Lesson for the Teacher
A low-income 7th grade student who read at a “2nd grade level,” he was described as a “reluctant reader,” a “slow reader,” a “non-reader,” and he said very little. I tried all the tricks and cajoling that had worked on so many other students in my three years of teaching in a rural South Jersey community—comic books, newspapers, having him dictate stories, flash cards, kindness. My eventual irritation and lack of empathy got the best of me, “Is there anything you read?” I asked. “Anything at all?”
“A pigeon journal,” he told me. “I breed and raise pigeons and I need to take care of them properly, feed them right, do everything the right way.”
“Bring in the pigeon journal,” I said.
It turned out to be a professional, scientific journal regarding the breeding, feeding, and medical care of pigeons. It was difficult for me to read because of its technical language and my lack of prior knowledge on the subject. But he both read and comprehended it. We had a place to begin. That summer we worked together to turn his out-of-school literacy into something that looked like schooled-literacy so that he could be affirmed in what he already knew how to do, and to claim all the rights and privileges that come with a literate social identity, like being respected for what he knew and knew how to do.
Of course it is necessary to teach reading and writing skills. But the experience with the Pigeon Breeder is but one of many examples of realizing what Smith (1987) and Gilmore (2003) suggest: “internalized and stigmatized identities” may be the actual literacy problem. If teachers do not know what the actual struggle is, and how broad it might be, then they cannot locate how people are literate, and they cannot empathize with the complexity of the struggle to learn and have one’s identity validated.
The Pigeon Breeder is why I teach the Swarthmore College students who take my Teaching Diverse Young Learners course how to knit, as a way to foster their pedagogical empathy. Swarthmore College students have mostly found learning to read, write and do math fairly easy. Few have worked with their hands. Knitting requires them to struggle with learning. As one student shouted across the room during his first 10 minutes with the needles and yarn, “If this was learning to read I would quit now!” For students who do work with their hands in some way (the artists and musicians, those who crochet, those who can repair a bicycle) the knitting experience acknowledges aspects of their identities that are often hidden in academic spaces.
All teachers encounter some version of the Pigeon Breeder in their classrooms and all of us encounter people every day who mis-read their own assets due to the denial of their identities as learned persons by the dominant culture. The college students’ knitting experiences and reflections become a common touchstone as we study acquisition learning models, constructivism, and participation theories. Becoming knitters, or not, helps college students to see the way that identities allow access to powerful benefits in the world. It helps them to locate the skill aspects of learning as well as the language, identity, access, and community contexts for learning that matter. It helps pre-service teachers to develop empathy for learners and to take asset-based stances towards learners in both in and out-of-school contexts.
In my engaged scholarship and teaching, with adults, college students, and children, I use active experiences and ethnographic methods to explore the power of the social identities of readers, writers, and learners. While identities of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and linguistic practices are powerful, I try to foreground their intersectionality with literate/learner/teacher identities. These social science frames have also informed my work in advising students and consulting with faculty as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs for eight years. I care about how people, who are always learning, go about their literate, learning, and teaching practices and what that means, in their peer groups, families and communities.
For example, I am now engaged with students in a study of the College’s Learning for Life program. Learning for Life is a voluntary mutual learning program primarily comprised of student-staff partnerships, in which both partners are recognized for their teaching and learning capacities. Its goal is to promote a campus environment founded on mutual respect, open communication, and equal access to learning spaces and resources for all members of our diverse community. Through participant observation, interviews, and archival investigation we are learning how this program works, what it means to participants, and how it contributes to an inclusive college community.
Diane Downer Anderson, Ph. D.
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, 2009-2017
Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
M.S., Drexel University
B.A., Montclair State College
Anderson, D. D., Lewis, M., Peterson, S., Grubb, G., Krone, E., Griggs, S., Singer, N., Elko, L., Fried, S., Narang, J. (2009). "Kittens! Inspired by Kittens!" Undergraduate theorists inspired by YouTube. Language Arts 88(1), 32-42.
Anderson, D. D. (2008). The elementary persuasive letter: Two cases of situated competence, strategy, and agency. Research in the Teaching of English. 42(3), 270- 314.
Anderson, D. D. (2008). Reading Salt and Pepper: Social practices, unfinished narratives, and critical interpretations. Language Arts 85(4), 275-285.
Anderson, D. D. & Gold, E. (2006). Home to School: Numeracy Practices and Mathematical Identities. Mathematical Thinking and Learning 8(3), 261-286.
Anderson, D. D. (2003). Students and staff learning and researching together on a college campus. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Winter, 47-58.
Anderson, D. D. (2002). Casting and Recasting Gender: Children constituting social identities through literacy practices. Research in the Teaching of English 36(3), 391 - 427.
Anderson, D.D. (1999). "WO-MAN" meets "Callie the Torturewoman": Naming and renaming across talk and text. In Wertheim, S., Bailey, A., & Corston-Oliver, M., (Eds.), Engendering Communication: Proceedings of the Fifth Berkeley Women and Language Conference. Berkeley: Berkeley Women and Language Group, 13-24.
Anderson, D. (2012). The Fifth Course: Imagine the worst thing in the world. Repeat. (Review of the book Triggered: A memoir of obsessive-compulsive disorder, by Fletcher Wortmann '09, 2012, NY, NY: St. Martin's Press. Swarthmore College Bulletin (in press).
Anderson, D.D. (1998). Reconstructing Discipline. (Review of the book: Beyond Discipline: From compliance to community, by Alfie Kohn, 1996. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.) Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 19(4).
Pinelands: Our country's first national reserve: A curriculum for grades 4-8. New Lisbon, NJ: The New Jersey Pinelands Commission. (http://www.state.nj.us/pinelands/infor/curric/pinecur/intro.htm)
EDUC 014 - Pedagogy and Power: Introduction to Education, First Year Seminar
EDUC 016 - Supervision of Student Teachers
EDUC 017 - Curriculum and Methods Seminar
EDUC 042 - Teaching Diverse Young Learners
EDUC 045 - Literacies and Social Identities
EDUC 151 - Literacy Research Honors Seminar