In “Why Johnny Can Never, Ever Read: The Perpetual Literacy Crisis and Student Identity” and “A Puzzle to the Rest of Us: Who is a ‘Reader’ Anyway?” Bronwyn T. Williams synthesizes theories on literacy as identity. Among other things, he hones in on the repercussions of viewing departure from classical literary practices as illiteracy and on the consequences of forcing “reader” and “non-reader” identities onto students of diverse ages. Though the articles differ in subject matter, they’re entirely harmonious in projecting the clear message that literacy is intrinsically linked to identity and that we have a long way to go before taking full advantage of the possibilities that new forms of literacy present to us.
My peers and I discussed each concept in depth and concluded that Williams is spot on in his expositions. Having worked in education for years as a tutor and now as a paraeducator, I’m keenly, painfully aware of how what we say to students regarding their literacy has lasting impact, for better or worse, on the rest of their lives. As an all too common anecdote that only Debbie Downer could be proud of: what typically happens when an eight year old is told by their teacher that they’re behind state testing standards (which some deranged fairy godmother of academia saw fit to bippity-boppity-boo into existence in order to determine the sum total of a student’s knowledge) is that students are made to feel like the only literacy of any value is that which they practice in school. From the horse’s own mouth: “By middle school the power to define who is a reader … becomes increasingly the domain of educational institutions … people acquiesce to these institutional definitions and stop regarding their vernacular literacy practices as those of readers” (Williams, “Why Johnny Can Never, Ever Read”). Furthermore, despite teachers’ best efforts, “you didn’t get the best score out of 50 on the words you were supposed to memorize over Summer and need to try harder!” sounds closer to “you’re dumb!” to many young students. And, these seemingly helpful evaluations of a student’s reading and writing skills (such as STAR, BPST, and high frequency word testing), can demoralize young students when they are made to feel that they’re bad readers because they didn’t get a high score (even if they enjoy books) and cause them to self-identify as non-readers — a virtual death sentence to a young student’s zeal for reading.
Sadder still is the reason behind our institutionalized tests and desire to retain literacy in the cramped little category we’ve placed it in. Williams’ article goes on to explain that worry about literacy crises are a middle class phenomenon, a tale as old as time. For the middle class to stay afloat in the economic sea, there needs to be stasis, and much of this plateau is contingent on literacies remaining the same (paper oriented vs wireless, for example), and thus changing literacy is alarming because it’s suggestive of economic development and progress — suggestive of being replaced. This is exactly why displaying one’s knowledge of the classics and certain academic acumen is perceived as so valuable, why we hold onto our antiquated educational standards with such fervor: “While the affluent worry little about losing their class standing because they have abundant economic capital, the middle class understands that the key to a professional or white-collar job and … economic security … rests largely on how one displays cultural capital” (Williams, “Why Johnny Can Never, Ever Read”). Thus, despite all educated, practical opinions to the contrary, we’re convinced that crafting bourgeois, polished identities, especially through our literacy practices, is the best way to remain afloat in a world that won’t stop advancing: “Middle class life for many rests not on accumulated wealth but on the ability to convincingly adopt and perform a set of bourgeois conventions of behavior.” Until we can shake the atrocious idea that a person’s worth is determined by our own irrational conventions of literacy, we’re stuck with our current drab, uninspiring educational trends, which craft identities and reinforce prejudices rather than helping individual students reach their full potential, craft their own unique identities and literacies.
All this is not to say that we should throw away our high school Shakespeare classes or cease teaching the glorious classics that have survived centuries and shaped society, but that we should prune any established practices that limit the production of modern epics and personal creativity. Such practices include the way we groom students’ reading habits and the value they place on different forms of literacy. Think of the sneakily pernicious phrase “they’re a reader” and what you associate with it. We typically associate the word “reader” with a specific identity, with someone who reads for intellectual pleasure, who reads well, who can lose themselves in a text, and who will probably excel at school despite maybe being a slight weirdo. We do not associate someone being a serious reader who’s got a penchant for comic books, fan fiction, story-based video games, or even online articles. One of the reasons for this is because our scholastic definition for what counts as “reading” is such a narrow category, and it’s a categorization that must be adapted to reality to accommodate the genuine interests and developments of students. If students have literary interests that facilitate mental development requirement and spark future interest in literacy, they should be encouraged to pursue those interests. So what if they lose interest in the dog-eared, drabby copies of school canon as long as they’re actively learning and refining their skills as readers, thinkers, and social contributors?
We can help our students realize their full potentials for literacy right now through acknowledging that “literacy crises” are more the creation of our nostalgic society than an actual threat to literacy practices that will cataclysmically alter and ruin life forever and always. To quote Williams one last time: “If we want to serve students best … we should not scare them with tales of the literacy crisis of their generation but instead teach them how to understand how language, culture, and identity work together. Then students can read and write in any context, making their language choices with knowledge and power.” We have the power to promote new forms of literacy and take the changing times in our stride. We have the ability to realize the efficiency and effectiveness of newer media and harness its power to reap tremendous academic and social rewards. Perhaps most importantly, as teachers, students, parents, and even young children, we can expand our definition of what counts as good reading and valuable literacy. We can improve our literacy standards one person at a time by encouraging reading as a whole, not as a tiny, uncomfortable category that’s growing more and more inaccessible with time. We can let our kids know that the colorfully-illustrated book about penguins that they enjoy or even the narrative video games they play are just as valuable as any school textbook; we can admit to ourselves that a scintillating, short modern novel like “Funny in Farsi” is just as good a read as any of the canonical literature experts pontificate on (or, like, way better in my opinion). If the literary practices we’re engaging in can edify and exercise our minds, broaden our thoughts, and give us delight in reading for the sake of enjoyment, then we should continue to pursue them; by extension, we’ll give ourselves a lifelong joy in learning.
Author Bio: Olivia Gross is a twenty one year old English Education major, paraeducator, Christian, book geek, foodie and exercise junkie with aspirations to be a writer and professor of literature. She realized her love for teaching while working as an English tutor and obtaining her Associate’s Degree at Woodland Community College. Now attaining her Bachelor’s degree at CSU Chico, she’s continuing her work in education at a fantastic primary school along with interning at CSU Chico’s ESL resource center. She’s exploring new avenues of writing and literature and thoroughly enjoying this ridiculous, confusing life with the greatest loves of hers.