Books on bookshelves, books on the coffee table, books on dressers, books in baskets, books in the bathroom. Everywhere I turned, there were books of various genres and for differing ages. There were the novels my mom was reading, the poetry books and medical textbooks my dad was reading, the board books my sister could look at without destroying the pages, the “I Can Read” books for my younger brothers, and the chapter books that my older brothers and I were reading. I had the luxury as a child, with a stay-at-home mom, to not only have a plethora of books available to me, but to also be read aloud to on a daily basis. From my earliest memories, my parents fostered in me a love for reading. They exposed me to quality literature, which helped develop my imagination and an appreciation for the written word.
Not only did my parents encourage reading, but they also encouraged writing. This was often disguised in the writing of thank you notes after birthdays or Christmas, writing post-cards to cousins who lived out-of-town, writing the grocery list as a parent called out certain items, and buying me a fun binder and paper when I said I wanted to write a book. While I only ended up writing a couple of pages before I moved on to another interest, I remember beaming with pride as I read what I had written to my mom. In hindsight, I realize that I tried to write a story similar to the Addy books in the American Girl Doll series. I was interested in the Underground Railroad as a child and read many books on this. I remember adding facts that I had learned from the stories in my own historical fiction writing. It is incredibly significant that my early experiences with writing were positive. Growing up in a middle-class family, my parents were able to support me in these interests by providing materials that enhanced my engagement with the writing process. In addition, my school helped foster an enjoyment of writing, as instead of tests, writing was seen as a fun subject where we would share our writing through projects. Up until middle school, I did not receive grades. I believe that this helped engage me more as a writer, as I was able to delve into the process without worrying about what grade my final product would receive. Reading assessments were predominantly informal, as my teachers would assess comprehension through discussion as opposed to how well we could write a few sentences answering a question.
My parents believed in a literature-based education, and sent me to a private school where every subject was rooted in quality literature. The books Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith and The Story of Harriet Tubman: Conductor of the Underground Railroad by Kate McMullen, were books I read in fifth grade when I studied the Civil War at school.
I then wrote a report on what I had learned, conducting additional research from the public library and Wake Forest University’s library. My teacher and father taught me how to use the index card method of note taking. Each index card had one fact on it that I had written, in my own words, after I had read a paragraph. On the back of the card, I learned how to write an MLA citation. My teacher and father worked with me to show me how to take my index cards and put them into an outline. The outline eventually became my first research paper. Through the writing of my first research paper, I remember my teacher teaching the importance of not plagiarizing. She modeled how to put things in her own words on the overhead projector. At home, my father, a professor, reiterated this conversation. If he saw that I had just memorized a fact and changed the first word on my index card, he pointed it out, and walked me through thinking how to say it differently.
As I reflect on my experience in a literature-based school, I realize that my fifth grade teacher’s approach is very similar to how writing is taught at my school. Most of our writing is taught through literature. When I teach my third graders about adding details to their stories, I make sure I’m reading aloud Andy Buckram’s Tin Men by Carol Ryrie Brink at lunch where the author has added many beautiful descriptions of characters and setting. I tell the students to listen for the details while I’m reading, and once I finish the chapter, we discuss it. I will often project the book on the board so they can also see the words the author uses. We make a list of words and phrases that the author has used to describe a setting or a character. I then model a piece of writing for the students using a different setting. I brainstorm out loud, let them see how I look at the list we created to see if any of those descriptive details apply to my setting, and begin writing the draft of my paragraph.
When I teach our poetry unit in writing, I use the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Moore to teach couplets, before having the students write their own Christmas couplets. Like the teachers that I had in school, I teach the class rhyme scheme, using the whiteboard and document camera to mark up the poem. I model writing a couplet before brainstorming with the class to create one together. The students are then instructed to write their own couplets, that in turn will become our class poem.
Thinking about the paragraph and poetry activities that I do with my students, I realize that the type of writing that the private school where I teach values, asks for, and privileges, is writing that is often found and taught in predominately white settings. The majority of students in my school have grown up reading books and writing paragraphs like the ones I teach. They are familiar with the craft of looking to a mentor text and writing a paragraph that mimics the style of what they have read and what I have modeled. The literacy in my school is standard.
After reading A Search Past Silence by David Kirkland this semester, I was challenged to think about the ways I teach writing and what I value and privilege in my students’ writing. Kirkland focuses on non-dominate literacies such as rap and tattoos that are equally valid forms of oral and written expression. In several of the raps shown in the book, the boys used onomatopoeia replacing sounds with words, metaphor when they compare their lives to events around them, and free verse when there is no rhyme and not a regular meter. The tattoos themselves were also symbolic, using numbers to stand for a family member who had passed, or even playing around with how words were spelled. Through reading this book, I came to see that these non-dominate forms of literacy are just as valid and important as learning how to write a traditional paragraph. Does a traditional paragraph engage the cultural? Does it speak the vernacular? In many ways, my thinking has shifted over this semester to realize that non-standard written and oral expression often better engage the audience and cultural.
Since finishing the book, I’ve begun to reevaluate the way that I teach writing. While I still have to teach the traditional writing process, I have given my students more opportunities for free-expression and free-writing. They know that the sky’s the limit in terms of what they can do. I’ve had several students write songs in their journals. I’ve had others write poetry. I’ve had others write plays that they want to perform. Others are writing comics. Still others are writing their thoughts and feelings in paragraph form, lists, or in questions. I’ve been amazed by how allowing them to write with little guidance in terms of structure, has allowed me to get a glimpse into their interests, passions, and concerns.
**For my writing class this semester, I wrote my literacy autobiography. Tune in next week for part two!