Appreciating Differences in An English 101 Course

Wes Mantooth

For my DSJ version of English 101, I plan to teach to this outcome from the “Difference” category: “Describe and demonstrate how cultural differences and commonalities among people have been/are reflected in different time periods, institutions, and social systems.” One way I will address this outcome is through a series of activities based around a genre of personal narrative writing called the “literacy narrative.” The one required textbook for the class, A Writer’s Reference (2020), actually includes a writing guide for this type of assignment. As it explains, “A literacy narrative allows you to reflect on key reading or writing experiences and to ask: How have my experiences shaped who I am as a reader or writer” (p. 44). The book also includes an annotated sample literacy narrative written by a student who describes how recording the memories of an elderly Vietnamese war veteran in Hanoi helped her discover the power of writing.

For my upcoming class, I have several ideas for how I can use this assignment to highlight the idea of “cultural differences and commonalities”:

  • I will provide students with some theoretical frameworks to think about literacy narratives. I have collected multiple scholarly articles on this genre and can incorporate ideas from these into discussions and handouts as well as into my overall pedagogical approach. One useful article is Literacy Narratives and Confidence Building in the Writing Classroom by Caleb Corkery.
  • Students will read, discuss, and write on multiple published literacy narratives, by both students and professional writers. Over the years, I’ve taught a number of widely anthologized essays that fit this category by writers including Malcolm X, Amy Tan, Sherman Alexie, Sandra Cisneros, and Richard Rodriguez and may use some of these in the new class in addition to whatever new essays I locate.
  • Students will locate additional student examples through a resource called the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN).
    • “The DALN is a publicly available archive of personal literacy narratives in a variety of formats (text, video, audio) that together provide a historical record of the literacy practices and values of contributors, as those practices and values change. The DALN invites people of all ages, races, communities, backgrounds, and interests to contribute stories about how — and in what circumstances — they read, write, and compose meaning, and how they learned to do so (or helped others learn).”
    • Users can use keywords to search the database, so they may be able to find literacy narratives by people whose identities interest them.
  • Students will produce two longer pieces of writing related to the literacy narrative. One will be a report based on interviewing someone else—a classmate, a friend, a family member, a teacher—about their literacy experience. The DALN suggests such an assignment and provides an excellent handout with questions. The other will be the student’s own literacy narrative.

In all these activities, I want to expand the concept of literacy beyond the types of reading and writing that may be most privileged in academic settings. Students can write about an experience related to traditional reading or writing, but they can also write about other ways they may have learned—by themselves or guided by a mentor—to “read” some aspect of the world. For instance, a student could write about learning to “read” something like an engine or a musical instrument that previously made no sense to them. The prompts I will use for these assignments will help students to consider how different experiences with gaining literacy (both positive and negative) may be intertwined with aspects of identity such as culture, social class, and gender. As one scholar notes, “Literacy stories can give writers from diverse cultures a way to view their experience with language as unusual or strange. By foregrounding their acquisition and use of language as a strange and not a natural process, authors of literacy narratives have the opportunity to explore the profound cultural force language exerts in their everyday lives” (as cited in Corkery, pp. 50-51).

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