Friday, July 3, 2015

Drew Literacy History

Drew Williams
RDLG 579: Content Area Literacy
Literacy Autobiography
July 3rd, 2015

I cannot remember a time when I couldn’t read in my mother tongue. I have no memories of learning to read, or being read to, or my first book. I do recall arriving in French Immersion and being introduced to this new language which I was expected to master, but the process of acquiring literacy in that language I largely have lost. I recall a time when I didn’t know French and then a time when I did.

I come from a household of readers, including all the kids books my brother, sister, and I owned at various times I would estimate that well over three thousand books have gone through my home over the years. I remember the trips to the comic book store before long car ride across the country every summer. I remember playing a game with my little brother in the car where we would try to stump each other by finding a Calvin and Hobbes strip the other couldn’t recite from memory.

I recall the various series and authors I fell in love with over the years: The Black
; the Gold Rush books of Jack London; The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCafferey. I remember coming home from University to my mother asking me if I’d heard of this Harry Potter yet. I remember my father giving me On the Origin of Species, pouring over the giant Times of London Atlas, a pop-up book about human reproduction, the twenty shelves of National Geographic issues. 

I remember becoming a writer. The first story I wrote, I plagiarized. I stole the opening chapter of Outlaw Red by Jim Kjelgaard—a book about a dog—rewrote it to star a cat, and watched it get published in the Calgary Board of Education’s annual collection of Elementary writing. I thought about this often as I sat in writing workshops at the University of Victoria, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing. 

I am currently functionally illiterate. I live in Taipei, Taiwan where they speak Mandarin Chinese and write with Traditional Chinese characters. I speak virtually no Chinese and read and write less. I can identify the characters for ‘noodle,’ ‘meat,’ ‘mountain,’ and ‘person.’ I can write ‘small cat’ and ‘Hammertime.’ The latter I have taken as my Chinese name; it is as ridiculous in Chinese as in English.

Prior to moving overseas I had considered what it would like to be illiterate in much the same way I’d thought about what it would be like to be blind, or paralyzed. I couldn’t imagine the deprivation, the utter loss it would engender in a person’s life. I had no idea how an illiterate person could even function. It has been eye-opening to say the least and has led me to value greatly the book-heavy home I grew up in. It’s shockingly easy to be illiterate and that’s when you don’t speak the language. A native-speaker who couldn’t read could easily live a long, productive life.

I love reading and writing. I read voraciously: at least one fiction and one non-fiction book are always on my nightstand. My Kindle is full of books to be read, my notebook is always at hand to be jotted into, and I start to go really squirrelly if I don’t get to write at least a few thousand words a week. Helping engender a love of producing and reading the written word, in any language, is perhaps my single overriding ambition as a teacher.


  1. COMMENT FROM LULU - I was surprised when I found out about more about your literacy history. It is great you come from a family of readers with all those books around. When you mentioned playing with your little brother, it reminded me playing with mine. Most the reading I did was with my father. We would read the newspaper together in the hopes I would learn more Chinese characters. Where does your family’s love of books and reading come from?
    Also, you mention that you are an illiterate individual living in a foreign land, otherwise known as Taipei. Ironically, my mother tongue is Chinese and I started learning English at the age of 13. I know how it feels to be overwhelmed by not knowing what’s going on because you can’t understand the language. I can imagine for a western person Mandarin is very difficult because you have to learn pinyin and Chinese character. You also had that French immersion experience. What motivates you to get engaged in learning these new languages?
    I am curious that you write at least thousand words every week. What motivates you to do this? How do you find pleasure from writing?

  2. Drew, thanks for sharing. I love the Calvin and Hobbes bit. As I have read these over the years I am amazed by how a book flood in the home translates into adults who are articulate, thoughtful, and ambitiously seek knowledge. It makes me sad to think of all the poverty stricken families who don't have access to these resources.

    I am glad you mentioned your functionally illiterate status. I think it is important for us to remember some (maybe many) of our students feel the same way at times. They may be able to read and write but still might be only able to do so in limited ways.

    Another trend I notice with many of these post is the fact that rarely does school reading inspire the rich literate lives in the bios I've read. It is often the family and the relationships and bonds that are created through literacy. Every chance I get I mention this to parents. Unfortunately, for some reason, many do not see the value.

  3. From Marci....When Drew admitted to plagiarizing, it reminded me of a time when I also plagiarized. In my high school drama class, we had a playwriting unit. I had just transferred from another school and when I had to submit my “original” script, mine was completely lifted from a play I had l learned previously. The typical rationale I thought, the teacher will never find out. I was never called on it. At first I was elated. Then along with the onset of a little maturity, it ocurred to me, I was never called on it. My guilt amplified.
    I run across plagiarism with my high school students all the time. They think the same way I did, the teacher won’t find out. They have no idea that it’s painfully obvious to see someone’s writing style change from incoherent teenage gibberish in one sentence to prolific, Pulitzer-winning genius in the next! Furthermore, I can’t help but think it’s culturally learned behavior. In south-east Asia, with ever present knock-offs and a blatant disregard for copyright laws, passing off others’ work as one’s own is nothing but commonplace. So it comes to no surprise to discover that students who are caught honestly don’t understand why what they’ve done is wrong. To borrow a familiar sentence pattern from Orwell, in a culture where the truth is relative, enforcing academic honesty becomes a revolutionary act.
    With the rise of the internet, copying and pasting has never been easier and the temptation never as high. Fortunately for teachers we have helpful online assistance on our side. Plagiarism, like telling a fib, is a rite of passage we all must experience before we realize its grave implications.