Academic journal article Childhood Education

Holistic Language Learning at the Middle Level: Our Last, Best Chance

Academic journal article Childhood Education

Holistic Language Learning at the Middle Level: Our Last, Best Chance

Article excerpt

Nothing had prepared me for the experience of teaching an 8th-grade language arts class in a typical suburban junior high school in Ohio. In the same classroom, I had a little buy whose idea of a good time was to spend an hour playing with his G.I. Joe collection and a 16-year-old who had been retained several times. The younger boy was always asking the older one for advice about girlfriends.

I remember one boy who poured a gallon of blue paint out a third-floor window, creating a broad blue stripe down the front of our brick building; I remember the girl who wore too much makeup, dressed in black leather and hung out with the wrong crowd (she also wrote one of the best poems I have ever read, describing the thrill of riding a motorcycle on the open road). I remember a gifted young man, who gave a 15-minute oral report on Karl Shapiro's poem "Auto Wreck," and held the entire class spellbound for 35 minutes. They were ALL in the same class.

Middle graders are diamonds in the rough that require a good deal of cutting and polishing. At this age, children are broadening their life space, eager to explore the world around them. They have enthusiasm for life - and more energy than their teachers do. They squirm in their seats, and they are fascinated by the strangest things.

During these years, young adolescents make crucial decisions about whether to stay in school or drop out, do drugs or reject them, follow the crowd or set their own goals. This is what makes the middle years a special part of the education process - it is our last, best opportunity to influence most of these students. This is a time when we may make a significant difference in the life of a student.

More specifically, educators can influence young adolescents in the area of language arts, proficiency in which is mixed for this age group. Middle grade students are notorious for their spelling mistakes. Some read voraciously; some don't read at all. Most consider "grammar" a four-letter word.

The authors believe that the methods used to teach the language arts in the middle grades have contributed in a major way to negative attitudes among students. Educators too long have equated effective learning with quiet classrooms and attentive children who sit still in their seats. We have been too focused on teaching what we thought should be the content, tied to our textbooks and missing the opportunities inherent in working with real children's literature. For years, we have paid lip service to what research has told us about reading and writing instruction; we have been too concerned with mechanics and not concerned enough with creative content. We have focused on parts rather than wholes, expecting students to learn punctuation from a unit in a textbook, rather than through actual reading and writing experiences. We have generally neglected the two important language arts skills of speaking and listening - discouraging the former in our classrooms and assuming the latter.

The good news is that things are changing. Of the many trends in public education today, one of the most promising, and most misunderstood, is what is known as "whole language."

Holistic Approaches

Whole language is perhaps the most widely discussed trend in public education, especially at the elementary level. The term "whole language" covers a wide array of materials and practices, many of which do not fit the generally accepted characteristics of whole language practice (Fisher, Fox & Paille, 1996). Good middle schools are first and foremost developmentally responsive institutions (National Middle School Association, 1995). That is, they focus on the real-world needs of young adolescents and use teaching approaches that best meet developmental needs. It is not surprising that practices such as cooperative learning, literature-based reading and holistic literacy flourish at the middle level.

Some researchers trace the whole language approach to Vygotsky and other adherents of constructivist practices (Goodman, 1992; Sikula, Buttery & Guyton, 1996). …

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