Reading/Writing Learning Clinic: Building Literacy Connections One Community at a Time
In a small classroom in a local elementary school, third and fourth grade writers prepare to share their work with their peers and parents. It is the closing Literacy Celebration, where students participating in a literacy program have taken on the role of authors and will now read from their published work. Their summer literacy program is part of the Community Literacy Connection. The students have been working every day for two hours in one of two small groups. Each group of five students that has gathered together for this literacy event has been taught by a certified literacy specialist and has had the benefit of an intern from Hofstra University’s Literacy Studies Department. Parents sit proudly in the room as they listen to their children read aloud from their work. Kayla (all names are pseudonyms) reads her poem:
The Rainy Day
On the grass shining
Water hitting my face
Having to walk
On a rainy day
I was soaked
The author is congratulated with thunderous applause; she proudly returns to her seat. At the conclusion of the celebration, the children and their families share in juice and cookies, and browse their published work.
During a different celebration for the same program, another proud author reads his writing. Henry has selected to read a poem where he found a place to express his cultural and linguistic experiences and explore his expanding understanding of culture, informed by his new experiences in the United States.
Where I’m From
I am from Martinique,
From a hot island.
I am from the heat of the sun
(Hot, great, it felt so exciting).
I’m from the school
that had Halloween,
In the morning.
I’m from the carnival in the night
and all the fun
At the end of both celebrations, parents have a conference with the literacy specialist who has worked with their children. At that time, teachers share with parents highlights of the literacy development of their children during the program; they discuss other samples of students’ writing, as well as the reading and writing strategies their children use when composing or reading text. Parents can ask questions, and they also receive suggestions for how to continue to support literacy development at home. And just like that, another successful Community Literacy Connection program comes to an end.Community Literacy Connection
Kayla and Henry are two learners who have participated in the Community Literacy Connection (CLC), a donorfunded scholarship program that was developed in 2002 by the Reading/ Writing Learning (RWL) Clinic at the Joan and Arnold Saltzman Community Services Center. The goal of the program is to make literacy support services available to third and fourth grade children who are struggling with reading and writing and whose families’ economic means might not enable them to take advantage of such opportunities outside of school. To date, the program has awarded more than 200 scholarships to students in local school districts. Funding has allowed us to bring the CLC program to the neighboring communities of Hofstra University, such as Hempstead, Uniondale, and Roosevelt. Students selected by their districts for a CLC scholarship receive a full academic year of literacy support services, as well as a comprehensive literacy evaluation that provides a detailed appraisal of the learner’s reading and writing strengths and needs.
Since 2005, the RWL Clinic has expanded this initiative to create the Community Literacy Connection satellite program, which makes literacy support services and other related literacy experiences, such as parent workshops, available on-site. CLC satellite programs have been offered in the Elmont, Uniondale, and Long Beach communities. Offering the programs on-site reduces or eliminates the transportation challenges faced by many families. In addition to responding to the needs of parents and their school district representatives, the satellite programs serve the RWL Clinic’s mission to establish outreach programs in our surrounding communities.
The CLC program has allowed the RWL Clinic to offer literacy support services to communities with rapidly changing demographics. According to Torras (2008), the diversity of the population on Long Island has increased in the past few decades. Torras states, “Hempstead, Freeport, and Elmont in Nassau County and Brentwood in Suffolk County are by far the four largest immigrant communities on Long Island, with over 13 percent of Long Island’s immigrants among them” (p. 5). Many of these diverse communities include migrant workers and families who have recently immigrated to the United States. In the past five years, a growing number of students selected for our CLC program are from linguistically diverse families who bring multiple languages to their encounters with literacy. The CLC program provides literacy support to students who are in the process of developing as readers and writers while also learning English as their second language.
A Focus on Literacy Celebrations
The Literacy Celebration described at the opening of this article is an opportunity for young authors to publicly and formally share their work. It has been a struggle for these writers and readers to reach this literacy event. Like Kayla and Henry, these young authors have been identified by their school districts as struggling with reading and writing; many carry the extra burden as being identified as an “at risk” learner (McDermott, Goldman, & Varenne, 2006). Where struggling readers have historically received remedial education services focused on correcting their “deficiencies” and addressing their weaknesses, at the RWL Clinic we take a different approach. Yetta Goodman (1997) reminds us that “There is no single road to literacy” (p. 56). Recognizing that there are multiple roads, we start from where the children are (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) and create an environment where optimal literacy learning can take place. The key to creating an environment conducive to optimal literacy learning is respect and the belief that every student can learn. We revalue the learner and the linguistic strengths that students bring to their literacy learning (Goodman, 1988) so that learners can build a belief in themselves. Struggling readers and writers are redefined as readers and writers who may struggle to make meaning in particular contexts and with particular forms of literacy (Rhodes & Dudley-Marling, 1996); and struggling is just part of the natural work of the reader and the writer (Goodman, 1997).
To use Frank Smith’s (1998) metaphor, readers and writers who participate in the CLC program have been invited to join the “literacy club.” This means that they become stakeholders in their literacy development and become active participants in defining their academic success. In the following section we introduce the theory that grounds our work and discuss how this particular program, as exemplified by the Literacy Celebration event, captures the principles that sustain and inform our practice.
Building a Community of Learners
The literacy experiences we provide to learners like Henry and Kayla carefully consider the relationship between the organization of literacy learning contexts and students’ experiences with them. Building on the work of Cambourne (1988), we incorporate in our teaching a series of conditions for supporting written language learning. Cambourne believes that learning contexts should provide learners with the type of engagements necessary for them to become acquainted with the multiple forms of oral and written language available in our world. His “Conditions for Language Learning” include immersion, demonstration, expectation, responsibility, use, approximation, and response. demonstrated the powerful effect that implementing these conditions for learning has in the performance of students traditionally labeled as “at risk” (Ruiz, Vargas, & Beltrán, 2002). A student-centered learning environment, where everyone is expected to be engaged and invested in their literacy development, offers learners like Kayla and Henry a different context in which to demonstrate what they are capable of doing with literacy. Creating optimal learning environments for literacy learning is a cornerstone of our work. In order to accomplish this, instruction is provided in a small group setting with no more than five students per group.
Our definition of community extends to include parents as partners in the literacy education of their children. We want parents to have the opportunity to ask questions and gain access to information about literacy development, and strategies for supporting their children’s development as readers and writers at home. In addition, an important component of our work includes providing parent workshops that focus on topics of interest to them.
Revaluing Readers and Writers
The idea of revaluing learners is one of the most powerful ways to advocate for a shift in the way we construct images of students who may be struggling with reading and writing in school. The underlying principle for revaluing, as described by Ken Goodman (1982), is based on the assumption that teachers should “understand the tremendous strength that all pupils bring to learning to read and write. That understanding can help teachers to revalue non-achieving pupils and to understand that their failure is educators’ failure to help them use the strengths they have” (p. 89). Goodman (1996) has characterized this process of revaluing readers as a “long, slow rebuilding of the sense of self and the sense of reading” (p. 17).
Goodman (1982) identifies risk-taking, self-monitoring and self-confidence as key elements in order to create a revaluing program where learners come to demystify the reading and writing processes and build their self-esteem as learners and language users. In our teaching, these components are closely related to developing a sense of agency on the part of the learner and advocacy on the part of the teacher. In this way, the learner has to actively engage in the process of revaluing by beginning to understand his/her own reading and writing processes. The teacher is responsible for providing an environment where the conditions for learning promote risk-taking and support the learner’s approximations. Revaluing, thus, implies a subtle orchestration of the social and personal forces that drive the learning process. As learners begin to free themselves from the burden of labels and the deficit metaphors they carry with them, a new sense of possibility emerges, and educators can begin to recognize the real learning potential of these struggling readers and writers (McDermott, Goldman, & Varenne, 2006). For Kayla, this realization meant taking the risk to read aloud her poetry in front of her teacher and other adults; for Henry, it meant finding a meaningful space to use writing for self-expression, embracing all aspects of his cultural and linguistic experiences.
Focusing on a Meaning-Centered Approach to Literacy Teaching
The poems presented by Kayla and Henry represent more than the strengths of the students in published work; they represent both what was learned and the best in teaching practices. Following a workshop approach for reading and writing that is literature-based, through read alouds, shared and guided reading experiences, and space for uninterrupted independent reading, the students were immersed in high-quality authentic literature. In our CLC program, engagements with texts are more than an opportunity for developing the reading strategies of proficient readers; they are an opportunity to experience rich language and new worlds; to explore new interests or genres; and to build background knowledge and make connections across disciplines (Atwell, 1998; Laminack & Wadsworth, 2006). Literature discussions, journal responses, and curricular engagements like graffiti boards and sketch to stretch (Short, Harste, & Burke, 1996) create social and reflective opportunities that allow learners to deepen their understandings of the texts. Through their transactions with the texts, Kayla, Henry and their peers found connections to their own life experiences and interests and, in the process, found texts that mattered to them. These learning invitations move the reading experience from learning to read to reading to learn, and they validate learners in the community when they discover that there is no one way to respond to a book.
As they learned to read like writers (Ray, 1999; Smith, 1988), the texts and authors Kayla and Henry came to know became their writing mentors. Using mentor texts to study the author’s craft allowed them to borrow “wondrous words” and envision possibilities in their own writing to express their own stories. These experiences exemplify the philosophy of the writer’s workshop at the RWL Clinic. In Kayla’s poem, her voice is clearly heard as she explores a small moment and plays with imagery after a group read aloud. Kayla’s presentation of her work came after engagement in the writing process of brainstorming of ideas, drafting, revising, editing and publication; like her reading experiences, the final sharing of her work came after participation in the authoring cycle as well, where she was invited to literacy engagements in a collaborative, reflective learning curriculum (Short, Harste, & Burke, 1996). In the authoring cycle, both reading and writing are meaningful and purposeful.
Using Language and Culture as a Resource for Learning
Years of research into the social and cultural nature of literacy learning have revealed that learners “acquire the foundations of literacy within their native language and culture” (Pérez, 2004, p. 27). The literacy engagements we provide in our instruction ensure that we build on the wealth of language experiences that students have in their homes and communities. That is, we Student participating in Community Literacy Connection satellite program. 14 HOFSTRAhorizons spring 2010 make use of a “funds of knowledge” framework (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005), where students are invited to use their heritage languages and cultural practices as resources for academic success.
Given the richness of the cultural and linguistic landscapes that exist in all the communities where we provide a CLC program, our literacy specialists strive to create multilingual and multicultural environments for literacy learning. This means that our stance as educators is informed by an ideology that values linguistic diversity as a resource, not a problem that needs to be overcome (Ruiz, 1984). The resulting learning context can be described as culturally responsive (Gay, 2000), where learners can make use of their language and their culture as a resource for making meaning. For reading, this means that we strive to invite our learners to transact with culturally authentic texts (Fox & Short, 2003) in order for them to tap into their schema and experiences to make sense of texts. In terms of writing, a culturally responsive approach ensures that teachers value the students’ approximations toward control of conventional writing structures in English, while allowing students to incorporate knowledge of their heritage language as a scaffold for their writing. Within this culturally responsive learning context, writers like Henry can compose a poem like “Where I’m From,” which is a personal variation of the work by George Ella Lyon, Henry expertly provides the reader with a sense of place by juxtaposing his homeland experiences in Martinique with his Halloween experiences in the United States, thus creating a text uniquely personal and grounded in his cultural identity.
Enacting Our Mission
Our description of the theoretical principles and practices that shape our work through the CLC program is but one example of the multiple ways in which the RWL Clinic serves the community with high-quality out-ofschool programs. These principles permeate all the initiatives established at the RWL Clinic. It has been well documented in the literature that outof- school programs have the potential to provide literacy learning experiences that are different from those found in school; they build on what’s happening in schools, and they extend access to different literacy practices responding to specific community needs (Hull & Schultz, 2001).
Looking Into the Future: Developing 21st-Century Literacies
The RWL Clinic is committed to valuing students’ linguistic and cultural lives, and incorporating students’ experiences with literacy in new and innovative ways to help them develop their strengths and identities as readers and writers for the 21st century. Our work focuses on supporting learners to recognize that reading and writing are purposeful and meaningful in our lives. Acknowledging multilingual, multimodal literacies, our goal is to promote out-of school literacies that build upon what students already know and help them expand their literacy practices and repertoires.
We live in a rapidly changing world. To keep pace with the changing demands of society, our definitions of reading and writing need to include all the ways in which we communicate, collaborate, and connect. As an out-ofschool program, the CLC is well suited to foster new forms of literacy. We believe that “It is essential that literacy educators and others support equal access to information technologies for all students to ensure that each student has equal access to life’s opportunities” (IRA, 2009). To that end, our programs are changing to address and prepare our students and our children with the skills and strategies necessary for the digital age. Utilizing the power of technology to engage all learners in higher-level thinking experiences, our students have the opportunity to incorporate multimodal and multimedia technology to re-envision writing in digital times and to compose their stories as they author themselves into the world.
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