In their book Techniques & Principles in Language, which I read earlier this semester, Diane Larsen-Freeman and Marti Anderson write that “learning a language is a political act. Those that know a language are empowered in a way that those who do not know the language are not.” By the time we got to this chapter, I pretty much had fatigue from this book, but that piqued my interest. I could tell that this was connected to my work with the Community Literacy Center even if I didn’t actually work with English as a Second Language learners. Those in power usually have the language and those who don’t have the language usually don’t have the power. I want to be an ESL teacher both in the United States and abroad. How can I make sure my students aren’t slowly erasing the identity that they have wrapped up in their first language by learning English? How can I make sure I’m not contributing to this alienating process?
The answer lies in Critical Pedagogy, which Larsen-Freeman and Anderson define as “an approach to teaching that aims to create a more egalitarian society by raising awareness of social injustice as a necessary part of the curriculum.” And while I don’t think I’d be interested in an entire course that is taught on the principles of the Participatory Approach, I believe that teachers should be aware of the hegemony of the English language and how learning it affects their students sense of self and make strides, as much as we can, to show them that their language and identity matters as well.
In preparation for the literature review I am planning to write for my independent project, I read the article “Identity, Language Learning, and Critical Pedagogies” by Bonny Norton, a professor in the Language and Literacy Education department at the University of British Columbia. The text acts a broad overview of some of the topics surrounding critical pedagogy in regards to language teaching. She focuses primarily on the identities of the language learners and how learning English can negatively affect them. She brings up the developed notion of “investment” which signifies “the socially and historically constructed relationship of learners to the target language and their often ambivalent desire to learn and practice it.” This concept is interesting to me because it tells me that learners don’t always look at learning English as some great achievement, but that some of them are truly torn about learning and practicing it and only see it as a way to increase their cultural capital. As an English teacher I would want my students to feel excitement for learning English and I hope that researching critical pedagogies for this project will give me greats ideas on how to make that happen.
Narratives are the reason I know anything about Muong people, they are the reason I know the true nature and cruelty of slavery my textbooks in school chose to ignore, they are the reason I know anything about the OJ Simpson trial beyond some late night jokes. In general, they are much of the reason I know what I know beyond my own limited scope of existence. When I contemplate the meaning of “reconstitute ourselves as part of the larger humanity and restore us to ‘health’” I can’t help but think of the election and the fact that the country voted for a hateful pile of garbage to become our next president. But also, that so many people didn’t see it coming. That we are all so disconnected from our fellow man, that we not only knew that “love would trump hate,” but that it would crush it. Now I don’t know how narratives would have been able to fix that, but I do know that you can easily compare that situation with how clueless this country is about their fellow man in general. That struggles that people who don’t look, act, or live near you go through every day. Narratives, in book, audio, and film format, have the power to create change. People moved to tears from a documentary can be so moved that they will stand and march for the rights of a group of people they once had only a surface knowledge of. And that one person and the many that follow help to heal our community by bridging a gap. What happens in Speak Out! is an example of this. When people read these words from convicted felons and trouble youth, I imagine many of them may feel connected to these writers in ways that go beyond crimes and addictions, and their a bit of their prejudices and stereotypes disappear bit by bit.
I am from Chicago; I am familiar with StreetWise, VERY familiar. StreetWise vendors aren’t afraid to make their voices heard, verbally or otherwise. I never actually bought a StreetWise publication because Chicagoans aren’t known for their assistance to the homeless and I am a Chicagoan through and through right down to the faults. But I did pick up a discarded one of the “L” once and while I don’t exactly remember what it was about I do remember being moved by the words. I didn’t know it was a paper filled with narratives and poetry about the homeless experience. I just thought it was an off brand newspaper. No, I didn’t change my tune and start buying one every time I passed by a vendor, but I did begin to look at the vendors differently. The section in Paula Mathieu’s piece on StreetWise about the murder of Joseph Gould is so powerful because a publication that I’ve been treating like a joke since I was a kid was instrumental in keeping the unjust murder of a man out there in the city’s consciousness. They represented their struggle in a myriad of ways and helped to heal a community.
“She is not going to be the same as before, if she learns to read.’ Petra gave us the lead we should have followed…And we two maestras never asked Petra what changes she anticipated as a result of learning to read; we never investigated what changes in any of our households were caused by our attempts to become better educated.”
Rigg’s disappointed in herself at not attempting to connect with Petra on a deeper level makes a lot of sense to me as someone who facilitates a workshop for people 10+ years younger than me. I have not once asked the writers what they hoped to gain from this workshop; it never even crossed my mind. I’ve asked them about their interests and lives in general, but never WHY they come. I got pretty close to it last week, when I was faced with a bunch of disruptive young men, angry that the girls had not been allowed to attend due to bad behavior. Then, I wanted to ask why they were there, but not in a construction way. Just a very pissed way. But, I have realized through reading this article that I may be reducing these writers to people who want to write (at least some of them) and not really taking into account their relationship to writing and how they would like it to make changes for them. So I think this coming Monday, seven weeks in, I will ask them. Better late than never.
“Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language…and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.”
Once again, I realized something when reading this article. I have a lot of Spanish last names in my workshop and I don’t think I’ve overheard the language being spoken once. Now, I know a Spanish last name doesn’t mean someone speaks Spanish, but I can’t help but think about times I’ve been around young people with Spanish last names who talked with each other easily switching between English and Spanish. Usually, I was in Chicago, a city with a very large Chicano population. But this isn’t Chicago, this is Fort Collins and I can’t help but think that I’m imposing a different type of cultural identity (where people are very proud of their language and use it freely in front of any audience) on a city and/or group of people who don’t mesh well with it.
Have my writers been told been told, when speaking Spanish that if they “want to be American, speak ‘American’”? Have they been told that their brand of Spanish is a bastardization? Did they not learn Spanish? Do they just prefer to speak English in mixed company? To answer to question, I do see language practices as emerging from and shaping cultural identity. Even though I don’t know an official second language, I do know what some would call “Black English” and knowing how to speak it makes me feel closer to my culture and my people. Like no matter how much book learnin’ I get done, I won’t feel completely out of place talking to people on the Southside of Chicago. I think I’ll ask my writers if any of them do know Spanish and ask them to help me out with an exercise.
It’s funny to me that this is the prompt for our fourth workshop week because this week, more than any other, the writers were very talkative. The lesson plan was on the topic of films and using films as a guide into writing more narrative pieces (we’d previously just worked on writing poetry, freewriting, and just quick writing on various subjects). When asked about their favorite movies, TV shows, directors, and actors the writers became very animated, shouting out answers: “Goodfellas!” “Angelina Jolie!” “Will Smith!” In between writing (and during writing) we continued with discussions on our favorite movie genres and what is so great about them. I mentioned “Cabin in the Woods” when we began to discuss films that don’t necessary fall into one genre and the reaction was definitely positive (which reminds me, I need to re-watch that film). Even though we all had fun, it was tougher this week than any other to keep the writers on task. Some did write, but others, ones that previously had been very excited to talk about their favorite movies, gave little or no effort. I think that there was probably some disappointment in finding out the entire class wasn’t just going to be about talking about movies or watching clips from them. I discussed with another facilitator that asking them to make an outline of a movie about their own life probably brought some of them down a bit. We tend to think of our lives as boring and some of the most exciting things about our lives that we remember can occasionally bring up some bad feelings. Not saying that it’s correct, but I do understand.
I’ve found that I like it when the writers talk even when they are asked to write because I know that talking some things out with the person next to you can actually help your writing process. I think during this last workshop the talking may have hindered our goals a bit, but in general I believe that discussing things a bit longer or messier and not following slavishly to a lesson plan helps the workshop feel less like a class and more like a space where the students can express themselves.
I’ve mentioned before that I only did surface research on the Turning Point Center because I did not want to come into the workshop with too many preconceived notions of who these writers are as people. Now did that work? Not completely. I was afraid before that first workshop of how these kids would act, not because of the “at-risk” part of “at-risk youth,” but because of the “youth” part. Would they laugh at everything? Not take anything seriously since they aren’t getting a grade? Talk too much? Not talk enough? Go to sleep? I don’t care where they come from, these are questions one could worry over thinking about any group of teenagers. Luckily, it hasn’t been that rough. There are kids in my group who want to write. Though they may not always share, I notice them scribbling furiously in their composition notebooks. And almost every time we ask if anyone wants to share there is at least one person who does. There have been some great pieces of 10 minute writing coming from these Scary Teenagers™. Some of my favorites penned by a writer who declared he didn’t know how to write a poem and then proceeded to write 8 lines of rhyming genius. And sure, sometimes they do:
- Laugh at inappropriate times
- Not take something seriously
- Talk too much
- Don’t talk enough
- Go to sleep (in that writer’s defense we were playing meditation music)
- Take off their shoes (same writer)
- Beat on the walls
- Get into arguments with the staff
- Refuse to read what they wrote
But they are fun. Seriously, I have a fun group. And I’m hoping that we can continue to have a fun workshop and get some good writing done.
After workshop this week, one of the writers asked if it was OK that they (him and the writer he was next to) talked. And I let him know that I have no problem with them talking, but I would like for him to write a bit more and share a bit more. He nodded his head, seeming to say: “Alright, I think I can do that.”
While reading Jim Gee’s essay “Literacy and the Literacy Myth: From Plato to Freire” I couldn’t help but wish I was actually reading an updated version, one that wasn’t written a year after I was born. But I digress before I even formally begin my blog post, which is probably a record. Outdated studies or no, Gee’s essay is captivating in its renunciation of the “literacy crisis” that the United States ascribed to its young adult population. He argues that based on data collected during this so called crisis, young people aren’t illiterate in the basic sense of the term, but when asked to execute more complex tasks, the ‘non-mainstream’ populations underperform considerably. “Young adults do not have an ‘illiteracy’ problem…rather they have a schooling problem.” Schools do not close the gap between the mainstream students and the non-mainstream students (mostly code words for “white” and/or “well off” and “non-white” and/or “poor”) skills and literacy abilities, but they make these gaps larger by rewarding the skills that mainstream students have access to and non-mainstream students do not.
Gee’s claim that you cannot divorce literacy from its social implications, basically how literacy has always been used to strengthen social hierarchies by those who control it, is quite depressing. Advocating for literacy cannot be as simple as wanting people to be able to read the warning on a bottle of Tylenol (Gee’s take-down of this argument is brilliant). We also have to pay attention to what social group or institution the text is a coming from. And while this makes literacy education more difficult, I do not believe it makes it impossible. However, I have to interrupt my own writing to say that when I have only read one view on a subject, I can sometimes be easily swayed by the writer’s authoritative tone (sound familiar) into believing they are completely correct especially if they are writing about something I know little about. This is a failing of mine, obviously. And I would love to read an essay from one of those ‘functional literacy’ proponents Gee speaks of, since I feel like I once was (or still am) kind of that person.
What good does (could) literacy do? In its most basic definition, literacy gives the gift of reading and writing. In a more complex way, literacy gives the gift of analytical, critical and creative thinking. Literacy may not have a direct link to the achieving the “American dream,” but I don’t think it hurts anyone’s chances. As for the kids at Turning Point, I truly believe only they can tell me what kind of answer literacy is for them, but whatever their answers may be, I’m not completely sure that their schools have them. I’m not sure I do either.
In her essay “Sponsors of Literacy,” Deborah Brandt writes “Intuitively, sponsors seemed a fitting term for the figures who turned up most typically in people’s memories of literacy learning: older relatives, teachers, priests, supervisors, military officers, editors, influential authors.” My role as a writing workshop facilitator/teacher does not show up on this list, but I think that it is safe to assume that there is an invisible “etc” at the end of that sentence. As a type of teacher of literacy, I will indeed have a chance to sponsor young adults from Turning Point through the Community Literacy Center’s Speak Out! Initiative. I will be a sponsor because I am a college educated individual who is backed by the resources of a literacy program which is in turn backed by the resources and clout of a distinguished university and I am teaching them through the lens that is my experience and the guidance of the institutions I’m representing. Brandt also writes that “sponsors…set the terms for access to literacy.” My lesson plans and the way I structure the workshop are my terms and a writer/learner will have access to my brand of literacy (get it? Brand? Sponsor?) through those terms.
On the other hand, where there is room to teach, there is room to learn. This will be the first writing workshop (or class in general) that I teach on my own and it will be the ultimate learning experience. What activities will the students respond to with excitement, boredom, etc? Will some of my writing prompts prove to be too complicated or facile? Will my writing prompts really inspire the writers/learners to open up about their individual experiences and truly share something special and unique? Their sponsorship is that through them participating in this program they are helping me develop my literacy in education, aiding students, and becoming a teacher.
Brandt’s essay made me think about the sociological implications of my own literacy. Even though I was raised by someone who wasn’t college educated and made very little, I was taught that my love of reading was good and worthwhile. So I was encouraged to go to the library and I was bought as many books as I could read. And because of that I continued to read and excel in school until I ended up as a graduate student at Colorado State University. But what about the girl that grew up in the same neighborhood who was taught that being noticed was more important than books and never went to college or the girl who grew up in a nice two parent home a neighborhood away who not only did well in school, but was given the means to succeed in other avenues like learning a sport or playing an instrument. Parents are a big sponsor of literacy in beginning of our lives. They teach us what types of literacy are important and they provide us with the opportunities to engage in them.
I will not lie. While reading the first few pages of “Community Literacy: A Rhetorical Model for Personal and Public Inquiry,” I became very frustrated by the specific vocabulary of the article. Buzzwords is what I believe I said. Calling to mind a hilarious scene from one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, where a television show writer is fired for using the same word dismissively in response to a supervisor’s word usage*. (Apparently I’ve lost my patience with reading scholarly articles; I blame not being in school for 5 years). And then I began to understand these terms: local publics, alternative publics, community democracy, stakeholders, etc. and my frustration began to wane and my interest began to heighten. Though I wasn’t completely new to the concept of expressing oneself in community literacy through a number of different rhetorical approaches, I’d never thought of community literacy as a way to get people of different social levels within a community to participate in a discourse with each other on an exigency effecting them all. When I think about community literacy based on my own experiences, I think of an organization that works in an underserved area providing the inhabitants with opportunities to learn, develop professional skills, and participate in social justice with each other as people who share a common identity not as rivals. I cannot profess to be an expert on the way in which Flower, Higgins, and Long define community literacy after reading one article, but I like this new (to me) definition even while recognizing that the implementation of programs like these are more involved and complicated.
According to the article, the various literate acts (e.g. performance, dialogue, narratives, etc.) that stakeholders in these local publics used to illustrate their points of view helped them to work toward a resolution through understanding where a rival stakeholder is coming from. As a result, the community as a whole benefited through “personal and public transformation” rather than just certain members. However, the writers do note that “the texts and practices produced in these projects are not ends in themselves but only beginnings,” which means that community literacy isn’t necessarily going to lead to changes on the national scale like welfare reform, but it will lead to the evolution of “the way we live and work together as a community.” And while welfare reform and the dismantling of sexism, racism, ageism etc. would be welcome, change on a smaller scale in how people in communities talk to and listen to each other is pretty wonderful.
I anticipate that my biggest challenge working with Turning Point will be developing an engaging curriculum, since developing a formal curriculum isn’t something I’ve done before, engaging or otherwise. But my biggest reward I’m sure will be helping and learning from the students at Turning Point. I’m excited to see what the future holds for us!
*A youtube link of that Simpsons scene: