Tag Archives: literacy as empowerment

In The Name Of… (where freedom and abuse possibly cross)

Ever since I found this photo online (at Unsplash), it’s been on my mind. Is there a lot to like or a lot to hate about this photo? Ok, forgive that cheap and nasty dichotomy. Let me put it another way: how do you feel about this photo?  What are your first thoughts? What happens to these first thoughts when you take a closer look at them?

Is that potato with the red hair in the word ‘normal’ Donald Trump?

Girls just wanna have FUN, but do these youngsters want or even know the FUN that is being sung about in that particular song?

Viva the Vulva? Ok, my parents were shy. When I was the age of the girl holding that banner, I didn’t even know the word vulva or have a name at all for that part of my body that was always washed quickly and covered even more quickly.


I’m pretty sure that the words on the banners were not chosen by the girls themselves. What I’m not so sure about is whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.


The questions I keep asking myself:

Can these girls read what they are holding up? Have the contents been explained to them? Who wrote these banners? What is the full context of this photo? What has been done for these (and other!) girls’ education regarding their sexual and civil rights? If these girls are not fully aware of what they are holding up, can it be argued that they are being abused?

Now, I know the good intentions being expressed here, but gosh, there’s something about this photo that makes me feel uncomfortable. What about you?



Given the chance, children not only write with a pen but with the heart. The feelings expressed reflect the climate of the relationship involved. Anger surfaces repeatedly in conjunction with this young author’s sister, accused of injustice, and from whom the author, anticipates further injustices:

elle elle elle

‘she takes me for an idiot!!! She thinks I’m a baby!!!! She thinks I don’t understand a thing!!! She…she…she…etc. 6yrs, 11m

What enrages this child, it appears, is when she’s not acknowledged or taken seriously. I know the feeling! At such moments, she may even adopt an objective perspective, as if talking about someone else, as when she sticks a note on the wall in the hallway:


Feelings may be transmitted in the absence of words. Here’s a text expressing the child’s bewilderment, her being at a ‘loss for words’ as to why her beloved teddy should be hanging on the poker stand in front of the chimney:


8yrss, 4m

Feelings are not merely in, but behind the texts. This latter level of affective input, trackable in my fieldnotes, is, however, lost at the surface level of text production:

Mother (M) speaking English. Child (C) speaking French:

C: I was talking to Papa. He was talking to someone else and I had to wait for ages even though I was talking first. When I finished complaining all he said was (imitating): ‘Huh, was ist denn los?’ (i.e.‘huh? What’s the matter?’)

M: Has Papa read this?

C: I don’t know. (looking at me) You’re writing in English?

M: Mhm.

She watches me as I stick this post-it on her writing. She asks:

C: What’s the matter?

M: I stick this on cos I don’t want to write on your work.

C: Are you taking this for your work?

M: Mhm.

She nods, then skips out of the room.

(Fieldnotes to the text ‘please find a solution’, 8yrs, 1m.)

please read

8yrs, 1m

Can you see the link between letter size and emotion, like I do? in Please find a solution (Bitte lösen), the heartfelt plea is spread across the entire sheet, backed up by a flurry of further pleas: please, please please please. When you flip the sheet over, you discover what it is the child seeks a solution for:

wieso hort mir niemand zu

‘why doesn’t anyone LISTEN to me I’ve already written about it in the complaints box (look at the back) but it’s not working.’ 8yrs, 1m

She seeks a solution for the fact that no one listens to her. She knows this is so: her attempts to remedy the situation have remained unfruitful. In this second text, the words No one listens to me are not only written in large letters, but in capital letters that are filled out. The rest of the complaint gets smaller and smaller: almost as though she’s giving up? Her aside –  look at the back  (hinten gucken) –  is written to the right of the page, to the side of the main text, so that the aside is also physically/visually to the side of the main statement.

Feelings, thus, are not only in the texts or behind the texts but may motivate the presentation of the text with regard to the use of space and letter size:

2003 give me back my stool

Give me back my stool! 6yrs, 8m

Give me back my stool!!!! she barks. Well, okay, she writes. But she barks too cos she’s furious: she goes over the original green text in red. She knows the power of that colour. See the escalation of anger culminating in the French word tabouré (stool) and the exclamation marks thrown like poisoned darts at the aggressor? I’d give her back her stool if I were you!

Over to you, children and parents!

You can’t just walk into a classroom and point a microphone or video camera at the children. You have to earn their trust and be around long enough for them not to care about you. That point never truly comes, but at some point – you sense it, suddenly, and skip all the way home, happy, eager to reap what will come as of tomorrow –  it’s still possible to become less foreign to them.

Some children smirk when I ask if I can sit down at their table. Smirks of feigned unwillingness, smirks of pleasure. They move along to make space for me to pilot a questionnaire I had devised. When first piloted, it didn’t work well. I noticed how attentive the other children at the table were, all eyes and ears on me as opposed to on their worksheets. Clearly, I wasn’t invisible yet. Child after child merely repeated the answer given by the previous child. Why were they parroting? I knew they were. What had I done wrong? Why didn’t they trust me? I had to change my strategy.  For the final version of the questionnaire, I invited the individual children to sit with me on the bench, away from the others. Suddenly, the responses became much more colourful:

Q: what do you write at home?

A: I copy things (#1), words (#2), the letters I know (#3), names (#4), whatever I want to (#5), stories (#6), rubbish (#7)

Rubbish??? Is that the child speaking in his/her own right, or simply ventriloquating?

Q: why do you think you’re learning to write?

A. for school (#1), dunno (#2), to write words (#3), because I like it (#4), to give letters (#5), because mum says so (#6), because it’s good (#7)

At playtime, a child came up to me.

Madame? (The children knew not to call me Maîtresse (teacher). I wasn’t one. And he didn’t dare call me by my first name, as they did with their real teachers.)


Will you ask me those questions?

It was a plea, not a fear. A child from the neighbouring classroom; one not foreseen by my studies.

Si tu veux (if you want).

He returned to his play with a smile.

OK. So much for being invisible.

at home, in my logbook:

…children (learners) as teachers: I learn from them and must learn from them before I can ‘teach’ them anything (of use). Researcher (me) as learner far more than as teacher. Teacher/learner roles in the adult/child dyad co-reside, forever shifting, shuffling, re-negotiated. If I publish, then surely because I have ‘learned’ something I want to share.

I not only worked in a bilingual school, but with parents whose children attended a traditional, monolingual French school. Parents are as eager to share their views as the children. Parents who often want to do more than bake cakes for Open Day. It’s not always easy. A German mother, living in Alsace, tells me why:

Q: How well would you say that your ideas about school match the French ideas of what school is and what should be taught in school?

A: There’s this story that the children are already told when they’re in nursery school, the old stories about the big bad wolf who’ll do horrible things to children or people in general and that really does get on my nerves because I know for a fact that wolves don’t do anything of the sort. I think it’s a real pity that this big bad wolf theme gets handed down from one generation to the next although the truth is that wolves are a protected species and we all know that in the meantime. And so I went to school and told the teacher that this should stop. At first I was treated like that typical wicked German woman who thinks she can stick her nose in school affairs and I told them that, at the very least, they should explain things to the children. In the end they did in fact go on a school trip to a zoo and took a look at wolves. But basically they just keep passing the idea on even though there are stories in which wolves play quite a different role and if you ask me, it’s such a shame that parents even have to talk about such things with teachers or indeed that such themes come up in schools at all. And these are the kinds of things where I do make an effort to get involved or ‘stick my nose in’. As far as how the children learn to read and write, that’s not necessarily my thing, but when it comes to how aspects of society are dealt with, or religion, or sometimes how the family is depicted, then I do indeed consider that my business and if I have the feeling that they’re going completely overboard then I will indeed allow myself to at least talk to the teachers about it and let them know that I most strongly disagree with what they’re doing. And I also explain why.

At a primary school in Luxembourg, the teacher made use of a parent-teacher evening to lessen the gap between home and school. Parents could not only take a look at their children’s schoolwork, but leave a comment in their diaries. The diaries were written as part of Year One German classes in order to provide authentic writing activities. Via the parental contributions, these diaries become shared (home-school-teacher-parent-child) plurilingual semiotic socio-cognitive-affective spaces:

diary 1German text reads: Mama und Papa s(e)ind so lieb (Mum and Dad are so kind). This is an English child schooled in Luxembourg. Aged 6, she speaks English, French, German and Luxembourgish.

diary 2This is a Luxembourgish child, whose parents, taking their cue from the fact that the diary is in German, answer in German:

mum and dad love you so very much. You’re the best little boy (in the world). Keep up the good work! Mum sends you lots of kisses for you to take to school with you every day so that I’m always with you. Mum and dad love you!

Now, a Luxembourgish parent, replying in Luxembourgish to the child’s German ‘Papa pas gut auf’: Dad, pay attention:

diary 3Hello, my darling cuddly mouse! I’m really paying attention now, and when we’re done, I’ll write you some more. The teachers have now told us so much that I can’t remember all of it…. But I still remember a little and I’ll tell you that tomorrow. Big big kiss!!

Another Luxembourgish parent answering in Luxembourgish:

diary 4Mummy was here with Godmother and we’ve seen all that you’ve done. Isn’t it fun at school! Big fat kiss!

These diaries allow us to see more of the child and their focal points of the day:

decoprim dairiesReproduced with the kind permission of the DECOPRIM project leader, Dr Gérard Gretsch, Luxembourg. From left to right: today the doctor is coming to our school… I have a headache… fashion show. It was great!… I’m playing football… I’m going to get something to drink… teacher, mama, little mouse… I’m riding a bike

And now, my favourite entry, written by a Portuguese-speaking mother who spoke none of the state languages. The teacher puts me in the picture: ‘the parents never come along because they can’t speak Luxembourgish. They don’t understand French and they don’t speak German. Sometimes they send someone else along’. But the mother came herself, this time. And she ‘answered’ with flowers:

Maria 09-10-20b edit

As we saw with Lisa, parents may find ways to surmount barriers and support, in their own way, their children’s development.

What I like most about these diaries: parents happily disregard their children’s school status as beginners, as apprentices, of literacy. Instead, the parents write meaningful, authentic texts – not exercises –  which engage their children as fully-fledged members of their literate community, as is the intention of the teacher by introducing these diaries in the first place. There is no talk of error, or worse: of rubbish. And why should there be? A limited level of skill need not be an impediment for full community membership.

Song for mum

A key question I put to parents is: how many writing systems does your child come into regular contact with? We think of the Roman alphabet, of Arabic, Chinese and so on, but one mother asked: does music count? It does! Many of the children I have researched have music classes and even if they don’t, they are frequently immersed in a world filled with music. Representations of music, consequently, may appear in their exploration and appropriation of semiotic systems from a very early age:

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 9.43.14 AM    Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 9.43.21 AM    Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 9.43.02 AM

The first three texts were written by the same child, aged 5yrs.
The first two demonstrate her awareness of musical layout at an age where in many countries, children are first being taught to write their name. The third text represents the lyrics. Here, we note the predominance of letters which appear in her name, but also her familiarity with other letters. We note also the use of capitals.
The first two texts/songs were written on the same day. The third text one week later.


The fourth and final text, written by the same child at the age of 11, is a song she composed for her mother. Elton John, eat your heart out.

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 9.42.47 AM

Contrary to what is commonly assumed, when children write, they do not spend all their time writing stories, but compose a wide range of texts which are socially purposeful: games, recipes, letters to friends/family, complaints, lists, menus, bills, songs, spells, reminders, instructions, etc. In short, one function of children’s writing is as a socially empowering tool; a tool that addresses an audience, communicates a sincere message and anticipates (inter)action which extends beyond the mere reading of the text itself. Children’s writing may of course have several functions. I’ll be looking at several of these in this blog.