Kids Write Stuff and That's Good: Literacy as an Empowerment Tool for Indigenous Education

A lovely woman from Kamehameha Schools came to chat with me and my coworkers about literacy in Hawaiian education. She reminded me of my college professors in the schools of education: chunky jewelry, clean shoes, briefcase, steady theoretical competence. "Literacy is simple!" she says calmly, and shows us a beautiful portfolio full of functional literacy items from her own life: thank you cards, passport forms, christmas letters...

I was lucky enough to have really stellar professors in my Brigham Young University English Teacher program-- especially Sirpa Grierson with her early-adoption of web-based technologies for literature instruction, and Deborah Dean, who has been a real pioneer in the field of genre based literacy. So the little PD at school this week didn't really touch on anything novel, but still. It was an interesting reminder to take a step back (as if you were someone who wore nice shoes and carried a briefcase and got to think calmly about education instead of actually having to Bloody Well Do It All Day) and consider what literacy is, what it does, how it works....

So here is the little result of her visit that day, and her prompt to consider communication:

In Hawaii, I think a lot about spectrums of communication. Every time we reach out to another human, we are navigating sliding scales like a complex sound-engineer's mix board-- of purpose and intent, format and context, audience and witnesses, gender, age, race, and sex. Hawaii's communication especially is multi dimensional-- not just a spectrum of formal to information communication, but multiple axes of mode and purpose. These complicated social calculations are done almost unconsciously.

Even from an early age, students move through that complexity fluently-- entering and exiting pidgin or Hawaiian or formal English or text-speak easily depending on the need-- or in Common Core Speech-- depending on the audience and purpose. They read myriad contextual and identity clues to gauge what exact timber and tone and lexicon is most appropriate for the task. I love being an observer of my students when they interact with community members, and the way they can code-switch so completely. Ordering food at a poke counter, introducing themselves to kupuna who volunteer to make poi, asking the YA librarian for introductions, volunteering at the Powwow-- all of these different tasks stimulate transformations in the style and mode of my students' communication. It's not all rosy, though-- self-awareness can jam empowered self-expression-- and the stigma or fear of mismatching the dialect to the occasion is stressful.

But as far as what I believe and what I try to communicate to my students in class and when we're in the community, all communication is ultimately empowering. Students being able to slide into the dialectally appropriate mode is the highest kind of success.

But back to my prompt:

What is writing?
What is empowerment?
And what is a tool for empowerment?

Writing is any kind of writing-- any form, any genre, any purpose. I accept marginalia and latrinalia and tumblr-esque keyboard smashes and trails of hashtags and emoji. I accept scrawled reminders on palms and gothic tattoo letters scraped into forearms. Writing is self-expression and passionate and also deadly-dry-- columns and rows and sums and averages. It can emerge effortlessly as a prayer or get bashed out of you only through hours of tedious research, revision, pain, blood, constriction and sweat.

So empowerment? Does that mean a sense of entitlement? Yes but in the best way-- not in the sense we often here where entitled means spoiled and arrogant-- but entitled as in-- given a name-- given a role. Endowed with authority and validity. It's important-- especially for marginalized people-- girls, people working in a second language, people whose ethnic, racial cultural or religious identity makes them a social target. It's the belief that you have the right to take up space. Your words deserve to be heard, your letters deserve to be marked on the paper.

So how is writing a tool for empowerment? I'm reminded of the simple Archimedean machines-- wedges, levers, wheel and axel, screw, inclined plane, and pulleys. Language-- specifically writing-- can be that sharp wedge which divides the unbreakable boulder along the weak lay-lines. And lever-words can lift impossible weights, can screw into the impermeable depths, and heave you against gravity to impossible heights. Language-- but especially writing-- a stab at permanence that it is-- can be that wedging, lifting, shattering ideas.

Writing allows us to place our small marks of permanence on the world-- allows our words to emerge from our minds and linger slightly longer than they would have if only inscribed in breath. We can float our thoughts onto papers and they will continue thinking themselves for moments and moments after our minds and mouths are clear of them.


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