Classroom Chalk Talk: Better to know more than less

  • Anna Rita Napoleone

Published: 1/8/2019 10:14:59 PM

When I was 8 years old, my mother used to come to my elementary school in the afternoon (after school) to attend an English literacy program.

Having immigrated from Italy a few years before, she spoke no English. I, on the other hand, was more comfortable with English than with Italian. Those afternoons, I would be in a room with other kids learning to read an Italian version of the Dick and Jane books (different but you get the idea), while my mother would be in the room next door learning to read English.

After the hourlong session, we would walk home together and we would talk about what we learned. We would repeat the words we’d learned that day. I would help my mother with English (the word “the” was especially difficult for her to pronounce as she could not get her tongue to work that way), and she would help me with Italian. She would also help me speak the southern Barese dialect, which is different from the official Italian taught in schools. I once asked her why I needed to learn the dialect, too, and she said, “Mègghìie sapè de cchiù che cchiù pecche” — “Better to know more than less.”

A year ago, I interviewed for a dual position as the director of the UMass Amherst Writing Center and the site director of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, and I shared this story with the interviewers. I was trying to illustrate my belief that school can play an extremely important role in the life of a community when it is truly attuned to its needs and preferences (and, of course, when its programs are properly funded).

Some of the teachers working with my mother and me all those years ago were multilingual, while others were monolingual. They were all enthusiastic, always encouraging us, and we would often end up meshing the different languages.

This mix of monolingual and multilingual teachers and students of all ages created a space that had a great potential to enrich and deepen our understandings and views of the worlds within and around us. We came to understand literacy as a practice that considers all the various languages one possesses to be assets and not deficits. This collaborative work in a school setting gave many of us in the community a way to see school not as something separate from us, but as a place for us.

As I grew older, this emphasis on community-building and multilingualism seemed to fade, and school seemed to focus more on testing and less on literacy learning. Overwhelmed by the need to get their students to score highly on standardized tests, the teachers had no time to devote to actually understanding where their students and their communities came from.

I was then made aware that my English was not the standard English. When my school had seen my languages as assets, I had felt I had something to learn there. When my languages started being seen as deficits, I felt that my whole being was rejected.

Later on, as a first-generation college student, my working-class immigrant experiences shaped how I negotiated college life. I found that difficult to do. What was interesting to me is that many of my peers who had similar backgrounds had the same feelings as I did. (And indeed, retention rate data shows that first-gen students have a difficult time transitioning into college).

As a college student, I experienced different teaching practices, and felt the difference when my experiences and understanding of the world were taken seriously and were validated. These experiences are what led me to pursue my studies in the discipline of Composition and Rhetoric, which I saw as both questioning and valuing language, writing and pedagogy.

Now, what I find so exciting about the Western Massachusetts Writing Project (WMWP) is that its mission is in sync with my own values and beliefs. The WMWP bridges what is often a gap between school and community by bringing together K-16 teachers to learn from one another.

As testing becomes more and more the method of operations of schooling, I see the increasingly important role that WMWP plays in providing a professional community for teachers to develop, collaborate, learn and think about their teaching, with students at the forefront of why they teach in the first place.

As I transition into the WMWP site director position, I see the dedication that teachers have to their work as they reflect on their own identities, the identities of their students, and the tension between testing and learning that they confront every day.

As I witness the beginnings of my own daughter’s formal education, I recognize that she will have a vastly different schooling experience than I did, just as I did compared to my mother. I see my daughter engaging with multiple languages and multiple literacies, and I hope she’ll continue doing that beyond kindergarten and elementary school. And I hope she’ll also heed her grandmother’s advice not just for schooling but for learning: “Mègghìie sapè de cchiù che cchiù pecche.”

Anna Rita Napoleone is director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Writing Center and site director of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project.

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