Monday, October 24, 2011

Motivation Mondays: Paper on Critical Literacy

I apologize for the academic language, but I thought this might be interesting to readers who are interested in teaching as social justice. It' must be an okay paper, since I got an "A" on it. :) I'm not sure why it wants to be in different colors, but I hope that's not too distracting.


“Questions such as "Whose story is this?" "Who benefits from this story?" and "Whose voices are not being heard?" invite readers to interrogate the systems of meaning that operate both consciously and unconsciously in texts, as well as in mainstream culture, to privilege some and marginalize others. Thus, a critical literacy approach includes a focus on social justice and the role that each of us plays in challenging or helping to perpetuate the injustices we identify in our world. In this sense, critically literate individuals are capable of taking social action to fight oppression and transform their communities and realities.” --From “Out of the Box: Critical Literacy in a First Grade Classroom,” by Christine Leland

The practice of critical literacy can be a good way to validate different points of view and promote cross-cultural and cross-language learning. This is especially important for English Language Learners and for students in poor urban schools. Arlette Ingram Willis’s “Critical Issue: Addressing Literacy Needs in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Classrooms” is a summary of best diversity practices and the challenges thereof. “Literacy Education, Equity, and Attitude,” is a study on how Caroline Shockley, a white middle class teacher-in-training, used critical self-reflection helped her better serve her urban students. In “Out of the Box: Critical Literacy in a First-Grade Classroom, Christine H. Leland explores rural teacher Kim Huber’s use of critical literacy in Huber’s first grade classroom. In They Didn’t Have Out There Gay Parents—They Just Looked Like Normal Regular Parents”: Investigating Teachers’ Approaches to Addressing Same-Sex Parenting and Non-normative Sexuality in the Elementary School Classroom,” by Wayne Martino and Wendy Cumming-Potvin, we learn about the challenges and benefits involved in adding LGBTQ reading material to the critical literacy conversation at the elementary school level. “Writing Wounded: Trauma, Testimony, and Critical Witness in Literacy Classrooms” is Elizabeth Duotro’s reflection on the ways in which the sharing
of painful experiences helps the teacher-student relationship and engages students in reading on a deep and personal level.

According to Arlette Ingram Willis, “Effective literacy instruction builds upon the cultural and linguistic backgrounds, ways of making meaning, and prior knowledge that
all children bring to the classroom.” (Willis, 2000) That is, it is very important that English language learners’ own culture be shared in the classroom; the better acquainted the teacher is with those building blocks, the better he or she can formulate language instruction. Willis argues that “when teachers build on students’ prior knowledge and skills and then provide appropriate scaffolding, students can move more easily from what they know to what they need to know.” (Willis, 2000) She says that ethnographic inquiry is a good way for teachers to gain knowledge of all categories of students and their home and community lives. (Willis, 2000)

The sharing and discovery of identity, both of self and others, is a cornerstone of critical literacy. Willis quotes Tatum, another educational researcher: “Dominant groups, whether by race or by class, often are unaware of their identity because it is in sync with the internal and external images they hold of themselves.” As a queer-identified person, I am familiar with this phenomenon because my heterosexual colleagues rarely consider themselves to be “out,” regardless of how many wedding pictures they may have displayed in the classroom. Willis goes on to say that “Subordinated groups are much
more aware of their identity because internal and external images often do not reflect their ideas of themselves or their world. (Willis, 2000) Teachers need to validate and understand these identities in order to create a scaffolding, create a safe, inclusive classroom environment, and teach students to subvert the power and resource imbalances present in our current school system.

This process of identity-examination and cross-cultural understanding begins with teachers’ own self-reflection. Willis says that “Before teachers can address the cultural and literacy needs of their students, they must become aware of the influence of their own culture,” (Willis, 2000) as well as reflect on any preconceived ideas he or she has regarding non-English languages. (Willis, 2000) In “Literacy Education, Equity, and Attitude,” Caroline Shockley agreed to a journaling project that helped her reflect on her identity and her relationship to her students. Through her journal discussion with the other members of the study, she learned how her own expectations and rigidity might be putting limits on her students. As Harste and Leland wrote to Shockley in her journal, “literature discussions often thrive on what teachers narrowly define as “Tangents.” If you have negative feelings about allowing kids to use the discussion to make personal connections, they will sense that, and you will end up with a pretty boring discussion.” (Leland et al, 2007) By the end of the study, Shockley had learned the importance of “turn(ing) assumptions into inquiries.” It’s troubling that the open-endedness recommended by so many literacy experts seems to be undermined by the curriculum-limiting effects of No Child Left Behind.

By the end of her journaling project, Shockley ended up with a classroom filled with “children’s books that focus on justice, equity, and the need to take social action.” These alternative texts are a cornerstone of critical literacy. When Kim Huber began using a book about homelessness called The Lady in the Box, Christine Leland says that “in some ways, Kim was also in a box at that time, but her box was conceptual; it caused her to think about literacy and what was appropriate for first grade children in specific and somewhat narrow ways. This box positioned her to choose "happy" books to read at story time and to focus book discussions more on story elements like beginning, middle, and end than on more abstract topics like equity and social justice.” (Leland, 2005) the questioning of traditional conceptions of what children can handle is a persistent theme in critical literacy discussion, and teachers are continually encouraged to reflect on and question their assumptions. As Leland et al say in “Literacy Education, Attitude, and Equity:” “Teachers who are always asking questions and are aware of the limits of their own knowing have a far better chance of making a difference than those who think they already know everything.” (Leland et al, 2007)


In Martino and Cummings-Potvin’s article, teachers engage in just that kind of self-questioning, on the subject of whether social justice themed reading material should include stories about families who are not gender normative. Critical literacy resources

routinely include discussions of racial, religious, and class inequity, but discussions of non-normative gender do not seem to be part of the mainstream conversation yet.  This is an Australian study, but it is especially pertinent to United States schools, where bullying regularly disrupts the education rights of gay or gay-seeming children and children from non-gender normative families. In the study, Martino and Cummings Potivin discussed the possibility of using resources such as Sticks and Stones, a documentary on the mistreatment of non-gender normative families, and Mini Mia and Her Darling Uncle, a story about a little girl and her gay uncle. (Martino & Cummings-Potvin, 2011) The concerns voiced by teachers included the possibility of complains from parents, the threat that GLBTQ subject matter would inspire disruptive behavior, (especially in little boys) and the personal opinion that a person could not grow up to b well-adjusted in a home with same sex parents. After voicing some of these concerns, one teacher mused: “But having said that, what do you do about the poor child who really does have two dads at home?” (Martino & Cummings-Potvin, 2011) As someone who was not taught to think about my gender identity as a child, I wish that texts like this had been part of the classroom culture. I think that that feeling of visibility and self-reflection would have helped me not just as a reader, but as a source of self-esteem and even a sense of physical well-being.


As a queer educator, the question of the benefits and costs of self-disclosure are a frequent source of concern for me. The difficult discussions that are part of critical

literacy are a big emotional risk for teachers and students alike. Elizabeth Duotro speaks to this risk, not in terms of gender but in terms of sharing stories of personal trauma. In “Writing Wounded: Trauma, Testimony, and Critical Witness in Literacy Classrooms,” she reflects on the “sharing of personal hard times as purposeful pedagogy. (Duotro, 2011) She feels that, especially in under-resourced communities, personal trauma is a resource that can be responsibly shared as a way of reflecting on social justice and personal meaning. She believes that sharing her personal hurts in a responsible way helps to narrow the gap between herself and her students. (Duotro, 2011) She calls the sharing of personal trauma “witnessing,” and says that I want to consider the potential of such experiences to serve as a resource for building the kinds of visceral connections-and awareness of disconnections-that call into question the impulse to speak as though we know about a life or an entire community of lives, when all we know is the facade that has been narrated and re-narrated in the image and voice of the materially privileged.” (Duotro, 2011)


As Leland et al say in “Literacy Education, Equity, and Attitude,” “Most textbooks don’t make an effort to describe (or evaluate) a situation from multiple perspectives. More often than not, the voices of the winners (members of the dominant cultural group) are heard and the voices of the losers are absent.” (2007) Critical literacy practices can help to bring voice to the less-resourced students in our schools by helping to bridge language

gaps, introducing alternative perspectives, encouraging students to question, reflect on, and engage in what they read. In order to accommodate the flexibility mandated by these practices, I hope that curriculum restrictions can some day be loosened to make way for helpful digressions and diverse points of view.


Duotro, E. (2011) Writing Wounded: Trauma, Testimony, and Critical Witness in Literacy Classrooms. English Education. 43.2, 193-211.

Leland, C. H. (2005) Out of the Box: Critical Literacy in a First-Grade Classroom. Language Arts, 82.4, 257-268.

Leland, C.H, Harste, J.C, & Shockley, C.J. (2007) Literacy Education, Equity, and Attitude. Language Arts, 85.2, 134-143.

Martino, W & Cumming-Potvin, W. (2011) “They Didn’t Have Out There Gay Parents—They Just Looked Like Normal Regular Parents”: Investigating Teachers’ Approaches to Addressing Same-Sex Parenting and Non-normative Sexuality in the Elementary
School Classroom. Curriculum Inquiry. 41.4, 480-501.curi_557 480

Willis, A. I. (2000) Critical Issue: Addressing Literacy Needs in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Classrooms. North Central Regional Education Lab.

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