Ed 250: Literacies and Education

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alesnick's picture


This is the online community conversation and resources space for Education 250: Literacies and Education, a course in the Bryn Mawr/Haverford Education Program taught by Professor Alice Lesnick.  Please feel free to join us -- via individual and course blogs and mico-blogs (via Twitter) -- as we explore literacy learning as a process of ongoing personal, cultural, and political negotiation and invention among and across people’s ways with words. The focal contexts of our studies will be the U.S. and West Africa, specifically Northern Ghana, where some of us will travel over spring break as part of the interdisciplinary cluster of courses making up 360: Learning and Narrating Childhoods.  


Course Syllabus

About the Learning and Narrating Childhoods 360

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About Titagya Schools and Ghana

Titagya Partnership Blog


Class Trip Blog



Interactive Blogging: Reflections, Connections, Questions, and Information

OliviaC's picture

Tweeting from your phone

One of the cool things about using Twitter in a class setting is that it allows you to continue the discussion outside the classroom.  For people whose phones have Twitter apps or web access this is pretty easy but you may not have realized that you can also use a regular cell phone to submit and read tweets.

Twitter has an FAQ on phones and also a Getting Started Guide for Twitter via SMS.

In a nutshell here's how you register your phone to your Twitter account and start tweeting via SMS:

Riley's picture

Lugones, Whitman, Cixous, (Gee)....

Gee’s theory that discourses speak through people is really striking to me. We are channels for discourses, and are capable of shaping and changing them. After reading and discussing in class María Lugones’ “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling, and Loving Perception,” I started seeing connections between plurality of self, agency of actions, and the damaging qualities of hierarchical thinking; this reading, combined with Gee’s ideas of agency of discourse, are closely tied to two of some of my favorite texts, poet Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” as well as poststructuralist writer Hélène Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Among all of these texts, ideas of plurality (“inhabiting different worlds” at the same time), “playfulness” as a rejection of hierarchy and patriarchal thinking, and being “survival rich” speak to each other in many striking ways.

abeardall's picture

The Social Construction of Literacy

In Gee's article, he broke down literacy in terms of being able to control our discourses. He discussed the social construction of literacy and how it is not simply a matter of the ability to read and write. I found that it was extremely important to make this distinction and to recognize there are many different types of literacies. However, I feel it is also essential to acknowledge the power that reading and writing hold. As liberal arts college students taking an education course, we recognize the value in all types of literacies but the average person automatically associates literacy with reading and writing. Schools are determined to be good or bad based on their test scores in reading and writing. In my sociology course, Problems in the Natural and Built Enviornment, we discussed how many things are social constructions but that doesn't make the consequences of them any less real. A student may be literate in terms of music or social skills, but if they lack the ability to read or write, they will be significantly disadvantaged compared to students who can. Our society places different values on different types of literacies, giving agency and power to those who posess valued literacies. It makes me wonder how we can change the system; how can we make major structural changes to ensure equality.

Jenny Chen's picture

Optimism or Realism

Throughout the last two weeks, I often think of the ideas of realism and optimism. It was Pim's reading "To Hell With Good Intentions" that I first began thinking of these ideas more coherently. Good intentions can be measured through optimism and realism. There is a certain amount that outside forces can contribute to a community before changing the underlying structure of the community. In the idealistic event that this should occur, the contribution can be measured in both optimism and realism. However, as Ivan Illich implies, there are no true good intentions. There can be optimistic intentions, usually those that cause tremendous change followed by tremendous downfall. On the other hand there are realistic intentions, and those are usually the things that could be done, but are not becuase the "tremendous changes" are happening. 

m.steinfeld's picture

Memorizing vs Reading

In the Literacy and Development reading Pat Herbert and Clinton Robinson describe a scene from a Muslim religious tradition in which people are holding cards with prayers written on them but none of them can actually read the cards; they have memorized the prayers instead. Further investigation found that the people believed the actual words themselves to be sacred and therefore having them in their hands was important even if they could not read the words. This reminds me of my field placement in a first grade classroom. I was working with a boy struggling to learn to read. The teacher had given me a stack of books the boy had been working on all year. I let him pick which book he wanted to read. He picked it and read it better than I have ever heard him read before. He picked another and again I was impressed at how much he had improved since my last visit a month ago. I even told the teacher about how much he had grown in that time. The next week I picked the book for him. It was one I had not seen before which meant it was the most recent book he had been reading. He struggled.  He did not know most of the words, making most of them up as he went along. He even said, “I don’t know this one.” It was clear to me that he had read the other books so many times he had memorized them. I thought he had really improved his reading but in fact he had just memorized the words and so could “read” them quickly. But it made me wonder, is reading the words actually any better than simply memorizing the stories?

kayari's picture


I was thinking last class about the necessity of literacy in the language of power (the language that those in power speak). The examples of Haitian history and of Native American control over land came to mind. "Haitian history" was originally written and claimed by the French colonizers and written in the French language that many Haitians were not literate in. Through the power of the written word, colonizers wrote the history of people, and ignored the ugliness of slavery and slaughter of native Haitians. Haitian history was not for the Haitian people and did not represent the Haitian people but rather it was for and represented the elite.

allisonletts's picture


One of the most interesting parts of learning new literacies is defining all of the terms. I love that sometimes, when I’m introducing a new concept to someone, I have to dig deep into my understanding of that concept to find the most fundamental vocabulary. I love the necessity for analogy--for us to figure out how to relate new terms to those we already know. And then there are the terms that take on new meanings in different contexts.

For my Music Ed class, I am learning how to tango. I know pretty much nothing right now, and my assignment for the week is to practice walking everywhere. The tango walk has so many components that I don’t have to think about in “normal” walking--lean forward; connect with yourself, the space, the floor, the music, and your partner; extend; cover more distance; be a broom. But still, when I think about it, I am just adding to a specific definition of walking.

vvaria's picture

Tweeting and Identity

In looking at the tweets and conversations this week, I have made a few observations.  First off, I would like to recall the tweets regarding bridging academics and personal experiences in the classroom as a means of learning.  Something I am finding particularly useful about the Twitter is that it is allowing us to, at some extent, create these bridges. Though our experiences are held to a 140-character limit, it does allow us to bring what we observe, notice, feel, etc., in a precise moment into the classroom. Questions via Twitter also serve as a basis for further inquiry, such as the questions regarding code-switching and world-travelling. These questions, and the ones that are generated in class provide a framework and basis for thought, in and out of the classroom, leading us to form more experiences with the mindset and understanding of what we accomplish in the classroom.

ckenward's picture

Illiteracy and Ignorance

At the end of class last week, I found myself feeling uncomfortable with the way the class was using the term "illiterate."  As we are all working to expand our definitions of literacy, I think it is important to keep in mind how we're using related terms.  I really like the idea that literacy goes beyond the ability to read and write to encompase having knowledge or competency in an area but does that mean that being illiterate is the opposite of that?  While I'm comfortable with the fact that I am not literate in all areas, I'm not comfortable with the idea that not being literate in an area means that you are illiterate.  I'm also interested with the connection between illiteracy and ignorance.  Are they connected?  If only in the sense that both words seem to have very negative connotations with me despite the fact that they shouldn't be neccessarily negative.  For me, ignorance is not knowing and I think given my previous definition of literacy one could say that being illiterate is not knowing.  However, I think illiterate is used in a much broader sense than ignorance.  For example, I think the way I have been thinking about the terms, one can easily be ignorant about part of a culture or lifestyle or any number of things.  However, if you are illiterate, it isn't just one part of a culture or lifestyle but its the whole culture.  I think it is easiest to understand in terms of language.

ashley's picture

Defining Literacy

It’s interesting to see the definition of literacy develop and how they vary, whether within my own definitions, external definitions, or dictionary definitions. The definition of literacy in its most basic and most well known meaning is: “the ability to read and write”. The definition on my computer goes on to note a second explanation: “competence or knowledge in a specified area”.

My own working definition that I wrote down in class on Tuesday was, “the way we interact with one another, how we communicate and understand each other”. In a way it seems that there are two distinctive forms of “literacy”, as the ability to read and write are very specific skills, but broadening the definition to include competence in any area makes the former definition seem redundant. Part of me continues to work out a definition for “literacy” that makes sense within our discourse. But maybe it is that the class will be incorporating literacy in all its forms.

The revised definition that came out of our small group discussion was: “a way to manipulate secondary discourses to give one agency”. In a way it reverberates my original, working definition but also expands on it. This definition also seems a bit removed from that which sees literacy as simply “the ability to read and write”, all of which serve to complicate and clarify my understanding of literacy as we discuss it in class.

lgleysteen's picture

Social Illiteracy


Since my post last   Social skills, cognition, and emotional intelligence fall under the category of social literacy.  Social literacy can be associated with an individual’s ability to connect with the people around them. Would someone be considered socially illiterate if they cannot express their ideas in a way that people can understand?  I don’t think being coherent and being literate are the same terms.  I think someone can completely understand what is going on around them but they cannot express their ideas because they are incoherent.  I think that using literacy as an umbrella for multiple capabilities is limiting in a way.  By saying someone is illiterate socially or musically, it promotes the assumption that they have absolutely no skills in that area.  When the words literate or illerate come to my mind, I assume black and white.  Either someone is completely capable, or completely incapable.  There is no grey area.  That is why I don’t think describing someone as socially illiterate is an appropriate term for a person with some sort of social disorder. 

elchiang's picture


When I was working at Haffner the other day, I was making Nigerian Banana Chicken. While I was scooping banana mush onto the chicken, several different full time staff passed. The chef I was working with talked to another full time staff member who was from Africa, though not Nigeria, if he recognized the use to bananas with meat. This staff member found the concept foreign as well. Later on, the staff member approached the manager asking why we did not have African soup for the African bar. He complained that the African bar had no foods that he identified as African. He said that these were still American foods. We found out further on in the conversation that the recipes are found on the Internet for the African bar at Haffner.

kwyly's picture

Third Spaces

I have been not so keen on spending this time on twitter and fairly unenthusiastic about twitter as a constant form of communication. I definitely see the benefits of it, and if I had an iphone or something similar maybe I would feel more in the loop with the ability to see the whole twitter website, but I am feeling like it is difficult to be constantly engaging in this online way of communication. All of this is true, but Emily's tweet "really enjoying the "third spaces" of this 360- as in conversations that are not strictly social OR class related" helped me realize the potential of twitter! (thanks, Emily!) I really like the idea of creating spaces that merge different topics, interests, and situations; clearly Twitter has the power to constantly engage our class in a way that cannot be achieved just in the classroom. Recently, I have read articles for anthropology classes that describe the concept of "third spaces". Both Asaf Bar Tura's "The Coffeehouse as a Public Sphere: Brewing Social Change" and Ray Oldenburg's "The Good Place: Cafes, Coffeeshops, and Book stores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community" address the idea of third spaces as physical places for social interaction that bridge separate spheres. I hadn't considered the potential for third spaces to exist in other forms beside as locations. Viewing twitter as a possible space that bridges different communities and thought processes has helped me move past considering twitter as only a form of informal electronic conversation.

couldntthinkofanoriginalname's picture

"Writing White"

"...if our option is for (wo)man, education is cultural action for freedom..." ---Paulo Freire Saturday, I began my first day on the job as a MAST writing tutor to high school students excited at the chance to be a resource and mentor to four brilliant, students of color. Not wanting to impose, as Ivan Illich would say, my views around education, teaching, and, of course, literacy, I gave my students the freedom to design the writing curriculum and classroom space.I was very pleased with the outcome! My students wanted to learn how to write resumes, research papers, SAT prompts, and to write poetry! I was extremely impressed, not because their answers were not expected, but because I definitely did not worry so much about these things my freshman year of high school. Before the start of class, I had been instructed by my superiors to collect writing samples from my students. And so, on a topic of their choice, they each wrote a one page argumentative paper. However, when reading their writing samples, I became incredibly sad and discouraged as a tutor. My kids, who knew what was expected of them academically and even professionally, did not know how to write "well." It was more than grammar and spelling (these areas could be worked on easily), it was the style, the flow, the tone, the words used in their writing that I knew would be looked down upon in higher education. They had not mastered what one of my students had labeled as, "white writing."

kwyly's picture

Intro to twitter

*had trouble getting on to serendip so here the first blog post!

HannahB's picture

What's the origin?

            In thinking about, expanding and revising my current conceptions of literacy, I have come to question just why it matters so much, or more specifically where the necessity came from. Obviously in this day and age it matters. It matters who speaks the “dominant” language; it matters who speaks it in the “right way;” it matters who will not ever have the chance. As we have learned, literacy and power, colonialism, patriarchy and oppression are all interrelated, always. You cannot separate “cultural capital” from the conception of using language “correctly” and thus effectively. During class we have begun critiquing the power structures and hierarchies that are so intrinsic within our system, the mentalities that are so central to the debate over literacy and the need to define one particular “right” way. We acknowledge that such necessities exist. My question is—why? Where does this need to hierarchize come from? Is it a western, white, patriarchal ideal—simply because those are the people who benefit? Something that these people devised and managed to convince the rest of the world to buy into? Or is the competition somehow more central to human nature universally? Perhaps harkening back to the survival of the fittest mentality. Today we live by a series of rules, constraints that determine who has power and who does not. But who originally had the ability to decide that their way was the right way? Who came up with the definitions in the first place? I have no answers to these questions but I am curious.

miaashley's picture

Arrogant Perception

  • Understanding the Arrogant Persepction

I want to understand this term used by Maria Lugones by first putting emphasis on the word perception instead of the word arrogant which is its descriptor. When first trying to understand this term, I began by discussing the word arrogant before the word perception and my understanding of the text became confusing. However, when putting the emphasis on perception it is easier to begin thinking about how this applies at large to feminist epistemology, colonialism, power, education, etc. despite each of these entities being at times very different from one another. However, they all relate in the sense that how we perceive the world, our perception of the world is colored by hegemonic ideologies that are created and reproduced by people with power. As sociologist C. Wright Mills discusses in his book, The Power Elite, it is the select few with the most cultural, social and monetary capital that create the hegemonic perspective. Ordinary people, the majority of people, except a small population of the intellectual bourgeoisie, as Pierre Bourdieu discusses, consumes thoughts with little doubt or reflection as to who created these ideals and beliefs and for what reasons. The word arrogant then makes more sense in that those who have the power to create perspective, shape them, infiltrate them are those who are arrogant.

OliviaC's picture

Dagbani language learning resources

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any more Dagbani language learning videos than the ones that Allison already links in her blog post (and it looks like you watched in class this week).

UCLA phonetics lab has an audio archive entry for Dagbani, but it is geared toward documenting the language not teaching a non-speaker.

I did find print resources that might be helpful... with the hefty caveat that since Dagbani, like many sub-saharan African languages, is tonal you really need to physically hear the spoken pronunciations to make progress with the language.  In any case, here they are:

Sorry I wasn't able to locate more!

HannahB's picture

What is neutral about language?

Chimamanda Adiche’s talk “The Danger of a Single Story” spoke to the discomfort I have recently wrestled with in terms of my own upbringing as a middle-class, white girl; my battle to acknowledge the single story the media, my teachers, our government, religion and so many other facets of my life have taught me unintentionally. Whether it be on a global scale such as Adiche’s experience with expectations of a single African story and the token “third-world woman” too often noted by anthropologists or at the local level, one school to the next, via class or color, the single story does exist and is used to create structural barriers, while simultaneously allowing those in power to happily claim moral neutrality at the hands of a biased system. Lemke’s reading spoke to this juxtaposition, showing how language standardization has been assumed both necessary and desirable, creating a means to attain and justify power that is neither fair nor essential: “The policy of language standardization seems culturally and politically neutral only if we deny that differences in linguistic codes have evolved to reflect differences in the lifeways, social practices, and interests of different communities and social groups” (Lemke, 2). Lemke’s point here and throughout the article is critical, acknowledging that an emphasis on written standard English, a strain that is not spoken or used by anyone, creates a divide and gives an unfair advantage to those whose dialect is closest to the written word—typically those already in power.

OliviaC's picture

Some Twitter tools for making sense of conversations

Twitter birdieSeveral people have noticed, and I am feeling it myself as well, that it can be challenging to follow particular conversations within our #BMCed250 hashtag on Twitter.  When Twitter hashtags are used at discrete real-time events (like in-class, at conferences, the scheduled #edchat, etc.) conversations are easier to follow because all the participants are attending to the Tweets at the same time.  With our class we're using the #BMCed250 hashtag to converse over a longer span of time and asynchronously (without all necessarily seeing all the tweets simultaneously), so particular conversations within the hashtag are a little more difficult to manage.

Anyway, here are a few tools/techniques I found that might help you sort it all out if you are finding things chaotic:


Within Twitter