English 881/781: Narrative Inquiry — Literacy Narrative

Literacy Narrative Overview

Is there any ability more powerful than literacy? Literacy shapes the world we live in and all the possibilities that world holds for us. As English teachers, its important for us to maintain an awareness of just how powerful literacy is and of the fact that we do not gain literacy in a neutral environment. A person does not become an English teacher by accident, just as there are reasons some people never learn to read and write. Literacy is a socio-cultural construct.

The Story Task

For this writing task, I want you to write a version of your literacy story. I want you to trace some of the most important events from your writing and reading past.

Story Guidelines

  • The final version of your Literacy Narrative should be about 5-7 pages in length. Although I don’t penalize for page length, I do like to give you a target range so you don’t go crazy and write 20 pages. You don’t need to write 20 pages now because you have a lot of other writing to do this semester!
  • This narrative should be in a typical 12-point font, double-spaced, with 1 inch margins.
  • You will be sharing a draft of this narrative with other class members, so please write with a real audience in mind. That means you should avoid writing anything that you are uncomfortable sharing. On the other hand, it never hurts to make fun of yourself in a story; that can endear you to your readers.

Step 1: A Video to Energize the Writer in You!

  • Listen to the following video to get you in the right frame of mind for writing your literacy narrative:
  • I hope this song helps you get excited about all the stories you will write as you take this narrative journey

Step 2: Take a Trip into the Past (If You Can)

If you have had me for a course before, you know I’m interested in Holistic Embodied Writing, one of the newest composition theories. This theory says that memories are not just embedded in our mind but in our physical bodies, and we can tap into those memories as we write by paying attention to our senses. So you might listen to something or smell something to help bring a memory alive as you try to write about it.

In this case, I’d like you to physically move, if possible. Sadly, the pandemic is messing up a lot of the fun plans I had for us. Most sad of all, I can’t take you all on the field trip to Pittsburgh I had planned for us to visit the fascinating Mattress Factory Museum, the fabulous Taipai Tokyo sushi restaurant, and the Barnes and Noble Bookstore to choose a novel. But I am hoping I can still pull of a movie night for us.

At any rate, I’m hoping you can take a short trip to start this narrative journey. If it is possible, I would like you to travel to a location from your past. Ideally, you might drive to look at school or college you attended. Or maybe you can visit one of your childhood homes. I realize real travel may be impractical given the widespread quarantines most of us are under.

If you can’t physically travel to a location from your past, I’d like you to do the next best thing: Take a virtual trip. Search for a location from your past. See if you can find your hometown. You might try to find one of the schools you attended. Maybe you can find a picture of a childhood home on Google Earth. See what you can find.

Spend about 30 minutes to an hour doing this part of your narrative research. Hopefully seeing images of the place will bring back your own personal memories of it.

The idea is to try to transport yourself back in time to this early location where some of your important experiences with learning literacy occurred.

Step 3: Begin Writing Your Literacy Narrative

Your goal in writing your Literacy Narrative is to try to trace the path of your literacy development. You are free to do this in whatever way makes intuitive sense to you. I’ll make some suggestions here to help you, but you don’t have to follow all of them. In fact, you can totally ignore my advice if you want. I don’t care as long as you write a good story. What I really want is for you to do record what feels right as you tell your story. But I will make some suggestions to help those who need that.

You may have written about some of your literacy background for past courses. That’s ok since you have a lifetime of memories to draw upon. Just pick something interesting from your past that you haven’t focused on before.

Since you will have just visited, either in person or virtually, some place from your past, begin by describing that place the way you remember it. What landmarks come to mind? What sights and smells? What was the weather like there?

I grew up in Platteville, Wisconsin, which is home to the world’s largest M. The M is made of stones that are whitewashed every year by students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville where my father was an English professor (which tells you a lot about my literacy narrative). The Big M is over 200 feet wide and almost 250 feet tall. The M was created as a symbol of the old School of Mines that was once housed at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. That program focused on mining engineering, since Wisconsin once had a lot of mines. While the program was eventually closed, the M remains visible from Highway 151.Platte Mound M - Wikipedia

After describing this place, write about some literacy memory that is connected with this place: maybe you learned to read here or maybe this is where you first went to school. Maybe you received a very important letter at this location. Or maybe you fell in love with books while living here. Of course, not all literacy memories are positive. This might be a school where a teacher was cruel to you or you failed on a writing assignment. Although I wish you hadn’t gone through that negative experience, it might still be a useful one to write about. Sometimes bad memories make for more interesting stories. And writing them down can also be a way to leave some of the negative energy behind, something we will discuss later in the class.

Write up this memory in 2 or 3 pages. It will become one vignette from your literacy narrative.

Step 4: Look at Old Pictures

One you have done some writing, I figure you will need a break. So I’m going to have you do  something fun: Look through your old pictures. If you’re lucky, you have them in some photo albums you can get out. But if you’re like me, they are probably scattered across your phone, computer, and the cloud where you have always been meaning to organize them. Most people now have thousands of pictures, so you probably can’t get through them all, but at least this will help you get started.

I want you to spend about 1 hour looking at photos. You will need photos for your Book of Stories, so as you find good ones, please set them aside or flag them so you can find them again. Please look for pictures of:

  • you when you were a baby or a kid
  • you in grade school
  • you in high school
  • you in college
  • you in graduate school
  • trips you took
  • you at jobs you have held
  • you at houses and apartments you have lived in
  • you with friends and family

You will be writing 5 total stories for your book, so you probably want 2 or 3 pictures per story, for around 10-15 pictures total.

Step 5: Write the Rest of Your Literacy Narrative

Hopefully viewing those pictures helped bring back more memories. You should already have one piece of your literacy narrative from your earlier work. Now write about 2 or 3 more important literacy experiences from your past. You can pick anything you like.

People often tell their literacy in chronological order, but you don’t have to do that. You can jump around if you like.

You may want to write about some of these items or something else. You should aim to write about 2 pages per vignette, which would give you around 8 pages of different stories, give or take.

Childhood Memories

You might start with some early memory about reading books as a kid, having a caretaker read to you, or how you first learned to write. People sometimes include things like painting, playing games, pretending to be in school, etc. How we understand literacy at an early age is impacted by a wide range of things.

Early School Memories

Once we get to school, literacy learning gets more formalized. We have vocabulary words, spelling tests, penmanship practice, typing lessons, and, of course, teachers and classrooms. See if there is a memory that stands out from how you learned the idea of studying literacy: Maybe you can remember an early book assignment or an early writing assignment or maybe a teacher stands out vividly in your memory. Pick what seems to work.

High School and College Memories

As we get older, the reading and writing we are asked to do gets more challenging. It pushes us to learn and forces us to stretch our thinking. Often, too, it is in the upper grades that we may experience harsher criticism.

Graduate School and Professional Work Memories

By the time you reach graduate school, you are doing a lot more high stakes writing. You may also have published some things or written work documents that impacted the lives of others. All of this can be good literacy stories about which you could write.

Step 6: Offer Some Reflection

We will discuss whether it is better for a story to stand on it’s own or to offer an interpretation. Most fiction writers leave their stories alone. But in academia, we usually want to hear what a story means. So, for now, it’s good to practice offering an interpretation of your stories.

Once you finish writing your stories, re-read them from start to finish. Then write about 2 pages discussing what you think this collection of literacy stories tells you about yourself as a literacy learner. Hopefully some interesting ideas will have surfaced in your writing and, if you are lucky, you might even have learned something new about yourself.

Step 7: Add Some Pictures to Your Story

Put a few pictures into your story to give it a little color. You can often copy pictures from the Internet by right clicking on them and choosing copy.

Step 8: Picture References

You do not need to reference pictures taken by you or friends and family, unless you want to just for fun.

If you want to use pictures from the Internet for your story, you should make a simple Images Reference list at the end of your Literacy Narrative. If you can find them, list the title of the photo and the photographer. If you can’t find those, just list a suitable name, like Picture of M. Then include the link. Here’s a sample for the picture I inserted above:

Image Reference

Thatoneguy89. (2008). A close view of the Platte Mound M. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Platte_Mound_M#/media/File:Platte_Mound_M.jpg

You don’t need to worry too much about this. If you were to publish your book, you would need to get permission to use the images. But for our purposes, I just want you to document your image sources as best you can.

Step 9: Pat Yourself on the Back

Writing good stories is hard work, but it can also be a great way to gain insight about yourself and other people. Hopefully this was a good learning experience for you, one we will want to discuss at length. So take a bow, you have a draft of the first story for your book. Your narrative journey has begun.