Literacy Unbound
A Program to Demonstrate That Literature Has No Boundaries

Keerthi Jayaraman
10th-Grade Student, Kent Place School, Summit, NJ, USA

Think about the images you see in your head as you read a book. Now, imagine being at Columbia University and sharing your private images about the book with 24 students and teachers in order to create an unforgettable show. Scary, right? Terrifying. But also very rewarding.

At the Literacy Unbound summer institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, students and teachers learn how to “remix” literature. Showing someone how to remix is not like showing them how to solve quadratic equations. Remixing is not something that is taught; it is something that is practiced. Showing someone how to remix gives them the tools to create their own masterpieces. Literacy Unbound allows players to discover the text on their own, while also listening to what others have found on the same path.

The Summer Institute of Literacy Unbound is a two-week, highly selective summer program run by the Center for Professional Development of Teachers, Teachers College, Columbia University. When I attended, the participants were a diverse group of 12 teachers and 12 high school students working as a cohort to “remix” a classic book. In this program, the term “remix” was used to describe the process of interpreting a text using your own creativity. Sometimes, the original text is unrecognizable within a completed remix; other times, the references to the text are clear. A remix could be in the form of a song, a change in the plot, a dance, a picture, a drawing— the list is really endless. (For more information on remixes, see the following TED talks: https://www.ted.com/talks/kirby_ferguson_embrace_the_remix?language=en and https://www.ted.com/talks/mark_ronson_how_sampling_transformed_music?language=en)

When I attended the program, the book we were remixing was The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. The translated novella is 44 pages long, which should be an easy read. Yet those 44 pages were the most difficult 44 pages I have read in my entire life. The main character, Gregor Samsa, is a hard-working man who just could not get out of bed one day because he awoke to discover he had turned into a cockroach. Throughout the story, we learn about the emotional effect this metamorphosis has on his family and how they begin to see Gregor through different lenses. At the end of the novella, the question lingers: Was Gregor Samsa really a bug?

The participants in the Literacy Unbound program brought individual skillsets they could contribute to the final performance. While I didn’t think I had a concrete skill to offer, I do have a passion for writing, theater, and music. When we introduced ourselves for the first time during the institute, we all stated our names and the skills we were bringing to the table. After everyone did so, Dr. Erick Gordon, one of the program coordinators, said, “All of that doesn’t matter now; you are no longer students and teachers. We are all players in the remix of Kafka.” Twelve teachers and 12 students working together as equals. Sounds impossible. Once the titles of “teacher” and “student” were stripped away, however, everyone became just “players.”

We all came from different walks of life. One player came from Idaho, another player came from Newark, and one player came all the way from Colombia. I met people who I would have never otherwise encountered. I met a world champion gymnast, an actress with an agent, a comedian, an art teacher, an English teacher, and a yoga instructor. It was truly a humbling experience as I found out so much about what other people could learn and accomplish.

At first, I felt frustrated as I read The Metamorphosis; so much was going on that I found it hard to understand. After orientation for the program, I was so excited about reading it. But I really struggled to finish it. Reading the book became almost like homework and I found that I was hating it. Nevertheless, I responded to the daily prompts emailed to us for two weeks leading up to the first day of the program. And then, when I first entered the room where we began our exploration, my life was changed forever. During the remixing of The Metamorphosis, I was able to finally understand why this book is considered a classic.

Every day as we explored the movement of Grete or the voice of Gregor was a day of realization for me. As the program progressed, I slowly came to understand the book, which I had not been able to do when I read and annotated it on my own. Every day I was learning more from my peers’ interpretations than any textbook could have offered. It was like wearing glasses for the first time. Everything is fuzzy at first, then the whole world becomes clear. When I first read The Metamorphosis, I ranted so much about how I hated it my dad told me to stop talking about it. The Literacy Unbound program showed me what I was missing, and I learned so much in those two weeks.

During the first week, visiting artists demonstrated a particular skill and showed us how to use it. We would keep each tool in mind when putting together our performance. For example, one artist introduced us to the art of interpreting words through movement and another artist showed us how to use our voices in order to reflect a character’s feelings. The tools we gained from these visiting artists became the foundation blocks we used to create the performance. It was a lot to take in at first; it felt the way you would feel if a teacher expected you to be ready to take a test after spending only a week on a unit. Organized into groups, we developed different scenes. After everyone finished developing scenes, we came together as a group and put them into a sequential order. We were all so enthusiastic we had more ideas for scenes than needed! After being part of such an amazing process, I realized that when you are given the tools to create something without the pressure of meeting a certain grade or expectation, you can create something amazing.

The environment at Teachers College was simply phenomenal, inspiring a feeling of purpose and productivity. Every time I flashed my visitor pass to the guard at the door, I felt that I was part of something bigger. The space where we worked gave me the chills, with its instruments, big windows, pillars, elevated areas, etc. It was a perfect place for remixing Kafka. The safe and welcoming mental environment of the Literacy Unbound program was on a par with the physical space. The players felt safe stepping out of their comfort zones to try new things. We were able to be creative and learned that there is truly no such thing as a bad idea.

Literacy Unbound integrates literature into a program without making it seem like work. We were able to take what we imagined when reading and put it on stage for the whole world to see. Literature can be interpreted in thousands of ways. When someone reads a line from a book, they might be hearing a particular music; another person might be associating a certain movement to the line, while another person could be hearing a special voice reciting that particular line. This program illustrated that analyzing a text doesn’t always have to be in the form of an essay; analysis can take the form of an interpretative dance to represent the character’s emotions or an audio remix of a pattern noted in the book. Literacy Unbound showed me how putting on a show consisting of remixes of a text can be an extremely effective way to understand its core and beyond.

Now, when any of my teachers ask me to interpret a text, I might surprise them with an interpretative dance or a song. This program gave me the confidence to think outside of the box and truly put myself out there.

Essay or Remix. Which one sounds more fun to you?

For more information about this program, please visit: http://www.literacyunbound.org/