Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For

Holding On To Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones: Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For
By Thomas Newkirk
(Heinemann, 2009 – Learn more)

miller jenni 6 13Reviewed by Jenni Miller

To be honest, Holding On to Good Ideas wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. At first read, I found this book to be more scholarly and theoretical than practical and ready to use. It’s not a book to pick up and breeze through when you are looking for ideas or inspiration on those tough teaching days.

However, on a closer second read, I was struck by many passages of the book that did resonate with me. What this book does well is  paint a strong picture of the flaws in the current educational system (behemoth that it is), as well as to identify some basic literacy principles that are worth prioritizing, especially in today’s times of standardized testing gone mad.

hold on to good ideas main millerThe contents of this book should be read by education policy makers of all levels, including principals and department leaders as well as those who spend time legislating how classroom learning should work, look and perform. For teachers who don’t have the decision-making power to influence curriculum and who already see the flaws in NCLB, CCSS and the runaway standardized testing our students and teachers endure, this is good information, all too familiar to an overworked and tired teaching force, who will nonetheless cheer its content.

As a middle school classroom teacher for the past 20 years, I am part of that force. I agreed with so much of what Newkirk said in this book. I found myself highlighting and underlining and copying numerous passages, like these:

In this new era of accountability, if you can’t count it (preferably with a machine), it doesn’t count. Administrators, feeling a heavy axe over their heads, are naturally preoccupied with test results that appear in local papers like sports scores.

…many of the reforms that have been put into place are so restrictive – even distrustful of teacher creativity – that they strip teachers of agency and ownership of their own craft.

Standardization and standards seem so linguistically close that one shades into the other…Yet standardization only leads to sameness, not necessarily quality, and rarely to excellence.

There are so many points of strength in any school system, but no one working to connect the dots; there are too few opportunities to break down the isolation and allow teachers to see someone other than themselves teach.

And this:

There is a new vocabulary for teaching these days – rubric, prompt, evidence-based, direct instruction, and script. In New York City, even the process for writing memoirs has been reduced to a script. (Whatever happened to “ownership” and “choice”?) There is a closing down, a distrust of the professional judgment of teachers, which puzzles those of us who began teaching in a more accepting climate.

Puzzled and frustrated

I am one of those teachers who is puzzled and frustrated more and more. When I began teaching 20 years ago, I did not feel micro-managed, and it never once occurred to me that the federal or state governments had made it their mission to examine every ounce of data that my students or I produced. I believed that I was trusted to use my professional judgment, my education, and my experience to educate my students to the best of my ability. When I didn’t know something, I learned it myself before teaching my kids. I was invested in them, in their educations, and in myself as a professional teacher.

Today, the stakes are impossibly high; does anyone truly believe that teachers should really be held accountable for every variable in a student’s life that affects testing? There seems to be so little trust between educators and the rest of society any longer; instead, teachers are often assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Those who make the rules for teachers seem to believe themselves to be smarter than those who are in the trenches doing the work of teaching.

This book tackles that trend – through the lens of literacy education – and points us instead toward what really matters: authentic reading and writing for both students and teachers. Newkirk acknowledges the test mania that seems to have a stranglehold on education today, but he also points toward a path of clarity for teachers to follow.

Perhaps that’s why these passages in the book made me want to stand up and cheer: they gave me the sense that somebody else just gets it. That’s what so many teachers want in today’s blame-game world: we want people to just get it: to get how hard and wonderful and crazy and restricted and judged and under-appreciated and soul-draining and soul-filling all at once our jobs really are.

We want people to get how hard and wonderful and crazy and restricted and judged and under-appreciated and soul-draining and soul-filling all at once our jobs really are.

Lifelong readers, not just test takers

I have long believed that as a middle school language arts teacher, I have two wildly divergent goals for my students each year. One is to teach them how to take standardized tests successfully. But my other, far more important and driving goal is to create lifelong readers and writers. The two goals rarely, if ever, seem to intertwine. The message of this book seems to follow that same path of thinking. Despite the testing craze that we live with, Newkirk redirects our attention to how we can best stay focused on what matters for our students.

There is much in this book that teachers will identify and agree with. After reading it a second time, I wanted to pass it on to those who most need to read it – those with the influence and power to effect change.

But the truth is, no matter how politicians and lawmakers regulate the world of education, the bottom line always comes down to the relationship between a student and a teacher. Classroom teachers are on the front lines of education in every possible way. And I think that’s the real message of this book.

No matter what is going on around teachers, we know what is real, what matters, and what we must focus on. Despite the noise of testing and accountability that surrounds us, helping our students to become authentic readers and writers is something worth fighting for.

Jenni Miller is a 6th grade Language Arts teacher at Montevideo Middle School in Penn Laird, Virginia. She is in her 20th year of teaching there and absolutely loves reading and writing with her middle school students every day. She also loves Pinterest and frequently pins for middle school teachers and students alike. She can be found at


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