Critical Literacy Thoughts, Part II

Now that I’ve accepted that no text is neutral and all texts are constructed and constructive, thanks to Vivian Vasquez, what’s next? Well, first of all, I think having that understanding is essential before I can move on to more complicated aspects of critical literacy. But before I do, here’s one more example of the above ideas (from our morning at American University with Vivian):


As I threw something away in the trash can on the above left, I looked at it more closely. Compare it to this trash can below, found two days later at a theater:

The purpose of the two trash cans is not significantly different. Both have places for trash, recycling, and paper waste. The one at the theater even says ‘waste’ rather than ‘trash’, causing one to consider how wasteful things might be. But the one at American University says ‘Landfill’, which really hit me. Before I threw anything into it, I stopped to consider whether or not what I was putting there truly belonged in a landfill. Was I sure it couldn’t be recycled? Was I certain that was the correct bin for my waste?

It was fascinating to notice that trash cans can be constructed and constructive.

Back to the discussion with a bunch of literacy leaders and Vivian…

One of the questions asked that led to quite a discussion, was “What about when teachers say students lack background knowledge? How can we handle that and address it?”

As I’ve spent twenty years working with children who are living in financially challenging situations and who often are English language learners, I’ve heard this statement about my students time and time again. I’ve rarely responded well, I’m sure.

Vivian’s response included the idea that ‘when you marginalize one, you privilege another’. This is always true. If we’re assuming some students don’t have background knowledge, we’re assuming other students, different students, have tons of it. Really what we’re saying is that some students lack the background knowledge we expect them to have and want them to have. Because no one lacks background knowledge. No one lacks experiences. Those experiences simply may be different from your own. Which doesn’t make them less than your own. When we hear this statement from other educators or from non-educators, we need to be prepared to push back, to ask what is meant by that statement.

This matters because background knowledge impacts learning. If teachers believe that students lack background knowledge they will have lower expectations for those students. That is unacceptable.

Vivian followed up on this idea by saying, “Unless you name what you are doing, it is very hard to check it.”

We know this as teachers because if students are unable to name what they are doing, they likely don’t have a deep understanding and will be unable to transfer that knowledge, use it the future, or ensure they are using it well. We need to know this as teachers for ourselves as well.

We need to name the things we are doing as teachers because that is the only way to be sure that the things we are doing are the right things. That they fit with our core beliefs about children, learning, and teaching. If we don’t look with a critical eye at our own decisions and actions we will continue to do things simply because we always have.

I guess what I’m thinking is that critical literacy is like so many other literacies, it goes far beyond texts. Texts may be a place to begin our understanding (both for ourselves and for our students) but using those literacy skills will not be limited to texts. Those skills will be useful for any sort of medium and even for our own actions.

One reply

  1. Your posts are such a wonderful demonstration of what happens when one takes on critical literacy as an attitude, way of being, thinking and doing in the world. Thank you so much for your insightful and thoughtful comments. I’m so glad you were able to participate in the workshop at AU! Looking forward to reading more! Hugs.

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