Warning: long post.

I have a few lingering, burning-to-the-point-of-scorching questions about some of the major ideas/concepts I picked up from the readings — particularly the readings from the last few sessions. I admit that I feel these questions may reveal a misinterpretation or lack of comprehension of the texts, but nonetheless I feel like it is better to look dumb or politically/critically obtuse than not bring to the table what I perceive to be a pretty urgent issue.

The genesis of the questions: I was thinking about this whole idea of multiple literacies that Heath introduces and that everybody else basically gets on board with in some way or another. Street frames his language in terms of “dominant” and “marginalized” literacies, the idea being that the “dominant” culture somehow minimizes the social or political value of the “marginalized” literacies. Or at least this is my understanding of Street. Meanwhile, Lamos and Prendergast both support the idea of multiple literacies, and frame the discussion in terms of race; they protest the suppression of black American “dialect” specifically, and argue that students must be able to embrace their own culturally derived modes of speaking and writing (e.g., “Students Right to their Own Language” treatise). If denied the opportunity to do so, white educators are “shaping students in their own white image” (quote from a black female educator in Prendergast).

In the meantime, criticism is popping up all over the place around the “ideology of literacy” or the “literacy myth”—Prendergast rakes over the coals the myth that literacy = opportunity, Brandt obviously does that (to show how economic institutions “tap” people for literacy value, not vice versa), Pitcock does that to show how governments pretend to give literacy while still withholding power.

My main confusion is this: **if literacy cannot be assumed to be a means of justice and freedom, does that then mean that “educational inequity” is not a problem?**

I’m just confused about the purpose or motivation behind that particular argument about the falseness of “the literacy ideology.” I’m not sure I understand authors’ intentions when they criticize the value of literacy. So if literacy doesn’t do anything, why bother teaching it in any form? Who cares? Can someone help me understand the political context for this argument?

Do some scholars see today’s language around “educational inequity” as some kind of government conspiracy thing, another ‘literacy crisis’ false alarm used to reinforce stereotypes and maintain white status quo?

Because I do feel that I understand this lingo of “educational inequity.” My next question: **If “multiple literacies” are the way to go, then does that mean it is not a problem that my seventh-grade student ‘Vanny’ has difficulty comprehending a text that his suburban counterpart ‘Cody’ could comprehend in first grade—that is not a problem? That is not an injustice? Vanny can read receipts! Therefore, who cares if he can’t read Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Nimh.

Some relevant personal background here: like several others in our ENG 630 class, I worked for three years at an underfunded school and taught students who’d mostly grown up in underfunded schools, who had been educated mostly by first- and second-year teachers every year since Kindergarten (the average New York City public school teacher has a shelf life of 5 years), who are from “lower-income” neighborhoods and from families who are recent immigrants and have to work more than one job to make ends meet. I worked in the Bronx, in District 9, the Tremont-Morissania neighborhood, off of the BX 41 bus and about a quarter of a mile south of Grand Concourse. Most of the kids qualified for free lunch and lived in the “housing projects” around the neighborhood. About 40% of my students were black American; about 60% of my students were the sons or daughters of Dominican, Puerto Rican, Ecuadorian or Mexican immigrants (but mostly Dominican); and there were a handful of immigrants from Liberia and Ghana and several from Bangladesh. Over the course of the three years I taught, we had no white kids and we had one Vietnamese kid named Tommy.

My concern is that all this talk about “multiple literacies” somehow softens the fact that there are entire communities of people who are getting less-than-stellar educations. Shitty educations, really. And I’m just going to risk sounding like all the readings have gone in one ear and out the other, but after you grade about five hundred essays by children who have phenomenal complex minds but do not know where to put a comma or how to structure a paragraph or even what an alternate word for “walk” is—and then you go into this Big Ten college town where your students are from Suburbville, MI, and use English with significantly more grace and ease, not because they’re smarter but because they went to better schools and have been culturally brainwashed to be achievers—the idea of a “linear” kind of literacy doesn’t sound horribly off. At any rate, if learning wasn’t happening at the school, “literacy” wasn’t happening — whatever “literacy” is in its ideal form.

I just don’t see the basic problem of literacy here as the fact that some students aren’t “allowed” to use literacy practices from home in a school setting. Even Street acknowledges that students are culturally bilingual to some extent, that we are all “hybrids.” Plenty of upper-class Asian-American students—and, hello, upper-class black and Mexican and Ghanaian and Salvadoran etcetera students—are closely connected to their parents’, family’s, neighborhood’s and motherland’s culture and perform superbly in school.

The cultural clash between the majority demographic and minority demographics certainly has the power to heighten or intensify students’ feeling that they do not know how to access books or language, but I want to attribute poor student performance on state tests or daily math quizzes NOT to the fact that they have a distinct set of literacy practices at home, but to the fact that the schools are a mess, the classrooms are a mess, there are no books, you had four principals in three years, the literacy coach is screaming at the science teacher because the science teacher slept with the computer technician, the popular kid is throwing paperback novels out the fifth-floor window of the classroom because he hates the new English teacher—I mean, the point is this: I just don’t see the problem as “white educators are shoving white literacy down students’ throats” but rather “whatever an empowering literacy may entail, schools and educators in vulnerable communities have less power, less financial resources, to offer that literacy to students.”

This is why I resonated with Prendergast: well, I resonated with her for a lot of reasons, but here’s the reason relevant to this particular blog post. Her early chapters especially connected with me—her chapters about the history of segregation, funding disparities between white schools and black schools, used textbooks, government cordoning off of good schools, her overall concept of literacy as white property. When you work in the Bronx for three years, you recognize that literacy is white property. And/or the property of the rich and powerful. Your kids aren’t getting what the white kids are getting. Your kids are just as brilliant if not more brilliant than the kids in the dominant racial and social group, but your school can’t afford books (teachers spend thousands out of pocket or plead on Donors Choose for even the sparest classroom library), four out of five of your kids’ teachers are incompetent first- or second-year TFA corps members in their early twenties, your kids are stereotyped in movies as a bunch of disrespectful gang-bangers who need the compassionate touch of a white savior (thanks to Liz’s post for reminding me of those movies). Your kids are more interesting writers than half the people in your MFA cohort but have looser control over language because in third grade, when Mr. Huckabee was trying to teach verbs, four boys got into a fistfight on the rug (fistfights are mundane in New York elementary schools). Furthermore, like Sherman Alexie writes in his literacy narrative “Superman and Me,” unlike kids in the suburbs, kids in less affluent areas aren’t trained from the age of preschool to identify as readers and achievers. Middle-class white kids are. The rich stay rich. The poor, as Alexie suggests, have to have superhuman superpowers — which some kids do have — in order to break away from their home communities and seize opportunities that are reserved for my freshmen at the University of Michigan, whose fathers “know people.”

So I guess what I am suggesting is this: we might talk about pedagogy, we might talk about how best, at the classroom-level, to empower students with real literacy, but I’m wondering if that’s really the problem here. Is the problem more systemic than that? No matter how amazing a teacher at one of those poorly funded pre-Brown vs. Board black schools was, the fact remained that the schools were segregated, and that was the injustice.

What do you think? What is the solution? Can we use literacy to enact social justice—both at the level of government/policy and at the level of the classroom? If so, how?