Think Piece #2: Expanding What Defines Literacy to Usurp Hegemony in ELA

“I hope in my lifetime to see a pendulum swing in my field that embraces unsanctioned literacies as ones that can be sanctioned and co-opted in the English language arts classroom. If for no other reason than to acknowledge that literacy, no matter is pluralistic form, is both personal (i.e. individualistic and unstandardized) and emotional (i.e. humane and empathetic).”

Here is my second think piece in a series that I’m highly considering continuing well past the assignment that first required them. Like almost anything, it all depends on the time I can dedicate to think pieces, but I find them to be valuable in practice and revisiting my research goals and personal assumptions I bring to my classroom. Read on and feel free to comment.

Kirkland, D. E. (2009) The skin we ink: Tattoos, literacy, and a new English education. English Education, 41(4), pp. 375-395.

Kirkland, D. E. (2010). English(es) in urban contexts: Politics, pluralism, and possibilities. English Education, 42(3), pp. 293-306.

Vasudevan, L. & Campano, G. (2009). The social production of adolescent risk and the promise of adolescent literacies. Review of Research in Education, 33, pp. 310-353.

Reading Kirkland (2009, 2010) and Vasudevan and Campano (2009) at this juncture in my own studies and developing research interests couldn’t be more timely. I have an affinity toward rethinking what should or should not count as literacy in and outside of the English language arts classroom. If I reflect on my first three years of teaching, I would need to admit to an ignorance that allowed me to happily take up the task and practices of being an English teacher completely unaware of broader social and scholastic issues. I’m not disgusted or angry with the identity I took into my classroom during those formative years; rather, I simply recognize that there was little chance that I could have reprogrammed myself to be any different considering I had at least two decades of assimilation into a culture that recognized my literacy practices. My prior ignorance and assimilation has been problematized in the last four years. I have an awareness that my culture and literacy practices are not the only ones that exist, but they do appear to be the ones most readily recognized in the English classroom (Kirkland, 2009; Kirkland 2010; Vasudevan & Campano, 2009). What this awareness means for me is a conscious decision to take up a cause for understanding and embracing alternative literacies unique to my own or to simply discount them as they have been in the past. What my research interests and studies have narrated for me thus far is that I simply cannot ignore an ever expanding definition and understanding of literacy.

To briefly illustrate the affinity I have for alternative or unsanctioned literacies, I need to clarify that my own teenage years were a mix of embracing the rebellion embedded in punk and hardcore music. While I grew fond of bands like Green Day, Gutter Mouth, The Dead Kennedys, Every Time I Die, Thrice, and so many more, I allowed such music to be my own outlet for teenage angst typically seen in adolescence during my moments of identity crisis and my attempts at developing a sense of agency. Because I had this musical outlet, I rarely acted out in what might be considered risky behavior. Vasudevan and Campano (2009) take pains to illustrate behaviors related to risk are highly dependent on context (i.e. school funding, poverty, institutional labelling). When reflecting on my own context, I can see today why I easily avoided risky behavior and was able to concentrate my identity exploration within the confines of punk and hardcore music. Money was not an immediate issue in either my home or in my schooling situation. My parents didn’t start out with much, but they were always able to provide for me and my brother handsomely. Even looking back today, I cannot recall feeling as though the schools I attended were underfunded. Most importantly, however, the institutional labelling I endured was almost always positive, accepted, and appreciated. I could read and write proper standard American English; I was aware of authority and felt their power over me was justified so I obeyed and stayed in bounds of their rules; I did not see the adults in my life as a threat to my personhood or my intellectual growth; my teachers looked like me, sounded like me, acted like me; I never questioned the value of learning about literature, poetry, or writing; I am white; I am male; I am heterosexual. The societal power structure embraces my identity; I have rarely needed to worry about my voice being heard if ever at all. I have had no reason to engage in risky endeavors. I have students, however, that the only way their voice may ever be heard is via risky behavior. Vasudevan and Campano (2009) explain:

Delinquency and deficit discourses situate risk as an inherent trait of children and communities, rather than identifying social conditions that create risk. They create a moral panic, characterized by widespread feelings of fear about the predicted actions and failure of certain individuals. Rather than making the risk transparent, however, moral panic typically obscures the real risk that adolescents and their families experience: underfunded schools, high rates of unemployment, and an increased state of surveillance. (p. 316).

The “inherent trait” phrasing in the researchers’ discourse is jarring. It is a phrasing that should rock anyone in a similar position of power in society as me. The reverberations originate from a core belief that is embedded in White culture–if a non-white individual does not take up white behavior or fall in line with White cultural practices, they must somehow be assimilated, chastised, rehabilitated, or simply removed from society. Vasudevan and Campano point to the creation of juvenile court system and the prison industrial complex as vivid examples of these beliefs. I have students who are inherently criminalized before they even enter my classroom. I hear colleagues say something to the effect of “that student is just bad” or “that student is incapable of making wise decisions.” I have fallen victim to such beliefs in my early career, but I now cringe when these statements are thrown like darts into the air hoping to land on a sympathetic educator’s ear. Framing delinquency as something that is somehow attached to the core of a student is much easier than considering the web of social constructs, oppressions, and institutional labelling as a source of such risky behavior. The caution here is not to take these concerns as a way to excuse an individual’s behavior, but rather to understand its origin in an effort to redirect delinquent behavior. I do not mean redirect in the sense of making the student ‘whiter.’ What I mean is a redirection in my instruction and activities taken up in my classroom. If I recognize the risky behavior as a voice unheard, can I not then find objective and satisfying ways to provide a literacy outlet for my students? I believe I can. My hopeful dissertation study would seek to explore unsanctioned literacies taken up in an English language arts classroom and is a step I hope to take in understanding those literacies’ impact on student identity and agency.

A deeper issue at play here is at what costs or advantages should a student take up a traditionally sanctioned literacy or mode of discourse in my classroom. Kirkland (2010) takes a closer look at this issue by utilizing a pluralistic view of what he coins as Englishes, implying there are a multitude of English discourses that can be taken up by an individual each with its own unique social and political costs and benefits.There is a sense of truth in such an idea. I speak to my students about this regularly when I ask them to consider their audience when writing. I ask them to reflect on how they would ask different individuals in their lives for a dollar. I ask them to consider their approach to the question will vary from person to person, audience to audience. For instance, how they might ask me for a dollar to purchase something in a vending machine will certainly be different than how they ask a friend, a parent, or certainly a total stranger. The point is how that discourse moves forward has social and political implications. While my 14 year old students may not be in this reflexive of a mode when considering my scenarios, they are certainly aware that the English they choose to use with a given audience will either help them acquire that dollar or see their efforts squandered and possibly disrupt a relationship. Kirkland (2010) broadens this context, expanding it to the evolving nature of English: “The pluralistic, dynamic, hybrid, and fluid nature of English swells, shifts, and is ultimately transformed in urban contexts, which are themselves complicated by linguistic legacies of survival and oppression” (p. 296). The ‘dynamic, hybrid, and fluid nature of English” is rarely embraced in the English language arts classroom, however. The goal often times in the classroom, as exemplified in the Common Core standards, is to have all students utilize standard American English, which may in fact be an imaginary idea to begin with. Assimilation again becomes the plan. There may be a fear that if students are not indoctrinated into sanctioned literacy practices that they will never get a job and become leeches on society. The irony is that we’ve been attempting this assimilation for decades with very little positive results to show for it. I can push an agenda of standard American English on my students regularly and with gusto, but what good will it do if I do not connect that English with the vernacular English that is being shaped by and around students outside my classroom walls? Do my students need to learn how to read and write in a standard form of American English? Sure. There is something to be said for any individual to code switch when necessary to obtain a job or to navigate the world of academia; however, ignoring the vernacular English naturally brought into my classroom only subverts my attempts to aid my students’ ability to code switch at all. Acknowledging, allowing, and appropriating a pluralistic approach to English is necessary. My students need to have their voices heard and their discourse recognized. Only then can I negotiate the plurality of English with them.

The possibility of my classroom becoming porous to unsanctioned literacy practices and the plurality of English is nearly impossible without critically assessing the stereotypes and dehumanizing acts traditionally sanctioned literacies can embody.  Kirkland (2009) demonstrates this sentiment through his time spent with Derrick, a young Black male who embraces hip-hop linguistics and tattoos as a form of identity. His study uncovers an understanding of literacy that goes far beyond the page. Kirkland (2009) concludes:

While it is fair to argue that literacy is social, I also acknowledge its personal complexity (Kirkland, 2006). That is, while literacy is practiced beyond the self to achieve social goals, it works within the self to achieve personal and emotional ones. It would serve English educators and English teachers alike to employ a study of the humanity that exists off the page. (p. 389).

Where I am now in my own practice agrees with Kirkland’s sentiments. Where I started as an English teacher, however, wouldn’t allow me to understand the statement above. I began as a student and later as a young educator understanding literacy as the ability to read the page and write on the page. I no longer believe that to be the case. The truth is far more complex, which is terrifying to some; so terrifying in fact that policy makers and curriculum directors alike seek to oversimplify literacies’ complexity. I understand why this is the status quo. The sheer effort needed to change entire paradigms and cultural engagements sounds exhausting and probably expensive. These feelings do not negate the need to reformulate an English teacher’s understanding of literacy including my own. The research astoundingly supports a reshaping of English literacy’s entire conception, yet it is a slow, painful process whose victims are the children of marginalized, socially ascribed minority groups. I hope in my lifetime to see a pendulum swing in my field that embraces unsanctioned literacies as ones that can be sanctioned and co-opted in the English language arts classroom. If for no other reason than to acknowledge that literacy, no matter is pluralistic form, is both personal (i.e. individualistic and unstandardized) and emotional (i.e. humane and empathetic).

Questions for Consideration:

  • What resources and training must take place to reshape English language arts in order to embrace pluralistic English practices that recognize variations in culture and English vernacular?
  • What most impedes the English language arts field from taking up research that emphasizes the need to reshape and rethink the approach to literacy in the ELA classroom?
  • How do we reasonably and practically account for our current students’ English pluralities and engage them in meaningful code switching that recognizes their vernacular while preparing them for the expectations professional discourse?

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