A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
Have my Coursebooks Been Critically Literate?
Breathing, breathing, she started to read, but not from the book in front of her. It was something from The Grave Digger’s Handbook. Chapter three: “In the Event of Snow.” She’d memorized it from her papa’s voice.
— Markus Zusak, The Book Thief, 2005
I wanted to start this piece by quoting something that could illustrate what I now I understand for the term docta ignorantia (thank Doctor Raul Mora, 2014), which I (from a very personal insight) relate with literacy. Docta ignorantia or learned ignorance by choice is a lifelong learning decision and it is a rationale to create knowledge. On the contrary, ignorance by default sees no point in learning and it is indolent. Regarding my chosen quote, which I took from the movie The Book Thief based on the colossal work by Markus Zusak (2005), the main character represents an irrepressible desire to learn, understand, enjoy and make her family, friends, and neighbors really be aware of the world they live in.
In brief and by means of what really matters here and now- literacy- the novella shows Liesel Meminger as a girl who at the age of 10 does not read or write. Yet she demonstrates to be sensible and very smart when facing the horror and tragedy during and after the Second World War. What is really interesting about Liesel, it is her eagerness to learn; this let her become literate in terms of the process of permanent liberation. (Freire, 1984). She longed for liberation because she wanted to understand what she was living; liberation from her classmates who laughed at her as she could not read a word; liberation from the insanity of the war as she found enjoyment through the books she reached and read. In this sense, she figured it out to get books; even the first book she took at her brother’s funeral, The Grave Digger’s Handbook. This book was the first one she could hear and read; it was also the only and last memory she had from her mom and little brother.
During her reading and writing process, Liesel made her house basement a classroom where the walls were her blackboard. She wrote every single, new or interesting word on the walls, all of them in alphabetical order, like a dictionary. Something that really appeals anyone’s attention is that she started borrowing and stealing books from the Mayor’s House; she read them, memorized chapters and made her foster parents, people, friends and neighbors have fun with her stories she told them. Here is an example of a passage pointing up her thievery deed, “Before they went into their respective homes, Rudy stopped a moment and said, “Goodbye, Saumensch.” He laughed. “Good night, book thief.” It was the first time that Liesel had been branded with her title, and she couldn’t hide the fact that she liked it very much. As we’re both aware, she’d stolen books previously, but in late October 1941, it became official. That night, Liesel Meminger truly became the book thief.” (p. 292).
In relation to her writing, her friend Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man, taught her the power of words and how she could transform herself and the world though them. In this way, Max became her inspiration to write what she wanted to and then, she started wrtiting her own book like this, “Words are so heavy, she thought, but as the night wore on, she was able to complete eleven pages” (p.353)
I try to ignore it, but I know this all started with the train and the snow and my coughing brother. I stole my first book that day. It was a manual for digging graves and I stole it on my way to Himmel Street. . .
All I can say is that Liesel Meminger is a literate character as she saw, read and wrote the world; changing her life and some others’ lives for the better. She softened life through words.
Having given an example of literacy through some ideas based on the movie and novel “The Book Thief,” I will focus another analysis of some more familiar textbooks I have used as a student and as a teacher. These insights will be based on critical literacy; let us begin by quoting a Jorge Luis Borges thought, “Of all man’s instruments, the most wondrous, no doubt, is the book. The other instruments are extensions of his body. The microscope, the telescope, are extensions of his sight; the telephone is the extension of his voice; then we have the plow and the sword, extensions of the arm. But the book is something else altogether: the book is an extension of memory and imagination.” Yes, “the book is an extension of memory and imagination” in which memory may be the root and imagination the route that lead to knowledge and creation that perpetuate life.
In the time I studied my undergraduate program I was very far away from what I can somehow be aware of, literacy, critical literacy. Nowadays, bearing in mind the paramount role of critical literacy, there are academic programs whose names are directly related with literacy, that is, Language & Literacy as at Harvard Graduate School of Education and whose motto is “Working as the Nexus of Practice, Policy and Research.” Pamela A. Mason program director says, “Our program is grounded in the belief that language and literacy skills are essential to every aspect of an individual’s life and that literate individuals contribute positively to our social, cultural, and economic well-being”. Again, the word literacy is introduced with its significant other, “critical.”
One way to illustrate if I have been close to critical literacy is to talk about the English language coursebooks I have worked with throughout my roles as a student and a teacher. First all of, in my undergraduate program, I had to use a book series from a British university press. I used the same general English book series for 13 years- 5 as a pre-service teacher and 8 as an in-service teacher at a public university in my hometown. My experience with that book series, by means of critical literacy, did not matter as I was not aware of what critical literacy was all about. But now, I may analyze the coursebook and find that critical literacy was almost nil in the series. As a student I could not see that the key features of the coursebook; but as a teacher I realized that they were based on mere grammar topics that made me memorize formulas, learn vocabulary since the core characteristics of the book were: in-depth treatment of grammar (in no very authentic scenarios), systematic vocabulary system (no cultural, nor pragmatic foundations), pronunciation work (words in isolation; no context) but nothing it was mostly language-centered instead of learner-centered approach. In addition, the everyday English section was based on functional but not very sociolinguistic or pragmatic situations.
With this in mind, the coursebook series did lack activities, strategies or exercises that call for advocacy, reflection, critical thinking and as a student or teacher I was led as a lamb to the slaughter because without critical literacy we are supposed to be oppressed by government and institutional policies that impose you what to do, how to act or react in education environments. It seems to be there were thirteen years of solitude, far away from the essential critical literacy empowerment.
The next textbooks I am going to make reference now belong to the books I chose when I carried out an English program in terms of design, implementation and evaluation at an international clinic in my hometown. This general English series for adult learners, from another prestigious British university press, had more about literacy since we could find the description of the textbook “High-interest, real –life topics make ‘textbook’s title’ the essential series for low-beginning to high-intermediate adult students. With its emphasis on using natural language in meaningful life situations, ‘textbook’s title’, supports learner persistence and helps build a community for students within class, at home, and in the world at large.” To me, the fact that the textbook series suggests building a community is proposing critical literacy. Another fact that implies critical literacy is the year it was published, 2007 as at that time critical literacy had already been promoted by scholars (e.g., Comber & Simpson, 2001; Giroux, 1988; Giroux & McLaren, 1994; Lankshear & McLaren, 1993; Lewison, Leland, & Harste, 2008; McLaren, 1995) cited by Lee (2011).
In addition, this series fosters critical literacy as the textbook includes metacognitive strategies (self-regulation processes) “to being smart, planning for success discussing study habits and strategies for studying, discussing how to continue one’s education processes”. Topics functions for life such as “discussing appropriate behaviors at home and school, using polite forms of language, discussing ways to cope with stress. Discussing personal experiences of volunteering or helping people” proposed by the textbook help students be aware of society inclusion. Nevertheless, as the core focus of the book was based on the fucntion, activities and strategies remain just critical thinking, not exactly critical literacy that claims for change and action.
Another textbook I used in this corporate English program was from the same university press as in the previous case, but in English for specific purposes in medicine. Indeed my students were mainly physicians and nurses working for the clinic. This textbook was created “to help medical practitioners communicate with patients in English”. Of course this textbook had to do with critical literacy because it focuses on “the language and communication skills to help doctors get a patient-centered approach making consultations more effective through the five components that make up communication”. This approach suggests an action in the society, and my students showed at the time they performed any medical procedure from physical examinations or routine check-ups to surgeries, as they had direct contact with international patients. The book proposed a lot of bedside manners exercises. In addition, the textbook back over says “the course teaches learners how to sensitively handle a range of situations such as taking a patient history, breaking bad news, examining a patient and describing treatment options. It also prepares doctors for dealing with different types of patient, from children to the elderly (back cover).
For instance, when examining a patient, the coursebook suggests as a cultural awareness, “Indirect instructions can help put patient at ease at the beginning of a consultation and can reduce embarrassment and anxiety”. Doctor’s polite indirect instructions such as “If you could stand for me, please, Julie”; or “I’d just like you to lift your left leg as high as you can” (p. 57). Another good feature about the textbook tends to “demonstrate the impact of good communication on the doctor-patient relationship enables students to become confident and effective practitioners in English” (cover page). Some of my students confessed having improved the way they communicate with their patients based on the book instructions and suggested exercises.
Indeed, critical literacy argues that being critically literate is acquiring knowledge of literacy that can be turned into action to change the status quo (Lee, 2011). In this way, critical literacy take steps ahead critical thinking by going from theory and practice (a thing that is done regularly; a habit or a custom. doing an activity or training regularly so that you can improve your skill; the time you spend doing this, Oxford Advance Learner dictionary), to praxis (a way of doing something; the use of a theory or a belief in a practical way) Knowledge in this sense, according to Giroux and Giroux (2004), “is about more than understanding; it is also about the possibilities of self-determination, individual autonomy, and social agency” (p. 84).
Now, it is relevant to illustrate the work by Amarjit Singh and Clar Doyle (2006), who interpreted and adapted the work of Giroux through the RCIP (Reflective and Critical Internship Program), is a Model for Teacher Education from the Faculty of Education at Memorial University of Newfoundland St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, this model took five actions to promote critical literacy as it claims for describing/contextualizing, bringing cultural capital, engaging, problematizing dominant practices and discourse, and functioning as intellectuals and cultural workers (page 457). Similarly, the textbook offers spoken communication skills to “enhancing your ability to use effective communication strategies to repair or avoid possible breakdown in communication with your patient; encouraging use of patient-friendly language when giving instructions or discussing treatment options; and familiarizing you with language commonly used by patients: euphemisms, jargon, language used by children, etc.” (Introduction p.6). This component of the coursebook has to do with critical literacy as spoken communication skills improves the binary doctor-patient relation and breaches the possible communication gap existing between them.
● “Non-verbal communication skills: developing your awareness of body language to enable you to better read and interpret your patients’ physical and emotional signs, as well as to better mirror your own verbal communication with appropriate non-verbal signs” (Introduction p. 6). This sort of communication helps both patient and doctor cope with lack of appropriate vocabulary or expressions to understand each other well and take an action course depending on the disease or injury.
● “Active listening skills: ensuring a successful interview through techniques that facilitate discussion, demonstrating that you are really listening to your patient and assimilating the information given and its relevance to an eventual diagnosis.” (Introduction p.6). Most of the problematic situations and misunderstanding happened in the past come be overcome by this critical literacy feature. Nowadays problem is lack of listening to each other attentively and with all due respect and dignity individuals deserve.
● “Voice-management skills: improving use of intonation and word stress in order to build rapport with the patient, give encouragement and show sensitivity” (Introduction p.6). The textbook shows examples of words that are stressed to “emphasize to your patient the importance of taking up mild, regular exercise.” (p.64)
● “Cultural awareness: widening understanding of cultural issues and the impact of your own cultural background on both your patient and the interview itself” (Introduction p.6). The textbook suggests, for instance “when working with children, it is important to be aware that different cultures have different expectations of what “good behavior is for children. For example, some research suggests that Canadian mothers expect their children to be more independent and exploratory than, for example, Chinese mothers, and reward that type of behavior. Can you think of any examples of cultural expectations of children’s behavior that might affect a consultation?” Indeed, culture is essential for critical literacy as it involves the way people live in any specific context. If individuals do not understand and accept cultural differences, they will trigger misunderstanding, conflict and the undesirable war.
Finally, I wanted to elaborate my own awareness if some books I have used to learn, teach or simply read, are critically literate. What I realize now is that in some cases, like The Book Thief, no matters if the book is critically literate but if we are of that nature. Who could imagine that a manual for grave diggers “The Grave Digger’s Handbook” could be the beginning of a lifelong literacy process, that’s and Liesel Meminger’s case, even though this work is fiction. For her, the end justified the means; she wanted to read and she made it through stealing or borrowing books with or without permission. On the other hand, from the three coursebooks that have underlined my learning and teaching practice, I can conclude that the coursebook for the English for Specific Purposes –ESP has been the most critically literate I have ever used because it fosters not only critical thinking but also praxis of it among a community and the society.
Doyle, C., & Singh, A. (2006). Reading and teaching Henry Giroux. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.
Giroux, H., & McLaren, P. (1994). Between borders: Pedagogy and the politics of cultural studies. New York: Routledge.
GSE Harvard School of Education. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.gse.harvard.edu/academics/masters/langlit/
Lee, C. J. (2011). Myths about critical literacy: What teachers need to unlearn. Journal of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 7 (1), 95-102.
Practice. 2014. In OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from http://oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dictionary/practice
Praxis. 2014. In OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com. Retrieved March 14, 2014, from
Zusak, M. (2006). The Book Thief. New York, NY. Knopf Books for Young Readers