Critical Inquiry through Read Aloud: Contexts for Critical Discussions

By Neumann, Jacob W. | Social Studies Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Critical Inquiry through Read Aloud: Contexts for Critical Discussions


Neumann, Jacob W., Social Studies Review


For teachers wishing to engage students in dialogue about topics such as civil rights, diversity, or war and exploitation, incorporating books with social justice themes into daily read-aloud times or simply creating times for reading aloud such books is a practical method for introducing and exploring what are often complicated issues. Engaging students of any age in dialogue about social justice always requires extra care, but especially with elementary age students, giving voice to potentially contentious issues raises a number of concerns. What issues should one select? How should those issues be presented in ways that are accessible to a range of students? Because issues of social justice necessarily involve discussions about "right and wrong," how can issues be framed so that all students have opportunities for meaningfully connecting to classroom discussion?

Reading aloud to students has long been known to improve their reading abilities (Trelease, 2001 ; Farrell, 1966). But an added benefit to reading aloud to students is its fertility for engaging students in critical inquiry into issues of social justice. Researchers have demonstrated how reading aloud to students books involving topics connected to social justice can stimulate their abilities to think critically and deeply into these issues (Ivey & Fisher, 2006; Laman, Smith, & Kander, 2006).

For elementary-age children, picture storybooks are wonderful vehicles for entering into social justice topics and for stimulating this type thinking. Picture storybooks have long discussed serious social justice issues contextualized within tangible, accessible stories: they speak to a range of ages, they are relatively easily accessible, and they get straight to the point, offering quick entry into a specific topic. And their impact can be powerful. In a well known example, Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book (1984), published during the height of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, elaborates the futility of warfare and arms escalation, with Zooks and Yooks fighting over how they butter their bread. Given the frequency with which this book has been banned by schools around the country, The Butter Battle Book serves as an example of the power of picture storybooks to draw readers into complex and contentious issues. Since then, and causing less fervor, books such as Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type (Cronin & Lewin, 2000) and The Other Side (Woodson , 200 1 ) ha ve invited readers to think about issues ranging from workers' rights to discrimination and racial segregation.

The purpose of this article is to present and briefly discuss ten recently published picture storybooks, published no earlier than 2004, that involve stories or themes related to social justice. Because scores of new picture storybooks are published each year, it can be challenging for teachers to keep abreast of new books that students might find compelling and books that expand the range of topics which can be discussed through read aloud. These ten books are meant not as a "ten best" list, but rather a list of current quality selections that cover a range of topics. Several of the books involve stories of slavery, racial segregation, and the fight for school integration, while others speak to issues of poverty, diversity, and gender equality.

Using picture storybooks such as these for stimulating critical inquiry with students makes critical thought a communal activity, giving teachers a meaningful context from which to pose questions and lead students into discussion, bringing students together to explore a host of issues in ways that are both productive and contextually grounded. These types of communal critical activities can help students learn to act as the insightful, skeptical citizens our democracy requires for it to function effectively for all people.

Leading Students into Critical Discussions

The last section of this article presents a short synopsis of each book and a short explication of its critical themes that can be addressed in critical discussion.

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Critical Inquiry through Read Aloud: Contexts for Critical Discussions
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