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Home » Subject Areas, Teaching and Learning

A Critical Conversation About Literacy: The Start of My Literacy Life

Submitted by on November 8, 2011 – 1:16 pm 43 Comments | 8,879 views

Me, in elementary school

by Melanie Stonebanks

This blog post is the first in a series of three looking into the world of Critical Literacy; an instructional approach that encourages readers to actively analyze what they are reading in order to question and uncover underlying messages in the text. As someone who has devoted a good part of her life to the study and enjoyment of reading and children’s literature what better place to begin a series of blog posts than with where it all began?  

I’m pretty sure my own earliest teachers had never heard of critical literacy. My memories of learning to read are certainly very different from the emancipatory pedagogy espoused by critical pedagogue Paulo Freire.  At the tender young age of 4, I was, as John Burningham (1999) states, “set off along the road to learn” at Saint Christina’s in London, England.

Straight Line
by Georgia Heard

All the kindergarteners
walk to recess and back
in a perfectly straight line
no words between them.
They must stifle their small voices,
their laughter, they must
stop the little skip in their walk,
they must not dance or hop
or run or exclaim.
They must line up
at the water fountain
straight, and in perfect form,
like the brick wall behind them.
One of their own given the job
of informer – guard of quiet,
soldier of stillness.
If they talk
or make a sound
they will lose their stars.
Little soldiers marching to and from
pretend
their hair sweaty
from escaping dinosaurs
their hearts full of loving the world
and all they want to do
is shout it out
at the top of their lungs.
When they walk back to class
they must quietly
fold their pretends into pockets,
must dam the river of words,
ones they’re just learning,
new words that hold the power
to light the skies, and if they don’t
a star is taken away.
One star
by one star
until night grows dark and heavy
while they learn to think carefully
before skipping,
before making a wish.

This poem illustrates much more than the surface level no-talking rule enforced by so many of our schools.  On a much deeper level, it speaks about how schools can systematically go about training young children’s enthusiasm, wonder and freedom right out of their little bodies.  As so many classrooms are returning to “teaching to the test”, opportunities for curiosity, creativity and exploration are becoming rare. So many schools are still places where learning to line up quietly is what is valued most. Silent classrooms are often preferred to those in which students are noisily engaged in meaningful conversation; learning to take a test instead of discovering and asking questions. Heard and McDonough (2009) have us consider the seriousness of this issue as so “many elementary schools are valuing “straight lines” in both behaviour and thought.”  Sadly, these values are not behind us, viewed mistily through movies, television shows or short stories.  They are frequently endorsed today by supervisors of student teachers as well as young teachers who still associate silence and acquiescence with mastery of teaching.

For me, school was a serious place where you sat quietly at your table and practiced writing your letters of the alphabet and your numbers.  There was no time to be silly or to be off task.  Too much chatter would find you sitting in the corner the next day if your quota was not filled to the satisfaction of the teacher in charge.  Occasionally you would be called to the Reading Room; a place where you would be rewarded with Smarties and Jelly Babies if you performed well.  I can still remember the small hardcover books with the happy children on the cover on which the entirety of our reading program was based.

(c) Penguin Books

I can also still visualize the repetitive words that we would have to bark out as we went from page to page “Here is Peter. Peter is here. Here is Jane. Jane is here. I like Peter. I like Jane.or “This is Peter. This is Jane. This is Peter and Jane. Peter likes Jane. Jane likes Peter.”  This was our literacy program.  This was my entry into the world of reading.  I suppose I was reading the word but I was a far cry away from reading the world.

 

Upon reflection, it is evident that this “Key Word” reading program, developed in the 1960s by British educationalist William Murray, presented much less difficulty for my 5 year-old self to connect with than it would have for my husband who is of mixed Iranian-European heritage (but is visually all Middle-Eastern) or for my former urban elementary school classes comprising of Portuguese and East Asian immigrant students.  The social context of brother and sister Peter and Jane, their dog Pat, their Mummy and Daddy, and their home, toys, playground, the beach, shops, summering at grandma’s cottage by the lake, buses and trains reflected the life of a white, middle-class family – my family. The children in these illustrations looked like me and they engaged in activities that were similar to the ones in which we partook regularly.  And although nothing about this form of literacy pushed me to think more critically, at the very least, it did not make me feel alien or apart from the little books I was reading.

As a child, I joyfully immersed myself into the world of literature.  Mother Goose and A Child’s Garden of Verses, were soon followed by Winnie the Pooh, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Noddy and Big Ears (who were those Golliwogs anyways?), The Brothers Grimm, Peter Pan and Wendy, The Blue Fairy Book, James and the Giant Peach, The Bobbsey Twins, Little House on the Prairie (evil Indians!!), Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys.  Of course, there was always time for Paddington Bear, Pippi Longstocking, and Ramona as well as The Chronicles of Narnia (go get those Arabs with the curly shoes!!) and anything written by Judy Blume.  Whether it be at school or under the covers of my bed, flashlight in hand, I fell in love with what happened when words were strung together to tell a story.  I was always filled with emotion as I turned from page to page following the adventures, cheering at the triumphs, and weeping at the losses the protagonists experienced in the black typeset captured by my quickly scanning eyes.

In re-examining my childhood reading repertoire, I am not surprised by what I see and more especially what I don’t see.  My selection of literature is comprised of classic tales that would easily find itself comfortably sitting on a Western Canon of English Literature list, a compendium of books written mainly by white North American and European authors that does not represent the viewpoints of many in contemporary societies around the world.  Nothing in this collection made me stop to question who the main characters were, where they came from or how their life experiences were dissimilar from my own.

School was no different.  The basal readers (anthologies combining previously published short stories, excerpts of longer narratives, and original works with individual identical books for students, a Teacher’s Edition of the book, and a collection of workbooks, assessments, and activities) and SRA cards (large boxes filled with color-coded cardboard sheets that included a reading exercise and multiple choice questions) were filled with stories chosen to illustrate and develop specific reading skills, which were taught in a strict pre-determined sequence. Classroom discussions never went beyond the script found in the teacher’s book and questions were always based on determining our acquisition of that day’s isolated skill.  Literacy in the 1970s classroom in Québec was based on our ability to decode the print on the page so that we could comprehend the ideas and information that was being transmitted to us.  The notion that we were to delve deeper into the underlying meanings and messages implied by the text, to question what was there and what wasn’t and how this made us feel never found its way into my teachers’ planners.  I was without question, literate for that day and age but a long way from being critically literate by today’s definition.  What is, though, of greater concern are the classrooms that are still operating with this out dated “look and say” format or scripted one-size fits all reading lessons.  Today’s world is not the same as it was when I was growing up so why shouldn’t today’s classrooms make that leap forward into the 21st century as well?

Melanie Stonebanks

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43 Comments »

  • Mary Stewart says:

    Melanie, I thoroughly enjoyed your blog. (I have enjoyed all the LEARN posts!) I like that you have shown (rather than “explained”) critical literacy in a personal and engaging way. It got me thinking of how similar our childhoods may have been, and how in one generation my own children are so much more critically aware of life around them than I was growing up in St. Bruno, Quebec in the seventies. Our children went to Centennial Regional High School on the South Shore, only a few miles from where I went to Richelieu Valley, but they were exposed to a more international mindset, and benefitted from teachers and classmates who helped them read their world with a more critical eye than we had.

    I love Georgia Heard’s poem too, and encourage readers to listen to her introduce it and then read it aloud. She participated in the literacy issue of LEARNing Landscapes Journal (learninglandscapes.ca). Here is the link to her voice:

    http://www.learnquebec.ca/streaming/learnland/Abstracts/straight_line.html

    Mary Stewart

  • Susan van Gelder says:

    You certainly brought back memories for me – just substitute Dick and Jane for Peter and Jane. We were all meant to learn lock-step together. I still remember a teacher who told us in grade 11 that he would tell us what things meant in Macbeth because we were too young to understand it (so why were we studying it?). And yet, I was a reader – not because I was inspired by my school experiences but because my parents were readers. Through books I could learn about other cultures (not the way it was taught in very colonialist geography books at school – I shudder at memories of Bunga of the Congo) and learn to deal with issues of growing up. I learned the triumph of Clara learning to walk in the Alps with the aid of Heidi and realized the importance of caring and friendship. In school we filled out workbook pages. Even then, I seemed to know it was OK to reread a text to discover new nuances that revealed themselves. My wish for all students is to find the book or books that turn them into readers, that make connections for them and that open them to new ideas and experiences.

    In our age of spin we need to help students to be critical readers. I look forward to your next posts on the subject.

  • Sarah Shackell says:

    Hi Melanie,

    I found this post to be quite moving and inspiring, especially as a pre-service teacher. I think it is very sad how our educational system strives for the perfect test scores, a silent classroom, and minimal reading opportunities. As a future teacher I believe it is essential to have a classroom filled with literacy, dialogue, and action. It is important for teachers to step out of their comfort zones and implement a literacy program that will challenge students, engage them, and give them opportunities to succeed. Children need to be introduced to literacy that is meaningful to them, and something that they can go over and beyond with. Guiding students to becoming more critical readers is essential for their succession and development. Teachers need to be aware of this, and incorporate appropriate literacy within the classroom and ask guiding/thought provoking questions. Thank you for this great, empowering post! It made me take a moment to reflect upon my childhood experiences, and it made me realize how important it is for teachers to promote critical literacy in the classrooms!

  • Vanessa Gentile says:

    Hi Melanie,
    I loved your post! The issues you’ve addressed make me realize how important it is to reflect about our own childhood experiences in education, as these experiences often shape our appreciation for school, learning and literature/literacy. Unlike yours, my love for reading grew at a much later point in my life. As a child, I often felt a disconnect with the literature being addressed in my Language Arts classrooms. Looking back at the books I was exposed to, I understand why my personal literacy engagement was low, as I rarely identified with characters and their life experiences. I think you’ve done an excellent job at highlighting the importance of quality literature. Western European/White viewpoints often go unnoticed, almost as though we accept these ideas/opinions/approaches to be universal as they represent the majority. However, I like to believe that pre-service teachers are learning about these cultural sensitivities by professors such as yourself, who are passionate about not making children feel “alien or apart” from the books they are reading. I also appreciate what you wrote about the no-talking rules enforced by so many of our schools. I think that our society and our schools have managed to discourage children from exercising their creativity and consequently valuing their education. The fact that we value “straight lines in both behavior and thought” in an elementary school setting is incredibly contradictory to anything we know about child development and effective learning. The same goes for the “key word reading program” developed in the 60’s as well as other existing programs that aim to develop specific reading skills. How boring…it seems as though some of these programs are developed with the sole intention of discouraging future reading. As you’ve stated, classrooms in the 21st C need to change (although they are not all bad). We have to teach critical literacy by providing students with the tools to do so. We must create culturally rich reading environments, through books that provide students with various viewpoints, so that they can appreciate and tolerate diversity as well as become active participants in their learning!

  • Samantha Colatriano says:

    Hi Melanie,

    I really enjoyed your blog. I loved how you explained critical literacy in a personal and engaging way that many can relate to. After reading this text I have to realise that many people have their own stories to tell when it comes to literacy. As a future teacher, rethinking and reflecting on your my own experiences with help me shape how I would like to present literacy and learning as a whole to my future class. In my own experience, it took much longer for my love of literacy to blossom. As a child I had severe hearing problems and at a very young age I had to have tubes put into my ears to allow me to hear properly and to minimize the amount of ear infections I would have in the future. Because of this problem when I entered grade 1, it was harder for me to read than the average student. I constantly mixed up my cousin letters, letters that sound similar like v and f, b and p, m and n, etc. My teacher discouraged me in many aspects of education, which include literacy. Although I was not a fast reader like most students I could still read the books that were being presented, while still mixing up a few letters. My teacher would also use a technique for reading called ‘round robin’ which would enable me to be very nervous therefore not performing to the best of my abilities in class readings. Because this, my teacher would have me pulled out of the classroom in order to work on my reading skills, during this time I was presented with texts similar to the ones you have mentioned, full of repetitive words. This boring technique, the lack of difficulty in the texts being presented and my lack of self-esteem towards reading after having this teacher enabled me to hate reading. It wasn’t until high school that I started to develop a love for reading, when my English teacher present wonderful books that enable students to learn about new cultures, relate to the story or main character and/or topics that seemed taboo at the time. These books were a great source of literature and would allow each and every student to relate to the book, while finding them interesting and exciting. It is very important for each child to relate to the book, having no child feel alienated. A wonderful way in having students love the books they are reading is by having them choose the books for themselves. I think it is very important that future teachers learn about critical literacy so that the type of schooling that both you and I have received does not happen anymore in the future.

    Finally the poem “straight line” by George Heard presented in this blog unfortunately illustrates many schools way of teaching. I couldn’t have said it better myself when you say “[The poem] speaks about how schools can systematically go about training young children’s enthusiasm, wonder and freedom right out of their little bodies. As so many classrooms are returning to “teaching to the test”, opportunities for curiosity, creativity and exploration are becoming rare. So many schools are still places where learning to line up quietly is what is valued most.” I think it is very sad that this is the reality of many educational systems today. I think that there should be a great emphasis on having students’ creativity come through their work. Having many hands-on activities enables students to learn in a creative manner along with heightening their curiosity, wanting to explore, to find the answers to their questions themselves. I believe that this “straight line” way of teaching that George Heard is speaking about in his poem is out dated and educators should be pushed in the right directions instilling creativity, curiosity, exploration, and fun into their children an classrooms.

  • Carole-Ann Ducharme says:

    When reading this piece, many things caught my attention. However, the main attention grabber for me was concerning how reading programs and schools were being run in a negative way and they still are too this day. What first caught my attention was when it was stated that “curiosity, creativity and exploration are becoming rare.” It is a shame that a large amount of children are unable to experience their world in ways such as curiosity, creativity and exploration at such a young age. I myself was part of a classroom which was run it that manor, and has seen it firsthand as well. It is unfortunate that “learning to line up quietly is what is valued most…” and also where “learning is to take a test instead of discovering and asking questions.” In doing this, we are taking away what is in my opinion the most important part of being a child – discovering and asking question. The reason being is that both these aspects of childhood can lead to a great deal of FUN. When hearing your story about your school experiences it saddened me not only since you had to experience it but also because there are still many children in the school system which still do. Luckily, as a student you were able to create your own passion for literature. However, I cannot help but to think what would happen to the young troubled readers like myself who are forced to use this programs and sit down and be quite. When mixing my difficulties with these kinds of reading programs, I developed a hatred for literature – I would dread and despise reading. As a teacher, one must realize that this is not an effective or a fun way to teach, and change what is happening. That being said, one must be aware that teachers are not legally obligated to use these reading programs in any way you do not want or feel comfortable with in your classroom, and one can use this information to better his or her classroom in any way that they can.

  • Marilyn Filion says:

    The blog really caught my attention because Miss Stonebanks really adapted her vision of the Language Arts curriculum throughout the years by using her own experience with reading. It was very interesting to see how the variety in the choice of books was incredibly minimal and I must say that when I think of my own experiences it is also pretty much the same thing. I can’t seem to remember reading about books about different cultures or with different point of views. This is truly a sad thing, children should definitely be exposed to a variety of books when they will be able to use their own critical thinking and question themselves as to what is happening in the story. The main focus should be to have the children reflect when they are reading and not simply reading for the sake of reading. I must say I also greatly enjoyed the poem that Miss Stonebanks shared with us, it was also quite an eye opener. I never quite realized how teachers or the school system can literally destroy a young child`s creativity with all the silly rules that are put in place to make sure these children are being “controlled”.

  • Eric Loranger says:

    Hi Melanie,

    Your post is moving. I especially enjoyed the fact that you included some of your own personal experiences in elementary school as you were “on the road to learn.”

    As I continued reading, something remained at the back of my head. As you re-counted the style of education you received, it is amazing to see that you could go from learning ‘he said she said’ to becoming an excellent elementary and university language instructor. It seems you have paved your own road to learn. This shows that criticality is something that can be developed later on in life. We however, must remember that you attended university, and this may be where you developed a true understanding of critical literacy (correct me if I am wrong).

    Many high school students graduate without a true understanding of criticality. The term “critical thinking” is thrown around in schools constantly, yet in the mind of many students, the term is either vague or meaningless. This needs to change, and the only way we can ensure this change is by properly incorporating critical literacy, beginning in elementary school. Informing students that we are simply going to ‘engage in critical thinking’ is not enough. Instead of pointing it out, critical literacy should be simply ingrained in everyday teaching.

  • Ellie Sato says:

    Hi Melanie!
    I really enjoyed reading your post! It was a new and refreshing take on critical literacy with your personal opinions weaved into it, which made it all the more interesting to actually read. I have read so many critical literacy articles that I forget the impact it has on actual classrooms, actual teachers and of course, actual students. We need to focus on learning how to engage students in meaningful ways or they will loose hope in the power of education. However, it also made me question how much we should change about the way schools are run. For one, if we allow students more freedom in classes, will we actually get work done? If we let students choose their activities, talk over each other continuously, how will we structure our classes? I am not supporting the view of “one size fits all” but I just want to see both sides of the situation. On the other hand, if we let students discover things for themselves and ask questions, maybe students will learn more because it is meaningful to them. I know from experience that discovering things for myself and seeing things unfold before me were the most exciting experiences and most memorable. Not knowing what will happen is both nerve wrecking and exciting. Students should get the opportunity to experiment in schools, especially elementary school because if they don’t get the chance to do it then, when will they have the courage to try again?
    I loved your quote about children “learning to take a test instead of discovering and asking questions”. I really agree with you on this. I remember on so many occasions, we had to sit down and take practice tests for our exams that were months away. Instead we could have been learning about something meaningful, like real world events that were happening around us. I did have a teacher that took learning seriously and really read between the lines of books and articles. Even though there was only one book assigned to the course, she would always photocopy multiple articles and passages from other textbooks so that we would always have a wide range of resources to learn from. This is what I hope to do as a future teacher.

  • Matthew Bensabat says:

    Hi Melanie,

    I really enjoyed your blog post on Critical Literacy. I thought it was great that you used your own childhood experiences as a basis for this post. One point that stuck out to me was the poem, “Straight Line”, by Georgia Heard. You mentioned that we had to read between the lines of this poem. It’s true, at first, that this poem is all about students quietly lining up to go back into school to learn, but the deeper meaning of this poem is taking away a student’s creativity (as you mentioned). I think this is a big problem in school’s today. To solve this issue, students should definitely have literature that they can enjoy in the classroom. As well, they should have a great variety of books to choose from. I think a lot of us had read the same books as you did when you were younger, and to foster creativity in students, teachers should allow students to bring in plenty of different books to read. Hopefully, this approach can not only increase literacy rates in the classroom but also help increase creativity.

  • Dinah Bosum says:

    This was a very interesting read! While I was reading, I kept thinking back to my experience with school and reading. The poem reminded me of elementary school; we would line up until we were completely quiet and in a straight line. Reward was: your the first to go into the school! It’s strange because I still see my old school with the same routine and I’m pretty sure there’s other schools still following the “soldier” routine. What can children learn from standing straight and being quiet? As teachers, we should encourage children to question, share their thoughts and ideas, but never to be quiet.

    I remember reading about “Dick and Jane” (from my mother’s library) and many other books in school, half the time I got bored and the other half I wondered why the children in the books didn’t look like me (Indigenous). Choice of literature is still a big issue in schools, most teachers/parents may think that “as long as the child is reading” is an ok phrase. I believe that literature should make you think, feel emotions, otherwise it’s just boring. And I believe that children should be able to relate, in some way, to what they’re reading.

  • Madeleine Williams-Orser says:

    I really enjoyed reading and thinking about this post. There are a few main things that I left the blog post thinking about; I was fortunate in the way that some of my elementary classrooms growing up were supportive in terms of a creative environment that was not so much focused on being quiet and lining up in straight lines. Where they lacked though, were in their diversity in terms of literature that represents the world. While I connected with the exclusively white, north american or european writings that I was exposed to in elementary school, I am now becoming aware of the manner that this literature is not meaningful for everyone. I think that it’s important for teachers and students alike to realize that different types of literature are going to connect to different people, and that literature is culturally charged. I would have liked to have been exposed to more variety in terms of non-western literature, and to have been taught and encouraged to think critically about what I was reading; something that wasn’t really introduced and developed until high school. I like the manner that you point out that you had been taught to “read the word” but not to “read the world”. Literature is an important device in helping us understand the world that we live in. As a future teacher, I hope to expose students to literature that they can connect with, to expose them to non-western literature, and to help them think critically about the literature that they are exposed to in order to better understand and develop their views of the world.

  • Meaghan Scholefield says:

    Hi Melanie,

    As I was reading through your blog post, I was reminded of my own early experiences with literacy as a child. Like you, I never felt alienated from the literary material presented at school, as I too saw myself reflected in the characters, family dynamics and themes present in these books. Just as you did, I fit into that category of “white, anglo-saxon, middle-class” student that so many books are written about and for. Although my mother was passionate about books, and made sure to expose my sisters and I to a wide variety of multicultural literature, etc…at school this was never the case.
    I agree with your comment that in many respects, schools have not yet joined the 21st century, as even in my stage last year, I saw the same “one-size-fits-all” approach that was outdated in the 80s and 90s when I was a child. I was shocked to see that many of the same books are still included in the curriculum, and not because they are classics, but because they fit into a prescribed model of literacy instruction that does not represent or reflect the vast majority of students in classrooms today.
    As a teacher in training this worries me a great deal. I often worry that because I so easily fit into this prescribed model, that I do not have the skills or the knowledge to teach critical literacy, despite the fact that I want to. I worry that whatever school I end up teaching at will not be as open-minded and willing to break the mold, as I feel I want to be in my teaching. While I think that it is wonderful and absolutely necessary for student teachers to learn more about critical literacy and how to teach it, I fear that it is not something that many schools today are willing to put into practice.

  • Bryanna Clarke says:

    Hi Melanie,
    I completely agree with you when you say that today’s classroom is stuck in the past in the sense that teachers and schools are so delayed in the literature and reading techniques they bring to the classroom. For instance, my brother is in grade 10 and he is reading the same novel (Farenheit 451) that I read at that age. I know this isn’t considered children’s literature, but this goes to show how out of date literature in any classroom really is.
    When it comes to my elementary years, I do not recall any specific books other than Charlotte’s Web and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, which were rather fun to read. However, this was also my favourite grade (3) and teacher who assigned these books and they were as exciting as literature got for me. That said, she is one of the people who inspired me to teach, to make that difference and stray from the usual and boring classroom routine and way of teaching that I was so used to. I hope to be that teacher who brings joy and fun to reading because it is by all means NOT something that is meant to be tedious. Ultimately, learning to read and write should be adventurous and exciting for children of all ages. With this, I feel as though it is my job, as a future teacher, to do everything I can to make my students reading experiences as memorable and as enjoyable as possible.

  • Celia Di Cintio says:

    I also remember when I was in elementary school in Quebec City, where school was where you were quiet and you listened to the teacher without contradicting what he or she said. When I moved to Montreal, my grade 6 class was a little different from what I was used to. We had our desks in groups of 4, whereas in my old school our desks were separated and in rows facing the teacher’s desk. I was always a quiet student, therefore I didn’t mind that we had to be quiet and listen to the teacher.

    I always loved reading and would read every night. Reading your blog made me realize, that you are right, the books that were often chosen for us to read in school were not very multicultural. In high school, we did have some culture variation from what I remember, but in elementary there was none and I guess I never noticed because, yes I am from European decent but I do not look any different than any other Caucasian person, I also noticed that still to these day, looking at my bookshelf as I am typing this that most of my books are from Caucasian authors and the characters are Caucasian. However, I do spot a few Paolo Coelho novels. Children need to be immersed in books by various authors from different areas of the world.

  • Christina Bell says:

    Hi Melanie,

    I find what you are saying to be very interesting. I have never thought about my favorite childhood books more than saying those are my favorite ones. Unfortunately, I, like you, was exposed to books written by white North American people, and fell in love with them. It is not to say children should be discouraged to read books that call to them, but rather that teachers should be introducing books that all students can relate to. What about those kids who have been brought up differently from the middle-class, white norm. They could read the same books I do and feel no connection to it at all because they cannot find themselves in the books.

    I think it is so important for classrooms to introduce a wide variety of books so that everyone can take part, and enjoy reading!

  • Rachael Huntly-Ball says:

    As someone who is learning to be a teacher, I’d like to think that these horror stories of Dick and Jane are ancient history. However, even in my first field experience, there were teachers that were still quite old school in their thinking. There was still the mentality in some teachers, that children were to be seen not heard. I guess part of the problem is, that’s how they were brought up, and that’s the way it’s always been. There seems to be such a reluctancy to take some steps forward, and think about the way literacy should be taught, as opposed to the way it’s always been.

  • Leila Rosenthal says:

    Hi Melanie,

    I really enjoyed this post! It took me on a ride through your early childhood reading adventures in a way that I could relate to. I, too, loved learning how to read and was completely infatuated with the idea as a child. I found what you said at the end very interesting; that with a changing world we need a changing view on how we teach literacy. This is so logical I’m surprised it isn’t obvious to more of the public and educators. Some people like sticking to the traditional ways of doing things, but if students aren’t learning in a way that can help them make sense of the world we live in NOW, what use is all that other stuff? I think that the days of “teaching to the test” should be over because of all of the research we have seen that proves it does not shine light on all kinds of intelligence. We should be teaching literacy in a way that molds to all kinds of learners, while still sticking to some of the traditional values – (making sure our children know the fundamentals). I truly hope that as a teacher I can accomplish this.

    Leila Rosenthal

  • Gillian McCord says:

    Hi Melanie,

    While reading this post I thought a lot about myself as a future teacher, and some of the concerns I have. What you said about ‘learning to take a test instead of discovering and asking questions” really hit home for me. I believe that encouraging students to ask questions and explore topics of interest is one of the most important things we as teachers can encourage students to do. As a future teacher, I often find myself caught between these two ideas of teaching to the test, and encouraging students to deeply explore and discover; how to find a happy medium between preparing students for standardized tests, but at the same time having a classroom that welcomes new ideas, mistakes, different points of view, and creativity?

  • Louisa Niedermann says:

    Hi Melanie,
    I really enjoyed your article and I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I remember as a child not liking or wanting to read but in my classes being forced to read certain books. I remember being asked the meaning of books and your interpretation of them, yet somehow my interpretations were wrong. If it was not the teacher’s interpretation it was wrong. I remember feeling discouraged and not wanting to talk in class anymore. I feel that a lot of the curriculum is based on specific criteria and if it is not in there it is wrong. I feel that students should think and interpret how they want and they their voice should be hear too. As a future teacher I hope to encourage critical thinking of my students, and hope that they will contribute their understandings. Reading should be interesting to students and I feel that students should get a chance to read what interests them.

  • Ryan Issenman says:

    As a pre-service teacher, I think that there are some very valuable lessons in Melanie’s anecdotes about literacy. Growing up, I guess I never noticed that all the books I read or loved, even as a teenager and young adult were always about characters that were just like me. Everything from “The Time Warp Trio” to “Jumanji” to David Sedaris books, I could relate with the characters. I think that is a very important part of literacy and critical literacy, as you mentioned. Children should be given that opportunity to see themselves in the books they read.

  • Callie Gruber says:

    I do not read blogs that often but this one was great! As a student in Education I can definitely relate to everything you mentioned. I can remember in my elementary school having to read the same books ad everyone in my class, and the same book as every other student in the school when they were in that grade. (The boxcar children.) I remember not enjoying this books, but having to read them, well because, thats what the teacher chose. At home, I would always have my nose stuck between the pages of Judy Blume as well. I was able to relate to her books on so many levels and therefor loved to read them. However, I do not remember ever critically thinking about these books. As a future teacher, I hope to be able to have my students enjoy reading, and then question, analyze and critically think about what it is they have just read. Thank you for this blog and for giving me food for thought on the topic of critical literacy.

  • Courtney says:

    Though this was a bit of a side-note slipped into your article, it hit a chord with me. You mentioned in passing the “evil Indians and Arabs” represented in Little House on the Prairie and The Chronicles of Narnia. Many, many “classic” children’s books have these negative representations of other cultures. The question we then have to consider is, do we include them in our classrooms anyway? Personally, I love the Narnia series and it is chock-full of deeper interpretations that could be explored with students. But does this, for lack of a better way of putting it, make these books worth it? Is it worth potentially hurting students in our classrooms just to include these books?
    Or prhaps it is more beneficial that we present our students with these messages and discuss with them so that if, or most likely, when they receive similar negative messages out in the real world they already have a critical-thinking foundation to combat them with?
    I don’t have answers to these questions and as a white-middle-class girl myself, I sometimes feel that I don’t even have the right to have a say in these issues; I’m from the crowd that’s been doing wrong and it seems to me it’s about time we start hearing more from the crowd that’s been wronged. In light of my inexperience and ignorance with the issue, I’d love to hear any more feedback anyone has.

  • Glykeria Galanis says:

    I completely agree, teachers these days seem to stick to a script which they do not step away from. This is unfair to students because the school system is working with an all size fits all model which students cannot fulfill their potentials with and can not benefit from school as much as they would. Teachers need to realize that school has become a bit dull and it needs a change in order for the future generations to benefit and enrich their literacy skills.

  • Angela Cristiano says:

    As much as our world is changing and therefore it should be reflected in our literacy programs in schools and the books we read and teach, I feel there is such a fear and hesitation from teachers that we are not moving forward. As mentioned in one of the above comments, the books kids are reading today are the same we read 10 – 15 years ago. In 15 years, however, the world and our society has evolved incredibly, why is there no update in our literacy programs to keep students intrigued and interested, and to highlight our always evolving world. I think that many teachers are scared, or do not know how to approach new literacy, and are comfortable in what they know and already have. However, without a movement from everyone, young and old, schools will still be stuck.

  • Charlotte Dickie says:

    Hi Melanie,

    First of all, I really enjoyed your blog post on critical literacy. I appreciate that you shared your own childhood experiences with literacy to highlight your own perspective on the books you read then and now in retrospect. I can identify with your experience with the Dick and Jane books, as I too often read or were read to from these books. To be honest I loved the Dick and Jane books as a child because they represented my family, white, middle-class, and of European decent. The Dick and Jane books, as you mentioned, discussed experiences or activities that I often shared with my own family, trips to the beach, park, vacations etc.. I felt I could identify with the characters and context, as they were familiar to me. Looking back on my own reading experiences, I do not feel as though these books were damaging to my progress as a literate individual, but did not give me the opportunity to become a critically literate individual early on. No discussions took place that enhanced any critical thinking as to the messages or meanings within the text. I believe that our own childhood experiences regarding literacy can provide us with a wealth of insight and knowledge to improve literacy and critical literacy in our classrooms.

    Charlotte Dickie

  • Aspasia Tzovanis-Manolias says:

    Hi Melanie,

    I too had a similar experience with reading in elementary school. Coming from a trilingual elementary school, teachers focused more on how we read and pronounced words rather than balancing both and centering on the content we were reading. I too had to bare through the repetitiveness of words when reading, but what I remember most was that if we made a mistake while reading we would have to start from the beginning until we read the passage without making any mistakes. This not only turned off my love for reading, but I never fully understood the content I was reading because I was too busy trying not to make any mistakes. Also, we never really went into depth when reading these books. I do not remember critically thinking and going beyond what was on the page. It is very unfortunate to admit, but I now know how important developing critical literacy in children is. As a future educator, your blog has really opened my eyes in terms of what I want to include and exclude in the classroom. It is my responsibility to deviate from that ‘traditional’ mentality and make my students’ reading experience memorable.

    Aspasia Tzovanis-Manolias

  • Tamarra says:

    Hi Melanie,

    I enjoyed reading your blog about your reading experiences, the type of books you read as a child and the emphasis you place on critical literacy. Thank you for reminding me about the story of Paddington Bear, I loved that story.

    I especially enjoyed the part where you mention how interested you were in reading as a child “Whether it be at school or under the covers of my bed, flashlight in hand, I fell in love with what happened when words were strung together to tell a story. I was always filled with emotion as I turned from page to page following the adventures, cheering at the triumphs, and weeping at the losses the protagonists experienced in the black typeset captured by my quickly scanning eyes.” I too felt similar emotions when I found a book that really caught my attention, especially the Judy Blume books.

    One of my fondest literacy memories as a child, is going to the library for reading time with the librarian. I loved sitting in a circle, listening to the stories being read, the expression in the librarian’s voice and looking at the colourfull illustrations. I also remember enjoying picking out books to read from the library. It gave me a sense of independance. I loved picture books, the more colourful the better. As I got older I enjoyed reading the Judy Blume books.

    I agree that learning to read critically is important in today’s classrooms. It wasn’t the way I learned to read, however, if I did perhaps I would have been able to make a deeper connection to the stories.

  • Faye Siluk says:

    What a pleasure to read this article! It was nice to follow your personal reading journey, and to be able to relate to many of your experiences. I think Georgia Heard’s poem “Straight Line” is just the saddest, yet most realistic depiction of kindergarten (and most other elementary school grades too) I’ve ever read. The point about children being taught how to write tests and not how to ask meaningful questions really hit home for me. I have always been very inquisitive in school, and depending on the teacher, it didn’t always work out in my favour. I totally agree that the time of Dick and Jane has passed, and that we need to use more progressive tools and methods in the classroom. I think it’s wonderful that you’ve written about critical literacy in your own life, and hopefully more educators will reflect on their personal experiences in early childhood education to find the strengths and weaknesses they’ve dealt with. Critical literacy and meaningful reading are so important for us as students and as members of society; so thank you for writing such an insightful and relatable piece!

  • Vanessa Secondo says:

    Hi Melanie,
    I really enjoyed your blog as I found your personal experience is what made it more interesting. Similar to Susan who left you a post, I also had a teacher who told us he would explain what things meant because Shakespeare was too difficult to understand. If this were the case, I also never understood why we were studying it. I think it was wrong for him to say this to us as we all began reading the novel with the intention that it was too hard and we would never be able to understand it. I always enjoyed teachers who gave us categories of books to pick from as it was always more interesting to read something we choose and were interested in reading. I hope to do this in my future classrooms. Lastly the poem “straight line” by George Heard presented in this blog sadly represents many schools ways of teaching. Children are curious and love to speak their mind and share stories. Teachers should be encouraging curiosity and creatively in their classrooms and allowing children to share their thoughts and ideas.

  • Christina MacDougall says:

    Way too often, kindergarten classrooms are set up to look like grade 2 or 3 classes. Teachers and principals do not realize that for some children, this is the first time they will have a set of rules and guidelines to follow. For the past few years, they have been at daycare or at home, playing with friends, exploring the outside world and building cool things. How can they possibly know how to sit at a desk for 3 hours in a row without talking or fidgeting? They need to be in an environment that transitions from where they were to where they will go next year; it has to be smooth rather than abrupt. Teachers should realize children prefer sitting on the floor, playing with art materials and toys, read colorful posters around the classroom and feel safe in their new environment. I think your blog is a great way to show how and why such things work better than others.

  • Vanessa McKellar says:

    It was really refreshing reading your blog! I can related to what you were saying about schools being very structured and valued silence and straight lines, as this is exactly how my school experience was as well. Schools do not value play enough, and by enforcing such structure I really think that this is why children so often lose their sense of creativity and imagination. They are simply not given enough time to do so because they are too busy being told to be quiet and stay in an orderly fashion. I also remember reading “Dick and Jane” books that you described, though I can’t tell you what exactly they were about, likely because of how boring they were. If a child is engaged and loves a book, it will stick with them and be a great experience for them, but this will not be the case if we keep feeding our children bland books like Dick and Jane.

  • Stephany Jacques says:

    I totally agree with you Melanie. I could always ”see myself” in the books I was reading in Elementary. It never came up to my mind that someone else couldn’t relate to the story…Today, I’m older and I understand how we have to read about different perspectives, present our students different world views and read stories where each student can see themselves! However, in Elementary, I was a child and as a typical child I wasn’t truly able to see the world under different perspectives… How can we help our students seeing themselves represented in stories? I think the first step is to get to know our students, their background and their culture. Afterwards, we can select books for our classroom bookshelf that relate to our students’ lives. Each student benefit from the diversity found in books! It is important to provide them with a different range of stories and books to have them realize the diversity that prevails in our classroom, community and world!

  • Christina Pelle says:

    Hi Melanie,

    Reading your post somewhat reminded me of my elementary school experience. The poem “Straight Line,” by Georgia Heard really brought me back to my elementary school experience. I remember sitting in school and having my teacher focus on specific skills they wanted us to accomplish by the end of the day. The fact that most of my teachers were pressured to accomplish certain goals by the end of the day caused my teachers to disregard any free time which would allow myself and my peers discuss and express our point of view. Thinking back, I do not remember reading books written by multicultural authors. I was mostly exposed to North American authors, or simply Caucasian authors. I went to a school which was not very multicultural; therefore, had I been exposed to various authors it would have benefited me and exposed me to different cultures. Overall, I think that it is important for students to thinking critically. Students learn from each other, and therefore, having students express their thought and opinions may begin great class discussions about important topics.

  • Eva Doleva says:

    Thank you Melanie for sharing your own experience with us. I really enjoyed reading your blog and was able to relate to it so much. The poem, with which you began made me think of my first field experience. Teachers were stressing the importance of lining up students in a perfectly straight line. They would often get so caught up in this, that they would waste literally half of their next class placing students in the right order or telling them to keep quiet and calm. Often times, children would get punished for not being able to stay quiet and will remain in the classroom during recess, after which they would be unhappy and restless since they had so much energy which would result in lots of class disturbance and students’ inability to concentrate on the tasks at hand. I think that this is so unfortunate, since these children are not only asked to remain patient, quiet and calm during their classes but also during their play time and recess. There should be no rules and orders when it comes to recess because it is indeed children’s way of distracting themselves and letting their mind wonder. Moreover, when too much emphasis is being put on discipline students commence to resent it and with time rebel against it by acting out in class or not following instructions which can negatively impact both the student and the teacher.

  • Lauren Arbuckle says:

    Hi Melanie,
    I felt like I was reading my own journal while I read your blog. First of all, it is so true that teacher seem to consider it an accomplishment to have the most quiet class. I remember when the principal would walk into our class, we would be told that we should look busy, but most importantly, stay quiet. I knew that if I was to be favoured of the teacher, I was to silently do the best work I could. I was shy all the way through elementary, high school and CEGEP. Even today, I have trouble speaking my opinion in my university classes, because I was never encouraged in my younger years to make my voice heard.
    As for the very limited selection of reading material that we were presented with, I think that affected my ability to be sympathetic, not to mention AWARE of other cultures and ways of thinking and behaving. I still feel as though I am very ignorant about other cultures because I wasn’t exposed to multicultural material when I was a child.

  • Kathryn McManus says:

    I found this blog very interesting because in cegep I studied the prejudices that can be found in children’s movies but had never investigated it in a children’s books. So thank you for opening my eyes to that.

    Furthermore, as a student teacher I am constantly looking for books and materials to use in my classroom. This blog has reminded me that not all students come from the middle-class and therefore I should not have a curriculum solely based on their experiences. it is important to incorporate books and lesson plans that everyone can relate too.

    As well, you brought up a point that has rarely been discussed in the McGill education program and it’s the fact that many teachers teach for the test. Teaching is an easy job when someone else has designed your lesson plans, chosen which books you are going to read and what you will talk about with your students. But not all students are the same learners and programs like that should be thrown away. I fear for the student’s whose teachers have thrown away their creativity and given in to these programs. Moreover, I wish that I will never get to that point and that my inner Mrs. Frizzle will always prevail .

  • Jenny Young says:

    It was really interesting to read about your experience with reading. It made me think about whether I’ve ever noticed the protagonists in my favorite books as a child. Being of Chinese descent, I immigrated with my family to Canada when I was only five years old and grew up reading all the English classics. Now that I think about it, I don’t remember ever reading a book where the main characters are Asian! The funny thing is, I was really interested in writing fiction in middle school and high school and I would design the characters in my stories to have blond hair, blues eyes, and fair skin. The idea to include a character who was more like myself in my stories just never occurred to me.

  • Nancy Nickerson says:

    That poem gave me the chills. So familiar and so disturbing. That was my classroom when I worked as an aid in Kindergarten. My co-operating teacher was very sensitive to noise control and expected continual order from our group of 14 students, not an easy task when you consider my two autistic students. My Amy and my Nathan, oblivious to other’s considerations and impulsive at the best of times, would blurt out every thought that came to mind. I was expected to keep them calm, teach them the classroom rules and most of all, keep them quiet. This was especially difficult in line in the hallway– a virtual feeding ground of intriguing distractions that would send one or both of them off in different directions on an impulsive exploration of whatever happened to catch their eye. The funny thing was, you could tell the other students were longing to do the same. Our daily treks up and down the corridor were not quests for the imagination but strict missions of getting from point A to point B as quickly and as quietly as possible: Chop. Chop. We need to get to gym. Hurry. Hurry. The bell rang. Everybody quiet. We have to go. This poem rung true to me in that although the best of intentions were implied in terms of respecting the other classrooms as we walked by and that there is a time and place to be inquisitive, it seems a shame that these opportunities were lost. “fold their pretends into pockets; must dam the river of words.” Chilling.

  • Lucia De Gennaro says:

    I enjoyed your blog Melanie. I had the same experience as you did with school as a child. School was where you sat quietly and listened to what the teacher said. You were not allowed to act silly, laugh, and ask any questions. Students were taught back then to be afraid of the teachers.
    I realized that the books the teacher chose for us to read were not multicultural. Nowadays, it is really important for teachers to integrate multicultural literature in their classrooms so that children will learn to accept and appreciate diverse cultures.

  • Kate Lawrence says:

    Hi Melanie,

    The kindergarten classroom of 1985 (that’s when I was in Mrs. Duncan’s class 😉 is very similar to the poem in your post. We walked, not ran. We were silent, not chatty. We lined up alphabetically, we did not squeeze ourselves into the spot closest to our best friend. We looked and sat, not commented or discussed. While my classroom was pretty multicultural, we only read books with white characters. I remember thinking, “She looks like me, but not my friend Zach. How come?” Sadly, in the last few years I’ve seen a few elementary classrooms that continue to mirror Mrs. Duncan’s class… almost 30 years later. The world is a different place, but I find that we’ve recycled a lot of the same teaching techniques. However, the teachers who have been highlighted on the learn website give me oodles and oodles of hope!

  • Christian Reyes says:

    Two points that really interested me were: 1) How ‘unfun’ learning can be and 2) Representations of people to the reader.

    I can’t sit down for a long time. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s bad circulation or how the internet has destroyed my attention span over the years. I need to get up, stretch and talk. I’m a 39 year old man. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a young learner. I understand that some discipline and classroom propriety must be established but the degree to which Draconian standards of discipline are being enforced in the poem makes me shudder. The death of fun. And teachers wonder why children would much rather play with their video games than go to school?

    I teach ESL at the YMCA on Saturdays to 9 and 12 year olds. They squirm, they get up and they chat. They do their work. The class is not quiet. I don’t want it to be quiet. I think if it was as quiet as a military dorm or a mausoleum, that would be very, very strange and very, very unhealthy. I let the students have their freedoms, within reason. I let them chat and walk around. I remember once, a supervisor came into class for something and before she left she mini-yelled at a student to sit down. It was ridiculous. That student was one of the best in the class.

    At another time, another teacher verbally crapped on a student in the staffroom (of course!) for not being a robot basically. I’m also a parent of an energetic 6 year old boy. To say that I was irate, would be an understatement. Kids can’t stand still? You’re the teacher! Design an activity that makes use of this energy!

    Secondly, I used to teach ESL in Japan. For my MA I examined the visual semiotic of a popular ESL textbook, designed (mostly) by Japanese FOR Japanese. Horror story. I kept thinking to myself, ‘So THIS is what they think of us(non Japanese basically being lumped together as White Americans)?’ Vomit. Oh, as for the Japanese characters? Babes in the wood who would do better to stay in Japan were it’s familiar, safe, have good food and wouldn’t be abused.