Deborah L. Wolter is a retired literacy consultant for Student Intervention and Support Services in Ann Arbor (Michigan) Public Schools. Her books include Reading Upside Down: Identifying and Addressing Opportunity Gaps in Literacy Instruction and now Restorative Literacies: Creating a Community of Care in Schools.
While many children learn to read and write easily, breeze through school, and head off to college or careers, seemingly resilient in dealing with their challenges along the way, a significant number seem to struggle to read and write in a proficient, fluent, and engaging manner. Stereotypes (the fixed and oversimplified perceptions about people) and intersectionality (the ably, racially, culturally, linguistically, economically, and political ways people’s multiple identities connect, overlap, and interact with one another) are occurring every day in our practices of literacies in schools and communities. Everyone carries a reader’s and writer’s identity along with and apart from their race, gender, sexuality, disabilities, or economic means that few people acknowledge. Many people may carry positive labels such as proficient, effective, or fluent or even as a bookworm. But a significant number see themselves as bad readers, terrible spellers, dumb writers, dyslexic, learning disabled, or even as a Bluebird or Level M.
Too often, literacy is explained as a false dichotomy between literacy and illiteracy, in that people, especially students in schools, can versus can’t or will versus won’t read or write. However, artifacts and practices of literacies is all around us, diverse in depth and breadth, ranging from easy to read to challenging and complex, in multiple forms such as grocery lists, street signs, documents, books, letters, texts, emails, lyrics, social media, and websites. And written by people with a far-reaching set of experiences, knowledge, and purposes.
Unfortunately, policies in schools hold the systemic, structural, and institutional power to define what it means to be on grade level as measured against White-centered, middle- to upper-class, English-speaking, able-bodied norms. A focus on the achievement gap has resulted in numerous large scaled educational reforms and implementation of reading programs and instructional methods with little progress. The concept of learning loss implies that no one is learning unless they are physically present in schools. Many states have read-by-third-grade laws and a set of assessments that determine what third grade reading looks like. And the current push on state dyslexia policies, phonics instruction, or the “science” of reading and writing may further place policymakers and educators in danger of being seen as authoritarian, prescriptivist, exclusive, and even racist and ableist.
Restorative literacies can be modeled after restorative practices that has redefined criminal justice, social work, counseling, organizational management, and education. It is a step away from using punishment as applied according to disciplinary policies or therapeutic treatment of offenders. Similarly, reading and writing instruction in schools are viewed by some students as a distressing and punishing endeavor where teachers, in turn, may see the need for discipline or reading intervention programs. Restorative practices, however, places a focus on building relationships and communities.
Educators using restorative practices in literacies can build and strengthen positive relationships between the backgrounds and perspectives, as well as the variable skills, proficiencies, and fluencies, of readers; the multiple texts readers encounter; and the authors of such texts through an intentional system of response, repair, and restoration in an educational setting. Since there is no one “right” form of literacy, usually defined as the academic literacy necessary to achieve in schools and societies, restorative literacies is defined as a plural and is embraced within a pluralistic society. Restorative literacies reconcile cultural, linguistic, economic, political, and dis/ableist views of literacies with cognitive and metacognitive processes of reading proficiency, fluency, and comprehension and writing encoding and effectiveness.
Once we acknowledge and embrace the concept that all readers and writers of all ages are lifelong explorers of the multiple languages, literacies, and linguistics around us, we can:
See that everyone confronts challenging and complex text.
Learning about multiple forms of literacies, including academic literacy, is a fitful process filled with so many elements and skills to process and practice. As people learn to decode, determine meanings of new words, access background knowledge, life experiences, and languages, confront text complexity, maintain fluency, comprehend, analyze and critique, draft, revise, edit, and reflect, other areas come into play. None of these areas fall into a rigidly sequential manner in which mistakes, miscues, and errors in reading and writing are too often duly noticed, counted, graded, and corrected instead of being viewed as a lifelong learning process on diverse or increasingly challenging text.
Have mutual conversations about the processes of reading and writing in restorative circles.
Too often, we have lessons on skills, knowledge, and topics rather than conversations about the cognitive, linguistic, and affective processes of reading and writing. And too often, we group students by their test scores or perceived abilities for differentiated teaching. Instead, restorative circles places everyone on a leveled playing field, removes embedded power structures and stratification, and shares the trials and tribulations along with the pleasures and joys of literacies.
A circle can discuss choosing books to read. How does one find books on the topic of their interests? What genre would they like to read about their topic? How do they check for text complexity? What would be the purpose for reading a specific book? A circle can tackle unfamiliar words, both decoding and determining their meanings. What can one do when stuck on word? Read ahead and go back? Sort it out by morphemes? Look up the definition? Ask around? A circle can think about an author’s purpose for writing. How does one go about drafting, revising, and editing? How does it feel to be vulnerable in sharing or writing about a story? A circle can discuss ways of getting in the mood for reading and writing. In what ways do we get comfortable for reading? Brew some tea and find a favorite chair? How do we get started with writing? Possibilities for restorative literacies circles are endless. Meeting in a circle can be validating and transformative for all people, but especially for those who carry negative readers’ and writers’ identities.
Expand the canon in our schools.
Schools generally tend to stick with emotionally and politically safe books and other material for their classroom libraries. Teachers tend to choose “just right” leveled books for students. And they develop neutral writing prompts. But for many students, these books or assignments may be dry or exclusionary. Unfortunately, avoiding controversies and challenges limit exploration of literacies as well as lead to a school climate of unquestioned respect for authority, compliance, and ignorance. Instead, embracing the wealth of the literacies all around us can be used as hooks for learning about strategic reading and writing as well as foster both comprehension skills and criticality.
Develop positive identities as literate beings and as humans.
Facets of literacies, including academic and disciplinary literacies found in schools, are multilayered, interwoven, and continually built upon over a lifespan. In our literacies-rich society, all people, from young to old, are readers and writers of multiple forms of texts on many levels from many sources. People with positive identities have healthy relationships between themselves as readers, the texts they read, and the authors of such texts. They are people who are curious, invested, engaged, and make personal growth in literacies by leaps and bounds.