A case study conducted for Adolescent Literacy.
I met Karoline five years ago, on a Friday night. I was hired to provide childcare for the Willson family’s small group meeting at church, and middle-schooler Karoline Willson voluntarily helped me and the team care for the fifteen to twenty children of families that attended, including her younger siblings. In fact, she ran the night. She organized movies and games, crafts and activities. She knew all the kids’ names and routines, and told the childcare workers what needed to happen and when. She was supposed to be “hanging out” with us while we watched the kids, but she became a co-leader after only a few weeks. We developed systems together, and built a well-oiled, long-lasting machine for childcare ministry at our church.
Since then, Karoline has been a great friend and co-worker. Like me, she is task-oriented, organized, and responsible. She doesn’t let her young age limit her ability to share and implement ideas, or her ability to lead others. She has always been a dependable and passionate friend, and her kindness and integrity shine brilliantly. I don’t even think of her as an “adolescent” anymore.
Karoline Willson is now a senior in high school. She’s a childcare worker, volunteer, and part of the leadership team in the church’s nursery. She’s enrolled in the Student Leader program in youth group, and is a superstar organizer for church fundraisers. Baking, sewing, and other projects and skills fill her time, and her entrepreneurialism pushes her to sell cupcakes and custom oven mitts, and run a small business out of her home. She is quick-witted and funny, wise and responsible beyond her years, and passionate about serving others. Karoline’s life is something to aspire to.
Can a dyslexic student be very literate?
Underneath her deep maturity, leadership skills, and huge capacity for serving, Karoline does encounter struggle in some areas of her life. As a dyslexic student, Karoline has never enjoyed the reading process, and schoolwork is difficult for her. Her mother, Mrs. Willson, made the decision to educate Karoline and her siblings at home from an early age, and this decision allowed Karoline to succeed not only in reading and writing activities, but also to grow in the broader and deeper skillsets that she now possesses. Karoline doesn’t love to read, and has had to push herself to complete her schoolwork each day. But even still, Karoline is an extremely literate young woman.
As I interviewed her, I outlined a new definition of the term “literacy.” Randy Bomer’s text, Building Adolescent Literacy in Today’s English Classrooms, has significantly altered my original views on what “literacy” should include. Of course, prior to this discovery, both Karoline and myself assumed “literacy” meant simply reading and writing skills– something despised by Karoline, and something she didn’t see much evidence of in her life. However, this concept in today’s world can be expanded much further to encompass many of Karoline’s daily activities.
First, literacy should include talk. The ability to receive and respond to communication in an immediate way is an essential skill, and part of interacting with the world. It is a necessary skill for those wanting to thrive in any social environment, from casual to professional. Talk is a form of literacy; it includes deep familiarity with language, culture, and knowledge of multiple types of symbolic structures. Conversation may come more naturally to us than reading and writing, but it should not be discounted in the realm of education as it is a valuable skillset that needs nurturing. The next logical step is to also include other forms of communication, such as texting and social media. In this society, an online profile is almost as important as a resumé. Texting is, many times, as seamless a form of communication as talk, and requires even more understanding of “text-speak,” such as emojis, GIFs, memes, and other syntactical representations of language.
Once we’ve added these forms of communication to our idea of “literacy,” we might also include activities like watching television, or YouTube, or any other audio/video format. These are extensively complex forms of communication in the same vein as reading a novel. Instead of creating meaning from a page of text, a television viewer must interpret the subtleties of meaning within movies and television from the dialogue, scenery, facial expressions, and other non-textual communications. This may be considered easier, because understanding a television show comes more naturally to us than reading a book. However, this too is an undervalued form of literacy. The process of critically analyzing a source applies to both novels and television. Value judgments can be developed, predictions can be made, critical arguments can be built, and deep intellectual discussion can occur, whether the source is a novel, a movie, or a TV show.
The ability to interact with these deeper cognitive processes is a signal of a literate life, far more than reading speed. Our expectations of what a “literate individual” is should be adjusted to accommodate these various forms of literacy. A literate individual, in my newly-formed opinion, has the ability to absorb information with ease, to think critically and deeply about the world, books, politics, science, and other topics, to hold meaningful conversations through different formats with friends or colleagues, and to interpret interactions with the society around them in a fluent, mature way.
Karoline, despite her slower reading speed, possesses many of these skills. She is an intelligent critical-thinker. She is self-possessed and wise, and knowledgeable about the world around her. Karoline is an extremely literate student in the broader scope of her life habits.
Can a homeschool student be very literate?
At first, Karoline told me that she hates reading for school, and doesn’t read much for fun. “I’m up for it. My reading habits suck outside of school though,” she said, not expecting to be a good candidate for this study. To find out more about Karoline’s literate life, I told her that I define literacy as “communication through any form of media,” including texting, emails, TV, Pinterest, and more. This opened her mind up to much more than her limited scope of what “literacy” means.
There is a prevailing stereotype regarding homeschool students and literacy. Homeschoolers are thought to be under-taught, not very well-read, and have a limited education. It can be true that homeschool families are selective about topics due to religious or other beliefs, but this does not extend to all homeschool families. In my experience as a student in a variety of homeschool communities, homeschool students are typically more well-read than public school students, and more deeply challenged through schooling at home. Many homeschoolers are extremely self-motivated to push themselves in school, more than I’ve seen in public school classrooms. Parents know what their children are capable of, and educate them directly at their individual level. They don’t have to teach to the “average student” like a public school teacher does, and they usually challenge their children more because of their close relationship.
Of course, every family is different, and there are many strong exceptions where homeschooling is not the best option for a student or a family. These instances can sour the perception of homeschooling in the eye of the public. However, homeschooling in general can produce extremely well-educated individuals, and provide them with a rich, personalized experience with school that they truly enjoy.
Karoline’s Homeschool Work
Karoline and I started with the basics– school assignments. Mrs. Willson uses a Christian homeschool curriculum called Tapestry of Grace for the core humanities in teaching her four children. Subjects like philosophy, government, the Bible, history, and English are included in these reading- and worksheet-based lessons. In addition, Karoline uses science and math textbooks from other curricula for non-humanities subjects, and takes other courses outside of the home for electives, such as Austin School of Supernatural Ministry’s training class offered through her church. Her daily lessons, even science, are comprised of a significant amount (approximately 80%) of reading-oriented activities.
A benefit to the Tapestry of Grace curriculum is the synchronization across the entire family. There are four basic year-long components that are repeated four times at progressively more difficult levels, covering sixteen years of education. Each component is organized by content based a chronological timeline, so each unit essentially covers the same historical time period at each of the 4 levels. The younger children in the family are given the same topics as the teenagers, but their reading and activities are less challenging. This provides unity between Karoline and her siblings, because they have topics to discuss together as a class, and they can take family field trips and do group projects related to their current unit. Karoline can use her more advanced knowledge of a topic to help her younger siblings with their assignments, and her learning can occur through this process of teaching and talking with her family. In addition, the repetition of specific topics every four years solidifies the historical events, forms deeper connections between content, and reinforces her learning across disciplines.
Although Tapestry of Grace is a highly-rated homeschool curriculum, it does have disadvantages. The workload is reading-oriented, which has proven to be difficult for Karoline. The reading is usually non-fiction, or draws on classics like Aesop’s Fables and other historical literature. Her reading speed has improved significantly over the course of her academic career, but she is still fairly slow due to her acute dyslexia, and reading is a painstaking process for her.
Mrs. Willson told me: “I cringe to think of who she would be today had she not been educated at home. Is she a star student? No! Will she succeed in life despite her academic weaknesses? Absolutely!” Mrs. Willson is a trained teacher, and has followed steps to help her daughter overcome her reading difficulties from an early age. Because she only has four students, she is able to modify the curriculum in a way that is perfectly suited, yet still challenging, to Karoline’s ability. Karoline listens to audiobooks and watches videos to learn whenever they’re available, instead of reading more than she can manage in a day. But, Karoline is still encouraged and assigned to read as much as she can for school. This approach to education provides more freedom and flexibility to Karoline as a student, and a more personalized teaching format for Mrs. Willson. It allows Karoline and Mrs. Willson to focus on the important parts of her education: growth in her knowledge and skills.
Publicly-schooled students are not necessarily at a disadvantage. These same modifications can and should be made for dyslexic students in any school. However, Karoline as a dyslexic student has the perk of an extremely personal education suited to her needs, whereas I believe her academic growth would not have been as fast or as flexible in a public school environment. Mrs. Willson said,
Allowing her to learn at her own pace and in unique and often unconventional ways without the pressure to conform to the classroom setting, public school curricula, standardized tests, and peers with little understanding of her struggles gave her the freedom to discover who she is at the core and develop her personality, pursue her interests and things that come naturally to her.
I believe her. Karoline has had more opportunity to develop her character, maturity, and skillset than most public school students, and these experiences have deepened her literacy skills in very different ways.
Outside of School
The Willson family is deeply ingrained in the social web of their community. Mr. and Mrs. Willson are elders at their church, and Karoline is a part of both the children’s ministry and youth ministry leadership teams as a high school senior. Thanks to her education at home, Karoline has more exposure to other age groups outside of her own, from children to adults. She does have adolescent friends, and spends plenty of time with them. However, much of her day-to-day social life is spent negotiating relationships with adults figures in her life. As part of the children’s ministry leadership team and as a leader in youth ministry, she collaborates with a cast of adult department overseers. She is a mature young woman, able to conduct extensive conversations about procedures, to organize and lead other adults into action, and to analyze solutions and solve problems as part of an adult team. Many young women at her age would have trouble navigating this real-world experience. Not only this, but she often serves as an event organizer for church functions, and coordinates activities for volunteers, budgets for the event, and advertises to successfully collect sign-ups and donations. She works closely with the church’s administrative staff to conduct these events.
Karoline is also an avid social media user and texter. She reports holding verbal and digital interactions with between twenty and fifty individuals in her social circle on different days of the week, and about one-third of those interactions are with adults. Her Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest accounts keep her solidly connected to her friends and network, which are especially important to a student schooled at home. She is a homeschooled extrovert, and that is well-accommodated for through her digital communications. This type of literacy also enables her to conduct business– organizing events, communicating about leadership decisions, and managing her various services.
Her involvement in her church’s leadership, and her amount of social connection, highlights to me the deep literacy that Karoline does possess, despite her resistance to the classic reading-and-writing practices. She is confident in the face of real-world circumstances, and handles a level of responsibility that many adolescents don’t have the opportunity to experience. Communication with adults is a central part of her daily life. Despite being “less literate” in the traditional sense, Karoline is one of the most active, broadly literate young women I know.
So… The point is?
Re-defining Priorities for English Class
In this course, I’ve examined my priorities for my English classroom. Randy Bomer’s text has made me value long lasting skill building and habit forming over checking off a list of literature classics and reviewing grammar principles. Reading and writing English, of course, is most of the point of English class. However, literature and composition are less about the acts themselves, and more about the ideation behind them. Why read if you don’t fully grasp the depth of the content you’re trying to absorb? Why write if you haven’t generated a valuable contribution to a conversation? Academics should not be so distinctly segregated from students’ current and future lives. Education should add real value to a student’s growth in cognitive skills, and it should be an extension of their personal growth instead of a list of imposed tasks. Valuing all forms of communication as tools in the English classroom, including social media or YouTube videos, helps to bridge the disparity between academic skills and life skills. Utilizing modern genres and texts, like YA fiction, in the classroom can bring a relevancy to the content that canonical literature won’t, creating a closer attachment between content and students’ lives. This is a huge priority for my classroom.
In my study on Karoline’s life, I didn’t notice many connections between her schoolwork and her personal life– even though her teacher was her mom! With exception to the religious component of many of her lessons, and her courses in ministry training, the content she plows through daily is in very few ways applicable to her real life. In school, Karoline isn’t confident and empowered. But in her life, she is more confident and empowered than most. Defining literacy in the traditional way limits her academic self-esteem to only that of her dyslexia-influenced reading and writing ability level. However, when we study her life under a broader definition of literacy, Karoline becomes a fully literate individual.
How Homeschooling Affects my Classroom
I found that one of the biggest contributing factors in Karoline’s development is her status as a homeschool student. Her out-of-school literacies are developing because she has access to plenty of out-of-school opportunities. She is able to attend meetings during office hours, and work with adults in an adult world while most youth are in school. Schoolwork requirements (in Texas) are flexible enough to allow Mrs. Willson to accept Karoline’s small business ventures (baking specialty cupcakes and custom cakes) as a school project, as long as she truly conducts the business side officially. Self-pacing in schoolwork means that Karoline is able to dictate her own schedule, and jump on opportunities and projects as they come. She has access to the real world, more than a public school student does.
Of course, I can’t bring this kind of extreme flexibility into my English classroom, but I can keep in mind the value of freedom and choice in student growth. By allowing students to determine their own books or projects, or by allowing self-paced assignments, I can give them freedom to be responsible for themselves and enjoy the activities they engage in. By continuing to seek out opportunities to give students broad choices, I can bring an element of those advantages Karoline benefitted from into my classroom. I want to be an open-minded guide into building skills and cognition, not a taskmaster for my students to obey.
Karoline Willson as a subject is a departure from many of the studies conducted by my classmates. Not only is Karoline homeschooled, which affects the connection between her literacy habits and her home life, but she is a dyslexic student that struggles with reading speed and enjoying reading. However, I am inspired by Karoline’s ability to function maturely in an adult environment at her young age. She does not allow her dyslexia to prevent her from fully engaging in non-reading and -writing literate practices, and growing her real-world skills during her high-school years. Mrs. Willson does not allow Karoline to ignore her reading challenges; they face it head-on together, and Karoline does complete her reading-heavy schoolwork. But Karoline is also pushed to pursue every venue and interest she desires, and she has developed an extensive list of other, perhaps more valuable, literacies outside of her academic life.
Bomer, Randy. Building Adolescent Literacy in Today’s English Classrooms. Heinemann, 2011.
“Exploring Tapestry of Grace.” Tapestry of Grace Website, Tapestry of Grace, www.tapestryofgrace.com/explore/. 09 October 2017.