Saturday, September 12, 2009

TAKE TEN: Author Anthony Pedriana

For those who ever felt as though their one voice couldn't make a difference in the world, they need only look at the example of Anthony Pedriana to see differently. The Wisconsin native has been aware of the power that one person can have for decades, and he has used his life to not only educate but make sure that others know of their responsibility to do the same. His book LEAVING JOHNNY BEHIND (Overcoming Barriers to Literacy and Reclaiming At-Risk Readers) is just the kind of manual we need for those who want to know where they breakdown has taken place in our school system and what we can do to turn things around.

In our amazing discussion with Pedriana he talks about when he realized his own power when it came to sounding the alarm about what was going wrong with education, why we have to work togeter but have individual responsibility when it comes to our youth, and what you can do right now to make a difference.

Tony, first of all, congratulations on your book LEAVING JOHNNY BEHIND. It is a powerful tool for us to use in understanding where we are in the fight against illiteracy and how we can make progress moving forward. Before we talk about the book, though, I want to talk about your own passion for education. When did you realize that you had an interest in helping others succeed?
I guess I began to feel that passion when I was an undergrad student in the 60's, a time of war and social upheaval. It was the decade of Woodstock and the Vietnam War. But it was also the time during which we passed the Civil Rights, Voting Rights and Fair Housing Acts. It was amazing to me that a country supposedly founded on democratic principles had to pass laws guaranteeing equal rights to everybody. We had essentially lived a lie for nearly 200 years. If I was going to do my part to address those social inequalities, what better place to start than in an urban environment where I could help others get the education that would give them the best chance to participate in the American dream.

Has reading always been a part of your life, and if so, is it something that your family enjoyed as well?
I was born to lower middle class parents, neither of whom had a high school diploma. They were avid newspaper readers but we didn't have many books around the house. But that all changed when I was around ten and began asking for them. My younger brothers followed in that same tradition. That is one thing they never denied us.

As an educator, I know you saw up close and person the results of not having the proper tools needed to be one's best. What surprised you the most about your time in the classroom?
I spent my entire career in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the country. Pretty much every day brought one surprise or another, usually the result of poverty and all its associated ills. After awhile, they weren't really surprises anymore. Bad things happened to our kids all the time. Reading ability offered the best chance for them to escape this tragic cycle.

And so the real surprise came when I discovered a disconnect between what science had identified as the best methods to teach kids to read and the training I had received prior to and throughout most of my career. It took awhile, but I eventually discovered that Schools of Education didn't teach reading science. That was a real shocker. How could we do right by kids if there was nothing to verify the effectiveness of the methods we used.

ABC News released a poll earlier this year, Tony, that said that 16% of Americans ages 16 and up are not able to read and write well. Are you surprised that with all of our advancements as a nation that literacy is still something we are falling behind in?
We may have made a lot of advancements, but we are now a nation in decline. There are many causes for that, but the figure you just quoted points to a major contributor. It's not just illiteracy any more; it's also low literacy that has led to school failure for so many and thereby compromised our status as a world power. So I guess it doesn't surprise me much at all, especially given my answer to the previous question. Most have heard the expression, "If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got." Why would we continue to do things that failed so many? It's like subjecting kids' literacy futures to the vagaries of a crapshoot.

The book LEAVING JOHNNY BEHIND is in some ways a stinging indictment of not only government programs and their failure to help at-risk students but also of us as individuals. What can we do starting today to turn the page in the right direction?
We need to do all of the things that have been espoused for so long such as making sure we are involved in our children's education, immersing them in good literature and teaching them to value and respect education both for its own sake, and as a gateway to gainful employment and a well adjusted and productive life.

But there is something else we can do as well. We can start framing the issue in the context of civil rights. The Constitution guarantees all of us the right to a free and appropriate public education. But what is appropriate about an education that ignores the product of legitimate science. Individuals need to become aware of this flagrant omission and begin demanding that schools proceed based not on what looks good, or what makes adults feel good when they see it, but instead on what stands to bring about the best results. Perhaps reading programs should come with warning labels: Attention: There is no clinical evidence to suggest that use of this program will give your child adequate literacy ability.

Have you been surprised at how many who have also been in education have come out in support of the book?
Many have expressed support and agreement with what I wrote in Leaving Johnny Behind, and yes, it does surprise me a little given that I am a first time author. A literacy advocacy group in Washington contacted me to tell me how the book expresses everything they have been trying to communicate for years. Members have worked aggressively to promote Johnny and to find opportunities for me to tell the story behind it, much as you are doing right now. But support is not unanimous. There are some who hold firm to old beliefs and choose to ignore five decades of empirical data, despite the fact that it accommodates multiple perspectives. There is no accounting for that, at least not in my mind.

What is your overall goal now as some one sounding the alarm about the importance of reading?
My goal is to bring about unity of purpose among all reading practitioners so as to better meet the needs of all children, especially those who are most at risk of reading failure. The book is just a first step in that regard. The next is to tell my story to anyone who will read or listen. I might be lunging at windmills, but I feel compelled to try.

Looking back, is there anything you wish you had accomplished in the classroom that you weren't able to do?
Yes, as I pointed out earlier, I wished that I had managed to attain a much higher success rate with my students, both as a teacher and a principal. I should have known about an alternative knowledge base that spoke to early literacy training in clear, concise and resonant terms. But I didn't. In one sense, I am outraged at those whose role it was to bring it to my attention. But I am also disappointed with myself that I wasn't smart enough to find it on my own. It wasn't until after my retirement that I finally had the chance to look more deeply into the matter. While it's a little late for me to put this information into practice, I can try my best to communicate it to those who walk into schools every day.

What's next for you? Is there another book in the works?
There will probably be another book, but I won't begin writing it for another year or two. In all likelihood, it will be a follow-up to Johnny. In it I am hoping to showcase schools and districts that turned things around because they were willing to cast aside their biases and opt in favor of practices with a proven track record of success. That, in my mind, is the ultimate expression of Children First.

Thank you for giving us such a useful tool as well as useful information. Where can I readers find out more about you online?
I invite your readers to visit my website,, and to contribute to the author's blog. I know that there are many others out there with stories to tell, and I am sure I can learn as much or more from them as they can from me.

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