Critical Literacy

Developed by Jennifer Mitchell, Fall 2005

Berlin, James A. “Literacy, Pedagogy, and English Studies: Postmodern connections.” Critical Literacy: Politics, praxis, and the postmodern. Colin Lankshear and Peter L. McLaren, eds. Albany: State University of New York, 1993. 247-270.

In this article, Berlin argues for the refiguration of English Studies as Cultural Studies. Following the work of other critical literacy theorists, Berlin asserts that English classes should be about acknowledging that language is inherently political and examining reading and writing as culturally/socially situated practices, rather than focusing on a (falsely assumed) “nonpolitical” aesthetic judgment of texts. This article is pertinent to the discussion of how critical literacy can inform our definitions of “critical thinking” in that it defines thinking as inseparable from the cultural, social, and political contexts in which it is situated. Berlin’s argument also calls to light the need to focus on the texts that populate and shape our culture as objects of study; this calls into question the idea that one can meaningfully “apply thinking skills” without looking at the effect of texts in our own contexts.

Brown, Heather. “Walking into the Unknown: Inquiry-based learning transforms the English classroom.” English Journal. 94.2 (November 2004): 43-48.

Brown describes the effect that shifting the focus of a research unit from a teacher- and standard-driven model to a dialogic, cooperative one in which students conducted inquiry into phenomena and practices that were of import in their own communities. Students were more engaged, communicated with one another and the instructor more freely, gained confidence in their abilities to discuss issues as knowledgeable and active researchers. This article will be helpful in my project because it describes the enaction of critical literacy practices in a secondary school context, and emphasizes that the students felt more motivated to pursue their inquiry further while engaging in the more dialogic model of classroom activity. In other words, the combined dialogic approach and focus on students’ own questions about their world helped students see how their inquiry had implications outside of the classroom.

Christensen, Linda. “Reading, Writing, and Righteous Anger: Teaching about Language and Society. Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2000. 105-114.

Freire, Paulo. “The Importance of the Act of Reading.” Rewriting Literacy: Culture and the discourse of the other. Candace Mitchell and Kathleen Weiler, eds. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1991. 139-146.

In this article, Freire establishes the importance of drawing from students’ own “word universe” in order to help them gain literacy skills. Freire asserts that the word is inextricably contextualized in the world in which it is conceived, and thus will be rendered meaningless if it is stripped of that meaningful context when presented to literacy learners. This article problematizes the absence in Standard Four of attention to students’ knowledge of their world. Freire believes strongly that “thinking” outside of the context of students’ own experiences is meaningless for the learner; this presents a direct challenge to the standard’s implied claim that thinking consists of skills that one can obtain and apply to unfamiliar texts.

–. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1993.

In this book, Friere builds a definition of critical literacy as being diametrically opposed to what he calls the “banking” method of teaching in which teachers deposit knowledge in students’ passive minds. He emphasizes students as active subjects and advocates for a unified conception of thought and action (praxis). As an alternative to banking pedagogy, Friere proposes the “problem-posing” method, in which students engage in dialogue with one another and their teacher about real problems that affect the students’ lives. Friere’s reworking of the whole concept of what it means to learn is infinitely relevant to the discussion of what it means to think. His assertion that real learning comes from reflecting on one’s own cultural/social/political reality, challenging it, and combining these reflections and challenges with action introduce a dimension of “critical thinking” that Standard Four does not address explicitly. The concept of praxis especially seems pertinent to the discussion of what it means to think, for Freire would likely assert that thinking without action is meaningless.

Giroux, Henry A. “Literacy and the Politics of Difference.” Critical Literacy: Politics, praxis, and the postmodern. Colin Lankshear and Peter L. McLaren, eds. Albany: State University of New York, 1993. 367-378.

Giroux argues in this article for a positive politics of difference, in which students speak with one another across difference, each from their own locations within cultural and political contexts. Here, Giroux sees critical literacy as the process of students interrogating their own experiences and conceptions of difference, and engaging in dialogue with “others” rather than assuming a position from which to speak for others. Giroux’s complex vision of how knowledge and power can be worked together to investigate and challenge one’s world is valuable in the discussion of what it means to think critically. He furthers the argument that to make thinking meaningful, one cannot ignore the politics that surround the thinker and characterize her interactions in the world.

–. “The Hope of Radical Education.” What Schools Can Do: Critical pedagogy and practice. Kathleen Weiler Kathleen and Candace Mitchell, eds. Albany: State University of New York, 1992: 13-26.

In this interview, Giroux examines schools as sites of cultural production and transmission that are active in perpetuating certain attitudes and beliefs about the world. Giroux reasserts the necessity of asking what it is we expect schools to do-what ideas about the world we want to communicate within them. From there, Giroux launches a reaffirmation of the importance of helping students become active interrogators of their worlds. This article is chiefly useful in its emphasis on purpose in education-something that the text of Standard Four appears to avoid. Giroux raises the question of what social structures will be reproduced if we advocate “applying thinking skills” without a clear conception of the ends which this process is supposed to achieve.

hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A pedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge, 2003.

This book covers a lot of territory, from confronting racism in schools and institutions to talking about spirituality and death to the possibilities of teachers to be whole human beings who need to recharge themselves if they are to be effective teachers. I’m using this book in my research for its recurring theme of thinking as a social process and hooks’s emphasis on learning as something that must breach classroom/”real world” divides. Hooks’s focus on forging connections between learners and contexts raises the importance of avoiding teaching skills in isolation-a concern that can be meaningfully applied to Standard Four and possible interpretations of it.

–. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Again, hooks covers a lot of ground in this book, focusing mostly on how to make spaces for revolutionary pedagogy in public institutions. Most pertinent to my project is her focus on the challenge of embracing new ways of knowing in the classroom and her emphasis that learning should be enjoyable for students. This speaks to the clinical nature of mainstream representations of critical thinking-that it consists of a series of skills that are to be applied to objects by objective thinkers. If learning does not stem from the concerns of the students, the likelihood that it will be meaningful or enjoyable for them is highly unlikely. Hooks’s descriptions of the challenges that accompany the enaction of different models of thinking-particularly ones inspired by critical literacy-suggest areas to consider when thinking about ways to enact the “thinking skills” standard more meaningfully in the classroom.

McLaren, Peter. Life in Schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2003.. New York: Routledge, 1994.

In this book, McLaren posits critical pedagogy as informed by Marxist theory, describes his conceptions of the theoretical underpinnings of critical practice, and offers a sort of case study that is meant to illustrate one instance of critical literacy at work. Most relevant to this project is McLaren’s emphasis on thinking as a process of understanding the political contexts and debates that shape one’s world and the necessity of translating that process into empowering action. McLaren fights against isolating thinking as disembodied skills; this clearly speaks to standards in general in that it questions the validity of seeing thinking as a decontextualized and quantifiable entity. He focuses as well on using critical thinking as a way of helping students believe that they might approach the world and affect it in meaningful ways. This speaks again to the purpose question that Giroux raises-what good is promoting thinking without pointing out avenues for related action?

Shor, Ira. “What is Critical Literacy?” Journal for Pedagogy, Pluralism & Practice. 4.1 (Fall 1999). .

Shor asserts that critical literacy means connecting “the political and the personal, the public and the private, the global and the local, the economic and the pedagogical” (1). Literacy, Shor asserts, is a powerful tool for fighting injustice because engaging reflectively in literacy practices means looking at how language constructs our world and then using dissenting literacy practices to make possible new and more just constructions. Shor seems to assert that we have a moral and ethical responsibility to engage in critical literacy in order to enact change; this assertion is surely not reflected in the language of Standard Four. However, Shor’s vision of our responsibility calls into question what exactly we’re neglecting (and conversely reinforcing) when we assume that “thinking” is an apolitical process.

Shosh, Joseph M. “Making Meaning in a Dialogic Discourse Diary.” English Journal. 94.1 (September 2004): 53-58.

Shosh explains his experiences switching from a transmission model to a dialogic one in his teaching composition in a high school setting. Incorporating writing assignments that helped students see themselves in dialogue with the texts they read and placed the texts in dialogue with one another created a “culture of inquiry” in Shosh’s classes and empowered students to “own” their writing and to extend their interrogation with texts to other aspects of the class. This model of critical literacy in action provides another perspective on what critical literacy can do in a classroom in terms of helping students cultivate an interrogative stance. It is especially helpful in that it discusses evaluation of student work as a dialogic process and details the benefits and challenges to evaluating in such a way. This ties in nicely with the focus on standards since it provides an alternative model of assessing students’ critical engagement with the course material.