This year continues to demonstrate the importance of reading the world through a critical lens. But who gets to be “critical?” Who gets access to critical approaches to literacy versus who gets timed reading tests?
Educators who use literacy to challenge the status quo often ground their work in critical literacies. This approach goes beyond reading and writing as mechanical skills, using literacy to critique power and inequity–what Paulo Freire called “reading the word and the world.”
But what does this mean when we ask students to read the word and the world in another language?
In the wake of Brexit, as well as the the recent U.S. presidential election, according to the Casper Grathwohl of Oxford Dictionaries:
“It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse… Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.”
In 2011, I boarded a plane to Morocco for the second time. Having served there as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2007, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit while I was “in the neighborhood” (Italy: close enough).
I had braced myself for changes, and indeed, the the last few years had brought many transformations: There was now a fancy new light rail in Rabat, the old Marrakech train station had been completely relocated, and my former students’ once-childish voices had all dropped by a terrifying octave and a half.
As I walked through my old haunts, however, I wasn’t as much struck by the way the country had transformed. To my surprise, I was hit harder by how much I’d changed. Returning to my old city was like holding a questionably-colored dress sock against a known black background and discovering it’s indisputably navy blue. Like a president’s hair color, we sometimes don’t notice the gradual changes in ourselves until we abruptly hold them up against the past.
So if traveling to a new country is a journey of external discovery – new sounds, sights, and people – returning to that place inherently leads you on an expedition inward.
I had the same feeling this week when re-reading Paulo Freire’s brilliant, seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It was assigned for one of my classes, and though had read the book in my early 20’s and have been citing excerpts ever since, it’s been just short of a decade since I’ve sat down and read through the the whole book.
My original copy was dog-eared and annotated beyond cleanliness, but since a grad-student budget isn’t conducive to shiny new things, I decided to make do, sitting down with my old copy (with a different color pen this time*) to converse with Paulo Freire once again.
But as I read, it turned into less of a dialogue with Freire and more of an odd conversation with my former self: 20-something-Chris had underlined passages that now strike me as obvious, he had scribbled notes in the margins about life-connections that were no longer relevant, and he had even left many of the most brilliant passages completely blank (knowing him as I do, I could clearly see when his coffee buzz was wearing off). It wasn’t long before I realized I really was conceptualizing 20-something-Chris as “he” instead of “me.”
It felt just like re-walking the Moroccan streets that this same 20-something-Chris had walked years before. It felt less like I’d been there, like I’d written those notes, and more like I had once watched some highly interactive, sensually-enhanced movie where I saw it all through someone else’s eyes – like some trippy, time traveling RPG video game.
Admittedly, I’ve always been hesitant to visit a country or that I’ve already “checked off my list.” There are, after all, infinite places to go and new experiences to have. Its been the same with reading: I had always wondered why people would go back to a book they’ve already read when there are so many new, wonderful books out there to discover. What’s the point in going back?
It reminded me of the frustration I feel watching students take standardized reading tests: They often skim through the reading passage, then flip that page under to bubble-in the questions, never looking back. I tell them, time and time again, that all the answers were in the passage, and that they are, indeed, allowed to go back to look at them.
But something made them want to move on – and it wasn’t just the less-than-entertaining nature of standardized test passages – they wanted to move forward. They wanted to feel like they were making progress. Something deep inside, told them that if they didn’t get it the first time, that they weren’t smart or savvy readers; that “good” readers can get all they need from a passage the first time.
Now, as a reader and as a traveler, I know the opposite is true.
When faced with new questions, challenges, or life stages, sometimes if you just turn back a page, the answers are right there in the passage; looking back doesn’t mean you’re not moving forward. (And yes, I just used standardized testing as a life metaphor – sincere apologies).
So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m pretty sure there are a few more books – and countries – that I should be getting back to.
*If this experience sounds intriguing, I’d suggest reading “S.” by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, a novel in which two characters write notes in the margins to each other – it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before.
Confession: In all my years teaching English, I have never chosen to teach Shakespeare (inbox: brace for hate-mail). It was never really a conscious choice – I have nothing against the Bard; I just knew my students had been/would be exposed to his work and I had other texts I wanted to teach.
Making book choices is a painful process – for teachers and readers alike. Choosing a book is exciting, but it also inherently necessitates choosing to an entire wealth of authors, stories, and perspectives out.
So what’s the go-to literary answer? READ THE CANON. What is the canon? Well see for yourself: Here are the 10 “Most Taught” books in US High Schools (followed by the percentages of schools that reported using them).
I’m sure you’ll quickly notice how white (all) and male (all except To Kill a Mockingbird) the authors are, but I was also surprised that none of these books were written within the last half century. It’s disturbing to think that, in such a rapidly changing world, our English course lists look largely the same as one from a pre-Sputnik classroom of the 1950’s. Our perspectives on literature – and arguably reality – therefore remain shaped by the same 10 dead anglo-authors.
‘Tis the season! It’s the end of the semester and students everywhere are frantically typing up projects for classes that all seem to backload 95% of the work onto the final week.
No exception here. Just finished a big ol’ “Literature Review” – essentially our program’s first year initiation right – synthesizing 30-or-so studies on a teacher-research topic of one’s choosing.
At some way-too-late hour of the night, on a whim, I copied and pasted the entire beast into a word cloud generator, the results of which you see above. Not only was it nice to see my main topics artistically arranged on a single page, but it was also useful for editing (making me realize, for example that I had used the word “practice” far more times than was humanly tolerable – to the thesaurus!).
If you’re curious as to why the words critical and literacy look like Godzilla and Mothra stomping toward a terrified-city-of-other-words in my word cloud, it’s because I reviewed research about using critical literacy approaches with English language learners: the idea being that “literacy” means more than just reading and writing, but is also a political act.As our society often uses literacy to “disempower those who, through Continue reading “Your Final Project Word Cloud”→
What about you? What’s your favorite banned book? Here’s a sample from the ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of the Past Decade (I’ve read/taught the ones in bold. Any of the others I should pick up right away?):
1. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
2. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor 3. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier 4. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell 5. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck 6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
7. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
8. His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman
9. ttyl; ttfn; l8r g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle Continue reading “Happy Banned Books Week!”→