As I was putting my just-turned-two daughter to bed last night she asked me, as she always does, to read “Pooh.”  She loves this book because it is just an encyclopedia with various pictures of animals and we get to look at the animals and talk about how they are different from one another.

Side note: My daughter refers to the book as “Pooh” because, in infinite marketing genius, the publishers simply splatter pictures of Winnie the Pooh and friends at various corners of the page, making it irresistible to children.

When I was done reading “Pooh,” and put my daughter in her crib, she asked me to give her a collection of books that she loves to read called Gigi.  She has asked for these books before, but I never thought much of it.  Of course, at this age, by read, I mean look at pictures and talk about what she sees.                          

But, what was different this time is that I noticed–after standing in the hallway and listening to her talk about the pictures–she was making up a story as she went along by combining what she thought happens in the various books in the set, at least according to the pictures.

I was excited to hear her jabbering on about Gigi’s friend and daddy, how they weren’t able to wear the dress they wanted to, and there was probably something about having to go to time out.

My daughter was mimicking what she has heard my wife and me say, and she was using that language that she had picked up along the way to give the pictures in her little books meaning.  This activity wasn’t strange to her.  As far as she knew, she was reading.

This experience reminded me of Frank Smith’s collection of essays, Joining the Literacy Club, published back in 1988.  I went back and reread his opening essay and have some thoughts about how Smith’s ideas about reading and writing apply to my much older students.

Specifically, I’m curious about how Smith’s insights inform students’ understanding of technology and its relationship to reading and writing.

Smith states in his opening essay that “children learn to read and write effectively only if they are admitted into a community of written language users, which I shall call the ‘literacy club,’ starting before the children are able to read or write a single word for themselves” (2).

In today’s tech-saturated times, I have to think that Smith would see digital literacy as a crucial step to joining the “literacy club.”  I know I see this with my little kids as words like “phone,” “computer,” “buffering,” and “tablet” are a part of our everyday dialogue. They don’t necessarily know exactly what these things are yet, but they see/hear our family using them and they can finger swipe with the best of ’em.

Smith explains that “[literacy] learning [doesn’t] stop with childhood” (5), but is constantly evolving.

He gives seven “characteristics of the learning that takes place through membership” in the literacy club (6). Smith explains, “The learning is always (1) meaningful, (2) useful, (3) continual and effortless, (4) incidental, (5) collaborative, (6) vicarious, and (7) free of risk” (6).  That is, students learn when what they are doing is “meaningful” because it is “related to what the learner is doing, trying to do, or trying to understand” (6).  In addition, children learn what is useful to them and they only “pay attention” if it “appears” useful.  Moreover, they learn when it is “continual and effortless” and happens “incidentally” in contexts where they have adults or “more experienced members of the…club” modeling how to do something even though “neither party recognizes the productiveness and value of the mutual accomplishment” (8).  This leads to “vicarious” learning where mimicking or copying occurs.  Children are simply repeating what they have heard others say, but they need to be able to do so without “risk” (9).

Smith goes on to explain that “[t]eachers should facilitiate and promote the admission of children into the literacy club” and the “[c]hildren who come to school already members of the club…should find expanded opportunities,” but “[c]hildren who have not become members before they get to school should find the classroom the place where they are immediately admitted to the club.  The classroom should be a place full of meaningful and useful reading and writing [I’ll say, including technology] activities, where participation is possible without evaluation and collaboration is always available” (11-12).

Practical Implications
For the past week and a half, Newman and I have had our rhetoric students working on creating a remix of an essay or blog post that they wrote during the semester.  The idea for the assignment came from Ridolfo and De Voss’s work from Kairos.  Basically, we have the goal of students repurposing one of their texts for a new audience, incorporating mashups of video/images/narration,etc.  By doing this, we hope that students gain a deeper understanding of why and how we write for various audiences, the influence of genre and media/design options on what and how we write, not to mention the intertextuality that composing naturally entails.

Update: Now that the assignment is finished, here are two examples of a literacy narrative remix: Newman’s class and Hackney’s class.

We started the assignment by talking about remix and showing examples from various sources.  We even watched part of a documentary that presents the concept fairly well, mainly because it incorporates music by Girl Talk and lectures by Lawrence Lessig.  The assignment is going fairly well and students will present their work on their blogs starting with tomorrow’s class (Newman’s classes started presenting today).

Although things seem to be going well, one point that we will change for next year is giving students a chance to play around and become familiar with the technology they have the option to use for the remix, before showing them examples of remixes.

The reason: We noticed that some students seemed apprehensive, maybe even fearful, about having to create a remix.  Some students took the assignment in stride, but some definitely looked worried.

Considering Frank Smith’s ideas about literacy, and applying them to the kind of digital literacy needed to do a remix assignment like this, it makes sense that one reason some of the students seemed apprehensive is because they may not be as comfortable with technology as some of their peers.  To extend Smith’s metaphor, some students may not be as established in the digital literacy club as others.

The culture of the class is definitely one of collaboration and taking intellectual risks, but I want to make sure this assignment is as “continual and effortless, incidental, and free of [punitive] risk” as the other assignments my students are used to doing throughout the semester, so that they feel like they are a part of a club that is dedicated to exploring new literacies, while creating a ton of cool texts along the way.