Preparation for Observing the Literacy Habits of Alabama Toddlers

I was asked a few days ago what kind of reading I do outside of class, other than my school work and the book I was currently discussing. I had no idea how to answer that question. Maybe I was caught a little off guard, but I seriously hadn’t given it much thought; which I found a little odd considering I was about to embark upon ten weeks of observation concerning literacy. When I finally found a few extra minutes, I sat down and thought about what kind of literacy is involved in my life outside of school. First off, I remembered that every summer I do my own personal reading project. Although this past summer I didn’t get around to much extracurricular reading, except for a couple of Anne Rice’s vampire novels. I had actually spent a good deal of my summer jotting down bits and pieces of notes for scripts that I imagined I’d one day complete for my short films. Another thing I try to keep up is my Website1, in order to keep my life in order, although it’s usually too chaotic to maintain. I also code each piece of HTML (hyper text markup language), PHP (hypertext preprocessor), and CSS (cascading style sheets). Other pieces of literacy in my daily life consists of reading through random emails, checking out a forum that I frequent based off of the television show Smallville2, reading other independent filmmaker’s scripts, and scrolling through various websites that I have book marked.

Now I’m beginning to think about literacy and what it means. Given what I knew about literacy and a few pages of notes I’ve acquired about it over the last few weeks, I am starting to notice different forms of literacy that I need to be watchful of. As an English major, I would’ve thought I knew where literacy can be found, but literacy can be hidden in places that I haven’t even thought to look. Over the next ten weeks, hopefully, I’ll be able to discover the meaning behind literacy and use this knowledge to become a better researcher and writer.

The community that I will be exploring is Alabama toddlers and their families. I plan to integrate myself into two separate families and become a part of their households. Gathering information from two phone interviews I got some basic information about the families involved in my research. In the Peavey household, the 29-year-old Jason spends his days at Rehab Associates by way of a Master’s degree in Health Promotion. Amy, also a 28 year old, holds a nursing job at Baptist Hospital. Together, they run a seemingly white-picket-fence home with their two boys Brady (3 years old) and Archer (4 months old). Two boys reside in the Wilson house also, the 3-year-old Blake and the 16-month-old Blaine. Steven (29 years old) is a paramedic at an ambulance company suitably named FAITH. Kerry (25 years old) works as an office assistant at Commercial Doors in Montgomery, Alabama.

One of the main differences between the families that I plan to explore is their geographical location and how/if it plays a part in the literacy levels of the children. The Wilsons set up their mobile home on a dirt road in Highland Home, Alabama, a community of only 1,177 occupants3. In a city of 14,012 people4, the Peaveys take up residence in a house in Greenville, Alabama.

Both families are southern Alabama Caucasians, and each regularly attend church on Sundays. Through my own experience I have found that religious services played a major role in my reading, writing, and singing skills. Well, I learned the words to the songs, but I’m not so sure it improved my voice. The plan is to join these families in an environment that is filled with forms of literacy.

The Wilsons attend Friday night high school football games at my old alma mater. I started thinking about different forms of literacy at these events. While they’re seemingly isn’t much literacy to be found at football games, I realized there are a few things that could provide these children with hope of becoming more literate. There are cheers and chants to follow along with (I just hope this year’s cheerleading squad has a lot of pep this year). Unless the 3 year old and 16 month old toddlers can keep score, I may be grasping a little far. However, this is an avenue I want to explore.

I have a couple of reasons I took it upon myself to look into this particular community. One, being that I previously baby-sat my little brother when he was around the age of six or seven. I had a lot of trouble getting him to do his homework, in particular his reading and spelling assignments. Although, I could give him a video game with any amount of reading involved in it, and he would play it for hours. Now, when I call my mother to check in, usually asking for my siblings’ progress reports, I notice that my six-year-old sister is doing really well. Even growing up in the same home, each child has taken a different educational path. Another reason I chose this community is for my own personal gain. When I become a father, when I’m in my thirties and reasonably settled, I want to have a smidgen of knowledge to help prepare my children for a world of literacy.

When I step into each house I would love to see children’s books thrown about and hear the television blasting some show on phonics, but I expect to have to actually search for types of literacy. Or maybe I’m wrong. These parents may have already begun preparing their children for a very literate era. This project should prove to be a challenge for me. I have previously been in the company of my subjects, but not so much as to see the inner-workings of their homes. The challenge is not really feeling out of place within these families, but to put it frankly, toddlers who can barely feed their selves scare the hell out of me. It’s not just frightening because they are still developing the motor skills to walk and go potty on their own or even pronounce clear words (although some have trouble with that even farther into life), but because I don’t know how to communicate with them.

I’ve continuously asked myself, What questions should I pose to get the necessary information to write an engaging ethnography?” I didn’t have much to go on, at least, not until I conducted two five-minute interviews with the mothers of the families. With their background information on hand I came up with a few questions to add to the few I had. Some of these questions may not even be relevant to these toddlers, but they will give me a place to start and possibly lead to other inquiries.

1. What different types of literacy can be found inside the house?

  • Are their sports magazines lying around?
  • Do medical journals stack the shelves?
  • Are there children’s books scattered about?
  • What types of media is used to promote literacy within the home?

2. How much of a role does church play in the children’s literacy practices?

  • Do they sing along with the congregation?
  • Are they using crayons to scribble on the Bible or church pamphlets?
  • What are the children learning in their Sunday school class?

3. Do Friday night football games enhance literacy for the Wilsons children?

  • Do the toddlers participate in cheers and chants?
  • Are they keeping track of the scoreboard and actively watching the game?

4. Does geographic location contrast the literacy habits of the two families’ children?

  • Are the rural children running around in their underwear out in the woods all day?
  • Do the city children sit inside and get more exposure to various types of literature?

In order to collect sufficient data, I will be spending a couple of weekends a month inside these households, hopefully becoming a part of each family. I want to be a member of the community in order to understand how it functions. I’ve stocked up on mini-DV cassettes for my camcorder to conduct interviews and picked up a few memo pads for jotting field notes. However, I may not start interviews until I find a more focused topic to expand upon. Any time I get a chance I get to mix one of my personal hobbies with other work I try my best to use them together. Since one of my interests is web design I constructed a sub domain of my Website for this project5 to keep track of my progress. After gathering enough information I should be able to narrow my subject to a theory about the literacy of Alabama toddlers. Whatever I may learn from this project I am almost sure that I will gain something positive from this experience.

1 My personal website can be found at: http://www.dark-autumn.com

2 One interesting note about Smallville is that in any given episode Lex or Lionel Luthor can be heard quoting famous authors or philosophers.

3 Highland Home, Alabama – population: 1,177 – http://factfinder.census.gov

4 Greenville, Alabama – population: 14,012 – http://factfinder.census.gov

5 The Website for the literacy project can be found at: http://www.dark-autumn.com/literacy

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