A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
On critical literacies.
Through decades and centuries, Literacies have currently turned to be a matter of controversy for the whole world in terms of education. Such controversy has been divided into two aspects: its definition and its role in education. In the past, the definition of literacy was very basic and simplistic because it used to confine itself to mere skill or capability of reading and writing texts on paper. There was no context, and importance to the social environment surrounding literacy was not given as it is today. On the other side, literacy had always been regarded by education as a means of control over society, Freire (1984:76). That means that education had used in its very early beginnings literacy to teach man how to get guided through its own rulings; and to follow its own patterns of control and profess them. Yet this manipulation and control has not changed much, the concept of literacy certainly has.
It was Pablo Freire (1970), a renowned pedagogue in Brazil, who first introduced to the world the preconception of literacy and who inspired many others along history to make this powerful concept become a tool to release society instead of putting control upon them. Freire’s main ideas involved critical pedagogy, which in few words is a special kind of pedagogy with a main objective to make society critically reflect about their behaviors, values and ethics to be able to learn consciously. His reasoning always emphasized the connection that the learning process itself had to have with the real life need of society; rather than being just a fake simulation of the world in the classroom. He went far beyond to argue that the classroom place was a limitative factor to education itself, and therefore, the learning and teaching processes should be carried out everywhere and under every situation in life. So powerful were his ideologies about critical pedagogy that many teachers and education researchers throughout the globe decided to follow his thoughts and education model as it is themselves’. However, his major contribution was, to my opinion, made in the field of literacy. Many others continued his ideas to create and develop the macro-concept of critical literacy as an evolution of the very first definition literacy used to have. In this document I will revise some of those Author’s thoughts on critical literacy and I will also reflect on their influence on my own teaching practices as a nowadays’ modern languages educator at my institution and the use of textbooks at my workplace.
It was Giroux, one of the most important educational thinkers according with Routledge, who got inspired in Freire’s work about critical pedagogy and continued his work talking about the so-called public pedagogy. In this type of pedagogy he argued that there was a need for society to understand and to be critical about the world and the parameters under which they are judged and to take action in terms improving their own learning processes. He based on critical literacy by proposing that the contents seen in class, such as textbooks, magazines, journals, books, or other types of written texts, should have a lot do the learners’ immediate needs and main concerns about their learning process and not about the entire world’s main concerns. In other words he meant that there was a huge need for society to learn more about themselves first than learning about the world itself, in terms of culture, politics, and other aspects of human life like their social skills. He also stated that education should be public in terms of the freedom to the boundaries it can have while it is been imparted in a classroom. He said that public pedagogy should be exerted regardless of the place, namely, every place in which an education act could be carried through; even in the streets. In my opinion, I did not know before I read him, that many ideas of his were being implemented in my practices.
At my workplace, my bosses make me work with textbooks all the time and sometimes they force me to achieve certain goals based on the standardized objectives the book has regarding with one group’s level and topics. However, I have always liked to adapt books rather than adopting them as my bible for my teaching practices. To me, following an entire book “al pie de la letra” is forgetting the freedom that you have as teacher to guide the learning process of your students in the best way possible. Even when nowadays books are very up-to-date in terms of student’s likes and dislikes and fashions and contemporary contents, there is always going to be something missing that you as teacher would want the textbook to have according with your exact teaching need. When I work with the textbook, I always observe the content and try to extract what is useful for my class and try to ignore what I consider that does not match my topic expectation. One of the many concerns of some of us as teachers would be that it is sometimes impossible to modify the already printed book-pages. It would be not only time consuming, but also if you are not very creative or an art expert, it would be very ugly and very little attractive. I have had the chance to work with technology since my career as a teacher started five years ago, and this has greatly influenced the way in which I adapt my educational materials into my teaching management system. I love to use some special smartphone and laptop applications that let me modify and cut effectively pieces of materials that I find in the textbooks and beautifully join them to some other materials and images that I carefully find online. Copyright can be an issue to this technique I implement; nevertheless I only do this with educational purposes with no intent to distribute them any farther than in my classes. This process allows me to create in a way some authentic materials out of the not so contextualized textbooks and media that I found online, and my students manage to connect more to this materials that can also be shared to them online, so they can leave paper behind and study the materials more freely and everywhere, exactly as Giroux would talk in public pedagogy’s ideas.
Christensen (1994) supported and followed also many ideas about critical literacy in her work “Rethinking our classrooms”. In her paper, she strongly criticized the always told fairytales and the myths that some teachers through the world tend to use to educate the children. Some of her main reasons to do so, were arguments that were based on the idea that this texts lack completely in context and they have by far nothing to do with the reality that society really needs to be told even when the target alumni are children. She also raised that these text created fake illusions in children and that these can be harmful for them because they, instead of preparing children to live adulthood in an appropriate way, manage to help children imagine fake scenarios that will surely never happen in their lives as future adults. I completely disagree with her in many ways.
First, I have to say that many of her points were very reasonable and strong, but I guess that in my opinion she missed the point of the real use of these myths and fairytales and their importance to critical literacy nowadays. It is true to me that these types of childish literature disconnect from reality our children and students, but instead of creating a counterproductive effect, these tales help them develop creativity and they are really critical for future adults to have a set of values appropriately developed. I think so because all these stories have always a moral, that being told through a beautiful or entertaining plot, manage to teach children strong moral values that can be hardly learned in not so amicable situations like real life. Besides, it is clearly evident to see the difference between a child that has not had that education guided by this early critical literacy approach based on tales like those, and a child that has never had them. In my teaching practices, I try to select the readings for my students try to care for the content those readings have, in order to be able to empower my students and to develop critical thinking in them upon society. I prefer for my tertiary students at SENA topics like abortion debate, unemployment, euthanasia, or even other topics that I feel that they are going to strongly connect with them and with their judgments to society, instead of using texts and readings that do not connect with them and that are far from their realities as Colombian citizens and individuals.
In conclusion there have been my ways in which critical literacies have influenced my teaching practices and I have to say that even when I ignored them in the past as something present in my praxis, I have subconsciously reflected upon them in terms of the applicability of the textbooks and materials that I have used and implemented in my classes and that we as teachers are the ones who are in the will of choosing whether to change the history of literacy into a more vivid and applicable subject than just something that is improbable and unlikely to happen in real life.
Freire, Paulo (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, p. 9.
Christensen, Linda (1994) Unlearning the myths that bind us: Critiquing fairytales and films. Rethinking schools Ltd. Pg.1
Giroux, Henri. 2004. “Cultural Studies, Public Pedagogy, and the Responsibility of Intellectuals” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 2004, pp. 59–79.