My Name's Not Susie: A Model for Teaching the Literacy Narrative
Sharon Jean Hamilton's My Name's Not Susie, subtitled "A Life Transformed by Literacy," provided a resource I had been searching for: a model of a literacy narrative for my students in English 461 (The Teaching of Writing, for mostly pre-service teachers) and an inspiration for them to write about their own literacy experiences.
My Name's Not Susie is Sharon Hamilton's life story, beginning as an abused child abandoned by her birth mother to the Children's Aid Society, followed by stays in a long list of foster homes before she was finally adopted by a charitable Canadian couple. The book explores literacy events throughout Hamilton's life. The earliest one Hamilton identifies in her not quite three-year-old self occurred when she insisted that her name was Karen Agnes Fleming when a foster parent wanted to name her "Susie Simmons."
It was who I was, written down. At a very low level of consciousness, that insistence on sticking to my name as written down might be considered my first literate act, my first acknowledgement of the power of a name written down to designate a particular and constant version of reality. (14)
Later, reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past led Hamilton to realize that, in the same way Proust was constructing his life, ". . . I must also be author of my life, and that in choosing which of my memories I wished to foreground and which to for-get I was shaping not only my past but also my present and potentially my future" (98). Through such experiences, she comes to say: "Literacy salvaged my life. It is as simple and fundamental as that" (xiii).
As a motif, literacy emerges regularly in this book. Each chapter begins with a worthy epigraph about literacy, many of them from Margaret Meek's On Being Literate, followed by Hamilton's own introduction to clarify the focus of the chapter. For instance, one chapter begins with Meek's idea of a literacy expanded beyond the common notion of functional literacy: "What is certain is that we now extend the idea of 'being Literate' to other areas of our lives which have no direct connection with reading and writing the language we speak" (58). Hamilton follows the epigraph with her own interpretation which then leads into the chapter: "Our literacy encounters provide not just a stockpile of knowledge and skills to be tapped and utilized but also-at least equally important-a reservoir of vicarious experiences that can prepare us emotionally and intellectually for unforeseen or unpredictable situations" (58). Literacy is the touchstone by which life-incidents are deemed appropriate for this autobiographical account.
For Hamilton, literacy -- an "extended" version -- is the key to "the interior working-out of who we are and how we decide what will be the conduct of our day-to-day lives" (xiv).
Literacy is not just knowledge; it is knowledge that transforms. I began to see how, in wanting to be like Anne of Green Gables, I had really wanted to be a better person, not Anne but a better me. And I thought of the Stephen Spender poem, "An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum," wherein he says that unless the maps of the world that hang in the classroom become a realizable map to those other worlds, and unless the dusty, smudged windows become a means of access to those other worlds, the lessons will mean nothing to the lives of these children. The literacy taught in their schools will not have the power to transform their lives. (100)
Literacy unlocked for her secrets of other lives better than the one that she was dealt, by providing vicarious images which she could choose for constructing her own life: "being read to and then learning to read and write ... helped me to envision worlds beyond my miserable world and eventually enabled me to recreate my life as the kind of life I wanted" (5).
Before this semester, my assignment to write a .reading/writing history" took much explanation to make the students understand what I was asking them to accomplish. The assignment, after reading My Name's Not Susie, asked the students to write a literacy narrative "snapshot" from their own past. They were instructed to "thickly" describe the event (or a set of related events) and then reflect on the significance. The purpose of the assignment, I explained, is to become aware of one's own strongly remembered literacy experiences as perhaps the best source of attitudes and practices for teaching. I also use this assignment to demonstrate how to write drafts of a paper and how using group work teaches students to help each other-and to make the students aware of how these same principles could be adapted to their own teaching in the future. This semester Hamilton's book clarified MY assignment and provided inspiration.
During the week and a half when students were reading Susie and keeping a reflective reading journal, I led them through a "literacy timeline" to record important events from memory, then a freewriting about one of those events, and finally a heuristic using Burke's Pentad to generate further details. Before producing the final draft with photocopies for all members of the class, students produced a rough draft to bring to their small group and then a "semi-final" draft which they analyzed for each other, following a rubric that would be used for the final grading of the paper.
I am pleased with the way Susie has stimulated my "literacy narrative snapshot" assignment this semester and satisfied that the book is an appropriate reading assignment. The final part of the whole experience is 'theorizing the cross section" (an idea from Crawford et al.'s Emotion and Gender), whereby, after everyone in the class has read everyone else's paper, we have a large-group discussion identi6ring generalities or motifs that run through the body of work. The purpose of this activity is to make generalizations about what might or might not work effectively in teaching literacy.
As I approached the assignment this semester, I thought of Hamilton's book in the context of another of my own literacy experiences: a recent re-reading of J. Elspeth Stuckey's provocative book The Violence of Literacy. I found myself thinking of the two books in each other's company. They're both about literacy, but they present very different points of view.
What does Stuckey mean by "the violence of literacy"? That the sacredness we attribute to literacy in our culture spawns desperate attempts to make it available to all students, often violating those for whom its "taking on" is difficult for one reason or another. Those who can't or don't become literate are seen as less than human, and they are unable to enjoy advantages of the culture. Teaching methods sometimes even widen the gap: the sensitive, intelligent teaching methods spent on the gifted-and-talented students are withheld from those who could benefit just as much, perhaps even more. The teaching of literacy, for example, does violence to those who are tracked into the low classes and taught through methods that turn them off and that ultimately push literacy even farther from their grasp. Drill on subjects and verbs in topic sentences doesn't prepare a young student for writing a letter from Birmingham Jail! Ironically, in Stuckey's book English teachers commit much of "the violence of literacy."
To be quite frank, at the precise point at which literacy becomes "functional," English teachers in the United States become dysfunctional. They, as well as the failed students, lose contact with literacy, and the teaching they continue to do becomes even more confined.... Many English teachers, probably most, do not feel that they teach elite populations. Yet these teachers appear to be suited to some students and not to others. Those to whom they are unsuited go away, at least eventually. Those to whom they are suited may not need them. This is the circle that ends in the unemployment and exploitation of -poor women and children. (108-9)
Hamilton's book, though, presents a view that gives the teacher a more positive approach to literacy teaching. It builds upon Hamilton's story of just how literacy was made available to her and how even as a young child she was eager to receive and to actively develop it. Her journey to the literate life is recounted between the bookends of the introduction and the conclusion material that present Hamilton as the literacy teacher who has spent her professional life learning how to teach those students who have their own difficulties finding their way to literate, productive lives.
Perhaps one of the most poignant learning experiences for Hamilton as an English teacher is this passage telling what she learned from a three day workshop conducted by James Britton and Harold Rosen, which was the impetus for going to London to study for a Ph.D.:
I learned how to encourage classroom writing that allowed children to explore events and ideas that were important to them. I learned ways to respond to writing to help children express their ideas more excitingly and effectively, and discovered that relationships between writing and experience were much more complex and interesting than the traditional focus on form and structure portrayed them to be. But Harold Rosen's closing address ignited the most explosive idea that I took away from that conference. Witty, articulate, and urbane, he lambasted the educational system by which he had gained this linguistic and rhetorical prowess. He decried it as elitist, classicist, racist and sexist. When I asked him how he could denounce the system that had educated him so well, he withered me with a look of dismay at my naivete. 'You never judge a system by those who succeed in it. Those people will likely succeed in any system. You judge it by those it failed (94).
Likewise, I hope my students in English 461-for whom the system has worked as a whole--can take from My Name's Not Susie not only a model for writing their own literacy narratives, but I hope they also develop a broader understanding of the difficulties and needs of the various students who will look to them for the kind of literacy learning
I wish to thank all my Spring 1996 English 461 students for their participation in this project and especially for their revision and editing suggestions: Suzanne Allen, Lucy Arnold, Nate Baggit, Terry Cooper, Chaundra DeWitt, Kay Edgerton, Bridget Felder, Lyndi Flint, Barbara Gossett, Sam Hardy, Paganne Joy, Nina Kirkland, Joe Landreneau, Andrea Makapugay, Lamantha Perry, Jennifer Radcliffe, Dakesha Reynolds, Marcus Robinson, Matthew Robinson, Allen Rogers, Kim Smith, and Jason Stutts.
Crawford, June, Susan Kippax, Jenny Onyx, Una Gault, and Pam Benton. Emotion and Gender, Constructing Meaning from Memory. London: Sage Publications, 1992.
Hamilton, Sharon Jean. My Name's Not Susie, A Life Transformed by Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, Heinemann, 1995.
Stuckey, J. Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, Heinemann, 1991.
Nancy S. Thompson is an associate professor in the English Department at the University of South Carolina, where she teaches in the Composition and Rhetoric graduate program and helps to prepare secondary English teachers.
© 1996, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Thompson, Nancy. (1996). "My Name's Not Susie: A Model for Teaching the Literacy Narrative." WILLA, Volume V, pp. 30-32.