October and Literacy

October has me thinking about literacy. In my job at the university, I talk to students about sentence construction, about nouns and noun phrases, about usage, idiom, parallelism, and all the grammatical stuff they will mostly forget once they leave my class. But visiting a junior high school earlier this month during Read IN Week reminded me how critical literacy is to the lives of young people. Literacy is more than just learning to read and write. It’s about understanding, self-expression, engagement, and taking part in the world in a fulsome way.
Each term, I teach classes in first-year academic writing. Almost the first thing I tell my students is that they aren’t in an English class: it’s a writing class. Of course it’s English, but I make the point about writing to derail their prejudices.
Many first-year students come to post-secondary with a misunderstanding about books and reading. For many, English class is boring, or hard, or tedious, or weird, and the professor’s opinion always counts more than theirs. In many ways, I can’t blame them. They’ve been told all throughout their school careers that books are important, and many books are better than others. Hamlet beats Harry Potter, and Pride and Prejudice beats Twilight. Perhaps so, but literacy is more than the literary equivalent of American Idle. It’s also more than having to read Lord of the Flies for grade twelve English, recognizing all the important bits, then writing an essay about the disintegration of society. Literacy involves communication in all its multitudinous forms. It includes Facebook and Twitter, texts and email; it’s about a person’s ability to function competently in a world that thrives on the dissemination of information, and her ability to sort this bloated, often self-reflexive mass of news bites, internet pages, and memes into something usable.
The kids I met earlier this month at Spruce Avenue School were all new comers to Canada. Literacy for these young people is less about popular culture than it is life. They are learning a new language in a new country. They have to learn to communicate with teachers, peers, and neighbours. I came in for part of the afternoon, and we talked about fairy tales. I told them the story of Red Riding Hood—my version of the story. They had read the story earlier in the year, and they were very appreciative. Storytelling can be one of the finest vehicles for literacy, as it puts the storyteller right in front of you. As the listener, you become part of the story, and sharing in such an experience mostly makes you want to explore more stories. Contributing in a small way to those young people’s growing experience of literacy was gratifying and encouraging—as much for me as it was for them. Hopefully, I can visit them again soon.

Read In 2016 in Edmonton

This week is Read In week for Edmonton Public Schools. You can find out more by following the Read In link.
Read In 2016

Years ago, I told stories to my daughter’s grade 2 class, and the kids drew pictures to go with each of the stories. The magic of quilting brought those pictures together into something new. Share a story, and create a memory!

In Celebration of Read In Week

During the years my kids were in elementary school, I did my share of classroom visits. Like any parent, I went in to help out, but mostly I visited their classes to tell stories.
By the time my kids were both in school, telling stories at bedtime had become a nightly ritual. Both of them were readers, but as a blind parent, I had to find some way of involving myself in their experience of books and of literacy. We read together, or, more precisely, they read to me. It was picture books at first. We would sit on the couch in the evenings while they read Robert Munsch, Jan Brett, or the Little Bear books. At bedtime, it was my turn.
I began telling stories to my kids while they were very young—my eldest was just two. She was crying one evening because her new baby sister was monopolizing her mom’s attention, so she found herself having to deal with me. Because I didn’t really know what else to do, I held her and told her a story. It was “Kate Crackernuts,” one that I’d encountered in a children’s literature course a couple of years before. She never made it through the story—sound asleep halfway through.
After that, I told her stories every night, and when my youngest got older, I told them both stories at bedtime.
It gave me what I needed—the ability to be involved in my kids’ literacy. It worked well, but it wasn’t always easy. I was exhausted from teaching and being a perpetual grad student. More often than not, I ripped off elements from anything I’d read to tell a story that was halfway coherent.
My kids were my best critics, too. If they didn’t like something, they let me know. If I was telling a story for the fifth, tenth, or seventeenth time and misspoke a detail, I heard about it.
“She wasn’t wearing a green hat!”
“Okay, what colour was it then?”
“It was orange.”
“Okay, she was wearing an orange hat, and she went out into the world ….”
One of the more memorable experiences at the school happened early on. My eldest was in grade two. I came in regularly to tell stories to the class, and the teacher, Mrs. Finiack, had the kids drawing pictures of their favourite characters from the stories I’d told. My mom was also involved at the school, and she and Mrs. Finiack came up with the idea for a storytelling quilt.
They took the kids’ drawings, and they had them transferred onto quilting squares. With the help of another parent, they soon began assembling a quilt.
The quilt stayed at the school for years, and then one day Mrs. Finiack dropped it off at my house. It was bundled up inside a small garment bag, and it disappeared into my basement, eventually finding a place at the back of a shelf. And there it stayed, forgotten for years.
I had the honour of visiting a grade three class for Read in Week, and it suddenly struck me, what if I find that old storytelling quilt and bring it with me to show the kids?
I found it on the back of a shelf, and then I Facetimed my mom to show her the quilt. She was thrilled to see it, but she reminded me how evasive I’d been in the past as to its whereabouts.
“I knew it was in the house,” I said, a little defensively, holding up the quilt in front of my IPad.
The quilt went with me to visit the grade threes. I told them two stories: “The Three Sillies” And “Goldie Locks and the Three Pigs.” The second story is mine—my first attempt at a fractured fairy tale, before I knew there was such a thing. More like the invention of a desperately tired dad who has nothing else to tell, and doesn’t care about making sense anymore.
The grade threes were a great audience—about forty of them, all curious, interested, and ready to join in at the right time.
“And along through the woods came the …”
After the stories, I showed them the quilt. It’s been eighteen years since I first went into my daughter’s class to tell stories. As I talked to the grade threes, I felt a little nostalgic for the days I spent in my kids’ classes, and the time telling stories. But stories do that. They locate us; they ground us. They tell us where we’ve been, they centre us where we are, and they help guide us to where we’re going. And it’s never just about the telling; it’s about the receiving. It’s about creating a space where dragons talk and giants roam, where heroes win and lose, and where, for a time, you can walk together under a different sky.