Working on Things That Matter

Participants of the 38th Annual Wisconsin Literacy Research Symposium chat during a group discussion.

Literacy is about more than reading and writing and letter recognition.

That was a key message of a two-day June conference on literacy which the School of Education organized this year. The 38th annual Literacy Symposium, which is hosted by a different UW System School each year, this year focused on the complexity of literacy.  Leanne Evans, associate professor of early childhood education, and Johanna Groene, a doctoral student helped organize the gathering of teachers and researchers.

A number of faculty and staff members worked more than a year on the project also. The committee included Evans and Groene as well as Candance Doerr-Stevens, assistant professor; Sara Jozwik, assistant professor; Tania Habek, associate professor; Nick Husbye, associate professor; Krissy Lize, director of the Education Resource Center; and Kathy Champeau of the Wisconsin State Reading Association.

Engaging Children in Real Issues

Dr. Barbara ComberBarbara Comber, a research professor in the School of Education at the University of South Australia, talked about the importance of engaging children in issues like climate change, refugees, the wealth gap and intergenerational poverty.

She discussed her team’s pilot projects involving children in a literacy of place and power – researching and writing about changes such as urban renewal rather than focusing on “connect the dots,” copying worksheets and other drills.

Speaking of Australia specifically, but including the U.S. and other countries, she said:  “The curriculum needs to release its chokehold on the throats of this nation’s children and let them breathe.”

Comber is professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology and Honorary Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong.

She advocates for classrooms where creative activism is encouraged. Well-informed and engaged citizens should be one of the goals of literacy, she added. Students, teachers and others are not bothering to vote, she said. “They are losing faith in democracy while educators are fighting about phonics.”

In spite of the challenges, she said, “I’m an optimist about children gaining from education. Schools are places where things can happen. We need to reframe the curriculum and work with middle managers, school leaders and policymakers. We need to think about children’s lives outside the classroom and what they bring to the classroom.”
Children need to not just learn to read but read with a purpose.

“If we work with children on things that matter, then learning will matter.”

Biliteracy as an Asset

Dr. Eurydice B. BauerAnother conference speaker, Eurydice Bouchereau Bauer, spoke about the importance and value of encouraging biliteracy in children. She is the John E. Swearingen Chair of Education and the director of Bilingualism Matters at USC at the University of South Carolina. Bauer, who grew up in Haiti, remembers when she first moved to the U.S., her teachers viewed speaking a language other than English as a deficit rather than an asset.

The attitude then was, “if you don’t learn the language, how will you amount to anything?” Their lack of faith in her ability to master the English language could have set her up for feelings of failure, which is what happens with many children.

With the increasing numbers of children entering school speaking a first language other than English – some estimates are 20 percent of students – school systems have to stop considering bilingualism as a burden and view it as an asset, she said.

She highlighted writers who grew up bilingual like Sandra Cisneros and Edwidge Danticat. “Their ability to use both their languages is why they are the success they are.”

Bauer spoke about some of her research projects with children from kindergarten through middle school in dual language programs. That work is aimed at studying strategies and tools that help classroom teachers respect and encourage other languages.

“The perception of bilingualism as a challenge is still around,” she said. “Teachers are being left to their own devices. What do they do so they can promote and honor students’ language abilities?”

Even teachers who are not bilingual themselves can create spaces that are inviting, she said, encouraging children to bring books from home in their first language and allowing them to do work in their  home language as a starting point.

Race in Fantasy Literature

Dr. Ebony Elizabeth ThomasEbony Elizabeth Thomas grew up as a huge fan of fantasy literature. When she began reading the Harry Potter books, she immediately identified with Hermione, Harry’s friend, who was described as having bushy brown hair and brown eyes.

As an African American girl, she loved having a strong, smart character she could identify with, said Thomas who is an associate professor in the Literacy, Culture, and International Educational Division at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

While Hermione’s race was never specified, Thomas was disappointed when white actor Emma Watson was chosen to play the role in the movies. However, she was heartened when a black actor years later played the role in a London Harry Potter’ production.

Thomas’ research focuses on youth literature, media and culture, particularly how African American characters are portrayed. She’s written fantasy fiction and blogs herself, and has just published a book, about the role of race in media and popular culture —  “The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games.”

Too often, she says, darkness is seen as a quality of the villain or the monster. Or, dark-skinned characters are at the margins of the action, often the first to be killed off. With the exception of Star Trek, she said, if you are a person of color, “to watch science fiction is to think you have no future.”

Children of color identify with literary characters who are like them, and an increased presence of such figures helps other children empathize and understand others. But while some progress has been made in increasing diversity in children’s literature, the latest figures from 2018 show only a slight improvement from 2010.

Though some argue that very young children aren’t ready for works that are too realistic, saying children are not ready for traumatic topics, Thomas said, “the presence of difference is not inherently traumatic.” Sesame Street, for example, features all kinds of families, including those with two moms, she said.

One encouraging development, said Thomas, is the freedom of social media with its digital intimacy and more participatory culture. More young people are writing their own fan fiction or zines and reshaping published or televised stories to put themselves or others like them into the story. As one young fan told an author, “Now you must write a sequel, and this is what will happen.”

Ethnic Studies from a White Perspective

Dr. Timothy San PedroTimothy San Pedro, assistant professor of Multicultural and Equity Studies in Education at Ohio State University, grew up on an American Indian reservation. Although he is of Filipino and Caucasian background, he saw how his friends, their families and their experiences were marginalized in school.

He wondered why the sacred stories he heard in his friends’ homes were never shared in education and why so many felt pushed out of school. “When we don’t see ourselves in the schools and curriculum, we feel excluded.”

In one of his research projects, he followed a white student who was the only non-Native American in an ethnic studies course at her Arizona high school. He followed her progress and reactions for a year, seeing how her attitudes changed and what she learned.

Interestingly, he added, though the ethnic studies class was offered at her school, Arizona officials have been reluctant to offer similar studies on the grounds that they promote racial unrest and hatred. A successful Mexican-American studies program, for example, was discontinued on those grounds although the decision was overturned by the courts in 2017.

Children are curious and need to learn about others who are different from them, starting at an early age, San Pedro said. “So, when they get to high school and college, they know Native Americans exist.”

Even at the college level, the bias toward Western knowledge systems still exist. He mentioned a student he knew who questioned why a required introductory literature course at her university didn’t include any authors of diverse backgrounds. “I am a brown woman,” she told college officials, questioning why the university couldn’t include more diverse books in the required program. Her feedback was ignored. “Students are being asked to take required courses and are not able to push back,” said San Pedro.

Playing Their Way to Literacy

Dr. Karen WohlwendKaren Wohlwend, an associate professor of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education at Indiana University, discussed how play-based literacy can help young students.

Young children today are “digital natives,” she said and more familiar with swiping a screen than turning the pages of a book. She and her research team work with children to turn their ideas into stories, using iPads and other technology.

“It’s a different way of making meaning,” she said, but helps children as young as kindergarten create their own interactive narratives.

In sharing videos of a class she observed at work, she showed how they learned animation, coding and prop making. For example, she said, “when children play, they pause and make a prop interesting.” A group of kindergarten youngsters may be negotiating the plots, improvising, collaborating and adding and deleting characters. They create multilinear stories that can go in a variety of directions. The whole process of playing their way to literacy may be messy but trying to guide a more organized approach didn’t work. “A storyboard sucked all the joy out of it,” said Wohlwend. “Trust the learner.”

Children she studied often benefited from playing with the digital media. One student turned from a reluctant reader into an avid filmmaker, she said.

Local Projects

On the final day of the conference, a panel of local educators shared some of the literacy projects they’ve been involved in.

Leanne Evans discussed the Leyendo Juntos/Reading Together research project that partnered UWM and a Milwaukee Head Start program to look at effective ways to bridge school-home early literacy. The foundational tenet of the Leyendo Juntos project is to bring language, storybooks, and families together in two languages. Leyendo juntos is based on widely accepted understandings of the importance of bridging home literacies with early school experiences. This project brings children, families, and their teachers together through conversations about home literacy practices and ways to build language through family book sharing. The UWM Women’s Giving Circle provided funding for Spanish and bilingual books for the classrooms and the homes of emergent bilingual children in the Head Start program.

Ann Marie Nelson, a first grade MPS teacher and assistant professor Candance Doerr-Stevens presented the program Classroom in Residency: Bringing Lab Learning to the Teachers, highlighting project-based learning at the MPS dual language school, Escuela Fratney. This program facilitated by the Lynden Sculpture Gardens and a UWM ArtsECO grant, incorporated a summer institute, field trips, and an artist in residency program to investigate with artists and nature to find stories. Professional artists came in and worked with the students on themes of family, home, and culture. In Nelson’s first grade class, the focus was on Family Food Roots and children talked about family recipes – from Jamaican goat to their grandmother’s fried potatoes to rice and beans and Armenian sausage. They even tasted some of the dishes through a family gathering at the school.

La Tasha Fields, a Teacher Equity Support Coach at Milwaukee Public Schools, presented a project called, We’ve Got This: Making Literacy Accessible for Black Boys. This project, founded by Andre Lee Ellis of Milwaukee and supported by the Milwaukee Area Reading Council, integrates literacy into a community garden and neighborhood clean-up initiative. The project engages black boys in their community, while offering a garden space for reading. We Got This is framed in research that concludes: Relevancy to students’ experiences, community involvement, and critical discussions about text are all vital to the literacy education of young black males.