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Understanding literacies through chalk art

  |   Kathryn Kao   |   Permalink   |   Service and Community,   Spotlight,   Students and Faculty

It may seem like an odd scene to most people—a group of graduate students drawing colorful works of art on the sidewalk of Aderhold Hall. On closer inspection, the wave of color transforms into a visual collection of each student's understanding of literacies and discourse.

At the end of spring semester, the students in the College of Education's Language and Literacies in Secondary English Education class depicted their learnings this year by participating in a modern day Madonnari, or chalk art festival.

The Madonnari street painting festival as a literate practice has long been secularized, though not wholly.

"I've done it in the past and we talk a lot about multimodal art and the way in which literacies matter in engaging kids," said Kevin Burke, an assistant professor in the department of language and literacy education. "And chalk art is just one way to do it. It's a nice fundable way of creating something public, and I think that public pedagogy is important in that regard."

Burke, who teaches graduate courses in English education, held the College's first Madonnari so his students could illustrate their developing understanding of literacies as rooted in their readings and discussions.

In addition to their chalk art, students were asked to provide an artist's statement for their sidewalk art to provide onlookers with a description of their work and knowledge.

"These people are getting advanced degrees, and they need to be scholars in the profession," said Burke. "Ultimately it's about understanding at a deeper level the ways in which their students learn and how to respond to different kids who come into the classroom."

While some students depicted their understanding in a more literal fashion—by drawing their families and explaining how they've been influenced—others approached their project in a more abstract manner, like Christine Sobowale, a master's student in English education.

Upon first glance, Sobowale's drawing looks like a swan, but after a minute or two, the drawing begins to look like a rabbit.

"It's both," she explained. "The main point when encountering new literacies is to cultivate it for what it truly is and how it exists in time and space, which is what I wanted to depict in my chalk art—two contrasting images that technically shouldn't exist in the same space, but they somehow do. And depending on your perception of the world, one image might be seen more than the other. But once you undertake some introspection and view the image from a different perspective, you obtain a new outlook."

For Sobowale, optical illusions are brilliantly drawn works of art that illustrate how two separate images can exist together. However, based on the viewer's schema, he or she may only see the picture as one thing rather than many things that exist in the same space.

"How and why we become influenced by texts depends on our perception of the world," wrote Sobowale in her artist's statement. "The course doesn't provide me with all the answers to the countless literacies that surround us, but it does demonstrate how to engage with literacies that are messy, imperfect and contrast to what we know within our discourse."

This year's Madonnari was only one of several multimodal projects graduate students worked on during the semester. Not only were they able to represent themselves as teachers through their work, but they communicated their unique understanding of literacy with their peers in discussions and writing responses.

Recognizing that different literacies exist in the world can hopefully help future teachers gain a better understanding of what their students are going through and why they behave a certain way in class, said Burke.

"It's one way to explain why you have some sort of achievement gap," he added. "Schools respond very easily to certain kinds of literacies that kids come with, and they don't necessarily respect others particularly well. I think it's a developing understanding, and there's no end point to this for them because they're teachers and they have to be researchers of their students."

While school is, in some regards, just a pass through space for everyone's discourse, teachers must think about the localized contexts of the kids who are in their classrooms and what their experiences are like both at home and in the community.

"Multimodality allows our teachers, in particular, to put themselves in the minds of kids," said Burke. "One of the things that I think we often forget is that education can be about joy."

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