Publication Date



Written and oral literacy narratives produced by seven fifth-grade students are examined to identify the literacy identities students construct when narrating their past and present experiences with reading and writing. The narrative analyses reveal four major findings: 1. The students who contributed to this study have experienced literacy in multiple modes and contexts indicative of relatively broad conceptions of what counts as literacy. 2. They primarily describe literacy experiences in positive or neutral terms; when literacy events are evaluated negatively, it is usually in response to literacy demands that diminished students’ feelings of autonomy. 3. Students in this study intuitively understand that literacy is a set of social practices that take place in interactions among multiple actors. 4. Students sometimes portray themselves as having power to control the direction of literacy events; other times, their agency is limited by authoritative actors who are portrayed as enforcers of reading rules rather than as collaborative supporters. These findings are relevant for instructional practice because they present personal narrative writing as a way of infusing student voices into the discourse of the classroom in hopes of creating a more culturally relevant instructional space.

At Granny’s table, spread thick with food, this is where your story begins. You are sitting with an open spiral notebook in front of you, a pencil curled tightly in your fingers. Uncle Joe took you to the store that day in the back of his truck. Your brothers asked for candy bars and sodas; and so did you, at first. But then you saw the stack of notebooks, sitting on the shelf two aisles over beneath rows of Funyuns and hot fries and barbecue pork rinds. You held your breath. There was a reason for those notebooks. They were covered with a thin layer of dust, into which you instinctively inscribed your name with your index finger. Then you blew and watched your name soak into the air around you. And you knew that all the Zero bars and Gatorades in the world would not satisfy you the way that notebook would. So you marched up to the counter and watched Joe’s expression as he paid seventy-five cents for the raggedy orange spiral notebook that would change your life forever.

So you are sitting with the spiral notebook in front of you. While everyone else around you eats, you stare at the dingy white pages, then at the point of your pencil which you found under Granny’s bed and sharpened with a kitchen knife. If you don’t eat now, don’t complain later about being hungry, Ma tells you. You hear her, but you continue to be mesmerized by the blankness of the paper in front of you.

The preceding excerpt is from an autobiographical piece I wrote several years ago to share with my fifth-grade students. I included this here as a reminder of Soliday’s (1994) assertion that life stories are “dialogical account[s] of one’s experience rather than a chronological report of verifiable events” (p. 514). In narrativizing this event from my childhood, I went to great lengths to position myself as a certain kind of person (i.e., an eager writer). This narrative is not a verbatim reconstruction of the past. Yes, I enjoyed writing as a kid; and yes, my uncle once bought me a notebook; but the magnitude of the event is obviously overstated. My narrativized version of this event is a carefully plotted construction of how my adult self wants my child self to be portrayed.

In the analysis that follows, student literacy narratives will be treated as storied retellings in which students seek to construct a particular reading/writing identity (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990). These narratives speak volumes about the way students position themselves in the context of school and out-of-school literacy events.

Included in

Education Commons