On Second Thought: Teaching for Social Justice through Sports Culture

By Rodesiler, Luke; Premont, David | English Journal, July 2018 | Go to article overview

On Second Thought: Teaching for Social Justice through Sports Culture


Rodesiler, Luke, Premont, David, English Journal


Fighting Sioux. Hurons. Warriors. Chieftains. Indians. Redmen. Each is a nickname that a university in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) replaced in the last 30 years ("List of Schools"). Still, many academic institutions and professional organizations have retained nicknames, mascots, and logos widely considered racist, perpetuating stereotypes of Native Americans and ultimately restricting their humanity. Accordingly, the positioning of Native Americans as mascots presents one contemporary sociopolitical issue teachers can explore with students as a means of developing critical literacy practices (Rodesiler, "Beyond Appealing"). Sometimes, though, teaching for critical literacy and promoting social justice are easier on paper than in practice.

In 2012, after problematizing the fact that efforts to teach for critical literacy were overwhelmingly represented in English Journal as successful, scholars Robert Petrone and Lisa Bullard encouraged teachers to publish "their struggles and difficulties with teaching English for the goals of critical literacy" (128). Answering that call, we present one teacher's effort to reconsider what he deems a missed opportunity to teach for critical literacy and promote social justice through the exploration of racist nicknames, mascots, and logos. We aim to help teachers envision how they might make the most of their opportunities to broaden students' perspectives regarding sociopolitical issues that emerge in popular cultures, including sports culture. But we set the stage for David's reflection by first conceptualizing critical literacy and then establishing sports culture as fertile ground for fostering critical literacy practices.

Conceptualizing Critical Literacy

Recognizing that no text is neutral, educators who teach for critical literacy support students in examining how texts advance or disrupt power relations that generate injustices and inequities in the world (Janks et al. 5; Morrell 313). Students practicing critical literacy are afforded opportunities to develop literacies associated with traditional instructional approaches and common curricula, yet by reading texts with an eye on issues of power, privilege, and marginalization, students are also positioned to begin working toward social change. But social transformation is not the product of deconstruction alone. Therefore, teaching for critical literacy ought to prepare students for deconstructing, designing, and redesigning texts-all with the intent of improving current social, political, and cultural relations (Janks et al. 8).

After reviewing 30 years of critical literacy scholarship, Mitzi Lewison et al. synthesized definitions of critical literacy into four interrelated dimensions: (a) disrupting the commonplace, (b) interrogating multiple viewpoints, (c) focusing on sociopolitical issues, and (d) taking action and promoting social justice (382). Teacher-scholars have drawn from those dimensions to design instruction intended to foster critical literacy practices through the study of documentaries (Jones); young adult literature (Brown); political cartoons, news articles, editorials (Rodesiler, "Sports-Based"), and more. Such instructional approaches suggest incorporating a wide range of texts and present methods for advancing critical literacy and promoting social justice by teaching with and about sports culture, a rich site for literacy learning.

Sports Culture and Literacy Learning

Nearly eight million adolescents participated in organized high school sports nationwide during the 2016-17 school year ("High School Sports Participation"). Add to that figure adolescents who only played sports recreationally (e.g., pickup basketball) and those who, though perhaps not athletically inclined, were full-fledged members of sports fandom-not to mention those who found sports culture thrust upon them via, say, fall homecoming festivities-and the total number of adolescents immersed in sports culture becomes quite staggering. …

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