hidden literacies in, around, and about our schools

Some hidden literacies are scribbled in secret while others are plastered to public walls for all eyes to read. Regardless of how they appear, when words are posted in public spaces, it is understood that someone found their existence necessary. A thorough investigation of Morgan County Middle School's hidden literacies has provided a unique perspective for understanding why and how the community is shaped by both its students and its teachers. Through the analysis of my observations, I have discovered three types of writing that predominantly influence both official and unofficial school protocol: expectative, expressive, and encouraging.

The most predominant form of writing at Morgan County Middle School is expectative. As a Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) school, Morgan County Middle makes a great effort to post reminders around the entire school. Adopting the more colloquial name, "Paw Pride," the school promotes and shares their expectations for students by adorning halls with PBIS bulletin boards and posters. The Paw Pride program focuses on four primary beliefs for behavior: being respectful, being prepared, being on time, and being on task. Students are monitored based on their adherence to these four key rules both inside and outside the classroom space. While this policy's denotative meaning is very clear, it is necessary to think about what their implementation means as a hidden literacy. Looking at the below poster, it is clear there are even more explicit rules under "team procedures." Some of these rules may seem reasonable while others seem overly constrictive. As a teacher in this school, I understand how these rules help shape some students who struggle with following directions, but the truth is, not all of our students need these rules. Based on the vast placement of the PBIS posters around the building and the necessary elaboration of school day procedures, I believe the hidden message is that the school does not trust any students to conduct themselves appropriately. This is demonstrated through the use of individual Paw Pride sheets that each student totes from class to class. If a student isn't following one of the four key rules, s/he is subject to punishment by earning a mark on their Paw Pride sheet.

A list of student expectations as denoted by Team Ballard

While PBIS serves predominantly as a behavioral reminder for how students should carry themselves, teachers commonly keep track inside their classrooms of specific classroom behavior, as well. In our class, we try to teach our students about accountability and responsibilty, and the writing we post in our classroom supports this. Being in a reading class, we place high emphasis on building effective and efficient readers. Our "7 Habits of Good Readers" sign specifically reminds students of how to be good readers. This creates an implicit expectation that all students in the class WILL be good readers and they can do so by following the seven habits. As a sixth grade teacher, I am constantly faced with the task of elevating student responsibility. There is a shared belief that students must be held accountable for their actions starting at a young age. In middle school, we as teachers take on the responsibility of preparing students for high school, so we often mark expectations in the form of reminder lists for those who have not completed all of their work. While the publicly displayed list denotatively shows what work is left for students, the lists also serve as reminders for other students of who is on top of their assignments and who is not. While seemingly harmless, these lists can publicly shame students who are struggling with the work load. For those struggling students in particular, the goal sign posted in the back of the class can be a daunting, constant reminder of how far they have to reach.

The second type of writing that is prevalent in the halls of Morgan County is expressive writing. For the purpose of this analysis, expressing writing is identified as any writing that expresses thoughts or information. Expressive writing is traditionally unique work done for the purpose of promoting and informing others about the school's culture and climate. Outside the MCMS band room, the wall is plastered with news articles. Each article highlights something about Morgan County's fine arts program and the work it has done to connect people in the community. Neatly clipped and laminated, these articles serve as a sign of pride. By taking the time to put them up, these articles don't just show students and parents what's happening, but that what's happening is important. Someone (the fine arts program) found these articles important enough to want to share them with others, showing students that the work they do is recognized by their community just as much as it's recognized by their teachers.

About ten paces away from the collage of articles is a teacher's door decorated with comic clippings. Each comic follows the theme of "the truth about school' and highlights hilarious commentary on the modern school system. While students likely find these comics funny, I see them as political commentary on the setup of our education system and specifically the rules MCMS implements. In the image below, two parents are discussing how heavy their son's backpack has been this school year. The father shrugs off the concern, claiming "a little weight never hurt anybody." Just around the corner, the son's arm falls off after picking up the pack. The comic is obviously funny, but also points at the work load dilemma that has plagued curriculums across the country. It's placement outside the classroom on the door makes me think the comic isn't for the students; it's for the other teachers. After all, if it was inside the classroom, less teachers would ever read the conveyed message.

Traditionally, two types of people choose what expressive writing gets posted. The first people (demonstrated in the previous paragraph) who choose what the public eye sees are the teachers. The second type of people are the students. Often times students are told their work will be shared outside of the classroom space, thus providing students the opportunity to construct meaningful texts that they want others to see and read. The bulletin board on our hall is currently bedecked with authentic "About Me" pieces written by students for their English Language Arts class. Rarely do we give students an outlet for their writing beyond a teacher's desk, but by placing student work in the halls, the underlying message is that the school (and their teachers specifically) care about who our students are as individuals. By placing their work in a place where others can read it, we are validating their interests and unique qualities. On the seventh grade hall, the same message of validation and acceptance is shown through the "Quote Quilt" students built on a hallway bulletin board. By being given the opportunity to write their opinions in a public space, the school is supporting their right to share their identities with others.

Lastly, but perhaps the most important, is the writing that is created to send encouragement. Too often, our schools are places of disheartening ridicule for not being cool enough, not being privileged enough, or not being smart enough. Most of the teachers at Morgan County Middle School take on the role of advocating for those who need that helping hand. In the simplest form, many teachers decorate their spaces with encouraging reminders that may help guide students to lead positive lives.

In the above images, one may see the different messages MCMS tries to send to its students. Kid President is a well known positivity speaker for both adults and youth and consistently discusses how one's attitude and outlook can change a situation. The "Reader... Leader" sign promotes the concept of reading as a tool for growth. By building strong reading skills, the sign asserts students can be proficient leaders. The "Obstacles" poster sits above a white board in my classroom, serving as a reminder to students that the challenges of today will be the building blocks for tomorrow. Lastly, the "Dreams to Reality" ceiling tile is both a decorative embellishment and an inspiring message for students who desire change. Combined, each of these texts serve the purpose of motivating students to believe in and trust their identities and ideas. Schools s act as places where we break students down for their inadequacies, but by smothering the walls (and even ceilings) with messages that reinforce positive thought, MCMS teachers are showing their commitment to advocacy. Thus, these messages help to show the tight-knit support group that is dedicated to student advancement and academic success.

In Harlem on Our Minds, Valerie Kinloch states, “writing serves many purposes: to exchange ideas, explain positions, critique perspectives, question values, establish points of view, and reflect on beliefs that may contradict other people’s beliefs” (44). Within the concrete walls of Morgan County Middle School, Kinlock's theory comes to life as we examine not only the people around us, but the words they share. In uncovering the hidden meanings behind public script, Morgan County Middle School shows both who and what they value. Through the categorization of writing into the three preestablished groups, my analysis has lead me to the conclusion that when we write, there is always an underlying motive. It is these motives that sometimes carry more connotative meaning than the word's denotative meaning alone. That connotative meaning may be constructed from location, placement, timing, script style, and more. However, while we often consider schools to be places of student expression, this project has helped me recognize the ulterior influences that teachers establish for the purpose of influencing their pupils. These messages can be both positive and negative, but their true connotative meaning is dependent upon each individual's interpretation. As I walked through the halls, I had to place myself in the mind of multiple different students as I shifted from one poster to another, analyzing each with a forced fresh perspective. I began to wonder if the signs truly represented the culture and climate of MCMS, and I have deduced that more often than not, we use words to mold environments into the places we want them to become. As a school, Morgan County tries to promote an environment that is conducive for learning and growth, but in the process of doing so, occasionally smothers students with ideals rather than realities. But as students buy into the cultural shift, the environment changes with them to build a school that supports and raises up its students and their own individual thoughts and words.

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