ralph:

So I was thinking about writing this book, and again, correct me if I'm wrong, but a book that talks about democracy, that's a big idea.

Tom:

It's a big thing.

Ralph:

And writing this book must have either allowed or almost required you to revisit and reaffirm your beliefs about literacy. But also, did it give you a chance to reaffirm and reexamine your ideas about democracy?

Tom:

Yeah, and about public schooling and democracy. And I think that what's happening now is, public schools are just under such attack. And so if you imagine a headline, "Our Nation's Schools Are", fill in the blank, it has to be failing, if it's a headline. Right?

Ralph:

Yeah.

Tom:

It's just this sense of criticism of public schools or loss of faith in public schools. And to me, there's something incredibly honorable about the mission of public schools. And I think we have to affirm that. And I think often, patriotism or love of country, often, it's co-opted by the right.

Ralph:

Yes.

Tom:

And the flag, just like often the flag seems to be co-opted by the right. And I wanted to wave the flag. I wanted to make the case that these are democratic practices, and to affirm the connection of what we have worked so hard in public schools for our careers. And people before us have worked hard. And this connection to democracy and public education, because it just seems so under attack now. So, I wanted to kind of create my version of patriotism. And at the end of the book, I try to really connect it to my father who fought in World War II. And I think one of the things he fought for and the Americans fought for is freedom and freedom to read. And that was one of the great dividing lines between the United States and the allies and the Nazis who were burning books.

Ralph:

That last part of the book was really powerful, when you talk about your father and the letters that he wrote. I wonder if you could read part of that. Is that possible?

Tom:

Yeah, yeah.

Ralph:

The letter that your dad wrote?

Tom:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, I tell this story, like in the war, my dad, he would be in the New Guinea and the Philippines, and my mom would send him modern library classics. And so, he would be in the jungles of New Guinea reading Proust. And so, the Proust would come back to the house after... When I was a young kid, you'd see these books around with his date, what year he read it, what day he read it.

And even before the war, he was interested in independent reading. So I talk in the book a lot about lineages, ancestors, mentors that came before us. And so my father, he was an orphan, and he grew up in an orphanage, and ended up teaching in this orphanage. He taught science. But he had this study hall at the end of the class. He's about 26 years old, and he has a study hall at the end of the day, and nobody was doing anything. Nothing's changed, right? Study hall, the kids are just sitting there.

So he decided to create a classroom library, and then to encourage kids to read and matched them up with books. Then he monitored what they read. And so, he had some crazy books. He had Ulysses, which had just been cleared for entry into the country, which was not a big hit with his students. But Jack London was, and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which had just been published, was.

And in 1941, he wrote this article called, Adventure into Free Reading, where he describes this reading program, this independent reading program that he'd created. And as kids, we read... dad's article was the first published thing that he'd written. And I thought, "How uncanny that In 1941 as a 26-year-old, he was anticipating the work that we've been so involved with Nancie Atwell and Penny Kittle and independent reading in the classroom library." He certainly hadn't pushed it that far, but he had the germ of that idea.

Ralph:

That's beautiful.

Tom:

So, he wrote this article. And I'll just read the end of it, if that's okay. And it's a weird kind of time travel too, Ralph, because you always kind of think of your parents as older than you are.

Ralph:

Yeah.

Tom:

Right? But at one time, your parents are way younger than we are now. So this is my father as a 26-year-old high school teacher, teaching in this orphanage, arguing for what he called, free reading. "In conclusion, I'd like to say that I believe there's a place for free reading in the high school, a place that provides a class with a supervised study period, a study period relatively free of drill and exercises. A place that possesses a sympathetic supervisor, but mostly a place that contains an enlightened teacher who criticizes a book only after having read it, who is slow to condemn any book, who doesn't hold too tightly to the line between fiction and nonfiction. Yes, especially an enlightened teacher, one who can remember that Carnegie made the library public, that teachers need to make it free."

Ralph:

Beautiful.

Brett:

Thank you to Tom and Ralph for their time. You can order Tom's book, Literacy for Democracy at heinemann.com. Learn more and read a transcript at blog.heinemann.com.


thomasnewkirk-218x300-5

Thomas Newkirk is the bestselling author of Minds Made for Stories along with numerous other Heinemann titles, including Writing Unbound, Embarrassment, The Art of Slow Reading, The Performance of Self in Student Writing (winner of the NCTE’s David H. Russell Award), and Misreading Masculinity. He taught writing at the University of New Hampshire for thirty-nine years, and founded the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, a summer program for teachers. In addition to working as a teacher, writer, and editor, he has served as the chair of his local school board for seven years.

 

ralphfletcher-1-218x300-5

Ralph Fletcher  has been a mentor to teachers and young writers everywhere. He has helped hundreds of thousands of teachers understand the importance of letting go and trusting their writers. Ralph's professional books are part of this tradition.

His newest book, Focus Lessons, helps teachers use the natural links between writing and photography to enhance their instruction. Another recent title, Joy Write, explores the value of giving students time and autonomy for the playful, low-stakes writing that leads to surprising, high-level growth.

Topics: Podcast, Tom Newkirk, Heinemann Podcast, Intervention, Language Arts

Date Published: 10/05/23

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