Bridging the Gap: Whole Language, Inclusion, and Critical Social Action

Rich Gibson, San Diego State University

January 2001

These are times that test the core of every education worker. The rise of standardized high-stakes exams, school takeovers, vouchers, discrete phonics instruction, the corporatization of schools, all combine to call into question what it is we are and what we stand for. The unfortunate collaboration of both teachers' unions and many professional organizations in these international trends has caused pause throughout the education community. The underlying complex processes of intensifying inequality, segregation, authoritarianism, and irrationalism (nationalism, racism, sexism, etc.) often seem overpowering, a series of small bullets coming in fast unison, so fast that it feels as if ducking one creates dozens of wounds from others. How shall we keep our ideals and still teach-and learn? 

The order demanded by authorities, absent freedom, is tyranny. Calls for teamwork are more and more clearly calls for what amounts to the corporate state, the unprincipled unity of business, government, and labor bosses; not democratic citizenship. 

In the past four years, the impact of being a common target caused several members of distinct educational movements to consider the interdependence that has always stood behind the struggle for knowledge, reason, and social justice. The Whole Language, Inclusion, and Critical Pedagogy members began to work together, and to re-discover their natural unity. 

The Whole Language Movement has always been an insurgency imbued with dangerous notions: the unity of people over segregation, the struggle for meaning over the imposition of dogma, the relationship of totality to discrete parts, kindness over cleverness. For a time, however, many people within the Whole Language Movement saw their outlook as simply a teaching method, one that stood outside politics. The Inclusive Education Movement has always been a budding uprising as well. Located within special education, the idea of inclusion can threaten career paths at all levels. Isolated because of persistent discrimination, the members of a movement that says all kids should be sitting next to each other in school, felt quite alone. At the same time, however, some professorial leaders of what was seen as the decidedly political side of education, the critical pedagogy movement, became so divorced from the material world around them that they began to write in ways which reflected a view that suggested that things are incomprehensible, and probably unchanging.

Perhaps born in the same well-springs, the three movements diverged so completely that they lost sight of one another. A few well-known individuals from each camp tried to stay in touch, or it might be better to say they stood above their camps and reached out to school-workers, parents, and students with offerings that demonstrated the inseparability of political work, whole language, and critical teaching. Among this group, for me, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Gerald Coles, Patrick Shannon, Susan O'Hanian, Carol Edelsky, David Hursh, Gerry Oglan, Michael Peterson, Valerie Pang, and Wayne Ross stand out. 

The Rouge Forum was born in this mix. The Rouge Forum is simply an organizational effort to bridge the gap between education and organizing for social change, a group of people who see the need for common support, the validity of the old saw that an "Injury to one goes before and injury to All." The Rouge Forum seeks to build relationships across disciplines, age , sex, ability, class and race barriers, to take up the vital issues of the day, addressing the equation that Jean Anyon describes: Trying to reform schools without reforming the social and economic situations the schools sit in is like cleaning the air on one side of a screen door.

Starting with a group of three people, in 1996 at Wayne State University in Detroit, we now count an informal membership of more than 1500. Membership in the Rouge Forum has always been casually free, and Rouge events are designed to be low or no-cost. There is no formal "line" of the Rouge Forum. Members range from those who tie the struggle in schools to the struggle against capitalism, to those who see the segregation of labeled kids as the crux to understanding social change. Our membership is primarily in Michigan, New York state, and California. However, we have active members in Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Grenada, and South Africa. Rouge Forum leaders have never been paid for their work, other than occasional cost for travel. The Rouge Forum structure has always been loose. Our meetings, Forums, have been multi-day interactive dialogues involving hundreds of people. Since part of the effort has been to start conversations and to explore possibilities for common action, leadership has not been formalized beyond the issue: those that lead are recognized as leaders. With our growing membership, we are in the process of creating a more formal structure, one that will reflect our egalitarian and democratic goals-offering each member a way to lead. 

In the process of the work, we have deepened our understandings of the inseparable links of whole language, special education/inclusion, the struggle to gain and test knowledge in a reasonably free and caring atmosphere, and the need to strive for change: democracy and equality. The attack on whole language, via phonics-based drilling and standardized exams, is always an attack on inclusion and democratic teaching. One of the first consequences of the Big Test is to get rid of the kids labeled with disabilities, to deepen instructional and practical segregation. 

Let me try to weave together details of the relationships of whole language, inclusion, and critical pedagogy that are, perhaps, obvious to others but became more clear to us through our practical work. 

Whole Language is not just another way to teach literacy. This denies the radical potential of whole language which lies in: 

1. Its opposition to one-size-fits-all education,

2. Emphasis on collaboration-collectively within a relationship of individualized instruction,

3. Is inherent attacks on race/class-based tracking, 

4. Its ability to open up class time, a key struggle for any educator, 

5. Its opposition to racist/class-based tests and basals,

6. The shift in the center of meaning. There is more than one interpretation-which necessarily assails the development of official knowledge and methods of knowing,

7. The linkage of real language with real consequences-yet Whole Language is attacked for lacking rigor and relying on spontaneity, 

8. Offering some decision-power to kids, parents-an inquiry process that cannot be contained by pre-determined endings, 

9. Vision of knowledge as collective rather than individual property,

10. Linkage of theory/practice-the word and the world. Learning demystified, brought back to human construction,

11. Sees knowledge as integrated - interrelated. Whole language is Issue Rich, analyzes issues, locates kids in their material world, 

12. Whole language re-skills school workers and gives them greater control of the processes of their work, assailing alienated labor. 

Frequently in tandem with Whole Language, critical pedagogy believes: 
1. Ideas are socially constructed . All knowledge is political, not neutral. 
a. Education in the midst of inequality is intensely political and partisan-contested terrain. 
b. Schools are vast markets, often warehouses for kids, and recreate unequal social conditions. 
c. Schools are also centers of hope for democratic equality--and resistance. 
2. Knowledge-building is stamped with the brand of class, race, false constructions of ability, and sex. 
a. Formal education systems are frequently designed to reproduce class relationships and create people who are instruments of their own oppression. 
b. Yet there is always room to struggle for what is true, to gain and test knowledge. 
3. All teaching presupposes a view of the past, an analysis of the present, a vision of the future-and is imbued with a call to action. So, teachers take sides, some as missionaries for privilege, others on the side of the needs democracy and equality. 

4. Critical pedagogy seeks to: 

a. Unmask domination, and justice, through social inquiry. It makes the natural a question. 
b. Offer people methods to be agents able to gain and test knowledge on their own. 
c. Demonstrate the liberating nature of collective inquiry and action.
d. Raise questions for reflection, and conditions for practice, so ideas and practices can change. Education becomes experimental and exploratory. 
e. Forges unity of learners (leadership based on a sense of respect and equality). 
f. Encourages people to examine the contradictions of their own surroundings. What are our problems? Are our problems similar? Where do they come from? What can we do? 
g. Authority is rooted in respect and extended knowledge, not sheer domination. Leadership is earned-and earned again. 
h. Dialogue is used to gain and test the understanding of interrelated, interdependent, yet contradictory ideas. Unity through struggle. 
i. Demonstrate that knowledge is partial - a momentary grasp of ever-changing reality. 
5. Theory into practice into theory. People are asked to take positions and rationally support them. 

6. From the people to the people. Knowledge is drawn from, and taken beyond, the classroom. Hence the community, especially poor and working class communities, plays a pivotal role in a critical classroom. 

7. At base critical pedagogy values: 

a. Material equality,
b. Political democracy,
c. Importance of leadership as a relationship, not as an order,
d. Centrality of education and consciousness in practical social change. 

While Whole Language practitioners have sometimes forgotten their radical roots, there have been serious weaknesses in critical pedagogy's practice-and theory. In some instances (Grenada, Cuba, Chile, China, Guinea-Bissau) critical pedagogy has served the interests of new elites rather than the interest of social democracy and economic equality. In this sense critical pedagogy has failed the test of material equality...and a critically literate population. When the new bosses arrived, few understood that they too were wearing no clothes. The methods of analysis that were clear to the leaders of critical pedagogy were never made clear to the mass of people, and were finally too often turned against them. 

On the other hand, critical pedagogy often continues to rely on spontaneous decisions and understandings of students/participants whose oppression may not allow them to see a wider horizon. Assuming that the prisoners really best understand the prison underestimates the impact of imprisonment, overestimates the innate understandings gained from oppression. The interplay of what people need to know, and how they come to know it, has never been resolved. 

Too often, critical pedagogy has located the source of oppression in the minds of people, rather than in a relationship of mind, matter, and motion: ideas linked to the understanding of alienated labor and class struggle, internalized oppression to authoritarian sexual relationships, irrationalism to the fear of freedom and change. In other instances, the combined approaches of whole language and critical pedagogy have been stripped of their political roots and offered up in banker's training seminars. 

In suggesting that domination is a mental construction, and in taking a turn that proposes getting your mind right means getting in line with the pedagogues, critical pedagogy in post-revolutionary situations regularly reconstructed basals which continued to de-skill teachers and disarm students-as in Grenada and Cuba. Critical examination, then, had its limits. 

A parallel strain of critical teaching denies that social class is the axis of social change and elevates interrelated issues like race, caste, sex, nation, etc. to an equal plane. This leads to irrationalism in theory, pluralism in practice, and continued material inequality, authoritarianism. When one method of understanding is elevated dogmatically to a plane as worthy as another, there is no way to test knowledge in practice. A truly exploratory, investigative pedagogy holds everything open to critique-but when it abandons reason, and social practice as the test of knowledge, it becomes a system of oppression. 

This wing of critical pedagogy fails to recognize the relationship of the state (government), capital (profits), and schools, seeing each sector as relatively autonomous, each really disconnected from the other. This separation makes no sense and, practically, creates a divorce of people who all must be considered as part of the solution.

The next turn of mistaken practice focused on discourse within schools and communities as distinct from oppositional social struggle. If oppression is a construction solely of the mind, this would make sense. But it's not. The domination of profits over people is a reality that a solely discourse-centered analysis can no longer conceal. 

In seeking to bridge the gap between Whole Language, Inclusion, and Critical Pedagogy, we humbly understand that we are not making something out of whole cloth. We have looked back at what others have done and sought to stand on their shoulders. We are no more critical of others past mistakes than we are of our own, particularly since we made most of them ourselves. 

The message of Whole Language is centered on the totality, the wholeness, inter-relatedness of knowledge. The focus of the inclusion movement has been the unity of people, all people. The heart of critical pedagogy is that we can understand and transform the world. These movements have everything in common. 

So what are we up to? The Rouge Forum is a group of educators, students, and parents seeking a democratic society. We are concerned about questions like these: How can we teach against racism, national chauvinism and sexism in an increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic society? How can we gain enough real power to keep our ideals and still teach--or learn? Why must we choose between being good educators and good employees? Whose interests shall school serve in a society that is ever more unequal? We are both research and action oriented. We want to learn about equality, democracy and social justice as we simultaneously struggle to bring into practice our present understanding of what that is. We seek to build a caring inclusive community which understands that an injury to one is an injury to all. We value friendship. At the same time, our caring community is going to need to deal decisively with an opposition that is sometimes ruthless. We understand that capital and cruelty are nearly synonymous. 

We hope to demonstrate that the power necessary to win greater democracy will likely rise out of an organization that unites people in new ways--across union boundaries, across community lines, across the fences of race and sex/gender. We believe that good humor and friendships are a vital part of building this kind of organization, as important as theoretical clarity. Friendships allow us to understand that action always reveals errors--the key way we learn. We chose Brer Rabbit as a symbol to underline the good cheer that rightfully guides the struggle for justice. Every part of the world is our briar patch. 

We had modest success in defeating the standardized test, the MEAP, in Michigan. We work in faculty organizations and unions to deal with the racism and sexism in academia. In the National Council for the Social Studies, our work in the Faculty Association caused the unanimous passage of a resolution calling for boycotts of standardized high-stakes examinations. Our newspaper, The Rouge Forum News is online, representing the work of all our constituents: students, parents, community people, and school workers. 

We try to press forward questions of class size, curricular freedom, anti-racist pedagogy, real inclusion, and a just tax system. As part of the Whole Schooling Consortium, we have sponsored forums in the U.S., uniting hundreds of people for democracy and equality. Our next national effort is the International Education Summit for Democracy and Social Justice with the Whole Schooling Consortium and the Whole Language Umbrella in Chicago, July 26-29, 2001, Chicago. We think we can win. You are invited to Join Us!

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