Considering Literacy: An Interview with Dr. Buchanan

By: Felicia Appell

Dr. Rebekah Buchanan is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University. Before her career at WIU, she was a high school English teacher while earning her Master’s in Youth Development and Leadership. She worked with a community organization to create an alternative school within the public school system where homeless and truant students could still earn a high school diploma instead of dropping out and earning a GED. She used her experiences and degree to research the relationship between local communities and youth out-of-school literacies. It was then that she decided to go back to school to earn a Ph.D. in Urban Education, focusing on language and literacy of youth located in urban areas. Now that she has been a professor at WIU, Buchanan has begun furthering her research in rural English Language Arts teachers since she is now located in a more rural community and mentors many students who will complete their teaching experiences in rural area schools. However, the primary focus is still the correlation between community involvement and youth development of literacy.

Buchanan’s field of study focuses on literacy studies and how youth reads and writes, centralizing around the essential questions: What is the literacy life like?  How do people read and write? What are students reading inside and outside of school, and why are they important? Many educators believe that students are not reading and writing outside of school, but Buchanan sees this in a different light when she states, “So, when we say kids can’t write. Kids don’t read. They do, they just don’t read and write what we want them to.” The reading and writing that interests students outside the classroom has become a focus for Buchanan, questioning how students create “spaces” and apply literacy practices outside of school. She stated, “I always felt what they did out of school was more important than what they did in school half the time because then you can sort of learn how you can apply that to school.”  Therefore, important questions that educators have to ask themselves are, “How does our youth create spaces outside school, and what are they doing with those literacy practices? Why are they important?” She explains that some students may not write in school, but outside of school they may be writing song lyrics, plays, or journaling about their life experiences. This then becomes a question of how they are creating cultural literacy in their own lives outside of school and how teachers can incorporate those experiences into their classrooms to help them become culturally literate in their community and future careers. This relates back to where the idea of literacy culture began in the first place.

The New London Group argues literacy is a political act based upon values and culture in communities. How is literacy used as a political act?  Buchanan reframes this with the question, “What are the stories we choose to tell, and what are the stories we don’t choose to tell?”  It then becomes a question of how students use writing and literacy in positions of power: What are the practices of youth, and how are they producing culture outside of school?  How do these values relate to what they are reading, writing, and creating outside of school? It is important to look at what practices students are doing outside of school and the types of media that they are using and creating because this is how they are creating culture and using literacy. She uses an example from a local city that has suggested the school library to be closed down because it is a waste of money; however, if that were to happen in Macomb, there would be parents protesting and advocating for the library to stay. Buchanan’s point was to prove that even though these two cities are geographically near each other, they have different values, and these values affect students and how they view and practice literacy. However, values such as these influence the cultural literacy that the New London Group focuses on in their research.

Once teachers understand students’ values and the cultural literacy the community has created, they can adapt their classroom instruction and assist students in becoming culturally literate in their own community. Since values may vary among students, Buchanan suggests practicing theories of John Dewey where students work together on their own projects and figure out how they can use literacy in their world around them. Instead of instructing and “dumping knowledge” onto them, she suggests coaching them and allowing them to collaborate. However, relating the real world to their reading and writing in the classroom is still a major problem that some teachers have.

Instead of forcing young people to read and write in the traditional form, Buchanan suggests approaching teaching in a different manner. Instead of forcing them to read and write what we as teachers think is important, we should reframe it into what is culturally important for them so that they are engaged and learning knowledge, tools, and skills that will help them with their future in the real world. She says that we should be asking the question: “How do we engage students in what they are interested in instead of what we assume they are interested in?”  For example, instead of writing research papers, students can write real world writings such as reviews on the internet or sales advertising. She used an example of local student farmers who were writing online auction descriptions for their family business because their career path was going to be in farming. She also suggests that students read and write their own zines, focusing on topics that interest them. When reading novels, she suggests creating literature circles and pairing students together with the same Lexile level so that they can read and work collaboratively with a text that they can understand and is of interest to them. There may be a novel, such as Fahrenheit 451, that is too difficult for some students, but a book with the same theme can be read among students with a lower level so that they understand the text and still receive the same message and learn the same skills they need in the real world.