Reading the World
We are never who we are when we teach. Nor should we try to be. We are something always verging on the more, the better, the greater than this “I” who is trying to find its place in the picture—Paul Kameen Writing/Teaching
“When I became aware of the importance of education I thought its purpose was solely for financial stability. Then, as I came across eye-opening situations I realized that education is the power to create change in my community. I used to think I knew what education meant to me. Education always seemed to tie in with financial stability. However, in the course of my schooling I have come to realize that financial stability is no longer what my education is meant to pursue. Education has an entirely new meaning, that is expanding my thinking and my understanding of reality.” Ana Gutierrez, the student who wrote this, is one of the growing numbers of undocumented students now enrolled in our universities. In the three essays Ana wrote in my class, I saw her becoming increasingly self-aware of herself as an undocumented student in the University. The writing, reading, and discussions in our composition class enabled her to begin to understand what it means to be a student in the University. In the sixteen years I have been teaching college level courses I have taught first-generation college students, students from immigrant families for whom English is not their native language, AB540 undocumented students, students from upper socio-economic strata, LGBT students, returning students, veterans, and students with special needs. In all of these settings, and with all of these students, my objective as a teacher committed to critical literacy has remained the same: to teach students how to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves—for an emergence of critical consciousness through reading and writing.
My role as a composition teacher and the responsibility I feel in teaching reading and writing are grounded on the notion that literacy is a social practice. My understanding of teaching and literacy has been shaped by people like James Berlin in Composition Studies, James Paul Gee in New Literacy Studies, and Paulo Freire in Critical Literacy Studies. As such, I want my students to understand that in learning to read and write, they are learning to read the world they inhabit, and in learning to read their world, literacy becomes not an individualized activity in which an undernourished student receives the knowledge contained in a book (as in a “digestive” concept of knowledge), but literacy as a set of social practices that includes the varied ways people draw upon language in their lives. I agree with Berlin’s proposal that the development of literacy is always already ideological and as teachers we are, consciously or not, teaching a version of reality, the best way of knowing and communicating that reality, and locating through our teaching, our student’s mode and operation within it. In understanding literacy as social practice, the questions guiding my teaching are: What kinds of power relationships are involved in the literacy practices I have chosen to focus on? What are the underlying discourses of particular literacy activities and how can I encourage student understanding of the relationship between literacy, culture, identity, and power?
The design of all my courses is grounded on the principle that writing, reading, and thinking are interconnected, mutually complimentary, constitutive processes–as you become a more effective writer you will become a more effective reader and a more critical and careful thinker and vice versa. The other principles underlying my approach are that the process of learning to write effectively involves understanding your writing process and your relationship to writing, that revision is the best way to improve your writing and that learning to write effective academic prose requires different kinds of writing across formal and informal genres. Students in my classes and programs become more effective writers through writing, revising, reading, and discussion. They also gain a critical self-awareness of themselves as literate individuals who understand the power of literacy to transform their lives and make a difference in their communities.
As an educator committed to education as a practice for freedom, transformation, and self-actualization, I see pedagogical training as a life-long process. In fact, it is my commitment to continually grow as an educator, to continually reach for innovative teaching practices and the curricular developments that best meet the changing needs of our students that most recently propelled me towards graduate coursework in composition. I went back to school to retool, for I found my interdisciplinary graduate training and extensive research experience did not fully help me understand the writing difficulties my students face and their alienation from the intellectual tasks we in the academy are asking them to engage in. The writing needs of my students were, in fact, exceeding my graduate training. This sense of responsibility as a teacher “always verging on the more” and the understanding that learning to teach is a life-long process underlies my teaching philosophy.