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.

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