Sunday, March 14, 2010

Shirley Brice Heath, Ways With Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classroom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. LB1139 L3 H37

Part 1
Young people tolerated school, waiting for the time when they were blessed old enough or big enough to leave.” (p. 26) Ah, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I supervisor secondary English education student teachers in the local schools. One school, in particular, has a high incidence of truancy and drop-outs. The student teacher was flabbergasted by the apparent apathy of the school towards this issue. However, there was also a teacher culture of “It's my job to teach, and the kids' job to be here. If they aren't here, and ready to learn, there is nothing I can do about it.” Part of what Heath shows is that the school learning wasn't relevant to the home life and projected life work. Yet, that also brings in the debate of vocational verses college prep tracks. Is it a good thing to track students? I haven't found a satisfactory answer to this yet. However, if a vocational track provides skilled labor jobs, such as plumbing, construction etc. - isn't that better than having a student drop-out, not find a living wage job and going on welfare? In rebuttal, the critics would then mention that in general, only working class students would be in the vocational track and not have the opportunity to get into the college bound track. In response, from what I've seen, the working class kids of my current city don't get into the college bound track, don't get solid skills in their remedial classes, and don't engage in the school and drop out. In addition, few schools will admit to tracking. Wouldn't it be better to freely admit dual tracking and provide solid education for both?

Much of what Heath describes in the old timers' recollections remind me a lot of my hometown and childhood. I grew up on a 40 acre farm with my parents, paternal grandparents, and aunt/uncle and cousins all living on the farmstead. We had a huge communal garden and orchard, froze and canned food, used layaway for big purchases, and joined a Christmas club to afford gifts at Christmas. My mother's family lived in the city, though it was a small town. However, even then, most of my aunts/uncles and cousins lived within a 20 minute drive of each other. 
There were major differences between my father's family and background and my mother's. In a way, Mom (and family) was Roadville and Dad was Trackton. Mom grew up in the city, had all the appliances and conveniences of electricity, went to dances and belonged to the after-school clubs. She was a fair to good student, liked reading and trained to be a secretary. Reading and words were a part of her everyday life. In her family, there were clear male/female roles and right and wrong ways to do things. Manners and politeness was explicitly taught. Children were expected to be quiet and play away from the adults, but toys and games were provided. My Dad's father died when he was six. My grandma had two small children and a farm, plus several other acres to tend. She took on the mantle of head of the household, even once she remarried.  Dad tells stories of Grandma's temper and inconsistent moods – which was part of her family. It was survival of the fittest, for him, growing up, and to be fit, meant to be strong – mentally and physically. Few books were in the house, and Dad said grandma even burned some of his books when she felt he was spending to much time lallygagging and not working.

When I grew up, there were few books, records or toys in the houses of my father's family. Since my aunt and grandma lived within walking distance of my parents, in the summer, I tended to float around and stay with whoever I wanted to for as long as I wanted. Conversation were long, multiple and loud, with people talking over and butting into the conversation frequently. Frugality, responsibility and cleanliness were valued traits. In my mother's family houses, there were books, magazines, toys, TV, crayons etc. People had mostly polite conversations where turn-taking and indoor voices was the norm.
This week I visited my parents, who live in a small town outside Milwaukee. My father was a farmer when growing up and a blue collar worker as an adult. My mother was a secretary and saleswoman. Neither had formal education past high school. My mom and I went for lunch at the Olive Garden and I was explaining some of the stuff I was reading and working on. Mom nodded her head and smiled and then exclaimed, “How did we end up having such smart kids?” Being both a compliment intended for me and a criticism of herself, I was at a loss at how to respond. She and I had attended the same high school, in the same town, yet here I am pursuing my PhD and she never took classes beyond high school. Yet, somehow, she instilled in me a love and desire for learning and knowledge, something not especially valued in my high school 20 years ago. Beer, ice fishing, deer hunting, and racing cars were highly valued. I would guess that less than half of my class went on to college. The rest took blue-collar jobs locally or went to trade school.

When growing up, much of my homework made no sense to my mom, much like the Roadville parents who found “the tasks [looking up definitions, finding answers to questions] always seem to point to something else, to suggest that they will have some purpose, some place to be put to use. But neither Roadville parents nor children see and participate in these ultimate occasions for use. The average, and even the good, students seem to do only minimally what is asked of them to conform.” (p. 46-47) I was one of those students – one who knew how to play the game and do what was asked, but I really didn't get into my own education until late in college. I didn't realize that the point was to do more than regurgitate – it was to think and create. When I finally understood the full potential of learning, I then decided to be a teacher.

For the past twenty years of my life, I've been living in transition, like the Trackton residents. Since 1988, I have moved every 3-4 years of my life. Fortunately, for the past 13 years, I've been happily married, which makes the transitions easier. But, I totally understand the mentally of not looking at what you have presently because of the promise of the future. As an international teacher, it isn't unusual to move that frequently, but it does make it difficult to find a “home” and community to really integrate into and give back too. Knowing I would be living eventually, some people didn't want to become to involved with me. As a couple, we looked at our apartments as places to sleep and eat in, not as homes. The kiss of death was the year we finally put artwork on the wall. Within a year, we'd be moving again.

I was quite horrified to read about how Trackton children were socialized to be assertive and aggressive with their dealings with each other. I know that this is my middle class mentality kicking in – but it just seems like such a fearful way to live. Kind of like when I watch any spy show or movie, I know that I could never be a spy because I am a horrible liar and infiltrator, I think I would be a horrible Trackton kid, or labeled as the slow or dull one. I don't like conflict and never dealt well with it. But, I can see how this form of socialization would cause problems within school. Since I taught in international schools in three countries, but with hundreds of different nationalities, I was often confronted with students who came to school with wildly different expectations of school, schooling, and peer relationships. Since their parents selected this particular American school, having the conversation about the differences was little easier, because the parental goal was to get their kids into American or International universities. So, socializing them to the “way we do school” was not as controversial as it is here in the US.

I was also quite angry to read about the unequal treatment of girls verse boys. I wonder how Heath dealt with observing this lack of respect that the girls received. I would think, since it was still at the early years of the feminist movement, she may not have had a response to it. Yet, ethically, nowadays, could I, as a researcher, walk away from the situation without trying to change it? I also found it interesting how the Trackton girls compensated for not being allowed into the conversation and they talked to themselves in mirrors. 
As Heath was describing the baby shower, I was reminded of a situation last spring. One of my graduate friends also had a baby shower, and I was giving a ride to several international graduate students. Knowing that traditions are very different around the world, I decided to ask about how the preparation for birth happened in their countries. Thankfully, the ride was long, because we all had a lot to say. But, it was a weird feeling to have to articulate specific cultural practices that are so common-sensical, to someone new. It reminds me of the movie The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human (Jeff Abugov, 1999). It isn't a very good movie, but it is set up like a documentary, narrated by an alien about the dating scene. Again, what seems so natural, when looked at with uninitiated eyes, it quite unnatural.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Response to Graff - The Literacy Myth

Harvey J. Graff, The Literacy Myth: Cultural Integration and Social Structure in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Academic Press, 1979. 

To begin with, in the modern era, literacy is considered a basic human right. According to UNESCO: 
  • “Literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. Educational opportunities depend on literacy. Literacy is at the heart of basic education for all, and essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development, peace and democracy. There are good reasons why literacy is at the core of Education for All (EFA).” (From
 If one believes this rhetoric, then the savior of the word is being able to read. However, I agree with Jean Anyon (2005) in her book Radical Possibilities that all the education in the world will not help with providing accessible, well-paying jobs to ethnic minorities in the US. Being schooled and literate does not guarantee a job, a good home, stable relationships or respect – however, I will agree that it can open doors that are otherwise closed.
However, Graff states that some statistics show that people who are literate are less content with material possessions as people who are illiterate. In addition, literacy is tied to modern values such as openness to experiences, independence, self-efficacy, ambition, planning and world awareness. I think it is more the tie of schooling and literacy. In school, students are socialized to be competitive and want to do better. Although a C is average, few parents are satisfied with average, and so students are constantly pushed to do better. I would also have to admit that being highly schooled and literate, I am more discontent than in my youth. I know that there is always more to learn and not enough time to learn it all, and that I will never be an expert. I might be romanticizing, but I do remember a time when I was young, working on the farm, that the day began with chores and ended with chores, but there was a sense of accomplishment and finality of each day. Now as an academic, the words continue to flow, after the computer is turned off or the book is shut, and my mind never seems to rest. Is this an influence of literacy?

Literacy in North America has a strong link to morality. This is not new information for me, as a reading teacher, I've seen many examples of the early readers such as the Horn Book. Throughout the development of educational materials, the theme of morality or character education has permeated. Even in choosing high school texts, we are supposed to find something that teaches the students a theme or lesson, not just for read for entertainment. 
A new piece of information for me was the literacy rates of the immigrate population. As immigrants to North America, they had slightly higher literacy rates than the general population of their home countries. Plus, the farther the migration path, the higher the rate of literacy, so for the Irish moving to Great Britain, the rate is lower, yet to North America, a bit higher. Now that I think about it, being literate would make the move a little easier, but if literacy is also tied to openness to experiences, independence, self-efficacy, ambition, planning and world awareness, then the rate of literacy for migrants would be higher. Migrants, in general, tended to me more adaptive, integrated, and resourceful.

The myth of meritocracy is also not a new idea, but Graff explicitly shows that race and ethnicity had a much stronger role in getting ahead in society than literacy. Yet, at the same time, wealth and position was not dependent on literacy, as skilled workers could be illiterate and still attain middle class citizenship. Many illiterates lived and/or worked with literates, which would allow the person to get textual information, as reading aloud was a common practice. Many of the poorest people in the three cities were literate, yet poor become of ethnicity, gender or age. 
Mass schooling arose in response to urbanization with the intent to: teach habits and values, social discipline, work skills, cultural norms, national identity and finally, literacy. The purpose of schooling was more about acculturation than about reading/writing. It fulfilled the needs of a capitalistic ideals such as timeliness, discipline, and direction following. To get people on board, policymakers had to convince people that education was the path to personal mobility and societal well-being. The policymakers promised a change in the social order – doing away with social ascription and instituting meritocracy. This reasoning is still clearly ringing in the halls of American government.
Coming from a working class family, I was one of the first to graduate from university – which I always believed was built on the hard work of my grandparents, parents and me. I believed that through my own hard work and determination, I was a success. However, this isn't totally true, as much of my success has to do with knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time – in others words, luck. Throughout my education, I was introduced to people who “elevated” my working-class mentality, opened doors through recommendations, and gave me the economic resources to succeed. I am one of the “border-crossers” who moved from working class to middle class, which, without reflection, seems to support the ideology of meritocracy. But take one of the influential people out of my life, and like a missing rung in the ladder of social mobility, I may not have made it. Yet, for each border-crosser like me, there are many more who don't have the opportunity.

In addition, Graff cites the working class organizations that were disappointed with the middle class attitudes and values the schools were teaching. In their view, reading was a social and home practice and needn't be emphasized in schools, but rather, practical working skills were needed. For as much as the policymakers professed education for social mobility, the fact remained that industrialization did not demand more skilled labor and in actuality decreased the urban literacy rates. Schools were for “training in being trained” (p. 230).  

Finn (2009) in his book, Literacy with an attitude: Educating working-class children in their own self-interest highlights a Jean Anyon study of fifth grade classrooms in five New Jersey schools, which run the gambit of executive elite to working class poor. Although in many cases the curricular material was similar, if not identical, the pedagogy was completely different. Working class children were highly controlled and taught through teacher-centered, direct methods. She concluded that, “these children were developing a relationship to the economy, authority, and work that is appropriate preparation to wage labor” (p. 12). There wasn't clear problems with the teaching of the working class students, such as untrained teachers, lack of materials or racist attitudes. The rooms were well-ordered and students were completing work. However, the dispositions the students were cultivating were domesticating (ie – breaking a horse). The goal was not to educate, but to domesticate, which was why direct methods work well with working-class students.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Response to Scribner & Cole

Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole. The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. Rpt. 1999.

Even Levi-Strauss, a well-known critic of the notion of historical progress, acknowledges that the invention of writing made it possible to accumulate the knowledge of each generation as “working capital” for the next. (p.4) I think the most important part of written literacy is the fact that it allows for the accumulation of knowledge, which can be passed on to other people in a different place or time. Yes, I acknowledge that oral stories can do this also, however, not as efficiently nor as accurately for large amounts of information. We are able to read Plato's Republic, not because people have continued to recited it, but because it was written down. We have Beowulf because it was committed to writing. What we know about the Egyptians comes primarily from their hieroglyphics. If all that stood from that time period were the Pyramids, which don't have interior writing, we would have no idea about their understanding of the afterworld and daily activities. The Egyptian writing has lasted for thousands of years and allows us to know what they knew. Without writing, their ruins would be just a bunch of clay bricks and mortar.

As literacy shapes culture, the argument goes, so it shapes human minds. (p. 4-5). Donald (1997) in the Precis of Origins of the Modern Mind, argues that the major cognitive transformations which allowed for new ways of remembering, retrieving and ultimately, defining human culture, was based on the ability to form language and then writing. What makes humans unique from animals is the ability to represent ideas through symbols or other representations. These symbols can be creatively designed, voluntarily retrieved and, taught. In addition, the human ability to speak allows for faster and more efficient transference of information, but isn't the only form of communication available. This allowed for things like tool making and expression of the past to be taught, which included the need to remember. However, this, in turn, created more complexity in social life, as longer memory was needed to coordinate daily and communal life. Therefore external memory forms were needed, such as graphic representations and text. This then forced the human brain to develop more abstract ways of thinking, remembering, and recalling information. In a way, it seems to be a chicken and egg argument – does the tool allow for new ways of thinking, or does new ways of thinking develop new tools. I think it is a little of both. One must have the ability/language to think in a certain way, but technology allows leaps of thinking.

Scribner and Cole's Study - The original intent of the study was to try to extricate literacy from schooling, as most previous studies confounded the two concepts. Therefore, the researchers had to find a culture in which literacy was not a school-based skill. In the Vai society, English was a school-based literacy, Arabic was a religious based literacy, and Vai was a society based literacy – each taught in very different ways, for different purposes. Being literate in any one of the three scripts allowed the person to move in different social circles, occupations, and cultural dimensions and helped define personal identity. Literacy co-occurred with out significant evens and experiences, which reflected the changes in social structure and economic changes that happened. However, not being literate in any of the scripts did not prevent people from reading and writing as there were literate people who would do the reading and writing for them, which was common and acceptable. The researchers' original question was: Does literacy induce cognitive change? However, as they were in the field, they realized that literacy was not a specific practice, but multiple practices in different contexts. To be able to measure differences or change in cognition, they had to tailor their tests to the context. 
Overall, I was amazed at the tremendous amount of people, time, money and organization that had to go into this study. In comparison, I'm looking at going into one school and one classroom for my research, and finding it overwhelming. Not only did they have to travel thousands of miles, to study a culture which spoke different languages, they had to hire and train field researchers fluent in multiple languages and develop new methods and tests. All experimental paradigms in common were invented in laboratories of experimental and developments psychologist for quite another purpose then the study of cultural differences in thinking. (p. 113). This, I think, was a major breakthrough in research design – taking the cognitive research “to the streets”, rather than in a lab. Just like so much of the NCLB research, as scientifically based, has very little resemblance to real classrooms, early cognitive research didn't look like real life. Plus, in designing tests for cognition, the researchers found major cultural differences in how to approach ideas and tasks. 
I found it quite humorous to read that the Vai language did not have a word for “word”. Before the field researchers could work with participants, they had to figure out a way to translate the idea of “word” into a concept that the Vai people would understand. So, does literacy change they way people think? Somewhat – as the words available defines how and what a person can think about. When I lived in Lithuania, my local friends would choose to swear in Russian over Lithuanian, because the cursing was stronger and felt better. One of my favorite phrases in Portuguese is “estupidamente gelada” , which directly translated is “stupidly cold”, but the reality of it is different in Brazil because of the style of beer and way of serving it. I have not had a stupidly cold beer here in the US.

However, the other thing I found interesting was the fact that literacy (or lack of) did not determine meta-linguistic knowledge of the Vai language. Vai written script was often discussed for correctness by both writers and non-writers. In just imaging this, I see significant differences between the Vai culture of the time and current US culture. As an English teacher, I'm always confronted with people who are embarrassed or apologize for their English, “Oh, I'll have to be be careful talking with you.” I have found that the average American person doesn't want to discuss language and often feel that they don't have enough knowledge to be able to discuss it. Even my mother, who was a secretary for 30 years and dealt with language everyday, still feels like she doesn't have a formal grasp of the English language. 
In the end, to be able to find any cognitive consequences of literacy, the researchers had to tie their tests to the actual practices of the community. In a way, I feel that is a little bit like cheating – at least in conjunction with the original question. If literacy is really suppose to affect cognition, then it should be obvious in everyday life. But, if the test has to be tailored to match the use of literacy in the culture, is it really a valid tie between literacy and cognition, or is it cultural use/expectation and cognition?

The next interesting question the researchers started looking at what whether or not knowing a specific writing influence the way on speaks. They found that yes, it does, but only showed up when the specific type and context was part of the experimental design. Which, mildly shows, that literacy affects individual mental performance of a task.

The whole ritual of letter writing within the Vai culture was interesting to me also. As an elementary student, I clearly remember the lessons of letter writing – business verses friendly – and having to send letters off. Like the Vai, there were clear structures within these formats that made the letter good or bad. However, a major difference was that the Vai generally only wrote to people they knew, whereas I learned to write complaint letters to companies and people I never met. At that time, it was a very exciting to get letters back. However, with the immediacy of Facebook and email, this is no longer a unique event. However, both the Vai and my own experiences shows that writing requires more of a cognitive load, as the sender and reader do not occupy the same physical space, so there is no interactivity and the writer must anticipate the reader's need for understanding. Before literacy, a messenger would be sent with a specific message, but he could also fill in the blanks if the receiver had questions. I think this would be a cognitive shift between orality and literacy. Which led to another finding for the researchers – that those with literacy were more likely to orient new players to the physicality of an unknown board game than those without written literacy. Vai letter writing seemed to influence the way a person organized and conveyed information orally.

In the end, the researchers came to a description of a “practices account of literacy” (p. 235) – practice, meaning a recurrent, goal directed sequence of activities using a tool, knowledge and skill. And, to understand the consequences of literacy, one must understand the specific characteristics of a specific practices and how that practice fits into the whole culture. Although this seems a bit common sense to me, I can see how ground breaking it was at a time that literacy was still very much a moral issue. Plus, the researchers found that there were not deep psychological differences between literate and non-literate Vai people. This would shatter the idea that literacy makes for a more civilized or moral person. In fact, the researchers observed that living in an urban setting had more of an effect on how a person thought than having literacy. This would seem to make sense to me. Just like there is a push now for college students to spend some time overseas, personal experience in different settings has more of an influence that just reading about something. (Yes, I know that reading opens new worlds, but living in new worlds forces people to confront new ideas and beliefs more so than reading does.)

In class, we had a short discussion about literacy and culture. As a middle/high school teacher of humanities, culture is a common topic. Within that context, language is a part of culture, along with food, dress, habits, etc. As the researchers said, “We have seen that Vai culture is in Vai literacy practices; in the writing system, the means used to transmit it, the functions it serves and contexts of use, and the ideologies which confer significance on these functions.” (p. 259) So, culture is in literacy, but literacy is not the only aspect of culture.