This was the question I challenged my English class with – and it without a doubt more of a challenge to answer than any of them really understand.
Literacy happens when one can fully function in the context of his or her own environment. What may mean literacy to a student sitting in a fully resourced family may mean something completely different to a student who is in his late 50s, having been recently laid off, injured, and diagnosed with a serious illness – oh, and is responsible to provide for his family.
I am touched by the number of students I teach who are able to function – daily – on an empty stomach, a monthly allowance that cuts so close to the bone there is barely enough money to scrape by. So many of them suffer from what I am convinced is stress-related illnesses.
The Ontario curriculum has outlined expectations that students need to meet so that they can be declared literate. My question remains, how can one dictate what literacy is to the general public – a one size fits all kind of mandate? Does everyone really need to know how to write a paragraph? Does everyone really need to know the rules of possession? I remember years ago when I did not see the sense of teaching students how to write using cursive writing – when computers were much more efficient. A vice-principal of mine saw a different angle – in that all students should learn cursive writing – computers may not be handy. Today, I begin to understand Alvin Toffler who suggested that English and math should not be taught in isolation. Topics that need to be introduced to students include things like adolescence and current events – citizenship. I am not sure – but I think to be fully meaningful – education should be sensitive to the context of the student. If the student functions fully in his or her own environment – then they are literate.
For the student who is fighting cancer – he should know all about the health care system and treatment options that are open to him – not how to paragraph.
For the student who struggles with depression – she should know all about the treatments that are available – not just in Ontario, but around the world – not how to paragraph.
For the student who is about to be a Dad – he should know what kinds of responsibilities he is about to take on – how to manage money, cook, parent – not how to paragraph.
Not that paragraphing is wrong – it is simply a symbol of things that are expected and mandated in education that may not fit the bill for everyone in terms of meeting their literacy needs.
I don’t know – but I certainly do question – and in education I think that makes me literate.