Public humanities project proves literacy isn’t limited to the page

December 12, 2011

The American teenager, once shy, bubbles over with questions for a young Senegalese classmate. Why did his mother leave him? Did he ever see her again? As the young man responds, the two begin using each other’s first names.

“Patrice.”

“Baba.”

Students in Madison College’s weekly “Scene and Heard Workshop,” part of a developmental reading course, use acting, storytelling and voice-and-body techniques to improve their literacy skills. In a recent performance, these techniques helped convey what the students have learned about classic works such as John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” But by considering their own life stories as a narrative form, participants demonstrate the engaging power of cultural literacy.

Workshop coordinator Anneliese Cannon, a graduate student in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Education, draws on her theater background to infuse the class with elements of drama. By encouraging various forms of expression, she aims to build a sense of community among class members frozen by shyness, language barriers, learning disabilities and — in some cases — shame.

The workshop is a partnership between Cannon and co-teacher Martha Olson of Madison College’s Center for College Preparedness and Academic Advancement. Designed as a public humanities project, the class is funded by a Humanities Exposed grant from UW–Madison’s Center for the Humanities.

To be accepted into any professional program, students must pass Olson’s course. It’s the first stop for a disparate group of learners who are reaching toward college-level literacy. Some older adults haven’t sat through a class in years. Others, recent high school graduates, continue to struggle with reading and writing. Recent immigrants, learning English as a foreign language, come from far-flung locales such as Sri Lanka, Korea, Paraguay and Guinea.

Cannon, who studies immigrant experiences in education, has acted in improv theatre and created full-length operas with fourth-graders in Mexico City. The storytelling and acting techniques she uses come from sources as diverse as Appalachia’s Roadside Theatre Story Circles and Brazilian Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. As her students create a drama about their lives, these techniques encourage the development of reading and writing fluency and free expression of ideas.

“I’m interested in using the body to break the chains of the mind,” says Cannon. “Nobody should be denied literacy in the humanities. Even if you haven’t quite mastered the grammar or read all the words in ‘Of Mice and Men,’ you still deserve to participate in the elements of great literature.”

Nearly all of the students face daunting obstacles to pursuing college degrees: poverty, disability, language barriers. Using varied techniques can help these obstacles fall away. Students who might be shy about writing on paper may open up when telling a story out loud. Speakers hesitant about their English skills can use movement to express their thoughts.

By emphasizing narrative, the class has also built respect for personal experience. Knowing that their stories matter has helped participants value what they — and their classmates — can bring to the table. In doing so, they lessen the constraints that stop people from reaching out to each other.

That act of reaching out, says Cannon, keeps them coming back. “We just did a Story Circle, in which the students told uninterrupted stories of their lives,” she says. “Everyone was attentive and listening; the mood was emotional. One man had brought his grandson sometimes, and the kid enjoyed acting alongside his grandpa. Together, they improvised and participated in a story that was 40 or 50 years old.”

As teachers of developmental reading integrate more arts and authentic literature into their curricula, Cannon considers Madison College a great partner.

“By interpreting stories on their own terms, by telling them through the conventions of theater and dialogue, students are opening doors to a wider range of literacy practices,” she says. “They’re at the very foundation of the humanities.”