Literacy Autobiographies of Education Students

edited by Mary Kooy

A surprising Mother's Day gift arrived at my door in May, 1998: my daughter sent me her literacy autobiography -- an assignment she had completed for an education course at Michigan State University. Reading it moved me, surprised me and ultimately prompted me to include the assignment in my English Methods class at OISE/UT.

In part, the assignment read:

As English teachers, you will inevitably be asking your students to read and write -- a lot. Indeed, language is the primary concern of English Educators. Your own experiences with and understanding of reading and writing prepare you for teaching. How? Why? Our deliberate and conscious understanding of literacy grounds our practices -- if we expose them. Knowing how we became readers and writers, thinking about the role of literacy practices in our lives and how we identify and construct ourselves as readers and writers, gives meaning to our teaching practices and provides a context for literacy teaching and learning. As we share our Literacy Autobiographies in class, we see the variety and range of experiences and understandings existing among even experienced readers and writers; some have been lifelong readers and writers while others didn't finish any novel assigned in high school. This prepares the way for recognizing and acting upon the variety and ranges that no doubt will exist among your students. It may prompt you to invite students to chart their journeys and name their literacies as a way of building authentic and constructive language communities.

Grounding practice beginning with the self has seemed logical to me for some time. To get students thinking about their reading and writing practices, their constructed reading and writing selves, I devised questionnaires, prefaced writing and literature study with expectations and understandings and reminded students of the necessity of deconstructing their understandings as a framework for classroom literacy practices. This literacy autobiography seems to pull it together. Students deliberately reflect on their constructed identities as readers and writers and can develop a sensibility about literacy practices by understanding the personal place and value reading and writing. Who are we as readers and writers and how did we become this way is the focus of the literacy autobiography.

The excerpts below relate reading and writing experiences that shaped the literacy lives of my students They vary widely in content and presentation. Above all, they generate a piece of the landscape populated by readers and writers who encounter and create texts in and for their lives.

The History of Reading -- Aaron Bieman

The Golden Age: 1972 - 1976

Huddled beneath the winter blankets where the oxygen supply becomes stale and often suffocating, he lay. It is always difficult to arrange the densely patterned spread in such a way as to provide the maximum coccoonal space. There are a few ideal positions but none that provide a lot of comfort for defying the house rules long-term. Of course, one had to take into account that the external illusion created was of a sweet child engaged in deep slumber, so there was no way the body could be raised that much. No, as usual, the body was relegated to a slightly semi-prone elbow-propped manipulation where a hand prevented the book from its inherent nature of closing all the time (he always wondered why they made bindings that would not keep a book open . . . it never did make any sense) and the mouth was used to hold and aim the weighty flashlight. It was quite a sophisticated skill.

The allure of the book and one's place in it were the only factors that dictated the length of time the position was held. The Beano or Dandy, two English comic books, had an average durability time of fourteen minutes and twenty-three seconds. The final pages of an Enid Blyton mystery novel held the record of nineteen minutes and seven seconds, which surprises some people who think a good sports magazine would top the list. Nancy Drew/Hardy Boy novels always came in last, tied with Pippi Longstocking.

Where have those days gone? Where the innocence and eagerness of reading that captured the imagination of youth? Time blurs the memory and all that remains are fond recollections and sensations of the golden reading years. The elders, on occasion, speak about those days but questions the reliability and authenticity of retold stories from so long ago. There remains, however, the distorted image of a time when books were read to explore far away worlds and fall trustingly into the imagination of settings and characters.

The Dark Ages of Reading: 1976 - 1983

Like all historical documents limited in scope and insufficient in providing what is often felt as important information for particular time spans, the literacy autobiography of the great Aaron Bieman resembles the knit sweaters his mother gave him for Christmas: uneven, lopsided, worn and sparse in some areas, voids in others -- great for any spring day.

The final stages of what is know as the Golden Age of Reading constituted an attempted transitions from early childhood reading to young adult material. Oral tradition demonstrates a time when stories were used as bedtime stories. The father resided on what is now referred to as the Immortal chair and theatrically vocalize the words from a collection of Hitchcock stories. Every night at the same hour, two sons would lie in their bunks and await the next installment. Every night the anticipation of what would happen next grew. As the story entered its climactic phase, however, the father began to utter excuses to avoid continuing the readings. The first night this occurred was met with disappointment but eventual understanding. The second night created more disappointment and a little anxiety. On the third night, the anxiety developed to a fever pitch and by the fourth night, it became unbearable. The two sons were living a cruel Edgar Allan Poe story. The yearning desire to know the ending of the story read to them over the weeks began to take its toll. A decision had to be made -- they would read the rest of the story themselves!

The father's plan was simply ingenuous but there was one flaw: there was only one book! And, so, Aaron listened to his brother conclude the story over the next few nights and observed him embarking on a reading frenzy for several years afterwards. Aaron, on the other hand, found himself entering The Dark Ages: 1976-1983.

Little information exists about the Dark Ages of Reading -- only the records from educational institutions and the corresponding curriculum. It is known that some reading did occur (a stack of abused Cole's notes books linger in the dusty cardboard boxes of his basement awaiting a yard sale) but no evidence of any long-term effects remains. Even interviews based on primary sources do not reveal relevant information about those lost years. Anything read was done to fulfill the demands of tyrannical leaders. Sadly, no recollection of a literary work that captured the interest of his youth exists. Why? One can only speculate. In the school, literature was dry and presented dryly. Literature courses were tedious and overwhelmingly boring. In retrospect, classics such as Macbeth, The Old Man and the Sea, Lord of the Flies, and To Kill a Mockingbird were left unexplored (though, ironically, many fine essays were written on them), rendered useless and discarded. Only in the year of Orwell (ironically) did a renaissance occur.

The World of Words -- Tracey S. Kooy

Reading has always come very naturally for me; at a young age I developed a need for reading that is still with me. In reflecting about how that came to be, I begin with my earliest memories of books. It is in the first home that my father built when I was four that I first remember my mother's den. I figured out at a very young age that I was different from my grade one classmates. I realized that my mother was the one in our family with an office. Everyone else's dad had a "no entry"/"this is not a play zone" office, but in our house my mom had an office and it was a "welcome -- go ahead and pick whatever book you like" office. It was filled with books! My dad built a wall of shelves for those books, and they were swiftly filled and sagging with their load.

Rather than my life revolving around the television as a young child, it revolved around a "seventies brown" fireplace. Every night there would be some type of family gathering there. I found a tape last year of my brother reading a book called You Never Let Me do Anything. It is about a boy who wants a swimming pool in the backyard and instead, his father builds him a sandbox. My brother was three when we made that tape. I come from a reading family.

I remember my mother reading to us from the footrest of the light blue Ikea chair. She sat on the footrest and we sat on the floor by the fire. I heard many stories that way -- most notably, the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I write the author's name because I was instructed at an early age that to remember a title without an author is an action teetering on the brink of literary scandal; hence, I acknowledge Lucy Maude. By the fire, I was transported to Prince Edward Island, Narnia, Camelot, and the Shire in Middle Earth. I listened to those stories with bated breath. I became addicted to the descriptions and plots of the stories. Who could resist the voices of the characters so brilliantly portrayed by my mother? I am ten years out of high school and still cannot resist her ability to captivate an audience through her gift of reading aloud. (I have to confess that by mimicking her reading style exactly, I got an A in my university Oral Interpretation class).

Now -- years later -- I still read like a maniac. There is always some literary adventure going on in the books I read. I try to read one Canadian literary best seller (such as the Giller and Governor General winners) for every piece of literature from other countries. Thanks to literary wonders like A Prayer for Owen Meany (Irving), Alias Grace (Atwood), Possession (Byatt), and Lives of the Saints (Ricci), I am never bored. What began with our family story time has become my personal gift to last a lifetime.

The Lived Experience of Texts -- Kim Girolimetto

Something very disturbing began to happen to me in grade six. when we had finished our seat work, we could sign out a library book from the library at the back of the room. We were welcome to take a book home to finish. Two books that I read changed the way I saw reading. I think someone decided we were ready for "mature" material; it was certainly available in that class. I read On the Beach by Neville Shute (about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, featuring the main characters dying slowly and painfully from exposure to fallout). As I read, it seemed everyone always vomited everywhere. I felt nauseous reading the book, and yet caught up in the characters and their stories; I didn't want to put it down. I kept hoping something miraculous would happen to save somebody, but the book remained unremittingly bleak. By the time I finished, I felt horrified by the experience.

A similar thing happened when I read Watership Down. At that age, I tended to become so wrapped up in books I read that I was emotionally involved with the characters. When bad things happened to them, I was devastated. As well, I was able to form vivid mental images of what I read, to the point where I could see, hear, and almost smell the events in my head. This tends to be overwhelming, when the scenes being pictured are violent or horrific. I could see those rabbits bleeding and dying, hear them screaming, and taste the metallic smell of blood in the air, in the back of my throat. Yet I never told anyone about this, and never asked for strategies to handle my visceral reactions.

I began reading romance novels -- at least in this genre the two main characters survived and lived happily ever after. This increased the distance that I already felt from assigned books; I didn't trust the authors not to hurt their characters, my friends. I knew that they weren't following the safe formula that had become so comfortable for me.

In addition, I was increasingly reading to escape, to be in a safe place, not just anywhere. I'm now twenty-eight, and thirty-two people who have meant something to me have died. Death stalking those close to me led me to escape. Hence, between ages eleven and twenty-five, I chose only the romance genre for my personal reading. This conflict between personal and school reading increased my unwillingness to read assigned texts, and led me for the first time since grade one led me to resist reading numerous assigned books in high school. If they looked bleak or disturbing, I didn't finish them. This experience taught me never to trivialize or attribute to laziness, students' resistance to texts. If students aren't reading, it's critical to find out why, and to try to help them overcome the barriers in their way.

A Reading Journey -- Catherine Mulkins

My mother introduced reading to me as bedtime stories. I begged her to modify voice for each character in the story. Hearing different voices sent my imagination soaring. I could clearly visualize the setting, characters and events described and dramatized.

I learned to read when my older brother was learning to read. My mother wrote out select words in large lettering on white bristol board, which she posted on the kitchen wall across from our dinner table. At mealtimes, my brother would sound out the words and describe their meaning. One word which remains vivid in my memory is the word "LOOK". My mother transformed the two "o's" into eyes. I recall practice reading from my small school text called Dick and Jane, at home in my kitchen. It is interesting that I have memories of reading aloud from this text at home and not from school. I remember sounding out long and short vowel words aloud.

Although I loved reading as a young child, it wasn't my favourite pastime when I was alone. I created my own stories and drew pictures to accompany them. From early infancy to age 10, I was periodically

hospitalized in Montreal and Toronto Sick Children's Hospital. Being isolated from my family was a very lonely feeling, however, it also made me resourceful. It wasn't so much the physical pain that I remember during my illness, but the emotional isolation from my family. Alone and confined to bed, it was difficult to focus on reading a story book when my thoughts were racing, anticipating my mother's visit. As the visiting hour approached, I anxiously listened for the click of my mother's high heels down the corridor. Every hospital sound, smell, and the variety of people, things that passed my open doorway stimulated my senses. I didn't want to divert my attention away from this intriguing environment, but rather find a way of belonging to it. I used my time to observe, reflect and daydream; drawing and making up stories from my imagination allowed me to bridge that gap between home and hospital.

The History of Writing -- Aaron Bieman

I don't recall any evidence of creative writing throughout high school. I am sure there must have been some -- my memory does not reveal any illustrious images. Only when I started studying theatre did the creative writing juices begin to flow. Not wanting to act or direct another's play, I decided to write my own. The theatre became my laboratory for creative writing. My time was consumed with writing and the theatre. I had clear views of the nature of theatre and used my writing to give them a voice. I became involved in a theatre group and began to produce my own plays on stage and radio. The special kind of writing with limitless possibilities proved a great relief from writing formal essays.

The highlight of my writing came when I entered a playwriting competition and placed third. I was happy with the ranking but on a chance meeting with a judge, was informed that my play, though unanimously selected as first, was relegated to third because the other two plays could claim the prize and be produced. Mine, the sponsors felt, was too risky. It was the first of many insights into the world of politics.

Most of my plays were dark and tragic. My mother always wondered why I didn't write more comedy; I have a certain joie de vivre. The fact was, I had a particular belief about what theatre was and as I mentioned my plays attempted to reflect these. I wrote a number of plays and many more are partially written -- awaiting an ending or the missing second act. Some have been performed publicly; others workshopped and still others hope for their chance to make the stage. I always kept the draft copies of my plays as well. I could never throw them away. I don't think I ever wrote a draft copy for an essay in my academic career, yet I have an average of seven or eight draft copies of each of my plays. I say this all with a reflective fondness, as it has been years since I have written at all.

The writer inside me is like a hermit in a darkened cave, who contemplates daily the reasons why he has chosen this vow of silence. For the last ten years I have not consistently put my pen down on paper for any great length of time. As Mary Heaton Vorse quipped: "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair." There were moments when I would sit and write a little -- a few poems, short story, or even a few chapters of my political treatise -- but nothing that I found substantial. For the most part, I have had no desire to sit down and write.

A pen rests

A mind races

This is the true essence of the Artist

A Writing Journey -- Susan Souriyasack

A C+?
What is this?
I've never in my entire years seen this before.
How could this happen to me?
Every single page --
Every single page is red!
All ten.
Almost like being slapped across the face.
Do you know what I mean?
Red marks over and over and over again!
This man has absolutely nothing nice to say about my writing.
What was it?
It couldn't be the content.
At least I don't think so;
Who's interested in samurais anyway?
Wasn't it good enough that I tried?
Did it need to be perfect?
I guess it did.
I have never been so disappointed before.
Those words still linger in me till this day:
"If you expect to go to grad school,
you will definitely have to do better than this.
This is just unacceptable. I am truly unimpressed."
What was he trying to tell me?
What does unimpressed mean anyway?
I guess I knew --
I couldn't write.
How did that happen?
I've written before and no one ever made a comment like that.
Why can't I write for this man?
Maybe he expected that much more.
Did I not even come close?
I was so distraught;
I was so bitter.
What did he mean when he said that he wasn't impressed?
It killed me to know.
I went to the library.
Found what I was looking for in a journal
half the size of the entire shelf.
Ahhhhh -- an article he wrote.
I photocopied it .
I read it.
I was not impressed.
I expected more from a Princeton graduate.
I think I expected more because
He expected so much of me.

It never occurred to me that I couldn't write. . . .
To this day, I still hate writing.
I don't know what it is,
It just doesn't appeal to me.
Maybe it's about
Being creative and
I don't think I always can be.
It's hard.
I'm pretty stiff,
I think,
Or at least that's what people tell me.
Reading is so much better that way.
You can just be swallowed up.
I mean all the passion,
The emotion,
The experience,
It's definitely not like writing;
I can't write like that.
My writing is formal;
Without emotion;
Not subjective.
Always too objective,
It lacks personality.
The typical grad paper
That all professors want,
Or at least the stiff ones do.
It's a paper where no one will dare complain about the style
Or the content,
Except for that one professor.
But all in all it's
Not creative,
Will not pull you,
Nor excite you.
But then again,
What do I know about writing?
As far as he is concerned,
I can't write and only deserve
A C+.

Letters to Live By -- Steve Beggs

My most recent literary experience occurred over the Christmas holidays. This experience involved something I read, which was neither a novel nor a poem, but rather, a couple of letters. These letters were written by my great uncle Ronnie Stringer, who was a squadron leader for the RCAF during the Second World War, and decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was writing to his brother, Roy, my Grandpa Stringer. My Grandma Stringer found these letters in her basement and gave them to my mom.

During the holidays I came home late one night after my parents had gone to bed and discovered the letters on the kitchen counter. I quickly took them to the couch, eager to read them, and yet conscious of the fragility of the pages. What I was about to read became one of my most powerful literary experiences. Uncle Ronnie wrote about the countries he visited and the family and friends he left behind. He wrote remarkably well, especially for a man who grew up on a farm with maybe one year of high school education.

The saddest part of his letters was when he wondered what he would do after the war-farming or piloting. He did neither. For you see, Uncle Ronnie was shot down over Northern Italy before the war ended. After reading one of the letters, I noticed its date -- December 28, 1942. I suddenly realized that Uncle Ronnie had written on the same piece of paper that I held in my hands exactly fifty-six years ago. The next day my mom revealed to me that Uncle Ronnie was twenty-three years old when he wrote that letter, the same age as me. The realization was overwhelming-I could have been Uncle Ronnie; I could have flown through the skies over Italy; and I could be laying in my grave, away from friends and family.

A Literary Letter -- Carm Iachelli

Dear Mom:

Thank you, mom, for reading to me when I was just a child. I fondly remember when you read to me the story, Beautiful Joe before I went to bed. I also remember that it was your favourite childhood book, and I want to thank you for sharing it with me. Even though at the time I thought bedtime stories were "silly," I find myself somewhat saddened by the fact that I did not appreciate it more.

Thank you for being my first teacher. You encouraged me to read and stimulate my mind. Even though I resisted books in favour of TV, you made me aware of the power of the written word.

Thank you for helping me write some of my first papers in English class. I know that some of the words were yours, but your suggestions and thoughts will never be forgotten. I still remember the word, "quintessential" and what it means because of this sentence: "Romeo was the quintessential lover." My English teacher asked me if I had thought of this word or was it someone else's. I told him you helped me but I knew what the word meant -- and that was the main thing.

Thank you for prodding me to write letters to Grandma and Grandpa even though all I wanted to do was go outside and play hockey with my friends. I realize (as I write this letter to you) the importance of communicating my thoughts and feelings on paper. I will never forget.

Your son,