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
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