Skilton-Sylvester – Literate at Home but Not at School: A Cambodian Girl’s Journey from Playwright to Struggling Writer

Skilton-Sylvester, Ellen. “Literate at Home but Not at School: A Cambodian Girl’s Journey from Playwright to Struggling Writer.” School’s Out: Bridging Out-of School Literacies with Classroom Practice. Eds. Glynda Hull and Katherine Schultz. New York: Teachers College Press, 2002. 61-95. Print.

In this chapter, Ellen Skilton-Sylvester, current Associate Professor of Education and Coordinator of ESL Programs at Arcadia University, uses ethnography to provide a contrastive analysis of a young Cambodian immigrant girl’s school and out-of-school literacy practices. This chapter was developed out of a larger ethnographic study of (Skilton-Sylvester, 1997) documenting the identities, literacies, and other educational policies that are part of the lives of several Cambodian women and girls in Philadelphia (65).

In “Literate at Home but Not at School,” Skiton-Sylvester focuses on the school and out-of-school literacies of Nan over the course of three years. The researcher’s fieldwork consisted of weekly tutoring sessions over a 3-year period with Nan and her cousins in either of their apartments (located in the same apartment building) focusing primarily on homework and structured around the needs of the girls in any given week (65). Over the course of time, Skilton-Sylvester says her relationship with the girls developed and their time together extended to include filed trips to local museums, parks, and Skilton-Sylvester’s apartment. The participants also gave her artifacts such as: drawings, painting, and writings as gifts, in addition to performing dances and skits, etc. for her. From these interactions Skilton-Sylvester took the themes that emerged from this data and later interviewed the girls about their points of view concerning  particular findings and issues. Skilton-Sylvester’s fieldwork also included visits to the girls’ school one year prior to beginning her study with the girls. These visits to the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classrooms and grade-level classrooms continued into her research with Nan and her relatives. Skilton-Sylvester is clear about her rationale to focus on Nan as her primary subject; stating that Nan provided the most dramatic differences between her in-school and out-of-school writing identities and products (65):

“Nan interests me greatly both because the resources she brought to school were often invisible and devalued and because I can imagine other possibilities when I see her out-of-school writing. In the right classroom, her enthusiasm for making meaning through print, pictures, and performance could have been a resource to build on in learning to use writing as a tool to do the social work of school.” (65-66)

Many of Skilton-Sylvester’s findings are derived because her scope included both in- and out-of-school contexts. For example, Skilton-Sylvester is able to conclude that the reason for Nan’s successful facilitation in her out-of-school literacy practices are rhetorical in nature and depend on Nan’s various rhetorical situations, particularly exigency and audience:

“I believe that Nan’s experiences with school writing in home and school contexts can be understood in terms of investment, identity, and the right to speak… What her out-of-school writing shows is that she could be incredibly invested in using and learning about the written word when she was granted the right to write and knew that there were those who really wanted to listen to her thoughts, experiences, and ideas.” (84)

Skilton-Sylvester found that when Nan was provided a meaningful purpose and an attentive audience in her ESOL classroom, Nan was able to claim the right to write within the classroom context. Therefore, Skilton-Sylvester concluded that bridges between out-of-school literacy and in-school literacy need to be constructed where they do not exist, which unfortunately is the majority of grade-level classroom contexts. Skilton-Sylvester’s study also makes an implicit argument for the expansion of valued literacy skills in school contexts that includes visual, oral, and performative literacies in addition to standard writing literacy practices, because Nan did achieve a degree of success in ESOL classrooms that sanctioned these broader literacy skills; however these broader literacy skills were not recognized in the grade–level classrooms.

Skilton-Sylverster argues that it is educators that need to improve their literacy skills as well:

“Nan’s out-of school literacy resources — and those of many nonmainstream students in the U.S. schools — can be a foundation for school literacy if we are able to read the words and worlds that children bring with them to school and help them to engage in new and related words and worlds as they use writing to do the social work of school… we, as techers, have as much to learn from Nan as she from us.” (88)

If this is the case, and I agree it is, then this study also makes a strong case for critical pedagogies that can disrupt the uni-directional flow of knowledge.

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