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Silence Broken: Critical Literacy Is The Goal
Silence Broken is a new monthly opinion column by Wiretap contributor Kameelah Rasheed
I began teaching when I was 12. My younger brother had cognitive and developmental delays in addition to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) and speech complications. He was in a special education program at a grossly under-served school, housed in trailers segregated from the "normal" kids and taught by several unqualified teachers and assistants. After countless meetings with school officials and a fruitless lawsuit, my mother finally decided to remove my brother from school and began home schooling him.
With a personal budget of about $50 a month for books and materials, a healthy amount of hope and intermittent access to a local teachers' library, my mom and I improved his reading and writing. His reading and writing is no where near where it needs to be, but he moved from a fifth grader who could not write a sentence to a high school'er and now community college student who knows how to struggle (because struggle is necessary for growth as a writer) through an essay. Our focus was on literacy -- the ability to communicate ideas in multiple methods or registers to effectively enter into and navigate discourses that shift with context.
Literacy is a perpetually pregnant existence in which passion and curiosity are the midwifery team that usher forth written, oral, visual and spatial texts that inform and evoke meaning. Literacy is about "waking up" or even resurrecting a former "dead" self because so much of schooling seeks to literally kill our critical thinking and literacy explorations.
As a Bay Area high school history teacher I am realizing just how poorly many of my students write and how undeveloped the culture of writing, reflecting and critical reading is across all disciplines. I've read papers from 12th-graders that my friends have mistaken as the work of struggling fourth graders. I have had to teach 18 and 19 year olds how to write a paragraph. I have taught basic sentence structure to students who are going into the "real world." I have cried about my student's writing.
Teaching history also means I care that my students know certain historical facts and important dates, but more than anything I want, no, urgently need my students to be able to translate their passion and anger in well-structured arguments and graceful prose that is supplemented by carefully selected evidence.
The Challenge Ahead
In last week's U.S. Department of Education survey titled The Nation's Report Card, California students still lagged in writing skills. Los Angeles youth fared only slightly better than the study's lowest ranked student group in Cleveland, OH. This report should not be the only measurement of national student writing or basic literacy, but the assessment does demand serious reflection about students' abilities to articulate themselves and survive in a society that requires strong communication and writing skills.
Sadly, "the report makes clear that many American students have barely a basic grasp on the written expression of English, with just over a third of eighth-graders and fewer than one-quarter of 12th-graders scoring at or above the "proficient" level in writing." This is troublesome to say the least.
So what can social justice-minded progressive teachers, students and community stakeholders do?
Literacy Tips and Tools
Focusing on the writing and reading elements of literacy, I have compiled a list of suggestions, longings and yearnings:
- Actively promote basic literacy. It should not be surprising that many urban youth in underserved schools do not have basic literacy skills. While basic literacy is a good starting point, critical literacy is the end goal. Critical literacy challenges the status quo in an effort to discover alternative paths for self and social development.
- Establish a cross-disciplinary writing, reflection and critical reading culture. Students should get used to writing just as much in their science or arts classes as they do in their history and English classes.
- Teach and re-teach writing and literacy's historical importance for marginalized communities. Revisit accessible literature and essays on writing as resistance. Students need to know why they are writing before they begin, otherwise writing becomes an academic exercise and not a tool of resistance and community building.
Have students read excerpts from essays like Sherman Alexie's The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me , bell hooks' when I was a young soldier for the revolution or Gloria Anzaldua's How to Tame a Wild Tongue . Even excerpts of George Orwell's Politics and English Language provide a strong context for the political nature of writing and critical reading.
- Introduce students to various writing modes and genres. Students need to know when to write for certain audiences, but more importantly that creative and informal writing is just as valuable and powerful.
- Value the varied linguistic expression of your students whether it is Vietnamese or African-American Vernacular English. Teachers need to recognize that while a student may struggle with standard English, they may be extremely literate in their home language.
- Create a safe space for students to write about more academic issues as well as personal issues. In this process, guide students to understand how the personal is political and how academic writing bleeds into personal narrative.
- Provide students with an opportunity to publish their work and receive feedback from community and as well as more global audiences. This can include the use of blogs and wikis in the classroom, the creation of locally distributed zines, the establishment of small self-publishing press at your school sites, encouraging students to submit their work to local publications, and/or establishing or broadening the presence of student newspapers.
- Create a writing process that's a dialogue rather than an unmediated monologue. This means consistently communicate with students about their writing through written feedback, short conferences and peer feedback.
- Allow students to write multiple drafts of a paper. Beyond giving students an opportunity to correct grammar or structure, rewriting helps students sees writing as a process rather than product created in one sitting.
- Establish writing centers similar to the ones at universities. These can be as small as a storage closet with both student and teacher writing coaches or as large as a classroom that houses resources and a student staff.
- Introduce students to off-campus writing resources and centers like: Bay Area Writing Project, 826 Valencia and other 826 projects in Michigan, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.
- Provide a safe space for struggling readers and writers to grow and showcase their work.
- Encourage pleasure reading. Get students to read books they choose that appeals to their own interests.
- Make reading the news a routine activity to encourage political awareness.
- Make daily writing prompts a classroom routine.
- Create a classroom library. Many teachers get discounts at local bookstores and many libraries toss out discontinued books. Create a physical space in your classroom for students to find books, magazines, periodicals, graphic novels and writing development resources.
Many great resources come in the form of articles as well. Print these resources out and include in a resource binder. While you are at it, encourage students to create a home library and to actually visit their local library.
- Teachers should stay up to date on professional development opportunities as well as on literature on literacy and teaching writing.
Strong readers and writers can become powerful community advocates. When I became a teacher I pledged to create dangerous minds -- ones that are critical, creative and daring enough to ask probing questions as well as take daring action. American public education demands urgent, yet creative and calculated action. This urgency tansforms the question of what kind of teachers we want to be, to the question of what kind of teacher we need to be.
My teaching core is informed by experiences and texts that have baptized me into a new understandings, have given birth to central values and have mothered my understanding, action and reflection. As a community we not only yearn for a culture of literacy; we urgently need it. Our students needn't be armed with guns, but with the discourses, critical thinking skills and passion to make themselves visible and heard in a society that often obscures them into a marginal existence.
Kameelah Rasheed was raised on a harmonious, yet eclectic mix of Islam and old Gil Scott-Heron records. Currently, she is an Ed.M. candidate and teaches 12th grade Humanities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read more of Kameelah's writing on her blog, KameelahWrites