Textual Power on Our Own Terms: Remixing Literacy in Out-of-School Spaces
According to a recent Pew Research Report, teachers see digital tools as advantageous in assisting with writing instruction; most of those surveyed believed that such technologies aid students’ self-expression, allow them to share work with a wider audience, and promote collaboration. On the flip side of this, however, most of these teachers also rated their students’ writing as adequate, at best.
While it might not be fair to slim a very lengthy report down to a few findings, it may be worthwhile to address some tensions that surface when we read these conclusions next to each other. I wonder, for instance- why this group of educators both recognize and praise what seem to be the humanizing outcomes of an expanded toolbox for writing instruction, yet deem the end products coming out of students’ composing processes as lacking? Where does this disconnect lie? If young people are becoming increasingly confident as textual producers, are better able to communicate and work with their peers, and can more effectively situate themselves within a highly textualized, mediated world, aren’t teachers supporting portable behaviors and practices that can be of use in students’ lives and future endeavors? What exactly is the purpose of writing instruction? Or better yet, maybe we should ask- What should the future of writing instruction look like given the introduction of digital tools?
TEXTUAL POWER AND THE ACT OF “BECOMING”
In his text The Rise and Fall of English (1998), Robert Scholes advocates for fostering “Textual Power” (131) within classrooms, a concept I find useful in framing this larger discussion concerning what writing instruction can, might, and/or should do: “ Textual power involves the ability to play many roles, and to know that one is playing them…as well as the ability to generate new texts, to make something that did not exist before somebody made it.” If we take Scholes’s idea of “textual power” seriously, while also considering that the technologies we have to compose with have changed, we are required to re-position ourselves as educators in some significant ways.
One shift we must make is to pay greater attention to who young people are becoming as they produce, rather than focusing on end products that uphold and reinforce a uniform standard. In this vein, we might ask questions like,
“How is student voice being augmented by my instruction, and are students participating differently as they feel comfortable wearing these voices?”
“How are students talking about their experiences with writing and about themselves as writers-and does this change over time?”
This is especially important for groups of young people whose Englishes are marginalized inside of classrooms. Nearly four decades ago in a report entitled, “Students’ Right to their Own Language, Geneva Smitherman and her CCCC’s colleagues contended that a serious difficulty facing “non-standard” dialect speakers in developing writing ability “derive(d) from their exaggerated concern for the least serious aspects of writing” (8). For these scholars, relegating black and brown students’ home languages to an inferior status was unacceptable, and it was believed that the tendency of many teachers to over-emphasize grammar in writing instruction prevented large groups of students from identifying themselves as “good writers”. Today, similar concerns not only continue to persist, but are also amplified by the massive disregard toward the multiple canvases young people across social, economic, and cultural backgrounds are composing upon. In short, much of writing assessment evaluates what students can do on a particular page, in a very particular manner. As a result, many feel compromised and often times develop an unnecessary disdain toward the writing process.
This is why I believe that a more generative place to approach all young people from would be to explore what they are writing on their own terms, as opposed to what they aren’t, and then engaging in conversations with them about the personal and collective impact of these interactions. Reflecting back to them their attitudes while composing, the various artifacts that come out of their writing attempts, and the conversations that are happening around their work can be very powerful motivators to invest in textual production, and we might in turn find that the etchings in front of us that we once deemed as lacking are actually full of (albeit subordinated) potentially rich and useful thoughts and ideas. Developing a metalanguage around production and this idea of becoming, I believe, would be a useful pedagogical strategy to support students in developing textual power.
WHAT COUNTS AS TEXT?
Another shift that we must make is to embrace new theories of what constitutes a text worthy of study. We cannot embrace new forms of writing/producing in our classrooms, all the while restricting our reading lists to the canon and nothing more. Students’ productions are also texts worthy of study, as well as those they encounter in their everyday lives: billboards, music videos, food labels, poetry and rap, grandmother’s recipes, Twitter feeds, stories exchanged with family members at dinner tables, love letters, cyphers, video games. We must create a space inside of classrooms for students to explore, as Maxine Greene shared at a lecture I attended last month, “some notion of beauty and understanding….” as “this”, she tells us, “is where art lives.” To not extend our reportoire of texts is to deny all of us the important opportunity to grow in understanding each other and the contexts we are situated within.
NEW WAYS OF SEEING
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is urgent that we consider what kinds of new opportunities, new ways of seeing, and new ways of composing that digital media tools are opening up for all of us. In many instances, young people are viewing, engaging with, and impressing upon the world in much different ways than we do as adults. While some of the products that come out of these engagements might look very different from what we may be used to: coding and web design, blogs, beat-making, video production, to name a few- powerful literacies are happening. Students are bending, re-mixing, and playing with words for a variety of purposes, toward ends that mean something to them. Perhaps more now than ever before, we need a literacy pedagogy to account for this.
HIP-HOP, SPOKEN WORD, AND REMIXING LITERACY
Surely there are some phenomenal folks who are asking important questions along the lines of new literacy pedagogies; however, most classroom teachers usually have limited exposure to contexts where youth are engaging with text on their own terms. It can be difficult, and perhaps even overwhelming, to think about about what kinds of pedagogical moves to make in order to support students in the ways I advocate for above.
To address this challenge, I have curated a collection of resources drawn up by authors who are all working with students in out-of-school spaces, and are also new to the Digital Is community: Chad Harper, co-founder of Hip Hop Saves Lives in New York City; Bryce Anderson-Small, founder/director of the HERU organization in Detroit, and DK Wright, administrator/poet/digital media extraordinaire from Urban Word NYC, a world-renown spoken-word organization. In each of their resources, positive outcomes such as self-transformation, increased civic engagement, and the development of new skill sets in using digital tools arise from writing activities that center on youth voice and production; videos, images, and student quotes help us to see, hear, and feel the powerful literacies at play.
It is my hope that in being privy to how students interact and compose in these spaces, classroom teachers like the ones surveyed in the Pew report might commit to viewing the writers and writing in front of them in classrooms through a new set of lenses. At the very least, I hope that we will continue to ask questions about how the future of writing instruction will both shape and is shaped by who we are becoming as human beings. To begin, we might view this collection and ask:
- In what ways are young people engaging with literacy across each of these contexts, and for what purposes?
- How are the adults who work with these youth supporting these engagements?
- How might these understandings translate into pedagogical undertakings inside of schools?
As always, please feel free to comment, offer a wondering or an idea, or start a conversation thread.