Feature

Literacy in a Global, Digital Age

Johanna Brand

Joyce Public School is located in northwest Toronto, in an unprepossessing one-storey brick building. The Joyce school community, with a majority of immigrant families, is multicultural and multilingual. Many families have low incomes. Not all parents, mothers especially, have had the opportunity to get an education. Nevertheless, the Joyce staff have won accolades for their work, most recently the Premier’s Award for Teaching Excellence as school team of the year. For the past several years teachers have been involved in a collaborative, research-based project that builds on the unique knowledge and experiences of students and their families. At the heart of this success story are the teachers who work as a team with their colleagues and with their students. THE CONCEPT  Joyce’s teachers began working with York University researcher and professor Dr. Heather Lotherington eight years ago. Lotherington’s aim was to “understand multiliteracies in action” – developing an approach to teaching literacy that involves acknowledging and building on students’ first languages and cultures and encourages them to express themselves using a variety of media. The Joyce projects are informed by her work and by the work of Dr. Jennifer Jensen, whose expertise is the use of technology in education. Graduate students from York University are also involved. Teachers at Joyce can choose whether to participate in the projects and not all do. All of the projects are designed to

  • involve teachers working as a team
  • explore a “big idea” that results from teachers’ observations of students
  • meet curriculum expectations across a number of subject areas
  • involve students in multiple classrooms, at multiple grade levels
  • involve students in planning and execution
  • tell stories using twenty-first-century technology
  • build on students’ first languages
  • involve parents.

Projects have often involved retelling fairy tales like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs , and The Three Billy Goats Gruff . Because students come from many different countries not all have grown up with these stories. Students retell the traditional tales in different ways, inserting themselves into the narrative as a character or by creating new characters. The students tell their stories using a variety of media: video, photography, visual art, audio recordings, and movement. Parents have helped to translate the student’s story into the family’s first language. Still other projects start with a concept that students flesh out. One project involved parents or grandparents telling children the story of their family’s immigration. Students taking part in a project based on Deborah Ellis’s novel The Breadwinner created a backstory for one of the minor characters. The topics open wide-ranging discussion. For example, in reworking The Three Little Pigs

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