The Role of Critical Literacy in Promoting Respectful Interaction in a Diverse Society

Much of children’s experience of the world is vicarious, coming through books and other media. Students who are able to make ‘text to self’ connections are better equipped to be global citizens because it is simply harder to hate others when we recognize their commonality. A literacy teacher’s role, then, is three-fold. First, s/he seeks literature that promotes a true view of the world, in all its richness and color. Second, she puts a concerted effort into teaching critical literacy — the tools necessary to evaluate print and non-print media in the greater world. Finally — like every adult that works with children — s/he models respectful interactions and give children the opportunity to do the same.

Most reading teachers have a classroom library, and this can be a powerful tool in teaching tolerance. However, no teacher has the resources to provide all children in her care with quality resources in all the areas that interest them. No teacher can do a perfect job of selecting bias-free or positive literature — it can be argued, in fact, that all literature has some level of bias because it is written from the viewpoint of a particular individual. Moreover, even if it were possible to create a bias-free classroom library, it would create as many problems as it solves. What a teacher offers is only a small portion of what children will read in the course of their childhoods, and even smaller portion of what they will read across a lifetime. When the children leave the classroom, they encounter a world of internet blogs, of political propaganda, of slander and slanted advertising — in short, a world where ther literature is not nearly so carefully selected.

That is where the second responsibility comes in: the responsibility to foster critical literacy. In For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action, authors Randy and Katherine Bomer suggest that teachers use read-alouds and student text to help children challenge assumptions about race, gender, and other differences. When reading aloud, teachers can stop periodically to reflect on a particular issue, using an uncertain ‘think-aloud’ voice; later, students may be invited to voice their own opinions. Students can also be introduced to issues through short text excerpts presented in mini-lesson format; eventually they will be able to mark sections in their own text and bring them to the group for discussion.

In Critical Literacy: Enhancing Students’ Comprehension of Text, authors Maureen Mclaughlin and Glenn Devoogs offer another model for teaching even very young children to be aware of bias in the books they read. They ask the chuildren a series of questions, beginning with whose voice is represented (Who is telling the story?) and progressing to a more thought-provoking question: whose voice(s) are left out. They later guide the children to consider how the story might be different if it were told by a different narrator. They further cement the concept of tolerance by modeling it through personal interaction. They show respect for the various learning styles in the classroom to ‘rewrite’ the story in their choice of modalities, including song.

One shouldn’t necessarily get rid of a classic story because it contains some questionable elements; such stories can provide excellent discussion opportunities. For example, I often use the book Christina Katerina and the Box with primary age students. I explain that the book was written in 1971, a time when people were less sensitive about the language they used — and that one of the characters was called “Fats” in the original story, but, “We’ll call him Fred.” I have asked students to consider this character’s viewpoint, and to rewrite the story from his perspective. (Yes, Christina Katerina is very talented when it comes to turning a box into play props — but what of Fred? What talents does he have? What would he say for himself if he were telling the story? How do we know that he isn’t? Are there any clues in the text or illustrations that we are seeing Fred through Christina’s eyes?) My hope is that the children will feel empathy for this character “whose voice is not heard” — and ultimately for one another.

The last responsibility of the literacy teacher, then, is a responsibility shared by all instructors: teaching respectful interaction. Bomer and Bomer write of posting written reminders during literature discussion. These reminders may include such useful tidbits as “Jot down points you want to get to later,” and “Watch for people wiggling or opening their mouths trying to speak,” (p 47).

David Cooper, author of Literacy: Helping Children Construct Meaning notes that when teachers model acceptance of unexpected responses (those that are not exactly what they were looking for), they teach children to do the same. When children experience having their own voices heard, they are more likely to listen for other unheard voices.

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Works Cited

Bomer, Katherine and Randy Bomer. For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action. Austin: Heinemann, 1914.

Cooper, David and Nancy Kiger. Literacy: Helping Children Construct Meaning. Houghtin-Mifflin, 2002.

Gauch, Patricia. Christina Katerina and the Box. Coward, McCann, and Geoghagen, 1971.

Mclaughlin, Maureen and Glenn deVoogd. Critical Literacy: Enhancing Students’ Comprehension of Text. Teaching Resources, 2004.