What is literacy?

Museum of the Navy

Quarterman shipfitter looks at blueprints, 1943. Museum of the U.S. Navy

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.” 

International Literacy Association, 2018

On the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. In the face of changes in staff, in curriculum, in differing perspectives on literacy instruction.

I am defined by literacy. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. My professional work is literacy: As a coach, I collaborate with teacher colleagues across grade levels on how to best teach English Language Arts in ways that meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to defining literacy, I rely on the International Literacy Association, for no two dictionaries, and hardly any two people, seem to have the same idea of it. Some believe it’s just reading and writing. But it’s so much more . . . .

In the ILA definition several things jump out at me, beginning with

the ability to interpret

in any context

I think of my grandfather.

Over a hundred years ago, my grandfather left school to work on his family’s little North Carolina farm. He married during the Great Depression. When tenant farming, sharecropping, and other odd jobs like painting houses weren’t enough for him to “make a go of it,” Granddaddy rode with men from his hometown to Newport News, Virginia, in hopes of landing steady work at the shipyard.

Granddaddy became a shipwright, responsible for helping build the keels of ships, less than a year before Pearl Harbor;  when America entered World War II, production continued around the clock with the invention of a new thing: aircraft carriers.

He made his living; he took care of his own. He retired from the shipyard when I was five. He and Grandma moved back home and there I spent my childhood summers.

In the evenings he sat in his recliner while Grandma and I sat on the living room floor. She spread the newspaper out on the carpet, handed me the “funnies” section, and then she read the rest of the paper in a loud, clear voice to Granddaddy—his years around industrial equipment in the Yard had made him hard of hearing.

I eventually asked:

Why do you read the paper to Granddaddy? Why doesn’t he just read it?

He can’t, Dear. 

Why? Is something wrong with his eyes?

No, no. He just never learned to read, not much, really. He quit school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm, you see . . . .

I was stunned. This was the first time I’d known of anyone who couldn’t read.

It hurt my heart for him.

But I later learned that he could read intricate blueprints and build to those precise measurements. That’s what he did at the shipyard all those years.

It’s something I can’t do.

 the ability to identify, understand, interpret

using visual

materials across disciplines

and in any context

My grandfather was always a farmer first; he read the days, the seasons, the weather.

He read nature. When he and I came across strange worms gliding over his front sidewalk, he couldn’t identify them but instinctively knew to leave them alone. Decades later I researched them (land planarians) and learned that if he’d tried to crush or chop them up, every piece would have replicated and they would have destroyed the good earthworms that kept his garden so abundant and healthy.

Signs, symbols, meanings, he understood. Not in or from books, but from life. He possessed visual-spatial acuity. Keen intuition. He read the times in which he lived, comprehended that the way of life he and the generations before him had known was passing forever. He reached for better things. He worked hard. He collaborated with a lot of different people. The shipyard management eventually asked him to be a supervisor, and that’s where his courage ran out. It required regular paperwork. He declined the position.

My heart ached again, deeply, on learning that.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another

and empowers them to achieve things

they never thought possible.

That belief is behind everything I do with teachers and students.

The greatest man I’ve ever known indirectly taught me, years ago, that reading and writing are the keys to opening doors of possibility and opportunity. He also taught me that literacy is so much more, long before this digital age.

We have to be able to read words and ascertain their meaning, but our survival depends on more. We must be able to read the times, read people, read what we see, what we are creating. And make sense of it. We must interpret. That’s the entire, inherent value of reading and writing in the first place.

We must communicate well with one another, recognizing that each of us possesses different strengths, all of which are valuable to helping each other. Communication is the keel on which all good relationships are built. We must speak, but we must listen more, absorb more, understand more.

Communication and connection are the basis of who we are

and how we live together

and interact with the world.

My grandfather survived—his family survived—because of his clarity of vision and sense of purpose.  He knew he lived through unique times. In his last years he preserved his life experiences for future generations not by penning a memoir but by recording his stories on a set of audiotapes. I don’t think he ever knew just how unique, how extraordinary, he was. In my mind I see him now—thick white hair, plaid shirt, gray pants with a black belt, black shoes, his big, wrinkled, work-worn hands folded in his lap, leaning back in his recliner listening to my grandmother reading. In addition to the nightly newspaper, she read the Bible through to him each year.

And so, on the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. I think of the constant adaptation of teachers to the times and the changing tides of literacy instruction; of students, each of whom has strengths and gifts that may not be obvious at first. I think of their futures and know that clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being. I think of my grandfather reading complex blueprints and going forth to build something previously unknown in a vastly changing world. I think about life literacy as well as literacy for life. How we live together and interact with the world.

For, in truth, we are building the world.

*******

Here’s the story of Granddaddy and I encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

A fine mess

After being away on vacation all last week, my first order of business on returning home was to check on the four baby house finches that hatched in the wreath on my front door. I’d been chronicling their development daily, so I knew many changes would occur in my absence.

Here is what I discovered:

1) The babies are now well-feathered; their skin-head mohawks have become mere wisps upon their downy crowns.

2) Two of the babies can fly. They sailed out of the nest this morning as I approached. The other two stayed put, their bright little eyes regarding me with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

3) Their nest is one spectacular conglomeration of droppings.

To be fair, the droppings are only around the rim; the mother collects them there. What a job, building a wall of excrement. Worse than diapers. When I first wrote of the perfect, flower-graced nest, the pale blue eggs, the hatching of the tiny pink nestlings, I concentrated on the beauty and wonder of life. I pointed out that the collective noun for a group of finches is a charm.

And charmed I was.

There is nothing charming about that nest now.

The fledglings themselves, of course, are enchanting. They’ll soon be gone, the circle of life will go on, and all that will remain of these magical moments is a monumental mess.

But that’s the story of life. It’s messy. It can’t be comprised solely of breathtaking beauty and newness; if it were, we could not recognize these moments for what they are. They’d lose their value. Only when contrasted with ugliness, hardships, and pain can we see and cherish the beautiful when it comes. We inevitably deal with messes, some that occur naturally, some created by others, some of our own making. Therein lie all the stories . . .

Which makes me think of writing. This nest is a tangible (although I do not wish to touch it) reminder of these commonalities:

-Life is messy.

-Writing is messy.

-Thinking is messy.

-Teaching is messy.

To do any of these well, we have to be willing to accept and even embrace the messiness. We must certainly persevere through it to arrive at the beautiful. It takes courage, stamina, and a lot of hard work, to write well, to think well, to teach well, to live well.

The strength to do so, I believe, lies in believing that the beautiful will come. It’s all a matter of trust, of faith. And pressing on.

Although I was appalled by the quantity of accumulated—um, bird-doo—around the nest, I was also amazed that two of my four little finches could fly. Last night they couldn’t; today they can. Tomorrow the others might.

This is a message to me about readiness.

Everyone arrives as a writer, a thinker, a teacher, a good practitioner of life, in their own time. Lots of messes will be made along the way. Sorting this out is what grows us. One by one, as children, as adults, as long as we live, we are continually growing the necessary wings to fly beyond where we are. And it’s truly a collective, collaborative growth; we are to nudge each other when needed, but not too hard, too soon. We’re not to hold back, to hold one another back, simply because we cannot see all that lies ahead and for fear of navigating the unknown. Knowledge comes by trying. By experiencing. By taking risks. There’s an implicit difference between throwing caution to the wind and taking a leap of faith, that being potential self-destruction versus healthy maturation. These finches know. As the day wears on, I watch the two fledglings that can fly going back and forth from the eaves to the nest, coaching their other two siblings on how to do it. See see see, I hear them cheeping. A bit at a time, a bit at a time. At any moment, those last two are going to get up on that nasty, messy rim and let go.

In more ways than one . . . .

So you make a mess. So what? So you’re alive and growing.

Tomorrow you stretch your newest feathers and find you can move on.

To where the beautiful awaits.

Bear with the writer

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On the cusp of his twenty-first birthday, my younger son, Cadillac Man, is finally giving me some gift requests. Let me clarify for readers new to my blog: His code name here is Cadillac Man because of his lifelong love of the car. Earlier this year he inherited his grandparents’ 1989 blue (the official color is “Light Sapphire”) deVille.

I might also have dubbed him Music Man for his other abiding passion.

I’ve written about his love of music developing long before he started school, how he can listen to songs and immediately replicate them on the piano. He gets interested in an instrument and teaches himself how to play it. He’s studying music and voice in college, the only degree he ever considered: “It’s either this or I’m not going to college.”

He does not, nor ever did, love academics. He’s intelligent, well-spoken, witty, dutiful, kind, generous of heart . . . and managed to get through his educational career reading and writing as little as possible.

So imagine my joy at his birthday requests:

“Mom, can you get me Brian Wilson’s memoir for my birthday?”

A BOOK!

“Done!” I responded with glee. Cadillac Man has been researching—of his own accord—the history of The Beach Boys and their music; he has immense respect for Brian Wilson and his musical inventiveness, particularly with complex chord progressions. He shares things he’s learned every day and I revel in his allowing me entrée to this part of his world.

He relates how, when he was little, going to sleep in his bed at night, he could hear his older brother in the next room playing CDs of The Beach Boys.

“It was the vocal harmony that drew me,” he says. “That was the beginning of it all.”

Cadillac Man was hired as a church music director at age seventeen. He plans and leads every aspect, coaching instrumentalists, vocalists, and choirs.

“I think in music,” my son tells me as we walk together in the evenings, both of us having decided we need this exercise. “I hear a melody in my mind and I can hear different instruments coming in at different spots. Sometimes it’s so loud and clear that I’m not even aware of other things around me.”

I am riveted, for I understand this: I think in a loud narrative voice with the same effect. Words, words, words, always words, turning round and round, shifting, recombining . . .

Cadillac Man is still speaking: “Can you also get me some blank music notebooks for my birthday? I’ve tried using computer programs but they’re glitchy. I’ve lost stuff. I need to be able to actually write what I am thinking.”

Notebooks. For writing music. For writing in the way that he thinks, for capturing what comes to him inside of his own head . . . this is what writers do. I think of the brain research about the movement of writing generating more thought.

Yet he doesn’t think of himself as a writer. Not in the way he knows me to be a writer, or in the way he was expected to write in school. He’ll own that he’s a reader, as much as he looks up information. But never a writer.

This is about to change; I sense it just as I can sense a change in the seasons by the first subtle difference in the temperature, or a shift in the sunlight, or a by scent carried on the breeze. The portending of something significant taking shape.

I look at many notebooks online, thinking, What will he like best? Plain? What color? This one with a treble clef or this one with piano keys? 

I finally have to ask: “Which of these music notebooks do you like?”

My serious-minded, turning-twenty-one-year-old examines the options.

“I like the one with the bears on it,” he says at last.

So whimsical. Who’d have thought.

And so the gifts arrive, waiting to be given on the big day, a celebration of this milestone in my son’s life, not just in chronology, but in the pursuit of his joy and passion. A celebration of the gift he is and the gift that he has.

Involving writing. Not the way, honestly, that I usually think of it . . . but in the way that he thinks. In his own profound way.

How my heart sings.

To every parent and teacher who’s struggled, labored, wept, despaired over that child who doesn’t want to write . . . do not give up.

Bear with your writer. There’s a way. Talk, but listen more. Banging on the door will never get you in, but the way that the child thinks will. What the child cares about will.

Meet the child at that portal and when it’s ready to open . . . it will.

Here’s to the blank pages and all our stories, all our songs, to come.

*******

Cadillac Man’s surprise gift: Tickets to the Brian Wilson Pet Sounds concert this fall. Brian said of his career: “I wanted to write joyful music to make people happy” and that “music is God’s voice.”

I celebrate how this wove itself into a little boy’s dreams, long ago.