Tag Archives: critical literacy

Against Islamophobia: Teaching Tolerance in Today’s Classroom

sunset mosque
Sunset Mosque by Matthias Rhomberg CC BY-NC

I suppose the word to best describe what I was feeling at that moment was shock.  Yes, shock which was instantaneously followed by surprise, disbelief and then uncertainty.  I scanned the room, my eyes searching for a glimmer of acknowledgment; a connection, a possibility, a window through which the conversation could begin.  My smile remained perfectly in place, never once giving away the overwhelming confusion brought on by the lack of response to what I truly believed to be a simple question.  What was my query that appeared to stump my colleagues, seasoned teachers and respected leaders in the field of education?

“What resources or lessons have you been using in your classrooms in order to teach against Islamophobia?”

 My question to my colleagues was a genuine one, in hopes of gaining some new insight, some direction and ultimately some brilliant children’s books and resources that I could use and recommend to others.

There are many activities that are already going on in our classrooms that build critical literacy.  Reading novels written from the point of view of a child from another culture or set in another country; sharing stories about families and their religious traditions or considering the lives of young people like them who lived through war, persecution or poverty. As well, when we ask our students to write from the point of view of someone else – all of these classroom experiences are ways of developing critical literacy. As Melissa Thibault (2004) reminds us, these activities all serve the same purpose: they help the student to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to learn to understand other people’s circumstances and perspectives and to empathize with them.

Suggested Books: A starting point

I need to preface the upcoming book selections by stating that I am in no way forwarding them as exemplary works that must be used in every classroom. As I have learned, each of us comes to literacy with our own perspective, our own history and experience and our own knowledge and understanding.  What I am proposing is a quick analysis of three eminent illustrated picture books with Muslim main characters and what I hope to offer is a point of entry into what has been and remains in most North American classrooms a curriculum that is for the most part neglected, misunderstood or feared.

One Green Apple (2006) by Eve Bunting is the story of a Muslim girl, Farah, on her second day in a new school and in a new country.  She is joining her class on a field trip to an apple orchard and one cannot help but experience along with her the isolation she feels as she is set apart from her classmates in her inability to speak English and the reactions she receives by wearing a dupatta (headscarf).  At the cider press, Farah adds a single green apple to her classmates red apples and although they protest at first, they happily drink up the sweet juice from the mixed apples and Farah begins to see some common threads between this culture and her own. This story, can heighten youngsters’ awareness of and empathy for the immigrant experience as well as what it must be like to feel different and alone.

Sami and the Time of the Troubles (1992) by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland is another book to share with your students.  In this story, ten year old Sami lives in Beirut, Lebanon.  He and his family spend most of their time in the basement of his uncle’s home as bombing and gunfire fill the streets.  Memories abound of a time “before the time of the troubles” and “the day of the children”.  They sit listening to the radio and venture outside when the fighting subsides for the moment.  There Sami goes to the beach, makes a fort with his friend and plays at war.  This time outdoors is short lived and as the story closes we are back in the basement with Sami listening to the “noises of the night”.

Children as victims of war even when not directly in the line of battle are not unusual figures in children’s literature.  This text though makes clear that war threatens not only physical survival but affects the human spirit as well.  It is not done in a “let’s feel sorry for Sami” sort of way but instead gives us a thoughtful, understated narrative which forces us to think about current warfare and its effects on the innocent.  We leave the story understanding how children and others try to carry on a normal life during a period of war and uncertainty.

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq (2005) by Jeanette Winters is one book that will bring about much dialogue and discussion not only with young students but with teachers and educational leaders as well.  In brief, the story is about the courageous exploits of Alia Muhammad Baker, chief librarian of Basra’s Central Library, who was responsible for saving 70 per cent of her library’s book collection. In April 2003, the invasion of Iraq reaches Basra.  With the government refusing to help, she along with friends and community members, transfer some 30, 000 volumes first to a nearby restaurant and then to various homes only days before the library is burned to the ground.

Without a doubt, this story illustrates the impact one person can have in order to bring people together to work for a common cause.  As well, it emphasizes the influence and value libraries and books have in cultures and communities all around the world.  At this point, what also needs to be mentioned is this was one of the very first books (post 9/11) to find its way into elementary classrooms where the main character was from the Middle East.  A great many children saw themselves in print and illustration for the very first time.  Here their culture and their heritage were highlighted in a heroic and powerful manner.  Thanks to this text, strength, bravery and selflessness were now depicted as qualities and characteristics synonymous with Islam.

In the Classroom

In order to properly prepare our students to be literate in this ever changing technological and multimodal world, we teachers need to reflect upon and challenge our own beliefs and understanding of literacy.  Harwood (2008) advocates that “educators need to challenge children and provide balanced literacy opportunities that value the social-cultural construction of knowledge while reflecting the diversity of children’s lives.” (¶ 25).  She strongly supports the notion that classroom “opportunities to collaborate, discuss, critique, deconstruct, and reconstruct a multitude of meaningful and radical texts (Kohl, 1995) are equally important in literacy development as learning to identify phonemes of sound.” (¶ 25).

For the sake of brevity, the definition of “radical texts” has been borrowed from Leland, Harste, Ociepka, Lewison, and Vasquez’s (1999) suggestions for choosing critical texts. Radical texts chosen for elementary aged children should meet the following criteria:

  • Texts don’t make difference invisible, but rather explore what differences make a difference;
  • Texts enrich children’s understanding of history and life by giving voice to those who have been traditionally silenced or marginalized;
  • Texts show how people can begin to take action on important social issues;
  • Texts should explore dominant systems of meaning that operate in our society to position people and groups of people;
  • Texts should not provide “happily ever after” endings for complex social problems. (p. 70)

Children can be encouraged to think critically and answer critical questions that will enable them to examine their own insights as well as those presented in texts. Teachers need to encourage children to challenge the status quo of what is represented within texts, asking questions such as:

  • Whose voice is heard and whose voice is left out?”
  • Who is the intended reader? (For example asking, is the text intended for specific groups of people and if so how is that group portrayed?)
  • What was the world like when the text was created?
  • What does the author want you to feel or think?
  • What does the author expect you to know or value?
  • What does the text say about boys (about girls)?
  •  Is it important that the main character is beautiful (powerful/wealthy)? (Harwood, 2008)

This list is not exhaustive, and the critical questions that arise will often depend on the children and the issue involve. There is no single ‘recipe’ of how to incorporate critical literacy within an elementary school curriculum so teachers need to work against the “commodification” (Luke & Freebody, 1999, p. 6) of critical literacy, as they begin to recognize the important benefits of fostering children’s critical viewing of texts. Harwood (2008) does well to remind us that children’s interests and questions should also be incorporated into the literacy curriculum and form an important addition to the critical questions that arise. By honouring children’s own natural curiosity and using their inquisitiveness as a starting point, greater depth and engagement with texts is possible.

A short while back, I walked into a room where a couple of my colleagues were sitting hard at work deep in the throes of curriculum development.  As I approached to see what they were doing, one dear friend looked up at me, her face bursting with excitement, “Oh!  I’m so glad you’re here!  I have found a wonderful book that I know you’re going to love!”  As I watched her sift through the pile of children’s books that lay strewn across the table, I wondered what marvelous gem she was about to share with me.  The Golden Sandal:  A Middle Eastern Cinderella Story by Rebecca Hickox was the title she eagerly placed in my hands.  Shock, surprise and disbelief again washed over me, but this time confusion did not follow.  Instead, what came next was a lengthy conversation about the book, the story line and all the possibilities that could come from sharing this piece of literature with our students.

 

Further Resources to Examine:

Bunting, Eve. (2006). One Green Apple. New York: Clarion Books.

Habbas, Corey. (2008). The Runaway Scarf. Arizona: Muslim Writers Publishing.

Heide, Florence Parry and Gilliland, Judith Heide. (1992). Sami and the Time of the Troubles. New York: Clarion Books.

Heide, Florence Parry and Gilliland, Judith Heide. (1990). The Day of Ahmed’s Secret. New York: Mulberry Books.

Hickox, Rebecca. (1999). The Golden Sandal:  A Middle Eastern Cinderella Story. New York: Holiday House.

Khan, Rukhsana. (1988). The Roses in my Carpets. Ontario: Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

Mobin-Uddin, Asma. (2005). My Name is Bilal. Pennsylvania: Boyds Mills Press.

Mortenson, Greg and Roth, Susan L. (2009). Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr.Greg & Three Cups of Tea. New York: Dial Books.

O’Brien, Tony and Sullivan, Mike. (2008). Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan. New York: Bloomsbury.

Oppenheim, Shulamith Levey. (1995). The Hundredth Name. Pennsylvania: Boyds Mills Press.

Robert, Nai’ima Bint. (2002). The Swirling Hijaab. London: Mantra Lingua.

Rumford, James. (2008). Silent Music. New York: Roaring Brook Press.

Shihab Nye, Naomi. (1994). 19 Varieties of Gazelle: poems of the Middle East. New York: Harper Collins.

Shihab Nye, Naomi. (1994). Sitti’s Secrets. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks.

Shihab Nye, Naomi. (1998). The flag of childhood: poems from the middle east. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks.

Williams, Karen Lynn and Mohammed, Khadra. (2007). Four Feet, Two Sandals. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Winter, Jeanette. (2005). The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq. Orlando: Harcourt Inc.

 

References

Harwood, D. “Deconstructing and Reconstructing Cinderella: Theoretical Defense of Critical Literacy for Young Children”. Language and Literacy, volume 10, issue 2, Fall 2008.

Kohl, H. (1995). Should we burn Babar? Essays on children’s literature and the power of stories. New York: The New Press.

Lelande, C., Harste, J., Ociepka, A., Lewison, M., & Vazquez, V. (1999). Exploring critical literacy: You can hear a pin drop. Language Arts, 77(1), 70-77.

Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1999). A map of possible practices: Further notes on the four resources model. Practically Primary, 4(2), 3-8.

Thibault, Melissa, “Children’s literature promotes understanding.” LEARN North Carolina, 2004.

 

 

 

A Reminder That Life is Good: the QEP, Professional Autonomy and Paulo Freire

7075566659_b2d828bbeb_oIt was the spring of 1999.  Heading out the door of the inner city elementary school where both my husband and I were working, I bombarded him (as I always did) with a series of mini episodes of what had gone on in my grade 5/6 classroom that day; snippets of exchanges with the students, jokes and fun mixed with a smattering of “a-ha!” moments that were always to be celebrated.   He smiled, half listening; clearly deep in thoughts of his own. Earlier that year, Christopher had developed curriculum that integrated, among other subject areas, literacy, technology and sports in a way that was not only improving the students’ reading and writing abilities but was so engaging that it inspired a targeted group of at-risk kids; it built their self esteem and commitment to continue along the path of learning.

News of this dynamic teaching and learning curriculum had reached the ears of the ministry and he was now going to be the focus of a documentary that would clearly demonstrate for the rest of the province the QEP (our new Quebec Education Program) in action, lived out with an at-risk population. Our principal was delighted.  I was thrilled and Christopher was overwhelmed to be recognized in this way. I continued bubbling with what all this meant.  He was going to be the face of the QEP.  How wonderful!!

As we buckled up our seat belts, Christopher turned to me and spoke for the first time since we had walked out the school door, “Mel.  What the hell is the QEP?”

I remember laughing out loud.  As we had just recently returned from living in the Cree community of Mistissini for over a year and a half, we had missed all the commotion and build up of the soon to be implemented Quebec Education Program.  This didn’t seem to matter though because as it turned out, the philosophy and ideology behind this “Reform” was based on what was occurring in our classrooms already.  It emphasized the importance of knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, inquiry-based learning, collaboration, cross-curricular learning, and democratic living.

As I read more deeply the numerous documents produced by The Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS), it quickly became obvious to me, that there were many elements of the QEP being implemented that would profoundly alter the teaching and learning in Québec schools in my opinion for the better.  For one thing, it accorded greater recognition to the professional, teaching methods, and choice of methods of evaluation of students’ learning (MELS, 2005, p. 8).  As well, it allowed teachers to choose their pedagogical approaches according to the situation, the nature of the learning to be accomplished or the students’ characteristics.  This could be managed by lecturing, explicit instruction, project-based teaching, inductive teaching, strategic instruction, cooperative learning or any other method the teacher deemed appropriate. (MELS, 2005).

For the first time in my career, this progressive ideological shift was putting the teachers in control of their own classrooms.  It was affording them the opportunity to be autonomous professionals.  Who knew better than the teacher him/herself what was best for their students?

The role of teachers became one of supporting students in their learning process, helping them structure and build on their knowledge, rather than being the expert who transmits information.  Students were encouraged to participate in constructing their knowledge. “Instead of mostly listening, they are actively engaged in processing the information so as to transform it into knowledge and competencies.” They may even act as experts in cases where they have specific knowledge. (MELS, 2001, p. 2)  In this “innovative” way of looking at teaching and learning, of primary concern is that students transform information into viable and transferable knowledge “The elements of knowledge students develop are tools that should help them understand and take action in the world,”(MELS, 2001, p.1).  Learning does not simply take place in the classroom.  It does not begin and end with the ringing of the bells, “…the reform aims for learning that takes place in school to be transferable, i.e. to serve a purpose other than just school.” (MELS, 2001, p. 2).

It goes without saying that having teachers take into consideration a program that implies a major adaptation on the pedagogic level has been anything but easy. We must be patient and keep in mind that changes of such magnitude cannot be implemented into a machine as vast as the educational network over a short period of time or without experiencing some difficulties.  Many have questioned whether or not the disruption and disorder brought about by this shift has been worth it.  I am reminded of Margaret Meek, who in referring to Freire writes “and He wants us to consider the worth of an idea by asking what difference it would make” (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. xxvii). When looking at the pedagogic basis and the potential outcomes for students being educated in this way, I think it will make an enormous difference in the way that teachers and students come together to share in the learning process, to dialogue and to empower each other and themselves.  So my answer to the question “Is it worth it?” rings out loud and clear “Yes, it is most definitely worth it!”

Fast forward almost ten years.

In the fall of 2008, I had the privilege of taking a graduate course with a critical pedagogue who had come to McGill.  It was a time in my life that I will never forget.  He would sit at the head of the semi-circle, clad in black jeans and a black t-shirt and he would talk to us…no, tell us stories is probably more accurate.  One thing was clear, he was not impressed with the manner in which schools operated and the overtly discriminatory practices that occurred throughout our North American system.  He spoke of the issues of a standardized curriculum where so many students were simply left out of the equation due to their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, orientation or social status and of teachers who were forced by the government to push a curriculum that they knew would fail so many of their students. 

One evening, half way through the semester, a number of my peers, who were not from Québec, joined in on the conversation, angrily claiming that they understood exactly what this critical pedagogue was talking about.  They ranted openly about the problems we had here in Québec as our curriculum was without question as standardized as others throughout the rest of Canada and the United States.  I was shocked by their statements.  How could anyone who had read this document claim that it was standardized when the very underlying philosophy promoted teacher professionalism and autonomy by advocating self-selection of pedagogy, resources, methods and evaluation?  It became clear to me that they hadn’t read the document.  And when I asked this question outright, the answer that echoed around the room was that indeed they hadn’t.

Months later, I was sitting in his home, when his son, who was a high school ELA teacher, walked into the room holding onto his laptop.  His eyes were wide in disbelief as he scanned the screen.  Looking up from his reading of The Québec Education Program he exclaimed in disbelief “Hey, did you know that Freire is quoted in here?”  I chuckled out loud.  Here was the son of two of the most prevalent minds in critical pedagogy, not to mention a successful English Secondary School teacher, and he was just now realizing that the curriculum he was teaching was based on the theories and ideology of Paulo Freire.

What struck home at this point was that here was a curriculum document that was almost ten years into implementation and it was still being referred to as “The Reform” or even “New” and added to that was the reality that so many in the field of education, from classroom teachers to critical pedagogues, had never taken the time to sit down and read it through in order to understand the freedom it offered along with the respect of viewing teachers as professionals.

In an era of “No Child Left Behind” standardized curriculum throughout the United States and a thrust for “back to the basics” in most of North America, we in Québec have been given the opportunity through the Québec Education Program (QEP) to teach a completely unstandardized curriculum.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Freireian based model of critical pedagogy underlying the English Language Arts literacy program. It was designed to promote the development of literacy as both an individual achievement and a social skill as well as “the development of a confident learner who finds in language, discourse and genre a means of coming to terms with ideas and experiences, and a medium for communicating with others and learning across the curriculum” (MELS, 2008,  p.6)

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of presenting our Quebec curriculum at a gathering of academics and teachers at The International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, held at the University of Illinois.  The dialogue that followed my presentation was a mix of shock and confusion.  There was an overwhelming buzz of excitement and genuine interest in the curriculum that is found here in Quebec.  No one could believe that our teachers were awarded such autonomy and self-determination in deciding the best suited pedagogy, resources and teaching strategies to ensure their particular group of students be able to meet the outcomes at the end of a cycle.  They cringed as they compared this to the system under which they were forced to work; teach to the test, no time for the rest.  There simply wasn’t a mechanism put in place that would permit them to look at their students as individuals, to allow for a variety of perspectives or opinions, or for that matter to even ask the students what they wanted or cared to learn. They were envious of what we had in place and I truly began to understand once again how lucky we were.

So as the end of year stress begins to build.  I think it is important to remember that we have been given a very precious gift…the acknowledgment that we are capable and competent to accomplish great learning alongside our students.  And to think that we have a government document that supports this, reassures me time and again.  When the pressure starts to become too much, I simply have to open up the QEP and read “More than ever, teaching requires autonomy, creativity and professional expertise.” (MELS, 2001, p.5) If you ask me, that’s not a bad thing at all to have to work towards!

 

For further reading:

Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. London: Routledge.

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. The Education Reform: The Changes Under Way. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/lancement/Renouveau_ped/452771.pdf

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. (2007). Provincewide panorama – Literacy in Québec in 2003. Info Adult-Ed. Vol. 4, Issue 1, January 2001.  Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/_information_continue/info/index_en.asp?page=article6

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. Québec Education Program, Preschool Education, Elementary Education. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2001. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/dfgj/dp/programme_de_formation/primaire/pdf/educprg2001/educprg2001.pdf

Québec. Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. Québec Education Program, Secondary School Education, Cycle Two. Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/sections/programmeformation/secondaire2/medias/en/5b_QEP_SELA.pdf

Game-changers: Teachers who changed my life

(c) Todd Berman

 Mrs. Stevens was strict.  Mrs. Stevens scowled.  Mrs. Stevens got after her students.  Mrs. Stevens had fiery red hair.  Mrs. Stevens was not some people’s favourite grade 2 teacher but…she was mine because Mrs. Stevens loved reading! Mrs. Stevens was, for me, a game-changer.

Teaching is an intensely personal experience, richly coloured by our own personal beliefs and worldview. Game-changers are people who force you to examine your beliefs and come to a place of action, who give you the tools to make up your own mind and move forward from there.

Mrs. Stevens would gather us all around her for read-aloud and I would become lost in another time and another place.  There was something magical about those stolen moments between math stencils and spelling lists.  It was a time like no other.  I can see myself as if it were yesterday sitting cross-legged listening with every inch of my body to the sound of Mrs. Stevens’ voice.  I was drawn in.  I was hooked.  The only thing that could break the spell was the sound of the book being closed.  A collective groan of disappointment would follow and then off we would go quietly back to our desks, back to SRA and workbooks, biding our time until the next read-aloud would sweep us away between the pages to learn more about ourselves, others and the world in which we lived.

It was not until years later that I realized that Mrs. Stevens was the first to plant the seeds for what would become a lifelong passion for literacy and literacy education. In the magic garden of read-aloud, I found what made school meaningful to me… and I never looked back.

Throughout my educational career, there have been other teachers who have come into my life, each one unique and each one contributing to the defining moments of what makes me the educator that I am today. These are my game-changers:

Lynn Butler-Kisber was my very first professor at McGill University (Montreal, Canada).  I was fortunate to have her for an entire year, back when English Language Arts was a 6 credit course.  I will never forget her quick step as she entered the classroom pushing her cart filled with goodies…picture books, manipulatives and movies of her days in the classroom.  I loved that class and I loved Lynn.  I wanted to be Lynn.  I would sit there totally mesmerized by her stories.  She would read to us, she would talk to us, she would share with us and all the while she would prompt us to think for ourselves, to consider our opinions, our connections, and what we were going to do once we were out there in the field with a class of our own.  It was the questions that we had to ask of ourselves and our students as we turned the pages of the beautifully illustrated picture books.  We learned not to only appreciate what the text had to offer but the responses and conversations that we brought to and from the text.  Rich dialogue that pushed us to look, interpret and become more aware as we explored the whole-language approach to literacy.  Although I did not know it at the time, this course and the conversations that flowed out of it became the underpinnings for my interest in Critical Literacy.

Abigail Anderson, architect and writer of the English Language Arts curriculum for Québec’s teachers.  Strong, opinionated, passionate and brilliant.  There was never a time that I left her presence without having learned something new and usually it was more than one thing.  Wow!  She made my head spin.  How could someone know so much about literacy?  How could she time and again speak so eloquently and always draw reference to both theorists and novelists alike in order to get her point across?  I would hurry home and look up the person, the quote or the book that she had offered.   I knew that I could be a fearless teacher and take the risks required to implement a Freirean pedagogy because that was the pedagogy on which our very ELA curriculum was based.  She believed in critical literacy and she put her money where her mouth was by having it live and breathe in the Québec Education Program that she had envisioned. Abigail Anderson was my game-changer because through her actions I saw the words of Paolo Freire come to life in a tangible way – and I knew what I could do to follow that same path.

Janet Radoman had the patience of a saint with her students.  She was a true teacher.  She was gifted in the ability to take anything, no matter how convoluted and explain it in such a way that everyone present could understand and then apply.  She was a constructivist in action, an advocate for her students and a champion for the unheard and voiceless.  She was the teacher that would throw away a planned afternoon math lesson if a child of hers entered the classroom sweaty with excitement and full of questions regarding the fistful of worms they had found in the schoolyard after a lunchtime rain shower.  She not only listened to her students, she engaged them in critical conversations, inquiry and dialogue.  What her students thought and felt mattered.  This is what she believed and this is how she taught.  Janet Radoman was my game-changer because she taught me how to bring critical literacy into the lives of the children we teach.

***

These four women prompted me to reflect on what I believed about literacy education at different points in my life and how I chose to teach to reflect my beliefs.  I will always be grateful to them.  And you, who have been your game-changers? I would love to hear your stories.

Memories From the Field: Part III – Rainbow of Dreams

by Melanie Stonebanks

From the author's own family archiveby Melanie Stonebanks

By looking back and by remembering the past, I have attempted to bind my past experiences as a professional educator in several contexts and roles to create patterns of my professional development in the stream of my consciousness (Green, 1991).

            Okay, I’ll admit it…I’m nosey by nature, so when the high school publication Rainbow of Dreams (http://www.nd.ca/tournoi/ref/rainbow/index.htm) crossed by my desk I was instantly hypnotized.  Leafing through the pages, I’ll never forget the countless faces reaching out and drawing me in.  There was something about these silent images that beckoned me to read their stories.  I had to find out where they had come from and why their pictures had been captured at that particular time in their lives.  I read and I read and I thought to myself that this would be a perfect literacy project for my class to undertake.

It took a few years after having discovered the ground breaking high school work (two further publications had come out in the mean time) before I was ready to tackle this type of inquiry assignment with my students.  My class’s heritages spanned from various cultural backgrounds that touched all parts of the globe.  My motivation was not only for my multicultural students to learn from and about each other in order to build understanding and acceptance but to empower them through the discussions and writing they would produce and share with each other and the community.

Days and weeks that turned into months were spent together pouring over family photographs, asking each other questions about where we came from, why we had left our native homeland, what we had brought with us on and continued to practice in our new country and what we had to leave behind.  Questions that couldn’t be answered at the moment, were sent home, discussed with parents and grand-parents and then brought back to move the conversation forward.  The students knew they were in a safe environment where no one would openly pass judgement, mock or demean them.  Together, we could take risks, we could ask questions, we could share stories, we could laugh and we could cry.

I think one of the most powerful moments during this project came when a student teacher who was in doing a final field experience with me, decided that he would like to investigate his past as well.  He worked simultaneously with my students in order to follow the process as authentically as possible.  The day came when it was his turn to share with the class the first draft of his “constructed memoir” (the major writing piece for this inquiry was for each student to take a family photograph that spoke to them, interview family members to uncover the story behind the photograph, then take the information from the interview and craft it into a memoir from the perspective of one of the people in the photograph…this involved many, many hours of instruction of reading photographs, asking questions, interview techniques, reading and writing the memoir genre, writer’s craft, oral speaking, peer editing, and much more).

As he stood in front of his young audience, he read to them a story of leaving home and family behind, a story that obviously reached deeply into whom he was and where his roots held fast.  I say obviously as part way through the retelling, his voice wavered and cracked, tears welled up in his eyes as he struggled to continue his reading.  My students were transfixed.  Their bodies in complete stillness as they sat in their seats listening to him try to get his story out.  He needed to share this narrative with them and they knew this.  Quietly and without disruption, a couple of my twelve year old students turned and questioned me with their eyes of what they should do.  I nodded to them and gestured that all was alright and that we should let him continue.  As he concluded his sorrowful and moving tale, the class burst into a round of supportive applause.  He had put himself out.  He had taken a risk.  He had shared with them a piece of himself and they understood this.  It was a transformative moment in my classroom for each and every one of us.

Reflection of Rainbow of Dreams

I am always hesitant to share anecdotes of successful teaching and learning moments in my history for fear of coming across as some “super teacher” in the likes of Ms. Frizzle of Magic School bus fame (who is my idol by the way…what better mantra than “Take chances, make mistakes and get messy!”).  The above narrative was one positive incident where there was harmony between a desired critical literacy outcome and the reality of what actually transpired in the classroom.  Occasions like that one are often few and far between with missed opportunities and inconsiderate unconscious and/or dysconscious reactions being the rule rather than the exception (according to King (1991) dysconsciousness is a state of mind that occurs when there is exclusion and disconnect of the Other’s pain).

One of those reactions took place while the students were in the midst of searching for their family snapshots.  Most of the pictures that were handed in showcased wedding photographs, images of families partaking in celebrations, outdoor gardens and homes long gone as well as individuals who had since past away but held a place of honour in the history of the family and the country of origin.  As I was sifting through the pile of pictures, noting who had brought what in, my student teacher approached my desk with a look of concern on his face.  He placed the photograph in front of me and I remember being quite taken aback by the image of the young smiling man standing behind the large anti-aircraft gun, hands in ready position.  There was no way that I was going to be able to use this photograph.  It was violent and who knew how many people had been killed before or after this picture had been taken.

That night at supper, I spoke with my husband about the photograph and asked his advice as to how I should approach the student in order to discuss the inappropriateness of his choice.  What followed was another lesson in how I had missed a critical literacy possibility and was running the risk of closing the door to learning for one of my students.  What I have not yet divulged to the reader is that the country of origin of the armed soldier was Iran and what I was dealing with was the bias I had to these types of images in relation to the country in which they were taken. After all, Christopher (whose father was of mixed English-Italian decent and served in three wars himself) asked me how I would have reacted if a child had brought in a shot of a grandparent who fought for the Canadian, British or American army in WW1 or WW2 or Korea, or Vietnam or etc., etc.  I had to be honest and say that because I had grown up seeing these types of photographs depicting “our heroes”, I wouldn’t have batted an eye.

In case you are wondering, the student used the photograph in his project and it turned out that his father was not a soldier but an informations officer who had stood there behind the gun and simply asked his buddy to take the picture for a lark.   Another bit of information I would never have learned if I had allowed my background and bias make the final decision.  The next step though is to ask myself “why does that make a difference and make me feel better”?

 Conclusion

My own personal development of any true sense of being conscious came from discussions with my husband who was in graduate school when I began my entry into teaching in the classroom.  However, it must be said that even when you become aware of what it is that you should be working towards enacting; there are so many factors that stop you from truly engaging in critical pedagogy and critical literacy.  Essentially what occurs is that the majority of your time is spent with acts of micro resistance and with the few and far between overt actions that leave you sick.   The micro resistance then becomes lost over time and it’s not those minor attempts that become the critical incidents rather it’s the ones that you lose sleep over when you worry about responses from the administration, peers, parents and community.  This is probably why they are so few and far between.

As someone who now teaches at the university level, I disagree with the often repeated notion (and one that I have to admit held myself at one time) that there is such a large chasm between academics and “the real world of teaching”.  But the one reality that did and does still exist is the fear.  Teachers often pride themselves on being the vanguard for change but after two plus decades of teaching, I am starting to agree with the social theorists that state that schools are a reflection of society; we change only when society changes.

 

References for further reading:

Green, M. (1988). The Dialectic of Freedom. New York: Teachers College Press.

King, J.E. (1991). Dysconscious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and the Miseducation of Teachers in Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 60, No. 2, pp. 133-146, Spring.

Memories From the Field Part II: “Dear Prime Minister”

(c) Todd Berman 2012

By Melanie Stonebanks
The unexamined life isn’t worth living. – Socrates, 450 BC

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my early teaching experiences in inner-city Montreal. This entry builds on that previous post and will hopefully contribute to the current day understanding of the role of critical literacy in the classroom or the lack there of.  It will lay bare my attempts, fraught with many mistakes and omissions, to bring into the classroom a critical pedagogy lived out through the day to day circumstances of a teacher and her students struggling with the turmoil and perplexity of a newly implemented curriculum.  Due to countless discussions with my husband, whom you may have met here, I was well aware of the underpinnings of what critical pedagogy was and what it was supposed to look like in a classroom setting.  But like so many others in the teaching profession, it was one thing to know what it was but to have the courage to enact it was a whole other matter.

The Context

            In order to be able to visualize the upcoming narratives more accurately, it is important that a setting of time and place in history be offered for the reader.  The two stories (one in this post and one in a subsequent post) unfold at one point or another in the decade spanning from 1993-2003 at one of the four public urban/inner-city schools where I worked in Montreal, Québec.  All my former schools were comprised mainly of children whose parents were considered to be recent immigrants to Canada and due to their economic situation most were situated below the poverty line.

It was not always easy but for certain it was always worth it.  I would not trade in my years teaching in these schools for anything.  It is due to my time engaged with my young students that have brought me farther along in my understanding of what it truly means to be a teacher.  It is a journey that is only still just beginning.  As I write, reflect and reflect some more on the narratives you are about to read, I along with you gain a deeper and more profound understanding of the awesome effect critical pedagogy and critical literacy can have on those that become woven into its fabric.  I add my piece to the quilt and encourage those that read along with me, to add their stories and pieces as well.

“Dear Prime Minister”

March 2003 marked the beginning of Gulf War 2.  We sat at home around the television and I wept.  As I watched the “Shock and Awe” of a city bombed and blasted into oblivion, I cried for the children, for the injustice, and I have to admit for the power bloc to which I was a member of for life.  I felt as though we were living in a world gone mad, where a life didn’t equal a life, where the slaughter of innocent people was brushed off as unfortunate but necessary in order to take control of a country and the oil fields that permeated its land.  Where family members expressed that it all wasn’t too bad as American technology would improve oil extraction efficiency.

I wondered how I would deal with this tomorrow in class.  How could I ever be as strong as someone like Jane Elliot, who in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King assassination, had taught her class what it felt like to be discriminated against simply due to something as out of your control as the colour of your eyes or skin.  Her controversial risk taking, and I believe an example of true critical pedagogy in action, “blue-eyed/brown-eyed exercise” was now a staple lesson in university education classes but at the time in the 1960s, her progressive and unconventional teaching brought her negative reactions from co-workers, community members and people across the United States.

I have heard time and again people say that if they had been there, they would have stood beside Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks.  I say “No way!”   It is much easier to ease one’s conscience and say in hindsight that you would have been there but in reality, it takes a very special person who can stand up to the pressures of a system so much larger than you and one that is pushing so ardently and relentlessly against you (Stonebanks, 2004).  Needless to say, I was not this type of person and was at a loss to know what I would do the next day in class with my students.  So I took the easy way out and waited to see what would happen.

The following morning, the classroom was a buzz.  It was clear that most had spent a great deal of time watching the same images and news reports that I had in my home.  As they entered the classroom and found their seats, I sat back and simply let them talk.  They shared conversations that had most likely begun in their homes and their variations of what their parents thought and felt about the invasion.  I continued to wait, to give them space, part of me knew that they needed time to unload all that they had inside them, the other part of me waited because I still didn’t know what I would do next.

And then it happened, one of my students put up her hand and called out to me “Mrs. Stonebanks, I’m afraid.  What if they come and bomb my house?  What do I do?”  It wasn’t a question that I was expecting but it made sense that children would be worried about the same horror potentially affecting them especially considering that the vast majority did not come from power bloc backgrounds and have probably heard more nuanced and factual comprehensions of Western foreign policy.  So as the class quieted down, we took it from there.  In the safety of the classroom family, open and honest discussions could be held about what we were thinking, feeling, fearing, what we understood and what we didn’t.  I was careful not to promote my own personal agenda or forward my beliefs of what the invasion was based on but what I did was allow them a space to deliberate and offer multiple perspectives to broaden their understanding of each other and the crazy world they were living in.

Part way through the conversation, one of the students asked which countries made up the invading forces, “The coalition of the willing”.  When asked whether Canada was going to join in on the invasion, I told them that we were not.  That our Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, had been reported saying, “that forcing a regime change is not desirable. Many leaders in the world are not his friends, but, he adds, only the local people have the right to change government. “If we change every government we don’t like in the world where do we start? Who is next?”

The students decided that they would like to express what they were feeling about the invasion and Canada’s role.  Many of them were still fearful that Canada and they themselves would be implicated and hurt in some way or another.  Then an idea came to me.  One that would give them a voice, a sense of security and a feeling that there was an audience who would be willing to listen to what they were thinking and dealing with at this moment in history.  And one that stood in sharp contrast to the direction that my colleagues were taking in having their students write letters of support to soldiers already serving in Afghanistan.  They would write a letter to the Prime Minister, the right honourable Jean Chrétien.  I put forward my quick thinking idea and they loved it.

Constructivism?  Probably not.  But I was reminded of the fact that Joe Kincheloe, noted critical pedagogue, would often repeat to teachers in graduate classes when they felt overwhelmed by an anti banking model of teaching that being a critical pedagogue didn’t mean that you stopped being a teacher; that you stopped forwarding ideas.  It seemed to fit exactly what was needed at the time.  And by week’s end, twenty-eight letters, including one of my own explaining the impetus for the writing campaign, were mailed away to Ottawa.

Reflections on “Dear Prime Minister”

            In no way do I feel that this incident is to be viewed as revolutionary, ground breaking or even an act of passive resistance.  There was no risk involved in a Canadian class writing letters to a government who was opposed to the invasion of Iraq.  I skimmed all the pieces of writing quickly before sealing them in the large brown envelope.  They had been peer edited for fluency, clarity and basic grammar and spelling but the content of each letter was left up to the person who had penned it.  They were free to express whatever an eleven or twelve year old wanted to share.  Out of the twenty-eight letters that my class sent, twenty-seven of them were in support of Canada’s position of not joining the invasion in Iraq.

Had I been teaching in the United States at the time, would I have taken the risk to let my students write these types of letters to the President, free from my interference of what position to take on the matter or even still, did I have them send copies of their opinions to the United States government?  No, I would not and no, I did not.  Again, bound and gagged by fear of a system that seemed to call all the shots in one’s economic and career advancement, I spent most of the time keeping under the radar.  I was not brave. I was not a radical leader.  But when a large package from the Prime Minister’s office arrived for my class which included a letter of response to our campaign, thanking us for our words and thoughts and with it was a signed photograph of Jean Chrétien, the excitement and smiles on the faces of my students assured me that it was alright.  I hadn’t started a revolution but I had given these children a forum for others to hear their voice and people had indeed listened.

End note

This fall, as my husband and I were hustling through the Toronto airport to catch a connecting flight home, we walked past a gate and there standing waiting for his own flight was Jean Chrétien.  My husband immediately dropped his bag and went over to shake his hand.  What followed was a lengthy and highly animated conversation between a former Prime Minister and two delighted supporters.  Between photographs and many laughs, I was able to recount the story of our letter writing campaign to his office.  It seemed that being able to share this classroom experience with the man to whom the letters were addressed allowed me to understand yet again, the importance of engaging and supporting your students in authentic literacy lessons that come to us from the teachable moments that life brings our way whether we are ready for them or not.

Memories From the Field: Looking back on a teacher’s experience

(c) Todd Berman

by Melanie Stonebanks

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry (we) pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other. – Paulo Freire

In the fall of 1992 a wide eyed naive young woman sat on a teacher’s desk scanning an empty classroom in a public elementary school located in the inner-city of Montreal, Québec.  Having recently graduated from the Department of Education at McGill University she was filled with ideas of how she was going to make a difference in the lives of her students.  With a box full of illustrated picture books and a file folder of activities she knew that she was where she was meant to be and that the next few months were going to be the best ones of her life.  After all, she had been so successful in her suburban neighbourhood working with the children at her local church, community pool and park; the perfect archetype of the North American teacher.  How different could it be teaching children in this milieu?  They would love her and all that she was going to bring to them.

Fast forward a month.

A young man sits on the second floor balcony of his apartment in Notre-Dame de Grace, Montreal.  He has just returned from teaching a day of physical education to some elementary aged children.  It has been a good day.  He calmly strums away a melody on his guitar humming and thinking carefree thoughts.  His eyes look out down the adjacent street and he sees an old woman who appears to be not only carrying two heavy bags in her hands but the weight of the world on her shoulders as well.  He watches as she shuffles along for a couple of steps, lays down her burdens and with shoulders shaking obviously sobs before continuing on her way.  He is filled with empathy for what this poor old thing must be dealing with.  Suddenly, he sits up.  A dawning recognition sweeps over him.  As the figure approaches, he realizes that it is not some aged bag lady but his girlfriend coming home from her teaching day.

Whatever preparation that young woman thought she had, whatever advantage of race, socioeconomic status, religion (and even gender in the elementary school environment) she possessed, did not prepare her for the challenges of the urban/inner-city schools and clientele. Those dreams, my dreams, of sharing my love for language arts came to a crashing halt in a context I, given my university education, had little right in which to teach.  I found myself, during many long sleepless nights, wondering why my degree did not specify limiting my teaching boundaries to only reproducing education to those like me.

I must admit that I hate it when my husband, compares his experience going to the same schools as I did.  After all, his elementary school was not only within the same school board, but was a mere five to ten blocks away from my own and we went to the same high school. How is it possible that his schooling experiences differed so much from my own? However, I am well aware that our individual student histories did much to shape how we approached teaching in the system a number of years later.

For Melanie, a person who loved her elementary school experience, anything that approached critical perspectives of her beloved home away from home was a personal affront. For Christopher, a person who felt elementary school was something to endure, theory of education provided an exploratory window into understanding experience and changing schools. Certainly, the fact that we both grew up in a homogeneous, White, Christian, middle class neighbourhood and until some ten years ago, public schools in Québec, Canada were either streamed as Protestant or Catholic, played an integral role in our experiences in school, as Melanie was a reflection of the system and Christopher was not. (Stonebanks & Stonebanks, 2008, p.2)

 

The years I spent teaching in the elementary classroom were fraught with many inner battles of attempting to make sense of the disconnect between my personal school and home life experiences and those of my students.  Our lives, in almost every way seemed to be dissimilar and therefore the ideals that I brought with me into their classroom did not always serve them in the best possible way.  My memories though of my years in the classroom are happy ones that I will cherish forever.   And, having bumped into one of my former grade 2 students in the elevator at McGill University, in her final year of the Bachelor of Education program, where she told me that I was the reason she had decided to go into the field of teaching, I am confident that I was able to successfully support the learning of my young charges. Add to that a phone call from one of my husband’s university students who had decided to enter into the field of education despite her family repeatedly telling her that it would be too difficult a battle for a young Muslim woman sporting a hijab.  She had been a grade 5 student of mine during my first year of teaching.  I had brought my husband into my urban/inner-city class on a variety of occasions for support and “street cred” as his brown skin and Iranian, Muslim heritage gave me an instant stamp of approval in this multicultural milieu.  It was actually his presence in the classroom that allowed this young Pakistani Muslim girl to see herself in the role of teacher. It was a naive and even shoddy attempt at acceptance, but in the absence of any efforts by other teachers to even try and bridge the wide chasm of “them vs. us”, it worked. All I wanted to do was try and get the children to love reading and writing as much as I did, and rather than think critically about the subject, material and the methods, my attempts focussed on building relationships. Not that this is an unworthy goal, but in the absence of the aforementioned aspects to critically examine, what I was basically imparting was a sentiment of “trust me and you’ll see that I am, ‘we’ are right”, rather than questioning the foundation and purpose of literacy.

Were I to return to the classroom, would I do things differently now?  Would I be more in tuned with the reality of what I needed to do to create a curriculum that fostered critical literacy so that my students would be able to transfer their questions and perspectives from the safety of the classroom into the outside world?  Would I be a better reflective practionner, able to observe and analyze the teaching and learning exchanges taking place on a daily basis in order to modify and improve my craft?  The answer that comes without any surprise is most definitely.  However, I feel that it is important to re-examine and reflect on my early years in the field, mistakes and all, so that I might at least be an example of how living, loving and learning about critical literacy is a never-ending evolution and that each and every one of us has the ability to ourselves be a project of possibility.

Join me in my next few posts as I will share some of my early classroom attempts to engage my students in critical literacy experiences.  There will be some successes and some misses along the way.  Nonetheless, there will much to think about and hopefully enough to inspire those of you out there in the field right now.  More soon!

 

References for further reading:

Freire, P. (c1993, 2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum.

http://www.pedagogyoftheoppressed.com/

Stonebanks, C. D. & Stonebanks, M. (2008). Religion and Diversity in our Classrooms. in Shirley R. Steinberg (Ed). Diversity: A Reader. New York:  Peter Lang Publishing.

 

A Critical Conversation About Literacy Part III: A Place to Start in Today’s Classroom

by Melanie Stonebanks

You don’t have to have all the answers. You only need to know the questions to ask.

"It's a Book" by Lane Smith - You Tube trailer


As has been discussed in the previous two postings on this topic, critical literacy is a way to use texts to help children better understand themselves, others, and the world around them.  Using children’s literature, teachers can help their class through difficult situations, enable individual students to transcend their own challenges, and teach students to consider all viewpoints, respect differences, and become more self-aware.

There are many activities that are already going on in our classrooms that build critical literacy.  Reading novels written from the point of view of a child from another culture or set in another country; sharing stories about families and their religious traditions or considering the lives of young people like them who lived through war, persecution or poverty; as well, when we ask our students to write from the point of view of someone else; all of these classroom experiences are ways of developing critical literacy. As Melissa Thibault (2004) reminds us, these activities all serve the same purpose: they help the student to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to learn to understand other people’s circumstances and perspectives and to empathize with them.

In order to properly prepare our students to be literate in this ever changing technological and multimodal world, we teachers need to reflect upon and challenge our own beliefs and understanding of literacy.  Harwood (2008) advocates that “educators need to challenge children and provide balanced literacy opportunities that value the social-cultural construction of knowledge while reflecting the diversity of children’s lives.” She strongly supports the notion that classroom “opportunities to collaborate, discuss, critique, deconstruct, and reconstruct a multitude of meaningful and radical texts (Kohl, 1995) are equally important in literacy development as learning to identify phonemes of sound.”

For the sake of brevity, the definition of “radical texts” has been borrowed from Leland, Harste, Ociepka, Lewison, and Vasquez’s (1999) suggestions for choosing critical texts. Radical texts chosen for elementary aged children should meet the following criteria:

  • Texts don’t make difference invisible, but rather explore what differences make a difference;
  • Texts enrich children’s understanding of history and life by giving voice to those who have been traditionally silenced or marginalized;
  • Texts show how people can begin to take action on important social issues;
  • Texts should explore dominant systems of meaning that operate in our society to position people and groups of people;
  • Texts should not provide “happily ever after” endings for complex social problems.

Children can be encouraged to think critically and answer critical questions that will enable them to examine their own insights as well as those presented in texts, which is at the heart of critical literacy programming. Teachers need to encourage children to challenge the status quo of what is represented within texts, asking questions such as:

  • Whose voice is heard and whose voice is left out?”
  • Who is the intended reader? (For example asking, is the text intended for specific groups of people and if so how is that group portrayed?)
  • What was the world like when the text was created?
  • What does the author want you to feel or think?
  • What does the author expect you to know or value?
  • What does the text say about boys (about girls)?
  •  Is it important that the main character is beautiful (powerful/wealthy)? (Harwood, 2008)

 

Luke, O’Brien, and Comber (2001) suggest the following key questions:

  • What is the topic? How is it being presented? What themes and discourses are being expressed?
  • Who is writing to whom? Whose positions are being expressed? Whose voices and positions are not being expressed?
  • What is the text trying to do to you?
  • What other ways are there of writing about the topic?
  • What wasn’t said about the topic? Why?

This list is not exhaustive, and the critical questions that arise will often depend on the children and the issue involve. There is no single ‘recipe’ of how to incorporate critical literacy within an elementary school curriculum so teachers need to work against the “commodification” (Luke & Freebody, 1999) of critical literacy, as they begin to recognize the important benefits of fostering children’s critical viewing of texts. Harwood (2008) does well to remind us that children’s interests and questions should also be incorporated into the literacy curriculum and form an important addition to the critical questions that arise. By honouring children’s own natural curiosity and using their inquisitiveness as a starting point, greater depth and engagement with texts is possible.

A list of picture books to support critical literacy can be found here http://quest-critical-literacy.wikispaces.com/Picture+Books+to+Support+Critical+Literacy

A question that my husband and I always put to our pre-service education students when discussing the concept of curriculum design is the “So what?” or “Why?” question.  We push these soon to be teachers to consider deeply the impact that their choices of what they will bring into their future classrooms will have on the children under their care.  This is probably one of the most challenging exercises in lesson planning.  Analyzing the overt and covert effect of one’s chosen methodology and material on a widely diverse group of learners is incredibly time consuming and at times frustrating if all aspects are considered thoroughly.

Now, not one to ask of others something I would not do myself, I end this posting with the questions “Why teach critical literacy?  What difference will it really make in the lives of elementary students and teachers?”  In all honesty, I believe the difference of enacting a program of critical literacy into one’s English Language Arts curriculum as compared to my own literacy learning as a student, student teacher and teacher is profound.  As opposed to a basal textbook, scripted or worksheet driven reading program, a true emancipatory literacy curriculum which, in the words of Lankshear and Lawler (1987) is a literacy curriculum that enables students to become properly literate, a literacy of hope and possibility, of affirmation and acceptance; a literacy that challenges us to look beyond our limited cultural assumptions and worldviews; a literacy that not only legitimates students’ voices but allows them to see that they are part of the continuing human dialogue, and that their lives can make a difference is what needs to be put in place.  Without a doubt, it will take a great many more hours to develop and there will be numerous mishaps along the way but the empowerment and sense of self that will be fostered in that community of learners is well worth it.

The following sites are good places to continue reading, thinking and teaching about critical literacy in your classroom.  Enjoy!

http://resources.curriculum.org/secretariat/november29.shtml

http://sites.google.com/site/criticalliteracyeduc5765/home

http://www.squidoo.com/the-ugly-duckling

http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/Critical_Literacy.pdf

http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/wolf-analyzing-point-view-23.html

http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/critical-reading-stories-authors-213.html

http://www.lessonplanet.com/search?keywords=critical+literacy&media=lesson

 

References for further reading can be found here:

Harwood, D.  Deconstructing and Reconstructing Cinderella: Theoretical Defense of Critical Literacy for Young Children. Language and Literacy, volume 10, issue 2, Fall 2008. Retrieved from http://www.langandlit.ualberta.ca/Fall2008/Harwood.htm

Kohl, H. (1995). Should we burn Babar? Essays on children’s literature and the power of stories. New York: The New Press.

Lankshear, C. & Lawler, M. (1987). Literacy, schooling, and revolution. New York: Falmer.

Lelande, C., Harste, J., Ociepka, A., Lewison, M., & Vazquez, V. (1999). Exploring critical literacy: You can hear a pin drop. Language Arts, 77(1), 70-77.

Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1999). A map of possible practices: Further notes on the four resources model. Practically Primary, 4(2), 3-8.

Luke, A., O’Brien, J., & Comber, B. (2001). Making community texts objects of study.

In H. Fehring & P. Green (Eds.), Critical literacy: A collection of articles from the

Australian Educators’ Association. Newark, NJ: International Reading Association.

Thibault, M. Children’s literature promotes understanding. LEARN North Carolina, 2004. Retrieved from http://www.learnnc.org/articles/article?id=maples0601

 

 

A Critical Conversation About Literacy, Part II: Critical Literacy Defined

(c) Ricardo Romanoff

by Melanie Stonebanks

My husband and I have spent years discussing and debating our perspectives and understanding of every aspect of the field of education.  We met when we were in high school, and went our separate ways for a time being, reconnecting in our mid twenties. Our debates have ranged from which method of unit design is most effective to the covert predominance of white privilege that permeates the school system.  We recently found ourselves revisiting one such discussion about my awakening to critical literacy, the result of it being the following post about the topic.

Lying around late one lazy Saturday morning in the Fall of 1998, a conversation on the topic of memories of elementary school and favourite childhood storybooks was featured.  We had both attended elementary school at the same time and only a short two-minute drive between our respective institutions. We both spoke fondly of a visiting storyteller who captured our imaginations with his lively rendition of Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee”.  As our recollections meandered along to discussing our love of Roald Dahl’s classic “James and the Giant Peach”, I threw out how much C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” had me completely obsessed with the adventures of four British children in this fanciful land.  Christopher gave me a sideways look, sighed and tightened his mouth (which I knew signalled that a serious discussion was about to take place).

What followed was an eye-opening shattering of my favourite childhood past-time; a dawning realization that I fought against that morning and many mornings after until emotion was set aside and thoughtful contemplation of this alternative perspective was allowed to be considered.

Christopher took no time in recounting an episode he had shared with a former girlfriend.  She, an artist, had been hired to design a store window display based on C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”.  She had been sitting reading the novel (my favourite of the series) when she had asked Christopher if he had ever read the book.  Christopher replied that he hadn’t but recalled it often lovingly described by many people as simply an endearing children’s tale.  She then began to read passages from the book; all of which contained blatant and unmistakable Islamophobic language and imagery that depicted a whole race of villainous characters “The Calormene” simply born evil.  Christopher recalled criticism of the depiction of Fagan from Dicken’s “Oliver Twist” denouncing the anti-Semitic overtones but was completely surprised that with such  transparent and obvious demonization of people from the Middle East, that no one had ever spoken of it in these terms.

Looking back, I am embarrassed that it took so long for me to engage in a critical literacy discussion; and one that I did not initiate myself but was forced into kicking and screaming the whole way.  It does make me wonder, that if not for my intimate relationship with this person from a background so distinctly different from my own, would I ever have contemplated the validity of an opposing “reading” of my cherished texts?  Most probably not.  I strongly believe that this form of personal connection is the catalyst to the majority of critical literacy awakenings in teachers coming from a White Christian upper-middle class upbringing like my own.  It is not that we are evil people or bad teachers, it’s just that being constantly surrounded and reaffirmed by a homogeneous majority viewpoint does not promote the average person to question what has always been presented as the one way to see the world.

Critical Literacy Defined

For many, it is sometimes easier to understand what something is not before grappling with what it is.  I have used this pedagogical approach in my classroom when teaching my students about how to phrase an ethical question or the use of acceptable email and internet etiquette.  This method can therefore be applied to one’s understanding of Critical Literacy.   Comber (2001) assists us in our fluency by offering what reads as almost a heeding warning to professionals in the field

…it is not being negative and cynical about everything.  It is not political correctedness.  It is not about censoring the bad books and only reading the good books.  It is not indoctrination.  It is not developmental.  It is not about identifying racism, sexism, prejudice, and homophobia somewhere else or in texts that have little relevance for readers.  It is not whole language with social justice themes. (pp 271-272)

Margaret Meek (1987) writes about the importance of not simply teaching children to decode the words but to actually engage in dialogue about what the text means to them.  It is much more than the technical acquisition of reading skills. It is through this active process of thinking critically and taking part in rich discussion with others that a deep and powerful comprehension of the reading unfolds.  What stands out is the need for the readings to “have significance”, not only in the eyes of the teacher but in those of the student as well.  They are equal players here; joint partners in the game where no one has the upper hand and each learns from the other.

Luke, (1997) describes Critical Literacy as a “commitment to reshape literacy education in the interests of marginalized groups of learners, who on the basis of gender, cultural and socioeconomic background have been excluded from access to the discourses and texts of dominant economics and cultures” (p.143).  Critical literacy can be more simply defined as well as “the ability to read texts in an active, reflective manner in order to better understand power, inequality, and injustice in human relationships” (Coffey, 2008). In the elementary classroom setting, illustrated picture books, novels, conversations, songs, pictures, movies and the like are all considered texts. Central to critical literacy is the notion of dialogue around the texts, or in Freire’s terms, “reading the word” and “reading the world” (Freire and Macedo, 1987).

 

 

The development of critical literacy skills enables people to interpret messages in the modern world through a critical lens and to challenge the power relations within those messages.  Teachers who facilitate the development of critical literacy encourage students to interrogate societal issues and institutions like family, poverty, education, equity, and equality in order to critique the structures that serve as norms as well as to demonstrate how these norms are not experienced by all members of society (Coffey, 2008).

Critical literacy is a way to use texts to help children better understand themselves, others, and the world around them.  Using children’s literature, teachers can help their class through difficult situations, enable individual students to transcend their own challenges, and teach students to consider all viewpoints, respect differences, and become more self-aware.

There are many activities that are already going on in our classrooms that build critical literacy.  Reading novels written from the point of view of a child from another culture or set in another country; sharing stories about families and their religious traditions or considering the lives of young people like them who lived through war, persecution or poverty; as well, when we ask our students to write from the point of view of someone else; all of these classroom experiences are ways of developing critical literacy. As Melissa Thibault (2004) reminds us, these activities all serve the same purpose: they help the student to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to learn to understand other people’s circumstances and perspectives and to empathize with them.

My next post in the series about Critical Literacy will forward many examples of how to actively weave this type of literacy approach into your classroom.

Melanie Stonebanks

 

References for further reading can be found here:

Coffey, H. “Critical literacy.” LEARN North Carolina, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.learnnc.org/articles/article?id=maples0601

Comber, B. (2001). Critical Literacies and Local Action: Teacher Knowledge and a “New” Research Agenda in B. Comber & A. Simpson (Eds.), Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms. (pp.271-282). NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.

Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987).  Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. London: Routledge.

Luke, A. (1997).  Critical approaches to literacy. In V. Edwards & D. Corson (Eds), Encyclopedia of language and education, Vol. 2: Literacy (pp. 143-151). The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Meek, M.  (1987).  How Texts Teach What Readers Learn. Gloucestershire:Thimble Press.

Thibault, M. Children’s literature promotes understanding. LEARN North Carolina, 2004. Retrieved from http://www.learnnc.org/articles/article?id=maples0601

 

 

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

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