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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Fall 92 > Article

Why Johnny Loves to
Read and Read and Read

by Elinor Ruark

If you get the urge to say "Sssssshhhhhhhhhhh," don't bother.
This is not a quiet classroom.
It's not supposed to be, and for a very good reason.

This is a "whole language" classroom, one that blends reading, writing and just about every subject under the sun.

"Reading and writing have become part of all subjects, and the children choose what they want to read and what they want to write about," said third grade teacher Dorothy Rice.

"It is not quiet in a whole language classroom. The children are excited about school. Their attitudes have changed and so have mine," she said. "Often kids do the leading, and we go where they want to go; it's child-centered."

If that sounds like a lot more work for the teacher, it is.

It's meant extra planning -- and no small amount of anxiety -- for the teachers at three Georgia schools who chose to adopt the "whole language" principles espoused by the UGA Education Initiative, a research program funded in part by a $1 million Coca-Cola Foundation grant to infuse new teaching techniques into schools.

"To me, `whole language' means trying to teach children in a way so subjects aren't broken apart," said Rice, who teaches at Jackson County's Benton Elementary School. "For instance, if the month's theme is Native Americans, you can teach literature through legends, and science through astronomy, because the Indians studied the stars; you can tie in symbols and maps, weather and communication skills."

All this may sound like what educators might call "reform." But it's really not, cautions Dr. Joel Taxel, director of the UGA Education Initiative.

It's "co-reform."

"Co-reform is a new term; it's the notion that education simultaneously has to change on two fronts: schools and teacher education programs," Taxel said. "The idea is that students from new teacher education programs will practice teach in schools undergoing change."

That's why the initiative extends beyond elementary schools and into teacher education classes in the UGA College of Education.

"Student teachers and experienced teachers are reinforcing each other in positive ways. Not only are experienced teachers mentoring college students, but our students are sharing new ideas with their mentors," Taxel said. "This is the way reform must work; it must move in both directions."

The UGA Education Initiative's co-reform effort has moved on three fronts:
-- To renew and change instruction in three elementary schools: Benton and South Jackson Elementary in Jackson County and Chase Street Elementary in Clarke County.
-- To create an alternative early childhood education program in the UGA College of Education.
-- To encourage formal research by classroom teachers and coordinate research among teachers, university faculty and graduate students.

That requires a commitment to alternative ideas. One of the program's objectives is that schools that enter into a UGA initiative partnership must consent to major changes in all aspects of their operation.

For instance, take Benton Elementary. In the first year of the program, Benton focused on improving literacy, involving the existing College of Education Dean's Task Force on Literacy.

Then, assisted by the UGA Program for School Improvement, Benton teachers voted to adopt a system of shared-governance, which would involve teachers directly in decisions about curriculum and other issues central to running the school.

One of those decisions was to change the way Benton's teachers teach, switching to thematic and whole language teaching and away from a traditional, structured curriculum.

"One of the by-products of highly structured, commercially produced curriculum materials has been the `de-skilling' of teachers," Taxel said. "These materials call for little planning on the part of teachers.

"One of the most serious consequences of de-skilling is that when teachers begin making their own decisions about curriculum, their level of anxiety rises significantly," he said. "In dramatic contrast to the regimented nature of (traditional) textbook-based instruction, whole language, thematic teaching is fluid and indeterminate. Teachers must learn to use their students as curriculum informants to plan instruction."

Repeatedly, Benton teachers asked the task force to "tell us how to do it." Teachers were eager to do something different, but without specifics, they became anxious, even angry sometimes, Taxel said. Consequently, many teachers felt that university faculty simply were not giving them the answers they needed.

But now, three years later, Benton students work happily in classrooms where the teacher's desk is pushed into a corner and where students gather at tables to work. Many children don't like being out of school; they might miss something. And substitute teachers sometimes get less that an A in performance from the children; "The substitute doesn't always know that the children are allowed to sit on the floor to read," Rice said.

Children in Rice's class keep "helping journals," writing down how they've helped someone or how someone has helped them. The class does almost no work sheets. The whole evaluation system has changed, moving to running records and portfolios, cumulative writing folders and oral appraisals. Third grade teachers at Benton select a theme for the month, then each creates work plans for a week.

"Everything ties together," Rice said. "This way we teach viewpoints and high-level thinking skills. We're trying to get these children to think."

And while teachers work on elementary students' thinking skills, the initiative team is prodding teachers to do research in their classrooms.

"Teachers often see research as something professors do that has nothing to do with them," said Dr. JoBeth Allen, a language education professor. "Getting the teachers involved gives them a sense of professionalism. Whole language requires that teachers be curriculum-makers, so they begin to see research as a tool to make them more effective teachers."

Some teachers work alone; others form research teams. Still others collaborate with university professors and graduate students. Dr. Frances Hensley at the university monitors and coordinates the research so that others can benefit from it.

"Research is very labor-intensive on top of a job that's already time-consuming," Allen said. "For that reason, research teams change and the level of involvement in the projects shifts among teachers, UGA faculty and doctoral students."

UGA education faculty also have begun to change education courses for student teachers. This year they began a pilot program in early childhood education to improve integration of courses and fieldwork. Course work in whole language, for example, parallels the in-service training programs offered to Benton and South Jackson teachers.

According to Dr. Stephen White, associate professor of elementary education, the new program allows more input from teachers, more linkage between college courses and what is happening in the schools, and allows student teachers to spend more time in schools.

"This won't take the place of the existing teacher education program, but it offers student teachers an alternative," White said.

Future actions of the initiative will move away from an exclusive focus on literacy and begin work on science, mathematics and social studies, Taxel said. Plans call for new pilot sites and programs in secondary education.

In other words, the UGA Education Initiative will be expanding -- probably making more classrooms a little noisier and more students excited about school. And teachers will be trying to make "co-reform" succeed where "reform" has failed.

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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