Critical Literacy Theory

Subscribing to Critical Literacy Theory entails the careful examination and evaluation of text in order to “see” multiple versions of the same story. It requires deliberately questioning the voices of the majority perspective by bringing those of the oppressed to the forefront. It involves analyzing the structure and content of words and images to understand their impact on particular groups of people. It necessitates looking for hidden messages—comparing what’s being said to what’s not.

Being critical requires a healthy dose of skepticism. It also requires curiosity and a willingness to pursue ideas that diverge from the norm. As Luke (2019) writes, critical literacy focuses “on students’ engaging in forms of ideology critique: exposing and reconstructing misleading ideological versions of the world provided in media, literature, textbooks, and everyday texts” (p. 354). This perhaps goes against what some students of the not-so-distant past were taught: Teachers and textbooks are always right.

One pivotal assignment as an undergrad included an opportunity to deconstruct a series of elementary school lessons about Christopher Columbus. We students had to establish the dominant perspective, look for biases within the text and images, and determine whose story was being left out. It was an eye-opening experience because it forced us to, as Luke says, critique the ideological version of what had been, for years, our accepted truth. Or at least the accepted truth of the many white Americans of European decent. It is the type of lesson, however, that you do not forget. Once you learn to see other versions of the truth, you can’t unsee them. In fact, you begin to look for them.

Brooks (2019) echoes this sentiment in writing about intersectionality, or the idea that an individual’s “categories of differences” make up the whole person (p. 421). For example, I am more than just a graduate student. I am a woman. I am cisgender. I am a wife and mother. I am a white, middle-class Democrat unsure of her religious beliefs. To consider me through only one of those lenses would provide a very narrow view about who I am as a person. Much like Critical Literacy Theory, subscribing to the concept of intersectionality requires “unlearning (dominant) social imaginaries, attending to alternative world views, and centering the disremembered” in order to get the whole picture (Brooks, 2019, p. 427). To do otherwise is an injustice.

In school, we consider students’ intersectionality to determine their funds of knowledge, or the knowledge and skills they bring to the classroom from their home culture. When we strive to know the whole child and not just the student, we create an environment in which what is relevant and important to them matters and is a welcome addition to the curriculum. For example, one aspect of the edTPA certification process involved explaining how my focus learner’s family history, strengths, and interests shaped my teaching. This required seeing my focus learner as a whole child rather than simply a student or, even more impersonal, a subject to be studied and written about. Children do not come to school wearing only one hat. They are complex, multi-layered individuals. Similarly, they come from families with complex, multi-layered histories and experiences. It would be wrong to leave the potential of what they bring to the classroom unexplored.

I see Critical Literacy Theory, intersectionality, and funds of knowledge as being interconnected. They each require asking probing questions to get below the surface level. They require seeing many different sides. They require accepting many different truths.

References

Brooks, M.D. (2019). Untapped possibilities: Intersectionality through literacy research. In D.E. Alvermann, N.J. Unrau, M. Sailors, & R.B. Ruddell (Eds.) Theoretical Models and Processes of Literacy (7th ed.) (pp. 419-429). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Luke, A. (2019). Regrounding critical literacy: Representation, facts and reality. In D.E. Alvermann, N.J. Unrau, M. Sailors, & R.B. Ruddell (Eds.) Theoretical Models and Processes of Literacy (7th ed.) (pp. 349-361). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Moll, L.C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132-141.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Do you like fast-paced stories that leave you sitting on the edge of your seat? Do you enjoy fantastical tales full of secrets and suspense? If the answer is yes, then prepare to be swept away on an exciting adventure down the river Thames.

Eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead works at his parents’ inn in Oxford, England, in a world very much like our own . . . and yet different. In Malcolm’s world, witches aren’t just the stuff of fairy tales, there are magical truth-telling instruments called alethiometers, and souls exist outside the body as talking animals called daemons.

Inquisitive and intelligent, Malcolm discovers that the nuns who live across the river are hiding a secret: a very special baby named Lyra. Malcolm is drawn to Lyra in ways he cannot explain and takes every opportunity to see her. When the river breaches its banks and floods the town, he barely manages to escape with the baby and a young kitchen maid called Alice. On their perilous journey downriver in Malcolm’s trusty canoe called La Belle Sauvage, the trio—along with their daemons—is pursued by a madman bent on revenge, as well as an organization determined to kidnap Lyra. Malcolm’s strength and courage are tested time and again in his mission to keep Lyra safe.     

“Get in. Sit down there and take Lyra. Don’t move,” he said, and pulled back enough of the canopy for Alice to see the bow, and where to step and where to sit. He shoved Lyra at her, and she took her with firm arms, and then he pulled the canopy back over her and got in himself. There was so much water streaming over the grass that he was pretty sure this would work, and indeed La Belle Sauvage was straining at her mooring rope already, as if she sensed what Malcolm wanted.

A quick tug—the knot came loose-and Malcolm took the paddle and used it to keep her upright as she began to move, slowly at first and then faster and faster, down the grass slope towards the river.

But the river was coming up to meet them, and suddenly the little boat came free from the grass and surged forward.

They could only go one way. La Belle Sauvage sped like a dart over the mad river, down towards Port Meadow, towards the wild waste of water that was sweeping through Oxford, towards whatever lay beyond.

(Pullman, 2017, p. 247-48)

Although I really enjoyed this book, I especially loved the second half of the story, which chronicles the kids’ daring escape during the flood and showcases their imagination and resourcefulness, as well as their ability to work together as a team. Being stuck on a canoe, with a baby, in an unfamiliar environment, for over a week, with bad guys chasing them, would be frightening. I kept asking myself, what would I do?   

La Belle Sauvage is Volume One of The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman.

If you like this book and want to know more about Lyra as a young girl, you might enjoy Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy that includes The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Although La Belle Sauvage was written after the trilogy, the events in this story take place before we meet Lyra as a schoolgirl in The Golden Compass.

The Gardener

The Gardener written by Sarah Stewart; illustrated by David Small

Stewart, S. (1997). The gardener. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Category: Historical fiction picture book

Summary: Lydia Grace Finch is sent to help her uncle Jim in his bakery in the city. A gardener at heart, Lydia is on a mission to make her surly uncle smile with the beautiful flowers she grows. Set during the Depression, Lydia’s story is told through a series of letters to her family.

Theme: People have the power to create beauty and joy wherever they go.

Generalizations: family, community, helping

Potential uses in the classroom: The Gardener can be used to talk about concepts such as family and community, as well as helping. Teachers and students can discuss the book’s unique text structure—the story is told entirely as a series of letters that Lydia sends to family members. What can students infer from the illustrations? As a writing exercise, students can use letter-writing to tell a story. This book can also be incorporated into a science unit. Students can grow and study some of the same flowers that Sarah grows on her rooftop garden.

Melissa’s note: Gardening is a passion of mine, so I gravitate to books, especially picture books, that include some element of plants and flowers. The Gardener is a heartwarming story—all Lydia wants to do is plant flowers and make her uncle smile—and the illustrations are magical. I appreciate the message that we have the power to create beauty. The Gardener is a Caldecott Honor book.

Teaching Is Like . . .

When I was an undergrad at SUNY Cortland, one of my Foundations and Social Advocacy professors asked us students to think of a metaphor to describe what it means to be a teacher. As someone who enjoys nature and digging in the dirt, I have always imagined that being a teacher is a lot like being a gardener tending her plot. The plants and flowers, of course, represent the wonderfully diverse bouquet of learners.

Gardening is forever a work in progress. It takes many seasons of trial and error to get things just right. Even then, you are never, ever done. Over the past 15 years, I have invested thousands of dollars, countless hours, limitless patience, and an unfathomable love into shaping and nurturing the plants and flowers in my care. My garden continues to improve with experience, an experience gained by researching my questions and curiosities, reaching out to more knowledgeable others, implementing proven techniques, and (frankly) not being afraid to fail.

Most importantly, however, I observe. Several times each week, I walk through my garden, closely examining leaves for signs of pest or fungal damage. I kneel eye-level to the soil to ensure that each small seedling is intact and growing strong, especially after a particularly windy day or heavy rain. I monitor for weeds that bully their way into the garden and threaten to overwhelm (even though I firmly believe that most weeds are simply misunderstood and shouldn’t be removed just because).

I give my plants what they need. When I first began gardening, I had only a vague idea about what I was doing. I have since learned that cold weather crops, such as salad greens, do not tolerate high heat or too much sun well. Tomatoes, on the other hand, are the opposite. They thrive when temperatures soar and the sun shines brightly. Lavender prefers well-drained soil, but lupine grow surprisingly well in water-logged clay. Daisies, black-eyed Susan, and coneflower tend to wilt during sunny afternoon hours. Panicked, I would rush to water them, believing they were on the verge of death. But then I learned that wilting helps conserve water. My well-intentioned hovering was actually causing more harm than if I had just left them alone to do their thing.  

My garden is not picture-perfect. I have always preferred “messy” English cottage gardens to well-manicured lawns. However, that’s not to say my garden lacks order or intention. Over the years, I have purposefully designed every aspect to reflect the needs of the plants within it. For example, the shade-loving plants grow on the north side to capture the warmth of the morning light and cool afternoon shade, whereas those that require full sun face south. Perennial wildflowers thrive in the rain garden, while at the same time providing food and shelter for precious birds and pollinators. Hardy sunflowers draw pests away from more vulnerable plants while providing beneficial shade to more delicate flora. Even structures like birdbaths, feeders, and houses; insect hotels; arbors and supports; chairs and tables . . . all of these are chosen and placed with thought and care not only to their specific function, but also for their contribution to the garden as a whole.

For my 41st birthday, my older daughter convinced me to get a tattoo. “It can’t be just any tattoo,” I told her. “It must have meaning.” After all, I knew it would be my one and only. It had to reflect my love of gardening as well as this vision of teaching I’ve held in my mind for so long now. My daughter presented me with a simple design she created herself: a seedling with three small leaves and roots reaching deep into the earth. It was perfect. To me, this tattoo epitomizes the relationship between a teacher and his or her students. Teachers are the roots. They provide stability and structure and nourishment. Students are the seedlings. They begin life small and so very fragile. But with love and support, they grow. They reeeaach, reeeaach, reach for the sun.

And, over time, these young plants BECOME to reveal the beauty that was inside them all along, from the very beginning.

Why “Books and Bloom”?

Melissa as a young author

For several years now, I have been wanting to start a blog. But what to call it? While not the only factor holding me back—would anyone read what I wrote? would they even want to?—I’m embarrassed to admit that the lack of a title was an admittedly convenient excuse. In truth, I was standing on the edge of the blogging pool, nervous to take the plunge.

“Books”

I’ve enjoyed a lifelong love affair with reading and writing. Teddy Bear Gardener, by Joan and Pheobe Worthington, is the first book I remember fluently reading by myself, and I recently hunted down and purchased a used copy for nostalgia’s sake. I began “writing” books at five years old, long before I was old enough to do much more than print my name. When I wasn’t watching Sesame Street or Mister Roger’s Neighborhood (or reruns of Perry Mason), I could be found sitting in front of the electric typewriter, transcribing the conversations inside my head one keystroke at a time. Of course, if anyone else happened to look at the page, all they would see was a continuous stream of letters. My personal word-scramble.

I also enjoy sharing and talking about the books I’m reading, which is another goal for this blog. Whether they are books for the classroom library, resources for teachers, or novels I read for pleasure, I will post them on this site.

“And Bloom”

This term has a dual meaning. Another of my passions is plants and flowers, and I often equate teaching to tending a garden, a metaphor I will expand on in another post. Where learning takes place, however, minds bloom. But “bloom” also refers to Benjamin Bloom, the educational psychologist responsible for developing Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierarchical list of cognitive skills that helps teachers develop lessons and objectives that exercise students’ critical thinking skills. Because I am, as of yet, a newly certified teacher with limited classroom experience, the “and bloom” aspect of this site will have a lot of opportunity to, well, bloom. In the future, I hope to share the lessons my students and I are learning. In the meantime, I will share what I learned as a pre-service teacher and graduate student.

I do hope that whether you are the parent of a student, in-service teacher, or pre-service teacher, you will find value in these posts.

What is Literacy?

When I think of the term literacy, I picture a Matryoshka, one of those wooden stacking toys in which one doll opens to reveal another slightly smaller version of itself. Literacy is the outermost doll. When taken apart, it reveals the skills and knowledge needed to communicate with others. The smallest doll, the solid wooden core, represents the discrete literacy skills we learn early on that make reading, writing, and speaking possible. These skills, after all, are the heart of learning. Consider the act of reading, for example. Reading occurs in all facets of life whether at school, work, or home. We read for functional purposes, such as locating street signs when navigating an unfamiliar city. We also read for pleasure. And yet these definitions seem too simplistic. As Sylvia Scribner (1984) says, it is much easier to define what it means to be literate or illiterate than it is to describe literacy.

Scribner (1984) employs three metaphors to describe the purpose of literacy: literacy as adaptation, literacy as power, and literacy as a state of grace. Literacy as adaptation refers to the basic literacy skills needed to complete a specified task. For example, if I want to bake a cake, I must be able to read and follow the steps of the recipe. I must also understand the general construct of a recipe. A list of ingredients typically precedes the instructions. The amount of each ingredient is, generally speaking, non-negotiable. One must follow the steps in sequential order to achieve the desired result. Literacy as power suggests that literate people hold the power. In other words, skilled readers and writers tend to be more successful. While true to an extent, literacy and power are not mutually exclusive. After all, it depends on the extent of one’s literateness as well as how one defines power and success. These attributes may be contextually specific and change over time. Literacy as a state of grace refers to the special treatment literate people receive, underscoring the “literacy as power” claim. This grace, of course, typically extends to people who are cultured, book-smart, and articulate, not to mention white.

Frankel et al. (2016) shares a more precise definition of literacy as “the process of using reading, writing, and oral language” to make meaning within a social context (p. 7). When we consider what it means to read or to be a reader, we typically think of literacy in the context of academics. In other words, we teach young children to read so they can learn, but mastering discrete literacy skills does not ensure students will be able to successfully navigate and comprehend disciplinary content. Referring back to my recipe example, we make meaning of a text when we understand how it is organized. Just as important, we make meaning when interacting with others.

Ghouldy Muhammad (2020) challenges my understanding of literacy with her article about historically responsive literacy. I approach literacy through the lens of an educated, upper-middle-class, white woman. Students of color repeatedly and unfairly bear the label of struggling reader and writer, but how often do educators ask why? What if the literacy skills these students have in their toolbox are simply different, but no less valuable, than traditional literacy skills? For example, students of color “may struggle with skills like decoding or reading fluency, but they can read social contexts and environments exceptionally well” (Muhammad, 2020, p. 41). Functionally speaking, this is an important skill that many otherwise literate people lack. The phrase “reading the room,” referring to a person’s ability to interpret social cues, comes to mind.

The biggest takeaways from the articles I referenced when writing this include:

  • Literacy is not easily defined. We construct different meanings based on our own experiences.
  • Literacy is ever-changing. It is not a static skill but something that develops over time.
  • Literacy is a social transaction. People learn how to communicate by interacting with others.
  • Literacy should be culturally relevant. We must consider the backgrounds and needs of all individuals.

References

Frankel, K.K., Becker, B.L.C., Rowe, M.W., & Pearson, P.D. (2016). From “what is reading?” to “what is literacy?” Journal of Education, 196(3), 7-17.

Muhammad, G. (2020). What is historically responsive literacy? Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, 38-6.

Scribner, S. (1984). Literacy in three metaphors. American Journal of Education, 93(1), 6-21.