Literacy Narrative

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It was June 2010, I was thirteen. I sat on the stage waiting for the Rabbi to call me up to sing the Torah trope.

“Madison, it is almost time for you to go up,” the assistant Rabbi whispered to me.

img_1972-1Next thing I knew, I was standing at the bimah as the congregation stared at me, waiting. I looked at my stunning tallit wrapped around me. It was a gift from my dad. He bought it a year ago when he was in Israel and finally gave it to me today. Today, the beautiful pink and white tallit was wrapped elegantly around my shoulders as I became a woman.

Words began flowing out of my mouth in a beautifully biblical rhythm in the voice of a lovely songbird. My friends and family in the front row were smiling at me, encouraging me to not let my stage freight get the best of me. I looked down at the Torah, using the yad to guide me through the trope, praying I did not lose my place in the words. I finished the last sound and was told to sit back down. It was time to prepare for my speech on the Haftarah I just sang to the congregation.

My palms began to sweat at the thought of having to go back up there. At having to read the speech I wrote to a hundred people. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and told myself that I would be fine.

“Don’t be nervous honey, we practiced your speech a dozen times. You have nothing to worry about,” the assistant Rabbi whispered to me in an attempt to calm my nerves.

In the blink of an eye, it was time again. I stood up, walked to the bima, and looked around at the crowd. My speech was in front of me, so all I had to do was read it and I would be fine…right? I took a deep breath and smiled at the congregation.

“Thank you Rabbi Frank! I would like to thank my family and friends for their support in this process and the congregation for participating in today’s ceremony!” I heard myself say.  I continued, “For my Bat Mitzvah speech, I decided to focus on the aspect of reconstruction and rebirth that my section of the Torah covered. We make decisions every day that shape who we are and who we are going to become.”

I babbled on about the Torah and the teachings for what seemed like forever. I realized that I was approaching the part, my dreaded part. Not dreaded because I didn’t want to say it, but instead, because I was not ready to open myself up to a room full of people.

“My parents got divorced recently. I was heartbroken and angry when it happened, but because of this process, I have been able to look at this experience in a different light. I understand that this was a lesson, a learning experience. A way to redefine who I was and learn more about life.”

I felt myself tear up, but I held them back.

“I have my brother to thank for making it through the divorce.  He was my support system and we made it through having to move into two brand new homes without both parents. He made me realize that we cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it and those reactions are what define our character” I was able to say with minimal tears.

This essay about the Haftarah and the teachings in the Torah was the first essay I had truly invested myself into. I spend weeks brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and revising. I had learned what it felt like to have to devote my time and my energy into the process, and did not have much help when writing it. This process occurs for many Jews in America, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity because I was a Reform Jew, and that meant women could have a Bat Mitzvah. The Bat Mitzvah is known as a coming of age and the transition into adulthood. For me, it meant that I would have to spend months preparing to open myself up to a room full of people. I did not know it at the time, but my Bat Mitzvah became the true connection between my Judaism and literacy.

I had seen the two work together subtly throughout my early days of learning to read and write, but I had never truly had the chance to combine them in my own way. I grew up in San Diego and went to a private Jewish day school my entire K-12 academic career. I had learned the Hebrew alphabet in Kindergarten and read books about Noah’s Ark and Hanukkah, but I never created something that was completely my own. I grew up surrounded by other Jews and all my friends from school were Reform Jews. We experienced literacy through Judaism together, but my Bat Mitzvah was the first time I experienced it alone.

I was very sheltered from the prejudices that people have against Jewish people because my parents chose to send me to a private Jewish school. Much to my surprise, I found out that Jewish people made up only 3% of America’s population. There are 1,047,600 Jewish people in California (out of 7,160,000) and San Diego is known as the 17th largest metropolitan area for Jews which makes up 2.8% of the San Diego population. We are very small, but I never felt small because I grew up seeing myself represented in the literacy around me.

When I went to college, I knew that there was a significant Jewish population on the campus. I knew some people that were already students there and four girls from my graduating class (including me) chose Chapman University. It came as a surprise when I became the one Jewish student in most of my classes. I would bring up ideas from Judaism or from my culture in my classes to relate to the readings we had done, and people seemed surprised that I was even there.

I realized how little people knew about Jews or the Jewish culture when I went through sorority recruitment. I was talking to a girl from a sorority (I have chosen to leave it out because I do not want to embarrass her) who asked me about the high school I attended. I had told her I attended a small private Jewish day school, and she seemed surprised. She then hit me with a question I will NEVER forget.

“Do you speak Jewish?” She asked me so innocently.

I stared at her for a second in disbelief. I was shocked honestly. Unable to formulate any words.

“It’s called Hebrew” I whispered.

That was the first time I felt small.

I want to be clear that she had no idea that was she was asking me was extremely ignorant. She did not know that she was being culturally inappropriate, she just genuinely had no idea. It was in that moment that I realized that I truly was a minority. That the true Jewish part of my identity was widely unknown to the people that surrounded me in college. That the people around me actually had no idea about my religion or even the language that my people spoke. My peers, my equals, my friends. Or were we equals?

I wasn’t angry, I didn’t turn red with anger. I was surprised, appalled even. I grew up learning about my own culture, but also knew the culture of the dominant American culture. I knew the story of Jesus Christ and the reasoning behind Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday. I knew so much about them, but somehow, they didn’t know anything about me.

I felt small.  

I was able to develop my Jewish identity because I had been surrounded by the Jewish culture my entire life. I saw myself in the books I was reading and felt comfortable expressing that part of my identity. In Kwame Alexander’s New York Times article on Children’s Books and the Color of Characters, he focuses on the effects that segregating literature has on racism. The point that directly relates to me and my own experiences with a part of my identity that is seen as a minority is that “seeing yourself in books is necessary and crucial to the development of identity.”  The girl during recruitment that asked me if I spoke Jewish had not been exposed to outside cultures and, as a result, she could not picture cultures other than her own: “If we don’t give children books that are literary mirrors as well as windows to the whole world of possibility, if these books don’t give them the opportunity to see outside themselves, then how can we expect them to grow into adults who connect in meaningful ways to a global community, to people who might look or live differently than they. You cannot.” Alexander continues to express the importance of representation of all cultures in literature so children with all sorts of identities can learn about the identities of others.

People are made up of multiple identities. For me, being Jewish is only one of my many identities. If I were to be classified as Jewish and only Jewish, it would not be doing me justice because that classification would only be a partial representation of who I am. In Linda Alcoff’s Cultural Critique about the Problem of Speaking for Others, she exemplifies this issues that arise when talking about group identity: “the criterion of group identity leaves many unanswered questions for a person such as myself, since I have membership in many conflicting groups but my membership in all of them is problematic. Group identities and boundaries are ambiguous and permeable, and decisions about demarcating identity are always partly arbitrary.”  This is an extremely important thing to keep in mind. It is unfair for us to be categorized by our identities. Rather, we should be recognized for the many aspect of what makes us who we are.

We are made up of multiple identities, but our identities themselves do not make up who we are. We may identify with parts of a culture or parts of the classification we are being sorted into. For example, I am culturally Jewish, but I do not believe in God in the way that the stereotypical Jew does. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about the Dangers of a Single Story, she brings up many great points about the dangers of being culturally unaware. One of my many favorite of hers being, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Many individuals make judgments about an entire culture based on the information they are given about a small portion of it. I am Jewish but I am unlike any other Jew in the world. I am my own person, I am an individual. I don’t want to be categorized, I don’t want to feel small, I just want to be me.

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Things That I’ve Read

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Linda Alcoff is an inspirational and influential writer who grapples with ideas of race, gender, sexuality, and many more aspects of an individual’s identity. Her article The Problem of Speaking for Others has served as a starting point for me to explore diverse cultures. There were many quotes from the article that intrigued me and opened my eyes to the issues that speaking for others raises. I chose four that spoke to me because they addressed issues of privilege, authority, identity, and legitimacy.

“In particular, the practice of privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or reenforcing the oppression of the group spoken for.”

“However, we must begin to ask ourselves whether this is ever a legitimate authority, and if so, what are the criteria for legitimacy? In particular, is it ever valid to speak for others who are unlike me or who are less privileged than me?”

“The criterion of group identity leaves many unanswered questions for a person such as myself, since I have membership in many conflicting groups but my membership in all of them is problematic. Group identities and boundaries are ambiguous and permeable, and decisions about demarcating identity are always partly arbitrary.”

“In other words, the claim that I can speak only for myself assumes the autonomous conception of the self in Classical Liberal theory–that I am unconnected to others in my authentic self or that I can achieve an autonomy from others given certain conditions.”

Alcoff’s assertion spoke to me in many ways.

“Rituals of speaking are politically constituted by power relations of domination, exploitation, and subordination…Simply put, the discursive context is its a political arena.”

This idea is always at the center of the classes that I take. Everything is so highly political. Writing in any form is political. It makes a statement and shows a particular point of view that others may or may not agree with. Everything needs to be said in a politically correct way and people need to present their ideas in a culturally appropriate and sensitive way. The concept relates to me specifically because I am an education major and when I am working with children I need to be very careful with what I say and need to make sure I am culturally aware.

David H. Richter is another author that inspired me throughout my process. In his piece Falling Into Theory, he explores literature and literacy and the function of schools as institutions. There were many quotes that spoke to me, but I chose four that were the most relatable to my purpose as a writer.

“The more one learns about literary history, the clearer it becomes that however fundamental these judgements were, they were not permanent at all; they were very much the judgments of a particular age” (p. 122).

“Literature, therefore, has an ecology that forbids unlimited expansion: when something is added, something else must go” (p. 123).

“Literary quality is simply a function of the current interests of the reading public; each public revises the short lists drawn up by publics of the past in accordance with its own cultural needs” (p. 126).

“The function of the school as an institution is no peripheral but central to the class structure of capitalist society. Schools not only train the young in the specific information and skills they need to operate in a utilitarian society under capitalism; they also reproduce the structure of that society by creating young heirs to take their places within the social hierarchy” (p. 133).

“The literary texts most widely read today are those read in schools, and teachers are likely to teach texts that were valued when they were students.” (125)

The last concept is extremely important to consider when teaching because the topics many teachers teach are irrelevant to their student’s lives. I want to become an educator in some form, so it is important that I always pay attention to the relevance of the topics I teach to my student’s lives. As times change, teachers need to alter the information they teach alongside the strategies they use to teach. The best and most meaningful way that students learn is through relating the information they learn in school to their own lives which is why it is so important for teachers to teach relevant material in their lesson plans.

 

Working Definitions

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I believe that diverse cultures are cultures that are different in their beliefs, practices, and culture. Each culture has their own set of beliefs and standards to the people in that particular group. Culture is part of individual identity and many identities make up every individual. Diverse cultures bring varying ideas and points of view that are very helpful to learn when becoming a well-rounded individual. Without an understanding of other people and other groups, prejudices are created and bias opinions of the culture are often made.

In from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, she brings up many great points about the dangers of being culturally unaware. One of my many favorite of hers being,

“the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Many individuals make judgments about an entire culture based on the information they are given about a small portion of it. It is so important to learn all you can about the people and understand that just because many or some of the group does something, it does not mean the group should/can be characterized as being that way.

When referring to judge rulings in a court case, Aristotle wrote that judges will often have allowed themselves to be so much influenced by feelings of friendship or hatred or self-interest that they lose any clear vision of the truth and have their judgement obscured by considerations of personal pleasure or pain (Aristotle, 350 B.C.E.). This quote further acknowledges that people make decisions based off of their previous experiences and biases that they create. Biases and judgments about people based on their culture can create unfair situations and life experiences for individuals. It is important to look at things from all sides and consider the consequences of a bias decision made of personal pleasure or pain.

Biases can work in many ways. One can be to make unfair decisions and another can be to pity people based off information we perceive to be true.  A perfect example of this was when Adichie’s roommate met her for the first time. Adichie states that her roommate had felt sorry for her even before she saw her. This is so important to understand because there is so much more than what we read in textbooks about other places around the world. Her roommate created a representation of who Adichie was before she even met her and learned for herself. This view that her roommate had was largely because of a “single story”. Adichie explains this process as showing

“A people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.”

People then become defined by one part of the culture rather than for who the individual is.

This concept is also prevalent when we talk about happiness and what makes a person “wealthy”. Aristotle brings up that,

“From this definition of happiness it follows that its constituent parts are:-good birth, plenty of friends, good friends, wealth, good children, plenty of children, a happy old age, also such bodily excellences as health, beauty, strength, large stature, athletic powers, together with fame, honour, good luck, and virtue” (Aristotle, 350 B.C.E.).

People who are not wealthy of have plenty of children can be happy. There is no definitive definition of what happiness is, and projection one’s definition of happiness onto another person to deem them as unhappy is unjust. Adichie said that “power is not just the ability to tell the story of another person, but the ability to make it a definitive story of that person.” The definition of happiness is a perfect example of the “wealthy white man” deeming an entire race of people unhappy because of a perceived living situation.

Aristotle continues the notion of power when addressing the issue of class. He says,

“Now to call a thing ‘greater’ or ‘more’ always implies a comparison of it with one that is ‘smaller’ or ‘less’, while ‘great’ and ‘small’, ‘much’ and ‘little’, are terms used in comparison with normal magnitude” (Aristotle, 350 B.C.E.).

This is important to consider because the two have to be polar opposites and are referred to as better and worse rather than equals. The comparison is binary. Aristotle continues to address this issue and says,

“Again, if the largest member of one class surpasses the largest member of another, then the one class surpasses the other; and if one class surpasses another, then the largest member of the one surpasses the largest member of the other” (Aristotle, 350 B.C.E.).

This idea shows us that there are class differences that are only differences because they are socially constructed. So many times we see people comparing themselves when they should be equals or not compared at all. Ethnocentrism should be shut down and stopped.

One of my absolute favorite writers is Maya Angelou. She was such an incredible writer and always made me think about what I wanted out of life and who I wanted to be. She said that

“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.”

I have always loved this quote because it really shows us that we cannot grow as a society or as individuals when we hold on to prejudices. I also really enjoy her quote

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

This one also really has helped me in the past because she is really advocating for you to be your genuine self and not let what others think or say change how you feel about yourself.

So Here I Am

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I am taking this course because I am a Language and Literacy minor and this class is one of the requirements to graduate. I am also taking this course because I think writing and learning diverse literature is extremely important for students to learn and understand. Representation of all cultures is vital to developing a culturally aware and diverse community of accepting individuals. Based off the first day of class, I expect to learn a lot about myself. I expect to be be pushed out of my comfort zone. I expect this process to be similar to peeling an onion: only by peeling back the many layers will I be able to discover the true beauty of it.

I would like to explore, experiment with, and work at these five specific techniques:

  1. Evoke strong emotion
  2. Pull the reader in using personal anecdotes
  3. Find my own voice through my writing
  4. Descriptive language
  5. Write with a purpose/passion

Some identities that I associate with are:

  1. I am Jewish, so I might use a Star of David.
  2. I am a woman, so I might use the female gender sign.
  3. I have ADHD, so I might use a brain with scribbles in it.
  4. I am well educated, so I might use a graduation cap or a stack of books.
  5. I am a student, so I might use a person in a classroom or reading a book.
  6. I am compassionate, so I might use a big heart.