While earning my B.A., I worked for a Montessori school; when I read Shannon Carter’s anecdote of her brother’s experience, I thought of my Montessori experience. In the late nineties, I was teaching an autistic child how to write his name. We were on the floor together. He was lying down propped up on his elbows, and I was sitting cross-legged next to him. After every letter, he looked for a reward of some sort: a pat on the back, a smile, a verbal or nonverbal ‘good job.’ After he made it through all five letters of his first name, I patted him on the back, smiled with eyes wide, and said, “Great job! Let’s try your last name, too.” The six year old looked up at me squinting, not smiling, and said, “Oh. Miss Krystal. Now, that … is a nasty surprise.” I was so tickled I gave him a little break. Autistic people are recorders. I wish I knew the context of the first time he heard: “Now, that is a nasty surprise.”
I’m not sure if this book would have been as enjoyable and poignant if I lived in a different state. Living in Texas, I often heard my little inside voice saying, “Hell, yeah!” when Carter discussed standardized testing and the marginalization of students’ solely based on their ability to pass a standardized test. It’s so incredibly unethical, but standardized tests are part of the giant which cannot be knocked to its knees. Public schools receive their funding from Texas and the United States based on their test scores. In some school districts, teachers stand to earn a bonus if their students do well on the state test. It feeds solely on the “…political complexities embedded in school-based literacy education” (62).
Teaching is not easy. It never was and never will be. If someone finds teaching ‘easy work,’ then something is missing or not right anyway. Carter is right when she discusses the amount of work and ‘swimming against the stream’ it requires of teachers to use students’ vernacular literacies in conjunction with their academic literacies. But if the teacher can find the sweet spot where the two meet, the year will be golden! Most students are ‘smart;’ they may not be smart about what we need them to be smart about or what we traditionally consider to be smart, but they are. I listen to teachers when they say, “They just won’t think. If they would think, they’d pass the test.” To not be confrontational, as always, I just nod my head like a dog in the back of a car and say, “Uh-huh.” BUT INSIDE, I am having an entirely different conversation. Inside, I’m screaming, "They do think! They are thinking! They aren’t thinking about what you want them to think about, but they’re thinking! So, survey them! Find out what they are thinking about, dust your creative hat off and put it on, and link it to what you need them to think about." Whew! Just walk away.
I still adhere to Mike Rose’s advice that if we can get close to the students’ failures, we can find the reason. Students (although they don’t always act like humans) are human beings. So being, failure is not a natural desire—no matter how ‘emo’ they are. If we can walk away from our own definitions of literate, literacy, smart, and good, we’ll serve our students much more effectively. If we employ their vernacular literacies to negotiate the literacies we know they need to be successful in the “I want to be successful” game, more power to us. If we need to employ the students’ cell phones and iPods to engage with the lessons, more power to us.
It may be a curse of all generations to view younger generations as inferior. They aren’t inferior, they are just different. They see the world differently, they read differently, and they definitely write differently. We did, too, in comparison to our parent’s generation. As societies shift, so do the literacies they find important in order to function. I agree with Carter (and many others) that writing is communication and, therefore, a social act. Healthy relationships are based on positive feelings. If someone makes you feel good, you are apt to be around that person, to want to be around that person. A student’s relationship with writing is analogous to that. Why would they want to keep writing when all that is pointed out are the mistakes? The number of students/people who scurry away from writing because of fear or lack of confidence is unfathomable and depressing. Too many students ‘’’hate’’’ writing because the first few times they tried writing their pieces were put through the wringer.
A short conversation in Stephen King’s book On Writing (2000), he discusses the difficulty of making bad writers into competent writers: "…[I]t is impossible," he explains, "to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one” (136) (emphasis his). If we capitalize on our students’ natural competencies, we can make them into good writers—maybe not great ones, but definitely good ones. At the race expo last Saturday before my half-marathon on Sunday, an elite athlete was talking to the crowd about…running…of course. Someone asked a question that I didn’t hear clearly. Based on the athletes answer, however, it must have been something to the effect of ‘When can I consider myself a runner?” The speaker answered, “You are a runner if you run. If it’s your first day or your tenth year running, you are a runner.” I think teachers should take that same attitude with writers. The athlete didn’t say, “When you get your time down to x-minutes per mile,” or “After your third race.” It’s running. There are zero adjectives to describe how good or fast. Running is running. And so…writing is writing. Get rid of the adjectives. If students are willing to put pen or pencil to paper, they are writers, and they are creating reading.
Throughout her book Shannon Carter is making the argument that the autonomous model of literacy is a flawed way of thinking about and teaching literacy. She argues that literacy is not a discrete bundle of skills that has all encompassing usefulness in all situations. Rather, she asserts that literacy should be viewed as entirely contextually dependent. The idea that we are all political agents enacting a political agenda, unwittingly or not, causes complications when you try to figure out what to do with the basic writing student. How does a teacher best serve her basic writing students? One could assume by her very presence in a basic writing class that a basic writing student wishes to be a part of the community of practice that is the academy. After all, they have situated themselves within this particular community of practice even when that community has found them to be not so desirable. So, as a teacher, I struggle with wanting to honor their wish (of academic initiation and assimilation) and with wanting to act on my role as a political agent. I feel I should be asking and thinking about two questions all the time. 1) What is the best for the student in the academy and in life? 2) What does the student think? I think both of these questions will help me in my teaching because they both ask me to situate the need and thoughts of my students at the forefront of my teaching pedagogy.
This brings me to the idea of educational reform or more broadly to just change. Carter and so many of the basic writing scholars and teachers are advocating for changes in assessments, curriculums, assumptions, and institutions. This is difficult to bring about and when it starts to happen, it is difficult to detect. Of course, as Shor and Carter and many others point out when change is in the air, there is almost always a backlash phenomenon. We are living in an era of such a backlash, a strange house of cards around which teachers and students must work. I think it is really important to think about how change happens in the aggregate as an accumulation of many minor victories. Minor victories are extremely important once they start to pile up. It’s a way to stay hopeful and active. This brings me back to the assertion from Linda Adler-Kassner and Susanmarie Harrington that “basic writing no matter how theorized or studied is fundamentally a classroom-based enterprise” (97). It seems that basic writing teachers have found lots of hope in the intellects of their students despite the constraints and limitations placed upon them. These scholars with their scholarly voices that are sounding from within the academy are informing us all that change is possible and it is here. We can offer this to our students.
I think it would be interesting to find out how different groups of students view participation in the community of practice that is the academy. As a fairly unfocused undergraduate student, I came to college with a love of learning but without any awareness that I was a member of a community. I wanted to get something from this community (though I did not see it as such…to me it was an institution) such as knowledge and that all-important piece of paper, but it never occurred to that I had something to offer to the community at large. I think this type of oversight in my thinking is an example of what Stuckey is writing about in The Violence of Literacy. Traditional schooling methods and representations of a Uni-literacy effectively shut down the idea that every individual is in possession of intellectual thought. Instead, students are strung along an educational path that communicates to the students that their intellectual viability hinges upon what it is they don’t know and that information will be revealed to them at a later date and time, culminating, perhaps in college at which time they can become actualized though with many stipulations. This forestalling is a form of violence and whenever I see a yet again another WORD SEARCH maze in my daughter’s homework packet I want to set something on fire. Another sort of violence I encountered was the negative attitude towards learning as collaboration and learning as a social practice and learning as an open space. Lots of the time we were asked to learn in isolation from one another and that learning and information should be somehow guarded and that any type of sharing would be regarded as cheating. I don't like seeing learning and knowledge sequestered at only certain physical spaces such schools and universities. I see now that learning as a social practice is used more in schools. Knowledge as an open space is occurring with the Internet. So, change is happening. A Bob Dylan song is playing in my head.
the end of chimene's response