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Educational Philosophies and Power in the Classroom


Cynthia Peters

It’s

that time of year. The yellow school buses are back on the road. The stores are

stocked with Disney-theme lunch boxes, pencil cases and loose-leaf paper. Kids

are wondering about their teachers. Parents are worrying about the quality of

education. And educators are arguing about educational philosophies.

One

of the controversies is over the whole language versus phonics approach to

literacy.

Proponents

of whole language believe that the best way to teach reading is to immerse the

child in literature, encouraging a love of books, an emphasis on overall

comprehension (rather than correct syllable-by-syllable “sounding out”), and

confidence that children learn words best in the context of literature (rather

than “drill and kill” flash cards). The whole language reading method

carries over to writing as well, emphasizing fluency and expression over correct

spelling, grammar, and paragraph structure.

Proponents

of a phonetic approach to reading believe that children need tools to help them

decode written words, and that learning the rules of word families, vowel

sounds, the silent E, etc., will make children better readers. Writing skills

are rooted in correct grammar and structure, with less emphasis on expression.

In

liberal circles, whole language is considered progressive, holistic and positive

for all learners. The National Council of

Teachers of English (NCTE), in their promotion of the whole language

approach, say they support “the empowerment of learners and teachers” and

believe that “learning is easiest when it is in authentic contexts, and when

it is functional for the learners.”

The

phonics folks are the bad guys who will submit your child to dictatorial rules

and rote learning. One (perhaps extreme) example of phonics teaching is the

Distar program, which employs a strong teacher-lead behaviorist model to

familiarize children with letter combinations and sounds. Some refer to this

program as fascist. (Delpit, 28)

Enter

into the debate Lisa Delpit – African American scholar, elementary school

teacher, and author of Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the

Classroom. She argues that while whole language purports to be about

empowerment, it actually undermines less privileged children’s ability to gain

access to power. The problem is that “fluency” and “authentic contexts”

and “functional for the learners” are politically charged concepts that mask

power in the classroom and in language.

African

American parents, for example, may have children perfectly fluent in Black

English, their “fluency” evident at home and in their neighborhoods in rap

songs, jump rope games, and storytelling. But those skills will not get them far

in a society where power is brokered using white middle-class American cultural

tools. Middle-class white kids grow up in families and neighborhoods that impart

the skills, cultural cues, and language ability needed to get along in white

society. Black kids go to school for those skills. If they don’t learn them

there, argues Delpit, they are being shortchanged.

Delpit’s

contribution to the debate about whole language versus phonics is that she

recognizes the existence of power in the classroom and in the wider culture.

Unless we acknowledge the existence of that power, and the fact that different

children have different amounts of access to it, we will not see the ways that a

whole language approach to reading and writing can potentially withhold

important tools from underprivileged children. Delpit says, “If you are not

already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules

of that culture makes acquiring power easier.” (Delpit, 24) She adds,

When

I speak, therefore, of the culture of power, I don’t speak of how I wish

things to be but of how they are. I further believe that to act as if power does

not exist is to ensure that the power status quo remains the same. To imply to

children or adults (but of course the adults won’t believe you anyway) that it

doesn’t matter how you talk or how you write is to ensure their ultimate

failure. I prefer to be honest with my students. I tell them that their language

and cultural style is unique and wonderful but that there is a political power

game that is also being played, and if they want to be in on that game there are

certain games that they too must play.

Whole

language proponents have good intentions. They want to foster a lifelong love of

reading, which will in turn foster autonomous learners and thinkers. But

progressive educational philosophies must take into account the existence of

power in the classroom and in society. As one parent demanded of the school,

“My kids know how to be black – you all teach them how to be successful in

the white man’s world” (Delpit, 29). Delpit’s model acknowledges the

importance of biculturalism, which she believes will allow children in the

non-dominant culture to value their native style and language, but at the same

time will equip them with the tools and skills they need to negotiate the

dominant culture. This is an important short-term strategy. It will help the

African American teen have a successful job interview or write the kind of

personal essay that will get him or her into college.

In

the long-term, of course, we need to address the balance of power – finding

ways to fight institutional racism so that white skin, white English, and white

culture are not the only keys for opening doors to power and influence and

privilege. Because, as Delpit argues, “those with power are frequently least

aware of – or least willing to acknowledge – its existence [and] those with

less power are often most aware of its existence,” educators should prioritize

listening to parents in the communities where they teach. Educators battling

over how to teach reading and writing would do well to pause and listen to what

community members have to say about what they want for their children.

Cultivating and truly valuing grassroots participation in the schools would do

more to democratize, diversify and address the existence of power in schools and

society than any single educational philosophy. 

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