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Thoughts on “Literacy that Matters” and the 26th WLU Literacies for All Summer Institute

This post is written by NCTE member, Richard Meyer, who participated in a symposium at the Whole Language Institute (WLU) this summer. 

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The Whole Language Umbrella Literacies for All Summer Institutes have always been a place for thoughtful rejuvenation for progressive literacy educators. The relaxed summer atmosphere complemented by the typically small number of people that attend (between 100 and 200 depending on the year and location) sets the stage for a reflective space. In addition, the format allows for relationship building because there is not only sufficient time to get from one session to the next, but also the ongoing presence of coffee and tasty snacks encourage attendees to think and talk together.

The theme of this year’s Institute was “Literacy That Matters: Curriculum, Creativity, and Critical Action.” Though the theme was set a year before the actual Institute, it fully reflects an important need for progressive literacy researchers and teachers. The WLU board and members planned the theme to ensure that these important conversations took place in St. Louis. The idea of what “matters” and who “matters” is central in many news reports, almost always referencing Ferguson, Missouri. Black Lives Matter is probably the most ubiquitous of these notations and has been the catalyst of a growing movement that brings race, a topic that has long been marginalized, into the mainstream conversation. Disenfranchised voices are being brought into conversations about the intersections between race, gender, sexual orientation, power, social status, and socioeconomic status. There were many sessions at the Institute that focused on these issues, including powerful keynotes by Mitali Perkins, Alex Cuenca, and Korina Jocson.  Author  Mitali Perkins explored how fiction can inspire children to cross borders and build bridges between cultures.  Korina Jocson described culturally responsive, arts-informed approaches building upon youth literacies and experiences outside of school.  Luncheon speaker, Alex Cuenca, spoke of the role of social studies and language teachers in social justice conversations and shared youth responses to Ferguson. One of the most powerful was the 2.5-hour symposium “Critical Conversations about Race, Power, and Education in Our Schools and Communities.”

Kathryn Mitchell Pierce organized the symposium and invited in representatives from Educators for Social Justice, Urban Education Learning Collaborative, Teaching St. Louis, Clayton Equity Project, and We Stories Project. All of these groups are local to St. Louis and have assumed instrumental roles in cultivating forums in which voices can be heard and other actions initiated that will promote increased conversations among and between racially divided groups and neighborhoods. Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri, just about two years before this symposium. At that year’s Institute, there was little or no mention of race. Yet this summer, the representatives of these grassroots groups came together to share their work since Brown’s murder. The grassroots groups were composed of community members, teachers, family members, and even a therapist—all dedicated to the idea that conversations can and must lead to action.

Themes arose through each group’s presentation. It was clear that these groups had minimal financing and were running out of the love, sweat, and deep-rooted concerns. They all worked to involve communities and schools in pushing back against the silence about racism that had become “normal” in those contexts. One group explained that we should no longer feign children’s innocence as the reason to not address white supremacy. Children see injustices and need forums in which to unpack and reconsider these very important issues. Teachers and families often addressed these issues through powerful children’s and young adult literature.  In addition, the literacy work of multiple modes (multimodalities that include movie making, public service announcements, and more) was discussed as one important vehicle in this work.

Many of the groups that presented urged us to listen to each other, to be brave enough to ask each other questions, and to agree to sustain the work together—for as long as it may take—to reach solutions that serve all communities and their schools. Our children want to interrogate these issues in order to understand what they see and also to become agents for change in venues as local as their classrooms and schoolyards or as broad as national conversations in Congress and in the courts. One group pointed out its work in all-white neighborhoods that are financially well off and very willing to finally engage in discussions of white supremacy and racism. The huge learning for me was that antiracism work is moral work. It is rooted in moral purposes of doing right and asking the difficult questions in order to interrupt the ways in which racism perpetuates itself. Progressive literacy has thus been politicized on a newer and deeper level, moving beyond a teacher’s freedom to teach as a reflective practitioner informed about the reading and writing process to a teacher’s responsibility to create safe spaces in which difficult questions about contemporary and urgent issues must be addressed.

Rick Meyer, past president of WLU, has been a writer since he could talk. He’s a professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, as well as a husband, father, and grandfather. He wants to know what you think.