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Finding the Freedom to Teach and Learn, and Live

"'Finding the Freedom to Teach and Learn, and Live' by Joan Wink is reprinted from Living and Teaching in an Unjust World edited by Wendy Goodman. Copyright (c) 2001 by Heinemann. Published by Heinemann, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc., Portsmouth, NH. All rights reserved. Duplication in any format or by any means without the written permission of the publisher is strictly prohibited."

Finding the Freedom to Teach and Learn, and Live

Once we had as much freedom as we wanted. A quick glance at my previous syllabi would show that my students and I used books by Jim Cummins, Bonnie and David Freeman, Paulo Freire, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Herbert Kohl, Steve Krashen, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, and Lev Vygotsky. Rigor and joy were central to our classes. We made books; we read books; we reflected on books. We loved each other; we loved our class; and we loved our learning. We loved our freedom to teach and learn.

However, that has changed drastically on a global scale. Micro-management, mandates, and military metaphors are eroding our freedoms. Where I live, bilingual education has been outlawed, explicit English phonics has been legislated. I started teaching 34 years ago. I have seen difficult times in education before but I have never experienced anything like this. Never. Ever. I am now living in a scripted English-only world.

Martin Luther King once gave a speech on creative maladjustment. He talked about how we all eventually have to adjust to many things. However, there were some things he could never adjust to: for example, racism. Today we would add sexism, classicism, and xenophobia.

In addition, I cannot adjust to the dogma underlying the current climate in education. Therefore, I will have to find creative forms of maladjustment to survive and thrive. Incidentally, if you would like to join me in creative maladjustment, you will find that a sense of humor is very handy. It also helps to be a bit nimble.

Changing times are changing education

It started very simply. A colleague came to our graduate class to discuss culture. She asked us to empty purses and wallets to see what could be learned about each student's culture. It was amazing how much we learned about the social, political, and cultural institutions which represent the various cultures among the group. Before she left, the professor explained to us that there are many definitions of cultures, but essentially they all have two commonalties: cultures are learned and they are shared.

When she left, I spontaneously shared with the class some of the things I could remember learning from my own culture. When I left home to attend college, I met my future husband. I remember our initial conversation because he told me several things about himself that bothered me. I remember the discomfort I felt when I learned he was from Iowa. I was from South Dakota, and you know how those people from Iowa are. He added to my anguish when he said that he was from a farm. I was from a ranch, and you know how those farmers are. He further told me that his family belonged to the Farmers' Union. Horrors! My family belonged to the Farm Bureau, and you know how those Farmers' Union people are. I didn't ask any more questions because I was afraid of what he might say about his home culture. However, I very clearly remember wondering what his politics and religion were. You know how those Democrats and Catholics are!

The class and I laughed about the things that I had learned from my own culture: ranchers were good, and farmers were bad; Republicans were good, and democrats were bad; Protestants were good, and Catholics were bad. As we were laughing together, a young grad student slowly raised her hand and shared her culture with the class.

"I went to private Catholic school for 12 years," Heather shared with the class.

"And, you know how those private school kids are," one of her friends said which relieved the tension we were feeling. The class and I nervously laughed.

"Do you know who I learned to hate when l was in private school all those years?" she asked us.

"No," we answered curiously.

"Public school kids and teachers," she quietly and seriously told us.

"That's us," someone blurted out.

"You know how those public school kids and teachers are," another student offered weakly.

A third student responded to my initial comments, "And it wasn't the Democrats who were bad either. It was the Republicans. I learned they were only interested in making the rich richer and the poor poorer."

This sudden outburst about Protestants versus Catholics and Democrats versus Republicans made the class and l realize that we were on a slippery slope. We were entering new territory. It was exciting and dangerous-ripe with potential and this was not a part of our prescribed curriculum; this was not on the syllabus. I was not transmitting knowledge; we were generating ideas together; we sensed transformation could not be far behind. However, the truth is that we raced up that learning curve with reckless abandon. Everyone wanted to share; we all wanted to learn. This conversation of our lived experiences mattered to us. It was real. For the remaining six weeks of the semester, we wrote, read, reflected on the "other" which was new and disturbing language for many in the class. Not every moment was wonderful. But, in the end, we all learned far more than was on the original syllabus.

Today, in our era of scripted, prescribed, - and proscribed - curricula, I could get into trouble for allowing that to happen.

Since our English-only mandate, my students now have to pass a sound-centric test before they can even get their teaching credentials. We drill in English. We read the prescribed books in English. We worry in English. The students memorize, in English, for a test which has very little to do with being a good bilingual teacher. They learn to do what this test dictates they must do. Some would say that it is a phonics test. I would say that it is a test of dogma and ideology. I would fail this test - if they would let me take it. They will not; nor will they let me see the test. It is a secret. And, they check my syllabus to see if I am teaching in the prescribed, correct way. And, if my students do not pass this test, they will not be able to teach. My Dean and Chair will ask me why my students did not pass. The list of passing and failing students is readily available throughout my department for all to see.

The same thing is taking place in the world of literacies. Whole or parts? Parts to whole? What in the world is the right way to teach reading? The literacy wars have much in common with other wars: friends turn against friends; families turn on other family members; Incumbent and wanna-be politicians take sides whether they know anything about it or not. We are all a tad paranoid and worry about who is on whose side. As I write, I wonder, who is my audience. If I am completely honest, what will the repercussions be? Will I be 'targeted?' Will it hurt the students in my classes? Will it hurt my university?

Politics are now a public part of our pedagogy. How can it not be? Schools are filled with people, lots of people who all bring a diversity of thought, perspectives, opinions, and experiences. Schools are social, schools are cultural, and schools are political environments which reflect the world around them.

When you choose curriculum, it is a political act. When you make a decision about who will learn what and how, you are taking political action. And even if you choose not to act, your passivity is also a political action.

We live in a time when everyone is suddenly and passionately interested education. Are we on a historical path that leads us to a time when politicians and/or the public choose curriculum, programs, and methods? The American fight over bilingual or English-only; the fight over whole-to-parts pedagogy or parts-to-whole pedagogy; the fight over sound-centric literacy or meaning centric-literacy are, I think, designed to hide the real war which is really over the future of public education. We must not be lulled into fighting so hard for the parts that we miss the whole.

Some polls demonstrate that the public has about had it with educators. This newly-acquired interest in education from politicians and the public has made teachers an easy target. The public blames teachers for low test scores; for bad manners; for outrageous behavior; for violence; for lack of morals.

Teachers are blamed because the public and the politicians are frustrated and don't know what to do.

Teachers are blamed because it is always easier to blame teachers and kids than it is to acknowledge the fact that schools reflect the community.

Teachers are blamed because that is easier than it is to go to a neighborhood school, and volunteer on a regular basis, and learn to know teachers and students, and to seek solutions collaboratively.

The blame game is easier than positive actions and interactions.

My Own Struggles

Out with Freire; in with phonemes. Out with meaning, in with minutiae. Out with schema, in with the schwa. Out with the whole, in with the parts. This is how I felt when I sat down one September to update my Bilingual Language Arts course syllabus to reflect emerging state mandates. As new guidelines dictate that I must prepare preservice teachers with a knowledge of fricatives, phonemes, and phonology, the truth is that I find myself feeling philosophically frustrated. This would be funny, if it weren't fact.

In my first class under the new regulations, there were thirty-three teacher credential candidates in my bilingual reading/language arts class. The majority spoke Spanish as a first language: many from migrant labor families. One such student described himself this way:


I am a second generation Mexican-American whose parents were farm laborers. My parents bought a small two bedroom house and raised five children. My dad worked for a farm labor contractor, and he worked six days a week from sunrise to sunset. My mother stayed home to raise the children and eventually went to work in the canneries when we got older.

I allowed myself the first couple of weeks the pleasure of not worrying about the requirements of state mandates. I wanted the students to reflect on their own reading before we set out to learn to teach others to read. The first night of class I asked students to write mini-case studies of themselves as readers. How did they learn to read? What did they read? How did they feel about reading? The majority of the students said they loved to read. Some described themselves as avid readers; passionate readers; even merry readers. Yet it was those who said they hated reading who had a special place in my heart. One of them wrote, "Me as a reader. What a concept! I've never thought of myself as a true reader."

I divided the case studies into simplistic categories. Twenty-three loved to read. Their comments were very revealing about what really matters in how to teach reading.


I was very fortunate to have a fantastic history teacher who exposed his students to wonderful books. He did something that no other teacher had done before-he invited us to his home to see his incredible home library. Have you ever seen the movie, Beauty and the Beast? In the movie there is a part where the Beast shows Beauty his enormous library with books from wall to wall. That is what his library looked like to me. I have never forgotten any of these books. One day I hope I can do that for my students.


"My mother never wanted me to lose my Spanish so, anytime she had a little extra money, she would buy books in Spanish. She red to me right before bedtime."


"For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed reading. I remember my mother taking me to the library on a weekly basis."


"One time I went to the library and checked out 12 books and had to carry them home 15 blocks."

In the stack of ten case studies of those who hated to read, comments were equally revealing about how not to teach reading.


"My teacher in junior high would use reading as a punishment. I always behaved so that I would not be punished and have to read."


"We didn't have books of any kind in our home. Once I went to live at my uncle's house and was overwhelmed with all the children's books my little cousin had. I can remember wanting to read those books. I asked my uncle to let me go to school, but he did not grant permission."

The truth is that reflecting on the literacies of these students gave me hope. The vast majority of my students had overcome obstacles far greater that a state mandate just to be in a teacher education program at the university.

For the rest of the semester, I taught as I had been directed. I placed the emphasis on sounds and the relationship between sound and letter. We did phonemic awareness in English and Spanish. I quizzed them on phonemics, phonology, and phonetics.

Be honest, could you pass a text asking you to define phonetics, phonemics, phonology, and fricatives? Does that mean you are not a good teacher? Can all your students pass the high stakes tests? Does that mean you are not a good teacher? My students passed the tests. Does that mean I am a good teacher?

At the end of the semester, it was clear what these students had learned. It was equally clear to me what they had not learned. I did not turn them into passionate readers. I didn't implant a thirst for knowledge. I did not help them see themselves as intellectuals and scholars who will continue to grow and learn and read; who have a perception of themselves as powerful professionals. They can teach phonemic awareness. This raises difficult questions. What is an educator to do? What is a bilingual educator to do? What do I, as a critical pedagogue do? Let me share how I tried to find some answers for myself.

My exploration of pedagogy

Any discussion of education is ultimately grounded in pedagogy. I could not work through my own teaching struggles until I returned to my understandings of pedagogy, critical pedagogy, literacies and critical literacies. I am reluctant to print definitions. I fear that someone somewhere will memorize it-or someone else somewhere else will make another someone memorize it. As if there were the one true definition! If you memorize my definition, you'll soon forget it for you don't own it. Keep this in mind as I share with you-I made them up! I encourage readers to use my words as a starting point and to discover their own definitions.


When I first started in teaching, in 1966, I thought I knew exactly what pedagogy means. This is what I thought. I thought "I will teach and they will learn." It all seemed so simple, pure, and clean. In my preparation to be a teacher, I was never taught that politics is a part of schools (Imagine my surprise!). In fact, I was taught to believe the opposite. I was taught that somehow we teachers were above politics, that we worked on some pure plain of pedagogy.

Gradually and painfully, I began to recognize that my assumptions of many years ago were wrong. Maybe they weren't wrong for thirty years ago, but they sure don't reflect my experiences since then. Nor do they reflect the incredible changes since that time. My early definition of pedagogy was not only simple, I think now it was simplistic. It now reminds me of the old saying: For every complex problem, there is always a solution which is obvious, easy, and wrong.

I now think that pedagogy is the dynamic, reciprocal, (and often times, barely controllable) interactive relationship we develop with students as we teach and learn together. One time in a graduate class, my students had been teaching and learning with such rigor and joy that I suddenly heard my mouth saying, "Stop this learning, I want to teach!" I find it to be true that the less I teach, the more they learn.

The legacy of teachers

I find courage in pedagogy. I look to the legacy of those who have gone before me. In the history of time, I am just a tiny speck. It's true: I am not the most important person in the world. I try to see the big picture. At my computer, surrounded by my books, I think of all the work that others have done and how my life is enriched because of their contributions. They have worked, and I have benefitted.

Let me introduce you to some of my distant teachers who give me hope and courage.

Lev Vygotsky

I look up at my bookshelf, and I see my Vygotsky books. He lived only 34 years during a very painful time of history, the Russian Revolution. Food and heat were luxuries. He suffered with poor health and died far too soon. When he died, his works were censored; no one could even read what he had written for decades. Now as a new century begins, we see his immense contributions to collaborative and dialectical teaching and learning. One of his favorite lines from poetry testified to the fact that, no matter how difficult it is, we can all still "live, think, feel, love, and make discoveries." This line of poetry gave him hope - and, now it does the same for me.

Paolo Freire

I look up at my bookshelf and see my Paulo Freire books, and I think how he was driven from his Brazil for 17 years because he would not give up his claim to the freedom to teach and learn bilingually. Translated from Portuguese, Paulo Freire defines critical literacies: "reading the word and the world." Critical literacy involves knowing; lots of knowing. It involves seeing, lots of seeing. It enables us to read the social practices of the world quite clearly. Critical literacy reveals the zone of 'all-this-learning-really-isn't-so-great." Critical literacy means that we understand how and why knowledge and power are constructed. And by whom. For whom.

And, from Freire, I remember his Pedagogy of the Oppressed that turned into his Pedagogy of Hope near the end of his life. I see his books, and I remember rigor and joy.

Tove Skutnabb-Kangas

I look up at my bookshelf and see my books by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, and I hear her words, "Language rights are human rights." I hear her telling me "Joan, think wildly; think of your utopias; dream big." I hear her extolling the virtues of creative chaos. I am reminded to see the potential and the possibilities and transform it to creative chaos.

Herbert Kohl I look up at my bookshelf and see my books by Herbert Kohl, and I am reminded of his concept of "hopemongering." Kohl writes about affirming ours and others' hope for an equitable and just future even in the midst of contrary evidence. A hopemonger does not give false hope; a hopemonger keeps hope alive, even during difficult times. As a teacher educator, I see that as some of our most important work.

Ken Goodman

I look up at my shelf and see my books, and my T-shirt, by Ken Goodman. I read the shirt, "Banned in California: freedom to teach, freedom to learn, social justice." His courageous work vigorously defends our freedom. He has written extensively for the freedom of all of us to turn our theory into practice; to turn our beliefs into behaviors. I am indebted to the strength and honesty I have found in Call to Courage, a call for unification of our shared knowledge about languages, literacies, and cultures, and our freedom to live our personal and pedagogical beliefs.

Living your beliefs

All of us need to reflect critically on our own experiences and those of others, and then to connect these new thoughts to our own lives in new ways. Those who do not come from a tradition which encourages critical reflection are often so busy doing that they fail to take time for thinking. Thinking about important ideas needs nurturing. And it takes time.

Paolo Freire teaches us that critical pedagogy is to name, to reflect critically, and to act. My daughter, Dawn, found critical pedagogy her first day of teaching. Returning home from her kindergarten classroom she burst through the door, "All the toys are old, broken, and dirty. The last teacher left boxes and boxes for my kindergarten students. It's just junk. I snuck out to the garbage and threw it away. There were even teaching materials from the 1950s"

In this case, Dawn named it, junk. She reflected critically as she decided the value of the junk and snuck outside to find the garbage. And she acted. She tossed it. Critically pedagogy helped Dawn to know that 40-year-old English materials would not meet the needs of the Spanish dominant children in her bilingual kindergarten.

We're so busy fighting, defending, educating, sharing with others that, certainly, it must be affecting our teaching. I know that it has affected mine. I try to live authentically and honestly based upon my own knowledge and experiences, too. I must be able do live with myself and my pedagogy. Others have worked their entire lives for the freedom to teach and learn. They may not even know me, but I am blessed because of their work. It is in their legacy that I find hope.

Do not deny the politics of education. Do not be frightened by it. Jump in. Share your knowledge, your perspectives, your experiences. Write and speak and act. Do not stick your head in the sand.