Some of my literate life

My earliest literacy memories are of evenings sitting at home with my father, waiting for my mom to come home from work, playing a game we invented together. Who could recite the most Mother Goose nursery rhymes? The winner would get something intangible like a kiss, but sometimes something delicious like a twinkie. We’d sit hours, challenging each other on the couch ’til someone fell. Jack and Jill, Little Miss Moffett, Hickory Dickory Dock, you name it.

Lots of home time was also devoted to music and musicals. There was always something playing in the house, whether it be classical music my father fancied, or old records from the seventies and sixties that my parents grew up with, e.g., Beatles, Derek & the Dominoes, Beach Boys, Al Green. But the music we really learned to sing along with was music we learned through televised musicals like Hello Dolly, Annie, and Mary Poppins. I can remember to this day, almost every word in the script from Mary Poppins, having likely watched it 200+ times. At night when I’d have trouble sleeping, I’d lie back in my bed and try to recite the lines from start to finish. Inevitably, I’d fall asleep before Mary Poppins arrived to take the job at the Banks’ home.

My mom, the over achiever, taught me to read in my bedroom closet with “Sam I am” books she’d photocopied from a friend.

This was all before I got to school which was great, but conversely, this made me the girl who had to go to the first grade room for reading when the rest of the kindergardeners were enjoying class together, learning colors, phonics, etc.. This meant that I learned to read in sort of an isolated way, never really meshed well with the older kids and the younger ones never really got to know me during reading time. Having that social life around reading would have made me less self conscious about these skills or could have possibly helped me fit in better.

I remember late nights with encyclopedias, crayons, and lined paper writing book reports on electric eels in 3rd grade and rehearsing oral reports on garlic and Beethoven in 4th grade, complete with hand painted posters and musical recordings to engage my audience.

For fun, I’d curl up on the top bunk of my bunkbed with the Anastasia series by Lowis Lowry or the Sweet Valley High books.

I could relate to Anastasia who had weird academic/artistic parents and didn’t like her little brother too much. I could not relate to the Sweet Valley High twins, but thought they were amazing, beautiful, and the people I wished I could be. I longed to live with their hair, their friends, and their “normal” popular lives.

Middle school was a blur. I remember nothing other than carrying a ridiculously large alto saxophone case up the hill and home for band practice, hating reading Great Expectations in school, listening to alot of Bon Jovi, Guns n Roses, and Motley Crue, lusting after Johnny Depp on 21 Jumpstreet, trying to learn Spanish since the cutest guy in my grade was from Mexico, and figuring out how I could get out of the house with big hoop earrings and too short skirts.

It’s funny. As I think back now, my interests started to shift away from reading series and chapter books and toward film and music in my teen years. I’m not sure if that was a function of the times, new media, age, my parents’ interests, living in Los Angeles, but I haven’t read for pleasure in such a sustained way since 6th grade. This is not to say that I don’t read for pleasure, but more that I watched alot more movies than books. When I turned 14 and entered high school, my parents both got jobs in Kalamazoo, Michigan, so we picked up and moved from the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles, California, to the sleepy little midwestern college town of K’zoo. There I was angry to be away from sunshine, friends, and family. But I can remember Mr. Tod, my senior AP English teacher – a man to love and hate. With a shiny balding head, in ill fitted suits, through a high pitched voice, and with incredibly high expectations he taught me something I’d never forget, however, is that films are texts to watch deeply, ruminate on like poetry, and consider juxtaposed alongside literature. In his class we watched film versions of books and watched films with completely different narrative plots that we could compare and contrast to literature we read. So it was okay that Tom Sheffler wrote an entire paper comparing Star Wars to Shane. This was my favorite literacy memory from high school. We could legitimately watch films for school.

This love stuck with me into college at the University of Chicago where I majored in English Literature and focused on bicultural literature, theatre, and film. There I fell in love with authors like Sandra Cisneros (who I never read in school prior), poets like Nikki Giovanni, filmmakers like Julie Dash, and playwrites like Stoppard, Chekov, and Genet. I hungered for all this textual culture I’d never encountered at home or in public school in Los Angeles or Kalamazoo Michigan. My professors were young, wore black, read contemporary work, seethed with passion, and made us by hundreds of dollars worth of books. We read at least a book a week, if not more, watched multiple films multiple times. And I learned that Spike Lee’s Girl 6 was a work of genius as I watched it and critically analyzed it 8 times over the course of one weekend.

But graduating with an English literature degree left me a pile of confusion – a pile Teach for America swept up and transported to Compton, California where I thought I would teach fourth grade at the Willard Math/Science Academy for a few years ’til I figured out what to do next or went to law school. Much to my surprise, teaching fourth grade was one of the most tiring and stimulating creative endeavors of my life. It allowed me so much freedom to create curriculum, enjoy young children, learn new techniques and strategies for teaching, struggle to engage learners reading and writing WAY below “grade level” and made me a respected, cared for member of a school/home/family community I never thought I’d gain entree into. What I had not anticipated was the amount of work it was, studying curriculum, creating curriculum, grading student work, communicating with parents, learning how to teach all day, everyday, and crashing in an exhausted heap every night, sometimes before 9pm.

What I’d also forgotten about California was how dominant the Spanish language was. After three years chugging away in Compton, I finally decided that in order to become a better teacher there, I needed to take my spanish language learning seriously. I could no longer rely on paraprofessionals and students to translate my joy and concern to parents. I needed to be able to speak the words with confidence, eye contact, and know that my words were not only being received, but translated correctly. I resigned from my post in Compton and moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina for 2001 to teach English as a Foreign Language and learn Spanish.

There I learned first hand what it’s like to lose your identity. In one plane ride my sense of self, humor, place had been stripped from me, replaced with this bumbling idiot who had no idea how to express a simple request like, “Plastic, please” at the grocery store, let alone get around, make friends, get a job, and find an apartment. With alot of help from kind people at a language institute and some support from expats, I got settled, and eventually worked teaching business adults in the morning, high school students during the early morning, fifth graders after lunch, and private adult and child clients at their homes in the evening. There I learned how far popular culture and media will get you in the world of language learning and acquisition. Students longed to speak, read, and write about Rolling Stone articles they’d read, bands they loved, underground games they played, films they watched, and online adventures they had. My life living with North American pop culture was a constant curiosity to them and they never tired of discussing the Simpsons, George W. Bush, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers with me. I returned to the United States determined to better understand people living outside their countries, speaking new languages, and refashioning their identities with words, cultural references, and contexts that were completely foreign to them. I was also sure that I needed to pay closer attention to my students’ interests in my curriculum.

Back in the US, I moved up to New Haven, Connecticut with my partner attending law school. There I found work at Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy, teaching middle school Bilingual and Transitional Language Arts one year, and moving back to teaching inclusion fourth grade the year following. Connecticut’s requirements for teachers were much stricter than California’s, so I was required to go back to school for a Master’s degree while teaching. This meant days teaching and nights studying and attending school. Weekends were a study-fest. Time I’d used for fun turned into time for school work. I no longer wrote and read for pleasure and instead, wrote and read for school. One or two professors stood out as people who encouraged me to develop my own curricula and enjoy reading and teaching short stories, but by in large, my courses were flat and not challenging. I hope that is not the case with this course for you.

But there in New Haven my teaching evolved as I found new uses for all the music, film, and television work I’d done in Argentina. Students also delighted in reading shorts by bicultural authors I’d adored in college. Fourth graders loved reading, talking, and drawing about Sandra Cisneros’ chapter “Hair.” And eighth graders wrote and acted out their own plays based on popular telenovelas they watched with their families in the evenings.

After a year teaching in New Haven and earning my master’s degree, I surveyed my position as a teacher in the public school system. I’d been teaching for five years at this point, but always in Title I schools with little power over my work environment. While I could close my door and teach as I wanted to and was typically praised by administration for my creativity and organization, I was rarely inspired by my co-workers and felt a lack of learning and challenge that usually drove me to improve my skills and make more of my work. I’d begun to stagnate. And I was tired of being trotted out for the dog and pony show that the principal put on for district superintendents, with little concern for my own professional development in between these events. After my second year in New Haven, I entered the doctoral program at Columbia Teachers College, determined to become a principal and change Title I school teachers’ and students’ lives. After a year I realized I did not want the life of an administrator, but was enamored with the questions that circulated in classrooms between teachers and students as they negotiated meanings for popular culture texts, mainstream curriculum, and their own personal identities. This lead me to my dissertation research project “Pop Culture, Literacy, and Identity: Performative Politics in a High School English Classroom.” During this study, I spent a year observing, talking, and listening in a tenth grade high school English classroom as a teacher and students negotiated meanings for pop culture texts like clothing, jewelry, food, and slang, in addition to more normative pop culture texts (e.g., TV, popular music, and icons) and navigated the boundaries of what did and did not count as “literate” practice in their classroom.

This semester, I am excited to bring this range of work and life experiences into my teaching at CUNY College of Staten Island as I work alongside you this semester. I welcome your comments, questions, and stories as our days unfold.

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