This is not an easy question to answer. When I was first posed this question, I immediately thought of the important affective qualities we instill in our students, such as self-worth, self-esteem, self-confidence, etc. How do we do that, though? How are those essential, identity-shaping elements fostered?
Although it isn’t the only pathway, one significant and tried and true pathway is literacy. I think the greatest gift we give our students is literacy. Literacy leads to empowerment, unlimited knowledge, and plays an inherent role in our lives, and our in our identities as Americans. Without literacy, and without a love of literacy, citizens in this culture simply do not have the same access and power as those who do.
As a professor, I primarily teach children’s literature and literacy methods classes for teachers. So, at the beginning of nearly every one of my courses, I ask my students, “So, what is literacy? We’re going to be talking about it all semester, and it’s one of the most incredible skills you will teach in your careers, so what exactly is it?” Again, this is no simple question.
I encourage my students to brainstorm this question for a while, often in small groups, and then we all re-assemble to discuss. Commonly, we all discuss the obvious traits of literacy, such as the ability to read and write. Often, students will also mention obvious, yet important traits such as comprehension, vocabulary, etc. Unless I hear more in-depth responses, I prod my students by asking, “What else is literacy, though?” Often times, I also show a short video clip of functionally illiterate adults in New York City explaining their lifelong troubles related to their inability to read and write. For them, their illiteracy equals fear, lack of opportunity, and low self-esteem. It is at this point that all of my students are truly inspired and able to articulate that literacy is not simply the ability to read and write. To be literate and to love literacy equals dignity, self-respect, and freedom. Literacy is an interwoven piece of our identities; it is not just a skill to be acquired.
As educators, when we realize what a beautiful, inherent gift literacy is, we teach it more effectively and passionately. We are human beings, after all, and we each bring our own emotional baggage to our classrooms each day, whether we realize it or not, or whether we mean to or not. One of the hugest emotional suitcases we can bring into our classrooms is how we feel about literacy. What was your childhood experience with learning to read and write? Do you have cozy memories of curling up with Grandma and a book of fairy tales, or did you dread being called upon in class to read aloud? Do you cringe every time you have to write something, or do you take joy in composing even the simplest thank you card?
In Lauree’s last blog post, she posed the delightful question, “What was your favorite book as a child?” As teachers, it is imperative that ask ourselves not only that fun question, but also lots more questions about the role of literacy in our lives.
Many literacy scholars believe that in order to become effective teachers, we must first reflect on ourselves as readers and writers. Moreover, we must be readers and writers in order to be effective teachers of reading and writing. Therefore, I always ask my students to write a brief paper about their reading and writing lives. I encourage them to have fun with this assignment. Often times, I am impressed with the personal, touching, humorous, and nutty responses I’ve received over the years.
In order to encourage the flow of this exploration and writing, I pose the following questions, which are meant merely as guides. Most of these questions came from the wonderful book: For a better world: Reading and writing for social action by R. and K. Bomer.
- What do you remember about your earliest reading and writing experiences? Did someone read to you? What was that like?
- Growing up, did you have books and writing materials?
- Currently, where are your reading spots? Do you read in coffee shops or cozy corners? Why?
- What are your writing spots? How did you establish your writing environment?
- What do you currently read?
- Who recommends texts to you?
- What do you currently write?
- Most importantly, what is your literacy social network? In other words, with whom do you discuss and have relationships surrounding books, writing, etc.? (friends, relatives, book clubs, religious organizations, etc.)
- What are your reading/writing habits? (Do you eat and/or drink while reading/writing? Wiggle? Sit still?)
- How do you think as you read? (Do you envision the setting/characters? What do you notice about the ways particular texts are written?)
- What gives you pleasure in reading and writing?
- Are there any aspects of your reading/writing that you attribute to your gender, ethnic group, or social class?
To all of you out there reading, I encourage you to please ask yourselves these questions, and feel free to write back or email me about this meaningful process of exploring the complex roles of literacy in our lives.