Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Way of Literacy

GLIT 6727
Foundations of Literacy Learning I
Julia Blushak

Workshop 3
Week 4 – Synthesis Paper

The Way of Literacy

There is a way revealed through our on-going and current discussion of literacy—its

nature is misunderstood yet charged by those who cherish education as a potent

social panacea. ‘Literacy with an Attitude’ by Patrick Finn presents a great lesson on

social-political structures that conspire to undermine fair and equitable educational

opportunities in the USA and similarly developed countries. Finn owes much to

Paulo Friere for his notions, as do many of the authors whose writings complement

the previous workshop. I am inspired by the notion of ‘synthesis’ in responding to

these thoughtful presentations and will discuss several themes evident throughout.

I shall try to reframe these themes, which often appear in metaphors that denote

power politics and sociological class structures, with my own categories that allude

simply to process, by using the words ‘currency’, ‘fluency’ and ‘knowledge’. I hope to

capture the essence of literacy as it shifts with each author’s considerations.

There is a distinct pitch to the many arguments for critical literacy in Finn’s book,

as well as the articles by Colin Lankshear, Adrienne Rich, and F. Christie, that

associate education with employability. It is caught in this phrase by Lankshear,

‘If we want to understand education in relation to the world of work (and

unemployment)…” (1989, p. 179) The frame is set to discuss the potency of

education as a training ground for the young. The various authors consider how this

training from family towards society performs within yet another frame of social

and politically defined strata of economy within community. All are in agreement

that education must do a better job to right the many wrongs that occur in societies

where some learn to lead while others follow either reluctantly or by default. And so

the various understandings are developed with hopes to loosen false perceptions

around the tools and expectations used in the education process. All these

arguments embrace ‘reading and writing practice’ as the essential tool that proffers

the greatest efficacy to establish better balances in the process. The end result may

be more creative, thoughtful and self-directed individuals but for the most part,

there is a more realistic goal to generate more useful, and far-reaching self-

regulated or at least self-sustaining citizens capable of making a living. The

economic frame of reference persists as the touchstone in Finn’s book as well as the

other authors.

In order to identify the theme of ‘reading and writing practice’ that serves the

cause of social and economic viability, I prefer to introduce the term ‘currency.’ For

the purposes of this discussion, ‘currency’ refers to the most essential unit of value

for those engaged in the educational process. In the context of Finn’s societies of

learners, the underclass knows and values the practices of reading and writing very

differently from those in the elite classes. In simpler terms, it could be said that each

practice belongs to a specific time and place. In fact, the continuation of each fixed

currency in each distinct classroom, often depends on a particular kind of teacher,

introducing and investing his/her expertise into a particular practice of reading and

writing. And so, Finn shares his discovery that “the problem at Freeway was that

the teachers were working-class themselves and were giving their students the only

kind of schooling they knew - the kind they received themselves.” (1999, p. 74)

Similarly, Adrienne Rich’s article, ‘Teaching language in open admission ‘

refers to the vanguard effort to connect with students with a familiar currency.

That is, ‘reading and writing practice’ for black students involved ‘black classics…

black novelists, poets, polemicists’ and ‘black teachers were, of course, a path.’

(1979, p. 57) Ten years later in ‘Reading and Writing Wrongs: Literacy and the

underclass’ Colin Lankshear insists that there are many and various literacies

(currencies) and the dominant is usually fashioned by the well intended:

“How people read and write, what they read and write, why they read and write—

in short, how they conceive and practice literacy—is vitally dependent on what

literacy is ‘made into’ within formal education. (1989, p. 177) If so, economic as

well as racial differences continue to animate the discussion that favours

equitable value across differing practices.

This sense of needed equitable value across practices of literacy brings forward

the theme of ‘fluency’, which represents tendencies that either encourage or

discourage the possibility of equitable literacy benefits. In ‘Literacy with an Attitude’

Finn documents studies that reveal dysfunction and hostility towards change. He

describes the very real conflict at classroom level as ‘oppositional identity’, where

learners of the underclass stay true to their own kind in fear that betrayal would

leave them being abandoned by their own and not fully acknowledged by the ‘other’

kind. Finn presents other oppositional forces that complicate the possibility of

change. He explores the contrast of implicit vs. explicit language that distinguishes

the schooled and underschooled learners. This conflict is similar to Lankshear’s

report on the inclusion and exclusion dynamics pervasive within education as

extensions of social class barriers. Finn argues forcibly to provide needed leverage

by developing critical literacy. And for those who must grapple with the downside

of inequitable social forces, they can use what he calls ‘powerful literacy’. As Finn

says, “It takes energy to make changes and energy must come from people who will

benefit from the change.” (1999, p. xi).

A space that is vital, yet created and affected through the dynamics of literacy

currencies and fluencies of possibility is the realm I will refer to as ‘knowledge’. This

is the theme of vast personal, social and historical understandings. It is here,

that we can be most grateful to Paolo Friere for his articulation of this realm and

the kinds of consciousness that can thwart or enrich an individual learner’s sense of

being. Lankshear also refers to the wisdom of Friere to explain the differences in

naïve and critical literacy as aspects of consciousness. Therefore the theme of

knowledge includes knowing oneself as an active participant in the pursuit of

knowledge-making. It is the consciousness of the knowledge-maker in search of

knowledge that distinguishes the classes of learners presented by Finn as well as the

previously cited journal authors. But it is Friere who first introduced, practiced and

preached the need to revolutionize literacy practices so that people could move

from naïve to critical consciousness. In other words, to get out from under one

needs to first recognize that the under is relative to the over, and not a fixed

place of reference.

Finn and Friere’s concerns for the underclass and the excluded sound complex

and undeniably political but they also seem to have resonance with the concerns of

the early childhood educator who sees education as happening all around the child

everyday. In F. Christie’s article, ‘Language, access and success’ we read: “values are

associated, for example, with the ways people relate to each other, the roles they

assume, the kinds of authority they recognize, the beliefs and moral positions they

uphold, and so on. All these are constantly found in the ways people use language in

interaction with each other.” (1988, p.3) In other words, language, including script,

may take a ‘specific form’ (Lankshear, p. 169) but is determined within a wider

context of activity, experience and values. Or even simpler, “Children are born into

societies that have language.” (Finn, p. 96). This would suggest that there is always

the possibility that the dominant language, discourse, or point view is not the

only conversation in town given today’s demographics.

And so, the making of knowledge is a process that is grounded in time and place,

as much as it is evidence of human interactions within times and places. This theme

of knowledge as contextual and rooted must be acknowledged in the educational

process that seeks to nurture learners with the critical consciousness capacity that

Friere advanced. Finn gives a vivid example of this progressive attitude when he

describes new approaches taken in a working-class school. The class is asked to

study food in their own community as if they were anthropologists. Throughout this

science unit, the students determine their path toward new knowledge and act out

their own discovery/thinking process: “…they discussed… they decided… they

examined… they interviewed… they gathered… and explained” and “learned to take

the implicit, context-dependent knowledge of home and community and translate it

into explicit, context-independent categories and abstractions valued in schools.”

(1999, p.151) And, as an added bonus, for the system that must gather together

figures and chart successes through tests, Finn adds, “None failed. None of these

children had ever passed one of these tests before.” (1999, p. 152) Whatever

initiative, sense of purpose, intellectual and emotional growth became exercised

through this kind of knowledge-making, it may have also stimulated a love for

learning that could surpass social and economic expectations.

I have attempted to bring together several themes regarding literacy

by reframing efforts as dynamic agencies. Knowledge-making is no longer static or

disengaged when learners are active participants, regardless of their specific time or

place. Likewise, currencies of reading and writing practice are most potent when

their fluency allows for change, and equitable value for the learner. And within this

realm of growth, discovery and exploration, each learner is never truly alone, ever,

with his/her striving. Shared and invested knowledge through critical literacies is

a way to a brighter future for more learners, and perhaps, just perhaps, a better job.