A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
A Reflection on Literacy in the Rural Realm
Robinson Córdoba Mosquera
Elmer Antonio Córdoba Mosquera
Jesús Vallejo López
Phd. Raúl Mora
Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana
This paper attempts to show how a group of language teachers develops the process of literacy in their lectures. Considering our previous knowledge of the concept, the authors will interview some teachers in order to carry out an analysis of their teaching practices, revealing how literacy is promoted in their classrooms, and to what extend literacy differs from rural education to urban´s. Following on from this analysis, we will reflect on how to recontextualize the present literacy practices in light of the current rural realm and the new literacies led significantly by the new technology era.
Keywords: critical literacy, new literacy, learning and teaching process
New Literacy on the Rural Realm
This study aims at giving some light on how our teaching practices can turn into a firm proposal that guides our students to understand the world through the word (Freire, 1970). The purpose is that they gain understanding of multiple perspectives and interpretations of texts by explicitly analyzing the social and historical contexts in which those texts are created (Gainer, 2013), since the act of reading is not merely decoding the written system of a language (Freire & Macedo, 1987).
The target school is located in the rural area of El Peñol. Students come from low-income peasant families that spend most of their time farming and working in the field. It is worth pointing out that families do not present a high interest in their children´s education, what influences considerably the learning atmosphere within the school community.
The school pedagogical line is based on Vygotsky’s learning theory. Learners construct knowledge for themselves; each learner individually and/or socially constructs meaning (Hein, 1991). Thus, constructivism holds up the institution curriculum in order to highlight the importance that the social environment has in the learning process, since individuals are considered active participants of their own learning process (Vygotsky, 1934).
Needless to say, how important is to develop reading and writing skills in order to become social active agents (Freire, 1970). However, having a closer look at our teaching practices, it seems like we are still understanding and facing literacy as a process by which people simply acquire the linguistic competence of a language, eluding for example the intercultural competence (Byram, 1997)
Educative policies, school curriculums, national tests, as well as the globalized culture we all are immersed, are factors that undoubtedly influence the way we approach literacy to our class. I dare to say that they frequently turn into pitfalls that put pressure on our practices to the detriment of our students´ integral education. Despite these unmovable circumstances, we have the responsibility of acquainting our students with the best tools that lead them to understand the role of literacy in and out of the school. Effective teachers must go beyond these standards and benchmarks to enact meaningful and richly conceived literacies in their classrooms (Knobel, 2001). Likewise, we should allow learners to bring their owned lived experiences into discussions, offering them opportunities for participation, engagement in higher levels of reading and discussion, and to understand the power of language (Bell & Wood, 2010).
Aside from these hindrances, there are other aspects to consider when dealing with rural education. Leung and Street (2012) hold that the meanings of literacy vary with context; there is no one single, uniform model. Based on that assumption, the uses of literacy in specific contexts have to be negotiated, appropriating our practices to the context features and learners´ needs.
As mentioned before, the study is focused on a rural school in which roughly the 25 % of students do not finish the secondary education. Most of families present low educational levels, which hivers the learning and teaching process since “the key to a successful educational experience begins with engaging parents, at home or at school, in their children ’ s education” (Njeru, 2015, p. 368). Obviously, students´ family context highly determine the ways they learn, hence we teachers have to reshape our practices in light of the rural culture, attempting to teach the word and the world in which the school community is immersed (Freire & Macedo, 1987).
Another point to bring to light, it is the visible lack of resources in the Colombian rural education. Rural schools are not equipped enough to comply with the regional and national educative demands, and more significant, to deal with the students´ real needs considering their local culture. However, there are more challenges than just limited resources. Rural people and places are not only marginalized by economic disadvantage but also often stereotyped as lazy, backward, or ignorant (Azano, 2015). Apathy and lack of engagement are also behaviors associated with rural students (Budge, 2006). Assumptions and beliefs that come at large from people that have not even set foot in the rural area.
Given this situation, “the limits are real, but so is the power of hope” (Nieto, 2013, p. 18). Once we recognize the constraints of our practice and understand our own position in the rural area we will see our students´ situation with different eyes. Who they are and where they want to go are questions that lead us to develop that sociocultural and sociopolitical understanding that we need in the selection of the most suitable literacy. The purpose will be to create relevant learning opportunities to our students’ lives, while also teaching them to question everything, including their own assumptions, values, and even identities (2013). To put in another way, we have the responsibility to lead our students to a place where they find themselves safe to question and understand the different circumstances they have to deal with in the particular setting they live.
Figure 1 outlines the idea of engaging students in critical literacy
As teachers we have the responsibility of transforming schools into living literacy places, where “students do not only face literacy as a reading and writing process for traditional purposes, but also as practices against traditional curricula in school and dominant popular culture, multimedia, and other texts students encounter outside of school” (Borsheim-Black, Macaluso & Petrone, 2014, p. 1). Lankshear & Knobel (2003) maintain that literacy must be grounded in the reality in which we are, and not a separate construction of the society. The ways in which teachers and learners interact is already a social practice that affects the nature of the literacy being learnt and the ideas about literacy held by the participants (Leung & Street, 2012). We cannot expect positive results from a literacy program that does not respect the students´ particular view of the world. Such actions would constitute a cultural invasion, preventing them from being themselves (Freire, 1970). On the contrary, we must teach our students to probe, to be curious, and to question what they want to become (Nieto, 2013).
The following video depicts the devastating consequences that learners may suffer when feeling oppressed by an immovable educative system:
According to Freire (1987), the notion of emancipatory literacy suggests two dimensions of literacy. On the one hand, students have to become literate about their histories, experiences, and the culture of their immediate environments. On the other hand, they must also appropriate those codes and cultures of the dominant spheres so they can transcend their own environments. That being so, literacy turns into a means through which rural emancipation can occur (Azano, 2015), as long as we provide students with the pertinent resources that allow them to comprehend their own world and compare it with others. As a result, emancipatory literacies would give rural students greater agency and help them make choices about their aspirations (Azano, 2015), which would be contextualized by the rural area (Freire, 1987) and might go beyond their local realm.
As this video shows, an appropriate knowledge and use of literacy would bring more opportunities to the members of a community in search of a better understanding of their context:
Comparing Literacy Experiences
In connection with these reflections, the authors undergo an interview to a group of teachers. Teacher´s insights will reveal the way literacy is being introduced in the class, and it will consequently give us some light to reflect upon changes that could be carried out taking into consideration the interplay between the new forms of literacy and the present scenario.
Through these interviews we want to present not only the rural teachers’ stance about literacy, but also go beyond our target setting and compare it with an urban teaching experience, particularly based on a private language school.
(listen the complete interviews in audio files shared in dropbox)
Reading and writing are two of the four skills we focus on developing in our students and are the key factors to learning a language. In my school, we try to integrate different skills to develop the language in a task-based approach. So, for example, the students may read something and then have to write a response to what they read or the students have to have a discussion about what they read. Reading is usually a means to add input either about a topic or for vocabulary and grammar development during a given lesson. While writing is usually implemented as an outcome of a lesson for students to put into practice what they have learned. Being a language institute, reading and writing are implemented according to students’ language level. However, it is different to work on writing with a child in level 1 than with a teenager or adult in level 1 because the child is still learning how to write. With them, you are teaching both the language and about writing in general and the same with reading.
For me, it is just not simply the ability to read and write, but rather the ability to communicate in general. To what extent does a student’s ability to read and write allow them to communicate in this foreign language? The students might not be 100% literate in reading and writing English and that is okay because it is a process, but if they can understand others in English and communicate something to someone in English no matter how basic or with however many mistakes than that is what literacy in a foreign language constitutes to me.
This all depends on the students’ level. I try to use as much authentic material as possible. Although, sometimes that means that I have to go through and modify the vocabulary or the grammar structures to help my students better understand the text. The majority of the texts I use in class are short texts. Even in advanced courses they may only be 2 pages at most. The structure of the classes, like time and content, at my school don’t allow us to really read lengthier texts like short stories or novellas. Some examples of the type of readings I use on a regular basis are articles, texts from foreign language books, blogs, brochures, and essays.
The curriculum mandates that I cover certain topics during the duration of a course. Our curriculum is theme-based and not grammar based. This sometimes makes it difficult to contextualize them for my students’ interests. However, I am lucky enough to have the autonomy to try to fit the themes and/or topics of the course to my students’ interests and modes of life. This element of personalization is essential to helping the students to learn a foreign language. It is a great motivator and it prompts more interaction which is very important in a foreign language class. I personally think that if I can teach the students about the world and then tie it into their own interests and way of life, then what they are learning will be all the more interesting and relevant to them. It may be a foreign language class, but it should go beyond the language.
I think storytelling is a great resource to developing literacy. If the students tell their stories or listen to other’s stories, it is very beneficial to them as well. This storytelling may seem like it lends itself more to oral production, but students can also write their stories and have the others read them. It is important that the texts come from a variety of sources like the students themselves as an example. I take texts from anywhere to develop literacy. It can be a really short text from an advertisement in a magazine or a recipe or greeting card or images with captions. These are all great additional resources that add to the students’ literacy development.
Yes, I do. Literacy is an excellent tool to help develop critical thinking among my students. It is like a jumping off point a lot of times. As I mentioned before, teaching students about the world around them through literacy is an excellent way to work on critical thinking. You can compare different points of views in articles, you can raise awareness, you can have the students solve a problem presented in a text. There are a great number of ways to use literacy as a tool to develop critical thinking. Even though it may seem a bit more difficult to really develop critical thinking in young children, it can be done and literacy is helpful in that aspect.
This is a much needed 21st century skill that we have to help our students develop and use. I think the main thing we have to do is help them and teach them to differentiate what comes from reliable sources and what doesn’t. There is so much on the internet that is not reliable and students need to learn how to identify what is in order to navigate the world in which they live. I would say another way is to encourage and inspire them to read more. Demonstrate to them all the knowledge they can gain through literacy. Show them how important it is and how it benefits them in their lives. One way is to have them produce something meaningful that others (maybe fellow students) and then have them share it with others to show them that their message had a purpose and made some kind of difference whether very small or big. Without promoting literacy in today’s world, their message may not have carried on so far or made any kind of impact. This is just a very general example, but it is an important basis to helping the students develop and better their own literacy skills.
Taking into account the previous interviews, it can be observed that literacy can be understood and developed from different perspectives, depending on how teachers adapt it according to their necessities and of course, to their students’ needs.
Considering the three above interviews, it can be stablished a comparative picture with the main similarities and differences between the points of views that rural teachers and an urban teacher have about literacy, in which we can highlight the following important key aspects, :
RURAL TEACHERS / URBAN TEACHER
RURAL TEACHERS / URBAN TEACHER
|Both are in agreement that literacy is not only focused on developing reading and writing skills.||Teachers in urban area do not take into account or pay little attention to the students’ interest; in contrast, rural teachers are closer to the students’ setting and realities.|
|Both consider that literacy is not only limited to use texts, because there are other ways to interpret and read the world through other kind of resources to develop literacy, resources such as pictograms, gestural language, etc.||Rural students have a big disadvantage in comparison with urban students, since rural students do not have a model to follow in their house because most of their parents have low educational level, so the development of literacy at home is almost non-existent; while urban students have more opportuinities to access to different resources easily.|
|Both assert that literacy is a process which is constantly changing, since it depends on the level and cognitive development of the students.||The concept literacy is interpreted in a different way from the rural teachers’ perspective than urban teachers.|
|Both are in agreement that literacy is a very useful tool to develop critical thinking, since making an adequate use of it, it is possible to reshape students’ realities and even context.||Teachers in rural areas hardly have the appropriate resources to develop literacy through technology, materials and other resources, though they are quite innovative and recursive by drawing on elements of their context in order to encourage their students to develop critical literacy.|
|Both are aware that they must engage their students in critical literacy practices, as it is necessary not only to write and read, but also understand the world through the text.|
Goffey (2008) asserts that for the purposes of critical literacy, text is defined as a “vehicle through which individuals communicate with one another using the codes and convention of society”. Accordingly, songs, novels, conversations, pictures, movies etc. are all considered texts. He (2008) also points out that the development of critical literacy skills enables people to interpret messages in the modern world through a critical lens and challenge the power relations within those messages, furthermore teacher who facilitate the development of critical literacy encourage students to interrogate societal issues and institutions like family, poverty, education, equity, and equality in order to critic the structures that serve as norms as well as to demonstrate how these norms are not experienced by all members of society.
There is no doubt that one of the biggest challenges that rural teachers have is to foster critical literacy in their students, so that they are able to reread and rewrite their closer setting, since critical literacy expands learners’ abilities to unearth the constructed narratives that inundate the national and global context because this ability requires learners to fine-tune their vision of the world of text and language by exposing, questioning and deconstructing the voices of the status quo (Crowe & Cuenca, 2015).
Going Beyond the Text: New Literacy in Rural´s Schooling
For decades rural education advocates have argued that rural students represent a forgotten minority having teachers to work incessantly in search of strategies that mitigate the different challenges that these deprived communities live (Azano, 2015). Teachers must assume the responsibility of transforming not only their students´ perception of their world, but also make them understand and critique the context that surrounds them.
We can find a compelling evidence of that in the following video, which portraits literacy not only as a simple process of writing and reading, but as a useful tool to change completely the reality of any setting.
As it can be seen in the video, there is no doubt that literacy can become a tool for social changes and even a political battleground if it is addressed from a critical point of view (Bishop, 2014). Literacies are bound up with social, institutional and cultural relationships, and can be understood only when they are situated within their social, cultural and historical contexts (Gee, Hull & Lankshear, 1996). We cannot forget the important role that critical literacy plays when trying to appropriate the learning and teaching process to a determined setting. In quest of an adequate approach that reconceptualizes the use of literacy in our rural realm, we must give students opportunities to negotiate their learning by drawing from their home and community resources (Brannon, Urbanski, Manship, Arnold &Iannone, 2010).
With this intention we need to see ourselves as “transformative intellectuals rather than mere classroom technicians employed to pass on a body of knowledge” (Giroux, 1988, p. 299). Our daily literate practices should guide the students to become active readers and writers so that they can create their own meanings to shape and transform their social conditions (Lankshear and McLaren, 1993).
Perhaps more than any other time in history, the literacy landscape is changing at a rapid pace. Canagarajah (2005) states that we live in a world where languages and cultures jostle against each other and mix fluidly, almost no community can claim today that it is not integrated into the global network of communication, travel, or trade, and transformed in the process; fact that also influence the rural sphere, bringing about new mediums and topics to learn and become literate in. Despite the underresourced sitution mentioned before, rural teachers must inmmerse themselves “in meaningful practices within the community of learners who are capable of playing multiple and different roles based on their backgrounds and experiences” (New London Group, 1996, p. 85) and “take on a new literacy stance that encourage them to change the usual ways they may be inclined to teach” (Bailey, 2009, p. 218).
Multimodality might become a firm attempt to develop this new literacy approach; which does not mean to use a variety of modern gadgets with the same old traditional teaching practices, but the process of interpreting and creating text using multiple means of media (Mora, 2010). As a result, students can create meanings in multiple modes and refine their language in use (Carrington & Robinson, 2009). The crucial point is that educators break away from traditional mediums and incorporate more modes, genres, and accessible mediums into the classroom in order to help students gain understanding of multiple perspectives and interpretations of the world they live in (Gainer, 2013).
One thing is certain, in spite of the evident economic and technological disadvantage that entails to work in a rural area, educators must turn into critical literacy promoters and embrace the idea that new literacies practices are deeply embedded in social practices, social contexts, and social identities (Bailey, 2009, p. 208).
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