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Literacy Narratives:
Making Connections between Past. Present and Future Conversations
Joanne Dunn
Department of English

A literacy narrative is an extended essay that traces and reflects on the writer’s definition of literacy and how that definition becomes a powerful tool in his or her own learning. More specifically, the term “literacy” goes beyond the denotation of the ability to read and write and extends to a deeper connotation of the many ways people learn to read the world around them. These deeper ways of thinking about literacy include home literacy, workplace literacy, faith literacy, the literacy of music, sports, food and the all-inclusive lens of cultural literacy. In expanding this definition, one thinks about the values, norms, conventions and vocabulary that define each of our literacies in ways as specifics as our fingerprints.   

Literacy narratives are our personal stories about the development of our worldview. They are in-depth, reflective discoveries about the development of our life texts that come about by understanding the history of the texts that we have been exposed to through visual, oral, written and cultural texts. These texts constitute our personal histories that inform our way of being, thinking and ultimately our attitudes in coming to learn new disciplines. In essence, how well we interpret and process our past literacy experiences powerfully impacts our ability to enter new learning experiences. Appreciation of the many texts of our lives and how those texts work in the development of ideas makes it possible to make a way to embracing new learning experiences. Literacy is a fluid and dynamic part of who we are and how we read the world around us and, as such, makes these narratives relevant to teaching.

How can we expect students to understand new discourse communities and gain entrance to those communities if we ourselves do not understand these powerful connections? It is my belief that teachers should require of themselves the development of their own literacy narrative creating a space for vulnerability and honesty in teaching. I believe that this practice could develop a more meaningful understanding of what I think of as a central core in which a teaching philosophy is built upon and in turn develops into pedagogical practices. Perhaps what is most relevant to this discussion is the connection established between teachers and students when developing these types of literacy narratives that can begin a process in a meaningful approach to new subject matters. Since we are always reading and writing based on prior background knowledge, it is essential for teachers in any subject area to place their particular subject matter in context for students. In essence, learning does not take place in a vacuum.

As students enter our classrooms and hope to gain entrance into the disciplines in which we work, complex attempts at communication take place. Very often, we make assumptions about writing and problem solving that jump ahead of the student’s understanding of norms, values, expectations and audience in these particular disciplines.
When students are unclear in understanding the insider language, they are at a disadvantage in meeting the expectations that writers need to be successful. Teachers are often discouraged and frustrated with assignments that fall flat in this learning environment.  To add a layer of complication to this type of experience, teachers bring a subtext of their lives into the classroom that reflects their own lens in which to view the community of students. Teachers carry a very personal life text with them in planning course objectives, assignments, methods of instruction and the subtle and not so subtle criteria for evaluation.

This entire process cannot be minimized when it comes to creating successful communities of learners where writing should flourish. Writing to learn: to report, to reflect and to develop, to analyze, to evaluate in all its forms means participation in a learning community, in a discourse community. And when that happens, new conversations take place in that area of study. The borders of the discipline are then widened and deepened to embrace new members of that community who can enrich the discourse in creative ways. New texts are written that add to the conversations in that field of study. In short, students move from passive spectators to active members and, in doing so, contribute more fully as more equipped writers.

My argument is that this participatory process requires an authentic sharing between teacher (facilitator) and students.  This process relies heavily on the understanding by both teachers and students that sharing requires new ways to create shared meaning. Language, norms and values have to be negotiated and appreciated for this type of conversation to take place. The literacy narrative, when carefully and honestly composed, can create a space, a point of contact, that creates meaning when engaging in new ideas and in turn producing new texts.  A literacy narrative is a thoughtful act of courage for anyone and in some ways more challenging for the teacher that chooses to use them as learning tools and compose one for reflective self-assessment. Acts of disclosure, self-reflection and memory are acts of courage. I contend that these acts of courage are essential for individuals who work to shape the ideas of those students who are entrusted to them on a daily basis.

These literacy narratives may provide unique challenges for many educators who may have built a world of ideas over a lifetime and, while doing so, in some ways have created a protective wall in the process. It is fundamental for educators to be willing risk-takers if they are to ask their students to fully participate in academic learning environments that are new and foreign. Taking risks is essential to writing of any kind but more so to writing to new audiences, with particular codes of communication that qualify the writer as competent.

Through the art of vulnerability, we can create exciting opportunities for dialogue that are dynamic.  Because of my belief in the essential art of vulnerability on the part of the teacher, my commitment to literacy narratives is strong. This commitment may be traced to my personal story as a non-traditional student, who entered the academy after engaging in powerful life experiences as a mother, wife, and creator of a small business in a service industry. These roles were powerful contributors that worked both to enhance and challenge my entry into an academic community, at a time in life when most were established in a more secure position.  As I became curious about how the academic community functioned, I realized that the confidence necessary to gain access to that culture required a greater understanding of the language that created an ongoing professional dialogue. Confidence developed through the understanding of social norms that shaped the expectations that I had of myself as a participant. In that process, I began to find my voice as a writer. And however painful that process unfolded, my willingness to “see my background” as an asset to the community began.

 I began to reflect on the idea of “literacy as a worldview” constructed through a lifetime of experiences both in and out of the classroom.  The idea of constructing a way of thinking about those powerful influences had to include memory, personal history, a deep sensitivity to cultural influences and how they converge to create a present reality that acts a paradigm in learning.

 As I engaged in new discourse communities, I moved into teaching. Now by moving ahead to a new professional role as an instructor, I began to use my research in the area of critical pedagogy along with my understanding of using life texts to meet students where they are. Teaching writing became as complex as the writing process itself. Although writing requires invention, it is invented through a circular process of life texts that may or may not be apparent to the writer. My challenge as an educator is to bring awareness to students that making important connections between background knowledge and present day problem- solving is essential to effective writing. In making these connections, students can take a proactive approach to learning, thinking and writing. Through these connections, students can begin to find their authentic voice as a writer, a voice that will give them the confidence to gain access to new communities of learning.

Each time students enter your classroom, they enter a new discourse community that is made up of a new set of dynamics. They bring a highly sensitive literacy background as they cross the threshold. Crossing that threshold, students have the chance to make connections between past and present learning as well as with the rich and diverse literacy background of the other students that also make up the community.

I believe meaningful dialogue is essential to creating the environment conducive writing in any field. How we “read each other” is as important to academic learning as traditional texts because “how we read each other” influences the meaningful dialogue so necessary to creating new ideas as well as new research and texts that extend the conversation so essential to the growth in any discipline.  

My classroom activities are based on participatory learning that requires hands-on writing, reflection and discussion. Most of what I do in approaching my students can be modified for use in any discipline. I believe that the environment should be a safe place where students can offer ideas and be respected.  When we validate various learning experiences for the language, norms, values, conventions that they provide, we are creating a much richer foundation for new learning.  

The essential practice of the literacy narrative involves trust, dialogue and lots of writing.  Here is an outline of the sequence of events in practical application for composing the literacy narrative. (These events can be easily modified to accommodate many disciplines).

Meeting One
Introduce Literacy Narrative with a handout that states the purpose(s):
Your handout can include questions such as: How did you develop your reading, writing and problem-solving habits through your life texts? Think about social interaction, visual literacy, manners and customs, technical understanding, aesthetic sensitivity, workplace literacy, faith traditions and beliefs as well as other influences. Can you describe the ways in which you access information, learn new ideas and make decisions? Can you talk about past groups or communities and describe your participation in them?    The purpose of the writing project is to identify and reflect upon the many experiences that shape your worldview.
The objective: Through this project you should gain experience in the critical thinking process as you make connections by both identifying experiences and interpreting their meaning. Through this process you should gain experience in writing to learn, writing a narrative, as well as analytical writing.

Definition:  This is an important step. What defines literacy?  At this time the facilitator should reflect on how his or her own definition of literacy has been constructed.
This step is important in setting the parameters of the writing project.
The handout and discussion should include a working definition of literacy as well as an expanded definition of the connotations of that word:  Workplace literacy, visual literacy, cultural literacy, academic literacy, etc.
Sample literacy autobiographies may be referred to (models for writing) as well as bibliography for in depth reading.

Homework: Students are asked to complete questions on this handout on the topic.

Meeting Two
Students bring in handout. Class brainstorms as a community to share ideas. Students begin an in-class draft.
Allow time for questions.

Meeting Three
Conferences and Peer Reviews

Meeting Four
Final drafts due. Students share.

By meeting with students, I am able to ask questions throughout the writing process. As students work together in peer groups they begin to build community. As students share aloud with the larger group, they become more aware of meeting the challenge of writing to various audiences, and in the process, become more reflective and more motivated to engage in revision.

The results from these activities have been positive. First, I learn who my students are and how I can help them.  As the individuals begin to interact and develop community, they seem much more motivated to create a composition they would be proud to share.

Through dialogue, models and examples, multiple drafts, conferences, revisions, sharing excerpts of the writing class throughout the process, and small group work, the needs of students from different backgrounds, learning styles and expectations are assessed.  

Establishing the relevance of each assignment is necessary to engage students fully in the process. As students believe that what they are learning is connected to whom they are, as well as to their future goals, they begin to trust the process. As they trust that they may have something to say, as they work through problem solving in a particular writing assignment, they begin to add to the conversation as well as draw on the literature in a given field of study.  Consequently, throughout the process, from planning my assignment to developing an approach to having conferences, I think about making connections for and with my students.

Understanding the underlying values of a discipline is essential in writing successfully to specific audiences in that discipline. Throughout the process of composing these literacy narratives, the facilitator can present mini-lectures on specific considerations in the context of discussing audience. When writers develop an awareness of a community, they begin to shape texts in more thoughtful and specific ways.

Introducing students to the discourse community of a specific discipline can be quite workable in several ways. By introducing models, vocabulary and conventions of writing,  students think about audience and community. Connections can be made about past, present and future discourse communities as both facilitator and students “work through” composing the literacy narrative. As students deconstruct their own literacy in an attempt to analyze their growth and development, educators can help students construct new paradigms through the introduction of the research and texts of the particular discipline
in question. As students attempt to enter a particular discipline, they are unsure of expectations. Because of that hesitancy, their writing is inhibited. In discussing, the important research in a field as well as the type of developments, journals and other publications, students are able to think in new ways. So many times as educators, we miss opportunities to provide background knowledge of how fields of study “work and think” as a communities. Perhaps, when we are too close to a subject matter, we are unable understand how difficult it is for new potential members of an academic area, to grasp a new way of thinking and in-turn of writing.

I believe strongly in using models, texts common to a field of study to set expectations for writing and thinking. They are powerful tools that help writers think through the ways
a particular subject expresses itself through word choice and academic problem- solving. Models help establish clearer goals for students. I think of models as “training wheels” that are used early in the process. However, I never think of models in writing or thinking as the answer to a writing project, but more as a signpost that helps define the traditions set in a field of study.

 Creative thinking and new approaches are essential practices in any discipline.  In a sense, studying the great masters in any field provides the necessary background information to be creative and innovative in a purposeful way. 

As we share our life texts, we can hope to create new and exciting conversations within a field of study as well as across the disciplines.

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