A little over a week ago I had the lucky chance to be a part of a group of educators from my district spending the morning with Vivian Vasquez. My district has added critically literacy units to our reading curriculum in first through sixth grades. The morning with Vivian was designed to help these literacy leaders better understand critical literacy and think about how to help the teachers in their buildings do the same. (I am not one of the literacy leaders in a building. I just got to tag along for the day. I do hope to bring my learning back to my own building in collaboration with our phenomenal literacy leaders.)
One of the things that Vivian says regularly, and probably has been doing for years, is “no text is ever neutral”. Those five words are pretty powerful. No text is ever neutral.
To really pause and reflect on that statement caused me to realize I don’t believe anything is truly neutral. When I think of countries who did not get involved in wars, citing their own neutrality, I realize that not taking a stand actually takes a stand. Countries who chose not to engage against Nazi Germany made a very specific statement in doing so. And it wasn’t really a statement of neutrality.
Switzerland is known for its neutrality (something that is long-standing as it was established in the Treaty of Paris in 1815). However Swiss banking laws have done much to protect illegal actions and the prosperity they have brought to criminals around the world. Something that definitely does not seem neutral.
We see news organizations attempting neutrality by offering equal time to both sides of an issue. Something that appears reasonable, but often means populations who have faced discrimination and violence are left with less of a voice. And privileged voices are given microphones when they should not be. It is not neutral to suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement should be covered equally with those whose argument that all lives matter makes it quite clear that Black lives matter far less. It is not neutral to give equal time to accused sex offenders as to the allegations being made by victims. The narrative is shaped by who is telling the story.
No text is ever neutral.
Vivian also discussed the idea that all texts are constructed and constructive. This one required a little bit of time for me to consider. The idea that all texts are constructed was easy for me. Of course they are. Even if the way we are constructing them is in striving for neutrality we make choices with every word, every phrase, every paragraph. The specific verbs we choose are very telling. We write to communicate and we want to communicate in certain ways. We may want to persuade others. We may want the reader to feel a certain way: hopeful, pitying, outraged. We may want to inform, but even then we are making choices about what we include and how we include it. We construct texts.
The idea that all texts are constructive was what took me a little longer. But I remembered the lesson we did at Columbus Day. I was so frustrated to find that poem about Columbus on the copier because I knew it would be constructive. I knew the students in whatever classroom read that poem would be constructing their understanding of Columbus, of our country’s history, of history in general, from that poem. When we read texts they are constructing us, our thinking, and our understanding. There is nothing wrong with that, in general, but it is something of which to be aware. When we read without acknowledging that texts are part of what constructs us, we are allowing ourselves to be manipulated by what we read. When I read fiction I am willing to give in to that manipulation, to allow the writer to take me along a path and lead me through various emotions. Even then, however, I try to remain aware of how the text is causing me to think about many different things that arise as I read.
Critical literacy is not an isolated skill. It needs to be something students (and adults) bring to everything they encounter. We need to recognize biases, stereotypes, and the ways authors are positioning us. We need to question those things. This feels far more critical now than ever before.