Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

English Quarterly

In Conversation with Linda Rief

Susan Church

I first met Linda Rief about five years ago when she conducted a weekend workshop for the local reading association. What I remember most about the session is my strong sense of Linda as a learning teacher. Although she shared some of her insights about how to create a supportive reading/writing classroom for adolescents, it was not in the form of "tips." Instead, she helped us understand her practice through her students' reading journals and writing, inviting us to learn from them.

Recently, I was delighted to discover Linda had published a book about her teaching, Seeking Diversity-Language Arts with Adolescents. As I began reading it, I felt as if Linda and I were picking up the conversation started during that workshop. It was clear she had continued to learn and change:

I am not the same person who started teaching ten years ago. My classroom this year is very different from the way it was last year. I expect that-I want that (p. 1).

Linda reminds me of Sylvia Gunnery, a friend and colleague, and another gifted teacher of adolescents. Like Sylvia, Linda seems eminently suited to work with these unpredictable, often frustrating, young people. I cold hear Sylvia's voice in Linda's comments about her choice to teach in a middle school:

When I stop liking these kids as people, I will get out of the classroom. Listening to them, accepting them for who they are as they go through this worst of times and best of times, laughing with them, respecting them, and helping them find what's good in their lives is what I am about (p. 91).

It strikes me that being a teacher these days is almost as tough as going through adolescence. There isn't much solid ground left, what with devastating budget cuts, incessant criticism in the media and from numerous bodies of experts outside education, shifting paradigms, restructured organizations, and the many societal changes that constantly impact on our students and ourselves.

I know a great many teachers who are angry and frustrated. A number have stopped learning, actively resisting the efforts of people like me who try to promote curriculum change. I am grateful there are others-self-directed like Sylvia and Linda-who are willing colleagues and collaborators. It's a joy to "laugh with them, respect them and help them find what's good in their lives."

But what kind of job am I doing with the angry, the frustrated, the resistant? Am I helping to create for them the kind of learning environments Linda tries to provide for her students or do the situations I set up exclude those who resist? Am I prepared to accept these teachers for who they are, to respect their dissenting views, and to try to understand their perspectives? Or am I only to willing to write them off? What am I doing to help them find something good in their teaching lives.

I can't honestly provide satisfactory answers to these and other hard questions. I agree with Linda Rief

We cannot isolate ourselves in closed classrooms. We have to continually question what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. We have to keep our own file folders (p. 181).

All teachers need to be members of learning communities. As a teacher of teachers, I need to find ways to draw in the reluctant as well as more willing learners.

I know what needs to be done but sometimes the institutional constraints within which I operate seem overwhelming. Linda is not prepared to let me off the hook. In the book she describes how she acted on her beliefs by refusing to administer standardized tests and then fought to replace them with more authentic means of assessment. She continues to push for smaller classes and more teacher control of curriculum.

I see that Linda, like me, has become more political during the years since we first met. I hope we see each other again. We still have lots left to talk about!

Linda Rief (1992) Seeking Diversity-Language Arts with Adolescents. Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books.

Susan Church is with the Halifax Regional School Board, in Halifax Nova Scotia. She also teachers at Mount Saint Vincent University.

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