I can still remember sitting down in 1983 to read Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words—and not getting up for six hours: I literally could not put this book, which reports on her 1969-78 ethnographic study of literacy in the Carolina Piedmont, down, nor could I stop scribbling in the margins about all I was learning. In case you haven’t looked at this book in a long time, Heath—who won the MacArthur “genius award” for this work—tells readers about the differences she observed in the literacy practices in “Tracton” and Roadville,” (one a largely white community, the other largely Black), differences she related to the effects of the home and community environments on the children. She found that the expectations for literacy and language were markedly different in the two communities and argued that the “place of language in the cultural life of each social group is interdependent with the habits and values of behaving shared among members of that group,” values formed by family structures, religious groups, and concepts of childhood. Her findings revealed a great deal about how family, community, and school expectations about the role of reading and writing in children’s lives affect children’s ability to engage successfully in school, and they helped teachers understand the importance of seeing the language strengths that all students bring to school.
Heath’s book remains a landmark in literacy research as well as in ethnographic methods. Nearly thirty years after its publication, it is widely cited and deeply influential. But for Heath, Ways with Words was just one part of her research, which she continued for the next three decades, tracking 300 of the Roadville and Tracton families through three generations. So now we have a bookend to Ways with Words, Heath’s gripping Words at Work and Play: Three Decades in Family and Community Life, which she calls “a relay race of then-and-now stories.” It tells the story of how the depression of the 1980s forced many of the families to relocate to new places and new jobs and new ways of living. The 80s were thus a time of struggle, as nuclear families splintered, some suffered from addictions and other ills of urban living, and all found that they could not rely on their beyond-school common sense or their manual labor skills. But the 90s brought some change. As Heath puts it in her prologue, relocation eventually “brought them into small-business development and further educational opportunities that situated them to take advantage of the 1990s economic boom.” Determined to help their children advance, these families recognized the role that education and, increasingly, technology would play in achieving that goal:
Adults believed the internet bandwagon would take them where they had never dreamed they might go. This uniformity of belief had spread rapidly as the basis for new habits of family and community life and expectation for the future.
But 9/11 and the ensuing economic difficulties hit these families particularly hard and, as Heath puts it, “The foundations of the world they had thought so secure began to crumble.”
Across this span of thirty years, Heath chronicles the struggles, the dreams, the setbacks, tragedies, and triumphs members of these families experience as they move around the country in search of a better life. And throughout, we see language, words at work and play. We also see a brilliant ethnographer reflect on her own research, her own literate journey. And we see a storyteller at work. Recognizing that all research essentially tells a story and that stories are never “pure,” Heath concludes that “Neither the whole story nor the true one ever exists, however much we may wish for it. If we could achieve wholeness and absolute truth in our stories, we would have no more stories to tell. And tell stories, we must.”
I have written here before about our human need to connect, to communicate, to tell stories. No one understands this better than Shirley Heath. Her latest book is an instantiation of this lesson—and a gift to all who love words at work and at play. Get it. Read it. Savor its stories.
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