Defining Literacy Today

Sep 6th, 2013 | By | Category: Faculty Notes, Fall 2013, Issue
—by Andrea Lunsford
Professor of English Emerita,  Stanford University
 with photos and commentary by Brent Ashley
English Instructor, Lynnfield High School
Lynnfield, MA
BLSE 2014

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As each new year rolls toward summer, my heart rolls toward Bread Loaf. I can hear the birds outside the campus’ Victorian buildings, smell the newly mown grass where Bocci games will bloom, and, most of all, hear the voices ride in greeting as the campus comes to life. This past summer, I didn’t get to spend the whole summer on that special mountain in Vermont, but I had the privilege of spending the last two weeks of the term, meeting with teachers from all across the country and learning from them and from the indomitable Dixie Goswami and Michael Armstrong—among others.
In that lush atmosphere of producing and sharing knowledge, I also had a chance to make two presentations based on the reading and thinking I’ve been doing this year. By now, it’s a truism to say that we are taking part in the biggest literacy revolution in the last 2,500 years, one that is affecting everything about how we communicate—and the tools we use to do so. These changes have called into question just what we mean by terms like reading, writing, and literacy.  These are questions I took up in the presentations, for which I prepared the following two sets of slides.  They led to a typical robust Bread Loaf give and take—and I hope they will spark your interest too.

Workshop 1: What is Literacy Today?

Workshop 2: What is Writing and How Should We Teach It?

Comments from Brent Ashley:

Brent is a fourth year Bread Loaf student who teaches at Lynnfield High School in Massachusetts. Aside from studying in Vermont with Robert Stepto and Holly Laird this summer, Brent led workshops on using iPads for teaching and learning, assisted with BLTN presentations, and consulted on all aspects of new media writing and presentation. 

Andrea’s research could not be more apt for my teaching experience. I find young people in my classes writing dynamically, artistically, and influentially. In the high school classroom, given the opportunity, students are no longer producing narratives only for themselves and their teachers. New media writing allows for  experimentation, risk-taking, openness, and sociability. Students are creating bodies of work that involve new media of art, style, and expression that challenge how teachers look at scholastic writing. More importantly, this new composition demonstrates a passionate, engaged body of work with authentic voices. Young people are using entirely new media to strengthen their own writing and learning experiences and are often begging to use these media in the classroom.

With the inclusion of many different social media platforms, students are transferring beautifully written narratives into a plethora of forms, some restricted by a character count, and many restricted to a photograph with a few accompanying words. While these tools have been available for these youngsters’ entire digital lives, many of them do not yet recognize the power of the work they are creating. When they are given the knowledge and skills to work with cross-media technology, such as  professional image-editing, video, and sound programs, students quickly learn to create work that produces deep thought and reflection. In my own classroom, the pairing of visual image with text is a requirement, producing student works that include genuine personal expression and opportunities for personal risk. More often than not, these opportunities create an invested writer who is critical, creative and, most importantly, reflective.  When writing projects are completed, my students beg—and some demand—to share both media, the writing and the art. Whenever I ask why they are so comfortable with new media writing and determined to share their work using this platform, they respond with some version of  “Because this is something I am really good at and something other people need to see.”


Editor’s note: As Andrea Lunsford mentions, these workshops led to a “robust Bread Loaf give and take” on the Vermont campus. Please use the comments section below to share how you have managed new media writing in your teaching. Tell us about shifts you’ve seen in student work, and/or young people’s identification with their own literacies. 

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