Literacy practices

Barton and Hamilton make six claims about literacy and literacy practices in their brief essay (an essay, that has had wide influence as scholars and practitioners have rethought how literacy functions in a wide range of contests). They include the following:

Literacy is best understood as a set of social practices; these can be inferred from events which are mediated by written texts.

There are different literacies associated with different domains of life.

Literacy practices are patterned by social institutions and power relationships, and some literacies are more dominant, visible and influential than others.

Literacy practices are purposeful and embedded in broader social goals and cultural practices.

Literacy is historically situated.

Literacy practices change and new ones are frequently acquired through processes of informal learning and sense making.

For this week’s dialogue, choose one of these six claims (taken from the chart on page two of their essay) and explore how it is or is not exemplified by your first workshop experiences and understanding of the writers you are working with.


12 thoughts on “Literacy practices

  1. There were so many parts of this text that stood out to me in association with my workshop group! And I know we are only supposed to write on one but two of the six ‘practices’ really stood out to me: there are different literacies associated with different domains of life and literacy practices are patterned by social institutions and power relationships, and some literacies are more dominant, visible and influential than others. Both of these literacies made me think of my group the moment I read them.

    Barton and Hamilton say, “. . . people participate in distinct discourse communities, in different domains of life. These communities are groups of people held together by their characteristic ways of talking, acting, valuing, interpreting, and using language” (11). In other words, certain groups have similarities based on the places they are in or the situations they have experienced. The group of kids I work with have a very specific way of talking and acting, making it evident they all come from similar domains of life. At least at the moment they are all coming from the same ‘home’ which is, according to Barton and Hamilton, a primary domain for people’s literacy lives (11). This point has been made clear to me by the behavior and actions of these kids. But it is most evident in they way they talk. Which, yes, is different then the way most of us talk. Their language is very specific. That’s why the point of different literacies being associated with different domains of life makes the most sense in regards to my group. I write and a speak in a very different way then they do, which I never realized until my last two workshops.

    Another thing that really stood out to me was literacy is “central to people’s developing a sense of social identity” (Barton & Hamilton, 11). Each of the kids have a place within the group, that is very clear. But, what is even more clear is the few outliers in the group that act differently and write differently and speak differently. These few kids are treated in a different way then a majority of the group. So, their social identity and standing within the group has been defined by words and literacy. And then there are the kids that speak in the same way that all cling to one another. They are socially compatible. And these incompatibilities through literacy are starting to show in the (few) writings that are shared every week. But these differences are most evident in the way the kids interact and talk with each other.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading about these practices and it has given me some extra insight into the way the kiddos are possibly experiencing the workshop. Hopefully, I can use this article as a resource to continue to make the experience for them a better one….

    1. I really like that you mentioned how you see the youth kind of constructing their social identities and bonds with the others through the literacy, a cool thing for us as interns and for the volunteers to keep in mind! How we react to their different literacies, and how the other writers react can really affect how they feel about writing and about themselves.

  2. The claim that resonated with me the most when thinking about working with men in the jail and commcorr is “there are different literacies associated with different domains of life”. For the men in the jail, and somewhat for the men in commcorr, their domains of life are restricted. The article gives the examples of domains as “home, school, and work-place”. Especially for men in jail, these domains are not present in their lives. Therefore, the literacies associated with these domains are no longer present either. However, they are in a whole other domain, which is incarceration.
    In the same context, the article talks about distinct discourse communities in these different domains of life which are “groups of people held together by their characteristic ways of talking, acting, valuing, interpreting, and using written language”. Incarceration situations such as jail and commcorr are certainly their own domains with their own unique discourse communities. These can look extremely different than the domains of people who are not incarcerated. Incarcerated communities, by their nature, have unique and specific ways of talking, acting, valuing, interpreting and using written language, as there is almost an unwritten, unspoken code. This has been exemplified in my writing workshops by how the men write and speak to each other and about their life experiences in a way that is hard to describe, but is different than some of the other domains I have found myself in.
    In terms of understanding the writers I am working with, I think it is important to understand that the workshops act as literary events and ones that do not happen very often, especially with adult men. I think they create a space for working through emotions and supporting each other without judgement. SpeakOut! may be the only form of literacy in their current lives that they enjoy and I think that is really important. The opportunity that it provides to write as an end instead of a means to an end is very empowering and I believe allows for a special kind of literacy.

  3. It’s difficult to choose one of these six principles because I see overlap in how they apply to us as facilitators in our SpeakOut! workshops. However, I guess the one that seems especially important to me is that “Literacy is historically situated(8)”. Later on, Barton and Hamilton point out that this could be understood as history in a broad sense, or “A person’s practices can…be located in their own history of literacy(13)”. Historically, literacy does seem to reflect and reproduce dominant power ideologies, which is a major point of literary critics like Elaine Showalter, who argues as a Feminist that the literary canon needs to include more female voices, while recognizing that female voices will not be valued by the traditional canon’s audience to some degree. For this reason, she argues for the development of a distinctly female canon in order for this perspective to be heard and appreciated. This relates to the end of another claim Barton and Hamilton make, that “…some literacies are more dominant, visible and influential than others(8)”. In this way, I think history is helpful in noticing who is not included in a narrative so that we can alter it. I think that is a driving force for why SpeakOut! exists and garners interest for writers and volunteers alike. I must be aware as a facilitator of the backgrounds of the people with whom I am dealing, and as we discussed, their personal experiences with literacy in the past and what forms of literacy they are familiar with. Given that most everyone in my workshop chooses to come repeatedly, I’m assuming that the men in my workshops have had positive experiences with literacy in the past, but as the article points out, our relationship to literacy and which different forms we are drawn to changes over time. For now, I have decided that the best course of action when presenting material to my workshop is to present diverse voices and to have the focus of the supplementary pieces I bring in be to inspire the writers. At the moment, I am more concerned with the message the works I bring in are imparting to the writers than anything else. In order to make the workshop not feel like school, the focus is not on the poem, but rather the themes within the poem and what that brings up for everyone in the room.

    Additionally, I find this article fascinating because of the lines, “…people use literacy to make changes in their lives; literacy changes people and people find themselves in the contemporary world of changing literacy practices. The literacy practices an individual engages with change across their lifetime, as a result of changing demands, available resources, as well as the possibilities and their interests(14)”. This really gets at the heart of the issue for me. We are a resource that is scant. Although other community literacy programs exist, I hardly think it is common practice, and the men in my workshops have reinforced this. What we provide for the populations we are working with can change drastically even within a single workshop and though we invite feedback from the writers, we may not hear back from them on how they thought it went or what they wish we would have included but didn’t. In Tobi’s article last week, she mentioned how literacy was difficult to study and this quote seems to reveal why that would be. There are so many factors collapsing in on each other that contribute to someone’s experiences with literacy and some of them are things that we may not even consciously be aware of. There are many confounding variables, one main one being time, since the experiences one has with literacy are constantly in flux. It is not enough to have captured my workshop participants’ attention; I have to maintain the workshop and keep it engaging over the next several weeks.

    1. Hi Zoe!
      First off, I just want to complement you on the fluidity of your writing and how eloquently you’re able to express not only your thoughts about the reading, but how they relate to the experiences you’ve had at your site as well.

      I love how you included the quote about how literacy can change lives. It’s interesting, because as society, taken out of the the Speak Out context, people would see this quote as yes, literacy can change lives. It allows people to get good grades, go to college, and get jobs. That’s the traditional understanding of “literacy.” But combing what you wrote about, how the men have had various experiences with literacy but how they continue to show up every week and what Bree wrote about, how the men support each other emotionally and without judgment, I think that is really the true meaning behind how “literacy can change lives.” It goes beyond that traditional sense of the goal of literacy (getting by, making a living, etc.) and goes into the realms of experiencing support, feeling understood, and having positive, emotional experiences in life.

      I know I’m getting all abstract and therapist-like, but I truly like to think of literacy outside of its traditional, English-class definition. It is applicable not only in academia and work but in personal lives and emotions as well. Great analysis, Zoe! It really made me think and consider a different perspective!

  4. “There are different literacies associated with different domains of life.”
    I really, really love this claim made by David Barton and Mary Hamilton in their article, “Literacy Practices.” I think it rings true for a number of applications and one could associate it with a variety of disciplines and aspects of one’s personal life. For example, different literacies are required for different jobs or for different fields of expertise. Different experiences come with different literacies and methods (or journeys) of becoming literate.
    All individuals have different experiences; therefore, it wouldn’t be wrong to suppose that we have different literacies. Speaking from a personal perspective, I believe that I’m literate in ways that my peers aren’t and my peers, in turn, are literate in ways that I’m not. This is true for the women writers at Comm. Corr. as well. It becomes most apparent when I give them a prompt with a leading question and they answer in a variety of ways that I never would have expected. For example, last week, I used a prompt in which the women were to write down the “Five Ways to My [Their] Heart.” Yes, some took it in the direction that was implied or to be expected (from my perspective), using a more romantic theme and speaking of past or current partners in the activity, but others used family, friends, morals, and even pets as a guiding theme. One woman wrote about her daughter and how she makes her way to her heart every time she talks to her on the phone. I’m not literate in the domain of child-rearing and loving my daughter (I don’t have one!) and the piece that she shared not only told me more about her and her values as a person, but about her own unique form of literacy as well: motherhood.
    These women have seen a lot. They have experienced a lot. They know a lot. They’re very literate, not just with words, but with experiences. I liked how the article spoke about the various domains that one can be a part of as well, domains being “structured, patterned contexts within which literacy is used and learned” (Barton & Hamilton, 11). The LCJ’s divisions of Community Corrections and Work Release are most definitely domains in which these women belong. They’ve learned things here and they use their various forms of literacy here as well. Could we call our Speak Out workshop a domain? I think so; literacy is definitely brought to life here and we all learn from each other’s different forms of literacy (or, at least I know that I do!).
    So while the article stresses that domains as physical places of activity, like work, home, and school, I feel like it can be applied to personal experiences as well. Knowledge is obtained from experience. This experience contributes to personal mannerisms, behaviors, choices, and words, which can be shared and thus be interpreted as a spreading of literacy. I also feel like when we put all of these people together in a type of discourse community, described in the article as, “groups of people held together by their characteristic ways of talking, acting, valuing, interpreting, and using written language” (Barton & Hamilton, 11), there becomes a great, unique opportunity for the spread of literacy, in ways that aren’t possible in various day-to-day interactions. So Comm. Corr., as a discourse community, presents a beautiful place of the sharing of literacy, coming from different domains of life.

    1. From Barton and Hamilton’s, “Literary Practices,” one of the practices they highlighted was, “Literacy practices are patterned by social institutions and power relationships, and some literacies are more dominant, visible and influential than others.” Something I come back to over and over again is poverty, the societal line of those who have, those who have a little less, and those who have none. Some time ago, a professor of mine shared an article with me by Paul Fussell’s “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System,” and I’ve spent a significant amount of time considering what power in social standing looks like since. Fussell states, ” “It should be a serious subject in America especially, because here we lack a convenient system of inherited titles, ranks, and honors, and each generation has to define the hierarchies all over again. The society changes faster than any other on earth, and the American, almost uniquely, can be puzzled about where, in the society, he stands” (Fussell 18). There is a significant concern for how literacy is portrayed in both social institutions and power relationships, and the means by which individuals like those who came into our workshops have to attain those. A very loose estimation for Americans who are currently in any form of correctional facility (ranging from work release programs to federal prisons) in America strays from 1 – 2.3 million Americans (Prison Policy Initiative). Moreover, an eight year study completed by the United States Sentencing Committee followed 25,431 offenders released in 2005 over the period of the study. By the end of the study, 49.3% had re-offended, and offenders released before the age of 21 had a re-arrest rate of 67.6%, and offenders with education experiences less than a high school diploma were 60.4%.

      I realize that this is not a psychology paper, or a criminal justice seminar, and that this doesn’t matter in specifics to the individuals we’re working with on Wednesdays in Larimer County. But it does. Many of these individuals in jail, at ComCor, or even before incarceration at Turning Point and Remington House… They don’t have these literacy practices backed by power and institutional practice, they lack the resources that are perhaps visible to us, and that is why this practice stood out so much. When reading some of the work that a writer turned into us this past week, he wrote about how his mother struggled to put food on the table, to put clothes on her children’s back, and that by the time he was 11 or 12, he was out running the streets, trying to get things for himself so his mom didn’t have to work so hard. He wrote on the top of his paper after our free response, “Wish I was a better writer.” The literacies that were available for me growing up, available education at a great private school, the opportunity to study what I want, and I never gave it a second thought.

      For the clients participating in SpeakOut!, however, this means everything to them. This program is where they exercise their literacies, their practices, and this is a more positive relationship with the writers than many of them experienced in schools. F. Scott Fitzgerald began “The Great Gatsby” with the lines, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel lie criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had” (Fitzgerald 1). The same literacies that are available to us may not have been as available and visible and apparent to the writers we’re working with, but they are dominant in their lives now; I mean, look, we have people lining up waiting for SpeakOut! and we have to turn them away. We don’t have the same opportunities, the same advantages, and now, we have people asking to make sure they can come back next week, and that means so much. I have loved working with writers, reminding people that when we come into the room for SpeakOut!, we are not college students are offenders, criminals or volunteers, rich or poor, we are writers. As far as I’m concerned, that is the most powerful thing we can leave these writers with, and when they leave, they’ll have those dynamics to work toward, in their own lives, and reaching out to others.

    2. I love the idea of considering the workshops as domains that are distinct from the buildings/social institutions they reside within. We certainly blend discourse communities as we take up the language of each site and blend it with our own practices and writing activities. I wonder what language the writers would use to describe what happens?

  5. Several aspects of Barton and Hamilton’s construction of literacy have hit home with me in the first two weeks of workshop. Ultimately, I would have say I’ve been most struck by the notion that “literacy practices are patterned by social institutions and power relationships, and some literacies are more dominant, visible and influential than others” (8).

    Certainly the institutional setting of Larimer County Jail makes all participants very aware of the institutional framework and power structures embedded in our workshop. However, I think the power structure that feels most evident is the way in which the writers tended toward the familiar dynamic of teacher and student. They looked to the facilitators for instruction on what to write and asked hoards of questions on spelling and grammar. Yet the most common comments were along the lines of ‘I don’t think I wrote this the right way.’

    To borrow the vocabulary of Barton and Hamilton’s framework, as facilitators we responded by trying to reshape the literacy practices surrounding genre and form. Instead we suggested they focus on what they want to express and allowing the form to find itself. The writers seemed to respond well to the concept, but it is still clear that they are uncertain about how to write within or perhaps just interact with discourses surrounding the ‘mechanics’ of writing.

    When the writers ask for specifics on genre and form I’ve been conflicted over whether or not to bring in pieces that exemplify the genre or style that they seem to be searching for. This is a prose poem. It can certainly be helpful to see a masterful example of something you are trying to achieve. On the other hand, in some sense is that not just reinforcing already privileged practices? There is also something powerful in not imposing those structures or preconceived forms and instead privileging the writer’s intent and letting the form develop naturally.

    The force of social institutions on literacy practices was also very present in the way the facilitators were trying to learn the literacies of being in LCJ. When a facilitator was searching for the right word to describe a situation the writers were quick to see the hesitation and provide the appropriate language, thus inviting us into the practices and discourses in the situated literacies of LCJ.

  6. One of the claims that stuck out to me the most was, “ There are different literacies associated with different domains of life.” This was exemplified during my first workshop, during “ My world activity.” At the beginning of the workshop all of us drew a picture of our world, where it could be imaginary or reality. We set our pictures aside and revisited our images at the end of the night where we shared what our worlds entailed. During our time of sharing I could see the claim of the different literacies associated with the different domains of life. I could see the influence the world was having on their identities and their literacy voice. The majority of my group have had their voice taken away, told that their voices didn’t matter, or to stay quiet. The youths domains of life has really impacted their image of themselves and how they perceive their voices. My group of youth is extremely creative and incredibly gifted kids. The youths is very literate due to their past experiences and have so much to offer to others. The challenges they have had to face and conquer, really demonstrated their bravery and speaks a lot about their characters as individuals. I have a group of fighters where the world has tried over and over to take their voice away. Speak out allows them to use their voice and be able to have a positive impact on letting them speak up for themselves. The domain of Speak out can have a huge and powerful impact on the youth to be able to strength and empower their voice. These writers need the positive and supportive community to be able to let their voices shape and grow. As well as, to gain confidence in their opinions, feelings, and identities which I believe Speak Out can offer them. I think it is really important for the youth to develops this concept and have this safe place to share their work. I would not want any of these youth to ever lose their voice and be able to stand up for themselves, because their voices are powerful and can have many effects on the communities around them.

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