Thursday, June 05, 2008

Reader's Diary #364- Patrick J. Finn: Literacy With An Attitude

A few week's ago, Dewey's Weekly Geeks post asked participants to discuss a political or social issue important to them, and mention books they've either read, or would like to, on that topic. After reading other people's responses, I felt so intimidated that I didn't end up participating. Everyone seemed so passionate about their causes that I felt like a poser. Sure I care about issues, but asides from reading about them, I do unfortunately little. In particular, I care about classism, poverty, big business and globalization (issues that are becoming more and more linked). To that effect I've read books about Marx, Guevera, and Ghandi. I've read Naomi Klein's No Logo and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. Still, in the last three days I've shopped at WalMart, eaten at MacDonald's, and bought a laptop that in all likelihood was made by someone unable ever to afford it. The extent of the activism I've mustered is to stop buying clothes that advertise its brand across the front. Big freakin' deal. They were tacky anyway.

My wife, Debbie had read this book as part of her masters course in literacy. When she first decided to take a year's maternity leave, we decided that she'd use some of that time (not that there was much to spare) to work on furthering her education. I had gotten two degrees before, and she had gotten one, so we figured that if either of us was going to invest in more schooling, it would be her. But once she had started, I so badly wanted in! While it's been a lot of work for her, she's enjoying it immensely and I admit feeling a little envious of all the great conversations and debates that she's having. Alas, it's not in our financial cards right now for me to go back to school and so, I'll do the next best thing: read her textbooks when she's done. Not that this is in any way equivalent to what she's gotten; I'm still missing out on the interactions with classmates and the professors, and I'm not completing any assignments, but at least Debbie is patient enough to talk about the books with me.

The first book in my attempt at self-education is Patrick J. Finn's Literacy With An Attitude. It's about educating working class children to stop accepting oppression and to do what I've been unable (or unwilling) to do: stand up against it. Given my concern for such issues, it was a good book to start with, though I'll admit not what I expected at all.

Given the title, I was expecting a book that aimed to make literacy "cool" by suggesting that teachers of working class children should storm into their classrooms wearing sunglasses and reciting some lame-ass rap about vowels (the kind of rap that always begins with, "My name is John and I'm here to say..."-- tell me, has a real rapper ever begun a song that way?)

In other words, I set out to poke fun of the book and challenge it on every page.

Wow, was I off base. In an early chapter Finn goes into great detail about why he chose his title and it's more about literacy that challenges the status quo. While I still think the title is a bit hokey and gives off poor connotations, I understand what he meant by it.

Partly a history book, Finn details the way literacy has been deprived to the working classes and eventually permitted to them but only in a way that helped keep them docile and subservient. Did you know, for instance, that less than 100 years after the invention of the printing press, British women and men below the rank of yeoman, were forbidden by law from reading the Bible? Finn suggests that oppressive, or as he calls it, domesticating education, is less blatant today and makes it clear that many modern teachers don't even realize they are treating working class students any differently. But they are being treating differently and he cites many studies that prove it.

The thing is, a better approach to literacy, one that makes it relevant, one that calls for real dialogue, and one that empowers the students, is being offered today. However, in most cases it's being offered to those in the elite and somewhat in the more progressive middle-class schools where it does nothing to change the structure of society and doesn't instigate any real change. "New literacy" (again a poorly chosen term-- am I the only one who thinks of "New coke"?) in the hands of the working class could be their best weapon.

Finn also gets points for acknowledging that all of this change doesn't fall to the teachers. I've had a few times in my teaching career in which I knew the methods I was expected to use weren't necessarily the best. However, for a new teacher trying to get a permanent contract or at the very least get a good reference for the next job, it's been a hard act to balance.

I did sometimes feel that Finn confused literacy with critical-thinking. Critical thinking of course is vital to strong literacy, but it's just as important in all aspects of education and I don't think the two terms are synonymous. These semantics are of minor importance to the book, however, and I must say it's been quite an inspiring one for me personally. Last year I took a year off from teaching. I've spent the last year working part-time for an airline (hence the many trips I've taken), and taking care of my own children (who as of yet haven't entered that big, bad school system). Literacy With An Attitude has made me itch to get back in there. Maybe I can make up for all that guilt I've been buying at WalMart.


Anonymous said...

I'm interested in reading this book now. It relates to promote post modern literacy (

John Mutford said...

Educatorblog: I'd recommend it wholeheartedly. And btw, I just checked out your blog as well. Some very interesting ideas there for sure, much in line with my way of thinking. I'll be sure to revisit.

Chrisbookarama said...

Sounds interesting. It kind of relates to a discussion I was having with my book club.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I'm not much to read books about education, but this one really does intrigue me, particularly as it incorporates history of class oppression as well.

And yes, I was thinking new coke.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to read this. There is such a push here in CA to have everything in both Spanish and English - presumably indicating the efficacy of both, but ultimately letting poor English skills continue to languish, pretty much stopping any advancement in its tracks.

raych said...

re: post on 'Awake and Dreaming' review

I know! Dan in Real Life was TOTALLY duddy, wasn' it? The best part was when the teenaged girl threw herself down in the field and screamed, 'You are a murderer of LOVE!'

I remember loving 'The Sky is Falling' and 'A Handful of Time' if you're looking for some Pearson. I'd defs not start with A&D. And yes, that is the name of a finger eleven song.