Anderson speaks on literacy and social justice

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On Tuesday afternoon, Swarthmore Education professor Diane Anderson spoke to a full house about understanding literacy in new ways in a lecture entitled “What We See: New Literacy ‘Frames’ and Their Potential to Promote Social Justice for Children.”

Anderson argued that some commonly held notions of literacy are actually obstacles to social equality because they reinforce privilege by “recognizing one discourse as better than another.” She stressed the importance of distinguishing “deficit views” from “difference views.” “Deficit views” look at students who are not speaking in the dominant discourse as inferior; the “difference view” claims neutrality and maintains that one discourse is not necessarily better than another.

Anderson pointed out that many students in urban and working-class schools do not engage in the dominant discourse and are therefore viewed as “deficient, even though they are fully engaged in a different, non-dominant discourse.

Anderson next focused on the importance of researching outside of school sites when trying to fully understand student literacy and numeracy. To illustrate her point, she introduced the example of a three-year-old African American boy named Danny. While interacting with Danny, researchers noticed that when playing the game of Chutes and Ladders, he seemed to play solely to win, even if it meant he had to cheat. He often broke the rules by “double counting” on squares so that he would land on ladders and avoid the chutes.

However, whereas his teachers only saw a lack of respect for the rules or a lack of ability to follow them, the researchers saw a sophisticated mathematical strategy that this three year old boy haddeveloped. He had to figure out how and when he should double count squares based on the board and the number on the spinner – an impressive task for a boy of his age. Anderson asked the audience whether this boy should be seen as a “cheater” or a “precocious mathematician.”

This boy’s intelligence, and perhaps brilliance, was being ignored in the classroom because the curriculum at the school was largely focused on socializing the children, and following the rules was valued more highly than developing strategies to win. Anderson explained that teachers need to make sure that this type of student literacy does not continue to go unnoticed.

Anderson next presented several examples of persuasive writing by students in elementary school. The first two examples were letters – one written by a third grader and one written by a fourth grader- meant to persuade the principal of the school to implement a change in the school. The second two examples were essays written by fifth graders preparing for state assessment tests. The disparity between the two sets of examples was startling. The first two letters, even though they were written by younger students, seemed to be on task, concise, polite, and effective, whereas the two essays were confusing and unfocused.

Anderson pointed out several factors to account for this disparity. In the first letters, the students knew who the audience was and knew the form the letter should take. The task was explicit and relevant to their lives, which resulted in effective persuasion and relatively sharp, focused writing. These students knew what they wanted to say and cared about the task, and they effectively communicated their ideas.

However, when writing the essays, the fifth graders were faced with a vague, unclear prompt and were not sure who their audience would be. The students were also constrained by time and length, and, because of all these factors, the standardized tests were unable to capture the students’ abilities to write persuasively.

Anderson concluded the lecture by reiterating the importance of examining the home and community circumstances in which students became literate. She again stressed the importance of realizing that just because students speak outside of the dominant discourse does not mean they are “deficient,” but rather that they are “different.” She warned that if we fail to take the time to fully understand the students’ situations and don’t appreciate their unique discourses, we may make the unfortunate mistake of “missing their brilliance.”

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