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James V. Hoffman Remembers Kenneth S. Goodman

By James V. Hoffman
 | Mar 18, 2020

Kenneth S. Goodman headshot
On March 12, ILA past president Kenneth S. Goodman passed away peacefully at home. Goodman was without question one of the most influential scholars in the field of literacy education. In this series of posts, several of Goodman’s colleagues reflect on the indelible impact of his work and his life.

Ken Goodman’s legacy as a literacy scholar is a treasure that future generations will continue to mine for the wisdom, the character, and the moral purpose it represents.

Ken has been a centering force in our professional community for over 50 years. To be in his presence was at the same time awe inspiring and comforting. In his absence we are compelled to push forward with courage and commitment along the path that he has marked for us.

If there were a 23andMe test for academic lineage, I would flow 100% Ken Goodman. My major professor was Dave Allen—a self-described “original miscueteer” who studied with Ken in the same cohort as Bill Page, Carolyn Burke, and other renowned literacy educators. I think this mentoring experience qualified me as Ken’s academic grandson. (One of many.)

Little did I realize while in my doctoral program that Ken would lead me on a career path that I could never have imagined without his inspiration. Miscues were not just a reframing of an “error.” Miscues were even more than a window into the child’s emerging understanding of how language works. Miscues were a path into a philosophy and a pedagogy that Ken’s collaborator and wife Yetta Goodman describes as centered on revaluing the learner, or what Ken expressed in one of his favorite email taglines: Learning is not a Response to Instruction. Effective Instruction is a Response to Learning.

I didn’t realize at that time that I would have the great fortune to become Ken’s colleague, friend, and even coauthor. I didn’t agree with everything he said, how he said it, or when he said it, but in almost every case, with hindsight, I came to realize that he was right and I was wrong.

I can’t say the same about his jokes, which were very long and often funnier to him than to those who listened to him tell it. But you had to laugh with him because for Ken to tell you a joke meant that he noticed you and cared for you. Humor was so important to Ken and was often revealed in the blunt ways he would comment on the absurdities that abound  in our field. Ken’s post regarding DIBELS, for example, carries more meaning than any technical analysis could muster: As for me, I prefer the eminent test authority professor Roger Farr whose assessment is summed up as follows in a private communication with a number of eminent witnesses: DIBELS is a piece of sh***.”  

If you want an insight into Ken—his humor and his humanity—I invite you to read his reflection on turning 90. I guarantee you will laugh and perhaps shed a tear or two.

I was raised Catholic, and I learned from the nuns in St. Francis Xavier elementary school that the little voice inside my head telling me right from wrong was the voice of my guardian angel. That little voice is still with me, and I realized somewhere in my professional life that the voice had taken a turn from an Irish Catholic guardian angel to something sounding a lot like Ken Goodman—reminding me to do the right thing, to challenge the wrongs that surround us, to see text and context as inseparable, and to view research and teaching as inseparable moral endeavors. 

Ken’s life is honored every time we take up these same stances in our own work. Every time we inspire young literacy scholars to be bold in their work and not to forget the humanity in which we are all bound.

Thank you, Ken Goodman. To borrow from Barack Obama’s comments on Nelson Mandela’s passing, “What a wonderful person. What a wonderful life.”

James V. Hoffman is a professor of language and literacy at the University of North Texas.

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