[00:00:05] Kate Winn: Hello to all you travelers out there on the road to evidence-based literacy instruction. I'm Kate Winn, classroom teacher and host of IDA Ontario's podcast Reading Road Trip.
[00:00:15] Kate Winn: Welcome to the show.
[00:00:16] Kate Winn: We are so excited to be bringing you episode five of our second season. Before we get started, we would like to acknowledge that we are recording this podcast from the traditional land of the Mississauga Anishinaabe. We are grateful to live here and thank the generations of First Nations people for their care for and teachings about the earth. We also recognize the contributions of Métis, Inuit and other Indigenous peoples in shaping our community and country. Along with this acknowledgement, and in the spirit of truth and reconciliation, we'd like to amplify the work of an Indigenous author, and this week we are sharing the picture book Smile So Big by Sunshine Tenasco illustrated by chief Lady Bird when Shala comes home in tears after being teased about her smile, her mum gives her a special gift. It's a magic mirror, shiny, beaded and beautiful, passed on from her mum and from her jojo before her. Chala's mum tells her that when anyone looks into the mirror, they will see their true self. There's just one rule. Everyone has to say what they see in the reflection. At first, the mirror seems to work for everyone but her. Cella keeps looking and looking. The more beauty she sees in herself, the happier she feels. And the longer she looks into the mirror, the more beauty she sees. Until finally Cella sees so much beauty she can't contain her smile. This special story from award-winning activist Sunshine Tenasco and artist Chief Lady Bird introduces readers to concepts of self-acceptance, self-empowerment, and recognition of the unique beauty that comes from within.
Add this book to your home or classroom library today. And now on with the show.
[00:01:54] Kate Winn: I am absolutely thrilled to introduce our guest this week on Reading Road Trip. Kareem Weaver is a co-founder and executive director of Fulcrum and is also the Oakland NAACP's second vice president and chair of its education committee. Kareem's advocacy is featured in the film The Right to Read. Mr. Weaver previously served as new leaders, executive director of the western region and was an award-winning teacher and administrator. He has undergraduate degrees from Morehouse College and a Master's in clinical community psychology from the University of South Carolina. Mr. Weaver believes in the potential of all students, the brotherhood of man, and the importance of service above self, and he is graciously here to help clear up some misconceptions about the connections between literacy and equity. Welcome Kareem Weaver.
[00:02:41] Kareem Weaver: Thank you. I'm glad to be here. I appreciate the introduction, and I'm looking forward to the conversations. Very important topic and very near and dear to my heart.
[00:02:49] Kate Winn: Well, I'm going to be hitting you with a number of quotes and questions, but before we jump into that for any listeners, I'm sure most of our listeners are well aware of your work. But just for any who may not already know you, could you just share how your personal and professional lives kind of came together in terms of literacy?
[00:03:04] Kareem Weaver: How it came together?
Okay, well, it came together right from the very beginning, actually, my life and my career have gone in stages, but in every step of the way, it seems like education and literacy have gone hand in hand. My personal journey in California, United States, when crime was at an all-time high and we're trying to identify root causes, it made me look a little bit deeper, and I realized that most of the people who were caught up in things that were not good, it seemed like they had a few deficits. There were some issues, not all, but there were some consistent through lines, through their experiences, and illiteracy was one of them. I later worked at a juvenile justice facility in a different state, and it was the same thing. The kids couldn't read, and they were locked up behind bars like animals. And it just became the reality of my life. And in my work as an educator, I taught kids to read. For years and years and years, I had my own kids. And then I realized after teaching them to read, that when they went off to the public school system, they actually went backwards. And at some point, I had to say, wait a second. I know they can read because I taught them myself. So this isn't a guessing game. I did it.
But that's not enough. It's not enough to teach kids to read. You have to maintain it. You have to continue to support them. And so the methods that they were using, which a lot of districts across North America use, a lot of school boards do, it was actually unraveling the things that they'd learned. And before I knew it, my children who loved to read, I mean, loved to read, they ended up hating school, hating reading, et cetera, et cetera, until we had to intervene. One we found out was dyslexic, the other was not. But there was no disputing the fact that they started off on the right foot, but that some of the methods that we've been employing that we thought as. As parents and as educators, we thought it was fine. No, not fine. In fact, going backwards. And when you have a learning difference, like dyslexia, for example, it's a death knell. It is something not just that you have to overcome, that you have to navigate every day just to maintain. So, anyway, I realize, oh, yeah, this is the thing. It's not just in my professional life, but it's in my personal life, too.
[00:05:30] Kate Winn: We have compiled a list of some of the questionable comments that we have heard over the last while about literacy and equity, and this intersection is definitely an area of expertise for you. We want to start with something that we hear a lot coming from board district leaders who say we don't have the time, money, resources, people for these literacy initiatives right now because our focus is equity. Why does this not make sense? And how do literacy and equity work together?
[00:05:57] Kareem Weaver: Whoa, hold on.
They're saying we don't have time for literacy because we're focusing on equity? Is that what they're saying?
[00:06:05] Kate Winn: Yeah, that's right.
[00:06:07] Kareem Weaver: Are you serious? You're serious with me right now, right?
[00:06:09] Kate Winn: Oh, I'm serious.
[00:06:11] Kareem Weaver: Wow. Okay.
You can't have equity without literacy. That's the first thing you're chasing, something that doesn't exist. If you don't focus on literacy, there is no equity. None. And I think that's the main thing that people need to understand. They see these two concepts sometimes as being separate. We'll get to that when we finish doing the social justice thing. There is no social justice thing without literacy.
I don't care how you cut it, slice it, or package it. The reality is, when we divorce those two, it's either because we don't believe in the children or we don't believe in ourselves. Neither one is good because literacy is the currency. Literacy is how we access all these institutions that we want to access equitably. Well, we can't access them if we can't read, period. Point blank. I know there's a lot of different kinds of literacy. There's financial literacy. I'm just talking about reading and writing right now. There are other things. There's other literacies as well. If you can't read and write, come on.
Maybe their heart may be in the right place. We want to help kids, and we'll get to the details later, but we have to globally help them. But my question is how? How are you going to help them? I'm not trying to get a person to…there's this…teach a man to fish and then they'll eat for a lifetime. That's what literacy is. You can give them a social service, you can provide some support. You can do whatever, handle whatever the crisis is at the moment. But if they can't read, they will forever be dependent on someone else to dictate their experiences, their understanding, their access to general services in life. So unless you want a nation of dependence, you have to make sure that people have the agency that they need to navigate society. And that starts with equity. So with all due respect and love that I'm sure they have coming right back at you and all loving this I can muster. Literacy is part of that. If literacy is not part of your definition of equity, you got to rethink that thing.
[00:08:17] Kate Winn: Back in October, you tweeted, and I'm going to be throwing some of your own tweets at you today.
I call them tweets. It's probably like you posted on x, but I still call it twitter, so I love this one. So, quote, cultural relevance is not a workaround for evidence-based instruction, using high-quality instructional materials and having the time to plan. In other words, you can't just put a book on Dr. King in front of a black child and expect they'll learn to read, end quote. I hope, I mean, I don't know whether I'm too naive, but I hope we all agree that there should be representation in the faces and the voices and the texts and all of that.
I don't think people disagree with that, but it seems like that's not enough when it comes to literacy. Right? There's that other piece. So can you kind of break down that tweet for us?
[00:09:03] Kareem Weaver: I can, but I'm a first push a little bit. So you say that you hope we can all agree that there's representation in the texts. Okay. Representation of who and what and how.
I'm just asking, when you say representation, what do you mean? What do you mean when you say that?
[00:09:21] Kate Winn: I guess when I am saying that, I mean the different.
I'm thinking of kindergarten, and I'm thinking of wanting my white students to see all sorts of different colours of faces. And I want them reading stories, like when I'm reading picture books. I want content that represents not just maybe what their culture is or what they're used to in their homes, sort of that. And then I also think of the kids who aren't white, like the kids in my class, and don't always see themselves represented. And so I'm thinking about wanting those kids to see themselves like that. Mirrors and windows and sliding doors. Right. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, the idea of having all of that. So, I mean, I know that's part of my beliefs and my ideals as a teacher is what I hope we're seeing in classrooms and what I hope people want. And so that's kind of what I mean. And obviously, when you get into the older grades, we're talking about history. Well, whose history? And having different perspectives represented and all of that, too. But I guess I've got sort of that kindergarten focus in my mind.
[00:10:18] Kareem Weaver: Okay, that's helpful. So let me just say that color and culture don't necessarily go together.
Not every white person has the same culture. It took me a while to realize that. I thought they did it for a while. I didn't know any better.
And black folks are the same way, Indigenous folks are the same way.
We're all different. So our attempts to ensure that kids see someone like them in the stories, I think it's nobly intended, but it's a fool's errand. It can't hurt. It can't hurt to have somebody that looks like you in a book. But we come with a range of family backgrounds and experiences, and you're not going to reflect everybody's stuff in a story.
And there is no archetype.
We have to step back and ask ourselves, are we promoting a caricature of what we think students are and what their background is? Is that what we're doing, or are we saying it's okay to be this way or that way? I think sometimes it's a little bit self-congratulatory when we think we're being culturally relevant. Most of the times we're not. Most of the times we're putting pictures in a book. Okay, that's nice, but is that going to make me feel good about myself? Which I think is some of the thrust behind it, self-esteem. And to be able to see yourself in literature, that's all fine, but we do ourselves and the children a disservice when we assume that there is an archetype for their culture and that we create these caricatures that resemble that it's not necessarily the case. Every family, every nation, every tribe, every country is diverse.
You can have some stories that are interesting and compelling because they resemble. Like I was a kid, I heard this story about this guy named John Henry, this black man who fought industrialism because he would swing a hammer as the same way a machine did. And he beat the machine, and it was considered a Black book. Okay, well, it was nice to have a Black guy in a book, but it was a good story. And newsflash, I'm not going to grow up and try to swing a hammer like Johnny.
I think sometimes in our zeal to be supportive and loving for children, we're trying to find the answer. We're trying to figure out what can support them, what can make them feel that love and passion of learning and life that we think every child should have. And so we do a lot of different things that we believe or that the culture says will lead down that road. We may or may not be right with those things, but I would just suggest this.
They better learn how to read.
I don't care what kind of pictures you have in that book, if they can't read it, it's pernicious.
It's almost as if you're dangling something in front of them knowing that they can't access it.
The nobility of what culturally relevant pedagogy and the materials offers.
That is a great conversation to have. I would love to have that conversation.
Even, for example, the United States, we have African Americans or Black folks who have…you come from a different part of the country. You've got a completely different culture, the south versus the north versus the west. When your parents moved, if your parents migrated from Africa on their own, or if there was forced through slavery, there are so many different variables within groups and subdialects of language and all this. And so if you put a Black person in a book and say, oh, wow, this is culturally relevant, I can tell you if you put ten of us in a room, there might be one or two that relate to that. But the rest of us are like, that's not my thing.
And that quote in Twitter, which I got to be careful on Twitter, you reminded me, I got to take that more seriously now. But that quote on Twitter just tells me, you can have all that stuff you want to, but don't for 1 second…don't for 1 second think that's the goal, because a lot of people do that and they think, oh, I did my job. This is culturally relevant, they're going to feel good about this stuff. And this will be the thing this will lead them to…this will motivate them to excel and acquire the skill of literacy. Nah, it might motivate them. It might even inspire them. But teaching is teaching.
You are either creating a good foundation or you are not in terms of skill development. Now, the other things that come with it, I think we have to take a step back and realize their families are first when it comes to self-esteem and confidence and sense of self and culture and community and their role models and the things they like and don't like or identify with and don't identify, that's actually the family in the communities.
That's their purview. We can come in and support that, but let's not be presumptuous and think we know every kid's background and every kid's culture. Let's give them the skills to navigate society. And if you don't do that, if you only focus on the cultural aspect of it, but you don't give them the skills, we think we're allies, but oftentimes we are the monsters we've been trying to slay that it's our job to give them the skills. I know we could talk about parents' roles and responsibilities, but we get paid for this. This is our job, okay? And for us to do our job as professionals, we have to make sure that everybody comes through that building, everybody that comes through that school, our classroom, leaves with the skills they're supposed to have. So that's all I meant by that tweet. No shade. For anybody who wants to bolster someone's self-esteem with the culturally relevant materials and put, that's fine. I don't have anything against that, but just don't be humble about it. Just know that people are diverse, even within groups, that there are no monolithic cultures and societies. Nowadays, things are global, and even within groups, there's lots of variance. But one thing we can do, what we show enough can do. As my folks out here say, we can make sure that kids know how to read and read well and understand what they read and decipher and discern and process information so that they can navigate society. That's what we can do.
[00:16:42] Kate Winn: Thank you so much for that. And that leads really well into my next question. So this time it's a quote, not your quote, a quote from somebody else, that I want your opinion on. So this one came from, and I have so many people who they message me, and can you believe somebody said this and our leader said that? So this one came from someone in a leadership role in a school district and here in Ontario. So as you well know, we had the Ontario Human Rights Commission the Right to Read Inquiry recommendations. We now have a new language curriculum incorporating those recommendations. One of the four strands is the foundations of language strand. So those foundational skills. And this person said this focus on foundational skills is white supremacy.
How would you respond to that?
[00:17:26] Kareem Weaver: Oh, God.
Are you trolling me?
[00:17:31] Kate Winn: I wish I were.
[00:17:32] Kareem Weaver: Are you trolling me, man? Okay. All right.
Well, first, let me try to understand what the person is saying. What they're saying is that foundational skills are anathema to liberation, freedom, and are a form of control and manipulation around that's rooted in racism. That's how I'm interpreting that question. Is that how you read that, too?
[00:18:02] Kate Winn: I honestly don't know how to read it.
[00:18:05] Kareem Weaver: Yeah, I think that's what they're saying. They're saying that foundational skills are a form of white supremacy.
Okay, well, I think there's a few aspects to this.
There's instruction, there's the inputs, and there's the outputs, and there's the expectation. So I guess there's three things. So first, let me get to the inputs.
So the method and the pedagogy of instruction ideally should be tailored to get the greatest number of kids reading, period.
In a public system that is in charge of doing the public good or public service. You want to get kids reading, you want to have them be successful, whether it's math, science, reading, et cetera, that's just a factual matter. So is the science of reading, our foundational skills, and their development, is that going to help you get to the greatest number of kids to be proficient readers as possible? The research says yes, that if you don't have a foundation, if you can't crack the code, you're going to be limited. And this is for all of the romantic languages. So we're talking about French, English, Spanish, Latin, you name it. Those who have a root in those languages, you have to have the foundation to build. Break down the etymology of the words, that you're not landlocked, and that you can begin to discern what things are based on, how the word is built in addition to the context that allows you to access more complex text. So that's a skill. Skills aren't white supremacist.
That's something that being able to drive a car, being able to throw a ball, being able to ride a bike, it's just a skill. So the skill, you can argue about how important it is, I would say being able to have that skill is very, very important. Now, the outcome, what you can do with that skill, when you have the ability to decode, when you have the foundational skills, this is like being a contractor or a construction person, and you're building a home.
The height of the edifice, the height of the building, the width of the building, it all depends on the foundation. The wider your foundation, the higher you can go up. And it's the same thing with foundational skills and reading, the better your foundation the better your structure can be on the way up.
But if you don't have a good foundation, if you've got cracks in it or it's too narrow, or you don't have…I know people who have wonderful careers but can't spell to save their lives because they never were taught the code, or they can't really analyze things in a way that's going to be constructive consistently. It's just the way they were taught. So the outcome, another way of saying that is, let's see if I can say it mathematically.
The diameter of your knowledge, which includes your foundational skills, determines the circumference of your activities.
The breadth of your knowledge will determine what spheres you rotate in. So from an output perspective, if we want people to have access to society, if we want them to, economic opportunity, familial opportunity, you name it, they need to have those foundational skills. So that's the input and the output. Now let's get to, I think, the heart of this thing.
Is this a white thing.
When you say white supremacy, that's putting a colour on reading. Is it a white thing to have foundational skills? Because that's really what that question is about. You're trying to make a white thing the standard.
Well, I have some folks in ancient Egypt, in Kemet, who would disagree with you as they on their papyrus scrolls were writing.
I have some people in Mesopotamia who would disagree with you. I have some people in Timbuktu who would disagree with you. I have some people all over the world who would disagree with you that they elevated literacy and they elevated the ability to crack a code based system as being part of a basic education. Basic. Basic. And that's what that human rights commission was talking about.
This is a human right.
So I would ask whoever wrote that question, and I'm not saying it, I mean, to demean anyone. I'm just saying up is down and down is up. I would ask you to just step back and really think about the implications of that comment. We have ascribed being a literate person with being white.
We have assigned a certain value to whiteness that maybe we have. Instead of white supremacy, we may have to think about our inferiorities.
Because to be literate is to be excellent in whatever the culture is. When you assign colour to excellence, I have questions about how you viewed societal groups. For me, to be Black is to be excellent, is to be literate. That's my frame. But I understand that there'd be some other people who say, well, if you're going to do it this way. Are you going to have those foundational skills if you want? No.
Those foundational skills are key to climbing up this ladder and having as wide a base as possible. That's the key to excellence, and I own that. As a Black man, I have a right to that. In fact, as an educator, I have a duty to that, to make sure all of my students, all of my students have access to excellence. It's not a white thing. It's a human being thing. I don't care whether you're talking about economics, if you're talking about religion. You want to be able to read the scriptures. You want to be able to actually invest in the stock market. You want to be able to do anything. You have to be literate. You need a foundation and literacy to do that. So those foundational skills, I just disagree.
And maybe if that person who wrote that could say a little bit more, I'd welcome that conversation, and they may have something that I haven't considered, if. Sure they have, but dog on it. We got to call a thing a thing. Reading is for everybody. It just isn't. The foundational skills are good for everyone. It disadvantages none.
But it is absolutely critical to the majority of folks being able to crack the code and be successful readers.
[00:24:58] Kate Winn: Thank you for that. I'm wondering whether..my next question, whether there's a connection here at all. So I keep trying to find a great book that ties equity to that literacy, the curriculum piece. There are lots of wonderful equity books out there that are just more general. I find any equity book I read that tries to get into literacy seems to really still push the balanced literacy agenda. So, for example, I was reading one, I was really excited about it. There was one chapter sort of on the racism piece, one on marginalized communities because of LGBTQ, one on socioeconomic. It was really covering a lot of different things people should think about in terms of equity, but then they got to, and I quote, the dangerous practice of direct instruction.
And then the authors were also really negative throughout the book about things like math drills, anything that was teacher-directed, anything that was sort of that practice related piece. One thing I wonder is just whether people like these authors are worried that that's where we're going to stop these kids. Like, we're just going to teach them the basics, teach them the foundational literacy, but never get them into rich literature and deeper writing or even in math. We're just going to do math drills. You're never going to get into that rich problem solving? I don't think that's really anybody's goal in education. I'm wondering if that's the fear. But I would love to know if you have any insights why a lot of equity advocates that I have read seem wary of some of the evidence-based practices we know about in literacy. What am I missing?
[00:26:31] Kareem Weaver: I think people are wary of teachers. They don't trust us.
That's just the bottom line. They don't trust teachers. They don't think that teachers can make something come alive. They think that everything is going to come from the book. No, man, everything's not going to come from the book. What you need the book to do is to make sure that you have the foundational elements in place so that we can build off of it. As educators, we know our kids and we know the cultures, usually other students and their families. Usually it's our job as educators to breathe life into these things so they're not sterile, so they're not just dry without love and humanity.
But it's not the materials. The materials. You just have to make sure we have the basics covered. You have to make sure that the signing is there, the connectivity is there, but the whole drill and kill. They're going to be bored. You're going to drill and kill. What do you think we are as teachers? Who are your teachers?
I think it's not. Direct instruction has been proven to work. So for me to sit up here and say, oh, well, my gosh, I fear direct instruction is going to be boring and have this negative drill and kill. Come on, man. I want to do what works. Don't you want to do what works for our kids? Now you got to trust me as a teacher. Trust, but verify. Come into a classroom and see the magic the teachers produce every day.
Now, it's a science, but it's also an art.
You can have two teachers with the exact same curriculum and those classrooms going to look completely differently. That's just how teachers are. There is no cookie-cutter way to do things. If you understand education. It's like being a chef in a kitchen. You can have two chefs, one of the finest schools, learning how to cook, and then you have my grandmother. And I can tell you when my grandmother cooks that same recipe, it's going to sing because she's an artist or she was an artist with it. And I would say education is the same way with teachers. I understand people are afraid, especially for kids coming from marginalized communities. They only get practice level work. They're not going to get the rich literature. Come on, man. You have some faith in teachers.
Unless you think that teachers are just robots, automatons that just do things in a cookie-cutter fashion. That's the art and the science going together. The teachers make things come alive. I got news for you. A lot of these subjects can be boring. Metaphysics can be boring. French can be boring. English can be boring.
History can be boring. You name it. Fine if I do it in a boring way. But if I, as the educator, have internalized that content, the materials are usable, and I have time to plan and prepare. You watch me work. You watch me work. It's part of our joy and our gift as educators to make it come alive for kids. So I wouldn't worry about the drill and kill stuff. That's what people say when they don't really.
Good teachers know better. Good teachers know better.
And so I would just make sure the materials are usable, that there's enough time for teachers to sing in there, to actually make it their own and do what needs to be done. But no, that's not something that I get the fear, but the rich literature, the deep understanding.
It's not the balanced literacy stuff that makes that happen. It's the educator. You just got to make sure the materials and stuff they're using is going to work for kids. It's going to get them reading. Then you got to let the teacher go to work. So that's how I'd answer that.
[00:30:16] Kate Winn: That's great. Something else that we've heard before, especially now in Ontario, we have this universal screening, kindergarten to grade two, and often from sort of those through the equity lens, people will argue we're opposed to universal screening as it uses a deficit model, and we want to honour the strengths our students bring to the table. What do you think about that? Is there room for both?
[00:30:42] Kareem Weaver: So let's not get caught up in the semantics. A screening is supposed to be an ounce of prevention.
When you screen kids for reading difficulties, including things like dyslexia, what you're saying is we are not going to wait to fail.
We're not going to wait until our children are struggling with their reading and the social emotional trauma that comes with being a struggling reader. Oftentimes we're not going to wait.
We're going to identify if there are gaps and we're going to do it now as opposed to waiting.
That is a humane approach. That is a common sense approach. The other way of doing it is let's wait until there's a big enough gap that we have to do something about it when they're two years behind.
And the ethics of that? I struggle with the ethics of that. I understand the thought process of being equity.
What is it, positive versus negative. Oh, you're screening for a deficit? No, we're screening because we love the kids. We want to make sure we can address their needs in K-2 as opposed to waiting until they're 3 - 5 or worse yet, in secondary, and it's never too late. But by then, the issues have hardened. They've developed certain coping mechanisms and they've had to navigate the landscape in ways that may not be healthy. Get them early.
So the framing of asset versus deficit, I would just ask people to think about how soon do you want to identify what kids need? Need. You can't have it both ways. You can't say, well, all kids should get what they need, but we're not going to screen them until later on because we don't want to have a deficit lens. Well, how are we going to give them what they need if we don't know what the challenges are and the growth areas? And does the screener provide assets as well? Sure. Fine. Some screeners provide. This is with strength. But what we're really looking to is to make sure that if there are gaps, that it empowers the teacher, that information empowers the teacher and the parents to identify ways to help those kids fill those gaps. That's what it is. In a timely way. That's the critical piece. In a timely way. So, yeah, we can honour the strengths of our kids all the time, but we also have to make sure that we're not waiting for them to fail before we identify what the challenges are so we can support them.
[00:33:21] Kate Winn: And I know in my classroom practice, using universal screener has, and I always joke that I say game changer every time I talk about this game changer. It has completely changed things and it has allowed me to figure out where those gaps are and fill them as fast as I can in kindergarten to try to get them to where they need to be. And I certainly see it as best for all kids. And I love the way you frame that.
Back to your Twitter feed. Another gem that you shared, this one was back in July. So, quote, I was asked to reconsider the term science of reading because it's divisive and makes some people uncomfortable. Well, centering what's comfortable for adults is partly how we got here in the first place. No, end quote. So can you dig into that a little bit? And especially that we got here by worrying about what's comfortable for adults piece.
[00:34:11] Kareem Weaver: So it's partly the conversation we were just having.
We have lots of theories and ideas about what works for kids.
You know, there is an individual who I hold in a high regard named Nancy Young.
She's Canadian by birth, and she has a graphic that I love to use. And it talked about the breakdown, know, how we learn to read. And it showed that the majority of people read, they need structured literacy, they need the five pillars. They need these things. But then there's about 5%, about 5% that it's so easy they're going to read no matter what. Matter of fact, they don't even remember how they learn to read. Usually about 5%. I've gone to conferences and meetings. That's about 40% to 50% of our educators.
What I realize is sometimes when that's your background, you really don't understand what it's like to be in the other group. You really don't know. And what makes us comfortable, what's chicken soup for us, what's comfortable for us is going to be different because it worked for us. We don't remember this being important oftentimes because it wasn't important to us. What makes us feel good is not necessarily what the kids need. There is a learner's bias. We have to be humble enough to say, wait a second, maybe my experience is not the standard.
In fact, that's the minority of the population. So what's comfortable for me as an adult may not be the thing that has to do with humility and being reflective and being able to put kids first and their needs first. So we start talking about the science of reading and the terminology and how we should or shouldn't articulate it. Most of that conversation is about us, our politics.
I heard someone the other day, they were talking about social justice and the science of reading, and they said that, well, I can't go along with this term, this phrase, the science of reading, because I think that it's now become popularized and it's a reform thing, and I think that there's big money behind. Like, what are you so far down? I didn't say this to them. I just kind of let them do what they're going to do. But I'm thinking they are so far down a conspiracy rabbit hole.
The kids, under their guidance, have no chance.
No chance, because they've got to get through all these layers of adult issues first. They got to get the semantics right. It has to be packaged right. It has to have the right colour. It has to have the right class, it has to have the right language. Everything has got to be just so to fit their politics, and then they'll get what they need as a child.
That is, in my view, that's the form of abuse. When the adults put our needs ahead of kids, and sometimes we think the kids are here to meet our needs instead of the other way around. That's not how it's supposed to go. So when I said that, I'm just, listen, I understand it. We want to get the terminology right, but some of this is about us and our politics and our identity as educators and the terminology and who has control over what and the language and this and that. And that's our adult stuff. And our kids are dying at the stake because our adult stuff is in the way. We're so busy with that we can't really get to the teaching and learning. Okay, you can call it what you don't call the science of reading. Call something else. Just do it. Just give them what they need. Learn these methods. Make sure that you understand how to teach in a structured, systematic, direct, and explicit way. Make sure you understand how to teach the phonological awareness and the phonics and the fluency and the comprehension.
And also, along with that, the oral language development in the writing.
Put all that together. If that's the case, fine. Call it what you want to, but let's stop playing games. Let's stop playing games and elevating our politics to the point where they separate us from the things we need to learn and to do. That's what I meant by that. I just get frustrated of adults, of us putting our stuff in front of the kids and saying, we got to get through this first. Then we'll get to you next. You wait in the corner till we get our politics right. Then we'll give you what you need. No, that dog won't hunt. And we've been doing that for generations, and our kids are the worst for it. Somebody has to be courageous enough to say kids first. You can call it what you want to kids first. Let's figure this out.
[00:38:53] Kate Winn: So another question that leads into that has to do with adults. So your story as an educator, as a father is featured in that incredible film, The Right to Read, which was mentioned in your bio off the top. I was actually at a screening for that film in Buffalo more than a year ago now at a Western New York Educators Conference, and you spoke there. And I was really excited because a headline from an article I wrote for today's parent magazine. It was called, I'm a kindergarten teacher, and the way I've been teaching reading is wrong. They put that in the movie. So I was just sitting there watching, and then all of sudden I see my headline up on the screen. But at that conference, you had another mic drop moment in my mind. So there was a little panel on the stage and somebody said, this should be a cause that unites us, because regardless of politics, don't we all want our kids to read? And you responded, we want our kids to read, but do we want our neighbour's kids to read?
Break that one down for us.
[00:39:44] Kareem Weaver: Yeah. So first of all, congratulations on that article. I think that's fantastic, and I'm glad that it was able to be featured. So I think that's the question.
That's really the question. We all want our kids to be successful. We do.
It's going to take a really cold person to just want their own kids to struggle. Now, it does exist. There are some people who say, I don't want you. He thinks he's better than me. There's a little bit of that. But most everybody wants their kids to be successful. That's not the real test of us as a society.
The question is, are you a good neighbour? What do you want for your neighbour's children?
Do we see ourselves to be connected to them? Is there some self-interest involved? Or do we just want them to thrive as fellow human beings?
I'm not saying there's a right. Which one of those is right? It's probably a little bit of both.
But do we want our neighbour's kids to thrive and not just to read, but to thrive. Reading is an antecedent. It's the precondition to thriving. Do we want that for our neighbour's kids?
If the answer to that is yes, and I'm not going to presume that it's yes.
If we want our children's friends, if we want their classmates, if we want their teammates, if we want our neighbors, if we want the other kids around us to also thrive and to be able to thrive, then there's some actions we got to take. But the question is worth asking. I don't presume anymore. I don't presume because you can't get in a situation like that. You wouldn't have to have an Ontario Human Rights Commission if all these questions were answered in the affirmative.
Do we want our neighbours' children to read?
That increases the competition at the university level, that increases the competition in the job market, that increases the competition in the social arena.
So it's a question we just often don't ask.
We dance around things. Sometimes.
I'm getting too old for that. Once you get over 50, it's like, just call a question, do we really want our neighbor's children to read? If we do. If we do, there's some things we have to prioritize. They may not be comfortable, they might be costly. But I would argue the cost of not doing it is also very expensive. Now, if we don't, if that's not a priority to us, then we can pretty much just keep doing what we've been doing. You're on your own. Good luck with it. It's dog eat dog. My kids against your kids. Best of luck with that. Okay, well, good luck in society if that's the approach, because there's going to come a time when a child who can't read becomes an adult who can't read, and our economies, our families, our neighbourhoods will reflect that, and not in a good way. So you got to call the question. I don't presume.
I just don't make assumptions anymore. You got to call the question, do we really? Because if we do, that means we elevate that ahead of a lot of other things that seem to take precedence in our politics, in our economics, in our relationships, in our school systems. There's going to be some reorganizing of things. Literacy has to be. If it's true, the literacy has got to show that. It's got to reflect that. Make sure our audio matches our video, and it's a priority across a host of different institutions.
[00:43:23] Kate Winn: So I have one more of your tweets to throw back at you before we start.
[00:43:29] Kareem Weaver: I got to pay attention to these tweets more. I got to be careful what I say, killing me.
[00:43:34] Kate Winn: But they're all great fodder for conversation here. So I'm glad to have…so then this kind of connects to social media a bit, too. So you posted, quote, Twitter needs a blue check for people who've actually taught children to read.
[00:43:47] Kareem Weaver: Oh, my God.
[00:43:48] Kate Winn: And across demographics, that is how people understand if they're listening to a theorist, successful practitioner, or somebody who's full of it, end quote. So tell me more about this.
Delve in a little more into what you mean, but also, what are you seeing on social media and how that's helping or hurting that sort of thing, too.
[00:44:07] Kareem Weaver: All right, well, I'm glad that you asked, is so, you know, Twitter has these, or exit, call it now. They've got these checks that you put by a person who's verified, I don't know, you maybe pay some money or they check your identity, or, I don't know, whatever it is, you're legit. You got this blue check. And so people like, oh, okay. That person might know a thing or two, maybe, or at least they've reached a certain position or something.
It's still a wild, wild west at times, but there's some effort made to say, hey, this is a person that you may want to at least hear them out, see what they're talking about.
But it's not like that in education.
Education we have people talking out their ear hole, just saying anything. I'm like, whether it's a theory, whether it's reporting on something that's happened, we assume that people have a background of experience in relation to the thing that they're talking about with this expert voice and this authority that they claim. But as I dig into these profiles, as I dig into, I'm like, this person either never taught, taught at a university. I'm not down in the university, folks, but you got to show me, if you're going to be teaching reading, then maybe you ought to have taught somebody how to read before.
We've gotten into trouble by following people who didn't know what the heck they were talking about, who had a combination full of theories and guesses about the way it could work, should work, and even does work.
Now, you could say that's on us for not asking for evidence, not asking for a resume, not asking for this. But in education, it seems like anybody can get up there and just talk, and that's the only way, if you think about it. So we have been three cueing for a long time. We've been doing balanced literacy, and it means a lot of different things to different people. But some of the things, some of the techniques that we've been using, they just don't make common sense. Common sense.
If the goal is to get kids reading now, if there's a political goal, that's different. But I'm talking about getting kids to read proficiently.
It never made sense.
And the people who trumpeted those things, they were never questioned. Hey, what are you basing this off of? What, in your experience as? As a longtime teacher and a principal, I got awards for teaching and for being a principal. I was teacher of the year, principal of the year, and all that type of stuff. But forget that. I got my kids to read.
Every now and then I would struggle with one or two, but I was fortunate enough to have a four or five combination class. For most of the times I had them for two years. Two years, I'd get them going. It's the only reason I even opened my mouth. I wouldn't open my mouth.
I would be embarrassed to open my mouth and talk about literacy and reading and what kids need. If I hadn't seen it and done it myself consistently over time.
It is the height of arrogance and presumptiveness.
It's disrespectful to the field, to the educators who work day in, day out, to the principals who lead, to the teachers who teach, to the paraprofessionals who provide support. It's disrespectful that you would think so little of the profession, its mission and its implementation.
You would think so little of that that you would just throw stuff out there based on hunches and guesses and what you heard or lightweight research that doesn't really have an effect size worth speaking of. I've seen some things where it pass off as research. When you read it, they found out, oh, you took away the kids who have learning differences. Oh, you refuse to do your study in places where the kids have a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.
It's a hustle, it's a game. And because we don't have the diligence and the time to really check people's backgrounds, it just all stands up as being equal. It's not equal. There are some things, there are people who create publishing, who create curriculum.
They weren't teachers.
They weren't reading teachers. They may have been a middle school teacher, a high school teacher, which is fine, but they never taught a child to read.
Okay, well, you better have hired a team of consultants to do that for you. Who did? But instead, they just make stuff up. And I'm just tired of the presumptive professionalism, the quasi-authoritativeness.
It's pernicious at its core. They're just lying to us and spitting in our face and telling us it's raining. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of it because it's pervasive. It's throughout the materials market, the publishing market, on social media, people say things as if they have authority, when what they have is groupthink and what somebody told them. If you have never taught a child to read and if you haven't done it consistently, you really shouldn't have too much to say other than what your experience is and what you're learning.
Tell me what works and be humble enough. To be honest, I'm just tired of the charlatans and the snake oil salesmen and women and the people who talk a good game based on their theories, and they uplift their university's profile because they have certain amount of tweets and followers and all this. Our kids are struggling, struggling, and we just don't have time for the charlatans. So that's why I said, I'm sorry to go on on about that. But teaching is not easy.
It's not easy.
It can be joyful. I love being a teacher, same as being a principal. It's not easy. So people who say these things, it's almost as if they think so little of the profession that they think, well, it doesn't really matter. Anybody can do it. I can say, whatever, man. These theories that you put out there, that people who don't really have time to vet them, they read them, they accept them, they adopt them, they internalize them. You're doing a harm to them and their career. You're doing a harm to the schools they work at and to the children that they serve. When I say harm, you're making them go backwards because they got to get through your crap before they can get to what's really going on.
It sickens my stomach, and I don't know whether it's because they want to sell stuff. They want to be popular. They see a movement, they want to get involved. I don't know what it is. If I had not taught kids to read consistently, I would sit down, be quiet, listen, learn, share my thoughts and experiences, sure. But I'll be coming from a learning stance as opposed to masquerading as an authority and misleading people and selling some product or tweeting a bunch of stuff, I don't know what I'm talking know. Again, sorry to go on with this, but, you know, when I tweet things I don't really like, I'm not a social media person. I just tweeted.
If I blow my top, if it really ticks me off, then I'll go to Twitter and say something. But that's one of those things I just don't like, know. Be humble, learn, watch, listen, participate. Sure, participate. But don't act like you have the secret to literacy when you never taught it. Come on, stop. We can't afford that. Our children cannot afford that. It's a game they just can't afford to play.
[00:52:05] Kate Winn: We have covered a lot of ground in our conversation today.
It's been wonderful. I know my head's going to be spinning for the rest of the day. I'll probably wake up in the middle of the night with different things that you've said bouncing around in my brain. Is there anything we haven't talked about yet? Any other messaging you want to give to our listeners before we say goodbye?
[00:52:24] Kareem Weaver: Sure. I would say studying the science, attuning to the research consensus, sharpening your practice, relearning things, taking the time to collaborate, doing the personal work to reflect and make changes, and committing time. This is not an easy task. But I just want to tell your listeners that it's worth it.
It's worth it. And it can be humbling and even sometimes humiliating to sit back and think, dang, even I did this and it wasn't the right thing for kids. That's tough. I spent 10, 15, 20 years doing something and it didn't work.
I would just say, or it didn't work as well as it could have. I would just urge your listeners not to get cynical.
Don't let that create cynicism in you because it's tough not to. The kids are worth it. And the biggest obstacle is overcoming those feelings of guilt, those feelings that what did I just do? You got to let that go. You got to forgive yourself, especially if you're just doing what you've been taught to do and realizing that the battle is ahead of us, not behind us.
Don't pay attention to the charlatans. Don't pay attention to people who, they talk the loudest, but they have never taught a day in their life or never taught children to read. You got to ignore that type of stuff. Get into the research. Get into. There's a podcast from Ed Trust called Extraordinary Districts. Getting ordinary districts with extraordinary results with Karen Chenworth. I love that one because it's just about what works. Focus on what works in terms of the methods, the curriculum, the pedagogy. Just follow what works and offer yourself some grace to start anew. You don't have to start from scratch, but don't be bound by mistakes that may have been made, especially since you weren't the one.
You're not Ken Goodman. You're not the person who started some of these methods. You're just following along. You got your degree and you got your job. So offer yourself some grace along with the people next to you. And also for parents.
Or with parents.
Listen, if you have a kid with dyslexia, you know it. It's like a hot stove.
It is hard. So you have to give them some grace, too. When they come in huffing and puffing and angry and frustrated and all that.
I know it's hard because sometimes parents, we can get a little unruly. But you just got to understand that when you see your child with the blindfold on, facing life's worst outcomes, yeah, you're going to move a little bit differently. You're going to sound a little bit rougher and harsher. And so just the same grace you offer yourself, I urge you to also consider giving it to parents who are trying their best to save their kids from these negative outcomes. But it's not too late to start over. It's not too late to reboot and restart. And the best thing I could do is podcast like this. And you listen to. That's wonderful. Get a tribe. Find a tribe of folks who you can commiserate with, plan with, build with, partner with.
It helps a lot whether you're a teacher and a tribe that you can collaborate with and provide professional development with each other in a collaborative environment, or you're a parent and you work out some sort of a cooperative deal where you and your kids can work together to do some things. Don't go alone if you can help it, because it can get tricky and it can get rough. Just be encouraged. Just be encouraged. I've seen it happen not just in my own life and in my own profession, but as my role as an advocate with the NAACP and also with Fulcrum, my nonprofit. It can work if we're diligent and if we offer ourselves and others the necessary.
[00:56:15] Kate Winn: Grace Kareem Weaver, thank you so much for being here for this episode of Reading Road Trip.
[00:56:22] Kareem Weaver: My pleasure, Kate.
[00:56:25] Kate Winn: Show notes for this episode with all the links and information you need, can be found at podcast.IDAOntario.com and you have been listening to season two, episode five with Kareem Weaver.
Now it's time for that typical end of the podcast call to action.
[00:56:42] Kate Winn: If you enjoyed this episode of Reading Road Trip, we'd love it if you could rate and or review it in your podcast app as this is extremely helpful. And of course we welcome any social media love. You feel inspired to spread as well. Feel free to Tag IDA Ontario and me. My handle is @thismomloves on Twitter and Facebook and @katethismomloves on Instagram. Make sure you're following the Reading Road Trip podcast in your app and watch for new episodes dropping every Monday. We couldn't bring Reading Road Trip to you without behind the scenes support from Katelyn Hanna, Brittany Haynes, and Melinda Jones at IDA Ontario. If you're enjoying Reading Road Trip, please consider making a donation to IDA Ontario, a volunteer-run charity that depends on donations to do our work supporting educators and families. I'm Kate Winn, and along with my co-producer, Una Malcolm. We hope this episode episode of Reading Road Trip has made your path to evidence-based literacy instruction just a little bit clearer and a lot more fun.
[00:57:40] Kate Winn: Join us next time when we bring another fabulous guest along for the ride. Or maybe three fabulous guests along for the ride on Reading Road Trip.