Young Voices on Reading, Writing, and Learning
The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven collaborated with the New Haven Free Public Library on an April 25 forum that the Public Library hosted featuring “Young Voices on Reading, Writing, and Learning.” (Years earlier, the library had hosted a 2013 Literacy Forum that also included several young panelists, along with teachers.)
Moderator Luis Chavez-Brumell — new manager of the Public Library’s Wilson branch in the Hill neighborhood (as well as a panelist at an earlier Literacy Forum on “Language and Learning: Home, School, and Community”) — introduced three other young New Haveners as panelists:
Isaac Bloodworth, an artist who graduated from UConn and earlier from Cooperative Arts and Humanities H.S.;
James Maciel-Andrews, an ESUMS sophomore who has been involved in student government there after having been a student journalist with the East Rock Record in earlier years; and
Coral Ortiz, a Yale sophomore who, while a student at Hillhouse H.S., served on both the New Haven and Connecticut boards of education and gave a memorable valedictory address.
“What does literacy mean to you?”
After opening remarks that included references to troubling statistics on reading proficiency from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and to deficiencies in average adult literacy/workforce preparation, moderator Chavez-Brumell posed a series of questions to the panelists — beginning with what literacy means to them.
James Maciel-Andrews, now in high school, recalled that reading had been an “active part” of his life “as long as [he] could remember” — a “hobby” that he enjoyed in public (e.g., at a grocery store) as well as at home. Coral Ortiz, who in recent years has participated in Hillhouse H.S. and Yale College classrooms as well as in board of education meetings locally and statewide, interpreted literacy as an ability “to connect with different types of people in different ways.” Artist Isaac Bloodworth reflected on his longtime affinity for comic books and anime as routes to create realms of fantasy and “escape.”
“How has literacy changed?”
Asked how literacy has changed, he spoke of technologies including social media. Alluding to the often superficial, misleading, or even false aspects of such media, he declared that the changes have “not necessarily” been “positive.” Coral Ortiz, speaking of her transition from high school to college and additional texts that she has encountered, noted the importance not only of “Plato or Shakespeare” but also, for example, more modern poetry and “blogs” — or “literacy, expanded.” James Maciel-Andrews observed that a person can use multiple media, for instance reading books both in print and on a mobile phone, as he now does.
What can publishers, writers, and educators do to make reading more appealing/accessible?
On this question, he confessed that even as a voracious reader, he sometimes finds language to be an obstacle (e.g., he mentioned Shakespearean “hither and thither”) — that while broadening our sense of the world, an array of books should be “understandable” and “relatable.” Coral Ortiz and Isaac Bloodworth argued for representation of additional “voices,” which they said they (have) found in college curricula. (1)
What more, or differently, can educators and students do?
Coral Ortiz suggested the limitations of the five-paragraph essay formula that, she said, anchored her elementary and secondary writing instruction. So far in college, she has enjoyed exploring other, “more flexible” approaches to writing. James Maciel-Andrews emphasized how teachers and students can “learn off each other” — both subject content and about what works pedagogically — through an interactive dynamic rather than a strictly hierarchical relationship. He explained how he has benefited in different ways from different teachers, whose expectations and preferences can vary.
Summarizing the discussion to that point, Luis Chavez-Brumell recognized several references to the value of collaboration and to the priority of expanding the “canon” of texts, both literary and nonfiction. Evoking “multiple literacies” and “code-switching,” he asked the panelists how they have handled related challenges. (2)
“Code-Switching” and “Multiple Literacies”
Coral Ortiz responded, “Honestly, it’s been super hard at times,” but that she has used “trial and error” in successfully “navigating” the demands of various settings — amid generational differences, social class, geography and ethnicity among other sources of potential misunderstanding. She asserted the centrality of “finding community” in order to be comfortable risking “making mistakes” in new “spaces.”
Isaac Bloodworth agreed, based on both his educational and professional experience so far, on the importance of “code-switching.” However, he also made a point of the need at times to challenge ostensible conventions by being oneself even, perhaps especially, in contexts where that may stand out. Flouting convention can be a step toward social progress.
Literacy and the Arts
He addressed a question about literacy in relation to the arts — including his area of puppetry (which he studied at UConn’s noted program) — by mentioning having heard a Shakespearean production in Spanish and pointing to non-verbal communication and comedy as examples of ways to bridge cultural and/or language barriers. He spoke also of developing a mural for New Haven’s Citywide Youth Coalition.
Asked about student journalism (which he learned through years at the East Rock Record, a publication started with students by professional journalist Laura Pappano, who attended April 25, and now supported by Yale), James Maciel-Andrews suggested one key was not “to be too opinionated about what the truth is” in pursuing that (those) truth(s). He perceived, already in middle school and now high school, the need to keep reporting and opinion journalism distinct. Coral Ortiz, who now happens to be a mentor to East Rock Record student journalists, reflected on how students’ and adults’ interests can “collide,” complicating the search for consensus on facts and solutions. (3)
How to use literacy to pursue your passions
Invited to comment on literacy as a vehicle toward a person’s passions, Isaac Bloodworth emphasized storytelling, from the visual to the verbal. He noted he is now increasingly reading history and, despite his reservations about the hazards of social media, acknowledged their potential to make literacy “more accessible to everyone.” Coral Ortiz spoke of using literacy on a daily basis to help sometimes more privileged peers to hear about other experiences, and thereby broaden their perspectives. James Maciel-Andrews indicated how literacy had helped him improve his “speaking skills,” in part because he pushed himself to read books with “challenging words” with definitions that he then looked up. He has done this while enjoying a variety of genres, including science fiction.
Audience questions: Early reading experiences; peer interactions; the complementary potential of print and other media; literacy as a tool for social justice
The first audience question, from New Haven Reads executive director (and Literacy Coalition board member) Kirsten Levinsohn, invited panelists to elaborate on their early reading experiences. Isaac Bloodworth returned to his interest in comic books — an interest shared with his father (disclosure: that’s Earl Bloodworth, another Coalition board member who directs the City’s Warren Kimbro Reentry Project), who would sit, read, and talk with him for hours as they visited the comic shop together. Choice of reading materials resonated with Isaac as crucial to his development as a reader.
Coral Ortiz similarly fondly recalled reading with a parent (her mother in her case) from a young age. Her own first “emotional experience” with a particular text was with the Divergent trilogy in seventh grade.
James Maciel-Andrews remembered reading since he was very young and then the whole Harry Potter series in eighth grade in three days — which he thought was impressive until discovering some friends had already read the books in sixth grade!
His mother, Yury Maciel-Andrews, asked a question about this matter of peer interactions around reading — including entire series versus specific books. James said that, at least initially, he leaned toward the latter. Isaac recalled reading the Twilight series in part because so many classmates (including other boys) were doing so; he cited The Five People You Meet in Heaven and The Last Lecture (a book that grew out of a TED talk) as among the texts he has recently appreciated.
One audience member enthused about the panel, “This is inspiring; this is ‘lit’!” (pun intended!) and asked how to promote more reading, perhaps especially among those reluctant to do so. Coral Ortiz confessed that, along with reading, she enjoys watching Netflix — and suggested that readers use anything that appeals to them, from hair or fashion blogs to political blogs, as an opening to further reading. Isaac Bloodworth spoke of how movies and books can be mutually reinforcing (read the book before, or after, seeing the movie!), and added that Japanese anime and Spanish films have subtitles to read. James Maciel-Andrews suggested online articles — say, about politics — as an angle of entry; he said, “find what works for you.”
Another question focused on social justice, which all three panelists agreed was an important dimension of literacy. (Frederick Douglass: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”) As an example, James cited allegorical short stories as well as journalism that can “put a spotlight on things that were shoved under the rug” in earlier eras. Coral alluded to both his and her connection to student journalism, as well as to her needing to be informed for high-school roles on the local and state boards of education, and to her now “writing essays” that can illuminate social issues present and future. Isaac underscored that people historically in power may feel threatened when the traditional, even dominant canon and authorities are scrutinized.
Frederick Douglass: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
Telling Our Stories
A final question centered on how to tell one’s story without “overshadowing” the stories of other members of one’s community — a fitting complement to another recent event held at the New Haven Public Library, as well as to a monthly storytelling series that the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT) has been hosting at 4 Science Park.
The April 25 forum concluded with two young poets from The Word who performed their poetry, to praise from the audience — which ranged from teenagers to at least one grandparent, and included colleagues from the New Haven Public Schools as well as from the library and various local nonprofits. Everyone was invited to comment on two poster boards, and to suggest topics for future events. (4)
The Word held its annual citywide poetry slam on May 3 at Cooperative Arts and Humanities H.S. and will also be participating in a Word Fest in partnership with the International Festival of Arts and Ideas (this year from June 8–22).
(1) For example, the late author Walter Dean Myers in 2014 asked, “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” in a New York Times essay. As far back as 1986, Walter Dean Myers had lamented in the New York Times that more progress in this respect had not already been made.
His son Christopher Myers, also an author (and illustrator), in 2014 wrote in the New York Times of what he termed “The apartheid of children’s literature” — drawing on evidence including the following: “Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.” By 2017, Christopher Myers had launched a diversity-focused imprint of Random House called Make Me a World, and the Times was citing 2016 statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that — among 3,400 books received at the center — counted 286 about black people.
We Need Diverse Books is a nonprofit organization and ongoing campaign devoted to this cause.
(2) NPR has an entire “Code Switch” channel, addressing “race and identity, remixed.”
(3) While this event happened to give particular attention to the East Rock Record as a middle-school publication to which James Maciel-Andrews had contributed, there are additional student newspapers and news magazines around the New Haven Public Schools. At the high-school level, Cooperative’s Voices; Career’s Panther Press; HSC’s Justice Journal; and Wilbur Cross’s Proclamation are examples.
(4) In preparation for the April 25 Literacy Forum, participants considered resources from UNESCO to theInternational Congress of Youth Voices, from the New York City Writing Project to that city’s Youth Poet Laureate and the Telling Room in Maine — as well as The Word locally.
The Literacy Coalition, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization with a mission to promote, support, and advance literacy in the region, was established in 2003 by a board led by the late Christine Alexander, who also founded New Haven Reads.
The Coalition sponsors events such as the Literacy Forum series. Beyond this convening function, the group connects people and resources informally, and serves as a mechanism for exchange of information across communities, organizations, and individuals.
Once the revamped website is online, the organization will again have a LiteracyEveryDay site with portals to Get Help, Volunteer, Donate, and Learn More, as well as a listing of News/Events. For now, the Coalition invites inquiries and announcements via email@example.com.
There is a need for additional volunteer tutors and mentors at such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club, Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Junta for Progressive Action, LEAP, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, New Haven Public Schools, New Haven Reads, and Solar Youth.
Neighbors are invited to visit the Literacy Resource Center on Winchester Avenue, in space at 5 Science Park donated by Science Park Development Corporation. The Literacy Resource Center, or LRC, represents a partnership among Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the Coalition, Literacy Volunteers, and New Haven Reads. Around the corner, in the same complex at 4 Science Park, are the offices, classrooms, kitchen, cafe, and art gallery of ConnCAT.
You can help by:
• Reading in the home, promoted by libraries such as the New Haven Public Library — and involving grandparents as well as parents, and free books from sources including Read to Grow and New Haven Reads;
• Encouraging friends, family, and others to seek literacy assistance whenever useful;
• Volunteering as a tutor or mentor;
• Bolstering literacy in other ways, such as through donations of money — whether directly, via the Community Foundation or the United Way — or of books and by advocating and voting.
A version of this article appears at the New Haven Independent.