Park.edu Home > Watson Literacy Center > News
Interview with Dorothy Harper Watson
By Misty Wilczek - Park University Stylus writer
President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation resonates with equality, caring, and faith in the ability of each and every child of the United States. Through this initiative it appears the federal government is focusing attention on the future of the country -- its children -- and is even willing to back that focus with additional funding.
Appearances can be deceiving.
“It sounds so wonderful,” says Dr. Dorothy Harper Watson, a 1952 graduate of Park University, world-renowned expert in literacy and the benefactor of $250,000 to establish a literacy center at her alma mater. “So wonderful: no child left behind and giving money to education. But then you have to start asking what the money is for.”
Asking questions, especially questions about how children learn, comes naturally for Dorothy Watson. Her entire career in education has been focused on not only teaching others how to teach, but also on allowing others, especially children, to teach her.
Watson always wanted to be a teacher. As a little girl she spent her free time playing school with her neighborhood friends. However, following that dream wasn’t what brought her to Park College in the fall of 1948. She came for one simple reason; it was one of the few colleges she could afford to attend.
“You know, I couldn’t have gotten an education if there hadn’t been a school like Park,” Watson says. “My family couldn’t afford it and I was the first one who got a college education in my family.”
Watson was introduced to Park by the Presbyterian minister in her hometown of Okmulgee, Okla., who was also an alumni of Park. He told her about Park and a scholarship opportunity with a single requirement -- to memorize the entire catechism.
“I went to see the dean at the chapel and he said I could start,” Watson remembers. “He was opening his book when I immediately started by asking the first question, ‘What is the chief end of man?’ and then I gave the answer and I just continued. At the end, he was sort of smiling and I thought, ‘Oh my word, I’ve left out half of it or something and he’s just going to throw me out of here,’ and he said, ‘Well, Dorothy, you really didn’t need to memorize the questions as well, I was going to give you those.’ ”
Watson earned the scholarship, and that, combined with Park’s Family Work Program, in which students worked 20 hours a week to earn credit towards their expenses, allowed her to receive a college degree.
When Watson attended Park the college had no elementary education program, so she decided to major in psychology because she thought the mind was interesting. Although the focus of her college education was not education, nothing could stop her from becoming a teacher.
After graduation, she went to Winfield, Kans., to take a position as a youth director for an organization. She remained there for a couple of years before coming back to the Kansas City area to take a position in the public school system.
“They were hiring teachers without credentials,” Watson says, “with the understanding that you would work towards them.”
She did, attending the University of Missouri at Kansas City to obtain her certification and a masters degree, as well. Following this she held a joint appointment with UMKC and Kansas City public schools as the director of the Teacher Corps program, developed to teach teachers how to successfully teach literacy to children in their classrooms.
But Kansas City, Mo., classrooms were no boundary for Watson. She soon joined the Peace Corps where she taught in Kenya and Sierra Leone, Africa during from 1966 through 1968.
It was on one of her trips to Sierra Leone that she experienced a profound moment, a moment that would firmly cement her belief in whole language education.
Watson explains that the schools in Sierra Leone were based on the old British curriculum with a test called "13 plus." If you passed, you were able to continue your education. If you failed you were only allowed to finish the year. She was told based on those test results, the children were physically separated in the classroom: passes on one side, fails on the other.
“I told the teacher that I would be able to tell which side had passed and which side had failed just by looking at the children,” Watson says. She describes walking into that classroom and seeing children with their heads down, shoulders slumped, eyes barely raised to look at her as she entered the room.
“They believed they were failures because of that test,” Watson says. “That was not the beginning, but it was certainly a major point in my hating high stakes tests. I do to this day, I think they are abominable.”
“The ‘No Child Left Behind’ legislation is doing it again,” Watson says. “The money is for testing and high stakes testing. The money is for training teachers to do one mandated literacy program, ONE, which is a very skills based literacy program.”
The literacy program mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act is grounded on phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is breaking down language into its smallest units and building on them.
Watson provids an example of the teaching methodology for a kindergarten curriculum. The teacher asks the children to say 'cat,' they say 'cat.' The teacher then asks the children where the “a” sound is in cat.
“Who the hell cares,” Watson exclaims, arms raised in exasperation. “The first and foremost system in the whole language approach is that what you do has to have meaning. If it doesn’t have meaning, you can’t just sound your way through it.”
The whole language approach is Watson's mantra around the world. She has received, and continues to receive many awards. She has just received notice that she will be inducted into the “Reading Hall of Fame.” She has been invited to teach, as well as speak, at conferences and seminars, in many countries from Tunisia to Russia, China to Western Europe.
While traveling, Watson has seen much need, yet she decided to give the funds she has saved from speaking engagements and royalities to build a literacy center at Park University.
“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Park,” Watson says. “It’s just a great place, it always has been.”
Watson says she wasn’t really sure what she was going to do with the money, until she met Dr. Kathleen Ehrig Lofflin, associate professor of education, at a Park Alumni Weekend.
“I met Kathy and I asked, ‘Where’s your office?’” Watson explains. “So we started talking and we walked over to her office over on the third floor of Copley Hall. I asked, ‘Where’s your workroom and supplies and she opened her closet and I thought, ‘Oh my word, this is terrible.’”
The time Watson spent with Lofflin weighed on her mind and wouldn’t go away.
“I started thinking,” Watson says, “Park now is at a good location, near enough to Kansas City, if it were arranged, there could be work done with inner-city teachers and kids. Park could be a good center for teachers across the spectrum.”
Watson gives Lofflin credit for the formation of the idea. It was their mutual agreement and advocacy of the whole language approach to learning, as well as the need to educate administrators, teachers, parents, and children in this theoretical scaffolding to literacy that convinced her Park was the right place and Lofflin was the right person to successfully achieve her hopes for a literacy center.
“If it hadn’t been Kathy and her dedication and her theoretical orientation…," she says, "if she had been a strong skills and drills person, I wouldn’t have given it a thought.”
Watson has several hopes for the literacy center, to bring help to inner-city teachers, to investigate and help teachers discover the processes of reading and writing, and to encourage political awareness.
“You see,” Watson says, “teachers have got to realize, they will say, ‘I didn’t go into education to be political.’ Well, education is political, IT IS, and if you don’t believe it, then I don’t think you should be in education.
“I have high hopes about the literacy center,” Watson says. “I know these hopes are going to be fulfilled because I truly believe Kathy is going about this the right way. She’s doing a good job involving people who want to be involved in it. And she herself is working very hard, going to conferences, talking with people, and thinking through very carefully what the basis of the center is and what the steps will be and how it will reach out and reach to teachers, parents, and children.”