Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Teacher Resistance to Critical Conversation: Exploring Why Teachers Avoid Difficult Topics in Their Classrooms

Academic journal article New England Reading Association Journal

Teacher Resistance to Critical Conversation: Exploring Why Teachers Avoid Difficult Topics in Their Classrooms

Article excerpt

As teacher educators we feel a responsibility for helping teachers and children take up important and difficult conversations about world issues. Even with the recent rise in quality and quantity of children's literature, librarians, teachers, and administrators remain unsure about whether conversations about social issues are important and appropriate for children in schools. Teachers also, with the mandates of NCLB, are faced with time restraints and relevance: if a book does not teach a skill or serve a knowledge or content purpose, there is not time to read it. We disagree. We see schools as agents for social change. Therefore, as educators select quality reading materials and engage in critical discussions with students around these texts, important world issues must be part of the equation.

Critical literacy expands the notion of literacy beyond traditional decoding and comprehension to incorporate critical thinking and reflection. Drawing on the work of social critical theorists (Gee, 1996; Luke & Freebody, 1997), critical literacy considers the ways texts are constructed within social, political, and historical contexts and how this in turn positions readers by various readings and interpretations. Within this framework, reading is seen as a social practice (Comber, 2001). Since all texts represent particular cultural positions and discourses, children's literature may be regarded as a way to invite readers to engage in critical discussions of complex issues such as gender, race, and social class.

Purpose of Study

Our work here stems from our interest in providing critical literacy professional development opportunities for teachers. In our own work as elementary teachers during the 1980s and 1990s, we helped children learn to read by using real books in our classrooms. We felt a void, however, when it came to thinking about or addressing issues such as power, social justice, and equity in the world with our students. Today, as teacher educators in different parts of the country, we are working collaboratively to provide time and support for teachers who want to create richer and more critical conversations with elementary and middle grade students. As we begin to study our data, we now share a growing concern for why practicing teachers and pre-service teachers are reluctant to include particular pieces of children's literature in the classroom and why they work so hard to avoid controversy during discussions.

A Review of Children's Literature and Teacher Discussion Groups

Since the late 1980s when teachers began using a greater variety of materials for instructional purposes (Brown & Cambourne, 1987), decision-making responsibilities regarding classroom literature choices also increased, heightening the role teachers play in what happens when children read real books in school (Peterson & Eeds, 2007). Even though many teachers feel overwhelmed by the accountability measures put forth by NCLB, some teachers continue to use children's literature for reading instruction, writing instruction, content learning, and pleasure (Nodelman & Reimer, 2003). These teachers know children respond favorably to texts selected by teacher professionals who understand individual needs and interests better than publishing companies who write standardized texts; but these teachers also know that all texts are "educational or influential in some way; and... cannot help but reflect an ideology" (Hunt, 2003, p. 3).

The idea that children's literature shapes thinking is not new. Centuries ago, traditional folklore was typically linked to social or political issues; for instance, in the late 1600s Perrault collected fairy tales to entertain the adult court of Louis XIV and then during the 1800s (much to the dismay of Rational Moralists and Puritans) these same tales provided readers with a form of moral instruction (Hallett & Karasek, 2002). While we feel it is important for teachers to understand the history and politics of children's literature, it does not solve the dilemma teachers face concerning books in the classroom - the acquisition of a strong knowledge base of children's literature, the ability to take a critical stance toward literature, and finding time for collegial interaction and collaboration. …

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