A Macro-Level Analysis

When Medarka recorded her literacy narrative with Alanna Frost, she was in the United States studying as a fellow in the International Leaders in Education Program (ILEP).  Sponsored by the U.S. State Department, the ILEP program’s goal is to educate international teachers in “the latest advancements in educational methodology and policy, and . . .the leadership skills necessary to implement and promote change within their schools and home communities” (“International Leader”). As teachers of English in their own counties, ILEP fellows had passed the competitive application to come to the United States and study for one semester.  While she interned, Medarka lived on the campus of the southern state school, with 15 other fellows.  The southern state school that hosted the fellows worked with campus instructors and local high schools to fulfill the State Department’s requirements for the students’ tenure.  These requirements are extensive, and her internship kept her very busy. The ILEP fellows were expected to attend two elective graduate classes, two weekly ILEP-specific classes in media technologies and curriculum development (to support the unit plan their cohort was required to produce for presentation at the State Department at the outset of their tenure), and observe and teach in local high school classes. Medarka and her cohort, although students in many classes while in the U.S., were also colleagues in their professional attention to their own pedagogical concerns and interest in learning all they could about the teaching of English.

As we have noted, Medarka’s narrative is the story of schooled literacy.  In her literacy narrative, when I  (Alanna) ask about “the first thing that came to mind” regarding her literacy, she responds quickly, explaining, “I immediately thought of the first time I learn how to write.”  Her writing story is descriptive, and she carefully explains the steps in her process.  Medarka recalls a “workbook where there is a guided way of writing it, so you just have to trace it first, and at the end you’ll have to write on your own with the three lines on that.”  Her memory is so vivid that she scribes in the air with her right hand while she is explaining the tracing and the writing.  Medarka’s schooled literacy is also a success story; she reveals herself as a scholar who is reflecting on both her own memories and her own memories through the lens of her pedagogical knowledge. Her reasons for connecting her early literacy to writing are pedagogical:

Yeah. I thought immediately about [writing] because I thought it's one of the best ways to teach young children in writing to have a very good, um, cursive writing or penmanship because I saw that some students now they have like not so legible writing so I guess its a very good start.

Further, after explaining the way her teacher taught her to read, by “guiding” the class through words and sentences “on the board,” she offers an analysis of why that particular method is so productive: “I learn it now that it’s like an audio-lingual way of teaching like you have the sound and you have the writing and then there is also repetition and practice, so I think it’s effective.”  Indeed, Medarka is so concerned about connecting her literacy to good instruction that after we are finished with the first narrative, she asks to do a second to clarify some points.  In her second narrative, she again stresses the importance of learning the English alphabet and learning to read and write simultaneously.

Medarka’s literacy narrative thus reflects her immediate preoccupation; as a teacher immersed in the teaching of English and, more interestingly, as one who has dislocated herself for 5 months of intense study of English, her story is both about her education as a child and her assessment of that education as a teacher of English.  But the discussion of English that takes place in the narrative between me, her composition instructor, and Medarka, the English teacher, gets very complicated.  In her first narrative, Medarka explains her writing as tracing and her reading as repeating. What I am repeatedly interested in, during the interview, is what language she is referring to when she remembers letter tracing and word repeating.  For me, and I will guess for her, when she begins with her tracing story, although she doesn’t clearly state it, she is speaking of learning English.  Or at least, for me, because I specifically share that same “three-lined” tracing memory, I assumed that we were speaking of English.  Medarka seems to think so too, or at least when I ask her directly “would you say that that experience with copying out the letters and reading them off of the board was like one of your first experiences with English?,” she answers with only “yeah” and then immediately analyzes her teacher’s “audio-lingual” method.  But then, shortly thereafter, Medarka speaks of Filipino as her second language, and when I ask her if she learned it the same way she learned to write English, she says “yes” and also that there was equal time spent on English and Filipino.

Most interestingly, in the second video, I ask Medarka directly, “When I first started talking to you about literacy narratives and literacy, did you automatically think of first language or second language or is it all the same to you because you were immersed?” Her response confirms the sense I had throughout the interview–that we are mostly speaking of English-language learning, as she answers “what comes to my mind is English immediately because of the abc, that’s the first one that I remember.”  So regardless of the fact that she learned Filipino in school and before she learned English, Medarka’s literacy narrative is about how she learned English.

Fascinatingly, English is Medarka’s third language.  Her first is Tausug, which she speaks very little about.  When I press her about her Tausug literacy, she does offer that Tausug is “distinctive in our place” and that “there’s a book on [Tausug],” but she can’t recall its name.  The remainder of our nearly nine-minute interview is about her English and Filipino literacy.  Also interesting is the fact that English is by no means the dominant language in her community.  Medarka makes this clear to me when I ask about the language most prominently displayed in her community; she very quickly explains that approximately equal space is given to Filipino and English in public spaces.

A more global understanding of the educational conditions in which Medarka learned to read and write offers an even more fascinating and complex narrative.  For the story of language policy in the Philippines itself is a tale of colonialism and power.  Smolicz and Nical, in their analysis of high school students use of and attitudes towards home and school languages, describe the complexity of educational policy in a country with a “linguistic mosaic of . . .eighty major and minor languages and another two hundred dialects” (511).  Colonized first by Spain in 1564 and then by the United States 300 years later, as Smolicz and Nical review, Filipinos have been embroiled in language contentions for hundreds of years.  Most recently, and most relevant to Alix’s and Medarka’s literacy, are the language policies legislated in the twentieth century.  In 1898, after helping the Philippines drive out the Spanish and then overpowering a Filipino republic, the U.S. instituted compulsory education “for all Filipinos in English” (511).  There were penalties for students caught speaking home-languages at school, but the richly varied “indigenous languages continued to thrive in the home and hearts of the people” (511).  Since the Philippines gained independence in 1946, language policy has consistently involved debates amongst advocates for, foremost, the declaration of an official language but also a frenetic list of options: an official language that that is any other than English, or a composite language fusing as many dialects as possible, or Tagalog as the official language (512).  In 1974, it became official education policy to offer instruction in Tagalog (now called officially “Filipino”) and English. And in 1987, Filipino and English were written into the constitution as the official languages of the Philippines.  But Tagalog itself remains controversial. Originally a minority language, it “won” because it was the historic language of Manila, thus not the language of the majority, but the language of a powerful and urban minority.

Medarka’s casual discussion of this remarkable fact, that she speaks three languages, that English literacy dominated our conversation but does not necessarily dominate her home life, her education, or even her classroom, coheres with the findings of Smolcicz and Nical, who surveyed Filipino students from three different home language communities to determine their frequency of language use (indigenous language or school language–Filipino and English) and their attitudes toward all three.  Their findings indicate that students use and appreciate their “triglossia” quite readily; indeed, they “generalize that . . . the majority [of students] activate the three languages in different domains, and recognize the respective benefits of each” (Smolcicz and Nical 523). But what remains remarkable in a “macro-level” analysis of Medarka’s narrative is that she was schooled in her national language.  It is difficult to imagine spending pre-school years immersed in the language of your parents and community and then going to school to learn the more privileged minority language in your own country as well as the language of one of your former colonizers.  It would be a fantastic proposition to us English speakers in our mostly monolingual culture.

So, we argue, one powerful lesson that Medarka’s literacy narrative reveals has to do with the interaction between the interviewer and the narrator.  In her narrative, there is a teacher (Medarka) telling her literacy narrative about what she feels are the most pedagogically sound ways to teach a language, speaking about the learning of two languages, neither of which are her first, and neither of which are the dominant languages of her country’s citizens. And there is her teacher, who at the time of the interview had only an inkling of the complexity of language policy in the Philippines, trying to understand what language she is most interested in.  At its most basic interpretation, this complexity speaks to a need to continually narrate, interrogate, and interpret literacy narratives collaboratively.  In this instance, I was hearing a mostly English literacy narrative, and Medarka was reflecting on the schooled literacy of Filipino and English but asserting that story as an “English” memory, even while she was recalling speaking only Tausug, her first language, on the playground and at home.  In my own and Medarka’s stressing of English literacy, we are both seeking answers. In her memory, which language wins when she remember her little girl self tracing the letter her teacher asks for? What alphabet dominated? I wondered, “how does it feel to pulled by so many complex languages?”

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