My Literacy Journey

I came across this comic in Newsday, which is a Long Island newspaper.  I thought this comic was extremely relevant, interesting, and had a lot to say about  literacy…

The man reads: Fred and Larry wandered down the path, through Braille.  While the dog “reads”, Hey, Fred and Larry were here!, through sniffing the ground.  This is a clever way to demonstrate the many different discourses (Gee), metaphors of literacy (Scribner), and how we go about making meaning in our every day lives. This could pertain to many different readings that we have focused on throughout the course of the semester.

Had I not been so in-tune to constantly challenging my beliefs about literacy, I do not think I would be as cognizant of the many instances around me that demonstrate literacy in a variety of ways.  This cartoon was especially funny, in that it clearly signifies literacy in two very different ways.

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Dear Ms. Wotman,

I would miss you very much because you teached me much and I want to see you when you visit our school again. and I want to see you again.

Sincerely,

Mindrew

Reflection:

When I first read this letter from Mindrew, I floated out of my body, my heart in the clouds.  I smiled as I read it again and again.  What does this say about this student? Who is he as a writer and as someone who is literate? What does this say about our relationship? His expectations of me as his teacher? The power?

As I thought about how others “read” this student, I couldn’t help but be even more proud. Mindrew has autism yet from the “reading” of his writing to me, one would never suspect that.  I feel that this is one of the dangers of labels in the first place.  Clearly this student displayed emotions in his letter and his desire to see me once again, which implies that he has formed some sort of bond with me.  How happy did this make me? Words cannot describe this.

McDermott & Varenne (1995) and Wheeler & Swords (2004) both discuss this idea of disability and its relation to literacy.  As I read this letter from a student who is labeled as having a disability, I further am supported that literacy is a means of communication. If literacy is a means of communication, then one cannot deem something as right or wrong; further, literacy is a means of adaptation (Scribner) and we must broaden our perceptions and conceptions of literacy as we know it today. I also got to thinking about Kliewer and his ideas around local understanding and truly acknowledging all forms and attempts of meaning making as literacy. I feel that Mindrew was able to be supported in all of his forms of meaning making, which is why I believe he is so successful.


As I was perusing through the new literature in the children’s section of Barnes and Noble, I came across a book that immediately caught by eye. Cupcake by Charise Mercile Harper is the story of Vanilla Cupcake, a “white, perfectly plain, and most certainly delicious” cupcake who feels left out because he is the last cupcake left on the plate.  All of his brothers and sisters who are “fancier” have been chosen.  Candle hears Cupcake crying and asks him why he is upset.  Cupcake explains to Candle that he is not fancy and he is plain and ordinary.  Candle tells him he feels the same way and they become fast friends.  Candle comes up with an idea that Cupcake just needs something special.  They search and try out all different things to try and make Cupcake feel more special but nothing works.  At the end, both Cupcake and Candle are disappointed because they could not find anything that worked.  That is until Candle discovered that the squirrel had left a nut on top of Cupcake.  Cupcake screamed for Candle to take it off and when the nut is tossed out, it is Candle who is sitting on top of Cupcake.  Cupcake is elated and all seems to be well.  Candle has another idea, that they should try something else the next day…

I hoped to myself that this book would be one that I could add to my collection about accepting and celebrating diversity.  Aside from my personal beliefs about diversity being the spice of life, I felt instantly connected to this book because of my love for cupcakes. As I read the book from cover to cover for the first time, I was a bit confused.  I wondered why the author chose to end the story in such a way.  I also thought about where I was reading from.  I am a lover of cupcakes, I once was a white child, who I believe was the intended audience, and I had parents and experiences that have made me appreciate humor.  I was able to understand the clever tidbits like, “Charmed, I’m sure” (Harper, p. 6, 2010), said by Pink Princess Cupcake.  After reading the book several more times, I became increasingly frustrated and disappointed that this did not celebrate diversity at all. In fact, the message was quite unclear to me.  It did not convey “finding that special friend is priceless”, either.

Embedded in the text, are perspectives that are privileged.  First, the text assumes that the reader knows what a cupcake is and has seen one before.  Males are also privileged in this text because both characters are “hes”.    The text also privileges those that are fancy and not just plain, white.  “Nobody picked me. I’m too cream white and plain!” (Harper, p.10, 2010), says the cupcake.  This demonstrates the privilege that being fancy has over being plain.  The text also assumes that the reader has had experience with a variety of foods. For example, the two characters try pickles, spaghetti, pancakes, as well as animals to sit atop the cupcake.

The illustrations, really take on a white, middle class perspective.  On pages four and five of the book, the pictures of the kitchen seem to represent a large kitchen, with a window that can be easily found in many suburban middle class homes.  Throughout the illustrations, white people also seemed to be privileged.  The cupcakes are arguably all white, except for “Chocolaty Chocolate Cupcake” (Harper, p. 5, 2010).  Scribner (1984) discusses literacy as power.  The “fancy” cupcakes are seen as “powerful” in this story.  Further, the reader who can relate to this story about cupcakes has power over one who may not have been exposed to cupcakes before and therefore does not understand the story in the same complexity.    The illustrations of the cupcakes, similar to the text, privilege the perspective of those who are fancy or extravagant in some way.

Perhaps the author intended for all children to be able to relate to this story because context.  One might think that every child has had a birthday party or has experienced the enjoyment of eating a cupcake.  I wonder about those children who have never had a cupcake because they have never celebrated their birthday or a friend’s birthday.  How about the child who is suffers from allergies that prevent him from eating cupcakes? I would also argue that this book was written for white, middle class children: the majority.  Throughout the story, there is little depiction of any “minority” figures.  The cupcakes all have white faces and the kitchen seems to represent a middle class stature.  The irony behind the story is the fact that Cupcake is disappointed being plain and white.  He does not feel special enough. I would further argue that this is an issue of class and power.  The text and illustrations position “fancy” cupcakes and candles to be more valued than ones that are plain or ordinary.

I was disappointed at the end of the story.  I so much wanted it to end that the Cupcake realized that all he needed was Candle and that they fit perfectly together. Yet instead, it ends with, “Tomorrow, let’s try a potato!” (Harper, p. 30, 2010). This seemed to spoil the ending; and instead of conveying a message of “all you need is a friend”, Candle does not recognize that Cupcake is content having him be there with him. It seems as though Candle is the adventurous one who does not know when to give up.  Candle is a loyal friend, yet seems to miss the big picture by getting too carried away with finding new things to try out on Cupcake instead of realizing that Cupcake is happy with Candle being there.

McIntosh (1988) states that “white privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks” (McIntosh, p.10, 1988).  Embedded throughout Cupcake is white privilege.  Harper (2010) writes, “After a special coat of icing, Vanilla Cupcake was creamy, white perfectly plain, and most certainly delicious” (Harper, p. 4, 2010).  Although not explicit, it is evident that being “white” and “perfectly plain” is powerful.  I question how relatable this text would be for children who were not “white”.  McDermott & Varenne (1995) discuss the notion of culture in a “deprivation approach” (McDermott & Varenne, p.333, 1995).  “I’m just Vanilla. I’m NOT fancy! I’m just plain and white and ORDINARY” (Harper, p. 12, 2010) demonstrates this view of “deprivation”.  This idea of the other cupcakes being better because they are “fancier” or that they have “culture” says an enormous amount to its reader. That some people just have “it” and therefore are better, while others do not because they are “plain and ordinary” or without “culture”.  Carrington (2003) states, “at the end of the day, literacy and texts, whatever form they take, are about identity and possible life-worlds” (Carrington, p. 95, 2003).  If we are to take this idea of literacy and relate it to the events in Cupcake (2010), then we must relate it to a real-life situation.  Every child has felt left out or the last one chosen for the team at one point or another.  Yet, I still find the ending of the story troublesome. Instead of finding a friend and finding happiness there, the Candle does not realize his place in the world and continues the search for the “perfect” thing to make Cupcake special.  By peeling the layers of the text, the reader is able to see that although the genre is fantasy, in many ways it still relates to “possible life-worlds” (Carrington, 2003).  Gee (1989) discusses literacy and its different discourses.  According to Gee, discourses empower certain people and values specific viewpoints and concepts at the expense of others.  It is clear that throughout Cupcake (2010), one who is fancy is valued and at the expense of being plain, which is devalued.  Similarly, as the reader of the story, one who knows about cupcakes or has exposure to them is empowered over one who does not.  The humor and references made throughout the story assumes that the reader knows a good deal about cupcakes.  If we are to consider cupcakes as a form of discourse, then those who are not familiar with them are therefore robbed of this experience.

Through the use of Jones’(2006) framework for critical literacy, I was able to begin “peeling layers away from the text” (Jones, p.75, 2006) to better understand the perspectives positioned and empowered in the story.  Although all three tenets of critical literacy are important and interrelated, in a democratic world, I believe that taking social action is the most essential.  Comber et al (2001) discuss the need to rewrite the world by using critical literacy to take action.  By becoming cognizant that no text is neutral, I can better prepare my students to engage in critical literacy activities. In addition, this awareness will allow me to choose more appropriate and relatable material for all students.  Most importantly, it is our responsibility to engage our students in critical literacy activities so that they are “doing” instead of just being “done to”.  “…critical literacy involves local action and imagination, interrogation of the way things are and design of how things might be otherwise” (Comber et al, p.463, 2003).

References

Carrington, V. (2003). ‘I’m in a bad mood. Let’s go shopping’: Interactive dolls, consumer culture and a ‘glocalized’ model of literacy. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 3(1), 83-98.

Comber, B., Thomson, P., & Wells, M. (2001). Critical literacy finds a “place”: Writing and social action in a low-income Australian grade 2/3 classroom. The Elementary School Journal, 101(4), 451-464.

Gee, J. (1989). What is literacy? Journal of Education, 17(1), 18-25

Jones, S. (2006). Girls, social class, and literacy: What teachers can do to make a

difference. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Peace & Freedom, 49, 10–12.

McDermott, R. & Varenne, H. (1995).  Culture as disability. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 26 (3), 324-348.

Scribner, S. (1984). Literacy in three metaphors. American Journal of Education, 93(1), 6-21.

Reflection:

If I had picked this book up about a year ago, I definitely would not have “read” what I did as I was analyzing this text for this assignment.  Once again, I picked up Cupcake and read it from cover to cover while considering what readings I wanted to choose to showcase in this portfolio.

What is seemingly more disturbing to me as I continue to notice things about the text, is the mere fact that it truly tries to be a neutral, heart-warming, cute story that kids should love.  After all, who doesn’t love cupcakes?

After reading through my analysis again as well as the text, I really thought just how marginalizing this text was. Cupcake is clearly supporting that only fancy, or privileged individuals are worthy of happiness.  What does that say to all of our young readers? This is quite alarming, to say the least. In addition, the portrayal of race, or lack thereof was another quite disturbing aspect of this text.  As I mentioned in my paper, I was frustrated and disappointed that the message was so unclear.  I would have deemed it a much more worthy story if somehow the cupcake and candle found happiness in each other as opposed to trying on things to fit the norms of being “fancy”.

As a teacher who is dedicated to critical literacy and social justice, I think this piece demonstrates one instance of my thinking.  I feel that I unpacked and explored many aspects of the text while demonstrating my ability to synthesize relevant literature and push my thinking even further.  As with anything, I feel there is always more work to be done and more to be uncovered so this is absolutely a text I would like to revisit and think about further.  I feel that this is an important part of engaging in critical literacy and I intend to practice this.

This reading is one example of how far I have come in my thinking about texts and all that is implied.

Cherries In The Snow

The pounding in my chest clogged my ears.  All I could hear was my heart beating like thunder.  I wiped my clammy hands on the back of my jeans before I dared to enter.  I moved closer to the door handle.  “Breathe”, I thought.  I grabbed the cold iron door handle with one hand while I held my purse tightly with the other.  As the heavy door creaked open, an abundance of aromas instantly bombarded my nose.  “There must be hundreds of different cheeses in here”, I thought.  As the door closed behind me, I began to survey the oddly crowded, yet organized shop. How did the elements of harmony prevail over the chaotic displays?

Looking up, I was captivated by the canopy of meats and cheeses that hung like Christmas ornaments from the ceiling.  The netting that held these palatable treasures seemed to keep them safe as if they were newborns cradled in their carefully crafted basinets.  I looked to the left and then to the right.  In the dim of the light I saw the two figures. Their voices were muffled.  I listened closer as I heard, “Grazie mille, Senor. Ciao!”  The melodic words sung by this man made me long for the ability to share his talent.  Our eyes met as he turned on his heel to leave.  The emerald green of his eyes stung me for a moment while his thick black lashes drew me in like a magnet. I comforted myself. “Just smile”.  His gaze softened though I could feel his stare as he continued out into the ancient city. I shivered as I was left with his eyes piercing through my veins and for a moment forgot where I was.

“Buongiorno, Bella”, a voice bellowed as I attempted to gather myself.  “Buon..giorrrrno”, I said in my most exaggerated Italian accent.  The character began to speak to me in what sounded like Italian overdrive.  What was he saying? Why was I having such trouble understanding him? Wait…” preferiscono”..I know what that means but oh G-d, which way did I turn after I crossed the piazza? These thoughts polluted my mind as the passionate man continued to indulge me with questions and beautiful sounds.  I stood silently for a moment, staring.  “Who cares if you get lost, you’ll find your way back home eventually”, I heard running through my head.  My hands began to relax.  My breathing steadied.  The dampness on my back started to evaporate.  “Mi dispiace, Senor.  Repete, per favore?” I said apologetically.  “Prego, Bella”, he responded in turn.

Our conversation continued with words I cannot exactly recall. He scurried behind the counter with my eyes following him closely. “Prego”, he said and nodded with an outstretched hand dangling a delicate piece of cheese.  “Grazie”, I said and placed the crumbling cheese into my mouth.  “umm” was all I could say.  He laughed as he sliced another piece from what looked like a cross between a giant marshmallow and a small cumulous cloud.  I graciously took the next sampling and swiftly popped it into my mouth.  It melted as its delicate flavorings rushed to all the buds on my tongue.  “delizioso!” I remarked to the man.  “Ah, un momento” he chirped as he held up one finger.  “Si”, I said waiting patiently.

I peered over the counter and watched him slowly open a refrigerated compartment below. Eventually, he revealed what he had in store for me.  He lifted the tiny wrapped package and placed it onto the counter top.  Methodically, he dipped a dull knife into the mound and scooped up a creamy substance.  He then spread it onto a cracker, which he took out from the container beside him. He reached to his left and gathered a dollop of another substance.  The dark red preserves on the cheese reminded me of cherries in the snow.  My mouth began to tingle.  I was already anticipating the taste that hadn’t yet reached my tongue.  “Prego”, the man gestured as I reached for the delicacy.  At that moment, I felt like I was transported to somewhere else.  “Umm.” Heaven was all I could think as I licked my fingers clean.

The cheese guru began to speak rapidly again.  This time I didn’t care that I could not keep up.  I responded in a way that seemed only natural.  Whether what I had interpreted was what he had meant or not, I instantly pointed to the still-opened package lying on the counter top.  “Senor, per una persona per favore”, I responded with vigor.  His eyes lit up as he said “Perrr-fect” in his best American accent.

It was that moment when I realized I had made my peace in a place that I once wanted to run away from. I was no longer a stranger in a strange land.  Rome: A home to thousands of years of history, and a home to me.  “How great is this?” I thought.  “I am truly blessed”.  I rummaged through my tote for my wallet. I handed the man ten Euros but politely refused any change.   “Okay” I finally agreed as he pressed the coins into my hand.  “Grazie mille, Senor. Ciao!” I said as I left the conservare il formaggio.

As the cobblestone glistened before me, I was forced to squint so not to be blinded.  For a moment I thought, “hmm, which way home”?  I chuckled and said aloud, “Who cares? I am home.”

Reflection:

Just as my journey as a literacy leader has truly signified a change in me, so did this experience of studying abroad in Rome.  As I note through this personal narrative, I went from being fearful and feeling quite alone to venturing out into the open world and embracing it.  This is very much how I feel about my journey in this program. At first I was intimidated and unsure of what to expect.  Would I be able to keep up? Was this for me? But as time went by and I accepted new things and tried them out, I quickly learned that my fear had been a reflection of my uncertainty and experience with the unknown.  As I continue on my journey, I realize that I need to continue to accept the unknown with openness and try things out before I judge and come to any conclusions. This goes for whether it is a new neighborhood, a new student in the classroom, a new text I am reading, and beyond the classroom.


http://ps277.org/index2.htm

This is a link to PS 277’s website.

Poor. Scared. Crime. Black. Foreign. Spanish. Dirty. These were the words that popped into my head as I walked off the subway in November 2009 at 149 and 3rd avenue.  Where was I? What was I getting myself into? Where were the white people? Would I get robbed? Harassed? Please G-d, don’t let anything happen to me.  As  I walked up the subway stairs, I silently prayed that I would get to the school as soon as possible.  I was overwhelmed and sweating profusely.  My fear and anxiety had gotten the best of me.  This uncertainty and fear of the unknown had caused me to go from a brisk walk to actually running so that I would reach my final destination, PS 277 sooner.

I laugh now at my naivety and close-mindedness.  How could I have passed up such an incredible opportunity? What was I afraid of? As I sat patiently on the train ride up to 149th and 3rd once again this past Wednesday, I thought back to a few months ago and the panic I felt.  This time, when I got off the subway, I found myself smiling at the young family walking in front of me, bidding the construction workers “good morning” and humming as I walked leisurely down the avenue towards St. Ann’s Avenue.  I took everything in. I sniffed the air as the fried grease lingered in the air that had helped to cook the hashbrowns at the local McDonald’s.  I looked intricately at the patrons on the street, smiled and kept walking.  My eyes were straight ahead, and my head was held high.  “Venta”, I read on a large piece of white paper that was handwritten. This sign was in the window of what looked like a convenience store.  I wondered what they were advertising.  As I made my way down further, I came across the local meat store. Signs were both in Spanish and English.  I smiled at this. How could I have missed all of this culture before? The hum of the traffic, the sounds of music playing way too loudly from the local adult DVD store, and the conversations I heard that were far from anything I could understand because of my lack of knowledge of Spanish.

What is most amazing to me, is the fact that I will now have the honor of reading this area every Monday through Friday next year, as I will be a teacher at this phenomenal school.  A place where community is celebrated.  A place where learning and inquiry is encouraged.  A place where students feel safe from the world outside.  Ironic how different my reading of this world is now for me than it was only six months ago. I have the Literacy Specialist program and my willingness to grow to thank.

What do I think of this student? How am I reading him? To most, including myself, I would read him as clean-cut, someone who is well cared for, and someone who takes his work seriously, and may get distracted at times.  This is why he might have the yellow barrier up, while he was working on his reading goals for the day during independent reading workshop.

Mindrew is a boy with autism.  When I first learned this from my cooperating teachers, I was astonished.  He did not “seem” like he had autism, and he did not “look” like he had autism.  I thought and thought. He did not shy away from looking at me, he did not have limited speech, and he surely did not act any more esoteric than the other students in this classroom. My “reading” of him was apparently very different than how others had read him in the past.  The point I am trying to make is that, we cannot go into any situation reading people in one way; our perceptions and conceptions of our students especially, rely heavily on the competence we presume in them.  This is something that I have really taken a stand for as an educator who is an advocate for the inclusion of all students.

Mindrew was no “different” than any other student in this third grade classroom of twenty-five students.  My reading of Mindrew has further reinforced my ideas that we cannot and should not judge a book (or student) by its cover, we need to read people ourselves, we need to presume competence of all learners, and we need to remain open to all possibilities.

“I could not tell…” of the dysmorphia that pollutes my thoughts.  Am I pretty enough, am I skinny enough, will I fit in? I could not tell of my need to impress others so that they may think a certain way about the way I live.  I could not tell that I put on a façade, we all do, to fool people into thinking we are what we are not.  I could not tell my imperfections, the jealousy, the need to feel on top.

I could not tell anyone that I felt forgotten about because Jason is the smart one and Andrew is the talented one.  He takes away all of my parents’ attention, energy, and money.  I could not tell how I feel angry with my father for not speaking up, yet he works so hard for all that he makes.  I could not tell my uncles the rage I feel towards them for being so greedy.  I could not tell how I always need to stifle myself around the other family members for fear I cause a catastrophe. I am stuck: in the middle of a family business, yet not treated as if we are family at all.  How could my dad just let this happen?

I could not tell of my fear of losing my parents because I depend on them for everything. I could not tell that at times I wonder what it would be like to be my cousin.  Money does not buy happiness but it sure does make life a lot easier.  I could not tell that I feel like nobody understands me and I am misunderstood.  I feel alone and like an outcast but wonder why this is so.

I could not tell why I feel so dissatisfied while I have clothes on my back, food in my stomach, and a family who supports me.  My problems seem so inconsequential to the issues that other people face.  I could not tell that my biggest fear is being alone forever. Am I scared of myself? Afraid to be alone? Will I ever find someone who thinks I am worthy?

I could not tell of the hatred I have for my grandmother, my father’s mother, who has treated me as less than my brothers.  The one who says, “I don’t understand her, I never had daughters” as a lame excuse for treating me unfairly.  The one who buys me chocolate for gifts when she knows how I struggle with my weight and comments on my need to shape up.

I could not tell of my fear that I could never grow to open up or trust someone again because of Matt.  I fear that he has made me lose my ability to love and to trust another.  I could not tell that I feel as though he is all that I am worthy of.  I could not tell of my fear to be intimate with someone and the connection that I may feel.  I could not tell that I am scared to be independent and I am scared to make myself happy.

This exercise is not a form of therapy.  Writing memoir is not simply a place to throw all of our problems.  Rather, “…it can do is make public our own and our children’s personal, private experience” (Bomer & Bomer, 2001, p.175). What this has taught me is that writing for social justice in our classrooms should be heart wrenching.  It should be a place where all students feel it is safe to write about the pain and discomfort in their own lives.  The classroom should be a place where young writers can experience and cope with the hardships that they face in a way that they feel supported and not alone.  Teachers need to realize that in order to encourage our students to open up their lives and their hearts, we too, must do so.  Students need to feel that memoir is a way to expose the world to their lives and feel that their peers will respond to their issues and concerns. That their writing about personal issues has a purpose; they are responded to.  The chart on page 75, with a list of questions that students and teachers can answer about their memoir pieces helps to demonstrate the social justice stance that we need to take in our classrooms and how to connect our students’ writing to the real world and the lives of others.

Reflection:

Reading the world? What does that even mean, I thought to myself the first time I heard this term.  That is the beauty of thinking and acting critically: there is no right or wrong, or one way to think about it.  The idea is just to think about it in ways that you never considered before.  And this is exactly what I did through reading For A Better World by Randy and Katharine Bomer.

I chose to include this personal reflection of my view of the world because it signifies how much I have truly opened up as an educator, as a young female, and as a writer.  Never before this program would I have wrote about things that seemed so untouchable before.  I believe that this is the heart and sole of what critical literacy, social justice, and reading the world is about. It is about opening yourself up to read things in ways you had never thought about before. It is about being vulnerable, allowing your heart to be worn on your sleeve, and letting people in.

I think the prompt, “I Could Not Tell” allows me to showcase some of my most inner feelings about how I view the world around me and my place in it.  I recognize that this is only one attempt of many in the future.  It is the beginning of my journey as a literate being who not only knows how to read the word but also reads the world with scrutiny.


  • None
  • Marjorie Siegel: This can be the greatest lesson of all to take into your career as a teacher!
  • Marjorie Siegel: This is such a powerful way to make critical literacy work meaningful in local settings and to focus on deconstruction, reconstruction, and social act
  • Marjorie Siegel: Another book that offers an excellent guild to critical literacy in a primary grade classroom is Vivian Vasquez's exploration of her own teaching with

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