Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Morrell / Urban Literacy Ed - 1

Associate Professor of Urban Schooling
Associate Director of Youth Research,
Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA) 

Linking Literacy

Ernest Morrell covers a great deal of material in his brief introductory chapter to Linking Literacy and Popular Culture: Finding Connections for Lifelong Learning. Along with a summary of his background and an overview of the book’s format, Morrell shares his assessment of current urban school challenges, articulates his passion and purpose, and previews important concepts about the social role of the urban literacy educator.

The book begins with a hard look at the hurdles, obstacles and the radically changed reality now confronting the learners and teachers in our nation’s urban literacy classrooms. Our current economic picture presents a far different employment situation than one Americans have faced throughout the last century. Finding success in today’s workplace requires a young person to be a multi-literate individual.  

“The bottom line for today’s students is that in order to contend for the American Dream,” writes Morrell, students need to develop a high level of literacy in school, placing increasing pressure on literacy educators to help them acquire those skills.” While urban schools are struggling to understand how to meet the demands of a postindustrial, techo-literate society, Morrell notes, educators are also challenged by “the overwhelming social, linguistic, cultural, and economic diversity in America’s classrooms.” Speaking to the relationship between cultural diversity and the culture of schools, Morrell says:

Too often, what happens in literacy classrooms is that the students whose experiences, practices, and preferences most closely resemble the demands of academic literacy are rewarded while those whose experiences, practices, and preferences are less congruent struggle with the development of academic literacy.

Much of Morrell’s introduction details his professional passions and his purpose for writing Linking Literacy. Morrell contends that, “by building upon students’ literacy experiences with popular culture in non-school settings, teachers can make authentic and powerful connections between students’ worlds and the demands of the classroom.” 

The book is previewed as a text designed to provide “a comprehensive, theoretically grounded and empirically tested approach to teaching popular culture in schools that promotes academic and critical literacy development.” Morrell explains that Linking Literacy models a process for “learning from and with students that is situated in the literacy practices accompanying participation in everyday activity.”

Morrell’s first chapter partially serves to introduce his perspective on the social role of the urban literacy educator. The great economic, educational and social challenges of our time are seen by Morrell as also being a great opportunity for critical educators who hold teaching to be “a revolutionary and political act.” 

Morrell frames teachers, as “informed cultural workers.” He suggests that educators acknowledge and embrace their work as:

"ethnographers of the language and literacy practices in the neighborhoods and homes of students."

Ethnography, in this sense, is not a process of discovering how cultures are different. It is an investigation of how different cultures, on their own terms, “make sense of the world.” Morrell advises urban teacher-ethnographers to examine “the everyday language and literacy practices of their students that are associated with membership in particular cultures and communities.”

Having discussed urban school challenges, his professional purpose and his outlook on the educator’s social role, Morrell concludes his introduction with a detailed outline of coming chapters.

Challenge and Opportunity

The concepts in Ernest Morrell’s intense introductory paragraphs inform my thinking about literacy and language arts and impact my practice as an urban literacy educator in three respects: in my professional position as a classroom manager, in my pedagogical persona as a lesson plan designer, and in my social role as a culturally competent advocate for social justice in a community of diverse families.

Ideas and information in Morrell’s Chapter One will leave an impression on my practice as urban classroom manager. Morrell provides a mandate for me to “create cohesive classroom communities” that maximize the learning of diverse students with diverse needs. Devising a unified learning environment of dissimilar individuals will involve, not just respecting difference, but expecting it – welcoming it. This welcoming approach must be echoed in the physical design and décor of the workspace, as well as in the emotional atmosphere of the room.

Morrell points out that the critical first step in the creation of a cohesive learning community begins before any learners have actually walked through the door. It begins with me, my reflection on the student body as valued individuals, and my active contemplation on educing and eduction. The first step is to commit anew to the reality that all students enter the literacy classroom as uniquely skilled and talented users of language and literacy who possess a great deal of cultural-linguistic knowledge.

My practice as a lesson plan designer is directly affected by the collection of concepts delineated in the beginning of Morrell’s book. I am empowered by Morrell’s words to act on my impulse to connect popular culture to content. To be an effective instructional planner, I must design lessons that are inviting for students other than just those who know how to “do school.” The curriculum must be related and made accessible to young people who do not adhere to the dominant culture in society or the mainstream academic culture of educational institutions.

Academic literacy skills can be taught in many ways using many different types of texts – including texts associated with pop media. As a teacher, Morrell used popular culture as the bridge between the “local literacy practices” of his pupils and “the academic, professional, critical, and civic literacies required for success in school and society.” Morrell’s research led him to conclude that “teaching popular culture in schools promotes academic and critical literacy development” among urban youth.

Morrell’s opening chapter influences my urban literacy educator practice as a culturally competent community advocate for social justice. His language gives me a way to think about and express the social aspects of my position as a “cultural worker.” Morrell sees urban educators as key architects in the forming of responsive and responsible citizens. He invites me to change the world through classrooms that are culturally affirming. As informed cultural workers, Morrell explains that teachers can create “the conditions whereby all students can develop the necessary tools for enacting critical citizenship and obtaining competitive employment in a techo-cultural, postmodern global economy.”

While I have not yet fully digested all of Professor Morrell’s meanings, I am as thrilled and inspired by the things in the opening chapter that I comprehend as the things that confound. Morrell’s powerfully realized voice and vision re-shapes my conceptual framework for considering multi-literacy and connects to the managerial, the instructional and the social aspects of my work as an urban literacy educator in a multicultural community.



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