Words at Work and Play is a continuation of a project started in the late 1960’s by ethnographer Shirley Brice Heat. Brice Heath’s work is not concerned with words in the public school setting (as so much is), rather her focus is on literacy usage and sponsorship at after school programs, soccer games and around the kitchen table–hence the title. Brice Heath’s work is focused around a region called the Piedmont Carolina, but her work takes her and her readers to the suburbs of Boston, the inner-city of Chicago and a small mountain town in Colorado.
So far, the biggest connection I’ve been able to make to the text has come through her description of literacy sponsors. As someone in our book club pointed out, the lives of some of these subjects seems to be saturated in sponsors. Because of this, Brice Heath has forced me to reevaluate my notion of sponsors, particularly those outside of the educational system. The author herself seems to play a formative role in the lives of some of her subjects, unfortunately her writing at these points often becomes heavy handed to the point of sentimentality and self-righteousness.
Structurally, Words at Work and Play reads essentially as a series of case studies. Like other ethnographic works we have read, some highlight a wealth of opportunities, while others highlight a scarcity. That being said, there haven’t been any sob stories thus far. Take for instance Jerome, who perseveres despite growing up in the foster system. Our book club was able to draw connections between his story and Dora’s case study. In both cases, the subjects may not have technology or wealth working in their favor, but they have sponsors who care about them and the dedication to overcome their adversity.
Would I recommend this book? Well, I doubt it would make a good by-the-pool read. Is it informative? Well, sort of. Often times I find Brice Heath filling pages with what seems like common sense. Take for instance this excerpt from page 51, “They and their friends did not like to ‘mess up.’ To avoid doing so, they learned that staying focused on what they were doing made a big difference in outcomes.” You don’t say.
One of my club mates, Gary, has reached a point of epiphany and great enjoyment somewhere around chapter 5. I am not there yet, but it’s comforting to believe that this book is going to get better.