Academic journal article Journal of Thought

From Disrupting the Commonplace to Taking Action in Literacy Education

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

From Disrupting the Commonplace to Taking Action in Literacy Education

Article excerpt


I have been teaching a literacy/language arts methods course to pre-service teachers in a teacher education program at a Midwestern university in the United States for years. One of my favorite questions for my pre-service teachers in the beginning of the semester was: "What are language arts?" With a couple of prompts, most of the pre-service teachers were able to figure out two of them: reading and writing. These two arts or literacy skills are tested most often in schools. This is probably why they had no problem getting them right. With a few more cues, they added speaking and listening to the list. While they were quite satisfied, I reminded them that there were at least two more language arts according to the definition of the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association (Tompkins, 2009). This time, despite my numerous hints, they had no clue, and I had to tell them that viewing and visually representing were also considered language arts.

We then had a discussion of how these six language arts were not clear-cut categories and how one was interconnected with others. For example, when we are reading, we are not simply reading but doing something else. We may also be visually representing pictures in our mind when reading a travel book. Or we may jot down notes on what we are reading. The pre-service teachers were usually surprised to learn that what appeared to be distinct categories of literacy skills turn out to overlap with each other. Once they were aware of the interrelationship of literacy skills, I invited them to think about what this implied for their teaching of literacy. Questions for them to consider were: "Can reading be taught as if it is a skill that can be isolated from other literacy skills? What is being literate? Does it mean the ability to read and write? What about people who cannot read or write well but are great artists? Are they literate?" By the time I asked them what we meant by being critically literate, they were generally overwhelmed and looked at me for answers. At this point, I was satisfied, not because I was finished with my questions (actually this was just the beginning of the course), but because I had problematized what they usually took for granted. This step, I believe, is very important because if we do not challenge what we have already known, it is dangerous. According to Harste (2008), it can even become an act of terrorism:

   We often extol certainty as a good thing and associate it with
   action, with decisiveness, with getting things done. And indeed it
   can be a source of action. It takes a very certain individual to
   mandate a particular reading program for everyone, to fly a plane
   into the World Trade Center, to organize a school shooting. We
   don't call all these acts of terrorism, but we should. Extremes are
   natural products of certitude. If I am absolutely certain I am
   right, then it will appear to me that I am justified in anything I
   do. (p. 35)

Problematizing what my students believed about literacy education is what Lewison, Flint, and Van Sluys (2002) call "disrupting the commonplace," the very first dimension of the "four dimensions" framework of critical literacy practice.

Theoretical Framework: Four Dimensions Framework of Critical Literacy Practice

In line with critical literacists such as Paulo Freire (1972, 1984), Colin Lankshear and Peter McLaren (1993), and Barbara Comber and Anne Simpson (2001), Lewison, Flint, and Van Sluys (2002) argue that literacy education should not be limited to simply reading and writing. Instead, it should be situated in a sociopolitical context where literacy is examined critically. To put this critical view into practice, Lewison et al. propose a four dimensions framework that consists of (a) disrupting the commonplace, (b) considering multiple viewpoints, (c) focusing on the sociopolitical, and (d) taking action. …

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