Category Archives: literacy education

Happy International Literacy Day!!

The Literacy Site blog informs me that today is International literacy day, and in celebration I thought I would share my experience of the importance of literacy.

Now, I don’t remember my first book, but knowing my mother it was read to me and at a very young age.  By young, I mean before I had a conscious concept of myself much less something so abstract as a book.  I have no doubt that it was something like The Little Engine That Could, or Green Eggs and Ham, or some other childhood classic.  It is to this that I attest my obsession with growing my collection of children’s books.  That is in circles where the explanation, “Because I like children’s books” is not an acceptable enough reason for such a collection.

However, if I were to rely on the memory of my childhood bookshelves and boxes eventually given to the used bookstore, I would guess that I have read or been read, at least, the following:

  • Caps for Sale
  • How to Eat Fried Worms
  • The Velveteen Rabbit
  • Curious George      
  • Goodnight Moon
  • Charlotte’s Web    
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
  • The Giving Tree  
  • Madeline 
  • The Monster at the End of this Book
  • James and the Giant Peach   
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but I have no specific memory of reading these or any other childhood books.  None whatsoever.  I’m sure that I’ve read them, of course.  I mean they sat in my room until I was 10, but of most of them, I couldn’t recite a single line.  

My passion for the importance of reading and advocating for literacy education comes from the books that I do remember – the books that meant something, and continue to mean something today.  Some of them were integral to my understanding of human nature.  Some of them helped me cope with the challenges I have faced in my life.  Some of them touched me so deeply that I still carry with me the same feeling that I had when I shut the cover every time I think of them.  And some of them were just plain fun!  

It was recommended to me once that I write a memoir, and I remember thinking, who would read a memoir about me?  What would I write about?  I’m not that interesting, or at least nothing of interest has really happened to me.  A straight memoir about my life can be summed up in a few words: Born in suburbs; Attended public school; 2.5 adorable children and a dog (of which I was one – the children, not the dog).  As you can see, there isn’t a lot there.  Pretty much every other kid in suburbia has had my life.  We are not the Kennedys; we are not the Jacksons; we are not the Clintons; we’re not even the Joneses – although we were the first ones in my neighborhood to own a CD player and, I think, a computer.  So you see, I wasn’t even deprived of anything, except the Power Wheels I always wanted.   And why didn’t I get the Power Wheels?  Because my parents agreed that they wanted my brother and I to have self-propelling vehicles to encourage activity and exercise.  That’s right.  I don’t even have a weight problem.  What the could I possibly write about in a memoir?

But a trip to the bookstore made me see things in a different light. As I browsed the shelves, both in the children’s section and general fiction, I saw book after book which, for me, defined a certain experience or time in my life  As I walked out, and got in my car, I started thinking of my life in books, and when I did that I found remembering a book that I read made me remember a specific event, which for one reason or another, was tied to it.  Maybe it was because the book made an event more meaningful, or maybe I read the book during a secure or happy time and it brings me a contented feeling, or maybe I had to stand in line for an hour because all of a sudden Everybody In The World has to have the latest Harry Potter.  Whatever the reason, it turns out I can associate most of the memories I have with one book or another.  Just like one song can bring you back to your high school prom, so can one book touch you so deeply that it will remain with you forever.  That is the importance of literacy.

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Short Fiction: A Weekly Dedication – Week 2

I just finished reading my short story for the day – Flannery O’Conner’s, “A Good Man is Hard to Find“. I’m surprised I made it through 12 years of grade school, and a combined 8 years of college without ever having read it.  Perhaps if I had remained in a literature program, I would have, but I don’t think it would be completely off topic to have a story like this one examined in a psychology or sociology class so my confusion remains. Just like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, this one sets you up quietly to be dropped on your head with the ending.  That’s as much as I’ll give away for those of you who have not read it.  Those of you who have, I would think, know what I mean.

This week, I also read a fun little O. Henry story. His story was called, “Tobin’s Palm“.  The twist ending, in this case, turned out to be somewhat uplifting.  There are always those endings that are left open to interpretation, whether everything ends “happily ever after”, and when given the choice, I usually choose to believe in the “happily ever after”.  Especially since this week was rough for endings.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth was the Lovecraft this week. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is actually a novella, so it took a little longer than one sitting to finish.  This being one of his later stories, though, he had certainly honed his craft by the time of it’s writing.  The buildup was slow, but just added to the suspense and mystery surrounding the title town.  The narrator plays the cynic unbeliever, so the reader falls right in line with him believing none of this could be true.  It was hard to put this one down.

I was disappointed in Poe this week.  “Loss of Breath” left something to be desired, and required a great suspension of disbelief, so much so that I found it hard to get on board.  The title phenomenon is taken to the most absurd extreme, and it lost a lot in the telling.  The antiquated writing style indicative of the day is something I can usually ignore, or at least grow accustomed to, when reading a good story, but with this one I ended up focusing on it.  Somehow, the flowery language made the whole thing that much more absurd.

I think my favorite this week was Dorothy Parker’s, “Lady With a Lamp“.  At the beginning, we get the idea the two main characters sometimes go quite a while without seeing each other. This time one was shocked to discover the other was terribly ill. The POV was intriguing as this is one of Parker’s “monologue stories” (my own term, as far as I know).  Some of my favorite stories of hers have been told in first person as an extended monologue, usually in the form of thoughts that run through one’s mind in certain situations.  This time, the “monologue” was actually just one side of a conversation about why the speaker’s friend is ill.  And over the course of the conversation, we discover a lot.  Though the ailment is never directly mentioned, it doesn’t take long to figure out what has happened, and considering, I have to wonder if this story created a huge scandal when it was released in 1932.  Five stars.

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Space Controversy

I read an article today about double-spacing behind a period and, I have to say, I didn’t know how prevalent the new rule had become. As I considered the reason for it – stemming from the change in technology from the monospaced characters of typewriters to the proportional spacing of computers – I realize it makes complete sense. The vast fonts and styles of the computer age lessens the need for hard and fast rules for affecting readability. I read newspaper articles and word processor submissions and see how unnecessary a second space is. Sure, I’ll give you that.

But change is hard! I, myself, have never been especially good at it, and certainly not when the change involves something that I’ve only ever learned one way of doing.

Usually, I’m resistant to change. For instance, while I am happy to read the occasional article online, I am in no hurry to give up printed newspapers, books, and magazines in favor of a handheld device for all my reading. I also will not bow down to popular word usage and grammar exceptions simply because enough people use their first language incorrectly. (It doesn’t matter how many dictionaries include it, “irregardless” is almost always noted as “nonstandard” or “incorrect” usage. It’s definition tells you it’s wrong. Stop it!)

But in the case of the double-space (hee hee, rhyming is fun), I claim the old but true adage, “Old habits die hard”. Even now, as I type, I am making a very conscious effort tot only tap the SPACEBAR once. And it feels wrong.

After typing for so many years, and increasing my QWERTY speed such that I don’t even recognize what keys I’m hitting, I struggle to stop long enough to actually realize that, not only did I just tap the SPACEBAR twice in quick succession, but I also used TAB to indent this paragraph, which is also unnecessary. This changing of the times, while understandable, is going to require a lot of BACKSPACE.

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Reading Helps Us Empathize

As writers, we must also be avid readers.  (What a shame, eh?) Yes, we use the excuse of improving our writing to explain the constant burying of our heads in books, but according to studies from 2012 and 2013 it seems reading improves us more than we may think.  It turns out that reading doesn’t just inform us on specific subjects or improve vocabulary and grammar.  It also makes us more emotionally intelligent; specifically empathetic.

Now, if there is anyone reading this wondering how reading can improve the sense of empathy, consider some of you favorite novels.  When I reflect on mine, I realize that The Little Prince has caused me to be more attune to taking notice of the smallest pleasures – a child’s laugh, the breeze brushing through my hair, that first sip of clean cool water when you feel a deep thirst.  I think of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – how easily I recognized the story as an allusion to substance abuse and addiction and felt the chronic strain on both the addict and his loved ones.  I think of how easy it was for me to relate to Steve Martin’s Shopgirl but just as easy to see the perspective of her companion.

One of the studies conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Costano explored further finding evidence distinguishing the “empathetic benefits” of literary fiction vs. “pop” fiction.  Due to the “complexity in stories and their characters”, literary fiction appears to be the clear winner here.  When I reflect on my reading of The Life of Pi, I can most certainly agree.  Not only the beautiful story of the loss at sea, which makes up the bulk of the story, but the final explanation of “what really happened” gave me such a rush of emotion and understanding of what the mind can do to compensate a horrible trauma.
But how does this inform our own writing.  Well, just as our personal experience of places and events serve to help us better describe a variety of settings and experiences, empathizing with well-written characters can only serve as a means of experience.  Perhaps there are many events, tragedies, and celebrations we will never experience, but when we read to exercise our empathetic muscles, we become better able to imagine ourselves in the minds and skins of our characters as we put them in these circumstances.

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S – Storytelling: An Art of Legends

When I was in high school, I was a part of a competing debate, speech, and interpretive performance team. (You might be familiar with the word “Forensics” in this context, but as you might imagine I get some weird looks if I just leave it at, “I was on my high school Forensics team”.)

I never participated in the debate or public speaking events that were available. It wasn’t my thing. I was an actress – a performer – so, naturally I chose the interpretive and performance events.

One of these events was storytelling, which is exactly what it sounds like. I enjoyed it so much that I became interested in the art form – another unfortunate victim of modernity.

Yes, as writers we are storytellers in the strictest sense of the word. We tell stories. But the art form of storytelling is altogether different from what we do. Storytellers interpret the stories they are telling. They are performers who know their stories inside and out. It is from this tradition – dating back to our most primitive ancestors and earliest civilizations – that acting, dance, and music developed. And those that do it well are as captivating as any of your favorite performers.

But, with the invention of the printing press, the advances in technologies that made the manufacture and distribution of books more widespread, and the rise in literacy rates across the globe, the art of storytelling has become something of an antiquated novelty.

Luckily, Storytelling festivals and events are fairly common around the country. One of the best known occurs annually in TN not too far from where I grew up.

Here are some websites to visit for information if you are interested in learning more, or just want a fun way to spend some time with family and friends!

National Storytelling Network – This is an organization that “brings together and supports individuals that use the power of story in all its forms”.

DMOZ: Arts  – this directs you to a site which claims it is “the largest, most comprehensive human-edited directory of the Web”.  Regardless of the truth of that claim, this list covers a lot of area.

International Storytelling Center – This is a nonprofit organization that is “dedicated to inspiring and empowering people across the world to accomplish goals and make a difference by discovering, capturing, and sharing their stories.

From these sites you should be able to find any regional storytelling event or festival near you.  I highly recommend checking one out!

 

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O – “One”: A Pronoun

It’s not just the loneliest number. These days, it’s a fairly lonely pronoun too as it appears to have fallen out of usage for the most part.

Honestly, how often when we are writing, even formally do we use the pronoun “one”?  I personally try to as often as I can, but even when I do it sounds unnatural as though I’m being too pretentious – which is my natural state, so that doesn’t stop me.

But so often, when you read blogs, essays, or even newspaper and magazine articles, the opportunities one has to use this pronoun is replaced with an all encompassing “you”.

While I struggle with the correctness of my own and others grammar – yes, I’m one of those – I do recognize how antiquated one can sound when using this pronoun correctly. On the other hand, in certain cases – especially opinion pieces, editorials, and other very passionate, personal writing – an all encompassing “you” can come off sounding accusatory. For instance, someone may say, “You have to wonder what the mayor was thinking when he voted to raise taxes”, but I may agree with a tax hike if it pays for other services, so no, I don’t have to wonder that.

I tend to cringe when I read or hear people make this replacement, just as I would cringe if someone were to misuse subject verb agreement, because in my mind, I know it is a grammatical error. But these days, so many grammatical errors, new words, and an abundance of acronyms are accepted, that perhaps it is no longer contested. Perhaps teachers of language arts and english are teaching that either usage is correct.

Reader, what do you think? Which is correct? Which should be correct? Which do you use?

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L – Letter Writing: It’s For Posterity

I’m an old soul. I’ve known that for years, but as technology advances, and we become more and more distanced as a global society, I find my old soul more and more obvious. One of the points that proves this to me: It breaks my heart that people don’t write letters anymore.

Sure, we email friends. We keep in touch via facebook and Twitter. We make important business connections through LinkedIn. We make new friends through online forums over shared interests. And that’s great and all.

But I miss letters. I miss them because of the beauty of them. There was an art to writing letters. One didn’t write a letter to a friend to share all the details of each day. One wrote a letter when something extraordinary had happened. The death of a loved one, or the celebration of new life, marriage, retirement even. One wrote a letter to share the thoughts of a challenging event, either in one’s personal life or the world around him/her. And these letters were truly writing. Writing the way we write our stories, and novels, and nonfiction. It was worth it to sit down and really get the words right because it was important to communicate as clearly and eloquently as possible what you were thinking. The fact is, the person on the other end couldn’t just retort a quick, “Huh?”, and allow you to clarify. The meaning had to be just right, and this was an art.

But there was a visual art to it, as well, in the penmanship. We have allowed penmanship to fall by the wayside, even in our elementary schools where we our teaching our children that writing is a thing you can do, but typing is what you must learn. I remember as a child devoting so much class time and homework time to handwriting – learning print, then cursive – and I worked hard on it. But after I had learned the “correct” way, I began to play with the forms of the letters, and this is where the artist takes over. I have now developed a truly unique penmanship that I rarely ever get to use. (It’s one of the reasons I generally write all my fiction by hand before transcribing it into the computer.)

So, maybe I should pose another challenge here. Write a letter. But not just one, many. Find someone with whom you can begin a correspondence. Why? Because of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letters From A Birmingham Jail. Because of the abundance of information we know about famous writers, politicians, leaders, thinkers, movers, and shakers of history – most of which we discovered through their letters.

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