Using Personal Literacy Profiles as Catalysts

Kayla Palmateer, Ashley Fair, Stephanie Grant, April Passi, and Jan Buley share how reflecting on our own literacy journeys reveals new teaching perspectives

The Personal Literacy Profile Project is an invitation for all of us to reflect upon where we have been and who we are becoming as teachers and learners. Experiencing the process of creating and sharing the project becomes a springboard for discussing what we really believe about teaching and learning. In the case of student teachers who may not have had authentic experiences as classroom teachers, I ask them to journey back through their lives as literacy learners and think about the experiences, challenges and successes they have had. I invite them to conjure up their earliest memories of reading or writing. Was it sitting by the light of a fireplace at a campfire listening to ghost stories told by an older brother? Was it in a cottage with a grandparent, sharing a story from childhood? Was it being asked to read aloud in front of classmates, with knees shaking and voice quivering? Was it a teacher’s report card comment that propelled you to write an award-winning essay? Or was it a remark from an educator, declaring that “you really should consider the applied English program?” All of these comments have been articulated during the sharing of literacy profile projects and all have been accompanied by pieces of sculpture, artwork, dramatizations, musical performances or monologues. There is rapt attention as each student shares her story, a story that has not been told before, and explains the meaning behind the sculpture while looking another student teacher in the eye around the circle. As a result of the literacy projects, I learn more about myself, the teaching profession and the journeys of the learners in the education classes where I teach, and the students learn so much about each other. Sharing and reflecting on the stories from behind the closed doors of classrooms are the gatekeepers to some of the most profound community building exercises that occur in the classes I teach.

Our experiences as teachers and learners shape who we are as we live these roles. Schön (1983) and Zeichner and Liston (1996) use the term reflection in a Deweyian sense, “to convey the sense of a teacher who is comfortable gazing upon and evaluating her practice, a teacher who is open to seeing differently and anew, and a teacher who has agency over her own practice” (p. 6). The literacy profile projects are a pivotal introduction to the power of reflective practice for all teacher learners, and the germination of a supportive learning community for all.
Rethinking the way we teach, learn and perceive our roles as both teacher and learner has the power to enhance the way we support learners (Quinsee 2005, p. 151). Reflecting on our own beliefs and practices may force us to wrestle with uncomfortable issues and reveal shocking assumptions associated with what we believe about learning and teaching. New understandings of “why we do what we do” can bubble up to the surface, and as a group, we can supportively share and discuss these discoveries. Through reflective practice, we are invited to look in the rear-view mirror and examine more closely the route we’ve taken, the map we’ve followed and the side-trips we’ve avoided or explored.

According to Bolton (2001), reflective practice is the act of making sense of our robotic world by flipping the perceived rituals and circumstances around and telling the details of the story, event or learning incident from another point of view. Dewey (1933) reminds us that it is not the thing done, but rather, the journey and the quality of mind that goes into the doing. Reflecting forces us to step back from our own practice and view ourselves with new eyes. By looking back at where we’ve been and questioning the decision making process we’ve mapped out, we’re less likely to become complacent in our own journeys. It is with this intent and hope that I include the creation of a literacy profile project assignment in the literacy course I teach with student teachers. My own creation is also a powerful demonstration for them to witness.

Journeying Back and Creating ~
A Student Teacher’s Perspective

“What does that even mean?” — is the collective question put to the personal literacy profile project. Our minds are filled with hesitations and fears, and perhaps some of us begin wishing we had chosen a different profession. At first, the task seemed daunting to complete in such a short, two week period of time. Knowing that our professor would be creating her own literacy profile was comforting, but where do we even begin to create such a personal profile? How deep do I delve into my own personal experience? Will I expose myself too much to my peers whom I have only just met? What is the benefit in doing this? Do I want these people to know who I truly am — or was? Anxiety and nerves kick in as we leave the first class, each one of us wondering what we would create and anticipating the overall outcome of this exercise. We were being asked to trust and reflect. What blossomed from this assignment is something none of us could have predicted.

For some of us, going home and digging out old report cards, favorite books, and stories we had written was a joy and a necessity. It was a time to call home and chat with our parents, guardians or grandparents, and reminisce about childhood days filled with storytelling and creativity. For others, reflection on our past and present lives as literacy learners was difficult and painful. Some of our experiences with literacy learning were a blend of positive and negative memories — and each journey brought on a heap of reflection. My call home sparked a whole chain of questions about the nature of learning literacy. I had explained to my mother what we were doing, and she happily supplied her observations of me as a young reader and writer who wrote stories and tore through novels during the lazy summer months. But she also recounted the great periods of stress that I seemed to be under during the school year. She reminded me that in an effort to produce what the teacher wanted, I would often call friends and compare my answers with them to make sure I had the ‘right’ interpretations of a story. More often, I would just break down into tears for fear of getting it wrong. My experience fits with some reading I had done for a Theory and Criticism of Literature class during the final year of my undergraduate degree. Joseph Gold writes candidly in his book, Read for Your Life that he is “…well aware how many readers are turned off [from reading] by their education, how many are forced to play games they don’t believe in to get grades” (Gold 2001, p. 7). I realized then that although I had always managed to get ‘good grades’, from first grade through to the completion of my bachelor’s degree, it had never been on my own terms nor for the sake of developing my own voice. I had always been playing a game of hoop-jumping, seeking only the right answers, and had never been challenged to go beyond, to wonder, to question or to make so-called mistakes. By high school, I had become an expert at writing what would receive a good grade, yet I rarely cared much about the work I actually produced beyond how it would be judged and graded by a teacher. Reflection upon my practices as a literacy learner led me to question the system I had navigated through. If I, who had been labelled “successful”, had been limited and crushed by the pressure of writing for a grade, if I had learned to write and give oral presentations without caring much about what I was actually supposed to be learning or developing my own lines of thinking, what about those labelled less “successful?” What about children who are targeted as “at risk literacy learners” or struggling learners? I wondered about the assumptions teachers make about students’ backgrounds and needs, and what happens when we can’t see past those labels. I then crafted my own literacy project with those thoughts in mind. Later in the week, I would see the other literacy projects from my colleagues, including a jar filled with mock ice-cream, an open book with sparkles and creatures leaping from the pages, a lamp covered by dark Bristol board, the lyrics of a song about lost love returning, a robot holding a book of report cards and professors’ comments, a diorama of a dark bedroom, a pair of children’s shoes with the words “failure” written on the soles, and a ball and chain with a clock at one end. The wheels of my reflection-brain began to turn. After crafting my own project and wondering about others’ journeys, I was ready to listen and learn from my colleagues. We would dig deep into these stories to question literacy teaching practices, to flip them around and see them from another point of view, and challenge one another to dream up creative alternatives to practices that were not helping students.

Sharing and Shedding Light~
The room fell silent. Each future teacher in the room
began wondering which brave soul would be first to disclose something so personal. Each person wondered how their colleagues would react to who they are and where they had been as literacy learners. I wonder now about the fear we were confronted with and if that fear was a product of the artificiality or rushed nature of our educational experiences up to that point. I think that our collective hesitancy to share our ‘secret’ literacy lives says volumes about the importance of professional vulnerability and of community building in classrooms.

Choosing to share a literacy journey is often a leap of faith.

One student wrote this:

“Sweat pooling on the underarms of my t-shirt, I was hesitant — actually I was downright afraid. After listening and empathizing about the volatile teachers, skewed report card comments, and failed attempts from the once innocent students I was surrounded by, how was I supposed to sit there and brag about my accomplishments and success in literature? I stared blankly at my professor when she called upon me to share next. Feeling guilty, conceited, and slightly ashamed, I shared. I would not be alone in sharing my journey; each student had a unique tale, experience or perhaps myth about their literacy lives. The astonishing part was the way sharing the journeys changed the atmosphere, and the way it changed the way we understood each other from this moment on.”

Another classmate shared a poignant story about growing up with dyslexia. She explained that she could not read or write until grade four. The part of her presentation that will always be remembered had to do with the word “bed.” You are probably thinking about a connection to bedtime stories or an inability to sleep, but this is not the case. As is common with many dyslexic children, “d”s and “b”s can be gigantic obstacles. When she was young, someone taught her a tactic that helped her overcome this obstacle. Now when she sees the word “bed” she pictures it literally as a bed (if you were to outline the word you would see an image that looks like a bed from the side). Her literacy profile in turn was a small bed with the letters b-e-d written along the side. Through the sharing of this project, everyone thought about how much there is to learn about and from students who may be struggling as she did with even the simplest literacy concepts.

These and other stories were spoken aloud. Everyone hung out their laundry for all to see. For many of us, these projects captured some of the most painful moments of our lives; for some, it captured their coming-of-age; for others the project was just another assignment to complete. Regardless of content, as the first person began sharing, initial fears and tensions melted. Though the room was still silent, it was now due to respectful listening and hearing. Each person took time to explain her literacy profile project, and what meaning the creation had for herself as a literate person and as a future teacher. Our literacy profiles were not molded by marks, constraints of time, or abstract expectations. Every project was entirely unique and personal, and it gave us opportunities to discover new understanding about literacies and learning that we had never expected. The creating and sharing “shed light on a part of their lives that most of us hadn’t yet come to know” (Education Student).

Through sharing, we were not only placing faith in the classmates sitting around us, but we were placing faith in ourselves. The result was a strong sense of support, respect and confidence as we each told our stories. For some of us, sharing a literacy journey meant confessing something about ourselves that no one else knew — confessing publicly that you did not have a love of reading, that you struggled through the learning process, or that, in fact, books have always served as your biggest mistress.

As a result of the creating and sharing our literacy projects, we began to question the awesome task of teaching literacy to young learners one day in our own classrooms. If we witnessed a story of punitive book reports, we considered alternative assessments to breathe new life into a novel or short story. If a literacy project outlined how someone had despised reading, could we see new ways to teach young minds to love reading? Could we find other ways to reach out to students who learn differently? By achieving a deeper understanding of our own learning journeys and our colleagues’ journeys, we were able to authentically question practices of literacy teaching in a space of trust and acceptance. Making the leap of faith transformed our classroom into a space of trust and acceptance.

Reflections and Revelations~
With mutual vulnerability, invested curiosity, patience, openness and honesty, we created a learning environment where it was easy to hear and listen to each other. For some of us, this was the first time we had experienced a learning community like this. We had immersed ourselves in one another’s stories. We journeyed back with one colleague whose literacy profile included spending years in silence due to childhood deafness. Upon receiving hearing aids at the age of three, he was finally able to enjoy the sounds of life. He presented to us with the visual of a lamp covered with a black heavy paper shade that light could not pass through, and helped us to understand the experience of gaining hearing by lifting off that outer shade to reveal the warm light of the lamp. This story is one of many: each person in the room had a different literacy journey. Our assumptions about each other were scribbled out. Certain students seemed to be the ‘A’ students through and through, the students who loved to read and never recalled struggling. But surprises happened often as well. There were students who might have appeared to be high-achievers, but whose profiles told about literacy images shrouded in darkness, words of fear and tales of insecurity. These literacy projects included objects like ticking clocks with time passing by too quickly. There were stories about cruelly-critiqued writing assignments, cutting report card comments, and students who felt as though they had never lived up to the expectations placed on them by a teacher or a parent. Some of the stories told by the pre-service teachers had remained unresolved in the student teacher telling it. Initially, we had assumed that everyone in the room was literate and had not struggled because of how far each had come in the academic world. For some students who had never struggled with reading or writing, there was new understanding about what literacy struggling felt like, sounded like, and looked like. As tears fell and voices trembled, eyes and ears were opened. One may never know what those feelings of isolation, dread or frustration felt like, but because of the trust in sharing, all who were present will better comprehend, and more patiently accept those who learn differently from themselves.

As part of the process in writing this article, we invited students in the class to contribute their anonymous responses to the sharing of the literacy projects. Several students contributed:

“It made my heart break that this beautiful gift of literacy became tainted and negative for so many. I have found myself becoming increasingly aware of how literacy is presented and received in a classroom. It has made me more determined to join the force that is changing literacy in our schools.”

“As a teacher, this was a positive process because it allowed me to regain an understanding of the various influences that can affect a student’s literacy experience. In doing so I can hopefully promote the more positive experiences and avoid the more negative experiences faced in our youth towards literacy.”

“I believe that it was a very good way to reflect upon myself as a reader and writer. I hadn’t ever actually thought about it. I thought about what I hated about literacy and why – and I think that entering my placements I was more aware of how my teachers made me feel. I was more aware of how I may make my students feel. For myself, someone who likes to be in control, it’s scary to watch your students and let that steer the learning, but I did it and it was effective. I want to keep my literacy project to remind me to reflect and to encourage my students to do so.”

Deepening our understanding~
The important message for us as a teachers came from listening to our peers and acknowledging the importance of understanding individual backgrounds and emotions. Through the literacy profile projects we have come to realize that questioning and reflecting upon the learning experiences we create for and with our students is one of the most beneficial things we can do in this profession.

Why were these projects so personal and so moving? Part of it was due to the classroom climate that had been nurtured in our literacy class. We were open enough to share some of our deepest struggles with language. Learning language and learning to communicate is so integral to human survival. Stories and storytelling are key to a rich and beautiful existence. Learning language is an intimate experience, and the school classroom is often the place where so much of the journey happens. For many of us, we saw that school was not an easy place to be for every learner. We came to recognize that schools are not always easy places to develop our language, our reading and writing skills, our stories – essentially, our identities. Many of us breezed through, but even in those cases there was a disclosed element of fakery, of holding-back, of being somewhat restricted and restrained in our learning. We discovered that we are all delicate learners, each with individual needs. Some of us were labelled as dyslexic or hard of hearing, ESL, accommodated, or bad spellers. Others were labelled as “B+” in reading and writing on a report card, but these same students sometimes learned in fear. We came to see that labels often simplified a student’s needs to the detriment of their development. Humbly, we remembered that we were all once “little ones”, eager to learn, explore and succeed. We were all once the eight year olds poised on the edge of the learning pond. Yet some of our literacy journeys are marked with caution signs, distress signs, or beware of falling rock signs. Now, as we graduate, we are the teachers in the classrooms — and this project has given us new insights into how to support and challenge our young charges as they continue their own literacy journeys.

Bolton, G. (2001) Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publishers.
Bullough, R.V. (2001) Practicing Theory and Theorizing Practice in Teacher Education. London: Falmer Press.
Dewey, John (1933) How We Think. Lexington, MA: Heath.
Gold, Joseph (2001) Read for Your Life: Literature as a Life-Support System. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry and Whiteside.
Quinsee, S. (2005) Responding to the e-Learning Imperative. London: Facet Publishing.
Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.
Zeichner, K., & Liston, D. (1996) Reflective Teaching: An Introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kayla Palmateer travelled five hours north to begin her five year adventure at Laurentian University. Her favourite things include road trips, sports, movies, the outdoors, and cartoons. She dreams to have the opportunity to teach all over the world.

Ashley Fair completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology as well as gaining her Bachelor of Education at Laurentian University. In her spare time she paints, reads, runs, and loves watching movies. She is moving to England to begin teaching.

Stephanie Grant is currently a 24-year-old student attending the last placement of her Bachelor of Education degree at Laurentian University. She has completed a degree in Bachelor of Arts with a major in English Literature. She is hoping to teach abroad and enjoys poetry, figure skating, and taking new adventures.

April Passi is passionate about helping children develop their bodies, minds, and souls through challenging and imaginative learning. A recent graduate from Laurentian University’s Concurrent Education program, she is currently exploring the teaching and learning community of Montreal, Quebec.

Jan Buley is thrilled to be sharing her enthusiasm for the teaching profession at the English School of Education at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario where she offers classes in literacy and drama. She completed her Ph.D. at New York University, examining the issues, challenges and contradictions surrounding the roles of adult caregivers in school communities, and was delighted and honored to co-author this article with four graduate teachers.