“Involve me and I learn”

Dorothy Watson

“Dropout” is a term loaded with negative connotations: No skills, hopeless, loser, quitter. It’s also almost a sure thing for preschool kids without basic literacy skills.

That’s why alumna Dorothy Watson’s mission in life has been giving the extra effort “to reach those without power or a voice, those who are not part of the dominant, privileged groups.”

Her pursuit of that mission has led her to be named the 2013 Alumni Achievement Award recipient of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Education.

More than anything, Watson, an emerita professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, says she wanted to help all children become literate.

Watson, who earned a master’s degree from UMKC in 1964, taught in inner-city Kansas City schools and at institutions in Sierra Leone and Kenya. Every experience made her realize how much she had to learn.

Early on, Watson says she realized there was much to be discovered by kid-watching. She took in the speeches, songs, dances and games that fleshed children out and made them whole, paying particular attention to how kids learned to read and write. From these observations, Watson became a whole language advocate.

She pioneered the whole language movement, which encourages children to learn to read by emphasizing meaning and content in reading instruction rather than using a phonics or spelling system.

Watson also heeded the wisdom of thinkers like Benjamin Franklin, who said, “Tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; but involve me and I learn.”

What outside observers labeled activism, Watson thought of as supporting her students and colleagues, all of whom worked together to solve real problems.

“I gained more from my students than I gave, and my continued connection with teachers is my most cherished professional endeavor,” said Watson, who still lives in Columbia. “This keeps me dedicated to teaching, even at the age of 83.”

Watson’s lifelong work in literacy education has brought significant national peer recognition. She was named a William T. Kemper Fellow for Excellence in Teaching, and inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame. Watson also received Outstanding Educator accolades from the National Council of Teachers of English.

The text she co-authored, Reading Miscue Inventory, is a classic in the field of literacy assessment.

Seeing no need to complicate matters, Watson boiled things down to some simple guidelines:

  • Children, teachers, language and society should remain whole
  • To be whole, accept and embrace the cultural diversity of today’s schools
  • Study the strengths and needs of children, beginning with strengths
  • Students and teachers must be regarded as smart and capable

As to the state of education today, Watson says she worries that the socially estranged will continue to threaten the sanctity and safety of schools, as evidenced by the recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn.

Watson doesn’t have a formula – she says there is no curriculum that works for everyone, and no test score is the perfect predictor of a student’s future. She says only  that teachers must help make school a source of democracy and unity.

Even faced with all this responsibility, Watson still wants young teachers to experience teaching as a time of transformation, growth, learning and unleashing energy and creativity.

The Literacy Center at Park University, in Parkville, Mo., that she founded bears Watson’s name, a tribute  for a woman who has spent her life believing that reading opens all other doors.

Each year, the UMKC Alumni Association presents alumni awards to one honoree from each school at its annual awards luncheon. It also gives five university-wide awards of distinction.

This year’s event, which will highlight the 80th anniversary of the campus and include the presentation of the 2013 Chancellor’s Medal, will be held Thursday, April 18, on the UMKC campus. For information and tickets for the event, click here.


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