Monday, February 21, 2011

Towards an Expansive Understanding of LIteracy

This blog is going to spend a lot of cyberspace discussing and parcing (and hopefully expanding) on the notion of an expansive understanding of literacy.  The antithesis of this notion would be a narrow understanding of the subject- literacy as only reading and writing.  This blog is meant to challenge that assumption, positing the notion that literacy is reading and writing, but it is also so much more.  An expansive notion of literacy is understood as the many ways, habits, and tools that individuals employ to make sense of their world.

What does expansive literacy look like?

Literacy and meaning making take on a plethora of forms.  Literacy is bound only by human experience; it is all those things we do that help us to understand and express ourselves in a complicated world. These extra-textual literacies take on many different forms.  Physical literacy is ballet and football.  Social literacy is a handshake as well as Facebook.  Musical literacy expands to include Jay-Z as well as Mozart.  When we begin to operate in this expanded space, and we learn to value more than just reading and writing, whole new realms of possibility are opened to us.

How does an expansive understanding of literacy benefit the classroom?

The primary beneficiaries of an expanded understanding of literacy are your students.  This benefit comes in the form of decreased alienation from subject matter.  English / Language Arts classrooms have always been a place for those whose preferred literacy is textual.  The only skills that are valued in this old paradigm are reading and writing- these are the only acceptable form of expression and understanding.  If the classroom is based on an expansive understanding of literacy than all of the extra-textual literacies are afforded equal footing- all avenues of meaning making are fair game!  Students are free to pursue meaning via their prefered literacy, whether is be reading, dance, or doodles.

Expansive Literacy and Standards?

I can hear you now, skeptical (and practical) pedagogue, as you read this in the warm glow of your computer's screen- "But what about the standards?!  There is no dance section on the test! How is doodling supposed to help my students understand grammar?"

Fear not, gentle teacher, I have not forsaken the virtues of "good" grammar or any other testable skill- on the contrary, in the right context I hold any of those ideas in very high regard.  I also believe that good reading and writing skills are essential to the success and happiness of any student.  What I take issue with is the notion that the only way to teach students to read and write well to tell them that the only skills that matter are reading and writing.  That kind of environment alienates students, especially those who do not identify as "good" readers or writers.

Expansive literacy, and its utilization of students' preferred literacies can actually increase student performance in testable areas!  Taking some of the value away from reading and writing can actually encourage students to read and write better! (Don't believe me? Check out the work of the Educational Arts Team...)  This negotiation between preferred literacy and testable skills describes the concept of transmediation, an idea that will be explored on this blog every week in the form of lessons plans for your classroom.  Simply put, transmediation is the process of utilizing a student's preferred literacy to influence their performance toward some testable end.  Transmediation describes the process of moving from drawing a picture of a farm to writing a pastoral poem.  Through transmediation all of the ways a student makes meaning are given space in the classroom.

Where do we go from here?

In a very short space I've outlined some of the central (and very complex) ideas I hope to explore in this blog.  One of the beautiful things about operating in cyber space is the potential for collaboration.  I'd like to invite any reader to post their comments, critiques, and suggestions about any post I write.

In future posts I hope to explore different instances of this expansive idea of literacy. Check back soon for an upcoming 4 part series called "Let's Get Physical", where we will explore methods for encouraging physical literacy in the classroom.  Also, remember to check back for lesson plans for incorporating expansive literacy practices into your classroom.  Lastly, check back for my take on the latest news from the literacy and education world.

As always, thanks for reading and happy teaching.


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