"We want to help shift from misunderstanding to movement, from confusion to clarity, and ultimately move from argument to action."
Welcome to the first episode of The Six Shifts, with Jan Burkins and Kari Yates, co-authors of Shifting the Balance. In this series, based on their new book, Jan and Kari, with Stenhouse’s Dan Tobin address some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that have prevented educators from incorporating the science of reading into the balanced literacy classroom.
In this episode, Jan, Kari, and Dan discuss the background and origin of Shifting the Balance, their hopes for readers, and the experience of rethinking their teaching practice.
About the book
In Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom, authors Jan Burkins and Kari Yates address this tension as a critical opportunity to look closely at the research, reevaluate current practices, and embrace new possibilities for an even stronger enactment of balanced literacy.
From phonological processing to brain research to orthographic mapping to self-teaching hypothesis, Shifting the Balance cuts through the rhetoric (and the sciencey science) to offer readers a practical guide to decision-making about beginning reading instruction. The authors honor the balanced literacy perspective while highlighting common practices to reconsider and revise—all through a lens of what’s best for the students sitting in front of us.
Meet the authors
Dr. Jan Burkins was an elementary classroom teacher for seven years and a literacy coach for seven years. She has worked as a part-time assistant professor, a district literacy leader, and is currently a fulltime writer and consultant.
Kari Yates is an author, speaker, consultant and staff developer with a passion for helping busy literacy educators thrive. Her experiences include classroom teacher, special education, Reading Recovery teacher, elementary principal and district literacy coordinator.
Read the transcript
Dan: Congratulations, Jan and Kari on the new book. From the time that we announced it back in December, I think, the book has generated a lot of anticipation and enthusiasm. Can you give us some background on how the book came about, where the idea came from?
Jan: Well, Dan, in the fall of 2019, we both discovered we were really simultaneously grappling with the same quandary. We were at this place where it seemed like no matter where we turned, whether Twitter or conference events or consulting work we were doing, we were just bumping into this balanced literacy science of reading dichotomy. And the literacy coaches and teachers and administrators and district leaders who were hiring us as consultants were asking us what to do and we didn't know. We really didn't know how to respond. They were dismayed and we were frustrated, and pretty soon in, I really knew that I wanted to roll up my sleeves and try to figure out what to do, how to help them. But I also knew it wasn't a project I wanted to enter into alone. It's kind of a scary project. It certainly wasn't a project for the faint of heart. So who in the world would want to step into something that could be perceived as a hornet's nest with me? So I approached Kari Yates.
Dan: That's your cue, Kari.
Kari: Yeah, that's my cue. And you know what? Jan and I have been... We are dear, dear friends and we share this really deep passion for early literacy. But honestly, when Jan started to talk about that this was something she was interested in and might I like to consider the possibility of pursuing this project with her, honestly, I just said no. Like, no way. I think the language I used was, "I'm a hard no on this, Jan. No."
Kari: For a whole bunch of what I realized were really fear-based reasons. And I'm thinking, why would we want to purposefully plant ourselves smack in the middle of controversy and debate? And we're not scientists or researchers, but doggone it, she kind of planted that seed. And because I, just like her, was sincerely curious and really grappling, like she said, all the time with this disconnect, like what might be missing? My heart no really started to soften, and it eventually came around to being a resounding yes. "Yes, let's do this. Let's let's hold hands and go together and try to dig into this work for ourselves and for others like us." That's how it got sort of a not easy start, but a start.
Dan: Tell us each of you a bit about your background or what experience did you bring to the project? You said you're not researchers. What was your perspective and training to get to this point?
Jan: Dan we're more practitioners than researchers. I was an elementary classroom teacher for eight years. I was a literacy coach for eight years. I've also worked at a state regional service agency as a ELA consultant and as a district literacy leader. But now I guess for 12 years or so, I've been a full-time writer and literacy consultant. And so I'm not a researcher by trade. I did do quantitative research for my dissertation in a meta-analysis. So there is a part of me that enjoys digging into research and that part had some appeal to me, but just in general, we're not technically researchers.
Kari: And I too, I have experience as a classroom teacher. I worked as an early childhood special ed teacher, reading recovery. And most recently I've spent time in leadership roles as an elementary principal and a district administrator. But I think that for me, the common thread in all of those roles has just been my driving passion for early literacy. That's my background in a nutshell.
Jan: Dan, what I really appreciate about Kari is that she's constantly... I don't appreciate it in the moment, but after the fact, I appreciate it. She's constantly raising the bar on our work. I think, oh, we're finished with this chapter or we're finished with this project. And she is relentless about reflecting and she comes back and she says, "We need to look at this again through this lens." And then once I get over being a little frustrated at going back to the drawing board, we take another pass and we do actually make it better. She's the quintessential learner. I mean, she recreationally watches videos on teaching comprehension or teaching phonics. And so it'll be a Saturday and she'll be like, "You know, I just watched the best video about how to teach opening close syllables." And I'll be like, "Really, that's what you're doing for fun this Saturday?"
Kari: Jan has this really special way of seen a whole big picture and then seeing how all the pieces fit together. She is not only one of the most brilliant and creative people I know, but she's also just kind of fierce and unafraid to follow her instincts and take risks. I really believe that it's a combination of Jan's insight and her courageous commitment to not shy away from a challenge, no matter how staggering it might seem, that got us here today with this beautiful book we're so proud of in our hands. And so I'll be forever grateful that she planted that seed and pushed me on my hard no.
Jan: Aw, shucks sister. I'm going to pull that out when you're cross at me.
Dan: So you've both worn a lot of different hats in your career in education and played different roles. Who is this book really for? Is that for all kinds of educators, teachers, administrators? What's the primary focus.
Jan: We think of the primary audience as balanced literacy teachers, although it has some appeal it seems to both "groups." It's really for educators who are tired of trying to sort out the truth from the rhetoric on either side, if you will, of the conversation. It's for educators who have learned maybe some science, but don't quite know how to translate it into balanced literacy practices.
Jan: The truth is Dan, you don't have to choose, or teachers don't have to choose between intentional instruction in the print system and meaningful, engaging reading instruction. There are many misunderstandings and confusions that we believe every elementary educator will benefit from getting cleared up. So it's a broad audience we hope.
Kari: And I think it's also for anyone who wants to support thinking about what the current conversation means for their specific school or district.
Kari: So if you're a building or district leader, and you want to support a large scale shift, this book we think can really be a lever for opening hearts and minds. This book is intentionally written in such a way that it really can itself become a roadmap for any teacher, school or district leader, in assessing where are you right now? And what next steps might you consider as you do the hard work, ongoing work of aligning research and practice?
Jan: And Dan, we should mention that Kari's in, in Minnesota and I'm in Athens, Georgia. And so we have a lot of fun with words like lever and lever, and pajama and pajama, and all those regional dialectical differences in the way we pronounce words. I manage to straighten her out most of the time.
Dan: Jan's editing you again there Kari.
Kari: I think so. I think so.
Dan: I know from talking to you both that writing this book was an emotional experience for you. It takes courage to rethink practices you hold dear and especially to do it publicly. I think that's why-
Jan: Did we do that?
Dan: ... But I think that's part of the power of the book. That you take us on a journey from Kari's hard no to her hard yes. You went through a lot. Can you talk about that a bit?
Jan: It's true. This wasn't purely academic or technical work, although it certainly was that, but it was also very emotionally taxing, not to mention that it was written during a global pandemic. But it called on us to reevaluate long-held beliefs and practices. And as humans, our brains just aren't wired to do that. We're not wired to spot our own misunderstandings and biases. We're wired to do just the opposite. So there was some vulnerability here.
Kari: Yeah. And I think we recognized that right from the beginning. I mean, it's certainly part of my hard no. And so, one of the things we did to I guess in a way take care of ourselves is we actually wrote out some reminders to ourselves that we would use along the way when we needed to help each other work through that vulnerability. We knew that we were likely to experience kind of again and again. Those reminders have been really helpful to us. And so we actually decided to share them in the book. And if you would allow us, we're thinking we might actually like to share them right now just to give people a flavor for how we supported ourselves. These come from page seven of the book. Are you okay with that?
Jan: Can we read them for you, Dan?
Dan: Go for it.
Kari: Okay. So we commit to being kind to ourselves, making peace with the unavoidable reality that there are things we have missed, misunderstood and misinterpreted.
Jan: We commit to honestly appraising our current practices with an open heart and an open mind.
Kari: We commit to recognizing and reflecting on our own triggers and biases.
Jan: That one makes me... There were some triggers. There really were. All right. We commit to actively working to lower our defenses so we can raise our awareness.
Kari: And we commit to reconsidering, reprioritizing, or simply letting go of less helpful practices to space for some that are more effective.
Jan: And finally, we commit to taking action rather than giving into the paralysis of self-doubt or overwhelm. So there it is.
Kari: Those are the promises we made ourselves to move through this work.
Dan: I feel like I should be sworn into the club and make some commitments myself.
Jan: It's kind of a Kumbaya moment. Isn't it, Dan?
Dan: It is. It is.
Kari: We realized as we were working through this and these are sort of... They applied to any sort of a polarized conversation. And so we found them useful in other ways in our lives as well.
Dan: Well, we have a lot of polarized conversations going on around us.
Kari: We do.
Jan: We do.
Dan: And speaking of that, you use the term bridge a lot in the book. What does that metaphor of a bridge mean and shifting the balance? What is it you're you're bridging?
Jan: Well, Dan, we want the book to serve as a bridge and really between the two groups that see themselves as separate right now, because we saw a lot of commonality, a lot of places where we are aligned already in ideas. And so we want to help people move from polarization to practicality. We're not interested in any reading wars or debates. We're not here either to talk anyone in anything.
Kari: Yeah. I mean, I think really what we're trying to do is just offer an invitation to open heartedly embrace the opportunity. We want to help shift from misunderstanding to movement, from confusion to clarity, and ultimately move from argument to action, like what can we do for kids here?
Dan: Well, thank you very much for joining us. I look forward to continuing the conversation as we talk about each of the six shifts.
Jan: Thanks, Dan. We really appreciate you.
Kari: Yeah. Thank you, sincerely. We're so grateful for this opportunity, Dan.