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Literacy Histories: Using Our Own Literacy Histories to Inform Practice

 Steve Trowbridge, John C. Stansell


      When looking at literacy histories, researchers have reported on such areas as the nature of reflection (Jalongo & Isengerg, 1995; McClaughlin, 1994) and the resistance that the writers exhibited while writing their own histories (Stansell, 1993). Studies of teacher reflection have extended into areas not traditionally seen as literacy areas such as content classrooms (Robinson & DiNizo, 1996).

      Research on reflection from several vantage points has been done. Miller (1995) reported on using teacher reflection as a way of rethinking teaching from a feminist point of view. In Naming Silenced Lives: Personal Narratives and Processes of Educational Change, McLaughlin and Tierney (1993) used the reflections teachers to examine the experiences of marginalized groups who have been, traditionally, denied full access to education. Collaborative classroom reflection on current practice has also been done to see how it could impact practice (Hassler & Collins, 1994).

      Though teacher classroom reflection done to impact one's own teaching is not new, little mention is made of teachers reflecting on literacy life-histories. This is writing the story of becoming literate from one's earliest memories to the present. What similarities will emerge if a group of teachers write their histories and examine them for common threads and common stories?

Statement of Purpose

      The purpose of this study was to examine multiple literacy histories from in-service teachers to see what common themes emerge from the data that could have an impact on classroom practice. Are there shared memories that teachers have that will confirm or disconfirm current practice? Do teachers share stories from their collective pasts that might challenge their own personal practices?


      When working with recollections, selective memory can be problematic. Are we hearing the truth about the past, or the teller's edited version of the truth? As an individual's view of the world is always a personal negotiation (Smith, 1996), we have to read the histories with that in mind.



      Participants were 60 graduate students in three education cohorts who must take "Literacy Across the Curriculum,” a graduate reading course. These students are employed by the same school district and have at least three years of classroom experience. The cohort members have been chosen by their district to represent, as closely as possible, the demographics of teachers in the district with regard to grade level, ethnicity, and content area.

The Data

      Students were asked to write the history of their literacies from childhood to the present. Little instruction were given except that they may use artifacts, such as report cards, discussions with significant people, and their own memories to complete the task. They were told that they were sharing their histories in class with an eye to how they might impact what they do in classrooms.

      The histories were discussed, and possible uses suggested, for the information. Then, they were analyzed by a professor and volunteer students with the purpose of looking for emerging themes (Goetz & LeCompte, 1981). The data were unitized (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Each information unit was placed in a database under the heading quote. The other headings in the database were indicators and name. Under indicators, the researcher placed any theme that they felt might be used at a later date to identify this unit. A sample of this database might look like Figure 1.

      Once all of the histories were unitized, mini-databases were examined to see which indicators seem to appear in many of the mini-databases. This led to finding hidden themes that may have eluded the researchers in other ways. The resulting themes were then analyzed by a professor at another university who works extensively with literacy histories to see if these results coincided with themes that he had seen.

Figure 1

Sample Mini-Database

“Family” – the indicator selected

Indicators                                     Quote                                                              Name

Preschool                                       I remember riding in my mother’s car.                     Bill

                                                      Signs and asking what different signs meant.

Family, newspaper, preschool,              At home there was always the newspaper.              Bill

childhood, reading

Family, newspaper, preschool,              I remember people reading the newspaper all          Bill

childhood, reading                          the time.


Some Emergent Themes

      Some themes that emerged from the histories could impact teachers and their classrooms. One of these was the effect of teacher attitude on student performance (Gollnick & Chinn, 1998). "Teachers who produce greater learning gains accept responsibility for teaching their students. They believe the students are capable of learning" (Good & Brophy, 1991, p. 443). This certainly doesn't come as news, but the impact of the participants' voices adds power to their confirmation of research on teacher expectation. Terri had both good and bad things to say about teacher expectation.

      Now, I enter Jr. High...My 7th grade progress reports were not kind except for one special nun named Sister M. She was my saving grace in Jr. High. Her kindness and care helped motivate me to try hard and work on my weakness in math. Then there was Sister L. . . who single handedly helped me to hate history and the 7th grade year. Her yelling, slapping us with rulers, and always standing us up for her verbal barrage - these were so embarrassing. (Terri)

Reflecting on one experience, Fransesca shares Terri's sense of embarrassment and frustration. Here, a teacher appears to be setting high goals for the student, but, on reflection over years of experience, she sees through his statement.

I really do not remember how I was taught, but I remember reading groups. There was a top, middle, and low group. I was in the top group, but I recall Mrs. W., my first grade teacher, saying "If you don't practice, I'm going to have to put you down a group." Now that I think of what she said, I am thinking, "What a horrible thing to say to a child." I was in the top group, yet I was receiving threats instead of praise. (Fransesca)

      Things were not all bad for Fransesca, however. She told of a teacher who did have a very positive attitude toward school and her students. She tells here of the difference that this teacher made.

I remember my kindergarten teacher name was Ms. G. She was so beautiful, and I remember that I wanted to do everything just right, so that I would please her. She taught us the alphabet, not any ordinary alphabet, but the alphabet people. Every letter was represented by an character figurine.

It was awesome! She would tell the greatest story for each letter and would tell her a better story, if we could. I was hooked. I loved Ms. G. and I loved school. Dear mom says that I knew how to read easy books by he time I entered first grade. (Fransesca)

Another student who talked of the power of expectations was Margaret. The particular experience came at the university, and made a lasting impression on her, as her story made a lasting impression others. A quote from this history now hangs in my office.

He was the professor who encouraged his students to read difficult passages over and over until they made sense. He was the professor who encouraged us to write in the margins of our books. After all, he reminded us, the books belonged to us. . . we had paid for them. Professor L. has my undying gratitude. Instead of displaying disdain for our ignorance, he chose toteach us. (Margaret)

      That last line, "Instead of displaying disdain for our ignorance, he chose to teach us," sums up, for us, the whole notion of teacher expectation and the impact that it can have on students. What a stark contrast to "If you don't practice I'm going to have to put you down a group." The notion of a teacher having the choice to decide to teach what students need to learn rather than trying to force them to keep up is one worthy of sharing and seems clearer in a story than in a statement.

      Another interesting area that emerged from these histories was the things that students learned that are a part of the hidden curriculums of classrooms (Goodlad, 1984; Jackson, 1990).

Second grade is like driving through a thick fog. . . The only memory I have is playing races with a buddy of mine to see who could finish first. . . . I guess this gives you an indication of the type of assignments we were given. I can only remember doing them over because they were messy, not wrong. (Bob)

Jane, too, learned a lesson from a teacher that, we're sure, the teacher never intended to teach.

My mother raced to school and arranged for the math teacher, Mrs. S., to tutor me after school until the end of school (Oh joy! Thought I). This is when math became my enemy. It remains as such to this very day. Now, Mrs. S. was no more interested in tutoring me after school than I was to be tutored. She'd give me math busy work until I was picked up. Mrs. S. and I kind of had a silent understanding. We would appease my mother. (Jane)

      We wonder how many of these silent understandings existed, and still exist, in schools between teachers and students? How many times we have not verbalized, but excepted, a silent agreement with a student to leave each other alone and just make it through the year.

      Jane, of course, learned other things while in school besides keeping secret agreements with her teacher. She also learned how to survive reading down the rows. Unfortunately, she also learned something about being a life long reader.

We read books aloud. Because I was not a good oral reader, I was one of those who "planned ahead.” My paragraph had been well practiced when it was my turn to read and I was really embarrassed if I had miscounted. I would never have thought of reading for pleasure. (Jane)

The last theme that will be discussed here has to do with stories and storytelling. Several participants talked of their early experiences with significant storytellers in their lives. Interestingly, many of them did not mention early reading experiences, but they did not seem to have trouble learning to read. They came to school with a sense of story

I do have a very vivid memory of my grandmother telling us stories. My grandmother grew up in Marked Tree, Arkansas during the depression. She told stories of her youth and what life was like during those times. . . . Growing up in the South exposed my grandmother to many different cultures and dialects. Thus, my most vivid recollection of literacy at a young age wasn't anyone "reading" to me, but more of my grandmother "telling" me stories. She would different characters in her stories different accents. Most of the characters had a prominent Southern "drawl.” My favorite stories were about Uncle Remus, with the Tar Baby, Brer Rabbit, and Brer Fox. . . .I asked my grandmother about these stories and she said that she must have read them to us, but we couldn't find any books in her home. I just remember that she used great facial expression and was very animated and she described the stories so vividly that I can still picture them in my mind. . . .When I went to kindergarten, I remember vaguely reading about Dick, Jane, and Spot. I don't remember much about them, other than the fact that I was excited to read about them and find out what would happen next. It was exciting to be able to read. (Betty)

For Bob, not only was it important to hear stories, but it was equally important to tell them

There was also a rich oral history that included rhymes, limericks, some more disgusting that others, but every kid had to be a master of storytelling to be respected. Stories consisted of real life experiences with a little, or a lot, of fiction involved. This depended on who was telling the story. The favorite type of story that older kids told were scary stories. These stories were not your usual type of scary stories because the event happened not far from where you lived or you knew the street or the building where the gruesome event occurred. I remember being one of these storytellers weaving truth and lies in a master piece that none of the other older kids believed, but the younger ones were impressed. (Bob)

      Jaime talked of his grandmother who read to them and told stories. She was a teacher in Monterey, Mexico. He also adds something different.

In addition, my grandmother played piano and it was always a special treat when she played Cri Cri songs for us. Francisco Gabilondo Soler was a Mexican composer of children's songs during the 1930's and 1940's. All of these popular songs are referred to as Cri Cri songs, and all tell stories that teach values in which young animals are the main characters. Cri Cri songs are the equivalent of the Mother Goose Stories or Aesop's fables. (Jaime)

      When Jaime read his history to the class, he added that he had talked to his mother about it. He had told her that his memory of his grandmother telling them, and reading them, stories was strong and that he was glad that she had spoken English. His mother told him that his grandmother had not spoken a word of English. All stories had been told in Spanish. Jaime asked the class if anyone else had been told stories in another language but remembered them in English. We began to ask the same question of some of the participants and found that it was a fairly common phenomenon. We don't know why, but the discussion continues.

Possible Implications

      By examining out own literacies, we may be able to better judge our behaviors in classrooms. It is interesting to speculate on things that we, as teachers, may be doing in classrooms today that we ourselves found intolerable as students. Also, if we can identify behaviors of teachers and other significant people in our literate lives who moved us closer to literacy, we may be able to incorporate their behaviors into our own methodology.

      One more possible implication emerges from the last theme that was discussed. First, does hearing and telling stories help prepare students for reading just as being read to does? Second, if story telling does help, does it matter what language the stories are told in as long as the student can understand them? Lastly, does this free up some of our non-English speaking grandparents, aunts, and other relatives to begin speaking to kids again? For a while now, some parents have been hesitant to allow non-English relatives speak to their children so as not to confuse them when they went to school. This, often, means the loss of a second language in a single generation. We hope that others will take a research interest in this area.






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