The Language of Power and Critical Literacy in 2020

This past week has left me speechless–and conflicted.  I have been searching for answers and searching my soul.  I’m just not sure about anything anymore.

In the past, when I’ve tried to get my minority students, both black and Hispanic, to take English class seriously, I’ve told them that they needed to have Standard American English “mastered” as the “language of power,” that out there in the world, they would be judged by the way they spoke and wrote, and unfortunately, if they “failed” the test of being able to use correct English, they lost any power they might have had. During those years I was teaching in public schools, in a school with a population of nearly 90% free and reduced lunch, but NOT a Title I school, I thought I was doing them a favor by telling them that they were powerless without the knowledge I had that I could give them.  After all, in a school that was more than 60% black and less than 1% Hispanic, I had something they didn’t have–white privilege, except I didn’t see it that way then.

While I was taking classes to teach ESOL (English as a Second Language), I began to learn about Paulo Friere and his theory of critical literacy, and I began thinking of ways that I could teach the texts I loved (mostly the classic canon of “white dead men”) and use some of the critical literacy frameworks and questions, especially to help students re-examine the concept of power.  I think I failed then.  However, I continue to think that I need, now more than ever, to pursue this concept with my privileged, predominantly white, middle school students.  This may be the first of several posts on how to I might use critical literacy in my classroom with the texts that I teach.

I have been reading in several Facebook groups for middle and high school English teachers about the need to incorporate more diverse voices in the selection of texts, and I agree that there are a number of texts that we should include–a number of wonderful authors whose voices we need to hear.  Among my favorites are Sharon Draper, author of two of my favorite books, Romiette and Julio, a retelling/recasting of the Romeo and Juliet story, and Copper Sun, the story of an enslaved girl who escapes with a runaway white indentured female servant and the friendship that develops out of the prejudice the one has for the other; and Walter Dean Myers.  There is also Nikki Grime’s Bronx Masquerade, the multi-genre story of ethnically diverse students who learn to use poetry to give their lives voices that are heard. I am currently reading Ghost Boys by Jewel Parker Rhodes (I’m only two and a half chapters into the book, so I can’t say more than–OMG! it’s powerful!).

This week, I have watched on national and local news programs, what happens when people who have been oppressed and not heard before try to make themselves heard in ways that certainly have received attention, but I question whether their voices have been heard. Many of the protests have been peaceful, and I have watched political leaders and law enforcement officers listen as the protesters spoke.  But then the rioting and looting and violence began, and the voice of protest was lost in the noise of what appeared to me to be senseless destruction of property–stores, restaurants, public spaces; most of that violence aimed at the innocent.

I suggest, in part, and will explore through research, that using critical literacy in the classroom can help give voice to those in our society who feel that they have no voice.

Critical literacy challenges us to change our perspective. Ira Shor writes in his article, “What is Critical Literacy?”,

“Critical literacy . . . challenges the status quo in an effort to discover alternative paths for self and social development. This kind of literacy–words rethinking worlds, self dissenting in society–connects the political and the personal, the public and the private, the global and the local, the economic and the pedagogical, for rethinking our lives and for promoting justice in place of inequity.”

Critical literacy challenges us to look at multiple perspectives.  As we begin to look at the texts that we use in our classes, I think we can start with some essential questions:

  • Who is speaking?
  • Whose voices are silenced?
  • What’s missing from this account?
  • How could it be told differently?

Even if we use a canonical text like To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men or even Romeo and Juliet, we can still challenge the text with these four questions and engage students in conversations about why Tom Robinson’s voice is silenced or why Mayella’s point of view is missing (I know she lashes out at Atticus in the trial and accuses him of patronizing her, but why does she feel that way?) Why does Juliet not speak out when her father threatens her to make her marry Paris?  Why does her mother not speak in the presence of the men?

During this past week as I watched the protests against the senseless death of George Floyd and the pleas that #BlackLivesMatter, I realize that we need to do more than teach the rules of Standard American English and “lit-er-a-chure”.  We need to teach students how to use their voices in whatever language they have to give themselves voices.  We need to teach them how to read the word AND the world.  I believe that we can do that in the twenty-first-century classroom.  I believe that we need to do that in the twenty-first-century classroom.

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