A friend of mine, Sheerah, who is in a course I’m taking on literacy and literacy studies with Anne Gere this semester, recently posted on our course blog a number of questions that have been weighing on my mind lately, too. I want to post a few of her questions here and invite some conversation about how we talk about (and teach) literacy and how we might go about addressing questions like Sheerah’s (because I know teachers all over our country share her concerns… I do).
In her post, which is here but you might not be able to view it depending on my prof’s settings, Sheerah asks some huge questions. Here are a couple of them:
If “multiple literacies” are the way to go, then does that mean it is not a problem that my seventh-grade student ‘Vanny’ has difficulty comprehending a text that his suburban counterpart ‘Cody’ could comprehend in first grade—that is not a problem? That is not an injustice? Vanny can read receipts! Therefore, who cares if he can’t read Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Nimh.
I think Sheerah, here, is frustrated that in all our talk about valuing students’ out-of-school literacies, we sometimes forget that there are in-school literacies that, though “schooled” literacies that probably won’t matter much (if at all) in students’ lives outside of school, are still literacies that are valued in our society and that “get students places” in life (according to my privileged version of what “success” looks like, anyway). This goes for texts, too. Sure, kids might be reading lots outside of school, but does this matter if the valued genres and texts in school are vastly different? Well of course it matters. Of course it’s an injustice that Vanny is in such a different position than Cody as he enters 7th grade. But what does this mean for literacy teaching and learning?
I think Sheerah voices a challenge for us here: when we talk about literacies, what do we mean? What does valuing multiple literacies look like in the classroom? How does valuing multiple literacies help (or hurt? or limit? or enable?) students? I think it’s easy to say that we need to value students’ evolving literacy tasks and skills, but what does this mean in a system where some students come from markedly different backgrounds than others, have more opportunities to read books and other texts, and struggle with the literacy practices that other students grow up engaging in? And what does it mean that we live in such a system that, no matter how much we clamor in our research, still values traditional literacies over the emerging and dynamic literacies of today’s youth? And because questions always beget more questions, here’s how Sheerah concluded her post:
What is the solution? Can we use literacy to enact social justice—both at the level of government/policy and at the level of the classroom? If so, how?
She talks in her post about her experiences as a teacher in the Bronx, where students struggled to understand the texts that they needed to understand in order to pass through the system. We have been reading Catherine Prendergast’s book, Literacy and Racial Justice, alongside the work of scholars like Deborah Brandt, Brian Street, and Shirley Brice Heath, among many others. The conversations in class have gotten intense. A couple weeks ago our discussion nearly brought me to tears — we were examining standardized comprehension tests from the NY Regents Exam, and the cultural biases were both obvious and disgusting, and reminded me of the wall against which I rammed my head for three years as a middle- and high-school teacher, trying to challenge the system and never feeling like I succeeded.
Sheerah asked some important, and thought-provoking, questions in her post, and I share her frustration as a fellow former teacher and as someone who is passionately dedicated to questioning and challenging scholarship in literacy studies and education. But with such systemically sanctioned obstacles in the way, I often feel pretty hopeless. I’m wondering if any of my readers have some answers to her (and my) questions, some musings, or some revolutionary work or teaching they can share to lift our spirits!