California English Journal
Constructing Literacy in My Classroom
When my daughter was in high school, she astutely declared, "You know Mom, that new age stuff about following your bliss? Well, that's what you've done. Reading is how you play and how you work." How right she was, for my enormous delight in reading is mirrored in my profession as a community college reading instructor. It is gratifying to serve as a catalyst which brings adults to the pleasures of reading. But though my love of reading certainly provides a firm foundation for being a reading teacher, it by no means guarantees I will transfer my pleasure to the adults who are required to enroll in my courses because of poor test scores on the college placement tests.
For years, I've struggled to get reluctant readers to share in the joy I get from reading. I reasoned I might be better equipped to lead them to literary satisfaction by carefully examining my own construct of literacy, pinpointing the pleasurable features. I know that I want to have books available to me so that my gaze can wander along my stacked shelves, pondering until a title, an author, a cover blurb converses with me, says, "Read me now." I want easy-to-hold paper backs so I can read in my favorite position lying on my side in bed, and I am most pleased to read from a used book with a stranger's name inked inside. Most importantly, I want to talk with other readers about the books we read. I want to grapple with why I'm devastated by a book which delights them or enchanted by language they find fluffy. Each semester, I'm faced with adult students whose notions of literacy are fuzzy, feeble or flippant, so I dive into the task of constructing literacy in my classroom.
According to Sulzby emergent literacy has two facets: "a continuation of old development and the beginning of something truly new" (278). Harste, et al describe emerging literacy in a child as a process in the orchestration of a complex social event in which the systems of pragmatics, semantics, syntax and graphics are harmonized (57-58). These two images neatly describe the evolving literacy of the adults I teach. Students enter my basic reading class with prior experience, background and development in literacy. Often their skill in orchestrating the systems listed by Harste, et al is faulty or ill-conceived. Like the children Sulzby and Harste describe, adult students are also vulnerable to mismatches with instruction. They struggle with reading, inhibited by their print awareness; they read aspectually, focused on one or two aspects of print to the exclusion of others and their reading strategies are imbalanced and inflexible. Their individual linguistic repertoires are varied and do not meet the expectations, measured by standardized testing, for successful performance in college courses.
In other words, they don't match the college's prescription for conventional literacy which according to Sulzby is "a cultural agreement about a particular linguistic phenomena" (278). But the students do come with a perception of literacy. According to Green, et al, their socially constructed view of literacy was defined by their previous experience in classrooms, with family and with peers (140). But their perception rarely matches the one they find in my classroom, a class managed as a reading workshop like that initially described by Nancy Atwell (1987).
In particular, the basic reading course I teach follows the model developed by Jeanne Henry (1995) specifically for use with developmental reading students at the college level. Students self-select books to read in class, and interaction with text occurs primarily through the exchange of literary letters with the teacher and classmates. Mini-lessons, not exceeding fifteen minutes, begin most class meetings. Topics of the mini-lessons include strategies for selecting books, setting reading goals, abandoning books, the fictional curve and point of view. I've also created a number of mini-lessons by adapting Keene and Zimmermann's comprehension strategies explained in Mosaic of Thought: the role of prior knowledge in reading, predicting, questioning, visualizing and monitoring comprehension. Students are initially puzzled by reading workshop.
Most of these students have no experience with a student-centered classroom. In the early weeks of the course, time is spent exploring new patterns of literate action and new ways of being a student. Freedom to select their own reading material is exciting and challenging. They aren't sure what they like to read, or where they like to read, or when they like to read. All of these decisions must be made in reading workshop. They aren't sure what they think or feel about the pieces they are reading and are surprised that I really want to know. They have to be encouraged to interact with one another through literary letters, since their previous experience consisted solely of communication with a teacher, primarily giving "right" answers. Their interactions with text and about text are undergoing a metamorphosis. They are moving from an "efferent" experience with text to an "aesthetic" one as they learn to negotiate meaning from text (Rosenblatt, 1983). Gradually their perception of literacy begins to transform as they discover that reading occurs in a variety of settings under a variety of conditions, serves a variety of purposes, and that it elicits a variety of responses. Tom Newkirk (1996) describes this as sponsoring gregariousness in literacy acquisition, making the event of reading much less lonely.
I subscribe to Louise Rosenblatt's transactional theory of literacy which asserts that reading is a collaboration between reader and text and that authentic reading takes place when the reader is able to find personal meaning in the text. For many adult reluctant readers, popular fiction is where their minds meet books. In order to be responsive to the letters students write, I read popular fiction with them: Steven King, V.C. Andrews, Danielle Steele, John Grisham, Michael Crichton. Through letters, we discuss these works just as my friends in my literary group discuss the pieces we read. These students gain facility with and become conversant about their reading. They talk about leads and character development and discover the highly patterned structure of horror or romance novels. Some of them experiment with reading Toni Morrison, Hermann Hesse or John Steinbeck, but most of them are content with finding their first meaningful experience with the printed word in popular fiction.
Popular fiction offers them thrills, fantasy, history, science and personal relevancy in a context they can comprehend and follow. And the authors of these books write vital, colorful prose and clearly shaped fiction that enables me to teach lessons on the form and language of fiction. I sometimes sneak these lessons into the letters I write students as I also attempt to applaud their perceptions and point out connections between their observations. For instance, when Niki had read about thirty pages of V.C. Andrews' Garden of Shadows, she wrote me a letter full of discoveries, predictions and questions. Here is some of the letter I wrote back to her:
V.C. Andrews knows how to make a story interesting, and it sounds like she's captured your attention. You quickly figured out that Malcolm is the evil dude in the story. Why Olivia marries him is a good question, but it could be that his money was attractive to her. Like you said in an earlier letter, a woman needs to think carefully about who she is getting involved with and whether the man offers the things that are most important to her. Sometimes honesty and thoughtfulness are more important than money.
The thing I like about mysteries is that they keep unwinding with new aspects to consider, new things to make me wonder about.
Literary letters afford me a wonderful opportunity to do some one-to-one instruction that is impossible in the three hours a week these students are in class, instruction that enhances and expands the short mini-lessons I do in class. And letters also give me a chance to write to students about what I'm reading, for our letter writing etiquette requires that we not only tell about what we are reading, but we ask about the book our correspondent is reading. Here's what I wrote to Niki about my reading:
I finished the book that I last wrote you about. It was called To The Wedding. I really liked it even though it was sad because I knew the girl who was getting married was going to die from AIDS. But it was also fascinating. Her fiancee was amazing. He did all these really neat romantic things to show he loved her even though she was infected. The book ended with the wedding scene on a small island in a country village near Venice, Italy. It was a beautiful chapter about how they included everyone from the town who came to watch the wedding and how they and the guests danced all night barefoot in an orchard to a rock band. Now I'm reading another book that also has a character in it who is dying. The author is Terry Tempest Williams and the book is Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. It is a non-fiction book about the Great Salt Lake and about Terry's mother who is dying of cancer.
Not only do I expose students to the books I'm reading through these letters, I also take this chance to model writing brief summaries of books that include enticing details about the stories. Sometimes students ask to borrow books as a result of these letters, just as I ask to borrow books from my friends when they tell me about what they are reading.
It's a challenge to construct literacy in a basic reading class for adults, but I think that over the years I've nailed together a structure that captures the best of my own construct, it's freedom, the collaboration between me and texts, and the social dialogue I like to cultivate around books. Inviting students into this structure and giving them the opportunity to get familiar with the surroundings has its greatest pay-off in comments like this one from Gerardo who had never read a book through before enrolling in basic reading class: "I was really worried about this class. But you and my classmates made it easy. I didn't think I would finish even one book on the first day of class. Now I've read three books, and I can actually say I enjoyed reading them."
Patricia Harrelson coordinates the Writing Center and teaches developmental reading and writing at Columbia College, a small community college in the gold country of Northern California.
Green, J., Dixon C., Lin, L., Florianai, A., Bradely, M., Paxton, S., Mattern, C., Bergamo, H. "Constructing Literacy in Classrooms: Literate Action as Social Accomplishment." Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading. Ed. Robert B. Ruddell, Martha Rapp Rudely, and Harry Singer. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, 1994. 124-154
Harste, Jerome, Burke, Carolyn and Woodward, Virginia. "Children's Language and World: Initial Encounters with Print." Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading. Ed. Robert B. Ruddell, Martha Rapp Rudely, and Harry Singer. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, 1994. 48-69.
Henry Jeanne. If Not Now: Developmental Readers in the College Classroom. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook, 1995.
Keene, Ellin Oliver and Zimmerman, Susan. Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1997.
Newkirk, Tom. "The Debate that Won't Go Away: Cultural Battles and Curricular Experience." Presentation at 1996 Annual NCTE Convention.
Rosenblatt, Louise. Literature As Exploration, 4th Edition. New York: The Modern Language Association, 1983.
Sulzby, Elizabeth. "Children's Emergent Reading of Favorite Storybooks: A Developmental Study." Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading. Ed. Robert B. Ruddell, Martha Rapp Rudely, and Harry Singer. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, 1994. 244-280.
José Antonio Villareal: Latino Voice
"The watershed event in the development of the Latino coming of age story was the 1959 publication of Jose Antonio Villareal's Pocho..." -Illan Stavens
Those readers who have become cognizant of the explosive growth of Latino-American writing, who have read Rudolfo Anaya, Piri Thomas, Judith Ortiz-Cofer, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Floyd Salas, Luis Valdez, Gary Soto, Richard Rodriguez, and Luis Rodriguez, among many others, are aware that Latino-American writing has taken its place as a major force among the literature of the United States.
Yet few readers and teachers of American Literature are aware of the Californian, José Antonio Villarreal, author of the 1959 novel, Pocho, the first novel ever published in the United States by a Mexican-American born of Mexican immigrant parents.
Villarreal, though, is more than a pioneer. His novel is a lyrical, tragic, yet hopeful work of art that provides essential information, as well as emotional facts, that shed light on the issues facing Latino-California in our own day. Pocho opens in Juarez during the Mexican revolution and moves to the Santa Clara Valley of the Depression and World War II. The novel is unique in the strength of its characters, settings, and themes. The main character and central viewpoint of the novel is that of Richard Rubio, a young man who shares much of the same biography as the author. But the novel begins with Richard¹s father, Juan, and tells the story of Juan¹s movement, from being a soldier who rode with Villa, to his life as the father of a large family in the Santa Clara Valley.
Mr. Rubio dreams of Mexico in the way religious Jews yearn for Jerusalem, repeating, "... next year we will have enough money. Next Year. Next Year." But there will be no return to Mexico and the novel¹s most intense focus narrows to the trinity of father, mother, and son.
The Rubio family, though they settle in Santa Clara, rich valley farm land, forty miles south of San Francisco, are uprooted individuals and Juan Rubio becomes unhappy when his wife, Consuelo¹s new found freedom in America--destroys his conception of marriage. When Consuelo can no longer forgive Mr. Rubio¹s infidelities or tolerate his physical abuse--Richard is caught between two powerful parents who love him, but whose expectations for him are impossible to fulfill.
Despite Richard's friendships with children of other ethnicities, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese, as well as fellow Mexican-Americans who have come north from Los Angeles, Richard is alienated from his place of growing up. The dreams of his friends are not his dreams. Villarreal shows Richard¹s alienation as a function of sensitivity and intelligence. Villarreal's hero is unusual in that he does not give in to parental or peer pressure. Villarreal sharply contrasts Richard with the young "pachucos" and "Zoot Suiters" who settle in Santa Clara during World War II.
The "pachuchos," writes Villarreal, "attempted to segregate themselves from both their cultures( American and Mexican) and they became a truly lost race..." Though Richard makes friends with the pachucos and sympathizes with their anger at discrimination, he is critical of them.
"... They had a burning contempt for people of different ancestry, whom they called Americans and a marked hauteur towards Mexico and toward their parents for their old-country ways..."
Here, Villarreal¹s differences with militant Chicano nationalists like Luis Rodriguez, author of the acclaimed Always Running could not be more clear. Unlike today¹s political activists, the earliest Mexican-American novelist believed in individual, not group salvation. Villarreal writes:
"Richard understood them and partly sympathized but their way of life was not entirely justified in his mind, for he felt that they were somehow reneging on life. This was the easiest thing for them to do..."
At novel's conclusion, Richard has graduated from high school, has worked full time to help support his large family, and has decided to not only go to college but to become a writer. But it is World War II and he has joined the Navy as a way of leaving Santa Clara forever. His parents marriage is over, which devastates his mother, and his father has found a rebirth of dignity with a new woman.
Richard Rubio is a young man leaving his hometown of Santa Clara much as Sherwood Anderson's George Williard left Winesburg Ohio, not as an innocent in pursuit of ephemeral happiness but as a young man in search of dignity and a way to express, through art, the life he has known. Experience, loss of innocence, has not destroyed him. Writes Villarreal:
"He thought of all the beautiful people he had known, of his father and his mother in another time...of what worth was it all? His father had won his battle. But what about me? thought Richard. He would strive to live. He knew he would not be coming back..."
Pocho is dedicated, in Spanish, to Villarreal¹s father and the memory of his mother and it is Richard's father who best articulates the novel's conception of what it means to be a Mexican-American in California. For Villarreal, the personal is more important than the political. To be Mexican is not, Richard thinks, about Aztec sacrifices or gang oaths or about percentage of Indian and Spanish blood. It is, as Juan Rubio tells his so, to --
"never let anything stand in your way...promise me you will be true onto yourself, unto what you honestly believe is right. And ...do not ever forget you are Mexican.
Here Villarreal anticipates Richard Rodriguez in Rodriguez' belief that Mexico's
contribution to California is the ability to find dignity and laughter in a
life so brief and so often filled with pain. Pocho's portraits are memorable
and enrich California literature for Juan Rubio, Consuelo, and Richard are
suffering but not lost. They are dignified Mexican- Americans who love one
another and who struggle to be true to themselves.
Marek Breiger teaches English at Moreau Catholic High School and Chabot College in Hayward,Ca. A recent essay --on Richard Rodriguez--appeared in UPDATING THE LITERARY WEST, a book published by Texas Christian University.
The Story of Mah
Few teachers in California question the value of multicultural literature. It is hard, though, to find the time to review and select appropriate readings that reflect our diverse students. As a result, valuable stories from smaller cultural groups, such as Laotians, are never used in our classrooms.
At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, one-third of the people of Laos (Laotians) fled their underdeveloped country as refugees or were resettled within their country which was renamed the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). California became home to members of at least four of the scores of ethnic groups of the Lao PDR. The California Basic Educational Data for 1998 reveal that two of the top ten groups of English learners come from the Lao PDR with the Hmong identified as the third largest and the Lao as the tenth. The literary traditions of this diverse, underdeveloped Southeast Asian country, however, are not represented in the core or supplemental curriculum of most school districts.
The Story of Mah. A Hmong Romeo and Juliet Folktale (1997) is a traditional tale, available in bilingual (Hmong/English) and English editions with beautiful, full-color illustrations by Lilian Shao. The story is retold by Rosalie Giacchino-Baker, a professor at California State University who specializes in second language and multicultural education. Dr. Giacchino-Baker lived and worked overseas for ten years, five of them in Southeast Asia. In 1994-95, she lived in the Lao PDR where she conducted research on the Laotian cultural groups that are represented in California schools and worked closely with the staff of Ecoles Sans Frontieres, a French community development group that collected The Story of Mah in northern Laos. The Story of Mah was first published by Dr. Giacchino-Baker as part of a collection of eight folktales, Stories from Laos (1995) which includes cultural, historical, and literary notes for each story.
The Story of Mah unique is that Dr. Giacchino-Baker, a former high school teacher of French, Spanish, and ESL, has written two accompanying books filled with reproducible activities. The first of these, Making connections with the story of Mah. A teacher's resource book of classroom activities that promote intercultural understanding (1997), contains thematic classroom activities can be used with middle school and high school students, in "regular" classrooms or in special classes for English learners, including adult programs.
Because the themes of The Story of Mah include adolescent love relationships, intergenerational conflicts, and depression, activites have been carefully designed to help teachers and students explore and examine these sensitive, critical issues in a multicultural context before and after reading the story. Some of the activities in this book can be adapted for use with younger students. A special section presents guidelines for conducting and videotaping intergenerational interviews, as well as an extensive list of resources for learning more about the Hmong.
The second booklet - Making connections with Hmong culture. A teacher's resource book of classroom activities that promote intercultural understanding can easily be used with older or younger students in conjunction with any Hmong story. It contains introductory activities that help students learn about Hmong culture and family life, as well as background information about the history, geography, and ethnic groups of the Lao PDR. Also included are strategies and readings that help students understand refugee camp experiences.
All books and a video of The Story of Mah are available through the
publisher, as well as via the internet through <<www.amazon.com>>.
The publisher is: Greenshower Distributors; Pacific Asia Press; 9440 Telstar
Ave., Suite 2; El Monte, CA 91731.
a drop list depending.... A Poem
Bobby used his fists
Robert ran away and was caught again
Vanessa bought a popsicle
Rebecca wrote in cursive
Lucky from Laos
Gustavo's father got a good job in Omaha
lost to us
Gary Thomas teaches eighth grade language arts at Turlock Junior High School, and is continually grateful to his students for the lessons they give him in speaking and writing poetry. He has the additional great good fortune to belong to the local poetry writing group known as Licensed Fools.
Also included in this issue are a pair of articles by teachers who spent many years in California high school classrooms until, in Robert Frost¹s words, "two roads diverged in a wood." Amelia de la Luz Montes (who some of you may have known as Amelia Ramirez) and Pam Lockman have written about the direction their professional lives have taken since that moment. I call this feature "The Road Less Travelled."
CATE would like to thank the following individuals for the time and expertise they have lent to the review of manuscripts for California English: Anna Bolling, Tom Chilton, Phyllis Crawford, Margaret Dewar, Angus Dunstan, Alfie Enciso, Leif Fearn, Michael Gaughen, Holly Hagel, Mark Halvorsen, Nancy Harray, Patricia Harrelson, Kathryn Hoerner, Helen Foster James, Joanne Karr, Olga Kokino, Bev Kreps, Cista Leonard, Kathleen Daley Obrist, Pam Orth, Betty Ostrom, Robin Somers, Barbara Stewart, Sally Reynolds, Tere Theodozio, Gary Thomas. Their insight has been invaluable to the journal.
California English welcomes reader response. Please address all mailed correspondence to 15332 Antioch Street #539, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here I am now, forty years later, still inspired by that same dream. I revel in the pleasures of good writing and actively pursue justifications to read widely and deeply, for these are such pleasures that I can feel guilty indulging them. For twenty plus years I continued to take official college courses ("had" to do that reading for the course grade, didn't I?) until I feared my presence denied a seat to a younger person. Later, participating in the summer work of the San Diego Area Writing Project (1981) and of the San Diego branch of the California Reading and Literature Project (1993) offered another kind of immersion that I recommend for all, a way of both broadening training and of the audience with which to share it. The past four years, several of my teaching colleagues and I have formed a monthly reading group which takes on authors ranging from Barbara Kingsolver and Wallace Stegner to Jill Ker Conway and James McBride, and then savors the twin delights of insights into the books and the inevitable expansion of the conversation into personal thoughts (far beyond the usual lunchroom focus on the grittiness of underfunded classrooms). We are practicing together what we preach, that reading expands us both personally and, as we share it, collectively. Sometimes-often-we complain that we "need" to choose books partly to match the limitations of the time we can "steal" from the absolutely required (stuff for classes, of course), but we all realize the larger need to remain alive in the real world and in our own dreams.
For me, the next important extension of that principle is asking my students to read what they choose for themselves as a significant part of their performance. Yes, they read the traditional core requirements and have some of the "usual suspects" as assignmentsbut I keep emphasizing the chance for them to explore their own worlds of possibility. To earn an A for Personal Choice (PC) Reading, they need only find and read 1000 pages a semester, with the clincher that each book finished be discussed with me in a personal conference. While it doesn't take with everyone, our book conferences have had many affirmations that young people still want to read (if they can read what they want), and some have been moments of shared epiphany between old and young that the world of books needs and deserves exploration, that it is more than an impractical and unbusinesslike-like time-wasting focus on the merely academic. It offers vicarious excitement (R.L. Stine is better than ³speed²); it challenges our assumptions (are all adults "phony" as Holden Caulfield asserts?); its roils the surface of innocuousness (students moving from Flowers in the Attic to The Rapture of Canaan). It proves that there are still sirens enticing us onward to face challenges, and those challenges bring us to higher awareness.
And, of course, the whole question ties in directly to my own professional involvement in CATE for the organization offers everything from more great ideas (like those in this issue), to more direct contacts with the others who also want to continue invigorating their own lives as a way of later touching others. One of my favorite times with the CATE Board this year, for example, was a roundtable series of books recommended by each person on the Board.....this from people who are performing near miracles in not only structuring their own classrooms to be nurturing but also taking infinite care to represent your best interests throughout the state. (If you'd like to get some good summer reading ideas, you can see the results of that discussion on the CATE Web site.)
Yes, CATE and I are practicing as well as preaching. We invite you to bring
others into the reading group. Use the coupon elsewhere in this magazine to
invite someone NEW into membership at half-price. Then I hope I'll see you
at the next book club meeting, CATE 2000, at the Sacramento Hilton and Convention
Center, February 11-13, 2000.