Illiteracy is the inability of a person to learn. It is not all about the inability to read or write as the middle class regards it.
In his memoir A Comedy and A Tragedy: A Memoir of Learning How to Read and Write, Travis Hugh Colley tells his story of growing up largely “illiterate,” because of a dysfunctional family dynamic and the coping mechanisms that allowed him to fake his way through assignments and tests at school.
Without his family’s support, Colley stumbled through school, and was able to understand the use and power of words only when he became involved in theater and by chronicling his feelings in a journal.
I was most intrigued when he pointed out the lack of depth in the words literacy and illiteracy. Colley writes, “The terms do not account for pathologies in literacy, or hidden forms of illiteracy, and they do not question the measurements we use or the rules we accept as our standards for literacy. These can be biased. Literacy and illiteracy lack subtlety.” He then notes wryly, “Literate people should find better terms, as there are always deeper distinctions to be found.”
Decades ago, someone could well be completely illiterate. Work or living conditions could be isolating in a way that reading and writing were never learned, never applied, and in some cases, never even necessary. But the 21st century has brought a type of connectivity to our everyday lives, and there are digital tools to help us communicate with one another in new and nontraditional ways. It levels the playing field. So even if someone—adult or child, it doesn’t matter—struggles to understand traditional texts or writing mechanics, he or she may have a sophisticated environmental literacy or a working digital literacy. The door has opened so that almost everyone has some sort of literacy starting point that was simply not possible a century ago.
There is no longer a clean line between literate and illiterate. It would be rare for someone to be completely illiterate. There’s social media, there are online communities, there are countless occasions where with limited literacy prowess you can open yourself to an ever-widening world.
So what that has meant for literacy teachers and leaders is this: rather than a black-and-white distinction between literate and not literate, now there’s a long, never-ending line. A spectrum. A path to walk. It starts with a “beginning reader and writer” and meanders along toward “expertise.” When we meet our students, we just have to figure out where they are on the path. We walk with them awhile, figuring out what they know; what they care about in terms of reading, writing, and technology; and how to help them continue their journey.
This week we look at ways to foster better home and school connections, and we’ll continue the theme next week. Plus more as always — enjoy!
Contributor, Choice Literacy
Long an avid reader, Jennifer Schwanke has worked as an educator for 15 years. She taught middle school language arts for six years before moving into administration at both the middle school and elementary level. Jen enjoys thinking of more effective ways to present literacy to students at these vulnerable ages. You can find her latest thinking at her Leading and Learning blog.
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Curriculum night? No sweat, says Tony Keefer. Only kidding — there is a lot of sweat involved, but Tony’s humorous account of how he has changed his curriculum night presentation will get you thinking about new ways of connecting with families:
Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan explain why it is important to share data with parents while school is still in session in order to avoid the “summer slide“:
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Jennifer Schwanke explains why parent-teacher conferences can be bewildering for families, and offers advice for better ways to explain a literacy workshop model to them. This is the first installment in a two-part series:
Tara Barnett and Kate Mills use Monday Headlines to energize students after the weekend, and get a peek into what’s going on at home:
In this week’s video, Katherine Sokolowski confers with Drew about writing at home, brainstorming possible topics. In the process she shows how much she knows about Drew’s life outside of school:
Christy Rush-Levine continues her series on teaching literary analysis in middle school. In this week’s installment, she shares how to present counterclaims, as well as a video example of a small group exploring counterclaims:
Catch up this summer on all our print and video offerings highlighting home and school connections at this link:
That’s all for this week!