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09. Literacy as Metaphor: Roleplay Activity

I did this assignment for my class on Literacy and Society, an English class mostly geared towards education majors, which explores theories of literacy, literacy and technology, social justice and learning, etc.

The reading for this day was Sylvia Scribner's "Literacy in Three Metaphors," which is quite old, but provides a nice theoretical background reading and a framework for thinking about questions of literacy. Basically, Scribner explores three metaphors for literacy: literacy as adaptation, literacy as power, and literacy as a state of grace.

I developed the following worksheet and set of case studies. Five students volunteered to represent the character from the case study to the group. The remaining students formed groups around those characters. They completed the worksheet as a group and developed a literacy plan for their "character," taking on the roles of literacy tutors.

I tried to get a lot of variation in the case studies, which range from the realistic to the science-fictional. One is even based on George Eliot, because clearly I can't resist the lure of the Victorian:


1860, Oregon.  Bill Cornish.  Bill took the Oregon Trail west in 1848 and settled down in a cabin he built with his own hands.  Knowledgeable in agriculture, hunting, fishing and preserving food, he brings in a comfortable livelihood and is a respected member of the community.  Younger men frequently seek him out for advice on their crops.  He’s able to read his name, numbers, and a few other words.  His wife writes his letters for him and helps him handle his business transactions.  Once, when his wife was visiting relatives, he missed paying a bill that had been sent by letter and was fined heavily, but normally everything runs smoothly.

2012, Philadelphia.  Dana Romano.  Growing up in South Philly in a primarily Italian-speaking community, Dana never learned to speak or write English very well.  Dana dropped out of high school to work as a waitress in an Italian restaurant.  Recently, she’s become interested in all of the talk about the new voter ID requirements.  She’d like to help people in her community get set up with IDs so that they can vote, but is having trouble working out the requirements herself. 

3152, Mars.  Zhenon 7.  Like everyone else in his society, Zhenon receives all of his information through Mind Tapes downloaded to the brain.  A Grade 3 Water Engineer, Zhenon has a comfortable life, but he dreams of becoming Grade 1 Water Engineer, a much more high-profile position.  However, the only way to become Grade 1 (a more creative position) is to study and take an exam.  While Zhenon of course can read perfectly well (he had a Reading Tape download like everyone else), he’s never had to learn anything from a book. 

2002, Boston.  Kyle Cabbot.  Kyle, a WW2 veteran, has always loved reading, and still is rarely seen without a newspaper or a library book on U.S. history under his arm.  But recently, life has started changing.  His local library switched to an online card catalogue, and now he has to ask for help finding books.  He started missing his poker night meetings when they switched to email scheduling.  His son bought him a computer, and he was initially excited about being able to see the online pictures of his grandchildren, but he was unable to figure out how to use it, and, frustrated, leaves it alone.

1846, Conventry, England. Mary Anne Smith.  Whereas most women of her day were educated to be decorative wives, Mary Anne was passionate about her studies, and taught herself Greek, German, and Philosophy.  She was considered something of a freak by her neighbors, and no one expected her to find a husband (the main life goal for most Victorian women).  When her father died and left her penniless, she considered marrying one of her father’s friends, who would support her on the condition that she give up her studies and devote herself to rearing children.  However, she decided to write novels instead, and with a lot of work, just managed to make ends meet.



Literacy in Three Metaphors: Case Studies

Consider the metaphor of literacy as adaptation.  In what way is this person’s literacy functional for their day-to-day lives?  Where does it fall short?

Consider the metaphor of literacy as power.  Would improving literacy in this situation give this person more say in their society?  Or, do they need more power in order to improve their literacy?  Or is it a combination?

Consider the metaphor of literacy as a state of grace.  What is the value of literacy in this culture?  In what ways would increased literacy change this person’s status? 

Finally, imagine that you are a literacy tutor.  Develop a plan to help this person.  You might consider:

·         Which skills/abilities you would emphasize

·         Which metaphor inspired these skills/abilities

·         How these skills would change their lives


At the end of class, the "characters" summarized their literacy stories for the class, while their groups presented their literacy plans.  We talked more generally about the different versions of literacy represented here and about literacy as a cultural construct. The "literacy plan" connected to a later assignment midway through the semester, where students planned and carried out an independent lesson and reported on the results.


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