Icon Poetry: Literature for the Non-Literate

By Guinan, Mary Beth | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Icon Poetry: Literature for the Non-Literate


Guinan, Mary Beth, Academic Exchange Quarterly


Abstract

Students enrolled in zero level ESL at Truman College are reading stories in English on laptop computers. They use Instant English [1], a story authoring software that uses icon sentences, text-to-speech, and recorded speech in a narrative format. As the students listen to spoken sentences, they see the meaning in a string of icons over the words. Other communication strategies used in the literacy class are storyboards, and simple research projects. [2]

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Background: The Ellis Island of the Midwest

The printed word is alien code to more than ten thousand non-schooled foreign and American adults who show up annually at the door of Truman College. The non-literate are among the 30,000 who register in the Adult Education program to learn English or work on their GED. The American students are non-readers who have had great difficulty with school. The refugees may have reached adulthood in camps, war zones, deltas and deserts, and may never have put pencil to paper. Or they may have some education but use a non-Latin alphabet. They come with no parents and no diplomas. They appear "gentle" to us, and why not? Why should they be wary? Enemies, family conflict, political agendas, and status are left behind. Their apparent innocence is a function of their complete dependence on the good will of strangers.

Two very young, veiled mothers from Africa, a French-speaking African journalist, three Korean bar girls, two disabled seniors--one a Vietnamese soldier, one a Cuban factory hand, two Korean grandmothers, a high school prodigy from Ecuador, a techhie from Bosnia, and a Mongolian school teacher all sit together in a classroom at Truman College, working on laptops. They are in this class because eight weeks ago, in a vast cafeteria space used for registering thousands of adult education students at a time, someone determined that they were "level zero," probably because they could not answer a few simple questions, or fill out a registration form. How does one introduce literature and culture to a group so diverse and so uncomprehending? Text is out of the question for some. Tracing the ABC's might get these students to literacy eventually, but there is enormous pressure to "get up to speed." They must handle job applications, court appointments, apartment rentals and college labs. The Lost Boys of the Sudan, for instance, are immediately placed by their sponsors in jobs with long hours, to pay the rent; but they are also expected to get their GED within a few months, so they can enroll in college courses by the next fall semester. Even Sunday soccer practice is a source of pressure on these young men. Only last week, the Latin Kings, who may have been policing their turf, assaulted the players. Our new Americans need to wise up immediately.

Learners Without Words

We learn about ourselves and our culture through stories--from news to case studies to soap operas. Without access to written, spoken, or signed narrative, we have only unrelated images and scenes without shared meaning. So how do we share "lessons" about our culture if our students cannot understand our voices, or read our prose? If they cannot write, speak or sign to us, how do people articulate their needs or feelings? How must they suffer when they are silenced after a lifetime of communication in languages they hold dear but which are unknown to us?

The E-classroom [3]

Buried in the large earphones on their heads, their eyes glued to the LCD screens of their laptops, adolescents, seniors, new Americans and non-readers are listening with great concentration to standard American stories, proverbs and poetry. The fingers of both hands are delicately stirring and clicking their touch pads. A murmur in the room from 20 voices mouthing different sentences at the same time is reminiscent of an ashram. Wires string the room like a construction site and every few feet is a floor lamp to maintain enough light to see the keyboards. …

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