The Write Kind of Literacies

On literacy as a writer and future teacher.


My understanding of the term “literacy” was first challenged when I was in my fourth year of university studying Middle English literature. We were specifically focusing on middle English women and the question: were they literate? Very few of these women could read or write and the ability to do so was the definition of “literacy,” wasn’t it? Because of this, previous scholarship argued that, no, these women weren’t literate, and prior to taking this class, I hadn’t questioned the narrowness of this definition of literacy. However, even though these middle english women were by definition “illiterate,” the notes made in the margins of centuries old tomes provided my professor with an interesting discovery: even though most of these women were unable to actually read or write, the ones who could would often read out loud to groups of women as they did chores together. These women would listen, interpret, question, understand and interact with literature, yet the scholarship up to this point deemed them illiterate.

According to Balanoff and Chambers, a similar incident occurred with aboriginal people when a literacy mandate was established in the North West Territories. They write about the aboriginal peoples, “They can recognize and interpret symbols, decode, understand, imagine, create and pass on knowledge” (18, 2005); however, they too were be deemed illiterate by the old definition of the term.

The problem then, is not that these groups of people are illiterate, but that the prior definition of literacy didn’t account for a “multiplicity of literacies” (Balanoff & Chambers, 2005, 18). As a writer and avid devourer of books, my preferred type of literacy is fairly obvious. However, as a soon-to-be teacher and as a fiction writer who wants to be able to write compelling characters unlike myself, I too need to expand my understanding of literacy. I have often come across a protagonist in a novel who is a book worm, and I mean, why not? It’s an easy creative choice because the writer themselves are likely avid readers, and anticipate that their audience will easily empathize with this passion. But what about those kids who struggle with reading like ELL students, or those who have different kinds of literacies like the Middle English women and the First Nation Metis and Inuit cultures mentioned above?

I’ll admit it, the protagonist of my fiction manuscript is also a book lover; however, in her past life she was an undiagnosed dyslexic. I did this with the hopes that the reader who doesn’t excel at the “typical” kind of literacy could see themselves in her struggle. I feel like this awareness should be applied to education as well.

In one of my classes, we watched a video about two classes of kids who instead of being given a life writing assignment where they were only allowed to write their own stories, they were instead given cameras. The students were then filmed explaining how they chose what to take their pictures of. One little girl that stood out the most to me explained that she took a picture of a flower because her grandmother was a gardener, and after she passed away the girl wanted to continue on her legacy by gardening. Ouch. My feels. With this assignment, the students proved an understanding of visual representation while speaking and listening to each other (these are three of the six strands of literacy in the Alberta English Language arts curriculum) and also created meaningful connections amongst each other. This wouldn’t have been possible without the expansion of the definition of literacy, and it makes me think of how I want to integrate multiple literacies into my classroom when I’m all growed up and graduated from the education program. It also makes me think of my friends.

Being from Alberta, I have an interesting mix of friends. Half of them are arts/humanities majors in university, and the others are in the trades. I’ve never heard my university friends utter the words, “Well, I’m dumb,” or “I’m just stupid.”

I hear those words from my trades friends on a regular basis.

But my trades friends aren’t stupid. I think they’ve just internalized this idea of their supposed lesser intelligence because when they were in school, their literacies didn’t fit into the old definition literacy (ie reading and writing). My trades friends might not read physical books, but they listen to audio books on Audible, read graphic novels, can build things with their hands, know far more about technology than I ever will, and they love to watch and debate about movies. They have literacy skills; they were just never told about them. When I’m a teacher, my goal is to shift away from this old paradigm of thinking about literacy, so that students who aren’t strong writers or readers aren’t made to feel inferior like my friends have been. Rather than have my students simply think, “I’m just stupid,” I want them to think, “My strength is in speaking/listening/visual representation/viewing.” I want to eliminate this idea of stupidity derived from an outdated definition, and I want to give the students the opportunity to show those strengths.

In any subject I end up teaching (because let’s face it, I may not end up teaching high school English right off the bat *sobs*), this should be established. Maybe in a social class instead of writing an essay about a historical event, the students could choose to make a video or verbally explain a visual representation created by them. In a math class, those who are technologically literate, but struggle with writing could maybe work on a computer. If I ever get a high school English class (knock on wood), I want to incorporate graphic novels (we encountered a few of them in class and they were SO cool) and audiobooks to help with Shakespeare readings.

Of course this doesn’t mean that I’ll completely step away from reading and writing as literacy. I mean, I’m still Kat, reader and writer extrordinaire. As for writing, Tompkins, Bright and Winsor have created a list of the steps of the writing process that can aid students as well as any kind of writer to produce great results, even for those who are less creative (a great summary of it can be found HERE). Without knowing it, I’ve already been encouraging the prewriting activities and drafting in the steps in a previous blog post. #genius

As for the reading component of literacy, I intend to include quality literature in every class I teach (because, duh, books). I want to use picture books, dual language books, great novels, short stories, novellas, and poetry in all genres. A new personal goal of mine is to further familiarize myself with YA fiction opposed to my usual classics, so when I have a student who is interested in a topic, I will always have a good book to direct them to. If you’re interested in checking out any of the books I’ve been reading, I have lists here, here, and some thoughts about why literature is the best here.

In summary, literacy is no longer a static and simple word. It is a broad term that spans across cultures and incorporates a number of different kind of skills and allows for the success of those who don’t fall under the traditional understanding of it like ELL students, people from different cultures, FNMI people, and Albertan trades guys. As a future teacher, I want to even the playing field for the students who do not excel in the traditional sense of literacy, use the steps of the writing process, and include quality literature everywhere I can in any class I teach. Because books, books, books and I want the world to love literature as I do.

I will leave you with this quote from Neil Gaiman about my favourite novel in the whole wide world (I have the last line of the book tattooed on my ribs):

“My cousin Helen, who is in her 90s now, was in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. She and a bunch of the girls in the ghetto had to do sewing each day. And if you were found with a book, it was an automatic death penalty. She had gotten hold of a copy of ‘Gone With the Wind’, and she would take three or four hours out of her sleeping time each night to read. And then, during the hour or so when they were sewing the next day, she would tell them all the story. These girls were risking certain death for a story. And when she told me that story herself, it actually made what I do feel more important. Because giving people stories is not a luxury. It’s actually one of the things that you live and die for.”

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