Investigating Literacy: The Word and the World

At a time when so many of us are struggling to recover from the shock of our recent election, the voices and work of my students offer insight. The young people I work with feel hopeless. They are passionate about change and questioning ideas that many around them take for granted. They yearn for a vision of the future that integrates their worldviews and experiences.

At a time when incidents of hateful behavior are on the rise, our daily school reality and the work we do have become more of an act of resistance. (It’s worth reading Jose Vilson’s explanation of Why Politics Are Always At Play in Our Classrooms.)

The voices of my students also offer a vision of possibility. Before the election my 11th graders investigated literacy, using the idea of reading the word and the world as a starting point to examine their own experiences, realities, and society. The essays they wrote are filled with insights, passion, and some very beautiful writing. Here are the guidelines that we shared for the paper.

In The Young and the Illiterate, Jordan wrote:

It is not the fault of the child when they’re are unable to read the selective material given to them. How can someone expect an urban youth to be able to relate to the material given by a middle-aged white woman that is probably living in a suburban area. Matthew Lynch brings up this important point in the writing,Black Boys in Crisis: Why Aren’t They Reading?”, “…black students (and particularly boys) experience disconnection when it comes to the authority figures in their classrooms. The K-12 teaching profession is dominated by white women, many who are very qualified and very interested in helping all their students succeed but lack the first-hand experience needed to connect with their Black male students.” (Lynch) This quote relates to me because I felt a learning disconnect to the material Mrs. D was giving me. Not only were the characters not like me, but the manner in which Mrs. D went about teaching me, made it very hard to learn.

I find my way to my seat and class begins. Mrs. D explains to the class,”Today we will all be creating and reading aloud to the classroom our own personal sentences.” My heart sinks. The idea of having to create a sentence is hard enough. Then, having to read that sentence myself and to the classroom would be a great embarrassment. My anger starts to build in my body like the smoke inside of a chimney after lighting a fire place. The class goes on and I refuse to learn the material. I put my head down as the rest of the class learns basic sentence structuring. Thirty minutes pass after Mrs. D gives us these instructions and she then tells the class that each student will now have to present their sentence.”Okay Jordan, you can come up to present now.” said Mrs. D. I responded by running out of the class and darting down the hallway to the bathroom. In the bathroom I ask myself, “Why am I so dumb? Why can I speak a language and not read that same language?”

In The Expiration Date of Our Education, Kate wrote:

I recognize these issues as both an insider and outsider. As a white student from a good neighborhood, I have never had to go to a school where I was expected to be stupid. As a straight-A student and decent test taker, I have never had to spend hours studying just to end up getting a C. Yet, as a student and a teenager, I have seen mine and others’ education slaughtered by a lack of funds and lack of thought. I have seen my best friend get an F on a test and turn it into a mural on the very same page. I have seen all of these things, but I haven’t seen change. Our learning and our literacy both stem from inquiry and questioning, yet our schools reject it. Learning is driven by the passion and inquisitiveness behind it, where students are persistently and restlessly fighting for answers. It’s only through inquiry and expression in schools, that we find ourselves and our passions and we discover the world.

In The Proper Persona, Menduyarka wrote:

“Look, maybe there’s another way we can settle this! Isn’t this going a little too far?”

“Just hearing you talk makes me want to smash your face in!”

He served a firm strike to my lower abdomen. A gasp for air ended up becoming a gag, which transformed into a ball of saliva and today’s lunch exiting my mouth almost forcefully. It hit the ground and splashed over the circulation of the feet around me. As his grip on my jacket loosened, the “flight” response in my head had overtaken my body, and I ended up home in less than a minute.

In Reading Group Five, Zoe wrote:

Just because I took a test and my scores were different from those of my peers meant that people treated me differently, expected different results from me. Society wants to put a number on you, in order to be intelligent, you have a higher value on that scale of what society deems “literate”. Ever since I was placed in reading group five, people have always expected me to be someone else…

The funny thing about how society perceives being “literate”, is that the middle ground is so difficult for people to reach. Especially when one is growing up and being told that females aren’t supposed to be this smart. You are either too dense or too intelligent. As a little girl in third grade, I felt out of place simply because an exam told me I had a 5th grade reading level.

In My Real Language, William wrote:

Thankfully, my hard work not only improved my English, but it also allowed my little brain to keep up with my Portuguese as well. However, not everyone was fond of my way of learning and my way of speaking.  As I would try to sound it out loud in class, the teacher would always lose her temper, “You are disrupting the class! Please speak English!” She would say with an annoyed look as she turned the question to someone else. I never understood how trying to learn was disrespectful, or why it was a bad thing. I was also powerless as I was just a student. In chapter two of Freire’s “Pedagogy of the oppressed”, he states, “The teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined” So many teachers let this get into their heads, which causes them to be ignorant to their student’s opinions as if they expect them to be stupid.

Hayley wrote:

I remember being bullied, because of the way I looked, the way my body was shaped, I was different. I was always trying to fit in with the the popular kids, with their huge groups of friends….

The bullies would always bring me down, I fall, and I would stay on the ground. I would end up home, with my face, showing no emotions of the pain I suffered Every single goddamn day. I would always think of myself as an ugly person, or better yet, a thing. It was as if I were an alien, people poking at me with their sharp tools, drawing pain throughout my veins. An unbearable,  stinging, burning pain, attached to my soul. I would never tell my parents about my troubles. I kept every word inside my tight throat, it was suffocating.

Gavin wrote,

Also, the written and spoken word have communicated to me other rules for functioning that I can’t sense otherwise–wonderful rules about everything from the workings of the universe to how to organize time. This in turn has imposed a certain structure on a world that can seem chaotic at times, too rich in sensory input for me to organize, and this has given me peace of mind.

In Literal Literacy, Xavier wrote:

“Great,” I thought to myself in a very sarcastic tone. There’s nothing I dread more about English class than getting an assigned book to read for homework. Every time it happens to me, I feel like setting the book on fire and launching its ashes into the Schuylkill River. It’s not that I hate reading, but when I’m forced to read something, that’s where I draw the line. It feels more like an assignment that I just have to push through, rather than something that I’m invested and interested in like it should feel.

In The Boy With the Lypse, Naeem wrote:

Then the teacher called on me. My eyes locked  on the words as if they were trying to hold on to a boat that is slowly sinking into an ocean full of snakes.  My mouth begin to move as if it was being directed by my view. This is not how I imagine my voice sounding in my mind. It was fruity yet shrill and I stuttered  a lot on words that I knew how to say, at least in my mind. Every word pass through my teeth as sweat fall an inch closer down my face. When I finished the section, I looked up like I just ran a marathon. We had free time after we were finish the class work. Everyone was talking to each other and not about the reading. I tried to socialize with my classmates but was quickly shut down by them. A boy asked me why do I talk like I have spit in my mouth? Then another one told me I sound like I just got finished drinking a gallon of maple syrup with a follow up question, “Are you gay?”. From then on, I never volunteered to read in class ever again.

In My Perspective, Mekhi wrote:

Back then, information was consumed willingly, not that knowledge is getting shoved through my skull now but there was more of a longing for learning new things. Currently, I feel as if the only purpose of going to school is to get good grades so I can assumingly have a better future. The younger me didn’t know as much so the level of curiosity was combated against new information taught in school. That curiosity is long gone and now school feels like a chore instead of a resource. My argument is that if school was only about learning, grades wouldn’t exist.


Nisa wrote:

“You talk like a white girl!”

I didn’t know how to reply. I didn’t even know what it meant to ‘Talk like a white girl’. Did they speak differently? I thought about all my white friends. I thought long and hard, attempting to isolate something about them that I didn’t have because I wasn’t white. I became nervous and felt the pits of my arms start to prickle. The girl stood, giggling, but unmoving. What more could she want to ask?

“Is your mom white?”

This time, I didn’t hesitate to answer. I felt my face contort itself into an annoyed grimace.

“That wasn’t a very smart question to ask,” I barked. She looked around and realized our classmates with their full attention on the both of us.

“You aren’t grown! I’m six, your’e only five. You are just a baby.”

I heard laughing. I turned my seat away from her and proceeded to do my work, knowing she would leave if I let her think she “won.” I was right. She spun on her heel and skipped across the room, her pink barrettes clacking against each other.

I thought about that girl for the rest of the day.

We both had the same skin colour. We both SOUNDED like normal little girls, as far as I was concerned. It was only then, though, did I realize I would always be different from the other brown girls.

In No Fighting. No Biting., Aidan wrote:

We learn complacency. We learn to read, and write, and do basic math. We learn to sit down and shut up. Mike Rose, in his article, I Just Want to be Average, illustrates the unwritten rules of being human in the 21st century.

“the teacher teaches and the students are taught;

the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;

the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;

the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;

the teacher chooses the program content, and the students adapt to it;

the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.”

I know nothing. I’ve been disciplined. I’ve complied. I’ve been an object. Everyone lives in an illusion of freedom, in blissful ignorance of the uniform grip that we’ve placed on one another, a grip that, as Mike Rose says, is “necrophilic; nourished by a love of death, not life.” We don’t value one another’s existence, we value the uniformity and compliance. Things I would say are akin to the death of a person.

In Poetic Licence, Lyle wrote:

“Who is this person? Who wrote this?” I immediately asked. I had never heard writing like this before, I had never felt a poem wrap it’s cold, calloused hands around me before. Poetry had always been a chore to me, some assignment that a teacher would hand you and tell you to write your heart on the page, and I never knew what that really meant until now. That night I went home and read through every word that he had written, every thought that he had was now trapped rumbling around in my head. I was then convinced, I was convinced that I could be just like him, I could write just like Bukowski.

Arielle wrote:

From the first day to the one-hundredth and so on, I made it a point to unravel all the words I knew. Then came first grade. At first my words would bring front-toothless laughs upon my classmates’ faces and make my teachers proud. Sometimes my words would take me to wonderful places, they opened me up to a new world that only I had the key to. Other times, they would take me to desolate and vacant places…like detention. My favorite things in the whole wide world began to fill my folders and flood my mind but this time they weren’t so sweet. Tiny scraps of neat paper would be crumbled like rubble in the bottom of my backpack. These weren’t the words I wanted; these were bitter ones that made my tongue curl and my eyebrows touch the bridge of my nose. Words like “self-control” and “distracting” covered the pages. I read each one. They didn’t think I could read them. They were the types of notes that were meant for ‘adults only’. My parents saw three of those papers. After that, I began to throw them away.


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