Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Literacy Narratives: Why I Think They Need to Be in My FYW Syllabus

Literacy narratives are seemingly simple assignments. How hard is it to write the story of how one learned to use language, read, and/or write? I think, however, that the literacy narrative is a crucial part of my first year writing syllabus. There are many benefits to this assignment for both the students and the teacher.

For the students,

the literacy narrative feels like an easy task. They don't feel the pressure of more "serious assignments" and are, therefore, less likely to be hung up on writing perfect sentences or making sure they have hyperintellectual words (incorrectly applied by right-clicking for the thesaurus in word). They are simply more genuine. At the same time, without the pressure to sound academic, students are able to practice necessarily skills like idea development, organization, and using supporting evidence without even realizing it. 

On a mental level, it also amps up the confidence of novice college-level writers. Reflecting back on the hardships that they have overcome to learn to read and write gives them a sense of accomplishment and purpose. It can also remind those who hate writing now of a time back in their youth when perhaps this was not the case. By the time they have come to a final draft, there is usually a well-polished piece that they can be proud of and reflect back on. They may also come to see shifts in the way they thought about writing at the beginning of the semester versus the end of the semester.

I also ask my students to identify the themes they hear in one another's work. I am always interested in the themes I see emerging in my students' narratives, and I think they can learn things about themselves that they did not know before. Last semester, for instance, when I was asked to write my own literacy narrative for a graduate course, I learned that my story about moving from writing lyrics to writing research papers about literature was actually revealing a struggle to find self-confidence and to declare my self a Writer. It made me change the way I thought about writing and how I was writing. I also had students reflect that they didn't realize how far they had come from learning English as a second language to being a college level writer.

For teachers, 

the literacy narrative is a great opportunity to get a feel for the real voice of the student early on, which helps tip them off later if students are confused or (hopefully never the case) plagiarizing.

Knowing about the literacies of the students in a class also helps teachers to teach more effectively. Right from the start, most students will identify if they struggle with writing, if they learned English as a second language, and their views on writing, whether positive or negative. It will also reveal whether students think about writing as a tool for communicating or simply an evaluation method that teacher's use to grade them.

It's also an great way to teach students about developing their ideas, providing necessary detail, and learning to cut out fluff.

I have really only seen positive things emerge from this assignment.

Additionally, reading literacy narratives can be a great way to teach students about the power of language. Some of my favorite pieces to assign are Richard Wright's "The Library Card," David Raymond's "On Being 17, Bright, and Unable to Read," Malcolm X's "Coming to an Awareness of Language," and Fan Shen's "The Classroom and the Wider Culture."

This semester, I will also be including Chimamanda Adichie's "The Danger of a Single Story." It is a beautiful and funny talk about how Adichie learned to read, came into her own as a writer, and about the dangers of tokenism.

For a sample of the literacy narrative assignment I pose, see here:


Meagan said...

I'm on board with literacy narratives for many of the same reasons-- though you mention some examples that are new to me. The Livebinder is also new to me-- and looks very cool.

Lee Skallerup Bessette, PhD said...

Awesome. I also like "THe Day Language Came Into My Life" by Hellen Keller from her autobiography. It's The Miracle Worker from her perspective. I like it because I ask the students to imagine a world with no words; to be 8 years old and still have no words to express or understand the world around you. I also use the Malcolm X one, because it also shows that learning to write "well" takes a lot of hard (and tedious) work. I'll have to remember to scan those in for my students.

I do something a little difference than a literacy narrative; we do a narrative essay, but I ask the students to write about an event in their lives that shaped or influenced their attitude or view of education. I think it's useful to get the students to think about why they are here, as well as in a lot of cases, shows them what they have overcome to be here. Or the people in their lives who helped them.

It's great, too, because I start it as a free write question, and the students don't even know that that's their "formal" essay topic. I then congratulate them on doing a first draft. It always amazes them.

Thanks for sharing this!