Jerome Harste

OK.  A Jerome Harste, Jerome and Harste is: Harste, Indiana University at Bloomington.

Well, um definitions of literacy have changed.  A and are continued to change um.  A from my vantage point a literacy is the use of sign systems to mediate our world.  Um that’s a very complex definition, however, and the, I suspect right now, what we think of as literacy is a particular kind of social practice that a culture values.  And a that means that there really are multiple literacy’s because there are multiple cultures.  Uh and there are multiple ways that different cultures induct children in to literacy.  Uh, which has made the whole field much more complex a then it was in the past.  It’s also the case that schools advocate a particular kind of literacy, and in so doing, devalue other kinds of literacy so that often times it isn’t really that we’re dealing with children that are illiterate, they are using sign systems to mediate their world, it’s that we don’t value those in school.  And uh in actual fact one of the things that bothers me a lot is some of the standards movements where by certain kinds of literacy practices get a advocated as being powerful. Uh and there is a sort of a systematic denial of the kinds of literacy the children bring in to school.

Well I was just a recently we were working in Indiana on the a Indiana standards.  And the standards really are about particular forms of literate practice.  They want people to be able to summarize and to describe.  Um and do particular write essays, do particular kinds of literacy tasks, when as uh they aren’t particularly interested in the kind of stories the children might come to school with.  They’re not particularly interested in the kind of grammar that children use from their home languages. Uh and so they devalue that group of children and that kind of language in lieu of another kind of literacy.  That then positions certain groups of kids as being not as adequate or as successful in our school system.  And a while I think at one level it’s understandable that we want particular standards for literacy, and another level I think is very dangerous in a growingly, growing diverse sort of culture to systematically deny groups and not value certain kinds of a understandings that groups bring.

Well, standards for me are problematic.  Uh, but then there are a lot of things that are problematic for me.  A I guess the problem, you know, I think in curriculum the big questions that’s always been asked is, you know, what should we teach. But I think the more we understand language and literacy as social practice, it’s whose knowledge do we teach.  And standards always imbed somebody’s values.  And I think what we need to do is really help teachers understand that notion.  That these are somebody’s standards and we got to be very critical, I think, of just taking a particular set of standards and sanctifying them against all odds.  And the problem these days is, of course, a testing.  More and more teachers are under pressures for testing against a particular kind of standards, which leads to very sort of unreflective a behavior.  Uh that is in order to keep their jobs they needed to have their kids do well on these particular standards and it gets very mechanized, you a you, you stop thinking about well what kind of world do we want to create.  What kind of a children do we want to have populate that world.  A we start becoming more automans, you know, doing our job, a reaching those particular standards.  So I’ve had-I find standards problematic generally because I don’t think the precursor question of who’s standards are these and who gets denied in the process of elevating this set of standards a gets asked frequently enough.  But that’s just the kind a guy I am.

Well I think critical literacy is a the, well I’m going to back up.  I’m going to answer what I think are various components of literacy.  Um Michael Halliday, back when we were all studying a oral and written language use, and learning about oral and written language development, came up with a frame work where by he said that every instance of language allows learners to learn language, that is learn how to mean using language, learn about language, that is to treat language as a linguistic object.  So that they can begin to talk about languages, a noun and a verb and a capital letter, and all of sort of the metalanguage, a sentence.  And then learn through language.  So his framework was learn language, learn about language, and learn through language.  Learning through language meant growing in their understanding of the world. Um I think since a Michael’s work in oral language, and, you know, my own work in written language development, I think what we have learned from research is that we were trying to look at the development of written language.  And we are trying to develop a universal model.  And I think what the ‘90’s has brought about is an understanding that there isn’t just one literacy.  That there’s multiple literacy’s and that literacy is a particular social practice.  So for critical literacy, for me, is that ability to use language to critique.  That is to, not only do we need to help kids under-learn language, learn about language, learn through language, but we have that fourth obligation.  And that is to help them use language to critique.  To understand by buying Pokemon cards that they’re being positioned as particular kind of literate individuals.  Uh and to be illiterate in the twenty-first century, it seems to me, you have to not only be able to respond and make sense, but you have to be able to elect how it is you’re going to position yourself.  Uh so that what I see is that the stakes continue to go up.  A lot of people with critical literacy equate it to critical thinking.  And while it does involve critical thinking, it’s a mistake to equate the two.  Critical literacy is really the ob-is really an attempt to try to understand the systems of meaning that are operating in a society. The kinds of social practices that are operating in a society for purposes of electing, deciding how it is you’re going to position yourself in light of literacy itself, in event.

Well let’s take the example of Pokemon cards.  Uh I mean Pokemon cards have a little saying on them called ‘got to get ‘em all’.  Now, that saying is not innocent.  That saying is really saying, you know, if you really wanna do this, you gotta collect all of these cards.  You gotta have your parents spend money to get these cards.  Uh a lot of schools have banned Pokemon cards.  Uh, uh partly because they don’t want to encourage the kids to get into that sort of competitiveness with a, but it’s-but the answer is never to sort of just mandate banning.  I think the answer is to help kids understand how it is that the media is using them as consumers and to have them decide how it is they want to be used.  The-uh-ha-invite them into that critical kind of conversation.  Um so that’s what I mean by positioning.  Uh a story, you know, just a, any children’s literature story positions you as a particular kind of reader.  Uh one of my favorite examples is: ‘Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse’ in which a teacher takes away Lily’s purple plastic purse.  It’s a very cute story.  Usually when I read it, and I read it well, uh, you know, the audience laughs and enjoys the story because we’ve all caught ourselves doing that.  Yet, I mean, from a critical literacy perspective, we’ve gotta say, well, whose classroom is this.  You know, why isn’t what Lily’s interested in not part of the subject matter of this curriculum?  So it’s not just a Pokemon cards, although I think there’s a lot about pop culture that we need to legitimize in our school setting that we’re not legitimizing.  Uh because I think that’s were kids are coming, at literacy, from.  Um but it’s every-it’s everything that we do.  For me, critical literacy is a perspective that you hold.  Uh and you help develop in your classroom critical spaces so that you can have conversations.  Um probably from a teachers vantage point I would say the best place to begin critical literacy is to go with the kids to the playground.  I mean that a playgrounds tend to be the most socially unjust areas in the school.  And if you want to open up conversations from the every day experiences of kids, uh that’s a great place to begin.  Uh almost every kid I’ve talked to has all kinds of experiences about how they been marginalized uh on, on playgrounds.    

I guess when I look at the future, I think that there are several things that we as language educators have to face up to, that we have not done a very good job on.  And one of those things is diversity.  Um, that is I, I, don’t think we have served all our population very well.  I think our model of education has been a consensus model of education.  That’s was con-um standardized tests are about.  That’s what standards are about.  Um and I think what, what lies ahead of us is really developing a model of education that allows us to use the differences that exist among as positive forces in education.  Um a second major think I think that’s looming up in the horizon is a I guess I want to say technology, although I mean technology in it’s a, well, in it’s broadest sense.  Not only does technology greatly expand our definition of literacy, beyond just reading and writing, uh but it’s a very powerful multimedia uh that a bombards a us into believing we have to have certain kind of clothes, and believing we have to have certain kinds of readings that bombards us into believing there’s certain authors that we should be reading in school and other authors that we shouldn’t be reading.  And all of that merits and deserves critique.  Uh and in order to prepare kids for the twenty first century, I think we have to help them understand how it is this very a rich, I mean it’s a very positive environment.  It’s a very powerful way to communicate a but we also have to understand what it’s limitations are and what it’s dangers are.  And I think we owe it to children, not to just make them consumers of our a public media, but also be able to critique that media, and um take agency, I say.  That is make decisions on their own about it is they want to a, a position themselves.  And often times, quite frankly, a they’ve had their hand in the cookie jar.  It isn’t just that you’re teaching them about um bullying, a, but they’ve been involved in bullying.  It isn’t just that um a you know, a child that has a, acts differently is called a gay or um a homosexual.  They’ve participated in that marginalizing of other kids, and I think we need to help them understand in what ways they have participated, what other options are available to them.  Um quite frankly I, you know, I find it ex-an exciting dimension of literacy.  I mean I do think we should be having great experience in terms of a just reading and enjoying it.  I think we should savor a well-spun phrase.  Uh I think we should a be able to take what we read and apply it to the everyday.  But I think that fourth thing is we have to able to critique it also and understand in what ways it’s doing things that making us the kind of people we don’t want to be.  Uh you know, I define curriculum as a, a metaphor for the lives we want to live and the people we want to be.  And a uh I think we’ve gotta constantly go back there and say: is this the kind of society we want or are these the kinds of people we wanna create?  And based-and I think all of us, it isn’t just my job to have a vision of that, I think each of us as teachers have to have that vision and we have to set up our classrooms so that children can start living that experience.

Yeah, a one of the questions that people will often ask me is, you know, a, yeah, is curriculum value laden and is assessment value laden.  And I’m no-never real sure how to even respond to that because it seems so self-evident to me that it is.  Uh, uh and I don’t even think that’s bad.  I think what’s bad is when we don’t understand what values are being a have been imbedded in curriculum and in assessment.  Um and um and we start thinking that particular assessments are sort of beyond critique.  I think that’s when we get into dangerous ground.  But for me, um that’s what education is.  Education is about values; it’s about what kind of people you wanna be.  What kind of society do you wanna create, and how do you create environments that support kids to experience them.

Well um critical um reflection um is not a, an easy well how should I start this?

Over the years I have attempted to help so-teachers become more reflective.  Um and I guess I’ve had to come to grips with well what do I mean being reflective.  Um at one level I guess what I mean is the ability to sort of say what are the assumptions that are inherent in any statement.  Uh what, what is it that the person believes in order to say that kind of thing.  Now you’d think that that wasn’t so hard to do, but I must say that for many people that is a very difficult um mind set to get into.  It may say something a fairly negative about our education system.  I mean uh in a way we ought to be using, kids ought to be reflecting everyday a from day one on.  And obviously we’re not setting up those experiences, because at the college level I have a great deal of difficulty.  Nonetheless there are different levels, uh I mean one uh I think there’s a difference between reflection and reflexivity.  Uh reflection is the ability to look back and to critique.  Reflexivity is the ability to really use your self to outgrow yourself, and use others.  And, again, for me, reflexivity is a social practice.  That’s why I’m such an advocate of teachers forming study groups.  Um I think that what you try to do with teachers is to form them into groups whereby they can begin to use these other to reflect off of and to help outgrow yourself in that process.  Um I guess one of the real advancements in literacy is that it’s social.  I think that so often people don’t really understand the difference between a literacy as social and literacy as cognitive.  Uh you know, I find people who advocate: well yeah, kids can work together to accomplish a task, but in the final analysis it’s what skills do they have, or what strategies they’ve developed.  But the notion of literacy as a social practice is this notion of dynamic interaction among each other.  It’s the notion of collerting-collaborating with one another to outgrow ones self. Yeah, it’s sort of like a in, you know, in old models knowledge was sort of anchored in our head.  I’m r-I’m really advocating that knowledge is not anchored in us, but it in our interactions between people.  So for me, collaboration and collaborative inquiry with a group of learners is key to both reflection and reflexivity.  And um is not sort of an optional thing that I can do.  It’s has to be a central of the learning process.

I have found in working with a group of a thirty teachers, that there are five teachers that I can fight with for the whole semester about what a to become reflective.  Um and I’m not sure that I’m, I’m, I don’t know a, you know, what I do is I constantly write back to them and I talk back to them.  I open up possibilities, I suggest: well what other possibility, what other kinds of interpretations.  I suspect one part of being reflective is the ability to hang on to multiple interpretations of an event.  One of the things that we do that has some success to it is: we have our undergraduate students make an observation from in the classroom of some um behavior that they see a child do.  Um let’s say, let’s take a very simple behavior that a the children were supposed to bring in a book from home and the child doesn’t.  When the or when the child was asked what their favorite book, they didn’t have one.  One of the things that we ask the undergraduates to do is take that simple observation and say: what are five different interpretations you can come up with.  Now I’ve, what I’ve found is the five pushes them.  They can come up with three really easy ones, but the other two uh pushes them.  And I suspect part of that is starting to um keep your mind open to other kinds of possibilities.  Because it’s often in generating the fourth and the fifth hypothesis that new sorts of a, a opportunities, new sorts of insights come in.  But, but whether or, but how to do that successfully, I don’t, I don’t think I would be the expert you want to talk to because I certainly a, a I think it’s very powerful and it’s needed, but it certainly is difficult for some students to do.  Um I have, over my a years, a found that teachers who are able to be reflective and are more cognizant of what it is that they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, are more powerful teachers in this sense.  But, nonetheless, I have bumped into that occasional teacher who can articulate what she’s doing and has a great intuitive sense about what need to be done.  Uh but I would say that that’s rarer than we’d like to believe.  Uh I have found that the more knowledgeable a teacher is, the more, a, aware she is of the kinds of options that are available to her, and the more affective she is as a teacher.

Um I suppose one of my earliest insights into literacy teaching and learning was that a, was a paper that Carolyn Burke and I wrote entitled a ‘Both the Teaching and Learning of Reading is Theoretically Based’. And essentially what we had done in that study was: we sat in the back of classrooms and watched classroom instruction.  And we asked chids (verbatim) to read to us.  And what we found is that children had perceptions about what reading was, that they had gotten from the teacher, from their instructional environment.  In some classrooms a the instruction had convinced kids that reading was simply a sounding out problem.  In other classrooms, a kids had a decided reading was recognizing words. Uh and a lot of times those kids would read, like if they were reading a word list, even when you gave them a story.  Uh they’d sort of, you could see them sort of recognizing word by word by word.  Other classrooms uh, um with more of a focus on meaning.  Um but one, I guess, one of the things that was so powerful for me was, that I think that we forget so easily, is that when we’re teaching reading, we’re not really teaching skills and strategies. What we’re really doing is we’re helping the kid develop a functional model of reading in his head.  And, you know, to say, now teach a half hour of phonics everyday is wrong headed.  It isn’t that phonics is bad, but for the child that already thinks reading is a sounding our process, what a half hour of phonics does is simply reinforce his dysfunctional view of the reading process already.  Um if, if I could may-if I had a magic wand, and I could wave it a, the one thing I would want all teachers to remember is what their role is.  Their role is to help kids develop a functional notion of reading and writing in their head, or literacy more broadly in their head.  Um not, and not get caught up with package programs, not get caught up with mandates that say you gotta do a half hour of this, or a half hour of that.  Uh it isn’t that the scope of those things are so, are wrong, what’s wrong is when you’re not building the program off the kids.  I mean one of my earliest a advice to teachers was the child’s gotta be your curricular informant.  And that’s what I mean: you have to take a look at what is this kid believe? What are the kinds of things that he’s currently doing?  Why is that child doing that?  How can I create his support?  You have to have a conception of what it means to be a powerful reader or a powerful writer.  And then: how can I help that child move along?  But your task is to keep your focus on that internal model of reading and writing that’s in that kids head.  It isn’t whether or not I’ve taught this list of four hundred skills, or whether or not I’ve had my half hour of phonics and my half hour of uninterrupted writing and my half hour of comprehension questions.  Um and some how, while I think we’re a I wouldn’t wanna charge people who have those kinds of programs with bad intent, I think what happens is that we lose sight of the-what’s really fundamental and I would say what’s really fundamental is that model of reading in the person’s head.  Now the second studies that we did showed that what the teacher does strongly affects what the kids do.  The strategies of instruction become the strategies of language use.  So that, all the more reason why we’ve gotta be reflective about our own practice.  Because what we’re doing in the classroom, kids are picking up and taking on as they’re own.  So that how-what if we limit literacy, the kids definitions of literacy are equally limited.  We destroyed li-we distort literacy, the kids perceptions of literacy is distorted.  I’ve often said to teachers, you know you screw up your reading program you’ve screwed up your writing program.  If you screw up your writing program you’ve screwed up your reading program.  Um because the brain operates as a whole and (coughing) you’re developing that internal model uh and that’s what’s important to keep your um your eye onto, and to think about: well what does it mean to be literate.  Uh and constantly go back to reexamine that, because our culture, it shifts, it’s keeps-it’s keeping changing as we learn more and more things. 

Well I guess the more, the longer I’ve worked in literacy, the more I’m convinced that our, the answer to our literacy a problems are knowledgeable teachers in front of every classroom.  Now the, I mean, in that sense I’ve become more and more of a ‘Deweyan’ every day.  Uh but that’s a big order, because I think what that means is that um teachers have to understand a language themselves.  They have to understand the systems of language, the graphicnemic system, the syntactic system, the semantic system, the pragmatic system.  Um I think they have to be able to listen to a kid read and say what systems are being used and what systems aren’t being used. I think they have to have an understanding that in proficient reading all of those systems get used.  Um I think that a, a for me, uh you know, co-I think so often we work on comprehension, but I think what’s really important is interpretation, and that by interpretation I mean, where the kid is taking what they’ve read and applying a, a outside of that page.  Going beyond, using it as a metaphor to uncover something unfamiliar.  Uh and a, a I mean, for teachers to be effective, they have to have internalized what it is that good readers do.  What kinds of things is a- what makes a reader really powerful?  And that, that has-they have to experience powerful reading themselves.  They have to experience powerful literature discussion themselves.  I think so often we’re trying to make reading teachers out of people who barely read themselves and have never experienced a powerful literature discussion.  Uh have never tried to hide a book that so they could keep it away from somebody else.  Uh, uh have never really, I think, experienced the kind of literacy that we might think is important.  And a while I think there’s a lot of different kinds of literacy, and I don’t wanna sort of valorize a particular sort of reading books by the family lake, as an old sort of model.  I think there is something to be said uh and there will constantly something to be said about being caught up in a book.  Um so it’s one form of literacy I don’t want it to go away, even while other forms of literacy are at play.  Um I want kids to be able to write and to have a voice and to use a writing to um a say what’s on their mind.  My advice to teachers is that if you wanna good reading and writing program, the one thing you gotta do is create an environment where kids feel it’s safe to say what’s on their mind and what’s on their mind counts in the classroom.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t interrogate that voice.  I mean that voice is not really their own voice, that voice is a cultural voice that they’ve learned.  And um, but I think when you’re starting you have to create an environment where everybody can say what it is they’re thinking.  And what it is that they believe, no matter whether or not you agree or not.  Uh that doesn’t mean it stops there, but I think whey you talk about fundamentals, I think that sort of notion of what’s on your mind, uh invalidating that in both reading and writing, is extremely important for teachers to start with.  And especially t-a, for kids who don’t think what they know has any value in school, isn’t what school’s about.  So that the more beleaguered the population, the more important it is for teachers to validate that.