Blog 62

Journal Club

Lisa Endersby, Teaching Commons

The Teaching Commons hosted the inaugural meeting of the Journal Club this past April 26th. Our discussion of Putting Literacy in its Place centered on the author’s narrative account of three generations of the same family and their complex relationship with literacy. Our participants’ were particularly interested in discussing how we define literacy (and whether it was similar to the author’s conception) as well as the impact of these definitions and standards for our measures of student success.

The author uses his family as somewhat of a case study to explore evolving assumptions about and expressions of literacy across multiple generations. The theme of each generation, from his parents’ to his own to his children’s’, sees attitudes towards literacy evolve from literacy as ordinary, to extraordinary, to treacherous. This pathway seems to see literacy as a concept or ideal move from being simply a means to understand people and world to a more academic concept that, if obtained and nurtured, promised a successful, extraordinary life. However, the author cautions that the pursuit of this extraordinary life through literacy could be, at the very least, naïve, and at the very most, quite harmful for our children’s or students’ development and learning.

Using literacy as a measure for genius, for example, creates a wide gulf between ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’. As the author argues “Being a genius in advance of any accomplishment is a terrible job to give a child… the promise of genius makes subsequent and real accomplishments seem small” (p. 17). Making literacy an almost super human concept or special power that separates children by perceived ability could therefore be especially damaging, or as the author aptly states “[Not that there is] anything wrong with trying to be special, except if special is defined at the expense of the ordinary” (p. 17).The author argues for putting literacy in the place of service to a larger good, arguing against forms of literacy that imply competition amongst students or measurements of intelligence. Using literacy as a way to create arbitrary divisions between groups based on perceived or ‘measured’ success only serves to maintain the status quo. Should we, as the author suggests, wish to challenge that status quo, we must do so by challenging the “hierarchies of literacy” (p. 28).

Our discussion began with an attempt to understand literacy as a term and a competency, particularly in light of the author’s many interpretations of the concept across multiple generations. Moving from more traditional notions of reading and writing to ways in which we “read” the world, our conversation then expanded to include considerations of standardized testing and its impact on student success from very early ages and schooling experiences. While we may often bemoan our students’ inabilities to read, write, or think critically, we also discussed how or what we might do as educators or within the broader educational system to teach these skills in a more effective way. How might, then, would we assess a students’ ‘degree’ of literacy? What standard are we measuring against and how much of that standard is societal or cultural rather than based in principles of education? More fundamentally, how might we, then, teach literacy in the classroom and at our institution? How, ultimately, do we define success?

How have or how are you going to apply ideas from this article and/or our discussion to your practice?

How might your students benefit from the ideas discussed in this article?

What opportunities can you see for further research or exploration on this topic?

Please join the conversation using the comments box below.

The Journal Club is an opportunity for colleagues interested in exploring innovation in teaching and learning to collaboratively read and discuss literature in the field. Participants are provided with a journal article identified as a topic of potential interest to be discussed in an informal gathering at the Teaching Commons.

Do you have an article to share or a topic you would like to discuss? Are you interested in leading a conversation of the Journal Club? Contact Lisa Endersby, Educational Developer (

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