Literacy, Places and Identity – Kerkham and Comber

I recently found another article that had been languishing unread in my locker – languishing in spite of the fact that it deals with all sorts of concepts that fascinate me (place, identity, literacy, and literary constructions of meaning). Drawing on an environmental awareness program called Special Forever run in the Murray-Darling Basin, Lyn Kerkham and Barbara Comber study how teachers understandings and experiences of place shape their identity as teachers, their pedagogical approach to literacy, and (obviously) the learning experiences of students in their classrooms.

Kerkham and Comber write: “Literacy teaching, whether governments acknowledge it or wish it otherwise, has always been political. Literacy is always about something; it is not simply a process; people don’t communicate about nothing. How teachers orient themselves towards the objects of study, where they are located, and the ways in which teachers’ out-of-school lives and histories impact upon the design and delivery of their curriculum, [-p.135] however, receive too little attention.” (pp.134-135)

Place remains a relatively unexplored dimension of teacher identity and professional practice. The few exceptions include studies of immigrant teachers (Elbaz-Luwisch, 2004), newly graduated teachers (Santoro, Kamler & Reid, 2001), and Maguire’s (2001, 2005) studies of working-class women teachers. Maguire asks ‘How do they place themselves – as women, as teachers, as working class women who teach?’ She explores the ‘contingency, historical specificity and ongoing-ness’ of teacher identity formation, illustrating how identity is marked by class and place, and manifested in [-p.137] language, speech and appearance….” (pp.136-137)

Elbaz-Luwisch (2004, p.388) writes that what is missing in the research literature is ‘a sense of the teacher teaching in a place – a given location that is not only specific, desirable and distinct from other locations, but that holds meaning, that matters to the persons who inhabit it’. This argument resonates wtih Lefebvre’s conceptualisation of the inherent spatiality of human life (Soja, 1996, p.2); place can neither be separated from our experience of social relations, nor relegated to the periphery of explanations of historical or social events.” (p.137)

“And,” Kerkham and Comber continue, “literacy as a social practice, as identity work, is always situated. Gruenewald (2003b) argues that ‘places make us’, and moreover, that place is ‘profoundly pedagogical’ and that our ways of knowing and being are deeply related to lived experiences of place. ‘Places produce and teach particular ways of thinking about and being in the world. They tell us the way things are, even when they operate pedagogically beneath a conscious level’ (Gruenewald, 2003b, p.627). Further, he suggests that places ‘teach us about how the world works and how our lives fit into the spaces we occupy … places make us: as occupants of particular places with particular attributes, our identity, our possibilities are shaped’ (2003b, p.621).” (p.137)

Kerkham and Comber’s study is an interesting one. They use the Special Forever program to frame their study, interviewing coordinators of the program to better understand “their involvement in the program, their environmental autobiographies, their histories as literacy educators, and their takes on environmental communications.” (p.135) Kerkham and Comber “conclude that place is a significant dimension of these teachers’ professional and personal identities and suggest that this raises further questions for literacy studies.” (p.136)

The authors found that “Special Forever provided different entry points for different teachers and different kinds of curriculum spaces for the emergence of various pedagogies under the name of environmental communications….” (p.141)

The authors also note that “Environmental psychologists stress the importance of childhood environmental biographies in adults taking up activist positions with respect to environmental sustainability (see Heft & Chawla, 2006 for a review), that is they argue that actual physical connections with the environment in childhood are crucial in forming activist subjectivities.” (p.143)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Lyn Kerkham and Barbara Comber (2007) Literacy, places and identity: The complexity of teaching environmental communications. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy 30(2)June, pp.134-148

Abstract: “In this article we explore the relationship between literacy, place, and teacher identity as they intersect around Special forever, a professional learning program with a focus on environmental communications and place based education. Teachers participating in Special forever speak from different positions, histories, and alliances as local landowners, farmers, users of Murray-Darling Basin resources, and environmental activists; they teach in places to which they are connected in multiple ways and in which they have particular investments that shape the design of their environmental communications curriculum.
We draw on analysis of the Special Forever Guidelines for schools to discern how the Murray-Darling Basin is represented within the program, and read this alongside interview data in which teachers speak about the complex relationships they have with ‘their place’ in the Murray-Darling Basin. We suggest that the interrelationships between the politics of places, the politics of literacy pedagogy, and the multiple subject positions that teachers negotiate deserve closer attention if we are to develop more grounded approaches to critical literacy and place-based pedagogies. Furthermore, we argue that an important element for making literacy critical is attending to the politics of the places that are important to children and their teachers.” (p.134)

Reference is to Heft, H & Chawla, L (2006) Children as agents in sustainable development: An ecology of competence. In C Spencer & M Blades (Eds), Children and Their Environments: Learning, Using and Designing Spaces (pp.199-216) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in ecological literacy, Literate Contexts, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, social and political contexts, Teaching excellence, Understanding literacy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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