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New MiniDoc: Telling Our Stories: A First-Year Students’ Panel on Literacy Narratives

4Humanities@CSUN proudly announces their new MiniDoc project: Telling Our Stories: A First-Year Students’ Panel on Literacy Narratives. (http://4humanities.org/2013/10/4humanities-minidoc-4/) 

This MiniDoc features a session from the 2013 Associate Graduate Students of English conference (AGSE), comprised of four first-year students’ who each share their literacy narrative in a conference-style panel. These students, Valerie Mok, Sarah Villagra, Renee Miller and Dennis Villa share the wisdom they’ve gained through their multicultural pasts. The film also features interviews the students’ professors, Prof. Gina Lawrence and Prof. Susana Marcelo, as well as Dr. Irene Clark, CSUN’s Stretch Curriculum Coordinator, to gain insight into the assignment and value of literacy narratives in general.

Literacy Narrative

From left to right: Valerie, Renee, Sarah, Dennis

The film begins with Dr. Clark describing how a literacy narrative, in its most “common form,” is a story where “the student begins with a place where he or she is on the outside, uncomfortable, not knowing something, needing to master something.” All of the students’ narratives exemplify this concept, each beginning in a place outside of his or her native culture, then ultimately reconciling both cultures into an identity with which he or she is more comfortable and is beneficial to his or her life and goals.

Prof. Gina Lawrence discusses the original literacy narrative assignment she presented to her students, which stemmed from David Sedaris’ collection of essays, “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” and Amy Tan’s novel, “Mother Tongue.” Her student Valerie, who has only been in the United States for about three years, gives a Chinese Proverb that her mom offered her before coming to America that describes, in her words, “how  an object or product [as] it leaves its home town, immediately becomes a lot more valuable,” much like “imported goods.” She found this saying to be “slightly true,” and then goes on to explain how the British vocabulary she attained at a private Catholic high school in China led to a few misinterpretations at her American university. She follows up this story with an original song about her experiences, impressively played and sung on her ukulele.

Professor Marcelo introduces her student Sarah’s story as “one that a lot of people can connect to”—a struggle between learning two different languages is one that “produces a kind of erasure of her identity when she learns to speak English and that becomes the dominant tongue that ends up taking over.” Sarah’s poetic narrative is an impressive multilingual mix of Spanish and English, proving that instead of an “erasure,” she’s learned to successfully integrate her two identities into one. She says, initially, “since school became a home away from home, [she] accustomed [her]self with English so thoroughly that [her] tongue forgot the sweet taste and romantic curves of [her] native language.” Her parents responded by calling her “Gringa,” or “whitewashed,” resulting in her an embarrassment and disappointment at her new bilingualism and a feeling that she was negligent in retaining her native culture. Ultimately, however, she concludes that since “words heal, […] bless, and they touch the lives of many near and far,” she would like to “be able to do this in as many languages as possible […] for all who are willing to hear [her].”

Prof. Marcelo continues by introducing another student, Dennis, whose story is similar to Sarah’s, even though his native tongue is Tagalog. In Dennis’ case, however, it was not his internal struggle that preceded his acceptance of his bilingualism; rather it was the negative comments of his peers. He describes how people referred to him as “FOB,” or “fresh off the boat.” “Like a bird trapped in a cage,” he continues, as early as fourth grade, he felt “constricted and bound to a life of humiliation and mockery.” It wasn’t until, determined to get into the high school of his choice, he “proudly reflected on [his] past experiences” as part of a high school placement exam. He describes feeling “free for the first time,” and how this experience not only allowed him to become “a better writer,” but also made him “a wiser, more humble individual.”

Lastly, Prof. Marcelo introduces Renee, a student who initially “never really connected to reading and writing” and considered them part of “her lowest skill [set].”  Unlike the other students, Renee was born and grew up in the US; however, in elementary school, she was an “outcast”—her private elementary school, was “made up of 85% Caucasian [students], and 3% African American,” thus causing her to “hate going to school.” She now feels “the sky’s the limit,” and, after recognizing the benefits of learning English, she now feels the world “has opened up to her.” She feels she “has gained so much from the subject she despised,” as “words not only changed [her] life, but shaped the way [she] is now.” She now recognizes the power of words, as they consoled her during the grieving of her father’s death and encouraged her to do well on a test. The most important words, she recalls, came from her grandmother who told her “to remember who you [she] is.” Those words, she says, she’ll never forget.

About the Professors:

Dr.Irene Clark, Professor of English, Director of Composition, and Director of the Master’s option in Rhetoric and Composition at California State University, Northridge, has researched and published on a wide-range of writing-oriented topics, including composition theory and practice, different approaches to the writing center, genre theory, and learning transfer. Her most recent book is the second edition of Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing, published by Routledge/ Taylor and Francis. She is currently working on a book that focuses on genre theory and transferability.

Prof. Gina Lawrence is now a first year PhD student at the University of Texas at El Paso, but she received her B.A. in English Subject Matter and her M.A. in Rhetoric and Composition from California State University, Northridge, where she also worked as a Supplemental Instructor and Teaching Associate. She has spent the last year studying new media, in particular, blogging, as a tool in the writing classroom to facilitate both audience awareness and regular, focused writing. Her current research interests include feminist rhetorics, food studies, and new media. While her CSUN peers greatly miss her, Lawrence’s hope is that UTEP will offer her a space to pursue these interests as well as explore new ideas in the rapidly expanding and exciting field of composition studies.

Prof. Susana Marcelo is pursuing a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing at California State University, Northridge where she is also a second-year teaching associate. Her background includes being an editor and writer for six years working with newspapers, content strategists, and an eclectic list of companies focused on print and online publishing.

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