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Developing A Reader Identity January 7, 2012

Filed under: Education,Literacy,reading — bvanetten @ 8:55 pm
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After reading about “Literacy Communities” last semester, I was very inspired. I was a kid who always liked to read on my own, and I come from a family of people who enjoy reading. But I was also a normal kid who didn’t think school was all that much fun and who would rather watch TV than read for school (back when Carson Daly was the king of after school programming). But somehow, I was able to develop a “reader identity,” that coincided with my 11-year-old understanding that school was created by adults to torture children. I don’t know how this happened, but as an adult it always makes me sad to meet other adults who say they “don’t read” (sometimes it’s even said with pride, and that’s really depressing). And, fair or unfair, it automatically gives me preconceived notions about that person’s intellect. I assume that smart people read. This declaration usually seems to have to possible sources. The first is that the individual’s youthful disinterest in reading followed them into adulthood, robbing them of many enriching reading experiences – OR that they do in fact read, they just have a very narrow understanding of what reading means.

Whichever reason people have for not being “readers,” I think that the English classroom is a place where students and teachers can create a literacy community where they create and develop Reader Identities, and expand their own notions of what literacy means. I agree with Randy Bomer’s “educational values” that say “To work on academic literacy is not just a matter of teaching the genres that will be valued in future years of schooling. Academic literacy includes those practices, habits, and knowledges that mark one as an educated person.” That is to say, as teachers, our goal should not simply be to teach students to be just literate enough to keep going to school. I also believe that “It’s an academic literacy to know your friends as readers and writers, to be comfortable talking with them about what they are writing about and their responses to the texts they are reading” (Bomer: 2011, 49). I think that one of the reasons young people today are so averse to reading is that their lives are increasingly social, communal and public, and reading is one of the few activities that is still relatively private and individual.

But while the act of reading is very individual (for the most part – don’t jump on me about poetry readings right now), participation in a literacy community is a way of making it social. And literacy communities are not simply university theory; they are real and people create their own all the time. LCs form everywhere people are reading – from more formalized ones like book clubs or websites dedicated to sharing books, to the simplicity of a family that has all read the same book and talking about it over dinner. My point is that I think students will be more interested in reading if they can see it having a more social context that exists outside the constructed universe of the classroom.

Some goals I have for literacy for my students are to:

  • Develop tools for analysis for all literary mediums and genres
  • See connections between different texts and mediums (intertextuality)
  • develop code recognition – understanding how reading and writing are affected by genre conventions, audience, etc.
  • expand our definitions of what a “text” is, and thereby the definition of “literacy”
  • See connections between media and their own lives

You might note that these are things that you can keep learning and developing as long as you are growing and developing as a reader (which it forever). This is good because if we are going to build a literacy community in the classroom, I need to be a part of it, not the boss of it, and that means I need room for learning too. Just as importantly, the students need to be aware of the fact that I am still developing as a reader.

So, the goals for the literacy community are to support students:

  • Develop their own tastes in reading
  • Identify preferences for reading conditions and practices
  • Developing skills for non-pleasure (academic) reading
  • Sharing and talking about what they do (and do not) like to read
  • Identifying themselves and one another as respected readers
  • Understanding that one can enjoy reading without enjoying all books

When thinking about both the readings and these goals and how to achieve them, there are two questions that keep coming to my mind: What is the line between encouraging students to explore new things and forcing things on them (related question – are there some people who really just don’t enjoy reading, and I need to leave them alone already?) And secondly (thinking about the importance of student choice in this whole process) how do we know when a student has given something new a fair chance and their evaluation is thoughtful, and when they haven’t? I don’t have answers to these questions but I will keep them in mind as I continue thinking about this.

I want to work on building literacy community in my classroom because I think reading for pleasure is an important and enriching lifelong habit that rarely finds room or encouragement in education. I have the good fortune of working at a school that has made the commitment to valuing and encouraging reading by dedicating one day out of every week of the Language Arts curriculum to independent reading. As it stands, however, we don’t do much with it. The students take Reading Counts tests and complaining about how boring it is. They spend most of their time worrying about how many “points” a book is worth, rather than thinking about what they like to read. I think this time can be much better used to help students develop all the skills and habits I have discussed above.

Rock it Saturday Style,