Rouge Forum:

Bridging the Gap; Whole Language, Inclusion, and Critical Social Action

by Rich Gibson

San Diego State University, College of Education

These are times that test the core of every educator. The rise of standardized high-stakes exams, school takeovers, vouchers, discrete phonics instruction, merit pay, and the corporatization of schools under the guise of national unity all combine to call into question what we are and what we stand for. The unfortunate collaboration of teachers' unions and many professional organizations in these international trends has raised many concerns. The underlying complex processes of intensifying nationalism, racism,

sexism, authoritarianism, irrationalism and other "isms" often seem overpowering, a series of small bullets coming in fast unison, so fast that it feels as if ducking one creates dozens of wounds from others. How shall we keep our ideals and still teach and learn?

In recent years, the impact of being a common target has caused several

members of distinct educational movements to come together for joint projects. Many groups are more seriously considering the power of interdependence

in seeking reason and social justice. As a result, advocates of whole language, inclusion, and critical pedagogy are engaging in more dialogue and have began

to work together, to re-discover their natural unity.

For a time, many people within the whole language movement saw their outlook as simply a teaching philosophy, one that stood outside politics. The inclusive education movement likewise was viewed less politically. The idea of special education inclusion, however, has challenged ideologies and career paths at all levels. At the same time, the critical pedagogy movement became so divorced from the political world that it lost sight of ways in which social change can be activated.

Perhaps born in the same well-springs, the three movements diverged so completely that they lost sight of one another. A few well-known individuals from each camp tried to stay in touch and reached out to school-workers, parents, and students to demonstrate the inseparability of political work, whole language, and critical teaching. Among this group, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Gerald Coles, Patrick Shannon, Susan O'Hanian, Carol Edelsky, Gerry Oglan, Michael Peterson, Valerie Pang, and Wayne Ross stand out.

The Rouge Forum was born in this mix. The Rouge Forum is an organizational effort to bridge the gap between education and organizing for social change, a group of people who see the need for common support. The Rouge Forum seeks to build relationships across disciplines, age , sex, ability, class and race barriers, to take up the vital issues of the day. It seeks to validate the old saw that an "Injury to one goes before an injury to all." As Jean Anyonh has stated, trying to reform schools without reforming the social and economic situations the schools sit in is like cleaning the air on one side of a screen door.

Starting in 1996 with a group of three people at Wayne State University in

Detroit, the Rouge Forum now has an informal membership of more than 2000 people. Membership in the Rouge Forum has always been free, and Rouge events are designed to be free or low-cost. There is no formal position statement of the Rouge Forum, as dialogue about differing educational views is foundational to the organization. Even so, we have a compass and a general direction. Our membership is primarily in Michigan, New York, and California, but we also have active members in Australia, Great Britain, Canada, Grenada, and South Africa. Rouge Forum leaders have never been paid for their work, other than occasional cost for travel. Our "Forums" have been multi-day interactive dialogues involving hundreds of people. 

Since part of the effort has been to start conversations and to explore possibilities for common action, leadership has not been formalized beyond the recognition of those who have helped us organize. With our growing membership, we are in the process of creating a more formal structure, one that will reflect our egalitarian and democratic goals. Ultimately, we want to offer each member a way to lead.

In the process of the work, we have deepened our understandings of the

inseparable links of whole language, critical literacy, special education/inclusion, and the struggle to gain and test knowledge in a reasonably free and caring

atmosphere. Underlying our mutual issues is and the need for change, the need to strive for democracy and equality. Together, we need to challenge current efforts to deepen instructional and institutional segregation.

Below I will describe some tenets of whole language, critical pedagogy, and inclusion as a springboard for speculating upon their intersections, trying to weave together details of the relationships of whole language, inclusion, and critical pedagogy that are, perhaps, obvious to others but became more clear to us through our practical work.

Whole language is not just another way to teach literacy. Its history and practice emphasized its potential to:

1. Oppose one-size-fits-all education.

2. Emphasize collaboration in classrooms 

3. Challenge race/class-based tracking, tests, and basals,

4. Continue highlighting the central role of meaning and the multiple interpretations that promote knowing and learning

5. Link real language with real consequences.

6. Offer decision-making power to kids and parents through inquiry, a process that cannot be contained by pre-determined endings

7. Present knowledge as collective rather than individual property

8. Link theory and practice, affect and cognition. 

9. Locate kids in their material world by eliciting voice and analyzing real-world issues

10. Give teachers greater control of their work

Critical pedagogy maintains that:

1. Ideas are socially constructed . All knowledge is political, not neutral.

2. Education in the midst of inequality recreates unequal social conditions, yet as places where the struggle for truth is at least purportedly privileged, there is considerable room to work in schools.

3. Knowledge-building is mediated by assumptions about class, race, sex, ability/disability, gender, and other identity markers.

4. While formal education systems are frequently designed to reproduce class relationships and create people who are instruments of their own oppression, inquiry into dominance can be the path to critical consciousness and rational action. 

5. All teaching presupposes a view of the past, an analysis of the

present, and a vision of the future. As a result, teachers take sides, some as missionaries for privilege, others as proponents of democracy and equality.

6. Domination needs to be unmasked by the interplay of social inquiry and rigorous individual investigation. At the heart of critical pedagogy is Galileo's thought, "It moves." Things change.

7. Education needs to be experimental and exploratory, hence risky to the powerful..

8. Authority is rooted in respect and extended knowledge, not sheer

domination. Critical teaching seeks to overcome the alienation of student-educator-parent that is common in most schools-yet to unravel its roots. 

9. Knowledge is partial, momentary grasp of an ever-changing reality, tested by social practice, yet related to the social whole, which is steeped in exploitation, alienation, and irrationalism-at odds with the interests of most people. So passionate discussion can be mediated by the grasp of partiality, the potential of solidarity.

10. Knowledge is drawn from, and taken beyond, the classroom. Hence the communities, especially poor and working class communities, play a pivotal role in a critical classroom. In sum: Read/Judge/Act.

Inclusive Education holds that:

!. All means all. Inclusion is not limited to ability/apparent disability, but to everyone, as in class, race, sex. Segregated learning is, above all, learning segregation. 

2. Inclusion emphasizes making connections, overcoming disconnections, finding harmony within, yet above, disharmony. As in music, there is no harmony of a single note. Inclusion implies the hidden harmony that appears to come from discord. 

3. Inclusion unites curriculum, methods of instruction, presence, and the setting, that is, the whole, locating the educational activity within and as part of the community and its interests.

4. Inclusive education always asks: Who is not here? Why? Inclusion unites solidarity and care. 

5. Inclusive education seeks to redraw pedagogy and content as well, by asking: What is the relatedness of this to that, of phylum to libretto, of class to race, of apparent disability to prejudice, of what we know to how we came to know it, and why might they be disconnected? 

6. The inclusive outlook relates not only to presence, but analysis, in moving from appearance to essence.

7. Inclusion demonstrates the philosophical and practical relationships of quantity and quality, and the leaps that occur in change. They must be here and if they are it will be better, through our conscious struggle to make it so.

8. Inclusion shows the connection of likeness and difference.

9. Inclusive education shows the potential within what appears to be the actual, the foundation of any struggle for knowledge.

10. The test, for inclusion, is not what is said, or what is called up by belief but what is done, practice. 

Just as Whole Language practitioners have sometimes forgotten their radical

roots, critical pedagogy advocates have sometimes failed to acknowledge the elitist roots of their theory. In some instances, critical pedagogy has served the interests of new elites rather than the interests of social democracy and economic equality. In this sense, critical pedagogy has failed the test of material equality. Too often, critical pedagogy has located the source of oppression in the

minds of people, rather than in a relationship of mind, matter, and motion: ideas linked to the understanding of alienated labor and class struggle, internalized oppression to authoritarian sexual relationships, and the fear of freedom and change. A truly exploratory, investigative pedagogy holds everything open to critique-but when it abandons reason, and social practice as the test of knowledge, it becomes a system of oppression.

The message of Whole Language is centered on the totality, the wholeness,

inter-relatedness of knowledge. The focus of the inclusion movement has

been the unity of people, all people. The heart of critical pedagogy is

that we can understand and transform the world-in the interest of masses of people. . These movements have everything in common.

The Rouge Forum is a group of educators, students, and parents seeking a democratic society through the discussion of critical questions. We are concerned about questions like these: 

How can we teach against racism, national chauvinism and sexism

in an increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic society?

How can we gain enough real power to keep our ideals and still teach--or learn? Why must we choose between being good educators and good employees? Whose interests shall schools serve in a society that is ever more unequal? 

How can we integrate research and social action? 

The Rouge Forum hopes to demonstrate that the power necessary to win greater democracy will likely rise out of an organization that unites people in new

ways--across union boundaries, across community lines, across the fences of

race, sex, and gender. We believe that good humor and friendships are a vital part of building this kind of organization, as important as theoretical clarity. Friendships allow us to understand that action always reveals errors--the key way we learn. We chose Brer Rabbit as a symbol to underline the good cheer that rightfully guides the struggle for justice. Every part of the world is our briar patch.

The Rouge Forum has had modest success in defeating the standardized test, the MEAP, in Michigan and in organizing against the Big Tests around the US.. Our petition against the Big Tests is online at:

We work in faculty organizations and unions to deal with the racism and sexism in academia. In the National Council for the Social

Studies, our work in the Faculty Association caused the unanimous passage of a resolution calling for boycotts of standardized high-stakes examinations. Our newspaper, The Rouge Forum News is online, representing the work of all our constituents: students, parents, community people, and school workers.

We do not merely fight tests. We want an education system and a society that is democratic and egalitarian, where the struggle for truth is unobstructed by mean opportunism, where wonder can be reconnected with wisdom. We try to press forward questions of class size, curricular freedom, anti-racist pedagogy, real inclusion, and a just tax system. As part of the Whole Schooling Consortium, we have sponsored forums in the U.S., uniting hundreds of people for democracy and equality. In July 2001 we will hold the International Education Summit for Democracy and Social Justice with the Whole Schooling Consortium and the Whole Language Umbrella in Chicago.

You are invited to join us! Just check out The Rouge Forum web page: