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. I started my teaching career in a writing classroom at a public arts magnet school. The school offered a great opportunity to blend my love for art and my passion for teaching. However, 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 critically about my own literacy practices.
Looking back, I realize I have always taken a creative path to my work. Learning was never limited to printed words on a page. In order to better understand something, for me, required an experience beyond the book. However, that creativity wasn’t recognized in school. In a system driven by standardization, for me, became a lifetime battle to feel intellectually legitimate. Where being “different” meant being seen as less than, it meant being the “un”: unacceptable, unrelated – or for lack of better words, uneducated. These experiences ultimately haunted my confidence years beyond the classroom and it was not until I attended an institute at a National Writing Project 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 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 in order to communicate the ideas from my collection. For the first time, I felt my voice mattered – something as a middle school teacher I would strive to address by encouraging my students to express themselves through ways they felt the most comfortable.
This meant making room for their diverse funds of knowledge in the arts — such as the multigenre portfolio the my middle school students developed around a selected fandom. In its first year, the project consisted of a portfolio ranging from graphic novels to fan fiction. However after a saturation of student feedback, the project grew to support the incorporation of a piece in the form of their art major. Upon entering, each student selects an art major focus. Instead of having related arts courses every other day, students were able to choose one art area to focus their studies on every day. The majors included band, strings, dance, visual art, drama, and chorus. Students produced meaning in a variety of forms.
For example, a dance student choreographed and performed a number to go along with the soundtrack from Divergent, or a drama student wrote and produced a monologue for Napoleon Dynamite. In its second year, the project moved from print-based forms into literacies beyond text and the students owned it entirely. Slowly, the students’ hatred towards reading and writing changed. I didn’t understand exactly why at the time, but I had a strong sense something was happening and decided to pursue a PhD at The University of Georgia so that I could further research the impact of multigenre, popular culture, and fandom medias on adolescent literacies.
Through my studies at UGA, I discovered these other forms of representation provided the type of writing the 21st century requires: the production of new literacies. The term “new literacies” applies both to the new understanding of what it means to be literate in present day, 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”. The students were getting at the “technos” of new literacies but, perhaps even more importantly, at the “ethos” of new literacies. Although this thinking is not new to higher education, the format in which professors teach does not reflect the same practice.
While the existence of new literacies is recognized and discussed, their production has not gained acceptance as being a valid means of intellectual discourse. New Literacies Studies have been calling for educators to broaden practices for several years; still they use the same written-based argument they are hoping to break out of. Institutes of higher education hold onto an outdated understanding of what it means to be literate in today’s society jeopardizing the relevancy of their practices despite support from new literacy studies for expanding them. Paradoxically, teachers themselves are products of educational institutions that have traditionally privileged print-based forms of literacy, indicating a lack of experience amongst individuals who will become future educators of literacy. Educators talk the talk but all too often do not, or worse cannot, walk the walk. This challenged me again to reflect on my own practices.
At The University of Georgia, I incorporated the same workshop philosophy with the pre-service students I taught, making room for their funds of knowledge. I encouraged them to move beyond one form of literacy to include multiple ones, but I myself had never done the same. In alignment with the teaching philosophy at the heart of all NWP sites, I believe in teachers teaching teachers. As a language and literacy scholar, I need to engage in the production of the new literacies practices that scholars within the field are calling for. It took well into my adulthood to shake free of the narrow, one-dimensional perspective my past education provided me. Moving forward, I would practice what I believed. As a means of addressing this conflict, I sought to produce a new literacies dissertation — practices I would discover were supported by arts based research — helping me develop as a new literacies writer, better informing my practices as a scholar, or what Eisner (1976) argues is “educational connoisseurship”.