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What do Activist Literacies Look Like?

Painting of a woman in cap and gown with the words "undocumented" and "unafraid" in the background.

“UndocuMary” by Alejandro Galeana

What do Activist Literacies look like?

By Alejandro Galeana

If I had to sum up my experience at the JoLLE conference in one word, it would have to be “Amazing.”  I learned so much about other people’s contributions to understanding Literacy.  In my opinion, a lot boils down to social justice and human communication, a passion of mine, and it was very inspiring to learn about the work of K.C. Nat Turner, Glynda Hull, and Christian Faltis.

I love Art and Activism. I am very aware of how pieces of art- visual, musical, and written- throughout time have been greatly influenced by political movements. Every time I join a rally, go to a march, or spread information about the undocumented movement with my groups, GUYA (Georgia Undocumented Youth Alliance) and #Undocufiles on Twitter and Instagram, we include some kind of visual art. Recently, I was commissioned by one of my beloved teachers, Mr. Hicks, for a painting. I tried my best to use what he believed in and liked and what I saw in my own head, in order to paint him a piece he’d like. I’m pretty sure he loved it, as he would not stop talking about it all week afterwards and was not shy to show it off to the school.  It now hangs in his classroom.

It was truly an honor to meet Christian Faltis. Interacting with Chris and his paintings was inspiring.  What I really enjoyed about the paintings is how they depicted Undocumented Immigrants, and more specifically, Undocumented Latino lives in the US, the hardships and struggles one must face in a land that is not their own. I spoke with him for a good half hour about art and how he got his ideas for some of his paintings, and what I could do to better myself as an artist, too.


“Virgen del Barrio.” Oil painting. Christian Faltis, 2011.

My favorite painting displayed that night was one of a tattooed Virgin Mary, “Virgen del Barrio.” Visually it caught my eye whenever I walked around the room. The color was so vibrant against the black background, her tattoos were the element of the painting that really stuck out, her facial expression was edgy, hardcore in a sense, much different from the traditional Virgin Mary I have seen. I loved it.

I was happy to hear about Glynda Hull’s project in Oakland city and also other parts of the globe for children who are interested in understanding Literacy and language. She spoke of a rapper/ activist whose onstage name is Relixstylz. His music was very truthful and well produced with pictures that helped illustrate his message. She also showed us a track that one of her students recorded with lyrics; she rapped about her life and the similar experiences faced by other children her age and race in a poor town with gangs and violence and limited opportunities. It was all very inspiring and humbling, and it made me really think about how much easier I have it in some ways and how I should not take life for granted. It made me feel honored to be involved in my society just as they are and inspired me to do even more.

This is what Activist Literacies looks like to me.

Images, Energy, and Action

Photograph of art supplies

Participants used a variety of artistic mediums during Hope Hilton’s session “Topophilia and the Literacy of Space.” All photographs taken by Steven Landry unless otherwise noted.

  Images, Energy, and Action

by Steven Landry

As a photographer, I get to enjoy the act of capturing moments in time for later analysis. Like a researcher, I reflect upon the moment and make meaning through a critical view. The JoLLE Conference, as an experience, supported an idea I have about the limitations of photography: a static image belies the energy and action behind the movbiz of time captured.

Moving from room to room and watching multiple literacies in action – from traditional print-centric presentations, to more media-centric video games, and even kinesthetic tableaus – I saw varied activist literacies at play. On one level, I envisioned Talia Pura’s interactive drama scenes employed in my secondary classrooms while exploring texts like Macbeth. Could Shakespeare’s characters be given the opportunity to slow down, digested, and even experienced as alive? On another level, the genuine and vested engagement from participants and facilitators was atmospheric and inspiring.

Glynda Hull’s experience with digital literacy – specifically showcasing student-made video and audio creations reflecting life under pressure – could serve as mentor texts for the adolescents I teach. Employing this format would give voice, agency, and – through social networking – an audience for my learning community.

Photograph of an adult sculpting figures with playdough

In “Speed Dating with iPads” participants created stop-motion animated films in just 90 Minutes.

In the Create Session, “Speed Dating with iPads: Creating Discipline-Specific Films in 90 Minutes,” Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, Aimee Frier, Rebecca Powell, and Margaret Krause (all from the University of South Florida), engaged participants in a mini multi-media production process to create stop-motion animation films.  Schneider’s cork would be easily utilized in a block schedule Language Arts classroom regardless of grade levels and perceived student abilities, and could help students better understand the composing process through multiple modes.

JoLLE enabled me to take part in an ongoing dialogue of how to make meaning through diverse formats: paintings, hand-drawn pictures, music, digital texts, movbiz video, and still images. I still reel from the potential applications for the ways of thinking, synthesizing, and creating represented by presenters. From my own pictures, I see the JoLLE participants’ creations translated to those in my classrooms. Yet the moments I snapped cannot begin to capture the inspiring experiences or the positive energy I felt from students, teachers, professors, and fellow artists at the conference. While looking at the still images I shot, I can easily visualize the dynamic impact my episode at JoLLE will have upon my future lesson plans and research.

Steven Landry teaches high school in Athens, GA.  He will be entering the doctoral program in Language & Literacy Education at The University of Georgia in the fall of 2013.

ac∙tiv∙ism \ˈak-ti-ˌvi-zəm\

Photographs of people holding signs that say "Critical Literacy."

Conference attendees in the JoLLE Photobooth.
Special thanks to Denise Payne for donating the Photobooth and her expertise to the conference.

ac∙tiv∙ism \ˈak-ti-ˌvi-zəm\

: a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue

 As part of JOLLE’s inaugural conference on activist literacies, a portion of our program was dedicated to “Continuing the Conversation.” To consider ourselves as activists in our teaching and research means that our work must extend beyond our presentations, papers, and even ourselves. To facilitate this type of hands-on activism, the JOLLE conference put together a series of interactive activities that allowed conference participants to engage with ideas and possibilities of activist literacies.

Activist PhotoBooth In the lobby of the Georgia Center, JOLLE set up an Activist Photobooth. One of our most popular activities, everyone who attended our opening night gala took photos with both friends and strangers, with signs that shared their thoughts on reading, literacy, and activism  Students, teachers, parents, and researchers used this space to create not only statements of solidarity but moments of solidarity towards a similar cause.

VisibleTweets Using the hashtag #JOLLE2013, conference participants and presenters used Twitter to share comments, queries, and revelations about how their research and teaching can be impacted through activism.  All of the tweets were displayed via VisibleTweets, an online Twitter display for public spaces.  Throughout the day, conference onlookers could keep up with presentations throughout the day and spread the news of the powerful work being done here at the JOLLE conference.

Photograph of a tweet. Green background with black text that states "RT@KimberlySlusser: A great couple of days in Georgia with many inspiring movers and shakers! #jolle2013

Visible Tweets from the #JoLLE2013 Conference

Interactive Wall Attendees participated in a Candy Chang inspired interactive wall exhibit. Teachers, artists, and professors wrote about their memories and the importance of their work on society. A participant could choose from the following open themes: I’ve taught, I teach, or I Research

A Found Poem created from excerpts from the Interactive Wall

I teach. I’ve taught. I research.

In high school, middle school,

K-12, 9 and 10th grades.

In NC!, LA and Oakland,

Atlanta and


Learned that I can do anything!!

Love incorporating student activist projects,

Aimed at social justice.

I could change everything,

Every year.

I teach. I taught. I research.

I feel enlightened.

I miss it.

Without this,

The world loses a sense of place & humanity,

the world would be less empowered.

I love teaching.

Discomfort and an Identity Shift

Photograph of people acting out a skit

Meghan and other participants at the conference create a tableaux.
Photo by Steven Landry.

Discomfort and an Identity Shift

Meghan B. Thornton

Going into the Activist Literacies conference held by the Journal of Literature and Language Education (JoLLE) at UGA, I was a bit wary. I was sure that if I sat through another workshop touting the benefits of an alphabox or a new design for literature circles, I would quietly stand up, collect my belongings, and drive the six hours back to North Carolina. Well, maybe not so quietly. Instead, what I found at JoLLE was a necessary discomfort. The conference focus on redefining the term “literacy” forced me to question not only what and how I teach, but why! After two days of equal amounts frustration and enthusiasm, I realized I needed to rethink my comfort zone and my identity as a teacher.

Like so many reading and writing teachers, my comfort zone lies nestled in the world of written words. Student reads book, student responds in essay. Words, words, words. But in a world where people communicate more through face-to-face meetings and presentations, video, and even picture, written words have become less integral to the effective communication of meaning. JoLLE forced me to question: is my “word-centric zone” adequately preparing students to communicate meaning in the modern world? The first step in breaking out of my word comfort zone was in Talia Pura’s (2013) session on creating theatre for social change. Through the use of tableaux in the classroom, students can make the abstract more concrete. Such mental and physical discomfort in the classroom pushes students to think more deeply about the conflicts and themes in a text and their possible real-world implications. Suddenly, education shifts from passive acceptance of information to a contact sport. Students are pushed beyond their comfort zones and into a zone of questioning, frustration, and (perhaps, eventually) activism. Is this expression not more immediate, engaging, and potentially memorable than a written reflection?

Digital storytelling was a common thread throughout the conference. For me, digital storytelling was something I had heard of, but couldn’t pick out of a crowd. What I found was that through digital storytelling, teachers and students can create powerful meaning through spoken word, music, and pictures. Visual response methods, such as these, prompt students to focus on meaning in text, without allowing language to get in the way. Barbara Pace (2013) shared multiple digital stories in her session, explaining how such stories can be used by teachers to explain and introduce an abstract concept, but also how students can use digital stories to explore the deeper meaning of “story” rather than simply following a plot line through the events of the text. Thus, students are challenged to find “the story core” in traditional, written stories, as well as the multimedia world they experience on a daily basis.

Not only has my comfort zone now expanded to incorporate acting and digital storytelling, but I am also realizing that part of being a literature teacher is teaching students to become media literate, as well. I have always found ways to bring video clips, commercials, and music into my classroom, but never have I overtly taught students the vocabulary necessary to analyze and talk about such media. In Kathy Garland’s (2013) session on playing with media in school, she emphasized the need to teach our students the terminology necessary to a meaningful discussion of media. Knowledge of the most common shot types in film, for instance, can help students understand perspective. Furthermore, in comparing two different representations of a text, students can discuss how writers and film editors create meaning and emphasis in different ways. No longer can the literature teacher live simply in the comfortable world of words.

Instead, teachers must expand their understanding of “literacy” to incorporate the media as well. As a literature teacher I love to read, and read often. However, after JoLLE’s conference it became very clear that my reading needs to extend beyond the young adult literature that I teach. I work daily to cultivate lifelong readers and learners. Yet, I have left myself out of this mission. I need to start seeing myself as a student, in constant need of information and inspiration.

During the conference, I was intrigued by the idea of multimodal literacies. As a digital native, technology use in the classroom is fairly natural for me. However, in my reading after the conference, I started to see how my idea of technology use was a bit antiquated. Rather than saving technology for “special assignments” or one big project each year, it needs to be an organic part of the classroom. Students need to feel that they are part of a community of readers, writers, and thinkers. They need to develop meaning out of text through collaboration. Upon leaving our classrooms, students will be expected to synthesize gross amounts of information (from a variety of texts and media) and then efficiently share that information on a digital platform. If teachers are to prepare adequately students for this challenge, then they must routinely use modern technology and authentic, engaging lessons and assessments to push students to think more deeply and critically about the material they read and experience. Without considering themselves students as well, teachers will become the roadblock for their students, preparing them for a world that is ten years out of date.

I, like many teachers, attend a lot of workshops and training. Rarely are current researchers in the field presenters at local conferences. Furthermore, after five years of conferences, workshops, and seminars, I find my interest at such events waning. Not because I don’t want to learn new ways to teach my students in an engaging and rapidly changing world, but because the information presented at such conferences is redundant. If our teachers are to maintain their professionalism in the field and prepare students for the technology-focused world of immediate information, then ongoing teacher training needs to reflect this changing landscape.

While professional development should be altered, teachers needn’t wait passively to be informed by others of new trends. Teachers must experience physical and mental discomfort and become activists for literacy. Where the availability of new research is lacking, teachers must take it upon themselves to become students and seek out the current research and technologies they need. Conferences such as JoLLE’s Activist Literacies need to play a more central role in the professional development of teachers. Such conferences challenge teachers to question whether or not they are adequately preparing their students, and give them the tools to start making necessary changes and improvements to their curriculum and methodologies. Next year, when I attend JoLLE’s conference again, I hope to see more uncomfortable practicing teachers in attendance, working to become activists for literacy by redrawing their comfort zones and considering new identities as students themselves.


Garland, K. (2013). Expanding teacher’s literacy: Playing with media in school. Session presented at the JoLLE Spring Conference, Activist Literacies: Inspire, Engage, Create, Transform, Athens, GA.

Pace, B. G. (2013). Expanding teacher’s literacy: Digital storytelling in a third space. Session presented at the JoLLE Spring Conference, Activist Literacies: Inspire, Engage, Create, Transform, Athens, GA.

Pura, T. (2013). Creating theatre for social change. Session presented at the JoLLE Spring Conference, Activist Literacies: Inspire, Engage, Create, Transform, Athens, GA.

Megan Thornton is a high school teacher at Endeavor Charter School in Raleigh, North Carolina. She can be reached at

Who do You Want to be in the World?

“Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.”  ~Helen Keller

Photograph of young boy drawing on a large piece of paper.

Jack adds his ideas to a mural that will serve as inspiration for a public art installment.
All photographs courtesy of Steven Landry unless otherwise noted.


Dear Jack,

I’m writing this letter after attending the JoLLE Conference with you. It was just supposed to be a quick visit to support a friend, support a cause, and hear your dad play guitar. However, you lit up the moment we entered the event space on opening night. You marveled at the art on display, listened intently to the keynote speakers, and took notes. You didn’t want to leave.

The theme of the conference was – Activist Literacies: Inspire, Engage, Create, Transform.

This conference did that for you. You were engaged, inspired, transformed.

When you heard K.C. Nat Turner give his keynote address, you were hooked. He spoke about the killing of children in drone strikes and you began to ask questions. Specifically, why would our government fund a program and sanction missions that kill children? This is not an easy question – for you or for me. I have to admit that I didn’t have a great answer for you, but we did have a great conversation. It was at this moment that I stopped thinking about you as just my child, and saw you as a person in the world. A person with thoughts, questions, and a voice.

We sat at a cafe table by a window, eating sandwiches and talking about safety, and what being safe in the world affords us. We marveled at how lucky we are that we have food, a house, a car, pets, books, art supplies, musical equipment, technology, and how that makes it easier for us to ask questions and take risks. We talked about how we are all interconnected and made out of star stuff. We talked about being small in a vast universe and how is it possible to be heard when we are so tiny. We decided that every small thing we do adds up to be a bigger thing, so we should just keep on doing the little things.

I know you are aware of what I do at my job, but I am not sure you know what I am passionate about in my work. My deepest desire is to help create learning experiences where everyone is included, where students who come are not made to feel like second class citizens just because they don’t see well, or hear well, or read well. My goal each day at work is to help people think – what barriers are inherent in what I am creating? How can I reduce those barriers? I want people to believe that it is not the learner who is broken, but it is the curriculum that is broken. Because people are the way they are. And we should respect all people. We should help all people feel successful when we can. I strive to create learning that isn’t just accessible, but is also inclusive. Radical inclusivity – that is my praxis.

I am grateful that I experienced this conference with you, because it kindled a fire. You are now in the process of finding your voice, your power, discovering how you want to be in the world.

Photograph of a boy and woman looking at a drawing.

Jack, a 2nd grader who attended the conference with his mom, in Karen Gerow’s session “Drawing in/on Math.”

Right now, at age eight, you draw constantly. You might love art more than Minecraft (that is a lot). You spend your time making monsters, zombies, stickmen in various states of trouble, mazes, maps, skulls, cityscapes, and alternate dimensions. Seeing art by both adults and children on display in the same space – at the same time – flipped a switch for you. I think for the first time you realized that what you create, what you have to say, your voice, matters to more than just you.

Right now, at age eight, you drum constantly. You might love drumming more than art (that is a lot). You drum with sticks and cymbals. You drum with your hands, beating out rhythms on the table or on your body, when you are not at your kit. Your teacher allows you to drum when you work at school. Listening to the songs and music created and composed by kids opened your mind to the idea that your music, your voice, matters.

Through this conference, you learned that art and music are valid ways to be in the world, to communicate, to demonstrate understanding, to communicate, to inspire, to contribute, to maybe one day change the world. You spoke with adults who have spent their lives dedicated to helping students find their voice and use that voice to create change. I am looking forward to taking this journey with you.




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