I have long had a love affair with the literacy narrative as my former students can attest. I assign them to remedial writers, composition students, and graduate students. I evangelize their benefits to the teachers I work with and I made them a topic for my professional learning community. I honestly don’t know why I haven’t blogged about them before.
Literacy narratives are powerful tools that can help students learn about themselves as literate people, as both consumers and producers of the written word in all its forms, and as such provides a key intervention tool for students struggling with literacy demons. However, as wonderful as those benefits are my favorite are the many ways that you can use literacy narratives to encourage student encounters with and explorations of language. I find the literacy narrative to be an useful scaffold for any number of student engagements and lessons. Literacy narratives rock my world because they help me transform students into writers and they can help you too. Here are some of the benefits of literacy narratives:
Exorcism – Many students bring baggage, sometimes small tote bags and sometimes large steamer trunks, filled with bad experiences with reading and writing. These experiences, these voices in their head, tell the student that they cannot write and that they will never be a writer. As long as those voices are allowed to live then their promise will be fulfilled. If the student is to become a writer then they must banish these ghosts. Exposing these voices to the light in the literacy narrative is a key step in this process.
Scar tissue – So many of our students arrive in our classrooms battered and bruised and bearing scar tissue that interferes with their movement. We need to reduce that scar tissue before they will be fit enough for the journey to writer. It is not enough to simply banish the voices whispering that we are not writers, but we must reduce the scar tissue they developed over the years. The only effective balm for this scar tissue is words on a page. We must write through and over these scars to defeat them.
Overcoming resistance – One of the toughest pieces of baggage students bring with them, and I mean Samsonite tough here, is their resistance to writing. They don’t like it. They think it is all meaningless drivel that will earn them a poor grade no matter how hard they work and they don’t see its purpose to their education or life. They have been told over and over (through explicit and implicit feedback) that they have nothing of value to say. Reading and sharing literacy narratives can help students join an academic conversation. They do have something to say about this topic and even if their words reinforce and echo the words of others it is still an entry point – maybe the first opportunity they have ever had.
Success – Joining that conversation successfully is a tremendous event for many struggling writers. Learning that you are not alone with your frustrations and challenges is huge but when others read your words and affirm that what you wrote had value and interest is often a tremendous turning point for these writers. This may be the first success they have had with their writing.
Connecting – Even those students who do not bring a lot of baggage to unpack, literacy narratives can be a powerful learning tool. Beginning with their own as well as studying the work of their peers and the many published narratives available in print and online also offers writers the opportunity to look for the larger threads that run through this vast body of writing. What can we learn about writing, learning, and humanity from these stories? There are infinite possibilities from explorations of culture and social justice and so much more.
Purpose – One of my favorite ways to use the literacy narrative is to use it as an ongoing tool to record and reflect on the many ways that students interact with language in their personal, academic, and professional lives. I use the literacy narrative as an active demonstration of the uses of language for thinking, learning, and communicating. It is also a powerful stepping stone to studying (or creating) the literacy narratives of professionals in their field to understand the many purposes of writing.
Learning – I use the literacy narrative to move from the many purposes of writing to developing a much broader definition of writing and writer than most bring with them into my classroom. While they may encounter writing in many different forms, most students have a pretty limited definition of who is a writer – usually a creative writer – and I seek to push that definition to encompass many other types of writing.
Scaffolding – The literacy narrative is also a wonderful scaffold for a number of assignments in a variety of disciplines. Obviously it can spring board rhetorical studies such as genre and discourse community but it can also lead to discussions of power and culture. I like to assign my literacy narratives in parts. The first part addresses some of the interventions I mentioned earlier (exorcism and scar tissue) but I also like to have an ongoing reflection that looks at their encounters with language throughout the semester – both in my class and in others – to demonstrate just how much context and purposes change and that writing is always in flux and that writers need to adapt to address these changing circumstances.
Writing – There is only one way to learn to write. You need to write and you need to do it for a purpose as well as receive regular feedback and support. Literacy narratives are a wonderful way to require lots of writing that offers opportunity for feedback but does not require assessment. The purpose of the literacy narrative is not to create a polished piece of writing (although one may come of it in the end) but rather for students to engage in, reflect on, and discuss writing. Framing your literacy narrative as a reflection journal or class blog (two of my favorite strategies) will mean that your students will generate thousands of words over the course of a semester as well as spend countless hours thinking about and talking about writing. Any assignment that can do that is a huge win in my book.
Transformation – I don’t teach writing. I teach writers. My goal is not to foster the production of the perfect argument paper. My goal is to effect the transformation to writer. I do not succeed with every student in every class, but I know that using techniques such as the literacy narrative helps more students transform into writers.
Do literacy narratives rock your world? How do you use them to transform your students?
More about teaching with literacy narratives