Re-Learning Literacy in Summer School
This past summer, I had the opportunity to work as an Americorps teacher in North Minneapolis. Being an English major, and an avid book reader, I thought I had already mastered most of the primary skills of reading and writing. Was I wrong. Even more surprising was realizing that I was re-learning the ABC's from an eight-year-old Hmong girl for whom English was a third language.
As we sat together in silence during the third week of school, I racked my brains trying to think of a way to get her to start writing. Although there was a language barrier between us, it seemed like we had a more basic communication problem. Over and over the two of us would talk, read books - I even discovered her love for Hangman. As we talked, she would construct elaborate descriptions of her family, her favorite foods and games, but when I asked her to write it down she just stared at the paper.
Finally, the problem dawned on me during a training with a Hmong language specialist. She explained that Hmong speakers were quick at picking up oral language, but couldn't grasp the idea of written words as quickly - because their native language had never included an alphabet until it was compared to English! I had never even contemplated a language with a written component, and I realized how narrow my point of view had been when working with my student. From that day, I learned that I would have to re-learn my idea of reading and writing as I knew it.
When we started school the following Monday, I turned to my eager Hmong student, and asked her if she wanted to work on a story. She nodded furiously, and began to tell me about a princess in a castle who was being chased by evil witches and monsters. Obviously, she was a natural writer. It was me who had the trouble recognizing it.
This experience has helped me re-define my idea of what it means to be able to read and write - sometimes that is a process that has many more factors than grammar and a good thesis. As I work on my literacy development, I try to keep in mind the fact that all writers are learning. In my case, I want to learn how to improve the nuance of capturing moments like this one with my student - for her, it meant learning the ABC's.