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As an educator, I have an untraditional background. My undergraduate degree is in Apparel Design and I began my professional career in NYC’s fashion industry. Understandably, I have always taken a more creative path to my academic work, and for me, required an experience beyond the book. I started my teaching career in a writing classroom at a public arts magnet school. I found each year that when the middle school students initially heard the word ‘writing’, they cringed. Several years later, I received the same disgust for writing from my undergraduates. In fact, a pre-service teacher in my writing pedagogy course informed me they “hated reading and writing”. This challenged me to think about my own practices as a teacher and a student.
Throughout my academic career, my teachers considered me a “terrible” writer because I was a terrible speller; my papers bled with their red ink. These experiences ultimately haunted my confidence years beyond the classroom. It was not until I attended a Summer Institute (SI) at a National Writing Project (NWP) site that I actually began to identify as a writer. The diversity of that writing community challenged me to look differently at the traditional classroom. The experience reminded me of my time as an undergraduate in the Florida State University Apparel Design program, where the writing process took several different forms. Instead of writing research papers, my knowledge was developed through the process of designing and creating fashion collections. I used forms and figures, colors and textures to represent meaning and communicate the ideas from my collection.
As a teacher, I have taken this revised understanding of writing with me, encouraging my students to express themselves through ways they felt the most comfortable. This meant moving beyond print-based forms to incorporate other forms, such as the arts. Students produced knowledge in a variety of representational forms, instead of just words on a page. Writing became three-dimensional, making room for a diversity of textures. Slowly, the hatred towards writing changed. I didn’t understand exactly why, but I had a strong sense something was happening.
Through my studies at UGA, I discovered these other forms of representation provided the type of writing the 21st century classroom needs: the production of “new literacies”. The term applies both to the new understanding of what it means to be literate in present day (beyond typographic forms), referred to as the “ethos stuff” by Lankshear and Knobel (2011), as well as the new hardware and software of communication, referred to as the “technical stuff” (p. 29). The students were getting at the “technos” of new literacies but, perhaps even more importantly, at the “ethos” of new literacies. The forms of these texts supported the inclusion of individual funds of knowledge to the exclusion of a standardized classroom.
Although this thinking is not new to higher education, it is rarely reflected in practice. Research reveals a gap between what academic scholars are saying and what they are doing. New literacies scholars have been calling for educators to broaden practices for several years, yet they continue to use the written form to argue for the intellectual legitimacy of these new literacies (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2008; Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; Dalton & Proctor, 2008; Flood, Heath, & Lapp, 2008; Gee, 2015; Lankshear & Knobel, 2007, 2011; Street, 1984; The New London Group, 2000). These scholars even bring attention to “the irony of a volume on new literacies research that appears within the pages of a 500-year-old technology” (Coiro et al., 2008, p. xii). This creates a contradiction: scholars in institutes of higher education are arguing for the intellectual validity of new literacy practices but not acknowledging the production of such practices as intellectual work.
For three years I asked my seventh-grade students to produce a variety of new literacies forms, but I myself had never written one. I want to practice what I believe as a teacher, that texts are no longer limited to the one-dimensionality of a printed book. Consequently, my dissertation will be written in a nontraditional literacy form, calling attention to stale traditions and offering a renewed perspective on literacy practices in higher education. I believe through my own experience of actively engaging in the production of knowledge in a format other than the written word, I will develop a better understanding of the new literacy skills expected of students in the 21st century while also addressing this contradiction from within my field. A potential implication of this work will be a better understanding of the “writing” process in new literacies. In alignment with the NWP, I believe in teachers teaching teachers (NWP & Nagin, 2003). Teachers need to be taught how to model these practices and they need to have time to explore these new literacies before entering their own classrooms. I need the experience of these practices to develop as a new literacies writer. Thus, a second potential implication will be the development of my craft within new literacies, or what Eisner (1976) argues is educational connoisseurship. This experience will better inform my instructional practices as a literacy scholar.
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