Tag Archives: critical literacy

Understanding the communities our students are from

I (Pooja) have just returned from AERA 2016. I always leave AERA feeling inspired to continue my research and motivated to get back into the classroom. This year was no different. This year I learned about the work of Dr. Christopher Emdin, a recipient of the Early Career Award at AERA 2016. Dr. Emdin’s work considers  the relationships between Hip-Hop, urban education, and science education. Curious to learn more I about his work, I ordered his latest book entitled For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… And the Rest of Y’All Too (2016).

An article in NPR reviewing Emdin’s book highlights some of Emdin’s main arguments he makes. His arguments are completely in line with what my own research (literacy teacher educators with a critical stance) has found: in order to effectively teach, we must understand the communities from which our students come. Below is an excerpt from the article outlining Emdin’s arguments along with some examples of practice:

  1. Teachers can’t be colorblind. It does their students a disservice.

“People who perceive themselves to be colorblind often times have biases that are hidden by their colorblindness,” Emdin says. Young people in urban spaces have different linguistic and cultural realities, like the gun shots that Emdin experienced.

If teachers recognize that difference, they can help their students deal with issues such as PTSD. If the trauma of their day-to-day life goes untreated, students won’t be able to learn effectively.

But, if they heal, “then they can learn. And if they can learn, then they can be successful.”

2. Urban schools tend to be authoritarian places, which doesn’t help kids heal or learn.

If it wouldn’t be acceptable in a white, suburban school, Emdin says, it shouldn’t be acceptable in an urban classroom.

That goes for metal detectors, searches, zero tolerance policies and bars on their classroom windows. “Those things don’t happen in places where students are from a higher socioeconomic status and are not overwhelmingly black and brown.”

Emdin acknowledges that it can be hard to avoid falling into this kind of teaching. He even found himself slipping into authoritarian teaching methods, a fact which, he says, only proves that these techniques have become deeply ingrained in certain school systems.

But he says we only need to look at the statistics — college completion rates or the increased need for remedial learning — to understand that this military approach to teaching isn’t working.

3. Schools need to celebrate students and their talents, even if those talents aren’t familiar.

In his book, Emdin lays out some of the ways that teachers can rethink their classrooms without spending money.

They can create a sense of community by eating with their students, making up a school handshake and bringing in community members — including people who have not graduated from high school — as liaisons.

Emdin also suggests that teachers go to churches and barbershops, both to better understand the community and to learn teaching strategies from the people their students admire.

And teaching should not be seen as a tug-of-war between enjoyment and hard work.

Emdin, for example, folds hip-hop into the curriculum. He has worked with GZA, a rapper from the Wu-Tang Clan, to host a science hip-hop battle for New York City high school students.

“If you give young people the opportunity to be able to express their academic brilliance on their own terms, they take the initiative to study,” he says. “They take the initiative to research, and they perform and they showcase that they’re brilliant.”

Read NPR article here: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/04/10/473500018/want-to-teach-in-urban-schools-get-to-know-the-neighborhood

Parent Research Night

This week I (Clare) attended the Parent Research Night at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Studies (where I am the Director). It was a truly amazing evening because the two presentations demonstrated research that was for teachers and parents, done by teachers, and inspired by teachers. It was such a beautiful form of dissemination of research. The findings are not confined to a peer-reviewed article but were shared with the public.

IMG_1147Dr. Patricia Ganea talked about the importance of shared reading with children. And she shared data on how children respond to images in children’s books – realistic (photos) vs fantastical (comic-like). Interestingly they relate much more to the latter.

Then Dr. Yiola Cleovoulou and 3 teachers (Zoe Honahue, Cindy Halewood, and Chriss Bogert – who is now the VP) from the Lab School IMG_1153presented on their work with the children that was framed by critical literacy with an inquiry focus. They shared student work, read transcripts of actual conversations, and described activism work.

JICS has a tripartite mission: Lab school, teacher education program, and a research centre. Parent Research night truly brought all three together. http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/ics/index.html

Ideology ~ Indoctrination to Critical Thinking: The right fit in Teacher Education

Something has been weighing on my mind this year as I teach my courses in teacher education. I (Yiola) have been teaching a number of different courses in teacher education (curriculum, foundations, child development, assessment) and each one has been carefully crafted with the students in mind (some are Masters level courses and others are undergraduate).  Wherein lies the balance of teaching academic courses that are seeped in ideology and the promotion of critical thinking?

I believe it is inevitable that ideologies find there way into our course outlines, our lectures, our readings, our practice ~ after all, we are humans with perspectives and schemas. Knowing where we stand on issues that we teach, I think, is key to developing a course that is not only filled with information (content/pedagogy) for future teachers but that is accessible, inviting, and open to deeper understandings.  In my courses for example critical pedagogy is a framework. Students know that when they take my courses they will be presented with readings, discourses, case studies, and policies that are framed in critical theory.  I choose this for a number of reasons: I believe in equity and social justice education; I believe in equitable opportunity for learning; I believe in disclosing and deconstructing status quo in order to deepen our understanding of “what is going here”? and I believe that many student teachers are hearing of this ideology for the very first time.

And so, I am often left questioning: how far do I take this? how far can I go when presenting an ideology in teacher education? Is it fair to present a dominant perspective? Is it inevitable? Some would argue that by not expressing a point of view, we are simply adhering to one anyway and silencing many others.  Where and when  does ideology channel into indoctrination? Do student teachers feel imposed upon or offended when only one perspective is shared? but what about when its a perspective that is often marginalized? Is there even time to invite critical thinking about ideologies when teaching students about curriculum?

Let me provide an example: Literacy Curriculum in Teacher Education. Literacy education is taught in as many ways as there are literacy educators. We know from our research in literacy teacher education that there are powerful, effective, and varied ways of approaching literacy teacher education. And so, there is not one right way.  One teacher educator may teach with a critical stance while another teaches from an empirical psychological stance, while yet another teaches from a holistic perspective. If I could, I would love to be a student in each of these courses to catch a glimpse of the ways in which teaching literacy can be considered.  To the student teacher, is one way better than another? Is one way less indoctrinating than the next? Is there a way to prompt critical thinking while teaching subject content/pedagogical knowledge?

I am constantly thinking about the perspectives I bring to my courses, what gets included and what is omitted and why. I am constantly thinking about my tone and the messages I relay and the possibilities of interpretation from the learners in my class. I am interested in critical thinking and pushing boundaries of understanding. I am not interested in indoctrination.  This in and of itself is an ideology of sorts.


Chimamanda Ngozi’s Book Being Distributed to ALL 16- Year-Old Students in Sweden

I have written about the powerful words of Ms. Adiche before. Her words stop us in our tracks and make us re-consider notions of identity, language, and gender. She has a new book out entitled We Should All Be Feminists. It is based on a speech she delivered at a TEDx conference a few years ago. I have already ordered it!

The most amazing thing about her new book is how it is being distributed. The Swedish Women’s Lobby has decided to distribute Adiche’s book to every 16-year-old student in Sweden. In a CBC article, publisher Johanna Haegerström believes her book will be an entry point into a larger discussion about gender roles in society. He said:

“Our hope is that the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie text will open up a conversation about gender and gender roles, starting from young people’s own experiences”



Lens Blog and Visual Thinking Strategies

When developing the photo essay assignment for my course, I came across an excellent resource for teachers and students. The New York Times has started a blog entitled Lens: Photography, Video, and Visual Journalism. The topics covered in  the blog posts touch on several critical issues such as immigration, race, and class. The photos  captured in each of the photo essays serve as a great entry point into rich discussion. When using the Lens Blog in my classroom I find myself drawing on skills I developed during workshops many years ago.

When I was a public school teacher, I participated in a fascinating series of professional development workshops called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). By analyzing carefully selected images, students were able to develop critical literacy skills as well as visual literacy skills. Teachers were facilitators in this process and asked three open-ended questions:

1. What’s going on in this picture?

2. What do you see that makes you say that?

3. What more can we find?

I found myself using the VTS approach when presenting students the photo essays from the Lens blog. Students in my class really engaged with the photos and rich discussion took place as a result. I will definitely be using this blog for years to come in the classroom.

Below are some powerful images from photo essays on  the Lens Blog.

Photo Essay: Garifuna Immigrants in New York
Photo Essay: Garifuna Immigrants in New York
Photo Essay: Connecting with Syrian Refugees
Photo Essay: Connecting with Syrian Refugees
Photo Essay: One Year Later, Remembering Eric Garner
Photo Essay: One Year Later, Remembering Eric Garner

Link to VTS site: http://www.vtshome.org/

Link to NYT Lens: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/

Critically Reading Selfies


The term ” Selfie” was officially added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013. People all around the world have been turning their phone camera around to capture themselves in a moment. Many people believe that our selfies reveal a lot about us. It is for this reason Professor Marino from University of Southern California has created an assignment for his students to critically read their selfies. His assignment is titled Know Thy Selfie 🙂 Marino believes that selfies help us analyze our identities because “each selfie bears information that can be used  to read our identity  characteristics: our race-ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and socio-economic status.”

The Assignment:

Write a thesis-driven essay in answering the prompt:

How do your selfies produce or obscure a sense of your identity?

1. Take or choose 5 selfies of yourself. You may be alone or with another person, but try to make sure you are a central and large part of the photo. All of the selfies should be different.

2. Examine your selfies for your performance of
Socio-economic staus

3. Consider these identity characteristics independently and as they intersect.

Some questions for reflection as you prepare your response.

What in your selfies is accurate?
What is obscured or ambiguous?
Does the image portray one identity trait more than others?
Where do the images place you in the spectrum of possibilities for each characteristic trait — for example, more or less feminine or masculine?
How might different audiences perceive the images differently?
How is the viewer addressed in the image?
How do your selfies play off other well-known images? How do they play off each other?
What is the apparent context of this image? How does that affect how it might be read?

Read more about ‘Know Thy Selfie’ assignment here:

View at Medium.com

A recently published article on the pedagogical nuances of one teacher’s critical literacy practice

In addition to the amazing work our research teams explore on literacy teacher educators and the longitudinal study of classroom teachers, I (Yiola) am interested in the pedagogical work of teachers. In particular, I am interested in teachers’  work related to critical literacy: What do teachers do? How do they do it? What challenges do they face? How do they overcome those challenges? Why do they choose to teach critical literacy?

I have spent many hours in classrooms observing teachers’ work to see first hand their practices. I have interviewed the teachers to hear first hand their perceptions and understandings of their work. From this research we have begun to share some of the findings.

In our article entitled:  An Inquiry-Based Approach to Critical Literacy: Pedagogical Nuances of a Second Grade Classroom  we share the details of second grade teacher Sarah’s practices during her “Selfology Project”. The Selfology Project is a literacy project that required students to explore their identities, histories, families while thinking about issues of race and equity.  How the teacher constructed critical literacy learning through an inquiry-based pedagogical framework is shared.  Below is the abstract for the article:

This case study explores the pedagogy and practices of an elementary school teacher who combines inquiry pedagogy and critical literacy. The authors gathered data for this analysis by conducting two interviews with a classroom teacher and observing classroom practices 12 times over a 6 month period. Through a general inductive approach to analysis, trends emerged that showed the classroom teacher used practices that combined traditional inquiry pedagogy for critical literacy development. This research provides insight into how this elementary teacher negotiated and connected inquiry to critical literacy. Furthermore, the findings can inform scholars and teacher educators of successful teaching strategies as they prepare future generations of elementary teachers.

For access to the article please go to: http://www.ajer.ca

Several elementary classrooms were observed over the course of one school year. I look forward to sharing more from this study soon.

The Danger of Silence

I came across this short yet powerful TED talk. Educator Clint Smith delivers a power piece of spoken word on what he believes  to be  the dangers of silence. Smith, like many educators, values students’ voices and opinions. He believes we must encourage our students to speak out against injustices because silence leads to discrimination, violence, and war. Through the use of poetry, Smith helps students shares their stories- share their “truths.” Smith begins his spoken work piece with a powerful Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Smith also shares 4 core principles that he runs his classes by:

1. Read critically

2. Write consciously 

3. Speak clearly

4. Tell your truth

Watch Smith’s 4-minute video here to hear more about the dangers of silence:

Screen Shot 2014-11-24 at 10.42.22 PM

Responding Critically to Azalea’s ‘Bounce’

In class this week my (Cathy’s) teacher education students were exploring indirect  instruction through learning centers.  One of the centers featured Iggy Azalea’s music video, Bounce, and the instructions to discuss the work through a critical literacy lens.   (E.g. What message do you think the artist wants us to get from this video? Based on the artist’s thoughts and actions (expressed in the song), how would you say she is portraying herself to the world?)

Most of the students had heard of the video but never actually viewed it until arriving at the literacy center.  (Perhaps you haven’t either).  Without revealing the content, I will reiterate the general tone of the reactions.   Most students were annoyed by the video content.  One student said she was disgusted (and this is not sexual content).  One group, however,  tried to take a broader view.  They said they could not judge the work until they understood Azalea’s intent.  So they took it upon themselves to look up an interview in which Azalea discusses her purpose for portraying her song the way she did.  After viewing the interview, they were angry.  Azalea explained that she portrayed herself thusly so she would be seen as “flashy”.  No message, just glamour.  After this insight, some wonderful discussion ensued about cultural ethics and hegemony.

One student spoke to me at the conclusion of class and confessed that she was surprised by her own reaction.  In her words, “I have changed.    Studying literacy education has given me a different perspective.  I see the world differently, especially things like music videos.”

Below is the link so you can view this content for yourself and decide.  The second link is the video in which Azalea discusses her purpose for making the video.

Happy critical viewing!

A Book on Critical Literacy and Teacher Education

I (Pooja) am currently re-reading Negotiating critical literacies with teachers: Theoretical foundations and pedagogical resources for pre-service and in-service contexts (Vasquez, V.M., Tate, S.L, & Harste, J.C., 2013). This book suggests a theoretical framework, provides insightful examples, and offers pedagogical resources when incorporating critical literacy practices into pre-service and in-service teacher education.

I share some moments in the book which really stood out for me during my second reading:

1. Vasquez et al. suggest this book fills a gap in the literature about critical literacy and teacher education. Specifically,

 This book speaks to what Dozier et al. (2006) observe as a profession that has not publicly articulated the nature of the alignment between our expectations for our [teacher educators’] own literate lives and our expectations for our students as literacy learners.

 2. As I was more closely re-reading the final chapter of this text, a section on “Dealing with Accountability and Standards” really stood out for me. This section dealt what our critical literacy participants in our SSHRC study have expressed to be a tension in their work. Vasquez et al. (2013) take the following stance on dealing with accountability and standards as teacher educators,

A question that often arises for us is how to get beyond the hurdles of incorporating a critical stance when we live in a world of accountability and standards….we have found that these difficulties become easier with teachers who have a concrete philosophy about their pedagogy and can demonstrate how this type of pedagogy has changed their own academic and personal lives as well as that of their students.

3. They go on to provide insights into how best practice critical literacy in teacher education,

We have also found that you cannot do this work alone. Having other to think with and reflect with, even if they are not in your workplace makes all the difference in whether you continue to create more and more spaces for critical literacy in your setting or whether you throw in the towel.