Ed 250: Literacies and Education
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.
Interactive Blogging: Reflections, Connections, Questions, and Information
Just to follow up on some of the posts here and on Twitter about music as a form of literacy... here are some references that might be of interest to anyone who plans to write on this topic in future.
If you missed my Tweet this weekend, I posted a link to an All Things Considered interview with the director of a new independent film featuring the music of the Bayaka pygmies: http://n.pr/wmrAhh
The film, Oka!, is a fictionalized account of ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno's experience living with the Bayaka, who create music ingeniously from all sorts of objects. Certainly we should be wary of the film's old familiar theme: "...man from economically developed, formerly known as civilized world, goes off to live and find meaning in traditional, formerly known as primitive society...", as well as the idea that any society is more "ancient" or "pristine" than any other... but, still the film looks interesting or at least fun and the library will acquire it when it comes out on DVD. Here's a link to the trailer: http://imdb.to/y5r16G
Having grown up in a middle class American community, the ideas of diversity, acceptance, individuality, and selflessness have been stressed throughout my education as well as in my household. Growing up with my mother can be confusing at times, especially as a youngster. I would often here her yelling, “You can’t expect to be able to help others unless you figure your own problems out. Focus on your own life,” and usually around the same time she would also yell, “You have to think about others. What do you think everyone else needs? The world is not always about you.” At five or six years old, those statements seemed like contradictions, but as I grew up, I discovered the idea of “gray matter” or the fact that everything is not one way or another. My parents worked incredibly hard to “get me out” in the world by sending me to public school, private school, boarding school, putting me on swim teams, taking me to art classes, afterschool programs, music lessons and so on and so forth. And while their intentions were for me to become well rounded, they also wanted me to be placed in different communities with people of different socioeconomic status and backgrounds. As a child, I rendered these activities and experiences as “good” or “bad” depending on how I fit in each situation, but now, I see all of these as learning experiences that brought me to where I am now.
After listening to the TED talk about the dangers of a single story and reading about the dangers of damage-centered research I found myself reflecting upon my experiences from my teaching abroad in China this past summer.
For the TED talk, I agreed with a lot of what the speaker said. Even traveling around China for only two months I was able to see that there are a variety of different stories to be told of the Chinese people. There are vast differences between the urban dwellers and the people in the countryside of China. Thus it was easy for me to understand the dangers of a single story - how it create stereotypes and limits people's understanding of one another. I thoroughly enjoyed this talk because I felt it confirmed a lot of my thinking about how stereotypes get started and how people gain pre-convieved notions about others. It also confirmed my belief in the importance of seeing and experiencing things first-hand.
Lemke said that spoken language falls before we have a chance to analyze it, but written language is forever. I find it interesting the distinct difference made between spoken and written language. With spoken language more “mistakes” can be made because they are likely to be missed and forgotten about, only the main ideas will remain. On the other hand, written language has the ability to be analyzed again and again word for word. This seems to connect to the idea of how stories in Africa were once told compared to how they are told now. Before stories were all oral, they involved motions and emotions and were passed down through memory, but once the European colonizers arrived stories began to be written down. While now there is a “formal” way to write down the stories, what is lost from the oral traditions of the past? Telling a story from memory is a certain kind of literacy, it just seems to be less respected by the European world because it can not be analyzed or monitored in the same way as written stories can be. While written language is incredibly important what is really gained if the written and the spoken are completely different?
It's interesting being able to observe our classroom's dialogues from so many different perspectives. What we say in the classroom, what we post on Twitter, what people post in their Serendip blogs, and for those of us in the 360, what we discuss in our other classes and drawing connections between the three. Each medium brings out a different side to us. Those who may have difficulty speaking up in class may flourish through digital dialogue while others struggle with the barriers that technology presents. Through each form, we learn to process our thoughts and opinions in a new way, much like Lemke discusses when he talks about diverse literacies. Just how Riley's word came was French and didn't have quite the same meaning in English, using diverse mediums can create new understandings of concepts. Twitter forces us to make our thoughts concise and requires a very different type of language than the one we may use in class or even on Serendip. I was initially upset when I saw that Overbrook Elementary featured the Twitter as a means of encouraging the students to read but now I am beginning to realize that this generation has grown up with technology and that sites such as Twitter can serve as a gateway for students to encourage them to read and write, even if it only is in a 160 characters. The idea of using multiple mediums to gain new perspectives goes back to Adiche's The Danger of a Single Story, where she urges us to never make conclusions based on a single story.
Discussing language use particularly in the public education setting, I never feel fully comfortable with how I speak and my interaction with language within the classroom. This is relevant both for my method of speech in the classroom in college and also how I speak to students in the public school classrooms I work in. We all code-switch, speaking differently at work than to our friends than in the classroom. We learn in the classroom, as Lemke discusses, Standard English or “correct” or “proper” English as dictated by the dominant group in power and their normal speech patterns. Lemke pushes this concept to say that Standard English could be called Corporate English because not many if any people actually use this specific form of English in day to day life. In school students speak a variety of dialects of English, but are told that only is correct and are even graded on their ability to master Standard English. I struggle with speaking in a less formal way to students, which is something that I think puts myself and my students at ease, yet I worry about setting a “bad example” for later moments in which they are scrutinized over their method of speech. Working in almost 100% working-class African-American public schools, I constantly think about language and the way students use and interact with language in the classroom. I hear teachers make fun of and imitate students’ method of speech and constantly correct their students. I also see and feel the trust and respect students give to me when I speak in a form of English they feel more comfortable with.
Last week's readings resonated deeply with my constant vigilance for misrepresentations/misconceptions and flat-out misinformation. I am sensitive to this insofar as it applies to my own experience, idea of self and heritage - the catchall term for history, place, community, culture, experience, memories etc. When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recounts the story of her own narrow-minded expectations upon arrival in Mexico, I recognized that moment when one's personal disdain for ignorance is abruptly challenged by one's own ignorance thus begging the question, am I a hypocrite? I've found that generally, one responds "no" and toys with becoming indignant about how others' lack of knowing is worse. I've born witness to this in my interactions with many people who do not identify as American. We can all indulge in stories similar to that of Adichie's roommate and yet we are rarely able to recognize that our own knowledge of another region of the world is as limited and often informed by stereotypes as perverse as any.
I am so excited to be taking this class this semester. One of the things which really interested me about the class was the international perspective on literacy. As we touched on in our last class, it often feels as if we focus on issues primary to the United States. I find this in my sociology classes as well, that the major issues and topics are U.S. centric without an international perspective. In many ways it reminds me of Chimamanda Achide’s concept of a “single story.” I’m definitely not trying to say that we shouldn’t learn about issues in education or educational practices prevalent in the U.S. but especially as we become more dependent on digital literacy it’s important to know another story, a global story. To unpack that statement a little bit, allow me to explain. This class is relying heavily on what I would consider digital literacy. We are using resources such as Twitter and these blogs, Google docs, e-mail – all of these things are part of our digital literacy. Now, more and more people internationally are using these tools as well. I have been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit and have noticed that it is increasingly easy to stay in touch with people I meet abroad through the means of Facebook, etc. As difficult as it is for me to use Twitter and write a consistent blog, I do think that these are valuable tools which can really give us new perspectives on how education is changing and what education looks like outside of the U.S.
I want to expand on a definition of literacy that I’ve been working on through this class and my Music Education class. @jrbacch tweeted “Music a form of literacy? Music notes themselves, crescendos, learning how to read music, etc? #BMCed250” and I responded “thinking of literacy as access to a way of connecting w/ppl, ex cultural literacy, tech literacy makes music fit” [into a definition of literacy].
I spend a lot of my free time working on music for my a cappella group--I teach songs to the group and arrange music for the group to learn. When I’m deciding who will sing which voice part on any particular song, as well as while I’m leading rehearsal, I think a lot about who can read music. In auditions for my group, we ask if the auditioner can read music, because it’s a valuable skill. Within the context of a cappella, if I ask “can she read?” I’m asking about whether a singer can read music. And it does feel that fundamental to me. It is possible to be in the group and succeed without being able to read music, but it requires that I take a different approach in my teaching. I have to refer to notes’ position within the measure rather than their duration and name (e.g., “the altos need to watch the second-to-last note in measure 85--it should be longer and higher” instead of “altos: in measure 85, you’re jumping up a third, and it’s a half note, so be sure to hold it out”).
Throughout this first week of classes and the 360, one book keeps coming to mind as I have read the readings. In Teaching the Postcolony, we read a speech by Ivan Illich called “To Hell with Good Intentions,” which was a commentary about white middle class Americans going to “help” other countries. While I was reading it, I wondered how to reconcile this power relationship between middle class Americans and the Mexican population that the Americans were trying to help. Illich suggested that Americans go to study and enjoy new cultures instead of trying to help. An example came to mind from the book The Help by Kathryn Stockett on how to somehow equalize these relationships. The book is about a white woman in Mississippi in the 1960s writing stories about African American maids by interviewing them. When the white woman, Skeeter, asks Minny, one of the African American maids, to tell her stories for this book, Minny has the same reaction as Illich. She does not understand why a white woman of power and standing would want to write about African American maids. Minny completely disregards her good intentions to change attitudes and does not believe she can help at all. However, throughout the book, Minny and Aibileen both become close with Skeeter as they work on the stories of the maids in Jackson, Mississippi. These women who seem so different by society’s standards become friends who love and respect each other.
Check out this youtube!
This video immediately made me think of Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” As a homeschooler, I’ve encountered many of these questions (most of all, the pajama question). Although at times I liked getting attention for being an anomaly, overall, I felt very judged and limited by other people’s perceptions. I remember that, as a self-defense method, I would describe myself as “weird” so as to claim a description for myself rather than having it forced on me.
So this video was great. It didn’t capture my entire experience, but what I liked about it was that this guy – Blimey Cow – questioned certain beliefs merely by repeating them back. Rather than say outright, “homeschoolers are like this,” he repeats statements that might be said about us, as a sort of mirror effect. As if to say, “hmmm, did you really mean that?”
I love this word – debunking. “Let’s unpack that” – Let’s actually question those assumptions that we’ve accepted as realities. Because in order to truly respect other people, we must eliminate finite assumptions and be more open to complexities and details.
In Access, Identity, and Education – a course taught by Jody Cohen – we read an article by Martha Minow. This reading discussed the “Dilemma of Difference” (I couldn’t find the entire reading online, but here’s a quote: “The dilemma of difference may be posed as a choice between integration and separation, as a choice between similar treatment and special treatment, or as a choice between neutrality and accommodation”). From what I remember, Minow pointed out two problems with “difference” in the classroom: if teachers recognize that students are different, and meet their different needs differently, they run the risk of isolating some students. They might create a “different from” mentality – a separation between normal and different studdents. However, if teachers DON’T accommodate needs, some students may not get the treatment they require for learning.
I am very excited about this course and the potential for great dialogue that it has thus portrayed. We have various means of communication, which I think is important to suit the needs of different learners and for the different ways that people express themselves. At the same time, I do have my concerns about the Twitter component. What irked me the first couple of tweets I posted was that the character limit would inevitably cut me off before I had finished saying what I wanted to say. It reminds me of the multitude of literacies we have discussed and will continue discussing throughout the semester. A new (for the newbies to Twitter as myself), different type of literacy is necessary when communicating via Twitter. You are not able to talk in long drawn out thoughts, but rather it teaches you, or more so requires you, to be succinct and to find the shortest and most effective way to express your thought. I have yet to make up my mind about how I feel about this aspect of social media, but I will say that I am interested in seeing how the combination and interweaving of Twitter and Serendip will play out, where in one you post short statements or links to articles, the other requires you to expand on your thoughts and lay them out in a more thought-out manner. It might just end up being the perfect balance between these two types of thinking and expressing oneself, lending itself to a constructive class dialogue.
In the article What is Literacy?, James Paul Gee addresses the functionality of different discourses. A big part of literacy, as he describes it, is understanding the different uses of primary and secondary discourses. In order to master literacy you must know how to use primary and secondary discourses at appropriate times. In this case “function” indicates that these discourses have different uses or occur in different settings.
When bringing a program that promotes literacy to Northern Ghana, it seemed like an important thing to establish is what kind of discourses occur in the region. In The Leap to Literacy and Life Change in Northern Ghana, there was an emphasis on community building as well as literacy. They stressed that they were teaching children functional literacy, and from the overview it seemed that this was done with a focus on their local life.
There was a stress on incorporating their mother tongue, and teaching the discourse that they were exposed to during a certain family trade. This is different than just teaching children to read and write. Instead they are working to incorporate their life into the classroom. Mixing both “acquisition” (learning through exposure) and “formal learning” seems to be beneficial to students who are trying to master literacy skills.
I try to think that I am open minded, liberal and a thoughtful individual. However, I have also many times been the reproducer, the victim, the oblivious consumer and the creator of a single story. When thinking about the stories I was told and those that I repeat, I know how easy it was when I was younger to believe the words I heard and take them for fact. It was not until much later that I realized I had to learn the language and culture of questioning what I heard people say to me. I think even how people learn to believe and trust is so deeply contextualized in the many intersections of their identity that influence how they view power, authority and respect. I think in some communities/societies questioning stories and people is a strength and a quality that gives you agency and power. However, in other communities and families cultura, age or gender can have bearing on how you communicate the ability to question.
I know that I cling to single stories. I hold onto them tightly as if doubting them is challenging me to confront buried contradictions and hypocrisies of many of my own beliefs. I wonder what is more difficult, to create a single story or to dismantle and destroy the single story perspective?
Through the Twitter dialogue, I have formed a few questions and fields of exploration that I find especially intriguing. Some of these thoughts I know will be added to by the readings, and I am really excited to learn and expand upon my knowledge of these areas. Literacy, by the dictionary and commonly understood definitions, means reading and writing. A few people tweeted questioning whether music or math had facets of literacy within them. I completely think they do. To me, the definition of literacy has always been broader than simply reading or writing, but I am having a hard time defining what exactly literacy can consist of. I am especially finding it difficult to distinguish between the ideas of literacy and understanding. Does being literate mean you understand something? Does understanding something mean you are literate in it?
I think it is important to note that when discussing language, we often observe different dialects and accents as part of the experience of language. I think that literacy in different disciplines is like speaking a different dialect; there is some common basis, but without the full skill set, it is hard to completely understand eachother.
Below is my response to a twitter convo that began with "What is a school?" and evolved into "How does a school bridge the gap between the classroom and external experiences?"
Last semester I finished a course on the culture of poverty. It blew my mind when I realized that every race had a group of people that shared a culture that stemmed from poverty---one of survival, hopelessness, resourcefulness, the value of hardwork,and sufferings from marginalization.
Excited to read about poverty and the people who lived it, I dived right into readings from Oscar Lewis, who was an "expert" on the cultural traits of poverty, and Judith Goode, who defended and understood poor communities in contrast to Lewis. And so, through class discussions and readings, I was under the impression that I was "learning" because I was reading from scholars who dedicated their careers to observing and analyzing poverty.
It wasn't until I was well into writing papers for the course using these sources did I finally stop and say to myself, "I know firsthand what poverty and its culture is like, why must I have old, white-privilaged scholars who never lived it validate my experiences in my paper?" To my frustration, I was learning things I had known all along. If anything, I was the expert.
Which brings me to an answer of the question: How can schools bridge the gap between the classroom and external experiences? Well, we must change the structure of our schools by making the external experiences of the students the focus of the classroom.
This is my second time using Serendip for one of my classes. Before I took interdisciplinary perspectives on gender and sexuality last year I was really not looking forward to having to blog each week. I did not think anyone else would ever read the things that I posted. I was surprised to find myself in a conversation with my entire class that existed outside the walls of our classroom. Every week we had to do a blog post and our posts often created topics that would fuel discussions inside and outside of class. One week, one of my classmates wrote in her blog post about how much she disliked one of the books we read. A few days later, the author of that book responded to her post stating the reasons she wrote the things my classmate disliked in her book. I am excited to see where the online Literacies and Education class discussion will take us.
I am also looking forward to really understanding what this class is about. I want to truly break down what literacies actually mean. Could you consider socially illiterate when they can read and write but they have no comprehensions of meaning and symbolism through body language? What does multi-literacy mean and how is it achieved within an academic setting such as Bryn Mawr? What are the implications of not having computer literacies in the growing technological era? These questions are just starting points for me with this course and they will be some of the points I plan on addressing throughout the semester.
A little cliché to find meaning and thus struggle in the first sentence of a class reading (and I find I am not alone in this based on two notecards in my Ghana study), but in Literacy and Diversity Lemke explains that “the forms of literacy should be as diverse as are the interests and purposes of people in our society”. This idea first began my thought process of the many different types of literacies that can exist: “cultural” literacy, literacy regarding a certain academics (such as being literate in physics), literacy for a language (fluent in English), and even literacy for certain abilities. My second thought actually came from my friend, who on her notecard wrote the thought that if literacy should be diverse, then literacies would possibly separate people. I did not give much thought to this until I read numerous tweets regarding how some people were struggling with Twitter because they did not understand the “literacy” of it (the character limit, remembering how to respond to someone or more than one someone, attempting to follow a conversation). As only a few people in our class had a Twitter before the course started, and were thus not as “literate” with Twitter as Alice or the few others who already had accounts, would this not separate our class? If the purpose of the Twitter hashtag was to generate thoughtful discussion amongst all students, if half the students were literate at Twitter and the other half were not, would the second half not be left behind in confusion and lack of understanding? Perhaps, a lack of learning and making meaning?
Learning and Narrating Childhoods – A 360 taught by Pim Higginson (French and Francophone Studies), Alice Lesnick (Education), and Rob Wozniak (Psychology). Professor Higginson's course is "Teaching (in) the Postcolony: Schooling in African Fiction." Professor Wozniak's course is "Culture and Development." Professor Lesnick's course is "Literacies and Education."
360° is a new interdisciplinary experience that engages several aspects of a topic or theme, giving students an opportunity to investigate thoroughly and thoughtfully a multitude of perspectives. A cohort of students takes a cluster of classes over the course of a semester, focusing on the history, economic concerns, cultural intersections and political impact of an era, decision, event, policy, or important scientific innovation. 360° participants hone their arguments and insights through writing and research, develop strategies for teamwork that push the limits of their talents and creativity, and work with professors and scholars to promote big-picture thinking.