Literacy Gatekeeping

Do we provide access or barriers to others for leading literate lives?

I’ve been deeply contemplating lately, how do readers represent literacy? I’m assuming that a majority of people who are drawn to this blog, identify themselves as readers. So I’m speaking to us collectively when I ask-  Have we accidentally or purposely created an elite club where membership involves a narrow definition of texts and reader identity? Are we the gatekeepers, determining who is allowed in based on personal taste, an exclusive literary canon, or the privilege and luck of having had all the ingredients in a recipe for a healthy relationship with literacy?

“EVERYONE has read that.”
“I can’t believe you read that!”
“I can’t believe you haven’t read that!”
“Girls like this book.”
“Boys like this book.”
“That’s not real reading.”
*Insert inside joke about a reader fandom that excludes people in the room

When anyone tells us in big and small ways about what they like to read, don’t like to read, can’t read, don’t understand—-it’s an act of vulnerability. It’s a fragile piece of their reader identity that we must hold gently. How we respond in those moments could impact how someone views themselves as a reader and will certainly determine if you are someone they feel safe with to engage in sincere conversations about readership.

I’ve worked with adolescent readers who struggle for 10 years and those struggles are always different combinations of things: poor self perception as a reader, difficulties decoding, unsure how to connect ideas, etc. But one very common thread among all is that they feel disenfranchised in some way by the system and because of this, there is a lack of motivation to try to plug back into it. If you’ve been told you are below or behind or have a deficit for your entire school career, there’s your self perception. In order to fill gaps, many kids have been through standardized programs with absolutely zero relevancy and respect for a student’s experiences and schema. They’ve been fed a steady diet of watered down texts and five vocabulary words while their peers were learning 20 words and choosing their own young adult literature book from a library. We took them to the drive-thru at McDonalds while their peers were ordering off the menu at The Cheesecake Factory.

It’s the perfect storm for creating victims of the Matthew Effect: In reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Psychologist Keith Stanovich was the first to apply this theory specifically to education and reading instruction. A basic synthesis: Kids who start out “behind.” never catch up. Ever. We teach Reading Reasons by Kelly Gallgher and throw out school to prison pipeline statistics and literally PREACH at kids to be readers…they get it, they hear you. But what can they DO about it?

As a student told me once, “Everyone tells me WHY I should read all day long. But um, could someone tell me how?” 

Now these students are all grown up, and here’s what they know: I don’t like to read because I’m not good at it. Even if I want to read, I shouldn’t/can’t because all the adults who have been in charge of my literacy development say I’m behind. They have internalized this narrow definition of literacy and achievement.

We know the truth, though. Truth 1) All readers have reading struggles  Truth 2) All literacy counts Truth 3) Relevancy, Choice, Time, and Access, and Support make ANYONE a reader. 

What is the point? Why do we want to be in a reading club, together, all of us adults? Why do we want teens in the queue to become their own reading club? Why does it matter if all of us are in? Because we are a collective humanity, naturally seeking understanding and empathy and answers. Because we all have different schema, and experiences, and cultures, and traumas and we all have to dump them out on the table and figure out what to do next. Because we will all gravitate to different mediums- stories and news and alamancs and Twitter feeds and statistics and infographics and poems and letters. We need all of us to make this work. “This” meaning this life. We’re in the same river, on different boats, trying to make it to whatever our definition of home happens to be. 

I’m guilty, my friends. I love the inside jokes and the sense of belonging. I’m not one of those multi-talented people. I’m a reader and I can find things that my kids swear are lost. That’s it. Those are my talents. So I’ve bought in before- this is my group, not yours and I feel bad for you if you aren’t in it, but not bad enough to explain to you my joke about White Walkers as explained in Game of Thrones (the book series of course, not the show, *scoff*) 

But the thought that this could at best, turn someone off to reading or at worst, retraumatize someone who has had adverse literacy experiences absolutely breaks my heart. So we have to do better.

As my student pointed out, I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest the “how”. If you’ve been privileged with book access, supportive family/friends/teachers, natural ability, a functioning school system, a voice that gets heard over others— how do we invite people in who haven’t? 

We greet. 
“I read this book and it reminded me of you because…”
“What’s a way or a thing you read that is most relaxing for you?”
“Can I read you this line? It made me think of something you said the other day.”
Have diverse authors and book formats on shelves where people browse.
Ditch your “I’m reading, leave me alone” shirt for a “Ask me what I’m reading!” shirt

We usher. 
When someone tells you they want to read, but they aren’t sure where to start
“Here are some examples of formats you might like (journal style, vignettes, graphic novels
“What types of stories make you feel the most interested?”
“After you start, can I text you to see how it’s going?”
“If you don’t like this, it’s okay. You have permission to put it down.”
“Can I bring you a book tomorrow? It meets the criteria you mentioned the other day.”

On behalf of all of us, welcome to the nerd club. Everyone belongs here. 
~Amy Adam