Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Editor's Note: Over the last few months, we have interviewed a number of brilliant reading researchers, teachers, and literacy advocates across the country as a part of A Novel Idea, our new podcast series about the science of reading. This is one in a series of Q&A blog posts containing exclusive thoughts that did not make it into the podcast from some of the literacy education field’s most impactful and insightful people. 

A Novel Idea is out now. For announcements, trailers, and an email in your inbox each time an episode is released, please subscribe to our email list.

Kareem Weaver is an experienced educator and an outspoken advocate for evidence-based literacy instruction. He is the second vice president of the Oakland NAACP and the chair of the organization’s education committee. He is also the co-founder and executive director of FULCRUM (Full and Complete Reading is a Universal Mandate), a nonprofit organization that works to support teachers and districts as they implement evidence-based teaching in the classroom. Weaver’s work is featured in the film The Right to Read, which was executive produced by LeVar Burton and released in March of 2023.

Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC): Tell Me a Little Bit About Who You Are and What You Do

Kareem Weaver: Basically, I'm trying to get kids to read. That's really the bottom line. I've been working with the [Oakland] NAACP’s education committee for about 10 years now, and I was recently voted as its second vice president and the chair of the committee. Literacy has been a top priority, not just for the local branch of the NAACP, but the state and national branches. You know, the NAACP is one of those organizations where they're chartered to fight the battles that other people just aren't willing or able to fight. If you're talking about doing something that's going to undermine kids’ ability to read, that's a civil rights issue. We break out the shield and go to it, whether it's local, state, national, whatever. So we can help get this literacy push off the ground, moving in the right direction.

FULCRUM is a nonprofit I started so that we can do the things that we need to do. FULCRUM engages with universities, it engages with parent groups, school support staff, reading coaches, instruction aides, etc., as well as with leadership in districts and school sites. So we're busy. There's a lot of things in education, a lot of big plans. But how’s it gonna get done? Oftentimes it's the behind-the-scenes stuff that really needs to be attended to, but there's nobody to do it. That's us. You need a professional learning community? We'll set it up for you. Your school needs an intervention program that serves as a safety net? We'll elevate that to leadership and maybe raise some money. This graduate school isn't leveraging the science of reading, and we're getting 20% of our teachers from them? Guess what? We’ll engage them, or we'll send a note to the NAACP and say “get ‘em.”

IRRC: How Did You Become So Involved in Early Literacy Education?

Kareem Weaver: I've always wanted to be an educator. I've always wanted to make a difference. But I was on my way to becoming a shrink. I was in grad school for clinical community psychology. I had the master’s level and was going for the Ph.D. One day, I was singing in the church choir, and I fell out. I passed out while I was singing. I had what, unfortunately, is often undiagnosed. I had an enlarged heart. Fortunately, I survived, and I realized, Oh my gosh, what am I doing? You know, life isn't about just making money. I didn't really want to be a psychologist. I guess I did, but I didn't love it. I wanted to be a teacher, but teachers don't make any money. But when I hit the ground and my heart started acting up, I was like: Wait a second, life ain't all about money. What do you really want to do? What's your purpose? You better be about the business of doing it because time is not guaranteed to anybody. And here I am, X number of years later, and I'm so glad, I'm grateful, that I was blessed with that opportunity to reflect on my purpose at an early age. That's how I got into this jam, and I fell in love with teaching from day one. I just did. And I couldn't be happier with the choice.  

IRRC: What Does the Term “Science of Reading” Mean to You?

Kareem Weaver: You know, I was interviewing a young lady last night. She was my student 20 years ago. She didn't speak English. Nary a word. We talked about that last night—her experiences as a second language learner and learning to read in English. The things that she described that she appreciated were the attention to the sounds, the diligence in how to put words together, the Latin and Greek roots, the prefixes and the suffixes, the intensive vocabulary work, and the fluency practice. You know, that's what the science of reading is. They didn't have a hashtag for it back then. It was just good teaching. I mean, you do certain things, and there will be actual components of your brain that will literally light up. And when you don't do those things, you’re literally keeping kids in the dark. My thing is, I'm just doing what works. The goal is to get these kids reading so that they can determine their own path, for them, their families, their communities. To me, that’s just common sense.

IRRC: What Are Your Hopes for the Future of the Science of Reading Movement?

Kareem Weaver: You know, it's not our default setting these days to find common cause with each other. But we're fools if we don't. The question is, can we still do big things together as a country? Are we so partisan or whatever that we no longer have the ability to lock arms and accomplish big things? Because look: This is a big project. It’s going to take laying down our spears for a minute. We all have issues, but can we at least come together on this? Can we just get these kids to read? Your child reading benefits me and my community too. When any kid is illiterate and vulnerable economically, socially, politically, that’s a threat. So at some point we have to lock hands and do this thing.  

And it can’t all fall on educators, because this is a rope we all let go of. Educators, they’ve been making bricks without straw for a long time. With faulty curriculum, faulty training, faulty leadership, what do you expect them to do? And so the leadership’s got to be on board with the science of reading too. We need the right professional development and the right training. And it’s okay to demand things like that. 

And it takes courage. It takes courage to say, “I don't know what to do.” It takes courage to say, “I feel very vulnerable right now because my position and credibility depend on me being in charge and knowing stuff, and if the kids aren’t reading well, clearly I don't know enough.” It takes courage to look at what you're doing [as a teacher or administrator] as opposed to pointing the finger at kids and families. It takes courage, and sometimes you need backup. You need organization. Of course, I’m always saying the NAACP, because that's my jam. But the PTA [Parent Teacher Association]? That’s a powerful group. When the parents arrive, when the parents get the signs ready and get on the phone—I'm talking about the ones that are gonna say “I need to see Superintendent Johnson. I need to see Principal Smith tomorrow at three. And I'll be at the board meeting. I'll be at the school site council meeting. I'll be at this, that, and other. I'm not baking the cookies no more; we're not driving your carpool. We need this.” They might not be the fanciest [parents] or the ones that are the most popular, but dang it, they want their kids to read. I'm begging people to go together to save our kids’ lives. If I can get any message across, that it's. Like, man, have we had enough yet? Do we want to wait until it’s our kid that's locked up somewhere? Or do we have the courage to go together before it's too late? 

IRRC: What Are Some Books or Other Writings That Have Been Influential in Your Own Journey as an Educator?

Kareem Weaver: Every year as a student I read Carter G. Woodson's Mis-Education of the Negro. It helped ground me. I love Rafe Esquith’s book Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire. When I was about out of gas after 10 years in the game as a teacher, I read that book and I was able to get a second wind. Marva Collins’ book and movie was water to the dry soul for me. I loved it, absolutely loved it. There’s also a podcast I recommend by EdTrust, ExtraOrdinary Districts: Ordinary School Districts That Get Extraordinary Results. I think they're on season five or six right now. They do some exploratory journalism and get first-hand accounts from teachers, parents, kids, and superintendents, and they tell how [these people] turned schools and districts around. And here's an oldie but a goodie: Robert Flesch’s Why Johnny Can't Read. It's probably in the basement of your library somewhere, part one and part two. That's a classic.