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[Xmca-l] Winn's Exploring the Literate Trajectories of Youth across Time and Space



Winn's 2015 MCA article was voted as this issue's discussion paper, and in the absence of an opening opining post thus far, I'll try to start the conversation.

Maisha is a mid-career African American researcher with a strong dedication to investigating the literacy activities of Black youth. Her paper traces themes that she has explored in 4 projects, each of which yielded a book, from her career stops at Berkeley, New York, Atlanta, and now Madison, Wisconsin (all in the USA). If I can extract one major theme from this work, it's that AA youth who are often characterized as having low literacy are in fact highly interested in language usage and linguistic performance, and immensely skilled and productive in their linguistic lives. Without using a Vygotskian vocabulary, she asserts (and here I provide the Vygotskian terms) that through their use of speech, they elevate their thinking to higher mental processes, although not such that schools can recognize them. And so she explores trajectories that are robust and highly energized, yet that depart from those taught and assessed formally in education.

I'll take a detour here to refer to a talk that our mutual friend David Kirkland gave at the National Council of Teachers of English convention last November, in recognition of receiving NCTE's highest research award, the David Russell Award. What follows is taken from a book chapter I've drafted for a collection on adolescent literacy, in which I describe Kirkland's findings. I'll let this stand as my opening conversational turn, in hopes that others will find avenues through which to enter the discussion. I think that what follows is relevant to what Maisha talks about in her article-hardly comprehensively, but I see these issues as undergirding her general perspective on students from (mostly) African American communities who lead rich literacy lives while being assessed in school as being deficient.

scores of scholars, many of them from an African American heritage, have expanded on Heath's (1983) findings, investigating African American literacy development in a variety of regions and settings. These scholars (e.g., Kirkland, 2012) have found that although Black students are continually measured to have low and declining literacy rates in school, they live rich lives with print, spoken, and multimodal texts in their teeming literacy lives once outside the tolling of the school bells.
Kirkland (2014) makes a key distinction in considering how such opposing conclusions could be found on the same population. School achievement tends to be measured in single-sitting examinations that are based on problems posed by test-makers, with scores computed for statistical manipulation. Ethnographies tend to be conducted outside school over time, with detailed documentation of social and cognitive processes through which self-chosen literacy goals are pursued, often with feedback, affirmation, critique, and other forms of response helping to shape literacy products, including readings. Such studies of urban Black students' literacy activities focus on what the youth consider to be authentic, meaningful processes and products, and typically find that literacy achievement is high, sustained, and of great social value. These literacy practices are characterized by their highly social qualities as youth perform for one another and use texts to position themselves amidst youth culture and others in their environments-a stark contrast to the solitary, detached manner in which their literacy is measured in school assessments.
Kirkland (2014) finds a set of related problems associated with relying on conventional school assessment to stand as definitive measures of literacy attainment. First, the literacy problems on which they are tested are not posed by the students. Rather, they are designed by adults paid to generate test problems that meet some psychometric standard for reliability across the whole testing population, often one dominated by middle class students whose practices are more congenial to such testing. This approach of norming answers according to one dominant demographic produces feelings of alienation from the examinations and consequently from school on the part of those from other cultural groups, given that school becomes associated with punitive testing that is indifferent to what the kids find important in their literacy lives.
Second, the exams assume that their test items are isomorphic across test-takers; that is, they are premised on the idea that the learning tasks they present to students are understood in the same manner by all within the test-taking population. In particular, the test designers tend to assume that the task as they envision and intend it is in turn taken up by all students in the same fashion in which they offer it. Newman, Griffin, and Cole (1989; cf. Smagorinsky, 2011) refer to this phenomenon as the problem of assuming a task or problem isomorph in which a learning problem is presented to people of different backgrounds in different settings under the assumptions that this standardized procedure will be interpreted identically by all who encounter it, because that is how the designers believe it should work. The likelihood that the tests are constructed in relation to autonomous texts-texts with an inherent meaning that is not subject to reconstruction and instantiation of additional meanings by readers-is highly unlikely, given the dubious nature of the assumption in light of virtually any social or constructivist perspective on textual composition and interpretation (see Nystrand, 1986 for a general critique; and Smagorinsky, 2001, for an elaboration of a cultural theory of reading).
Such attention to contexts is not only not available in the standardized world of assessment, it obliterates such matters as "exogenous" or outside factors, particularly poverty, from the calculations, reifying the assumption that the tasks are isomorphic (Berliner, 2014). The ethnographic work assembled by Kirkland (2014), however, demonstrates that literacy practices and tasks are situated and constructed and not amenable to standardized treatment.
Finally, school-based definitions of literacy are securely grounded in print, ignoring the vast compositional means available to youth elsewhere. Kirkland (2014) concludes that "As they age, Black males learn literacy less in school and more outside it. This literacy learning is defined less by print et al. and more by a variety of social and cultural assets/flows necessary for achieving meaning and message making important to their lives" (n. p.). As many have noted (e.g., Kajder, 2010), the Black population is one of many social groups in which print literacy serves as but one compositional tool among many in the digital world of the 21st century. What is starkly evident from Kirkland's comparison is the fact that young African Americans who are consistently measured as having low literacy in school assessments are reading and composing texts of great social value once school's out.