A Posting from Dr. William Kerns

As promised, this Friday’s blog posting is done by Dr. Williams Kerns:


I look forward to the dialogue about literacy on this site. It is my hope that the conversation fosters a type of community of practice in which we each share a commitment to highly engaging and effective literacy education. As a guest bogger, I will discuss a diverse range of topics but in general my blog topics will coincide with issues raised by Sam. In my first blog I’ll start by simply start by introducing myself.

Sam and I met through our mutual passion for literacy including the promotion of programs such as Read and Feed initiatives, providing literacy education, books and food for children in Title I schools. We’ve become friends. Yet, I also believe that our differences of approaches will also prove fruitful for readers of this blog site.

You see, I tend to operate within a nexus of worlds that are known for sometimes clashing. I prefer my life this way. Life is far more interesting when in the tension of making sense of ideas that might clash, I learn new ways of viewing the world. For example, finding new understandings between cultures is a daily part of my marriage to a beautiful and brilliant woman who was born and raised in Northern China. She’s rightfully proud of her Chinese heritage. In many ways we have built a nexus that draws upon differing worlds as expressed in foods, traditions, daily habits, or conversations about education, music, holidays, politics and economics.  I’ve grown as a result.

A pattern can be seen in my life that informs – and is informed by – my teaching philosophy.  I want students to have the opportunity for discovery of new ideas and new ways of relating to one another with care, and to develop a lifelong habit of inquiry which contributes to joyful lives. Beyond this, I also hope that students will come to view education as a process of living in which they can contribute to the building of a more caring and just society. In turn, inquiry into the consequences of actions contributes to the development of what John Dewey called reflective morality. The demands of reflective morality include ongoing analysis into social conditions and the way one’s individual actions impact others. Reflective thinking is foundational to my approach to striving to build a more just society. Reflection provides a basis for actions of moral integrity, because of the dialogic way that knowledge and teaching practices are linked through reflection.

Drawing on Mohandas Gandhi’s understanding of satyagraha, I strive to become the change I wish to see in the world through my career as a teacher and as a researcher. After all it is futile to wish to see changes such as increased kindness and fairness if I do not commit myself to teaching and living in a manner that is consistent with truthfulness through a rigorous process of self-scrutiny through inquiry into my own actions. This means that as an educator and an individual living in society I’m “proud to be maladjusted until the good society is realized” to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King. I have no wish to be well adjusted to injustices in the lives of students or in the wider world. Further, the concept of agape love also informs my approach to teaching. Teachers risk pain and rejection when they commit whole-heartedly to caring for the needs of students and a community, but teachers have a responsibility to care for students even if there is pain.

The valuing of students needs to be rooted in concrete experience rather than a mere philosophical determination to be caring. A fundamental aspect of my teaching philosophy is the commitment to draw on the knowledge and resources available in students and in a community to inform curriculum and to help make learning increasingly meaningful to students. I am committed to an approach to pedagogy that stresses engaging students in activities that are personally and culturally meaningful.  Development of the student’s capabilities is the primary aim of my teaching. I strive to establish learning environments that promote exploration through a curriculum that is responsive to the needs and interests of the student based on careful inquiry. The instruction I strive for is also tied to the hope that teachers and students alike will work together and dialogue together, with presence to one another, becoming lifelong participants in efforts to build a more caring and just society.

Hmm…. Notice something so far?

What about talk of synthetic vs. analytic phonics?

Yes, skill development matters. Drawing on Paolo Freire I believe that reading the world helps foster in students the ability to read the word.   But the careful reader might also notice another way in which I operate within a nexus of worlds that sometimes are better known for clashing. While living in Central Florida prior to entering higher education, I worked as a high school English teacher and a Reading teacher as well as a reading specialist. My Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Clemson University focused on English Education, but I keep my feet in both the English Education and Literacy communities. Professors of English Language Arts and Literacy don’t always get along. There are those in English Language Arts who view the field as strongly grounded in the humanities and resist perceived efforts to ground English Language Arts in Literacy. Arguments drawing on the work of James Moffett and Peter Elbow maintain that English Language Arts should focus on holistic personal growth as students immerse themselves in literary worlds while engaged in rich reading, writing and dialogue. Concerns are sometimes voiced in English Education that Reading Education will emphasize decontextualized skills – even “skill and drill” – thus denying to students the potential joys of exploring literary worlds.

I’ve come to recognize that such a clash is not necessary, though it can also be a valid concern depending on approaches to instruction that are emphasized. The so-called simple view of reading defines reading comprehension as the product of decoding and listening comprehension, and instruction grounded in the simple view of reading clashes with approaches of those favoring the influence of Freire, Moffett or Elbow in English Language Arts. However, I find that reading instruction that also values social aspects of learning can be motivating and engaging for students. Literacy curricula need not deny to students the joys of exploration in the humanities and literature that English Language Arts teachers seek to support.

Let's talk! What do you think?

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