Elizabeth Lewis

Elizabeth Lewis Interview

Focus on Faculty

by Craig Layne; photos by Carl Socolow '77; video by Joe O'Neill

Associate Professor of Education Elizabeth Lewis, chair of educational studies, discusses the state of K-12 learning and how literacy is more than just reading and writing.

What advice would you offer to people who are skeptical or concerned about the state of K-12 education in America today?

There are myriad beliefs about the purpose of school. One commonly accepted belief is that public education’s mission is to equip children with the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve success and fulfilment throughout their lives. Consequently, people’s skepticism is fueled by the notion that the current structure of K-12 schooling must be changed or, conversely, that adequate resources must be provided across the board to ensure that mission is achieved effectively. A divergence of opinion on how to approach this has generated an abundance of perspectives on the direction in which public education should go to achieve its goals for children. 

Discussing education—particularly at present—can be quite appealing and, as such, also can be dangerous; in some ways, I equate it to the adage of why the subjects of religion and politics should be avoided in casual conversation. Most people have more than a decade of experience going through educational systems in the U.S. and/or abroad. Understandably, that expanse of time can generate a sense of expertise and depth of knowledge about the end-all, be-all route educational reform should take. 

However, I would advise people to reflect on the reasons that underpin their skepticism, seek multiple perspectives (e.g., families, educators, administrators, policy-makers) on the issues, acquire knowledge from a variety of credible sources and align themselves with others who they find maintain similar concerns. In so doing, they become part of what is termed a stakeholder group. Stakeholder groups abound on all sides of the issue of public education, and their collective voices can be a powerful means of change. 

Some would say teaching adolescents is difficult, yet you’re particularly passionate about educating this age group. Why is that?

I started my career as an educator 20 years ago. Specifically, I entered the field of secondary English education and walked into the first classroom I could call my “own” to teach seventh grade English language arts, something I did for about four years before transitioning to teach at the high-school level. Over the span of 10 years in public school education, I was fortunate enough to teach hundreds of students who were experiencing one of the most formative phases of their lives: adolescence.

Though stereotypes about pre-teens—“tweens”—and teenagers abound, it’s actually one of the most exciting times to observe growth in a young person’s personal, social and intellectual development. To be able to contribute to that process in some way is a gift. As an educator, I have always believed it is my responsibility to foster critical literacy skills and practices in my students. The English language arts as an academic subject provides youth with essential opportunities to explore the world around them both at the micro level of their own community as well as the macro, more global, level.

You’ve mentioned that you see technology as having the possibility to broaden literacy, not cheapen it. Why do you see it that way? And why is it important to expand our understanding of what makes people “literate.”

In my research on and teaching about the concept of literacy, I am always very clear in my assertion that what is generally considered to constitute literacy, or what makes an individual literate, necessitates a broader, more complex understanding of both terms. Sociocultural perspectives inform how I define these concepts. That is to say, literacy relates to social practices in which we are informed and communicate using various modes and systems. It encompasses far more than the conventional, narrower definition stating the ability to read and write made someone literate. In fact, I use the term literacies instead of the singular form of the term to signify the plurality of ability—visual, aural, gestural, spatial, linguistic, numerical—one draws upon in order to make meaning from all forms of communication (e.g., conversations, textbooks, films, websites).

Elizabeth Lewis Interview

To illustrate this for my students, I discuss with them the idea that, generally speaking, individuals enact a variety of literacy skills nearly every waking moment, every day, for personal, social and informal purposes to a far greater extent than they do for those that are more formal, professional and/or academic. One example I commonly refer to is the practice of text messaging. It’s something many of us do frequently on a daily basis. As such, the ability to compose, read and interpret text messages effectively requires a range of skills related to written and visual language (think “emoji” here). What and how we write to others is shaped by our relationships with them. Word choice, syntax and images are chosen in great part by how we perceive the recipient of our message will understand it. This same example also highlights my belief that digital literacy is inextricably tied to other literacy skills and practices. The depth and breadth to which we need to develop skills related to digital tools and the purposes for which we use them are expanding and will likely continue to do so. Again, as an educator, I feel responsible to address this in my pedagogy for the sake of my students. 

You’ve been instrumental in the Young Writers Program (YWP) in south central Pennsylvania. What are your hopes for the students who participate in the program?

I have been fortunate to work with migrant and English language learning (ELL) youth attending the Lincoln Intermediate Unit Migrant Education Program’s “Summer School of Excellence” program held in Adams County, Pa., for the past seven years. In 2009, I introduced the Young Writers Program (YWP), a literacy enrichment program, to youth in middle and high school. This population of secondary level students was deliberately chosen; too often in school settings, adolescents are not provided with enough opportunities to compose for non-academic purposes and therefore may rarely perceive engaging in the language arts as a means of communicating their thoughts and ideas in a variety of ways—only one of which happens to be for academia. In addition, migrant and ELL youth do not always or consistently encounter instruction that enables them to identify and capitalize on their linguistic and cultural competencies. 

The YWP provides students with opportunities to enhance their literacy skills in their native and English languages, increase the variety of ways in which they respond to texts, gain a sense of empowerment and agency as they explore identity through the composing process, and contribute to and maintain an inclusive community. Students compose pieces in multiple genres such as personal letters, poetry, digital stories and collages to create a culminating social action project titled Act. Change. Empower. The dual aim is to encourage students to reflect critically on their lives/the world in which we live and invite them to share their experiences through writing, art, multimedia and dialogue. 

By the end of the YWP experience, I hope students have located their agency and gained confidence that everyone can make a positive, indelible change in the world. It’s not as lofty a goal as it seems; a casual search online or short perusal of the news yields examples of the power of youth activism and social media-driven movements. I aim to provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to compose across mediums to communicate what matters most to them.

Suggested Reading

Alvermann, Donna E. (Ed.). 2010. Adolescents’ Online Literacies: Connecting Classrooms, Digital Media, and Popular Culture. New York: Peter Lang.

Cope, Bill & Mary Kalantzis (Eds.). 2015. A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Learning by Design. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Kress, Gunther. 2010. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. London: Routledge.

Nieto, Sonia. 2010. Language, Culture and Teaching: Critical Perspectives. New York: Routledge.

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Published May 19, 2017