Complicating the Literacy Narrative

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In “The Importance of the Act of Reading,” Paolo Freire wrote: “Language and reality are dynamically intertwined. The understanding attained by critical reading of a text implies perceiving the relationship between text and context” (6). 

 Our own stories of reading and writing are significant-- and at the same time those stories do not exist in a vacuum. My thoughts this summer return to the literacy narrative assignment, and how to complicate that assignment for first-semester students enrolled in their first writing course in college. The writing project that I envision would combine literacy narrative and analysis, as described below. This combination allows students to understand the broader contexts of the literacy narrative, and to practice analysis of a model literacy narrative.

 Students would begin by reading Paolo Freire’s literacy narrative and lecture, The Importance of the Act of Reading. In Freire’s work, students are offered a model of analytic writing alongside a literacy narrative of reading, writing, language learning, and education inside and outside the classroom. After practice with the difficult language of this lecture, students are invited to analyze ideas from Freire’s lecture in concert with their own experiences of education.


Why Reading?

Reading offers students opportunities to grapple with making meaning from difficult language. Working together in class and in journals, drafts, and revisions, students practice the skills they will need to be able to make sense of language and ideas in STEAM textbooks, and other texts that require persistence for comprehension. For more thoughts on the significance of this pedagogy for first-year writing, see McBride and Sweeney's A Place For Reading Instruction in Our Writing Classrooms and this post about reading and writing about a lecture by James Baldwin.  

Supporting Class Activities

  1. Jigsaw Method: Jigsaw  “The Importance of the Act of Reading.” Divide the class into groups and assign each group a section of the reading to summarize and explain to the rest of the class. Students can use dictionaries and languages other than English to come to an understanding of their reading. An example of using the jigsaw method to discuss reading can be found here, with an appendix here
  2. Important Quotes: Using medium-sized post-it notes, invite students to choose important quotes from  “The Importance of the Act of Reading.” Post the quotes on the classroom walls and ask students to discuss how each quote relates to the main point of the reading.
  3. Unfamiliar Words: Ask students to select difficult quotes from the reading. Project the quotes on the screen, one at a time. Together with students, look up unfamiliar words and make meaning from the quote. 
  4. Topic Sentences: On the screen, project the topic sentences of each paragraph of the reading. Invite students to discuss how these sentences offer an outline of the reading. 
  5. Examples: Remind students that any of the course readings can be used as models for their own essays. 

Concepts for Reading and Writing

  1. Interpretation: Cite a specific quote, paraphrase, or summary from Freire’s lecture. What is Freire saying here? What are the meaning(s) of Freire’s words, in English or another language? To aid understanding, use the context of the paragraph and surrounding paragraphs where the quote appears. Also consider the context of the entire lecture. Does Freire present the same idea in other parts of the lecture?
  2. Analysis: What are Freire’s main point? What is the relationship between specific parts of the lecture to the main point of the lecture? Why would the specific parts or the main point be important to Freire’s audience of teachers and university students attending the Brazilian Congress of Reading? 
  3. Supporting Evidence: Supporting evidence comes primarily from Freire’s lecture. Additional evidence can come from your own experiences, songs or other popular or social media, national, local, or international current events, and/or research on references used in Freire’s lecture (such as Gramsci).

Suggested Prompts

Following are 4 suggested prompts for essays that could be written in response to Paolo Frerie’s lecture “The Importance of the Act of Reading.” Note that each assignment invites writers to keep the main focus on interpreting and analyzing the meaning of Freire’s lecture.Your own experiences may be used as supporting examples to help interpret and analyze Freire’s lecture. 

  1. Research: Who is Gramsci? What is counter-hegemony? Why do you think Freire referenced Gramsci at the conclusion of his lecture (Freire 11)? Does Gramsci’s work hold relevance to your current or previous education? Why or why not?  How do your own experiences inform your response?
  2. Language: “Part of the context of my immediate world was also the language universe of my elders, expressing their beliefs, tastes, fears, values, and which linked my world to larger contexts whose existence I could not even suspect” (Freire 7).What does Freire mean by a “language universe”? Describe at least two different settings that form part of your own “language universe.” Some examples of settings are: elders and peers, home and school, school and social media. What connections and disconnections do you find in language use in these settings? How do your own experiences inform your response?
  3.  Education: On page 5 Freire writes: “Reading the world precedes reading the word, and the subsequent reading of the word cannot dispense continually reading the world.” What does Freire’s statement suggest about education? Do you agree or disagree with Freire’s statement? How do your own experiences inform your response?
  4. Multimedia: Take a look at the gif “Writing is the hardest thing ever.” What details stand out to you in the gif?  Why do these details stand out? What quotes and ideas from “The Importance of the Act of Reading” support and contradict the gif? How do your own experiences inform your response?

Remember: Writing is the hardest thing ever -- and potentially the most rewarding.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.