Literacy as Conversation: Learning Networks in Urban and Rural Communities
reviewed by Clarice M. Moran - July 19, 2021
Title: Literacy as Conversation: Learning Networks in Urban and Rural Communities
Author(s): Eli Goldblatt & David Jolliffe
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA
ISBN: 0822946246, Pages: 228, Year: 2020
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Improving community literacy means reaching beyond the walls of the classroom or library, and into the very lives of people to inspire them to read, write, and speak. It means looking for ways to involve teenagers, prisoners, and young children in the essence of decoding symbols and to encourage them to engage in significant conversations that lead to action (p. 7). Such is the premise of Goldblatt and Jolliffes (2020) Literacy as Conversation: Learning Networks in Urban and Rural Communities, a guidebook on community literacy projects. Eli Goldblatt, a professor emeritus of English at Temple University in Philadelphia, and David Jolliffe, professor emeritus of English at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, jokingly refer to their perspectives on community literacy as something akin to those of the city mouse and the country mouse (p. 180). However, their approaches to community literacy projects are similar: both believe in the power of conversation to promote literacy learning and action. This conversation can take the form of urban farming, dramatic performances, or afterschool programs, but at its heart is the desire to instill hope and advocacy, and to promote change.
Organized as a series of essays in three parts, Literacy as Conversations aim is to provide guidance to those interested in creating their own community-based literacy projects, as well as those seeking to learn about Goldblatts and Jolliffes specific initiatives in their respective communities. Part I is co-written by Goldblatt and Jolliffe, and includes broad definitions of literacy, as well as a framework for reading the rest of the book. It also provides an in-depth look at Philadelphia and Fayetteville, two seemingly different cities with similar needs for literacy improvement. Part II is written by Goldblatt and goes into depth about the specific literacy initiatives he is either involved in or aware of in the Philadelphia area, including Tree House Books (a nonprofit former used bookstore that now serves children after school), community arts organizations, and urban farms. Part III is written by Jolliffe and looks at ARCare (a rural health organization), high school students involved in writing and performing Shakespearean drama, and prisoners who wrote a play depicting their life stories. The book concludes with a hopeful and optimistic message about the commonalities between rural and urban areas, and the need for people to be able to tell their stories, articulate shared hopes for their communities, demand a place at the political conference table (p. 185).
Chapter 1 offers positionality statements from Goldblatt and Jolliffe, and attempts to bridge the gap between academic and general audiences by letting readers know that the book is filled with anecdotes and personal narratives. The tone is conversational (per the books title), and references and citations are intentionally kept to a minimum (p. 7) so that a general audience is not alienated. Likewise, Chapters 2 and 3 provide advance notice of the definitions and framework that are used in the rest of the book. To Goldblatt and Jolliffe, literacy involves more than language; it means having conversations that enable people to do things to make their worlds better (p. 15). This call to action is consistent throughout the book, as the authors demonstrate that literacy in action includes ideas that go beyond traditional workshops or after-school events.
In Chapters 5 through 7, Goldblatt identifies specific literacy projects in Philadelphiamany of which would work in other communities. He also goes on to make the rhetorical leap in Chapter 7 that an urban farm is a literacy practice. He writes, A farmer is an author planting in rows rather than writing in lines (p. 112). Involvement in urban farming, as well as more traditional literacy activities, has helped some in the Philadelphia area turn the corner into leading more literate lives as they adopt specific habits of mind, including curiosity, openness, creativity, and responsibility (p. 86). Goldblatt writes that art studios and farms both promote these habits of mind, thereby reinventing the very definition of literacy. He offers the interesting idea that language goes beyond the written or spoken. He writes, Direct interaction with natural environments refreshes language by bringing words in contact with palpable referents (p. 123).
Likewise, Jolliffe applies a wide lens to literacy practices in Chapters 8 and 9most notably through dramatic performance. He discusses several dramatic groups who met after school or on weekends to write and perform plays. He also provides an emotional look at one particular theater project, The Prison Story Project, which involved inmatessome of whom were on death row. The resulting collaborative project, called On the Row, was performed to public audiences in Arkansas. Jolliffe writes that four of the eleven writers on the project were scheduled to die by lethal injection, and two eventually were executed. Jolliffe writes that through On the Row, the inmates created a world that, I would hazard, few of audience members ever thought they would inhabit. Literacy is action. Literacy is doing (p. 170).
The conclusion of the book reiterates the need for communities to host places in which inhabitants can promote change through literacy. Securing funding for such projects can be tricky, but Goldblatt and Jolliffe offer a few ideas for sourcing money, including connecting directly with donors who may want to add their voice to initiatives. They write that these donors have a right to know how their money is going to be used and to see tangible benefits in the short termnot just promises for the long term.
As a whole, Literacy as Conversation offers a deep dive into community literacy projects that work in both urban and rural areas. It advocates for more partners in shoring up the sagging corners of American communities in which literacy is badly needed, and it provides inspiration to those in search of ideas for their own neighborhoods. The books sequential approach encourages readers to understand community literacy first, then see it in action, then consider ways to adopt it in their own corners of the world. Indeed, Goldblatt and Jolliffes reminder that literacy is action is a powerful epitaph for change.
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