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.