Literacy Lessons from a 7-year old

I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been busy reading blogs in blog-land (also known as beachboard, my university’s blackboard like wiki platform with an integrating blogging feature) from my amazing students who are secondary credential candidates from various content areas charged with blogging about literacy.  And, since I’ve been reading their literacy histories, a-ha moments, teaching about literacy and basically hyperaware of literacy EVERYWHERE, I decided I’d post about a recent literate experience I had with my just turned 7-year old son.

My son loves video games. I suppose this is pretty typical among 7-year olds whose parents let them play video games (note: this is not a parenting blog and yes, my child plays video games). Recently, on a day off from school, he decided that he would graciously bring me into the world of Kirby’s 20th Anniversary Collection by teaching me how to play in the practice rooms of the new challenge stages.

If you’re already lost at this point, don’t worry, so was I.  I do not love video games. But, I do love my son and as I always tell my students, I feel that it’s important to push oneself in one’s areas of weakness, so I went along with the training dutifully.

While I was able, with his demonstration and assistance, to replicate most of the moves in each stage, what struck me from an academic standpoint (after all, mom can only take off the academic hat for so long) was the enactment of the theory that I had spoken about to my classes just a few weeks prior.  Here was Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (1978) in action. My son began with more basic moves (I have little video game schema from which to build) and worked me up to more complex moves through showing me numerous times (both on the controller and on the screen), then scaffolding through written instructions (thank you, Nintendo) on the screen as well. In other words, he apprenticed me.

As he was walking me through the skills, effortlessly naming the moves that I was performing while I was just desperately trying to replicate his agile fine motor skills to make the smiling pink Kirby come to life with no time to remember the names of the moves, I recognized that here he was part of an entire Discourse community (Gee, 2000) to which I clearly did not belong to; and, try as he might to apprentice me in, of which I almost certainly would (and will) remain on the periphery.  I was reminded of the literacy difficulties that speakers of non-standard dialects of English and English Language Learners might have in the classroom.  (Granted, this was much lower stakes than a classroom setting, but the frustration of not being able to enact a move that a 7-year calls out then having him sigh out of disappointment at your lack of progress was admittedly somewhat devastating for an overachieving mother)

What amazed me most from this experience, however, was my son’s correct use of high-level vocabulary, such as the phrase “quick succession,” that must have been appropriated from somewhere, but certainly not from his professorial mother and almost as certainly not from his first grade classroom.  This made me think about authenticity and engagement in learning experiences.  Do I wish my son found more authentic and engaging learning experiences in his classroom than from Nintendo? Certainly. But, I also recognize that the vocabulary mediating his Kirby experiences has meaning within this context that has meaning for him, and hopefully his learned appropriation of such vocabulary will at some point become a part of his greater language repertoire outside of Dreamland (Yes, that’s actually where Kirby lives.  I asked).

Before I sign off, I’d just like to note that I’m not advocating for parents to keep their children home and let the language of Nintendo mediate their children’s educational experiences and literacy learning (after all, I would like to reach tenure at some point).  What I am saying is that literacy and learning are everywhere whether we choose to recognize, validate and see these experiences or not and I clearly have a lot to learn about literacy learning from my 7-year old.

Is This For A Grade? Confessions of a Reformed Grade Monger

I want to start this post off with several confessions: 1) The first A- I got in high school was in my senior AP Biology class.  It was devastating; 2) I was incredibly irritated by the 2 B+ grades I got at UC Berkeley, both of which I thought were completely unjust; 3) I once wanted an A+ in an honors chemistry class (from a teacher who notoriously did not ever give A+ grades) where I had a perfect grade going into the final.  I asked the teacher if I got a perfect grade on the final whether he would give me an A+ since I would have, in fact, earned 100% in the course (I actually did not have to take the final and still would have gotten an A).  He reluctantly agreed.  I handed in the test and waited for him to correct it so that I could know my fate.  (Yes, I got the A+)

All this to say that I used to be obsessed with grades.

But something happened on the road to becoming a teacher and eventually a teacher educator.  I started to see that defining myself by a letter on a paper was taking me away from what I loved about education: learning.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with many students.  Some of them are high achieving and some of them aren’t.  Most of them are, however, obsessed with grades in some respect.  Every assignment, whether a  middle school test or a post-bac teacher preparation course blog is eventually reduced to a letter on a paper, a percent of one’s grade, or the question, “Well, what happens if I don’t do this?”

I have to be honest that when I taught middle school and students didn’t see the point of a worksheet or a multiple choice test, I was often sympathetic. But, when I designed a project or had them engage with themes or characters in literature, explore conflict in a social studies unit, or work on real life application of mathematical principles, I was a little devastated when suddenly students would freeze or not turn in work.  Then later, when it became all about doing some meaningless extra credit, I couldn’t help but feel upset that they wanted to get out of an assignment that asked them to think outside of the box, the very type of assignment that would help them to develop the critical thinking skills that they would most need (instead replacing it with busy work at the end of the semester so they could pass my class).  Sure, my assignments weren’t easy, but they were designed to be meaningful and I put my heart into much of that curriculum to make sure that they had the best opportunities to learn in multiple authentic and interesting ways.

Coming into teaching teachers, I had thought that the grade obsession would at last subside.  After all, my students now, above all, should know that the value of an education is not in a letter, but in the knowledge and learning that such a letter should represent.  In the university setting, I don’t have give any district mandated benchmarks and this semester, I’m not even in charge of a teacher performance assessment. So, with excitement and anticipation, I’ve thought through each assignment and designed each one to push students to develop and demonstrate skills that will help them promote the literacy of their future students.  Not all of them are traditional and like any class, not all of them will fit a student’s best individual learning style, but even that was thought out, in an attempt for my future teachers to put themselves in the place of their future students.

And yet, I still have many students worried about extra credit and my assessment of them. (Note: To be fair, this fear isn’t entirely self-generated as there is a minimum GPA requirement to student teach and to stay in the program. Plus, college is expensive and no one wants to take a course again)

I started to be all huffy and irritated about this before I remembered myself 20 years ago (or even 10, to be honest) and I remembered that my resistance came from fear.  If you’ve always been good at school and some new fangled assignment comes along, it’s a little threatening.  Besides the fact that I ALWAYS wanted to impress the teachers I really liked, to show them that I was smart and great and that they were great teachers and that’s why I was learning so much, so there was also a fear of disappointing them. But mostly, since my identity has always been constituted in academic success, it was (hmmm, do I sense a recurring theme to this blog) a fear of not being good enough in general. Less than an A was really a failure.

It was only when I realized that the greater good that I contribute to the world through teaching was worth more than any grade that I became free to learn and that my development became a natural expression of my passion for my work.

Oh, and it helps that I stopped being graded.

So I’m writing this post for two reasons: 1) because I needed to remember how I was as a student and who I was as a student to regain the empathy for my own students and 2) because I want my students (as future teachers) to push themselves to focus on their learning and not just their grades. You’ll all be fine, I promise.

But, I still say those B+ grades were completely unfair.