Have You Seen “The First Grader”?

I don’t know how I missed this film, which came out in 2011, but I am forever grateful that I have finally gotten to see it—and I hope you have too. It tells the story of Kimani Maruge, an 84-year-old former Mao Mao freedom fighter against the British who had never had an education. When “free education for everyone” is announced in Kenya, Maruge determines to take advantage of the opportunity: he wants to learn to read. Early in the film, we see Maruge (played brilliantly by Oliver Litundo) holding a letter, which he unfolds. We see, through very blurry vision, that is from The President . . . . That is all we know, but it helps provide motivation for Maruge’s insistence on becoming literate. “Power,” he says, “is in the pen” and being able to read is part and parcel of that power.
Maruge is turned away from the brand new elementary school, which has at least five children for every available seat; education is for the young, he hears. But he returns to the school, first with a sharpened pencil and notebook and then, when he’s turned away again, with a “school uniform” they say all students must have. Teacher Jane, the second hero of this film, decides to admit him, and thereby hangs quite a tail as resistance mounts on all sides to Maruge taking his place with the elementary children.
The film progresses through flashbacks to Maruge’s early life, his marriage to a hauntingly beautiful woman and the arrival of two children. The shimmering scenes of his wife moving slowly toward him are interspersed with shots of horrific torture (more than once I had to turn away) and the murder of his family. Through it all, Maruge refuses to renounce his oath to fight for freedom. But the torture and war took a terrible toll, and when we meet Maruge he is slightly bent, using a stick to help him walk (they cut off his toes, he tells us), and cultivating a tiny garden. And determining to learn to read and write. In that effort, he is helped—heroically—by Teacher Jane, who is eventually transferred away from the school for disobeying orders to eject Maruge but who returns when the students rebel, locking out the new teacher and changing “We want teacher Jane!” I came away from the film thinking that the whole world wants—and needs—teacher Jane.
Kimani Marugi holds the Guinness Book of Records for the oldest person to begin elementary school, in 2004, when he was 84. He lost his small property in the violence following the 2007-08 election and was temporarily moved from elementary school to a home for old people. But he continued to re-enroll in elementary school, where he eventually became “head boy.” He died in 2009, but his spirit clearly lives on in the stories and films about him.
Reading about his history and seeing The First Grader reminded me of how much we take for granted about literacy and its acquisition. Children coming to us today most often don’t know the struggle for literacy that earlier generations went through—they don’t know that learning to read and write was a criminal offense in the time of slavery, for example. Writing teachers need to be at the forefront of keeping this history alive, of letting students know about “the power of the pen,” about how much they are able to do just because they can read and write.
Elspeth Stuckey has written brilliantly about The Violence of Literacy. I take her point: literacy instruction has often involved violence. But it has also involved just the opposite, the ability to take control of at least part of one’s life and to make sense of it. That’s what drove Maruge: he wants to read, for himself, that letter. And when he finally does read it, with the help of a teacher (since the text is, as he says, still “too hard” for him) and learns that it is a letter of apology and restitution, he gains a new sense of himself.
So here’s to Kimani Maruge and to every teacher Jane in every country in the world. And here’s to the good powers of literacy.

Is Struggle Good for Us?

Recently, I heard (on NPR, where else?!) a story about the differences in how U.S. and Chinese and Japanese cultures think about struggle with schoolwork. (You can listen to the story at http://www.npr.org/2013/09/02/218067142/why-eastern-and-western-cultures-tackle-learning-differentlyward struggle.) During the broadcast, psychologist Jim Stigler remarked on some of what he had learned about such differences:
From very early ages, we see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart. It’s a sign of low ability. People who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it. It’s our folk theory, whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity. In Eastern cultures, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle. And, in a way, struggling is a chance to show that you have what it takes emotionally to overcome the problem by having the strength to persist through that struggle.
Along the way, he tells about visiting a fourth grade math class in Japan, where the teacher was teaching students to draw three-dimensional cubes. The teacher chose to ask the student who was having the greatest difficulty drawing the cube to come to the front of the room and put his on the board. Stigler recalls feeling more and more uncomfortable as the student makes one inaccurate attempt after another, while the teacher asks the other students whether he has it right yet. He has not. So he struggles. In the end, though, as Stigler is sweating in his seat, the student figures out how to draw it—and gets a big round applause from his classmates.
Thinking about this fourth grader’s struggles and about the teacher’s approach to and attitudes toward that struggle reminded me of Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the “zone of proximal development.” Vygotsky has not fully developed his thinking on this concept at the time of his death, but it has been influential nonetheless and is often related to another important concept in learning theory, that of “scaffolding.”
I think of the zone of proximal development, however, as an embodiment of Browning’s line from “Andrea del Sarto”: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.” Of course, I’d say “person” instead of “man,” but the point to me is an important one: we should aim higher than we can jump or reach, knowing that in time and with a little help, we can achieve that goal. And we should encourage our students to do so as well. The zone of proximal development denotes the space a person occupies when the learning goal is just a little out in front, a little too difficult. This is a zone into which a peer or a teacher can step to give just a little guidance. And it’s the zone where the learner struggles to take advantage of the guidance and progress ever closer to the goal.
This little meditation on Vygotsky’s concept takes me back to thinking about my own students and their relationship to struggle. I can’t say that they embrace the notion of struggling or that they actually enjoy it—but they certainly engage in it. In fact, undergraduates at my school talk about “getting on the struggle bus” when they are working really hard at some academic task. They also seem to value success in proportion to the struggle it has entailed: that is, they seem to value what they have had to work hard for. After hearing about Stigler’s research, I’m anxious to talk to my students about how they view struggle, to see if they associate it with being not very smart—or whether they see it as an inevitable and even valuable part of learning.

Notes on Visual Literacy

Browsing in a bookstore in Middlebury, Vermont (love those independent bookstores!), I spotted a book in the “media” section with a title that grabbed my attention: The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens, by Stephen Apkon (and in small caps next to the author’s name these words: foreword by Martin Scorsese. I’ve mentioned this book in an earlier posting, when I had just bought the book.
The text is hardback, with a half slipcover in paper with a black and white photo of a lovely flower blossom. Underneath the slipcover, on the hard cover, this black and white photo is replaced with a color photo of evergreen trees surrounding a yellow satellite dish. The move back and forth between the two images is mesmerizing: I kept flipping back and forth until the flower blossom an the dish seemed somehow to merge into one. I knew I was fascinated by these images but couldn’t exactly put my finger on why that was so.
Apkon’s book addresses the problem I faced in trying to articulate my engagement with these images. In it, he argues that most ordinary folks today are “not properly cognizant of or conversant with the grammar of visual communication, the coded messages of its style, and the practical components of its production. We are largely, in a word, illiterate.” Apkon’s charge—which he is at pains to illustrate with dozens of rich examples—strikes me not only as accurate but as one reason for the focus within rhetoric and writing studies on visual rhetoric and the many articles and books our field has produced on this subject over the last ten years or so (such as Carolyn Handa’s Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World). In this sense, our field has risen to the challenge Apkon lays down more thoroughly and resourcefully than many others.
Yet most teachers of writing today have had little or no education in visual rhetoric or visual literacy and are having to teach ourselves how to engage and analyze the grammar Apkon speaks of—and then figure out how to help our students be more critically aware of the screen culture we all now inhabit.
As Scorsese puts it in his foreword,
For someone of my generation, the most astonishing aspect of this development [of moving images everywhere around us] is that many of these images were created by nonprofessionals, shot with smartphones and cameras of all shapes, sizes, and levels of expense. The need for visual literacy has only become more urgent In fact, it has become necessary. This wonderful book, written from the unique perspective of someone who loves cinema and who is passionate about education, helps put this need in perspective. Steve Apkon starts with the cave paintings and takes us all the way to YouTube and beyond, by way of Gutenberg and Edison and Hitchcock, and in so doing he helps us to clearly understand the continuity between word and image, as opposed to the divide. In the process he redefines the word literacy to include all the means by which we communicate today.
Apkon’s book makes a cogent case for our need to be literate in the primary communicative modes of our society—and today that means being literate in moving images, film, video, and other digital tools. At a minimum, Apkon argues, every high school student today should be a master of five key abilities:
• Producing a short video script
• Shooting a film narrative with the “correct literate elements of expression”
• Editing a raw video footage into a cogent argument
• Accessing available channels of information distribution
• Understanding and analyzing and interpreting visual media (p. 219)
Apkon cites some work by National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association on visual literacy, but his focus is not on telling teachers of writing and reading how to achieve these goals. Rather, he seems intent on alerting us to the urgency that we take up the goals, recognize their importance, and then figure out how to accomplish them. Along the way he gives examples of teachers who have done so, but again, with little concrete, nitty-gritty advice. Luckily for those of us who want to heed Apkon’s call, many in our field are providing that guidance. I will post soon on some of these efforts, but in the meantime I would be very grateful to hear from others about how you are responding to the challenges of teaching writing and reading when, as Apkon puts it in one chapter, “All the world’s a screen.”