co-opting 'critical literacy'

i was an undergraduate student when i applied to work at a literacy conference sponsored by the national center on adult literacy. paulo freire was scheduled to be the plenary speaker during dinner one evening. at the time, i didn't know who freire was, and it would be a few more years before i would read pedagogy of the oppressed. my invitation to this dinner was part of the renumeration for stuffing folders, directing foot traffic, and manning the registration desk over the course of the conference. in the moment, it was merely one of several odd jobs i had during those undergrad years. since then, however, i've come to appreciate the significance and serendipity of such an unlikely occurrence. freire passed away just two years later, in 1997.

freire's legacy is vast, and has had profound impacts on our understandings and approaches to education and educational theory. ira shor, donald macedo, and others have written with and about freire in the area of critical pedagogy and liberatory education. the possibilities of education to be transformative have also been taken up by scholars who focus their attention on the contested terrain of literacy, among them lesley bartlett, colin lankshear, allan luke, margaret hagood, and stephanie jones. freire, himself, penned the oft-cited work (with donald macedo) literacy: reading the word and the world, where he famously argues that an understanding of the world in which one lives always precedes the act of decoding alphabetic print.

given the nuanced and multidimensional terrain that has come to be known as 'critical literacy,' i was particularly perturbed when i read the following headline that reduces such complexity to a couple of discrete skills:

Adolescent Literacy Targeted with "Critical Literacy" Series: Making Inferences and Figurative Language

in short, walch publishing has launched a series that builds on the growing sense of panic surrounding the literacy of adolescents, and describes the 2-book critical literacy series this way:

Target students' skills in understanding, analyzing, and applying figurative language and connection ideas!

Effective instruction in adolescent literacy does not rely on one strategy alone. Vocabulary acquisition, metacognition, writing, and reading comprehension are just a few. Most struggling readers can, and do, read. Their difficulty is not articulating the printed text. The challenge to this reader is an inability to understand and process the ideas expressed by the words. This is the rationale for providing a series of resources that includes direct, explicit instruction in skills that are critical to literacy.
critical literacy, it seems, can be distilled into a conflation of simplistic 'critical thinking skills' and the annoyingly persistent autonomous definition of literacy. where is there space in such curricula for transformative inquiry (critiques of freire's notions of education as liberatory, notwithstanding)? the publishers assert that "the challenge to [the] reader is an inability to understand and process the ideas expressed by the word." my friend and colleague jeanine staples would have much to say about the dynamic relationship between the ideas and words of adolescents. she examines the salience of the spoken word within the intellectual rigor of adolescents' critical reading and writing practices; their critical literacies are resonant with multiple modes of expression, and the word - spoken, read, and written - is in constant and thoughtful negotiation. the chasm continues to grow, it seems, between studies of adolescents' nuanced and critical literacies and the curriculum factory that can't keep up with the demand being created by mass adolescent literacy hysteria. perhaps it's the very full moon beckoning outside my living room window, but my research-curriculum 'disconnect' tentacles are quite sensitive this evening. the walch series proves that there continues to be a market and funding available for packaged solutions; is there a way, i wonder, to better bridge the two, if only to avoid repeating the catastrophic misnaming that has occurred above.

note: if anyone has additional information about this series, or its possible impact in influencing adolescent literacy curricula, i'd be much obliged to hear it.

1 comment:

Tony Ward said...

Loved your piece on adolescent literacies!

Kia ora from New Zealand,

I just found you through my Google Alerts for Critical Theory and Critical Pedagogy. I enjoyed what I found and I think that you may enjoy my own website – which you are free to use as a resource. I am a retired academic with more than 40 years teaching Architecture at Universities on three continents (the UK, U. C. Berkeley and U. of Auckland, New Zealand). I have a PhD in Architecture – specialising in the interface between design education and critical theory/critical pedagogy – but my writings cover a whole range of fields. I have a distinguished teaching Award from the University of Auckland (where I taught for 20 years), and for the last five years served as Director of Academic Programme Development at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi, (one of three Maori Universities) in New Zealand where I also taught Critical Education Theory and Cultural Studies. This gave me a unique perspective on issues of Colonisation, Education and Cultural Pluralism and Critical Pedagogy. I retired a year ago and have set up the website as an educational resource. I am writing because I thought you might find my own website useful. It covers issues such as:

Critical Theory
Critical Theorists
Critical Practice (Praxis)
Critical Pedagogy
Critical Education Theory
Indigenous Studies
Critical Psychology
Cultural Studies
Critical Aesthetics
Academic Programme Development
Sustainable Design
Critical Design etc. etc.

The website at: www.TonyWardEdu.com contains more than 60 (absolutely free) downloadable and fully illustrated PDFs on all of these topics and more offered to students from the primer level, up to PhD. It also has a set of extensive bibliographies and related web links in all of these areas.

I would be very grateful if you would have a look at the website and perhaps bring it to the attention of your friends and colleagues for them to use as a resource.

There is no catch!

It’s just that I believe the world is going to hell at an unimaginable rate and I want to do something to help to turn it around – for my five children and my grandchildren All that I ask in return, is that you and they let me know what you think about the website and cite me for any material that may be downloaded and/or used.

I would also appreciate a reciprocal link to my site from your own so that others may come to know about it and use it.

Many thanks

Dr. Tony Ward Dip.Arch. (Birm)
Academic Programme, Tertiary Education and Sustainable Design Consultant

(Ph) (07) 307 2245
(m) 027 22 66 563
(e) tonyward.transform@xtra.co.nz