Tuesday 7 February 2012

Who owns literacy?

Imagine you're a four year old and you arrive at school. It's clear you have come to a place which is doing something with language that you don't do: there are signs up all over the place, there are books in classrooms, writing all over the walls of classrooms and in the hall and older children seem to be able to do this writing thing - though mostly it looks different from the printed signs and books.

So you don't own any literacy but the school appears to not only own it, but to a certain extent to be in charge of it. Authority figures change the signs, they ask children to write more of it. There are special places - controlled by the authority figures - where their writing is put. Books come into the school, apparently also controlled by the authority figures.

All this is the state of normality.

However, one of the things we keep saying about literacy is that it's important for children to take control of it, to feel it's theirs, to feel that they can use it and do what they want with it, that they can access it in order to access important things.

The point here is that literacy is culturally and politically mediated. Or to be more precise: all literacy is culturally and politically mediated - to such an extent that literacy ends up being divided and sub-divided into differentially controlled and mediated literacies. So, to take two extreme examples: the literacy of the legal profession and the literacy of popular music. The first is owned and controlled by the legal profession and even though I am a highly literate person there are a many documents and processes that I don't understand and can't access in the usual ways I do this: opening a document, reading it, re-reading it,  even using a dictionary doesn't always help. With popular music, there are many parts of it I do get but others I don't. Sometimes this is individual words, other times it's what's being referred to, other times it's the whole wording of a song that I don't hear.  Again, the usual tools for accessing stuff I don't understand are no use to me. I have to go and ask someone who is immersed in that literacy to find out more.

So let's go back to school and see what's happening to the literacy - or literacies - in a school, but this time take up the position of a classroom teacher. In relation to the pupils, the teacher appears to be in charge of literacy, controlling it - owning it even - but out of sight, the reality is different. Most of what a teacher does in terms of literacy is what he or she has been asked to do, via documents and instructions and text books and the like. This then translates into lessons, homework, tasks, wall displays, letters home and so on.

So, to take an example, I go into a lot of classrooms where there is a 'word wall'. Teachers have been encouraged to 'enrich' the children's 'vocabulary' by putting up useful or good or 'wow' words on the wall that children can use in their writing. There are several problems with this: 1. We don't write with vocabulary. We write with longer sequences of text, embodied in the phrases, sentences, scenes, tropes, plotlines, genres of writing. All words have a context and the meaning of a word is only realised in the context of the words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, plotlines  and genre that surround it. Sticking words up on the wall, in fact pretty well guarantees that such words don't 'stick'! because they are context-less. 2. In truth there is no such thing as a 'wow' word. All words are wow words. They all do stuff. The only thing that makes a word more or less wow than another is the context of that word - the scene it's in, the sounds or meanings of the words around it.

In the context of this discussion about who owns literacy, then clearly the word wall is an example of saying to children, someone cleverer 'out there' owns literacy and here's a bit of it, you can use in  your writing. It's a gift from the owners and controllers.

This can't be reversed entirely. But if you're interested in nibbling away at the edges of this power structure then you reverse roles. You invite the children to make their own word wall and you make clear that this can include a wide range of words, phrases, passages, quotes, eavesdroppings that the children have heard, seen, read. You do your best to get every child to contribute.

Then this child-centred word wall - full of sayings, lines from songs, overheard mistakes, jokes, titles, bits of TV shows, catchphrases or whatever - becomes a source for writing, or playing with in whatever way seems appropriate.

So, in this particular case, literacy is being culturally mediated in a different way. A small amount of the ownership and control has tipped in the direction of the pupil.

Now, if you go around a school looking at the literacy (ies) on display or in process (eg through the pupils' writing) and ask, who owns and controls this stuff? How is this stuff being culturally mediated? What signs are being given off by how this stuff is being displayed or distributed? - you come up with some interesting discoveries. For example, how much of the available literacy on show or in process has come about because of what pupils have chosen, has come about because one or more children have decided that this is what should be on display or in process? And what kind of signs does this power-relationship give off?

I would suggest that very, very little of it is owned, controlled or mediated by pupils. Sometimes it is. And it could be. There can, for example, be systems by which pupils choose books for the library, edit class, school magazines and website, edit 'word walls', choose books and displays for the classroom, poems to put up on the wall, poems to read out in school, books to recommend to other children to read, topics to write about, topics to debate. You can - as many schools do - encourage children to have writing journals that aren't marked and you can encourage the children all the time to make books and get these books into classes and libraries. In this sense, the teacher is an 'enabler' rather than a 'deliverer' of literacy. So, using someone like Paul Johnson's excellent books about 'how to make a book' you can give children ideas and technology in how to make a book. Same goes for enabling the children to have blog magazines or blog stories or blog anythings . It took me less than five minutes to set up this blog, but that's a literacy we would want children to learn how to use, enjoy and benefit from?

Just to repeat - none of the above is an attack or criticism of teachers. As I've tried to say, teachers work within the rules and conventions of literacy that are passed down through the power structure of schooling: Government, Dept for Education, inspectors, exams, local authorities, advisers, headteachers and into classrooms. Daily, I hear stories from classroom teachers about how their view on trying to enable children to take control of literacy is more often than not undermined or overruled by demands that this or that literacy activity or scheme (top-down in 99% of cases) is implemented immediately.

The irony is that most of the tasks in top-down literacy activities eg comprehension, grammar and punctuation exercises, spelling tests - can be enacted within the editing processes of producing text for other people to read. That's as it is with real production of texts in the real world. So, if you're producing a pupil-based word-wall, a blog, a book, a magazine or whatever, these texts have to be edited. You can rotate editing jobs in such a way as to involve children who find that task difficult but team them up with children who find it easier. Texts can circulate prior to 'production' around a group or a class until they're right. That way 'correctness' is also owned and controlled by the pupils. They're getting it right for a purpose - that a wider audience might want to read it and will find it easier to read in edited form.

Even punctuation, spelling and 'grammar' are culturally mediated and we want pupils to own that stuff too. That's how to do it.