Academic journal article English Journal

Cultivating Literacy and Relationships with Adolescent Scholars of Color

Academic journal article English Journal

Cultivating Literacy and Relationships with Adolescent Scholars of Color

Article excerpt

As readers of English Journal are well aware, our educational and other social systems are far from equitable. Susan L. Groenke et al. remind us in the January 2015 issue that these matters reach far beyond our classrooms; indeed, "certain social constructs of adolescence/ts get certain adolescents killed" (35). They write, "when all teenagers get to be teenagers, when we are willing to get to know Michael and Trayvon and Jordan in life, not just in death-maybe then we will know youth of color in all their humanity, as 'substance,' not 'shadows'" (39).1 At the heart of the work that we educators can do to be in solidarity with youth of color (and indeed, all youth) are the relationships that we form with them. As such, we use "adolescent scholars of color" to highlight Groenke et al.'s notion of "substance" and to affirm the literacies of these youth.

Despite their centrality to our work, relationships are often overlooked as the contemporary reform movement frames education as cognitive research-driven "best practices" in content and skill delivery. A focus on relationships is of particular importance when teaching and learning with adolescent scholars of color, who are all-too-often minoritized through deficit orientations.2 As former English teachers in schools serving scholars of color and current teacher educators, we want to share concrete examples of learning projects that embrace strength-based models of literacy education with and for youth of color.

In one of the two projects that we present here, an adolescent scholar was asked by one of his teachers why many of his peers were not engaging with school. James, who was 20 years old at the time of the study and is African American, responded: "they live where they live, and school is not where they live," a reply that can be read in two ways. In the first reading, which is perhaps the dominant perspective in educational research and practice, these young people and their community do not value school and choose to focus on other endeavors. This is the deficit orientation, which positions these young people and their community as lacking or unable to succeed in and through education. In the second reading, it is the processes and practices of formal education that do not engage the lived realities or experiences of marginalized young people. This reading, which we espouse, puts the onus on us as literacy educators to create learning projects that "live" in the multiple spaces where minoritized young people live, and to make connections between these lived realities and other literacies.

Building relationships with any learner or community of learners requires that we educators reflect on our own social locations. Understanding the cultural narratives one is operating within is integral to creating relationships that move away from framings that position some learners as lacking in life experience or funds of knowledge. One of us, Noah, is a middle-class White male with associated privileges that distance his experiences and understandings from those of many young scholars of color. As a teacher of minoritized learners, it was (and is) important to engage in dialogue and learn from students' experiences and ways of seeing the world. The other of us, Erica, is a middle-class Black female with life experiences parallel to and different from the Black female youth participants in her research project. Erica saw her role as that of "muse," a term Amy M. Sullivan used to frame the relationship between an adult female mentor and her adolescent female mentees as that of a listener, advocate, consoler, teacher, and believer. For Erica, it was essential to engage in literacy projects alongside the girls to better understand herself and where she stood in relation to them. Through relationships, educators of all life experiences can take steps toward understanding and transforming social spaces, working to interrupt harmful practices and processes. Acknowledging differences in power and privilege, we worked with each group of adolescent scholars to create academic spaces where they could challenge dominant perceptions of who they are and can become through analysis of educational experiences and aspirations. …

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