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January 28, 2009 / andreasterzuk

Designing Learning Environments

I really like the work of James Paul Gee. I like his ideas and I like how he writes.  You can see his influence reflected in my use of the word literacies instead of literacy in the title of this blog and in my purchase of a Wii last year.

There are many literacies and ways of being literate. Literacy can be thought of as any system used as a social tool to meaningfully participate in and generate interaction. So, seeing literacy in this way means that when I do something as simple as uploading a photo to this blog, I’m engaged in literacy practices.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about print literacy development in schools which is a more traditional view of literacy. I’m presently re-reading Gee’s 2004 book “Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling.”  At the top of another one of my stacks is “Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education,” a 2003 book by Catherine Prendergast.   It’s hard to reconcile these two books’ discussions of literacy education in North America.  Gee’s critique of traditional learning is compelling but when he talks about disadvantages for poor and minority students he doesn’t delve as deeply as I would like into larger historical and societal issues.  It’s likely not the focus of his book but, since it’s the focus of my thinking, I’m left with unanswered questions.  One point in the book that made me stop and think is the following statement he makes on page 16:

It has been decades since anyone believed that poor and minority children entered schools with “no language” (Labov, 1972; Gee, 1996)

As far as this is true in the field of linguistics, I agree with Gee’s statement.  When I move the statement over to the types of discourses I encounter in schools, I feel far less certain.  Take for example the following statement made by an elementary school teacher from a 2006 study I conducted in a Canadian school:

We’re feeling the deficits when they get up to grade two or three. They just can’t write a proper sentence because they can’t speak, they don’t speak with complete sentences

The teacher who made that comment is white and she was referring to the English language abilities of First Nations and Métis (Indigenous) students.  What this type of statement indicates to me is that, like Catherine Prendergast, I feel certain that race (and our colonial past) cannot be removed from discussions of literacy education in settler schools.  Perhaps one day but not yet.

I’ll stop there and return to my book-writing because this blog entry is beginning to appear dangerously similar to academic writing.  I’ll have to post a photo or video next time so I can pass as digitally literate 🙂

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