Why does so much depend upon a literate mind and a red wheelbarrow? A literate mind recognizes that a simple red wheelbarrow is not just a wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow is an essential tool on the farm, as are the white chickens; they are means of production. Literacy is also a productive device. The wheelbarrow and literacy are one in the same. They are both vessels that carry tools, such as cement and bricks, reading and writing. Without literacy, reading and writing do not exist, but when literacy is present within an individual, they can move their abilities anywhere they want.
However, the literate mind is not just made up of the ability to read and write. The literate mind appreciates literary works and knows the feeling of understanding complicated imagery. The literate mind cannot remember a time when it was illiterate and finds it hard to imagine it as a possibility. Evelyn Freedman, author of “Ready for Anything,”shares this idea in her essay saying, “I can hardly remember a time when I couldn’t read. For me, books were always full of promise” (Freedman 50).
So much depends on a literate mind glazed with inspiration beside the white paper because it has the ability to create literacy for others. Once literacy has been engrained in an individual, it becomes such a strong skill that it is conceived as a memory, as Freedman states. Not only is it the skill of literacy that becomes a memory in the individual’s mind, but also the people who helped them create literacy. Fredrick Douglass, the famous writer, orator, and former slave, says in his book Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, An American Slave, that he remembers the little boys who helped him learn to read, deeming their actions kind and precious (Douglass 1).
My grandparents, my fifth grade long-term substitute, and my AP Literature teacher created my love of reading and writing, my literacy. These people built the pillars and temple for literacy to flourish, and as a future teacher, I want to help construct the same pillars for my students.
My grandparents played a huge role in my upbringing and still support my academic achievements and goals. They took care of me as a preschooler and read to me multiple times during every day of the week. We went to the library for story time, played pretend, and they told me fables and stories of their childhood. There is no doubt in my mind that their persistence and awareness of the importance of reading is what set me up for success in school and my abilities today. My grandparents’ involvement in my literacy allowed me to be in the highest reading groups in grade school and go to Writing Camp in the summers. The National Education Association has gathered statistics on children who read at home and their success rates. The National Center for Education Statistics found that “children who are read to at home enjoy a substantial advantage over children who are not:
Twenty-six percent of children who were read to three or four times in the last week by a family member recognized all letters of the alphabet. This is compared to 14 percent of children who were read to less frequently. The NCES also reported that children who were read to frequently are also more likely to: count to 20, or higher than those who were not (60% vs. 44%), write their own names (54% vs. 40%), read or pretend to read (77% vs. 57%)” (NEA, “Facts about Children’s Literacy).
Coincidence? I think not.
As I grew older, my grandpa and I would go out to dinner on Wednesday nights and then to my favorite store of all time, Barnes & Noble. Time after time he would tell me to “get whichever book you like” because he did not feel literate until high school. He loved to see me read. I loved rummaging the shelves, (and still do) finding the perfect chapter book. It was a feeling I cannot quite explain, something like Christmas morning. The proud and loving tone in which my grandpa delivered the Barnes & Noble message over and over made me want to read and make him proud. Motivated literacy: a labor of love. From a young age, I began to subconsciously believe that literacy was not only a hobby; it was a way of life. It was a way for me to understand the world around me. I share the same feeling as Freedman on this topic: “I loved to read! And, every time I read there was the excitement and anticipation of an adventure waiting to happen” (Freedman 50).
By the fifth grade, I had fallen in love with poetry. Love That Dog, the book in which I first read “The Red Wheelbarrow,” was a book my long-term substitute recommended that year. Unlike my teacher on leave, Ms. Caldwell was supportive, encouraging, and noticed students’ interests. She let me create a poetry club within our classroom, and I pretended to take on the role of a teacher, educating my peers about poems and their meetings. That year Margie Palatini, a picture book author, was coming to our elementary for the annual author visit. Ten students were chosen to have lunch with the author and I became obsessed with the idea that I would get a spot. I created a picture book modeled after Palatini’s Piggie Pie, and even persuaded some artistic boys in my class to draw the pictures. After a month of hard work and several trips to Kinko’s, I was selected to have lunch with Palatini and began formulating questions to ask her about author life. Palatini humored my idealistic and naïve questions, and even signed my handcrafted picture book.
After the author signing, I was more engaged in language arts and literacy than ever before. I was reading books constantly and always writing. I was so unbelievably motivated. All of this motivation ultimately allowed me to score highly on standardized tests that year, particularly in reading and writing. Statistics support that this kind of behavior in students often effects their academic achievements in a positive way. The NCES found in their study on children’s literacy that “children who read frequently develop stronger reading skills” (NEA, “Facts About Children’s Literacy”). In my life, I found this to be true because my teacher that year told me I was reading at a 9th grade level.
The U.S. Department of Education5 found that, generally, the more students read for fun on their own time, the higher their reading scores. Between 1984 and 1996, however, the percentage of 12th grade students reporting that they "never" or "hardly ever" read for fun increased from 9 percent to 16 percent. (NEA, “Facts about Children’s Literacy”)
Ms. Caldwell left shortly after the author visit and my old teacher returned. When I asked her if the poetry club could meet during lunch in the classroom like we had the past six weeks, she just cocked her head, put on a fake sideways smile and replied, “No, Caitlin. Remember, I do not allow students in class during lunch. That is my teacher time.” She kindly pushed me out of the classroom. I still remember the feeling of my stomach dropping as the words left her lips. I went to lunch that day and let my friends know that the poetry club was over for good. It is amazing how much of an impact unsupportive teachers have on their students, ten years later. I have never felt so diminished.
My junior year of high school in AP Literature was when I fully fell in love with reading and writing in a purposefully intellectual sense. Ms. Hunter is by far the best teacher I have had because she taught me how actively engaged students could be in literary analysis. While reading The Great Gatsby, we practiced timed writings and actively discussed the novel in ways I did not know was possible. That year I also learned that I wanted to become an English teacher and teach literacy with the same passion and mastery Ms. Hunter had. She had a technique that I still have not been educated on in my pedagogy classes. Ms. Hunter had a way of being extremely hard to impress—she wanted us to always work harder as a class, work harder to beat the test. The more effort and interest I devoted to the course, the more respect I earned from her and it was such a powerful source of extrinsic motivation. I was motivated to be an effective and concise writer, a precise analyst, and more literate—collegiately literate. With her efforts, I earned college credit.
I know how to read and write, I love to read and write, and I want to teach how reading and writing is achieved. Because of these facts, I still feel a hunger and drive to improve my analytical techniques, to find hidden gems in literature before my peers, and to help my students feel engaged in their papers and novels. It seems that Williams was on a roll with his wheelbarrow complex. The more I push my literacy wheelbarrow around, the heavier it gets, filled with literature, theories, essays, and arguments. Yet, I do not stop pushing. The wheelbarrow has created strength within my mind that does not allow me to stop. I keep pushing because I know that literacy does not have a limit, I can only achieve more. I have a history of fellow literates to make proud.
My job as a literacy advocate is to pay attention to the wheelbarrows glazed with rainwater, the students like Fredrick Douglass who find writing “a long, tedious effort” (Douglass 3). I have to push them into the sunlight, where the white chickens are grazing in the summer sun, and show them that their productive efforts are worth so much more than an empty wheelbarrow. Once their barrows are filled with the cement and bricks of reading and writing, the strength of passion and a love for literacy will flourish, and they will keep pushing.
So much depends on a literate mind.
Douglass, Frederick. “Learning to Read and Write.” From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. UC Berkeley Digital Library SunSITE. 14 May 1997. Web. 12 January 2005.