The Ibrahim Muteferrika Literacy Center (IMLC) at the Villa Park, Ill.-based Islamic Foundation School, celebrated its 100th session mid-October last year. The center’s name honors Muteferrika (1674-1745), the first Muslim to run a printing press with movable Arabic type. The tutors set up the room, hiding balloons and a congratulatory message behind a mobile whiteboard. The classes were ushered to IMLC under the ruse of a “special workshop.” When Omar, the unsuspecting junior who had scheduled this appointment a week in advance, walked to the back of the room to meet with his tutor, he was greeted by his classmates’ cheers, confetti poppers, streamers and the grand prize of an IMLC mug filled with candy and a bright orange flash drive. Classes returned to their assigned rooms, confetti lay strewn across the tables and chairs, and Omar and his tutor settled into their session to revise a paper.
The IMLC seeks to address serious concerns about the state of writing, reading and general literacy in the school. These concerns were supported by declining grades and test scores. And students seemed to have little interest in writing and did not write unless forced to and did not value the act of writing as a social, recursive process. This attitude was evident in all forms
of writing throughout the school. Students turned in papers copied entirely from Internet sources with careless detachment. There was no outlet for creative writing, and little interest in creating one. As a department, we had recently made significant curriculum changes, but still saw little improvement in attitudes about writing and actual writing. This was not just a passing concern; it was a serious problem with serious repercussions. Quite simply, students saw no value in the process or product of writing. While it is too early to determine its effect on test scores, IMLC has seen incredible success. There are noticeable changes in the students’ daily lives—changes that can happen in any school, even those without the resources to create a stand-alone space.
Attitude goes a long way
If you want writing, reading and literacy to change in your school, attitudes about these things need to change first. Writing cannot be a means to an end. Reading cannot be just books for class. Students, parents, and the school community need to find importance in the process of writing, the value of reading, and critical thinking about both in order to truly make progress. Our school’s IMLC has made it a priority to establish this attitude. We acknowledge that writing is difficult. We let students see us, as writers, struggle in the process. But we also let them see us succeed, and find joy, and engage in the craft of writing and the personal experience of reading. Literacy is a school-wide endeavor. We take it outside of the classroom confines and display it in hallways, on bulletin boards, and over the intercom.
Invest in the writing culture you want
Attitudes about writing won’t change overnight, but IMLC has proved that the only way to get others to invest in the idea is to first invest in it ourselves. Some of the most successful high school and universities literacy centers began with the commitment of a small group of like-minded teachers with the support of parents, administration and literacy leaders in the community. We wear our orange IMLC sweatshirts as often as our students do. We discuss our tutoring sessions with colleagues every chance we can. We brainstorm and implement ways to start traditions and continuity. We advocate IMLC and its goals, and as students see our commitment, they advocate for it, too. A shared purpose and vision was the IMLC’s true origin, conceived in a cramped office during a routine planning meeting.
Pull up a chair and listen
Tutoring is essentially a conversation between writers. It may look like a meeting about grades, a grammar fix-it shop, or an expert telling a novice everything that has been done wrong. It may look like those things, and it may even be those things in some schools. But meaningful collaborative learning is beautifully simple. It is a conversation. Writing is changing in our school because we have made physical and intellectual space for these conversations. Each session begins by reminding students that IMLC is not about grades or rubrics. We won’t address grammar and mechanics unless the paper is a true final draft. We are not teachers. We are fellow writers, sympathetic readers, and general audiences. And we are here to talk about writing. Conversations with writers about “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, the role of education in contemporary
society, and the permissibility of praying the Fajr sunnah once the obligatory Fajr prayer has begun. Learning has been a shared experience, and it only took the time and space required to have a conversation.
Think in circles
The physical space needed to have writing and reading conversations is worth addressing. Some schools may be unable to designate a classroom or office or resources for the Literacy Center. But if there are still writers willing to talk, they can make do with what they have. In designing the IMLC, two things were important: it had to be different than other school spaces, and it had to have round tables. It had to be different so students could immediately recognize the attitude was different. And the tables had to be round because desks aren’t. Such conversations during tutoring sessions don’t happen staring at the back of a teacher’s computer. In some schools, it may be a hallway or cafeteria or a quiet corner of a classroom. Wherever conversations happen, if they place students as writers and readers on a level playing field with tutors as fellow writers and readers, they have, in essence, created a literacy center. Any teacher, any school, can do this. They do not need an orange wall or wireless computers or comfortable chairs to change writing in their school. Certainly these things help, but they are not necessary. If there are students, there are writers. And if there is a school community of teachers, administrators, and parents that believes in the potential of those writers, then there is a literacy center.
Author : Kate Balogh. Republished with permission from ISNA