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Freedom to be me… Art, Literacy, and Identity Exploration through the Eyes of Adolescent Girls

To be a literate citizen in 21st century America requires the freedom to read, understand, and question the world in which he or she lives sees critical literacy is a tool to navigate hegemonic discourse, to redefine the self and to transform oppressive social structures and relations of production. As educators we must understand the role of the political, social, ideological and cultural context of language and text in the construction of self and reality. Authentic literacy events position every learner as a unique individual whose experiences and understanding of the world contribute to and transform the larger collective society. Engaging students with authentic literacy involves confronting their lived experiences, even when those experiences are complex. As individuals describe their life experiences they may challenge educators to step outside of their comfort zones and experience the world in new ways.

Using literacy to awaken to a new awareness of the world involves opening up space to voices that have often been silenced. As Freire (1970) posits “In problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not in static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (p. 64). Blogging, support groups, and personal out of school literacy experiences are avenues sharing experiences. Within these safe spaces girls enter into new identities, create new alliances, and begin the work of self-transformation. As teachers understand the ways girls interact in these environments they can come to a new understanding of how to meet the needs of their students.

Two studies looked carefully at out of school literacy practices. The first study examined the ways African American girls can use literacy practices to deconstruct messages they have received around sexuality and construct more assertive stances within their social communities. The participants were part of a LGBT support group where the facilitator encouraged the girls to read young adult novels, maintain a reflective journal, and engage in discussion groups related to the novel. The second study explored the ways girls used blogging as a place to explore social positioning and identity. Online writing gave participants the opportunity express concerns they were too self-conscious to raise in other places.

Both of the studies found that when the girls had the opportunity to critique their own social spaces and reflect upon their lived experiences they found both empowering and constraining factors. Often the empowerment and constraint occurred almost simultaneously-as the girls realized that they were discovering new insights about themselves, they also recognized that sharing their shifts in understanding would affect their social world; therefore they often silenced their new discoveries.

For example Meanz, one of the girls in the study, connected to the character London from the book, London Reign (Britt, 2007) and shared parts of her own struggle. “I understand why London indulged in heavy drinking and smoking. She was trying to erase the pain she was experiencing in life like the death of her best friend, Scottie. I am way too familiar with that. It’s almost scary to see it happen to someone else.” Meanz thought of London as a role model of change. In her writer’s notebook, she reflected, “I am impressed with London’s ability to turn her life around and become a different person…maybe because she was finally happy and let go of some of her baggage. I believe I am changing for the better not the worse.”

A girl from the blogging study explained, “Overall they’ve {the people online} allowed me to express myself in a creative matter and show it to others without making me feel like I don’t have anything worth sharing. However, when asked how she could take this understanding self beyond the blog she wrote, “I don’t think I sound smart or make sense half the time, so I think people will judge me on that. I feel they won’t get what I’m saying, and overall, even though it’s probably all in my head, I feel too different from others. Ultimately, the support the research participants found was too distant their current reality and they would need support, from teachers or others, to integrate these new understandings into their life.

As educators, we need to continue to explore ways we can construct safe classroom spaces and encourage all voices to engage in discussions through the use of a wide range of literature, art, and a wide range of written compositions. We need to invite the challenging discussions, the ones that are often silenced, because new expressions create new pathways for understanding the world.

 

by: Candice Moench, WILLA Chair,  and Kattie Hogan

 

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