This morning, over coffee, I read an essay by Jess Burnquist about an assignment she uses to get students to think about their histories and relationship with literacy. Burnquist writes that she developed these “literacy portfolios” as an introductory assignment because “It became clear that [her students] had been scarred by negative educational or at-home experiences. How could I effectively instruct them if they doubted their ability so strongly? They needed to be able to reclaim their natural curiosity for reading all kinds of writing and to restore some amount of confidence in their literacy abilities in order to grow.”

These portfolios allow students to reinforce their love of reading and writing, or, as it sounds like is often the case, to pinpoint when the love affair soured.

The assignment is to reflect formative reading experiences by writing down their salient memories about reading. What was the first book they read? Do they recall reading on their own in the third grade? The sixth? High school? What kind of reinforcement did they receive from their families or their teachers?

The students begin to contextualize their reading experience and discover what their motivations for reading are or what their reading hang-ups are. Then they can start to, as Burnquist puts it, “reclaim their natural curiosity for reading all kinds of writing and to restore some amount of confidence in their literacy abilities in order to grow.”

Burnquist even shares her own portfolio: “Even though I’ve organized both my personal and professional lives around reading and writing, not every memory in my own literacy portfolio is a good one. Open up my binder and you’ll find out about how I learned to spell the word “M-O-M” with wooden blocks. But you’ll also see me nearly fail third grade because of my poor cursive; you’ll find out about the moment I discovered that words could express anger in the form of “hate notes” to my parents when my brother was born. You’ll get a peek at the poems I wrote in the margins of my math book, and hear about how my tenth grade English teacher accused me of plagiarism. After that, I didn’t really want to try hard on any other assignment until I started college. (That’s in my portfolio, too.)”

I think that I will try it in the next freshman course I teach. So, here is my first stab at a literacy portfolio:

Sometime Pre-K: This is my first reading memory, or rather, this is the first time that I thought I read something only to realize I wasn’t reading the text at all—I was reciting it from memory. What was really the first book that I learned to read? I have no idea, but to this day, I can recite the entirety of The House that Jack Built.

Elementary School: Over the summer, my father struck a deal with my brother and me: for every hour we read, we could watch an hour of TV. He took us to the bookstore or the library to select whatever we wanted to read. My brother begrudgingly picked up some “choose you own adventure” novel and I grabbed a R. L. Stine “Goosebumps” story. I read it quickly, eagerly. Every couple days I begged for my father to get me another book, while my brother tried to barter my hours reading for his hours watching TV.

Elementary School: My paternal grandmother bought me a subscription to National Geographic. I think I mostly looked at the pictures and read the captions and introductions of articles. My mother credits this subscription for both of her children’s fascination with the world outside of Kentucky.

Eighth Grade: Over the summer I read Crime and Punishment. I remember feeling very paranoid and suspicious the whole time.

Middle School/High School: One of the pastimes that my mother and I developed was going to Joseph Beth Booksellers in Lexington. We would drive up from our rural town and spend hours on a Saturday wandering through the bookstore, going through almost each aisle and analyzing the content on the shelves. We’d split up and come back together to talk the neatest books we’d seen, and often we’d leave with a couple we’d liked the most—anything from a dictionary of edible plants of the Sheltowee Trace, instructions on how to turn yourself invisible, to a collection of short stories by Jean Paul Sartre.

High School: We had an assignment to write a personal narrative, and I wrote about the last time I had seen my father. My parents were divorced and lived in different states, so I saw my father once every few months. My essay was sweet and funny, but nothing really happened in it—just my father trying to teach me to play “Pretty Boy Floyd” on the guitar. However, my teacher got it confused with another student’s essay about his aunt dying, and when we met for one-on-one conferences, she started crying. “I’m so sorry about your father’s death,” she choked out between sobs. I thought she was telling me that my father had died. We must have cried together for fifteen minutes before we realized the mistake.

High School: In high school, my best friend and I worked at the public library. We had most of the Dewey decimal system memorized.

College: In college I majored in anthropology and Latin American Studies, and in my second year, I had what I’ll call an “ethnography epiphany”: I realized that not all academic writing had to be terrible. That year I read The Hold Life Has by Katherine Allen and A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers by Lawrence Weschler. Allen’s was the first ethnography I read that discussed the anthropologist’s direct experience at all (and used the forbidden “I”) and Weschler’s journalistic account turned history into a story instead of list of dates and stock prices. I wanted to see if I could learn to write nonfiction well, so I signed up for a creative writing class.




(The image for this post is a book spine poem. It reads:
The hummingbird’s daughter
falling up
in the wilderness.
Coming of age in an unknown country,
skinny legs and all.)

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