Dorothy Harper Watson is that rare combination of scholar and activist. As she puts it: "...not only should we talk the talk and walk the walk, but we should sing the songs and dance the dances." (Language Arts, Vol. 80/2 Nov. 2002, p. 157)
And, oh, she has danced. After graduating from Park College in 1952 with a bachelor's degree in psychology, she completed a master's degree in education in 1964 at the University of Missouri—Kansas City and a Ph.D. in 1973 at Wayne State University. In those two decades she earned more than academic regalia, however. From 1957 through 1966 she was a classroom teacher in the inner-city of Kansas City, Mo. In 1966, 1967 and 1969, she taught in Sierra Leone and Kenya. From classroom to classroom, she listened to the songs her students sang and learned what notes she could from the teachers with whom she shared those children.
Just as the concepts of whole language literacy education are organic, growing up from the soil of real classrooms, so the teacher, Dorothy Watson, grew into a world renowned whole language advocate by her favorite means—kidwatching—watching kids learn to read and write.
Her career as an educator was marked by those two decades as a life of authentic inquiry and unbridled action. Inquiry is the key to her work as a teacher. She has long seen little difference between teacher and learner. She is as likely to tell you about something she learned from John Madrid, a student in her sixth grade class at Gladstone School in Kansas City, Mo., as Ken or Yetta Goodman.
"Maybe it's selfish on my part," she told Sandra Wilde in July 1995 at the Whole Language Umbrella conference in Windsor, Ontario, "but I go into classrooms or workshops, any teaching situation, to learn."
As an activist, she has never been afraid to take the gavel. She served as president of the International Whole Language Umbrella from 1989 to 1991, having served on the board of directors from 1987 to 1993. She served as president of the Center for Expansion of Language and Thinking from 1980 to 1983 and the board of directors from 1972 to 1990. She founded Mid-Missouri Teachers Applying Whole Language (TAWL) in 1978 and has served as sponsor since. She also founded the Mid-Missouri Student Reading Association in 1987 and served as sponsor from 1987 to 1998. She was the director of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Commission on Reading from 1985 to 1987. She served on the NCTE Commission on the English Curriculum from 1980 to 1982 and she has served on eight other NCTE committees. She has served on the Whole Language Education advisory board of the International Reading Association (IRA), she has chaired the IRA International Relations advisory board and directed the Travel, Interchange and Study advisory board, which took her to Ireland in 1982, Southeast Asia and the People's Republic of China in 1984 and Australia in 1986. She has served on three IRA special interest groups, ten IRA subcommittees, and on most of the IRA's current committees.
Her honors are equally numerous. She was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame in 2003. She was named Outstanding Educator in the Language Arts by the National Council of Teachers of English in 2002. Also in 2000, she received the Jefferson Club Award at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she has been a professor of education since 1977. She received the TAWL Literacy Advocate Award in 1999. She received a North Africa Schools Award, in Tunis, Tunisia in 1999, the IRA Distinguished Reading Educator award in 1994, the IRA Teacher Educator Award in 1988, the International Whole Language Umbrella Lifetime Membership Award in 1995, and the Meritorious Award for Services to Students of Limited English Proficiency conferred by the Honolulu Public School District in 1990, among an array of other awards and honors.
As a scholar, her career of inquiry has been prolific. Perhaps verdant is a better description. She has published a small forest of articles, in addition to six books, alone or with other authors, including, "Making a difference: Selected writings of Dorothy Watson" in 1996 edited by Sandra Wilde and "Ideas and insights: Language arts in the elementary school" in 1987. She has contributed chapters to forty other books.
When Dorothy Watson spoke at the opening of the Dorothy Harper Watson Literacy Center at Park University in June of 2003, she described both her vision for the work the center would do and the theoretical scaffolding of her life of inquiry:
"Here will be a place where children, teachers, language and our society remain whole. And to be whole, the focus must reflect the cultural diversity of our schools today. To be whole, both the strengths and needs of children must be studied, but the study will always begin with the strengths—with what learners can do—not with what they can't do. To be whole, this must be a place where students and colleagues are viewed as smart and capable.
"To be whole, real literature is the primary resource. Real literature—where words are lovingly crafted by authors who respect language, have pride in their stories, their talents and their craft. A place where students and teachers themselves will create stories reflecting their lives and their growing talents. The philosophy of the literacy center work is holistic in nature, with learners and teachers at its heart.
"Here will be a place where the processes of reading and writing are researched by studying students reading and writing, not by giving them a one-size fits all curriculum and administering a single test, and then making the assumption that we know something about those students when we're handed a score, often a high-stakes test score....
"Here," she concluded, "can be a place where the promise of literacy is expanded rather than diminished... This can be a place where the divisions in the world outside the classroom and the divisions inside the classroom are recognized, and then closed."