Under-served youth armed with books

The UNESCO report on world literacy presents a new way of even  approaching and talking about literacy. We’re used to someone either being considered literate or illiterate, yet another binary in common discourse. UNESCO suggests that we ought to view literacy as a continuum instead. It is continuous, and changes throughout a person’s lifetime. To me, this makes much more sense than viewing literacy as a dichotomy. When I was very young, I watched a documentary on illiterate adults, who were trying to become literate. A note on this activity: my mother is a special education teacher and vice principal, so my home life was full of documentaries on the topic of education. Anyways, while I watched this documentary, I wondered what specifically classified these men and women as illiterate. What was the point that the educators working with them could smile and say “alas, you’re literate now”? This was my future philosophy-major mind working in overtime. And I think the question is fair. As I recall poor Petra, whom I discussed in an earlier blog, the Hispanic field worker that was working on her literacy, I wonder when she would be considered literate. And then, I read recently that 25% of people over 16 have not read a book in the last year. 

So, with all these anecdotes and experiences floating around in my head, I definitely find the continuum helpful, especially when I think about literacy at my site. Although all my participants can read and write, there are without doubt different levels of literacy at my site. This is obvious not only when the participants read aloud, but also when I read their writing. I can tell through their diction. Perhaps if Turning Point and even schools recognized literacy as a spectrum, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue of intelligence, as the writers in my group seem to think, as it would be an issue of being under-served. 

As far as the power of literacy is concerned- Well, if I didn’t believe that literacy was powerful, then I wouldn’t be working at a literacy center for free. Would I? On a more serious note, I always tell the youth I work with that with education, they are the most dangerous people in the US. Once a person is able to understand his/her cultural context (the ways that the schooling/HDS/criminal justice/mental health systems have affected their lives), and once that person can articulate this understanding in a way that is powerful and convincing, that individual can really shake things up. I view literacy as a tool for revolution. And I think there have been certain leaders that have used their power to keep literacy from the under-served at risk populations with whom we work. That being said, its certainly difficult to see this belief in literacy flourish in the youth, and really take route. They are just so weary of school and anything resembling school that they can’t see how radical they could be by picking up the right book. This is probably the limitation of literacy. The youth see literacy as something good for their grades, and as part of following the system. I see literacy for these youth as a way to throw everything on its head. 

Street Papers and SpeakOut! journals

As presented in Anderson’s article “Global Street Papers and Homeless [Counter]publics: Rethinking Technologies of Community Publishing”, there are several important aspects of street papers, like The Voice from Denver. The circulation of these papers can make it difficult for some people to have access to them because it is reliant on homeless and low income vendors, who sell their papers in the streets of their communities. The advantage of this way of circulation is that it creates what Anderson calls a trans-local audience.

As a member of a journal that can be considered a part of the community publishing genre, I think it’s really interesting to compare SpeakOut! journals to street papers. Our journals represent a portion of the community that is often underserved and unheard. One of our goals as a center is to engage these community members in acts of literacy, and this has several different manifest and latent effects. In this way, I think, SpeakOut! journals serve a similar role as the street papers, which represent the words and perspectives of individual members of the homeless community. And in this way, both publications engage the unheard in acts of literacy, which may not have been available previously.

They are different however in purpose, circulation, and content. Our journals consist almost entirely of the words of the people whom we serve, whereas street newspapers often contain articles from non-homeless people. In this way, the content really differs. Also, street papers can be more explicit in the activism side of their purpose. They quite clearly draw attention to the social problem of poverty and homelessness in the United States. Even if we at the Community Literacy Center felt comfortable and empowered to infuse our journals with such a political message, it’s unclear what this message would be. In fact, the purpose of our work seems significantly less obvious. To some, we offer a fun hobby for incarcerated folks, for some we engage in an act of political rebellion, and still yet for others we publish creative writing for the sake of the literary community itself (the outsider art perspective). Street papers in contrast practically speaking give the vendors a potential way out of their current circumstances. The street papers in other words have a really practical dimension to them that SpeakOut! journals don’t necessarily have. Then, there’s distribution. SpeakOut! is free and placed in coffee shops and book stores next to a free sign, whereas street papers are sold for a small price. 

Now that’s what I call an ethics of literacy

This is just an update on the research project I’ve been working on. I have spent a bit of time working on trying to find the perfect forums to publish my work on. I must say that The Prison Arts Coalition would be an ideal website to try and publish all this work on. I am more than a little intimidated by their last guest blogger, Hakim Bellamy, an incredible and well known poet. Frankly though, I’m a bit at a loss for where my work would best be posted. There are so many blogs and websites, and I would be flattered to be invited to post on any of them. As far as the research is going, I’ve just been reading more and more. My hope is to begin the writing process in March to give myself plenty of time to edit and rewrite. So, I’m taking the rest of this month to just dive into the materials that are available. I read Linda Alcoff’s “The Problem of Speaking for Others” at the suggestion of Tobi Jacobi, CLC coordinator, and I had to reread it. That’s how pertinent it is to what we do in workshops. She discusses descriptively the way we speak for others and differentiates between speaking for someone and speaking about someone. Besides this, I’ve been making my way through Ethics and representation in qualitative studies of literacy by Peter Mortensen and Gesa Kirsch. This book is incredibly helpful as I begin to piece together different models for ethics in literacy work. I looked at “On Authority and the Study of Writing” as well, and have been extremely interested by their use of a feminist framework to view authority and its effects on writing. Once March begins, I’m excited to start the writing process and actually have some physical work to show for all this research.

Responding to the Blog posts of Fellow Interns

In this post, I will simply be reflecting on the writings of the other interns in the CLC on the same topic as I wrote my last post. I will begin with Elise’s post, which you can find at the following address, http://eliseyenne.wordpress.com/. Elise highlighted the importance of striking a balance between affirming the experiences of the writers she works with without affirming the cycle of violence and/or substance abuse the writers have found themselves in. Indeed, it is definitely a tight rope we walk as facilitators in a jail or a rehabilitation center. We have to be careful that our empowering and enabling of the writers we work with is constructive for their personal development without being another person who sensors. I think this is also a difficulty when allowing for writers to use their poetry, prose, and art work to “write through the pain.” We encourage them to take their work seriously and write about the important events in their lives, and so to a certain extent we need to be ready to hear their traumatic experiences without judgment and using validation, being careful not to glorify their experiences. 

Britt’s blog post, which you can find at this address http://brittanydevens.wordpress.com/, centered around experiences she has had with trauma writing. She related the Horsman piece to an article titled “Song to Self” by Timothy F. Page, which researched the effects on the individual of being in a group of people who have also experienced similar trauma in their lives. Page finds that a community arises, in which people in the group are more likely to open up and bear witness to whatever event(s) because of the feeling of empathy. This definitely sounds right to me, as I reflect upon the writers at my site and our workshop. The writers can open up about child abuse, the strained relationship they have with family members and significant others, drug use, and sexual assault. I definitely feel like the knowledge that the other participants in the workshop have “been there” as well as the knowledge that I myself as the facilitator have experienced trauma at a young age empower the writers to share more and feel comfortable. Even still, there are times when a writer will skip sharing her piece because as she said last week “this is just a little too real.” Maybe she’ll share it later in the semester. 

In general, I found both the blogs of Elise and Britt helpful and interesting. We all read and respond to the readings differently. Our reflections are our own and are  certainly colored by our own past experiences. For example, Horsman writes about how the literacy workers often have their own traumatic and violent pasts they have to encounter in these workshops. This section really struck a cord with me because I always feel like in workshop the trauma the other writers are overcoming and describing isn’t that far away from my own experiences. Sometimes I wonder who the workshop is really for, and then I am reminded of how thankful I am that I am just the facilitator, a role I think is more equal than teacher or instructor. And I don’t feel guilty about needing this workshop just as much as the confined writers need it. 

Therapeutic Writing

When I was reading Horsman’s piece, “But I’m Not A Therapist”, I definitely related to her depictions of workshop facilitators and literacy workers feeling at a loss of what to say when writers in the group want to explore trauma in their writing. I see it almost weekly at Turning Point: one writer describes child abuse and neglect, one writer tells the group the story of a sexual assault. My heart breaks when I hear these words flow out of the mouths of fifteen year old girls. Sometimes its too much for me emotionally, and I have to do some therapeutic writing of my own directly after workshop. Horsman argues that we should “honour the increased sensitivities that living with trauma brings, and design literacy programming that supports learners to value themselves and develop their literacy skills.” I think the SpeakOut! program definitely is designed so that the writers have the option of exploring their often traumatic or troubling pasts. As a facilitator, I find my role is mainly to offer affirmation: a warm thank you for sharing that. I often try to encourage the writers by sharing with them how brave it is to speak out against whatever trauma they have chosen to respond to in their writing. I feel like SpeakOut! does an excellent job of getting the writers to think deeply about their experiences, and to put those reflections down on paper. Anything more would be out of place, considering we aren’t therapists, and anything less would be insulting to our writers, who feel the need to bear witness to their personal trauma. 

I was not as keen on Wright’s “Autoethnography and Therapy Writing on the Move.” Horsman sees the importance of sharing therapeutic writing within the context of literacy work, while Wright explores the “writing cure” as opposed to the talking cure. She is her own therapist, as she writes out the way she reacts to her immigration to New Zealand. Her self-therapist approach seems unrealistic. It forces the self to become fragmented into the ethnographer, the therapist, and the ‘patient.’ Wright emphasizes at first the need to tell narratives as a way of binding together fragmented selves, but her process of narration seems more fragmenting than helpful. 

More on my research project

I had a meeting with Tobi Jacobi and Lauren Alessi about the research project. We discussed aiming my project towards multiple audiences. I’m very excited to be starting work on the ethics of writing groups, literacy centers, and more generally pedagogical ethics.

I started off my research by rereading some arguments about Kantian ethics, just to re-situate myself in the discourse. I thought it’d be helpful to have fresh eyes reading Kant’s own works as well as various interpretations on his work so that I can read it more towards my purpose of applying the material to writing groups and literacy efforts. Besides just reading through the actual Kant, I read Onora O’Neill’s “Between Consenting Adults”, an article applying Kantian ethics to romantic relationships as well as employer-employee relationships. It was very helpful to see how she is able to use Kant’s more abstract ideas and writing towards a practical explanation of these various relationships. She emphasizes the need for consent and what meaningful consent really looks like. I found these comments on consent extremely applicable to my inquiry into the ethics of a writing group. 

I have also started to read up on pedagogical ethics. I have included articles that use virtue ethics, or an Aristotelian model, to examine and prescribe ethical treatment in pedagogy. I decided it would be good to see and read through what is already in print about the ethics of education, so as to be able to draw similarities and differences between other views and my own. I think the ethical situation for a writing group will certainly be different than for a classroom, but I’m still interested to see this and to be able to stress the differences, so that those who do facilitate workshops do not mistakenly turn the workshop into a class. 

I expect to find a lot of interesting information, but as my project will take the form of a philosophical argument for how to practice Kantian ethics in writing groups as well as why its the best form of ethics for this type of situation, I do not think it is completely necessary to describe in full detail all the research I discover. My project will likely make reference to other models and contrast the difference between ethics of teaching and ethics of facilitating, but most of my project will hopefully be more argumentative in nature.

I’m hoping to have most of my reading done before the beginning of Spring Semester, so I can focus on formulating arguments and putting together the piece. 


Blog #7

On the subject of narratives: The wonderful thing about narratives is that a narrative recognizes the limited perspective one person can have of the world.  There is something lovely about simply accepting the limited perspective one can have, and expanding this perspective as far as it will go. Narratives in this way seem very honest, in that they seem to appreciate the various ways the world can be interpreted and offer their own limited world. When Nye writes, that narratives “help us to reconstitute ourselves as part of the larger humanity and restore us to ‘health,’ which can best be defined as both a personal and a collective or communal  wholeness” (391), I think she’s pointing to the idea that narratives offer a particular and specific point of view. This point of view needs to be expressed for the community the narrative sheds light on. For example, the work of Jimmy Santiago Baca works to illuminate the various realities of prison for young Hispanic men in the US. His writing helps to validate the experiences of many who may feel alone or targeted. Thus, a community is formed around shared experiences, and in this way community members are able to “reconstitute ourselves as part of a larger humanity.” But Baca’s works reach more people than just the Hispanic population or prison populations. His works have effected me, a young young Jewish college student because despite how different the world of his narrative is from my own world, we have commonalities that force me to view myself within a larger context, “a greater humanity” and this is what brings individuals and communities to health.

I think for a narrative to do this, it has to be particularly potent (by this I mean gripping) and especially honest. To connect people, a narrative needs to be powerful. The work coming out of our writing group to a certain extent could achieve Nye’s objective. There are a few pieces in particular that have made me reconsider our world. One example of this was when I gave the writers a prompt to write about an old photograph. One writer received a photograph taken at the turn of the century, in which the subjects looked particularly groomed yet unhappy. She wrote about how the wife/mother and daughter in the picture were being abused by the husband/father. I thought about how interesting it was that this what she got from the picture. She forced me through this poem to reconsider my own context and how widespread abuse is in most of our family histories. So, I think the work coming out of our workshop might very well fulfill Nye’s objective, especially when they are so powerful.

In consideration of Mathieu’s “Questions of Time,” I think members of the Streetwise group were able to empower themselves as writers, offering their own narratives, which contained constructed worlds. The writing from this group was able to validate the experiences of others in similar situations and similar backgrounds. The worlds the narratives offered  were so disorienting for someone who had a very different experience set that they would force the reader to reorient herself as a “part of the larger humanity.”

The Research Project

As interns for the Community Literacy Center, we are expected to write a research paper on a topic of our choosing, provided it corresponds in some way to literacy. I have chosen to marry my background in philosophy with my new endeavors in the world of literacy through a paper on the ethics of writing workshops, especially emphasizing the differences between workshops with adolescents and workshops with adults.

I intend to make use of several ethical principles, but will turn my attention especially to the application of Kantian principles in writing group sessions. I want to make use of my predecessors by reading articles written by philosophers of education, especially Dewey. 

I will be writing for several different forums, and as such, there will be multiple versions of my project intended to reach a variety of audiences. I’m hoping to write one to an education community, one to the philosophy community, and one to the literacy community. 

This project jibes well with my ever-growing interest in the ethics of education/ the ethics of pedagogy. I’m very excited to see how the ethics of the situation change when engaged in different endeavors with different end goals. So, it’ll be interesting to contrast the ethical demands of a teacher to the ethical demands of a workshop facilitator. 

Blog #5

The Rigg reading (“Petra: Learning to Read at 45”) brought to mind a very specific realization I have come to through the workshop with the young ladies at Turning Point. I currently work with two or three writers that are very interested in improving their writing skills, and doing some work to do so. They are committed to the group in a more academic way, and want to learn elements of craft and have their writing critiqued and questioned. The other writers in the group do not see themselves as writers really. I’ve struggled to identify the reason why many of them keep coming week after week. I will keep trying to inspire these writers to take themselves more seriously as writers in their own right, making prompts and exercises I think will provoke more of a love of literacy. But I came to the realization the other week after group that the goal for this particular group of  participants may be different from the others in the group and that is FINE. I can’t impose my own goals (all of them becoming lovers of reading and writing), which may look more like dreams, on any of the young women in the group. The Rigg reading reminded me of this because she is forced to come to terms with the fact that Petra is perfectly happy just being able to write her own name, and this IS an accomplishment. Rigg had to learn that she came with baggage and expectations and her own definitions of literacy, and she need not hold Petra to those standards.

I represent the young women at Turning Point very well I think. I’m really careful to respect their autonomy and independence, but I think every time I’m asked to represent them in any way, I’m pretty charitable. Of course, that might be my own pride settling in. I guess I don’t struggle with representing people in “reductive” ways because I feel very tied to the success of each member of the group.

I really enjoyed the Anzaldua reading “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” in consideration of how language practices impact and are impacted by cultural identity. Her discussion of the pressure to be quiet as a Chicana was particularly related to this issue because she starts culturally with a guilt at expression. I saw further how both her accent and her “mutilation” of Spanish in Chicano Spanish offered restrictions to her language use. This article definitely made me consider the ways cultural identity relate to language.


Blog #4: Phenomenal Writing Groups

I think open discussion is extremely important for the creative writing workshops we facilitate through the CLC. The young women at Turning Point like to talk quite a bit. In fact, they love to give each other feedback and discuss why one person’s piece of writing is working. The discussions we have in group take on a very supportive nature. The only thing that can be restrictive about our talk at times is the amount of support given to everyone’s writing. I am definitely loving the support, but at times I think the writers don’t push themselves because every bit of writing receives such a wonderful response. On the other hand, I don’t want anyone to feel like her writing is less important. I suppose I wish instead of the writers just telling each other “I loved it” they could explain what specifically works for them. As I reflect on what works in my group, I’m realizing that I could probably guide commentary more closely. So, to be more pointed to the topic, I really like how open and comfortable everyone feels, and I definitely see our talking as a benefit to the group, but I think I should set up some parameters, just so the talk can stay constructive to the writer’s writing and not necessarily just to her ego. My goal at my site is to show the writers that they too have voices that need to be exercised. I think talk enables each writer to feel safe and enabled to write. I’m still trying to get a sense for what the members of the workshop are wanting to get out of it. For one writer, the workshop is a way for her to improve her writing, and I see how specific talk to her writing really helps her feel more comfortable and empowered.

When Salzman discussed in “The Writing Class” his preconceived notions of working with confined youth, I definitely related to a few of the ways in which his notions have been challenged. I have worked closely with at risk youth labeled violent in other circumstances, so I definitely was exposed before the workshop began to the fact that not every youth labeled “troubled” or “incarcerated” is the same. One thing I didn’t know at all was how excited the writers would be for workshop. I am amazed everytime I step into our workshop space and see excited young women with new poems and stories to share. Last week, every writer wanted to read her new piece and each one had so much pride and anticipation to hear what Becky and I thought. They really take seriously the comments we make on their work. I have worked with youth on their schoolwork in a mentoring capacity, and they were never interested or excited. I guess I was curious to see if the writers in our workshop would be resistent to the whole idea of writing creatively, as if it’s homework or the workshop is a class. Because of the CLC’s emphasis that the workshops would be distinctly different from school, I think the young women in our workshop feel extremely comfortable just hanging out and sharing. Seeing them just jump into every assignment and beg me to bring them prompts to do over the week has really challenged my idea that confined youth would really not want to work hard. As long as I come prepared and excited to share my passion for writing and self expression, the writers at Turning Point come enthusiastic to try new things, and that’s all I could ask of them.