Literacy Narrative

Hello, thank you for visiting my Literacy Narrative: a Journey through Teaching, Reading, and Writing OR It's Not as Bad as It Seems

It is never a good sign as a substitute teacher when, checking in at the front office, the teacher of the class, still at school for some reason but on her way out, looks you up and down and cackles with her head thrown back. Yells “good luck!” You watch her rush through the glass doors and feel like a chump in your baggy dress slacks and used dress shirt, ironed only hours before when you were jerked awake up by a call from a woman named Ramona, her voice sounding desperate over the phone, perhaps, now you think, because this middle school happens to be on the south side of town, and as you continue to think about it, you were probably the only substitute dumb enough or desperate enough to say yes. You look at the instructions left by the cackling teacher. It is one page: a day of remedial reading courses with a single instruction repeated every period: “students read silently during class.” This is not exactly what you had in mind when you decided to get into teaching.

These remedial reading courses end up being class after class brimming with students who are either legitimately behind in reading and therefore frustrated/embarrassed to be placed there (further insulted since it is at the expensive of taking a “fun” elective) or reading at grade level but have some sort of other personal issue holding them back (ranging from anger management issues to ADHD to dyslexia).

There is also the socio-economic reality of the school. The area does not tend to attract or retain the best teachers. Even then, there is a high turnover rate. The classrooms do not have the newest textbooks (Obama took office years ago, but the books still state first term George W. Bush as the current president).

Most significantly, students are often coming from homes of turmoil and poverty. Although I can empathize to an extent, I also know that I will never truly understand their experiences. My own upbringing was much more privileged, and my love of literature was nurtured by caring parents who read to me from a young age and placed an emphasis on reading as a means of entertainment and discovery; however, from this foundation, as I entered the world of teaching, my literacy narrative became forever interwoven and informed by my students’ own narratives.

Substituting the remedial reading course, I gathered from the students that the silent reading time was not confined to only when there was a substitute teacher. In fact, it seemed to be the entirety of what  they did. While I encourage some of the ideals behind this decision, the execution did not seem right. I had flashbacks to myself in a silent reading period during my 7th grade year. The class, sanctioned and forced upon the entire student population, was enough to taint the reading experience for even an avid reader like me as I often forgot to bring a book and quickly read through the small selection available in the earth science teachers’ library, even reading through a rulebook for college football multiple times. This memory informed me when I later taught at a school that required a silent reading period. I made sure to stock multiple bookshelves with hundreds of diverse books and had students finish the class period writing in journals. Still, I often and pessimistically, wondered if it was too late, even as early as 7th grade, to instill a love of reading.  

Later, at my first teaching position at a high school, I discussed a student's’ plans after graduating. She had overcome many obstacles to obtain her diploma including being pregnant with her second child while in my course.

“So, you are going to read to your child, right?” I was alluding to earlier conversations we had had about her parents failing to read to her at a young age and how this may have contributed to her development and attitude toward reading. We had even read an article in class about brain development and the importance of reading to children at an early age. “No, baby, that’s what school is for,” she answered, 100% serious. ">Because of my history teaching in mostly at-risk environments, I may not be as idealistic as some instructors (much like North in “Revisiting ‘The Idea of the Writing Center,’” I am constantly adjusting my expectations), but I still have hope and many positive memories of teaching to sustain and inspire me. I know much of my own personal growth happened while teaching, changing how I read, write, and view the culture of literacy. Even currently, while interning in a section of ENC 2135 and shadowing a tutor in the writing center, I am inspired by the marked growth in students’ critical thinking skills witnessed even in the short amount of time I have been observing.

In that same, short timeframe, I have also gained many insights through my training at FSU. I have never had the luxury of extensively analyzing and reflecting on the different practices for teaching or tutoring. Though I often had to take continuing education courses to update my teaching certificate, it usually seemed geared toward breadth, not depth. I also admit I was at the time probably more focused on the day-to-day realities of teaching, in the trenches and often not reflecting, only reacting.

Before teaching, I spent two years tutoring at the writing center in Tallahassee Community College’s Learning Commons. Many of these concepts in the writing center, especially the collaborative aspect of writing and the presence of a tutor like myself as an outside actor in the writing process are factors I had not even considered before being working there.

I found while working at TCC that the most frustrating experience for many students was the recursive process of college writing and the lack of a “clear” formula like an algebraic math equation or FCAT five paragraph essay. Many saw these assignments as hurdles in order to move onto other, more “practical” courses that would enable them to become nurses, firefighters, engineers. I felt like a guide to get them to understand the importance of writing and how it relates to critical thinking and communication skills in all fields. Tutoring helped inform my own convictions on the importance of writing outside the discipline of English.   

During my time tutoring, I dealt more than I ever had before with foreign exchange students. I was surprised  how even the logic and structure to an essay could be cultural. I consider myself well traveled, and being of mixed heritage, was familiar with cultural differences, but I had never extended this idea to composition. Even if the students’ English was impeccable, cultural differences in how an essay is organized or how topics are introduced created challenges. Even how to properly cite a paper or borrow others’ writing can have cultural implications as we discussed in class. The foreign exchange students helped me learn how to present ideas clearly and to think through how I knew things or where this knowledge came from. They made me think differently about how I tackled my own reading and writing projects and also made me further question issues of collaboration and subject position.

As alluded to earlier, I left tutoring when an opportunity to teach high school English presented itself mid-year. It was a charter school focused on those who had mostly failed out of the other area schools and were severely at-risk not to graduate. I was feeling more confident in my abilities in instruction, but quickly realized how only a certain amount of tutoring experience, and even substituting experience, translated to teaching in a classroom environment. The classroom was heavily reliant on technology (every student sat at  a computer station), which helped reform my thinking of composition in a technological environment—though frankly, not always in a positive light. I understand the benefits of utilizing technology in a classroom but always make sure it is not at the expense of live interaction and some tried-and-true traditional methods of teaching.

Especially at the last school I taught at, I found the administration placing great pressure on me to drill basic grammar, teach the five paragraph essay format, and give FSA style essay prompts every week leading up to the testing date. I could see the resistance forming in my students toward anything composition related, and I felt I was contributing to this problem, ultimately going against my own philosophies in teaching. Though there were moments of freedom, a day where I had students write their own horror stories based on Poe comes to mind, I also recall being reprimanded for allowing this reprieve as it took away from them writing another sample FSA essay. So, though I tried not to always emulate the dull process of composition that Tobin describes in O Brave New World , like him, I found myself increasingly drilling the five paragraph essay and attempting to instill shortcuts to pass the state testing. I wanted more than anything to give students freedom to write with more creativity and with self-direction, and ironically the required textbook encouraged this, yet I had to adapt the curriculum to a more directed approach—the opposite of what Corbett in What We Talk About When We Talk About Tutoring would champion.

So, suffice to say, while teaching I learned a great deal, but during the last year, as I started my masters in English education at FSU, I began to yearn for something else. My disillusionment with the particular high school, as well as the entire educational system, had been building, and I knew that the upcoming spring semester would be my last. I decided to focus on my creative writing, something I still took seriously (though lesson planning, grading papers, attending basketball games, meeting with parents, and all the other responsibilities of teaching had diminished my time for it significantly). I wanted to work toward a means of teaching at the college level—a setting where, having also tutored at TCC, I felt my mindset fit best. I wanted more than anything to hone my writing in an environment conducive to the craft of fiction. I withdrew from the English education program. I think it was telling that while in the program I had solely taken English courses (ignoring the required K-12 pedagogy courses).

Ultimately, I have a serendipitous moment with my education advisor to thank for my transition into creative writing. While in the education program, she told me that I could take any English course to fulfil the English course requirements for the degree. She off-handedly listed CRW (creative writing) as one section that would count. This piqued my interest. I found my way into the graduate writing workshop with Bob Butler, and it was while taking this workshop that I felt a renewed confidence in my craft and a resurgence in my passion for storytelling.

It is this passion for storytelling that led me to the journalism program at the University of Florida to pursue my BA. Though pushed into this role by my parents as something more respectable than a creative writing major, it did help me learn to write on deadline and with an emphasis on clarity.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I especially loved writing feature stories for the local paper. These types of stories gave me the chance to delve into the subject and add nuance and color. I also continued to focus on literature through my declared concentration in English, taking courses like 16th century poetry and first US novels, but it was during my animal studies course that some of these theories, passingly mentioned in other English courses, finally clicked (or partially clicked as I am still obviously working through them).

Between elementary school and college, there were moments from high school teachers that inspired my literacy journey as well. The teacher who probably most inspires me from this time is Mr. Moore, my senior English teacher. He was intelligent, slightly aloof, but ultimately caring. I was struck by his laid back attitude punctured by an intensity that came out when he talked about literature, even kicking the air for emphasis sometimes. He made me take a closer look at writing than I ever had before and led me to an appreciation for poetry, which I had been dismissive of prior to his class. Another influence is my sophomore English teacher, Ms. Sallas, who introduced me to my first serious and comprehensive forays into multi-modal projects. She allowed us to craft mix CDs that would serve as a soundtrack to what we had read. She also had us videotape remixed versions of our readings. I remember translating the chorus’ lines from Oedipus Rex into Snoop Dogg-esque language and having a Snoop Dogg-looking puppet read these lines. Our puppet show ended when Oedipus Rex plucked out his googly eyes. Overall, I know my literacy narrative is not complete, and I am excited to have FSU’s English department as a resource in my continuing journey. I want to stress that the moments listed here are only a small portion of the many milestones that  helped shape my views on composition and literature. I look forward to making many more connections in the upcoming years.