Academic journal article Language Arts

Critical Texts in Literacy Teacher Education: Living Inquiries into Racial Justice and Immigration

Academic journal article Language Arts

Critical Texts in Literacy Teacher Education: Living Inquiries into Racial Justice and Immigration

Article excerpt

Midway through the semester, in an introductory literacy methods course in a public university that is 35 minutes from a major city in the Northeast, a group of preservice teachers engaged in an animated discussion about the benefits and risks of incorporating diverse literature in the classroom. After reading the picturebook Rosa (Giovanni, 2005), a story of the historic bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, the preservice teachers debated whether elementary students were equipped to wrestle with real-world issues like discrimination, poverty, and social protest. Ellie (all names are pseudonyms) passionately argued that elementary students are equipped to handle these issues and should be exposed to them in school: "I think we're underestimating children and what they can handle and think about. Maybe they won't get all the details, but they can understand different forces. I think they can think about things like war and social movements." Ruby, another preservice teacher, responded with a slightly different perspective by saying, "There's a balance. We can try not to teach the dumbed-down version, but should also avoid opening up a can of worms."

In a sociopolitical context that favors straightforward answers over uncertainty and cultivates compliance rather than creativity (CrawfordGarrett, 2013; Ravitch, 2010), Ruby's concerns are not unique. Bringing critical texts like Rosa into the classroom can feel like risky work, both for K-8 teachers and literacy teacher educators. Like Lewison, Leland, and Harste (2007), we define critical texts as texts that highlight salient categories of difference, give voice to those who have been historically silenced, provide examples of social action, explore systems of oppression, and include opportunities for posing questions about how and why societal positioning is maintained. As US schools continue to be shaped by reform agendas that promote standardization (Ravitch, 2014), favor corporate, scripted literacy curricula (Altwerger, 2005), and contribute to increasing segregation and income inequality within and across schools (Kozol, 2005), we believe that it is imperative to prioritize critical texts that promote rigorous engagement with a range of social issues. Thus, our definition of critical texts includes not only texts that are by and about racially and culturally diverse people, but also ones that address power differences in society.

This article documents our efforts to engage Ruby's concerns within and against the current sociopolitical climate of the United States by incorporating critical texts related to racial justice and immigration into our preservice teacher education literacy methods courses and then grappling with these texts alongside our students. Specifically, we 1) consider the kinds of barriers preservice teachers name regarding the use of critical texts in classrooms, including the ways in which their own educational experiences and personal histories have shaped their perspectives as educators, 2) document our pedagogical responses that privileged nonmainstream perspectives, invited students to engage emotionally with social issues, and responded to our students' authentic inquiries, and 3) illustrate how these pedagogical responses prompted teachers in both of our contexts to imagine new possibilities for literacy teaching and learning.

Literature Review

Texts are central to the work of critical literacy, and how they are selected, used, unpacked, critiqued, and reconstructed has significant implications for how students and teachers come to view themselves as literate beings. Critical literacy scholars have theorized the role of texts in the literacy classroom by foregrounding the concepts of textual relevance, power, and positioning. For example, by noting the salience of "everyday texts," Comber (2015) advocates for a curricular approach that engages children in "problematizing classroom and public texts" (p. 363), as these texts are integral in shaping the daily realities of children but are seldom interrogated. …

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