Blog #11: Multiple Literacies

As we began discussing this morning, Hansen charges literacy workers with developing culturally responsive literacies through expanded and diverse definitions of literacy.  She describes attempting this through her event and mural project in the LINK Up project.  How have you been considering ways to be culturally responsive in your CLC literacy work?  Choose a programmatic, administrative, pedagogical or other moment to describe how you are thinking about this.

Recently, I have been working with a guyat Turning Point who speaks four languages — Somali, Arabic, English, and one other. He is least comfortable in English, and as we write and recite our own poetry, he has more than once stated that he is much better in his first languages, and would rather write in Somali. A few weeks back, we had him recite his thoughts/freestyle poetry in Somali, and many of the guys were impressed.

It has been a learning experience working with him. Out of the many languages he speaks, I only speak English. I have found that he doesn’t always want to be constrained by English. He is an intellegent guy, and while he gets a hard time from the guys about his accent and his goofy attention-getting antics (these are teenage guys in a rehab facility, remember), they are impressed with his language proficiency–especially when he read outloud in Somali.

So, as  Hansen argues in the artcle, I have found it important to include and highlight his  non-naitive English skills in workshop when I can, to appreciate the uniqueness that he brings to the table, instead of just either expecting him to speak clear English like the rest of us, or just say, “cool, I tolerate you.”  

Published in: on April 11, 2011 at 9:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Blog 10: Considering Privilege in Community Literacy

In her essay, “Resisting Altruism: How Systematic Power and Privilege Become Personal in One-on-One Community Tutoring,” Beth Godbee asks us to consider the systematic can become personal through tutor-writer (or in our case facilitator-writer/reader) relationships.  We raised some of these issues at the “Writing and Trauma” reading when we discussed how we might create appropriate relationships and experiences with our community writers/partners.  What is your thinking on this?  Where do you create boundaries in your relationships?  How do those boundaries work to challenge or reify power relations?

At Turning Point, I am still learning where to put my boundaries with the guys. Each relationship with each writer is different and new, sometimes perplexing scenarios arise.

First of all, let me describe my position of privilege, as compared to the Turning Point guys, as I understand it. I am in Graduate School at CSU. I am a white, straight, middle class male. My parents both hold advanced degrees. Just the fact that I am in graduate school speaks to my success as a student; it means, in my case, that I have had the support of my parents and several teachers during my academic career. I did struggle to a degree with alcohol and drugs in high school. My peers and I experimented, and it put a strain on my relationship with my parents and I was nearly arrested a few times, but I was never caught (I realize that when it comes to alcohol and drugs, “experimenting” is a term of the privileged).  I was fortunate enough to transition into college and then professional life, then graduate school, where I learned and had the privilege to learn to consume alcohol in a responsible manner.

Many of the guys I work with at Turning Point come from broken homes. Substance abuse and physical abuse has been a part of their reality. They often haven’t associated drinking with anything resembling responsibility. Many have had negative experiences with school. Many have had trouble with substance abuse and have gotten caught up with the law.

So, clearly, there is quite a divide in privilege between me and the guys. I often don’t focus on myself as a graduate student as workshop facilitator, but try to be just another writer in the group. But, simultaneously, I still lead the group, and I still speak truthfully about my place at CSU if asked.

Back to the initial question of boundaries: I still struggle with this. Just last night, one of the guys spoke about looking for a job and asked me if I could get him a job or if I knew about any part-time jobs out there for him. I empathized with him; but I didn’t really know of any. No one likes looking for a job, especially if the job search is a series of strikeouts. But is this my responsibility? In some ways, it seemed much more crucial to his life at the moment than the writing prompt we were working on. What more could I say than, “yeah, that’s rough, I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”

So, in my place of privilege, I do struggle with this boundary question. Like the above situation of being asked if I can help find a Turning Point writer a job, I have also been asked for my personal number, to stay in touch with the guys after they leave. In most cases, there is a part of me that really wants to help these guys and/or befriend them outside of workshop, but there are issues of personal space as well as personal time to consider.

But, while personal boundaries in this sense can be difficult to negotiate, in an other sense, my boundaries are also equally challenged in a positive way. For example, as a writer, I am often amazed at the guys ability to get right to the emotional point they are trying to make with their work. As I write along with them, I feel that for whatever reason — academics, my experience as a journalist, etc.– I have a really hard time writing something emotionally naked, especially a poem, all the way through. I am often used to backing out into detached surreality, non sequiturs, humor and other escape hatches from emotionally clearity. The guys challenge me with this nearly every session.

So the boundaries work both ways. Sometimes I have to reign mine back in, sometimes my boundaries are happily destroyed in other ways.  I think, untimately, it is good for someone my age (late 20s) to be in weekly contact with these teenagers. Not, as Beth Godbee, writes, for altruistic reasons (for me to bring them my knowledge and goodwill from on high), but for us influence and inform eachother, from our different places in the system of privilage.

Published in: on March 23, 2011 at 8:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Blog #9 The Impact of Narrative

Both Barony and Zwerling discuss narrative–Barony compares the work of life writing to the challenge of translation and Zwerling discusses the power of public representations of Mexican-American students’ lives in creating learning opportunies.  Consider your own community project.  What role does narrative or story-making play?  For whom?

1.) Barony writes, “Writers translating themselves onto paper, whether in standard English or non-standard English, ought to get in touch with themselves in order to become “fluent” with their own thoughts, so that they may render the nuances of their own perceptions concerning a character and a scene.”

At Turning Point, the guys rely on narrative quite often. Most frequently, they write in rhymed verse, like an MC in a hip hop act would. They are certainly interested in telling their own story, but unlike the seniors in Barony’s piece, they aren’t generally interested in craft. Of the times they have been exposed to creating a scene or writing fiction or non-fiction prose, few have taken off with it. Instead, they seem much more inclined to create a character or story through a series of their work. Each has their own style, their own story to tell, and that story often comes through unconsciously for them. To get them to concentrate on how and why they are telling it isn’t an impossibility, but in many cases, they seem to feel that they just are telling it, and that’s enough. We do help them “translate” their story to the page and into the SpeakOut! journal, encouraging them to be aware as they can be of audience. But, primarily, they are interested in instant inspiration, their “real” thoughts on the page, and they don’t put a lot of time into worrying how they come across. Their goal seems to be to say something profound. We encourage the fact that they are writing and admire their enthusiasm. For the most part, we give them the prompts to tell their story and then we get out of the way.

2.) Zwerling emphasizes the importance of his students connecting their stories to the project.

We had a lesson that the Boys House recently that took this teaching tactic into account. It was one of the most engaged and dynamic workshops I’ve experienced (and I’ve been doing this for 2 years!).  We brought in a theme of “revolution.” We brought in maps and information about the situation of revolt in the Middle East, and then we played the MP3 of a spoken word poet talking about passionate, informed revolt. The guys then wrote engaged poetry and had some profound insights to share about whether or not teenagers in other countries really know the full gravity of what they are doing when they join an army or a crowd at a violent rally.

The night really hammered home for me the idea that we need to not only encourage these guys to tell their unique and valuable stories, but we also need to make it possible for them to connect their stories with the outside world.

Published in: on March 9, 2011 at 8:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Research Project Update

Well, I’ve been out of blogland for a while, so I thought I’d update my progress on my research project. To recap: Tobi and I prepped an article for a book titled Circulating Communities: The Tactics and Strategies of Community Publishing. The deadline loomed quickly over winter break and the beginning of this semester, and after several drafts back and forth, we sent our first version of the piece to the publishers last week.

The article, titled, “Writers Speaking Out: The Challenges of Community Publishing from Spaces of Confinement” works to present the history, philosophy, and challenges of the SpeakOut Journal. I primarily worked on two sections, the first took a look at the imagined goals of the Speakout Journal, the second worked out some challenges and possibilities for the journal.

My research for the article, which I attempted to mold after PAR (participatory action research, explained in my previous post from December), proved difficult. The central idea behind utilizing PAR was to include the Speakout writers as co-authors in the piece, by giving them as much input as possible in the writing process. I drew up some questions about the Speakout publication, trying to get the writers to think about why they want their work published, what they think it is doing out in the community, what kind of audience they want to reach, etc. I took those questions to my site (The Boys House at Turning Point) and had some good discussions. One trip-up I kept making, however, was I failed to get all of the information I needed when I had the guys in my presence. The guys would often ask if they could turn in a questionnaire later on in the week, and due to their busy schedules, the answers rarely got back to me. If I were to do this again, I would pay closer attention to the institutional relatities of the various sites, and take that into closer consideration when planning the research.

This questionaire was passed out at all of the various sites, and although we could have covered more ground with extra time and better planning, we got some good responses. Some writers wanted their writing in the journal to make themselves and their families proud. Some writers wanted their writing to prove that incarcerated citizens are more complex than their stereotypes. Other writers wanted their writing to be spread far and wide, from the “Pacific to the Atlantic.”

This continum of intent also spread out to the Speakout facilitators. It was this aspect of the research project — the idea that we are all working one CLC project (the Speakout Workshops/Journal) but many of the people involved, from writer to facilitator, are in it for different reasons. For example, some facilitators are involved because they are interested in education, others are more interested in social justice, others are looking to find meaningful volunteer work.

Our article as a whole gives the history of the Speakout Journal (it began in 2006), why it is untaken as a tactical move, and how the journal actually looks out there in the Fort Collins community. As the writing moves along, we get into a colorful picture of how the collaborative piece of community writing comes to mean several things to several people at once, becoming a kind of unity through differing intetions and voices.

I’m excited to get the chance to revise the article further, and respond to comments from the publishers later on in the semester. I’ll blog about that process as it happens.

Published in: on February 28, 2011 at 9:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

My research project and such

So barreling down to the end of the semester, I’ve decided upon a research project. I’m going to help co-author a chapter in the book Circulating Communities: The Tactics and Strategies of Community Publishing. The chapter will focus on the SpeakOut! Journal we are publishing mid-month (which contains a heap of great work from the guys at Turning Point!), and our research will involve a technique I have been reading about the past few weeks: Participatory Action Research (PAR). The guiding philosophy behind PAR is to get away from the traditional idea of research, the one that involves an researcher and his subjects. Instead of that top-down approach, PAR seeks to include participants in the study, to let them help co-author the final product.

I think this project will be a good fit for some of my growing interests this semester: collaboration, and gearing evolving our literacy sponsorship along with the needs and interests of the group. Here is an example of this idea from the Mathieu essay, “Questions of Time: Publishing and Group Identity in the StreetWise Writers Group”:

“We have found that establishing a writing group involves an ongoing process of negotiation and struggle to define (and redefine) a collective indentity that works for the individual writers.”

Also, here is a similar idea attached to PAR, located in an essay entitled “Trying in and Trying Out: Participatory Action Research as a Tool for Literacy and Identity Work in Middle Grades Classrooms” by Kative Von Sluys. Here, the move is to utilize PAR to make education more invovling in, more relevant to, and more representative of students lives:

“The work of these educators paves the way for schools to become sites of learning relevant to students lives, where students move beyond being recipients of knowledge in banking models of education to becoming active learners and citizens who use diverse resources to generate knowledge, tackle issues of genuine personal interest, and conduct inquiries that impact their schools, neighborhoods, and communities.”

So how are we going to use PAR for studing the SpeakOut! Journal? First, I will to choose a researcher at the Boys House to conduct interviews with other SpeakOut! writers to find out what kind of expectations and interpretations they hold for community publishing; specifically, the publishing of their own work in our journal.  A few of the questions we are asking include: Why do you want to publish your work?, Where do you think the journal should be distributed?, What impact do you think this kind of publication can have? We will also encourage the other facilitators at the three other sites (Turning Point Girls House, Men and Women’s Jail) to pick a researcher/interviewer to take the questions up with their fellow writers.

I am appreciating my introduction to PAR because of it’s collaborative, muti-voiced possibilities. We’ll see how the plan works when put into action…

Published in: on December 1, 2010 at 9:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Blog 6: Narrative as Community

In affirming Jerome Bruner’s work, Emily Nye writes, “Indeed, every narrative told constructs a world of its own.”  She goes onto discuss narratives and the emergence of themes and the ways that “narrative linkages connect people and help explain our experiences.  They help us to reconstitute ourselves as part of the larger humanity and restore us to ‘health,’ which can best be defined as both a personal and a collective or communal wholeness” (391).

What do you make of this?

I was struck by the passage in the essay from Italian social critic Primo Levi: “one can and must communicate, and thereby contribute in a useful and easy to the peace of others and oneself, because silence, the absence of signals, is itself a signal” (388). This gives an urgency to the writing we help facilitate at the Boys House. I do believe that helping the guys to compose and circulate their stories in the community contributes to their healing, to their “wholeness.” There are several themes in the essay, which focused on a community literacy teacher working with writers with AIDS that rang true with the guys at my site. The guys often write about anger, frustration and despair, but humor, playfulness, and absurdity is never far away. These are both important coping mechanisms and writerly choices.

Because of the nature of Turning Point, the guys are in a program that includes intensive group and personal therapy and life-introspection. I believe, however, that our contribution as SpeakOut! facilitators provides them a unique opportunity to feel “whole,” to feel that they are able to tell and share their stories with a community who, heretofore, hasn’t necessarily listened to them.

An inspiring example of community inclusion happened last week when I brought in local poet Jason Hardung to write with the guys and to share and talk about being a published poet. Jason is a very narrative poet, who tells stories with his poetry about a difficult childhood and time struggling with drug addiction. Jason told the guys that he sees poetry as therapeutic and that being a poet has helped him stay sober. There was an intimacy that Jason shared with the guys that was very emotional to witness. I believe that what Doug and I do as facilitators is important, but never having been through serious drug addiction and rehab, there was a connection that Jason was willing and able to make with the guys that neither Doug nor I really have access to. So bringing Jason in hopefully gave the guys a connection to poetry and writing that they haven’t had before; also, Jason spoke of being really inspired by his visit, and there may be opportunities for him to mentor these young writers in the future.

Experiences like these, which introduce the guys to local poets and vice versa,  in conjunction with circulating the Speakout Zine to the community and holding our annual public reading, all work together to help the guys at the Boys House tell their stories. Telling their stories helps them see themselves as writers, which allow for new possibilities for identity and personal meaning, which is what Nye means by “wholeness.”

Published in: on November 9, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thinking Representation

Have Doug or I ever asked the guys at our site why they want to write poetry and come up with freestyle rhymes on the spot? No. We could. Maybe we should. It could be an interesting exercise. One fortunate thing for us as facilitators is that the guys are generally excited about writing, and that makes our workshop an enjoyable space. Some of the guys call us Mr. Zine 1 and 2 (because it the workshop is geared towards a zine), and genuinely look forward to their time with us. Writing for some of them is therapeutic, for others it is a chance to show power over their situation by writing that is tough, macho, grotesque or funny. Since Doug joined the fold, we have been moving more towards suiting their own particular interests. For example, we asked a few weeks back for some rap songs that they might want us to dissect, and teach the machinations of. (So far, no responses).

A writing prompt that didn’t work: I recently brought in a prompt for writing about setting. I asked them to write about Fort Collins. What is it like? How does it feel to the senses? What is the culture like? What are the authorities like? What would you do if you were the mayor? The prompt was largely unpopular. The two guys that did write on it had some telling critiques, one, who is a black teenager, called the mostly white town “racist.” And another pointed out a class disparity, writing that they walk by kids all the time going to an “expensive college.” As a writer and a reader, I am interested in setting, but for the most part these guys didn’t want to go there. Of course, many are likely in Fort Collins not by choice, but by legal order. I brought the prompt in to get them thinking about their surroundings, but it fell flat with most of them. Their forced location in Fort Collins could have been an issue, also the trend that they are more focused on their own selves at this point as writers than their surroundings, which is perfectly understandable.  This prompt was an example of me bringing my interests in and not having them land.

As far as representing and responding to the guys work, I judge it mostly on content, not on form or structure. Even then I am more encouraging than I would be with a freshman college class, feeling it more important to cheer these guys on as writers, to help them find their voice, tell their own important stories. So in this regard, I don’t force myself on their work too much; I primarily see myself as facilitating it.

Published in: on October 26, 2010 at 9:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Myth busters

I've never seen this show, but it seems to me that Gee could guest star.

For this week’s blog post, we read Jim Gee’s “Literacy and the Literacy Myth: From Plato to Feire.”  I found the essay extremely compelling, creating an interesting conversation with a piece we read earlier in the semester, Deborah Brandt’s essay “Sponsors of Literacy. You can read my thoughts on Brandt’s essay here.

The main bite of Brandt’s essay was that as literacy sponsors (as literacy advocates teaching/facillitating in the community), we should become conscious of our interests and motives as sponsors. We are standing for something as literacy sponsors, like it or not. Key to the importance of enlightened literary sponsorship, Brandt argues, is that literacy leads to better sucess in the marketplace and a stronger foothold in the community.

Gee would agree with Brandt that we involved in literacy outreach need to ask ourselves questions like these: Why I am I doing this? What brand of literacy am I presenting at my site? What do I think that the brand of literacy that I am presenting will do for my students/writers? Gee writes, “A text, whether written on paper, or on the soul (Plato), or on the world (Freire), is a loaded weapon. The person, the educator, who hands over the gun, hands over the bullets (the perspective), and must own up to the consequences. There is no way out of having an opinion, an ideology, and a strong one, as did Plato, as does Freire. Literacy education is not for the timid.”

Unlike Brandt, Gee deconstructs the positives of teaching literacy. He calls it the “literacy myth”: that literacy will forever and always make human beings better thinkers, more civilized, more moral. Gee refutes the literacy myth, saying that a literacy ciriculum is always chock-full of the interests that are propelling it (as Gee argues, these are societal elites). Gee believes, along with Freire, that “no literacy is politically nuetral.”  So, just teaching literacy uncritically isn’t enough, we must know what kind of ideas, values, implications, and effects we are putting out there.

It’s really thought provoking. It feels like a radicalized version of Brandt’s essay, taking her idea of literary sponsorship even further (though I realize Gee wasn’t refrencing her per se). I believe that giving the guys at Turning Point a venue to work on their writing is a positive thing. I get the feeling that their writing hasn’t recieved a lot of attention thus far in their schooling, and it is a postive activity to pay attention to them and faciliate their voices and experimentation, as well to help them go in new directions if they want. I don’t practice a harsh ciriculum on them, I mainly just encourage them to write more and more.

One political hinderance/consideration is that I do have to edit their work for the zine, and when I ask them to think about about audience, which in Fort Collins means a majority white, middle upper class audience that for the most part doesn’t share an equally underprivilaged backgound. We must censor the zines to a degree too, visually “bleeping” words and encouraging the guys to tell stories of sexism, drug use, crime, etc. never as promotion, but as description. This is to appeal and make acceptable to the audience mentioned above, as well as the Turning Point staff.

I can tell that the guys appreciate hip-hop MCing the most: both written and freestyle rhyming. Doug and I have been supportive of this, and haven’t thus far, given the guys too much outside of what they are interested in working on. We are still working on that balance: between what the guys like to work on and what we might be able to push them to stretch out further into. Why would we want to stretch them out further? So they can become in better conversation with the middle class in order to uphold certain societal status quos? Maybe. But maybe just to help them to become more versital writers, because we like writing ourselves, and practicing out of your comfort zone is usually a good thing. 

Anyhow, the mind it buzzes. Interesting essay.

Published in: on October 12, 2010 at 8:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Grant Writing

Thinking about community literacy includes thinking about grants.  Unlike the sciences, literacy and the arts are less easily quantifiable, and therein lies the first major challenge of approaching  grant writing for a CLC project. Of course we at the CLC believe in what we are doing. It’s safe to say: we all are driven by a belief that literacy is a self-empowering tool, and that it is a positive, community-building act to spread literacy practices where it is undervalued and/or unavailable. A good grant for the CLC, then, argues pursuasively and clearly for the benefits of literacy, that it is a solution to social problems. For example, a recent grant for the CLC’s SpeakOut workshop describes the personal benefits the workshops offer youth: “improved communication skills, increased self-esteem, unconditional support, future self-sufficiency, and community awareness.” Not quantifiable, but a kind of belief system.

When thinking about my own particular site at Turning Point, I’m wondering what kinds of programming could be implemented with extra funds. One grant, already written, is addressing specific concerns of the SpeakOut schedule: publishing costs, staffing, special events, etc. Expanding from that, we could consider writing grants to bring in guest workshop facilitators like slam poets and writers of color who might address the boys’ backgrounds more specifically (at our site, my workshop co-faciliator and I have relatively privillegded backgrounds compared to the guys in the class.)

Published in: on September 28, 2010 at 10:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Blog #2: Know your Power

 Deborah Brandt’s essay “Sponsors of Literacy” brings home a profound point for our work here with the CLC. Brandt compares literacy sponsorship to commercial sponsorship.  In both literacy and commercial sponsorship, the sponsor has to be conscious that they are bringing an ideology to the table, and however that ideology comes across to the sponsored in the group can impact their assumptions in the future.

The commerical sponsorship is pretty straightforward. Most college-educated students have written critical thinking papers about how corporate sponsorship does or does not taint public spaces, the arts, everyday life, etc. But, thinking critically about ourselves as literacy sponsors? That adds a provokative demension. What kind of ideas about writing and reading are we bringing to our sites?  What are we saying about literacy through our actions? What are we not saying? Brandt writes, “Most of the time, literacy takes it’s shape from the interests of its sponsors. And…obligations toward one’s sponsors run deep, affecting what, why, and how people write and read.”

Here are some questions that will help me think about my responsibilities as a literacy sponsor at my own particular site, the Boys House at Turning Point.

What might it mean to sponsor the literacy of a writer/learner at your site? 

I am working with male youth, ages 13-18, who have had problems with substance abuse and have come from extremely difficult family backgrounds. It is safe to assume that many of these guy’s families did not install in them a love and appreciation for literacy. It is also a fair guess that school has been for them a primarily negative experience, and that they haven’t had a lot of the postive reinforcement with writing and reading. So, as a sponsor, my responsibilites are large in the sense that I may be providing a rare opportunity for them to find enjoyment with writing. In some cases it might be the first time they have seen themselves as writers and have gotten a foothold on their voices.

What implications can you anticipate? 

The implications of being a sponsor are that if I can provide them with a certain love of writing and reading, (on both mine and their terms), then they can hopefully take away and begin a personal appreciation for literacy, and a positively reinforced desire to write and to read. As Brandt’s text asserts, literacy leads to greater strength in the marketplace and as a part of a community, and that is a hope for these teens as well.

How might your own literacy be sponsored by the writers/learners you’ll work with?

Working with the guys in a new way (focusing more on publication) could really allow me to rethink my assumptions about what it means to think about literacy. They have a lot to teach me. Here-to-fore, I’ve focused heavily on being a dependable set of ears for them, and a facilliator for their self expression. As I start to ask a little more from them and myself, I think that I might be surprised by what they teach me in return.

Published in: on September 14, 2010 at 10:26 pm  Comments (1)