In the twelfth grade, my mom lent me her old sewing machine and I started making clothes from there. I was fascinated with clothing ever since I was a little girl. Although Halloween was my favorite holiday, I enjoyed playing dress up all of the time. My closet became a war zone between my parents and me: mounds of clothes everywhere, the floor invisible. I enjoyed raiding my Nunnie’s wardrobe the most for her furs and old Hollywood dresses. I would imagine transforming into Gypsy Rose like Natalie Wood in the 1960s Broadway film Gypsy.
I can still remember sitting on the old burgundy velvet church pews of St. Gertrude’s next to my Nunnie’s feet. She always carried in her purse a statue of Mary and would allow me to play with the statue during mass much like any girl plays with a Barbie. Only I thought Mary was the most beautiful woman in the world. Draped in a white veil decorated with gold accents and delicate gems, a hint of light blue seemed to surround her. No Barbie could ever come close, although my godmother still sent me a special edition one each year on my birthday. She would tell me not to open the box because they were only to be looked at and not played with as toys. However, I couldn’t resist the urge to study their elaborate gowns up close and to feel the various textures between my hands.
Recently, I dug out my Barbie collection from my parents’ attic to use one of them as a drawing model for the fashion illustrations in my design collection. My attention was quickly drawn to the fact that all of the dolls were blonde, except for two, Belle from Beauty and the Beast as well as Jasmine from Aladdin, two fictionalized characters from popular culture narratives. Beauty and the Beast is still my favorite Disney princess and I imagine that perhaps in the beginning this was due in part to her being the only princess that I could see myself in. Now, I notice there are more similarities between Belle and I beyond the color of our hair.
Much like Belle, I longed to leave the town I was growing up in but where she found books to be a welcoming getaway from the countryside, I turned to fashion magazines and movie costumes to escape rural South Carolina. In the story, Belle finds that her ability to read as a woman during a time when most didn’t causes her to be ostracized by her community. Compared to earlier Disney princesses, Belle is made to look plainer and somewhat tomboyish. Belle’s physical features are interestingly paired with another divergence from earlier princesses; her attention is on becoming worldlier by reading books instead of finding love. This combination of her no frills personality and reading books accentuate a predominant cultural articulation: a division between fashion and beauty verse reading and intelligence, or a dichotomy between the mind and the body; the division between beauty and brains, the perception that one can’t exist with the other. Luckily, I can say that as a woman in present time I have rights to an education than she was never afforded. However, I can relate to her feelings of being ostracized.
As a student and an educator, I have always taken a more creative path to my academic 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. For example, instead of writing a traditional history report in the third grade, I asked my teacher if I could present my findings through a series of transparency slides on an overhead projector. In order for my classmates to experience both the strength and pain of civil rights activists like Rosa Parks, they needed to see it in black and white photos. These images enabled us to experience the topic in a different way. They provided a different perspective to something we had read about in a book. Looking back, I realize my creativity was predominately supported in primary but not secondary school something as a middle school teacher I would strive to address.
In middle and high school, my various ELA teachers considered me a “terrible” writer because I was a terrible speller, my papers bled to death with red pen feedback over spelling and grammatical errors. These experiences ultimately haunted my confidence years beyond the classroom, a label that troubled me into my adulthood. It was not until I attended the Upstate Writing Project’s Summer Institute, after deciding to earn a Masters in the Art of Teaching, that I actually began to identify as a writer. The diversity of the NWP writing community challenged me to look differently at the traditional ELA classroom: writing is not an innate set of skills; it is a lifelong learning process that requires ongoing practice. In a writing workshop, students and teachers work side-by-side learning and sharing with one another. In this learning environment, the roles of expert and novice blur, creating a community of writers. The students work at the center while the teacher acts as a guide on the side supporting the development of each writer’s craft as well as their individualized writing process that takes many different forms.
I experienced this type of learning environment for the first time in a journalism class I took my senior year of high school. Rather than learning about journalism from a book, the class was a student-centered workshop as we worked together to produce that year’s school yearbook. Luckily, I was also able to experience this type of hands-on, interactive learning environment as an undergraduate in the apparel design department, at Florida State University. I took courses in the art of design, marketing, and sewing. 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 instead of words. I spent the summer of my junior year at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City to further my studies in the visual presentation of fashion. That summer in a completely hands-on workshop, I explored the power of images through visual media using a variety of drawing techniques, including observational drawings of live models, to communicate my collection ideas. The workshop provided me with both the freedom and the tools to explore my interests with the help and support of an instructor. I allowed the surrounding community and environment to speak to my designs. It was in that Manhattan studio that I felt the most inspired, the most creative, the most adventurous, and the most alive of all my life. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I have felt the same as a learner ever since.
After college, I moved to New York City to start my career in the fashion closet of InStyle Magazine. This opportunity lead to a position in the Communications Department of Bottega Veneta, a high-end luxury fashion company. While there, I had the opportunity to attend fashion shows in Milan, dress celebrities including Chris Brown and Rihanna, and escort Julianne Moore at one of the prestigious events we hosted in partnership with Bergdorf Goodman. But three years later, I decided there was something missing from my life and that I needed to make a career change. I always had an interest in teaching and decided to finally pursue my passion. I landed my first teaching position at a public arts magnet school. 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. The school offered a great opportunity to blend my interest in art and my passion for teaching, a unique experience that I was not willing to give up even when it meant driving a two-hour round trip commute each day. Being a part of a school environment that engaged students through the arts as diverse forms of communication was both magical and inspiring.
I was surprised when I was offered the writing position, the one I felt the least confidant to teach. I guess they had not spoken to my ELA teachers from middle and high school. Feeling like a fraud, I started my first year of teaching in a seventh grade-writing classroom. With my fingers crossed, I hoped that I would be able to make it at least a year before they figured it out that I might not have been the best choice for the job. I promised myself that I would at the very least ensure my classroom provided a creative environment where students felt safe to express themselves in their own way. The classroom needed to be a place for all of us. Much to everyone’s surprise, especially my own, my students ended the year with the school district’s highest writing scores on the state test. However, I initially found that when the middle school students heard the word ‘writing’, they cringed. Surely, things had changed since I was once sitting behind the desk. But I found much like Gallagher’s Readicide (2009), write-icide is present in the typical middle school classroom. Just as Fletcher (2001) and Spandel (2005) had done for me as a writer in the NWP’s Summer Institute, I needed to revise their thinking about the word writing. I found that the best way to encourage my students was to connect to their personal interests. This meant moving beyond traditional forms of literacies to include the arts. We play-tested each other’s video games, participated in a poetry slam, and hosted a school-wide convention to exhibit our contributions to a fandom community. In its first year, the multi-genre fandom project consisted of a portfolio ranging from graphic novels to fan fiction. However after a saturation of student feedback, the project grew to support more diverse funds of knowledge with the incorporation of a piece in the form of their art major. In its second year, the project moved from print based formats into literacies beyond just text and the students owned it entirely.
I left my seventh grade classroom and returned to graduate school because something was happening within those units. I didn’t understand exactly what but I had a strong sense that it was something more than I currently understood. I would later find in my program of study at The University of Georgia, that those units provided a type of writing the 21st classroom needs: 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” (p. 29). The students were yes getting at the “technos” of new literacies but perhaps even more importantly they were getting at the “ethos” of new literacies. Working in and through new literacies requires the type of “presentism” Rushkoff (2013) argues is required for the 21st century. The production of knowledge wasn’t limited to written words on a page, students were being challenged to create meaning in a variety of representational forms. Writing became three-dimensional.
At The University of Georgia, I received the same disgust for writing at the beginning of the semester from my undergraduate students. In fact, a language arts pre-service teacher in my writing pedagogy course informed me that they “hated reading and writing”. I was completely stunned. I grudgingly expected this at the beginning of the year from my rising seventh graders but pre-service teachers! Was this not the field they chose to study? How can a language arts teacher who hates reading and writing effectively teach literacy? I incorporated the same workshop philosophy with the pre-service students I now teach, encouraging them to move beyond traditional forms of literacies with the inclusion of the arts. At the end of the semester, the undergraduates revealed in their reflections that they enjoyed producing the video game and fandom units the most. More importantly, the most negative student at the beginning of the semester no longer hated reading and writing as a result of these units. Although this thinking is not new to higher education, the format in which professors teach does not often reflect the same practice. When it came to identifying the usability of the course units in their classrooms, the pre-service teachers fell back to the traditional practices of literacy. This disconnect unsettled me.
Research reveals a gap between what academic scholars are saying and what they are actually doing. At the forefront of literacy research are the advocates of new literacies, yet continue to produce arguments in print based forms. This called my attention; by only acknowledging the intellectual validity of the written word in higher educational practices, literacy scholars are creating a contradiction between their practices and their beliefs. As an artist, a fashion designer, and a female educator, I find the privileging of this cultural practice to be especially problematic to my identity within education. Upholding practices because they have been traditionally done so continues to marginalize a diversity of individuals. Educators need to become more inclusive of various literacy practices to meet the needs of a more diverse student population rather than continuing to support guidelines that continue to marginalize them. Higher education’s acknowledgment of the intellectual validity of representational forms other than the written word could help to disarticulate the privileging of traditional literacies and rearticulate the intellectual legitimacy of new literacies.
As a student in a language and literacy department, I feel there is a need to engage in the production of the new literacies practices that scholars within the field are calling for, “contributing to the redefinition of literacy through the social practices in which [I] individually engage” (Coiro et al., 2008, p. 7). In other words, I want to practice what I believe as a teacher. This challenged me to think about my own practices as a teacher as well as a student. For three years prior, I asked my seventh grade students to produce a graphic novel but I myself had never written one. My teaching philosophy for writing adheres to the workshop approach that is at the heart of all National Writing Project sites: I believe writing is a process individualized by each writer; I believe in a student-centered classroom in which the teacher is more like a craftsman helping to foster the writer’s own craft; I believe in teachers teaching teachers.
These beliefs have several implications to my research. First, I believe through my own experience of producing knowledge in a format other than the written word, I will develop a better understanding of the new literacy “ethos stuff” while also helping to address this contradiction from within my field (Lankshear & Knobel, 2011, p. 29). Teachers need to be taught how to model these practices and they need to have the extended time to explore practices with new literacies before entering their own classrooms. A potential implication of this work will be a better understanding of the “writing” process in new literacies. Thus a second potential implication will be the development of my own craft within new literacies, or what Eisner (1976) argues is educational connoisseurship. Which brings a third potential implication, this experience will better inform my instruction as a literacy scholar for teacher education programs.
Coiro, J., Knobel, M., Lankshear, C., & Leu, D. J. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of research on New Literacies. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Eisner, E. (1976). Educational connoisseurship and criticism: Their form and functions in educational evaluation. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 10, No. 3/4, Bicentennial Issue (Jul. -Oct., 1976), pp. 135-150.
Gallagher, K. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2011). From ‘reading’ to ‘new’ literacies. In C. Lankshear, & M. Knobel (Eds.), New literacies: Everyday practices and social learning (pp. 3-31). New York, NY: Open University Press.
Rushkoff, D. (2013). Present shock: When everything happens now. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Spandel, V. (2005). The 9 rights of every writer: A guide for teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.