adolescent literacy - moving beyond rhetoric that maligns. a call for new starting points.

before i begin, the punchline: wanting adolescents to be proficient readers and writers of print-based texts is not wrong; the assumptions on which this desire is based, however, are steeped in deficit interpretations of the literacy practices in which adolescents are already engaged.  we need new starting points.


recently, a conference about content area literacy focused on adolescents was held at teachers college.  you can read more about the conference on the tc website here.  but the last paragraph is what caught my attention:
While the U.S. led the world for many years in educational attainment and job skills, “so many other countries are doing so much better now,” [Andres] Henriquez [of the Carnegie Corporation] said, including China and countries in Eastern Europe. And while the U.S. was the first to provide universal secondary education and also perennially led the world in educational attainment, it now ranks thirteenth in the latter category. National 8th-grade reading scores haven’t budged in decades. “If you were a doctor, you’d say, ‘this patient’s dead. There’s not a heartbeat.’ ”
so the literacies of adolescents effectively render the educational system a dead patient?  i worry about this rhetoric because in the spirit of seeking ways to support the print proficiency of adolescents, advocates of "adolescent literacy instruction" simultaneously malign the diverse literate landscapes of adolescents and frame adolescents as persistently in need of remediation.  this may not be their intention, but when adolescents are already under scrutiny for so many facets of their being such rhetoric only serves to place and keep adolescent identities and practices at a far remove from those ways of being that are institutionally sanctioned.

in this case, words matter because they help to constitute a reality that will travel across contexts and be parsed for sound bytes.  how does one reconcile this deficit starting point in light of the sheer abundance of research - in the areas of literacies, multimodality, communication, media studies, technology and education - that paints vastly different pictures.  the prevailing discourse of this conference, as reported in the article, was that adolescents need texts that better resonate with their lives and experiences.  but the mere inclusion of interest-related texts - read: print-based artifacts - along a variety of content categories and that reflect multiple realities is not enough.  let me emphasize that such a move is certainly significant as adolescents begin to connect with the texts of schools in new and meaningful ways.  but we cannot stop there because when we dismiss some practices of adolescents as "non-school" we effectively suppress the possibility of some adolescents' very relationship to formalized education.

our definitions and expectations of composing, communication, meaning, and interpretation must change, not merely to respond to calls for action from literacy researchers, but because educational institutions, such as schools, should be responsive to the practices of children and youth.  to simply include a wider array of texts still presupposed a print-centric set of beliefs about how one can acquire and represent information; to do so renders invisible other ways of knowing, even as a recently re-surfaced article from the chronicle of higher education lists "public support for other ways of knowing" as one of the five trends that will radically transform public education by 2015.  will the united states' penchant to wax nostalgic about the "good ol' days" be its undoing?

i recognize that to rethink practices of literacy assessment and pedagogy may challenge long held beliefs about literacy, language, schooling, and even education; perhaps it is time to not only talk about rethinking these practices, but to actually change them.  so, i note once again the punchline that started this post: wanting adolescents to be proficient readers and writers of print-based texts is not wrong; the assumptions on which this desire is based, however, are steeped in deficit interpretations of the literacy practices in which adolescents are already engaged.  we need new starting points.

1 comment:

EC said...

Hi Lalitha:

I like your style. That last paragraph of the tc report is horrifying. The patient is DEAD?! And of course we should appreciate where the kids are at. But... I worry that many of the teenagers I see every day manage almost completely to avoid ever dealing with text at all, beyond the most basic and simple kinds, like the text in a text. I'm all for appreciating other ways of knowing, but I am afraid that our larger culture "appreciates" other ways of knowing in about the way fascist states may have appreciated the ways of knowing that were involved in participating in a party rally. I see students who are nervously attuned to celebrity gossip, who are hyperaware of minute details of one another's appearance, who are hungry for adult attention but also terrified of it, who are immersed in pop culture but often not very attentive to its nuances--in other words, students who are damaged by mainstream corporate culture that keeps them in peonage but not critical of it. I fear that unless they read much, much more than they do, they will be handicapped, not only when it comes to trying to succeed within the system (and the children of the rich and powerful will not be handicapped, because they will have been reading a lot and so will be much nimbler in the text-heavy world of adult power), but also when it comes to trying to critique and change the system. It's hard for me to think of a revolutionary thinker or leader who was not a deep reader. So yes, honor their practices, but also get them reading!