Literacy in First-Year Turkish: A Multi-Voiced Approach

My BLC project was conceived largely as an extension of Jason Vivrette’s fall 2008 project for first-semester Turkish. Through a series of film clips that emphasized the multi-cultural nature of Turkish society, Jason encouraged students to reflect critically on both the concept of Turkishness as well as the experience of learning Turkish in an American classroom.  I continued this work in the second-semester classroom through a literacy-based pedagogical approach. My main goal was to incorporate a wide variety of texts — from poetry, folk songs, and prose to film clips and images — into a curriculum with an otherwise heavy emphasis on grammar and limited cultural materials. With the aim of fully integrating these texts into the everyday classroom, I paid careful attention to their thematic and grammatical relevance. I then designed a series of five units, each consisting of several activities based on one key text. By spreading these activities throughout a given textbook chapter, I aimed at making them an integral part of the curriculum — rather than supplemental cultural materials — and at allowing time for multiple interpretations to emerge.

It is through this emphasis on multiplicity that I sought to implement a literacy approach.  In his book Literacy and Language Teaching, Richard Kern argues that literacy “involves an awareness of how acts of reading, writing and conversation mediate and transform meanings, not merely transfer them from one individual or group to another” (6). In other words, a literacy-based approach asks students to negotiate — rather than simply acquire — cultural knowledge by reflecting actively in the target language on the ways in which meanings are constructed. I sought to do this by creating activities that approached texts from numerous perspectives, which encouraged students to question the varying layers of meaning that may be contained within a single text.

Within each unit, I sought to literalize this idea on the level of voice: By putting different types of mediums and authorial voices in conversation with one another, I encouraged students to engage in both readings and re-readings. Collaborative in-class activities allowed additional space for student voices to emerge, and follow-up creative writing assignments offered students alternative ways to express their ideas about the texts at hand. The creation of a class portfolio further encouraged students to read and discuss others’ creative work in relation to their own.

As an example of the kinds of activities I designed, I will briefly discuss Unit One, which is based on the poem “Davet” (Invitation), by Nazım Hikmet. As an introduction to this poem, I showed students the final scene of Mavi Gözlü Dev (The Blue-Eyed Giant), a 2006 film about Hikmet’s life. In order to hide political information from a prison guard, Hikmet recites the poem “Invitation” with a student from his cell. As inmates in the courtyard hear the opening lines, they also begin reciting the poem in unison. Finally, a song adaptation of the poem is heard as the camera pans across the prison courtyard and key information regarding the end of Hikmet’s life appears on the screen. This clip raised numerous questions for class discussion: What is Hikmet reciting? How famous is the poem? What is its political importance? And how does the meaning of the poem change when it is recited by different people?

With such questions in mind, we later engaged in an in class reading of the poem. Hikmet’s metaphorical depiction of Turkey as a “mares head” galloping from far Asia and jutting out into the Mediterranean offers an image of the country that is much larger than its current geographical borders. We considered this idea in relation to two key grammatical structures in the opening stanza. Most importantly, we discussed how the (y)Ip (dörtnala gelip / galloping) construction and the (y)En participle (uzanan / jutting) can each denote multiple tenses, including past, present and future. This leaves the poem open in a way that brings it temporally to the present time of our classroom. Finally, we considered the importance of temporality for the poem’s message: Hikmet “invites” his readers to be proud and patriotic, while remaining critical of the Turkish homeland, and what it means to be Turkish. This is emphasized through an inclusive use of the word “ours” at the end of each stanza. Students were then able to think back to the film clip and consider the shifting meaning of the word “ours” in “Invitation,” in relation to the different groups of people who recite the poem. This then led us to reread the poem and to consider ourselves as subjects of the poem’s “invitation.”

As a final activity, we returned to the film clip and considered the placement of the poem in a biographical film — or the way in which the film appropriates the poem for its own purposes. To make this idea more concrete, I asked students to do a little research, write two sentences about Hikmet’s life and post them on our bSpace site. Having students explain their own reasons for choosing specific information helped us to think as a class about the inherently subjective nature of biography and the ways in which information is often adapted for different purposes. On the following day, I led an in-class writing workshop in which students created a collective biography with the sentences they had provided. This forced students to think about how to organize the information at hand, how to connect sentences where necessary, and how to create meaningful transitions. As a result we created a class biography that was totally subjective — or completely “ours.”  Students were then able to discuss the ways in which they had appropriated Hikmet’s life and work based on their own personal interests.

As this example unit shows, my implementation of a “multi-voiced” approach to teaching language aimed to combine traditional and non-traditional ideas of what it means to be Turkish with the constantly shifting dynamics of the classroom and the learning process itself.


Kern, Richard. Literacy and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hikmet, Nâzim. “Davet (Invitation)”. Accessed March 1, 2010.âzim_Hikmet#Invitation .