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Expanding Literacies

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Many educational policies today, including elements of the common core, encourage active learning, deep learning, learning by doing. In many ways, such policies have circled back to John Dewey and his progressive philosophy, and they echo philosopher Gilbert Ryle (in The Philosophy of Mind) who argues that “knowing that” (that is, knowing about something) must be augmented and balanced by “knowing how.”

135119_pastedImage_9.pngI have always understood literacy to be about actions, about doing, about embodying and being. Perhaps that's one reason why I'm such a fan of the current food literacy programs I see popping up all across the country. I've written before about the magnificent Food Literacy Project in Louisville, Kentucky and about the exciting collaboration between Brent Peters, who has turned Fern Creek High into an “edible campus,” and Rex Lee Jim and students from Window Rock High of the Navajo Nation (dubbed theNavajo Kentuckians”). The students in these schools and communities are developing as writers and readers, to be sure, but they are doing so in the context of gardening, of farming, of tending the earth and its nourishment. I have seen firsthand how such programs impact an entire community, as the students teach their friends and relatives about how they can better control their lives by controlling their diets. I can only imagine what such a program in every community could do to address major health issues such as childhood obesity, diabetes, and eating disorders.

I recently learned of the Food Literacy Center in Sacramento, where they are teaching “low-income elementary children cooking and nutrition to improve our health, environment, and economy. And I've been following Kirk Bergstrom, Executive Director of Nourish Initiative. In one of his postings, Bergstrom chronicles his own journey to food literacy:

135120_pastedImage_14.pngAt Nourish, Bergstrom and his colleagues define food literacy as “understanding the story of our food from farm to table, and back to the soil.” You can check out Nourish online and take a food literacy quiz.

Looking back on my childhood, I realize I grew up in a fairly food literate family. While my dad and some of my aunts and uncles had “day” jobs in offices or factories, they were country people. All my uncles and aunts had large vegetable and fruit gardens; they grew most of what we ate. They churned butter. They milked cows. And they kept pigs and chickens, and caught fish, for us to eat as well. So we knew where our food came from (in fact, I was often sent to the garden to “scrabble” for small new potatoes or to pick cucumbers and tomatoes for salad, and after dinner I got to collect all the scraps and feed the pigs, a task I absolutely loved). But that was then. Most kids today are like Bergstrom; for them, food comes from a grocery store or a fast food place; they have no such direct connection to what they consume. I am hoping that my grand-nieces Audrey and Lila will have access to a food literacy program so that their food literacy can match the other literacies they are developing. I wish the same thing for every other young person.

Among college students, I see a growing awareness of food-related issues and a growing commitment to eating local and to sustainability. When we offer first-year courses on any of these themes, they are always fully subscribed. So I'm wondering what writing programs, and writing teachers, can do to help further the food literacy movement. Certainly we can introduce our students to the movement and engage them in doing research about it. But I wonder if we could go further: could writing centers, perhaps, adopt a garden space and plant and maintain it? What might come of such an enterprise in terms of traditional literacy? My bet is that such a program would lead not only to learning by doing in the garden but by a lot of very rich talk and writing and research about the experience.

  So—how about a gardening across the curriculum movement?

[Photos via: USDA, on Flickr, and Masahiro Ihara, on Flickr]

3 Comments
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Andrea, I would love to talk with you more regarding this!  I am a PhD student at Auburn University, and this is a research area of which I am passionate.

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Hi, Lee Ann-- I'm Andrea's handbook editor, and I'm wondering if you'll be at 4Cs in Houston. Andrea's doing a workshop there that might interest you. You can email me directly at Carolyn.Lengel@macmillan.com if you're interested....

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Andrea, I'm using "Food Matters"--one of the Bedford Spotlight Readers-- for our text in a class I'm teaching July 18-August 18. It's a lower-division Intermediate Reading & Composition course, and I'm leaning toward the shorter selections, because they mirror the 500- to 700-word essays the students will write. I'm looking forward to the discussions we'll have--and I plan to use that Food Literacy Quiz you linked to.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.