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Review of Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms
Comber, Barbara and Anne Simpson, ed. (2001) Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates xv+290 pp., paperback ISBN 0-8058-3794-9, $29.95,
Amy Cecilia Hazelrigg, Division of Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies, College of Education, University of New Mexico.
PURPOSE AND SUMMARY Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms is a collection of papers editors Barbara Comber and Anne Simpson have put together to meet the need they perceive for theory-based accounts of classroom practices in critical literacy. With a final summary chapter by Barbara Comber which underscores the central conception of critical literacies as ''positive and locally negotiated practices'' (p. 272), the anthology contains fifteen papers describing classroom studies situated in a variety of geographic locales and educational institutions and one chapter on critical approaches to teaching materials. Classrooms range from early primary to adult basic education to university. Locales include Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Singapore, South Africa, the UK, and the US. Twelve of the contributors work in university settings, three in public school systems, and the remainder in government, publishing, or consultancy positions.
The four chapters making up Part I are concerned with early primary settings. Anne Hass Dyson's study of second- and third-graders in a high-poverty urban school in the US examines how students ''dialogize,'' in Bakhtin's terminology, a popular film character. She describes how classroom composing activities-talking, dramatizing, writing-generated critical reflection and action among the children involved. She sees their dialogizing as a process of ''articulating and reimagining the taken for granted'' (p. 16) that depended heavily on the opportunities the teacher gave them to contribute to the developing life of the classroom community.
Urvashi Sahni's chapter summarizes the findings of an observational and interactional study of the school contexts and developing literacy of second- and third-grade children in rural North India. Profiles of the two focal children describe their interactions with the researcher and their move from literacy, as one child described it, as '''copying' print'' (p. 29) to literacy as confident authorship. Reflected eventually in their writing, according to the author, was a form of empowerment she believes is specific to children. For adults, she says, empowerment involves ''direct social transformation''; for children, it is ''an achievement of their personhood'' (p. 33). Their critical consciousness manifests not in the process Freire has described as naming the existing world, but in ''an imaginative narrative and poetic invention of possible worlds and possible selves'' (p. 33).
Jennifer O'Brien's article is a reflective piece on her efforts to bring together literacy instruction and critical practices in South Australia classrooms. In one early primary classroom, she had departed from traditional literacy instruction and made texts the object of critical scrutiny, but found that she occasionally resorted to conventional ''teacherly moves'' (p. 46) when students were critical of her own positions. In two other classrooms, projects designed to consider how junk mail sells values resulted in critical analysis and the production of alternative texts. These literacy events show that children are ''inventive and skeptical'' (p. 52) readers rather than passive learners in need of the intervention of enlightened teachers.
The final piece in Part I, by Vivian Vasquez, describes the researcher's work with kindergarteners in a multiethnic middle-class Toronto suburb. Over a school year, teacher and students constructed a learning wall or ''audit trail,'' a collection of artifacts-photographs, drawings, conversation transcripts, newspaper clippings, and so forth-that allowed the participants to ''make visible'' (p. 58) incidents that inspired their learning and actions taken to ''destabilize traditional social systems'' (p. 59) at the school. The audit trail became the centerpiece of an emerging critical curriculum which enabled teacher and students to challenge and alter inequities in the school.
Part II focuses on upper primary classrooms. Yin Mee Cheah's study of the changing face of literacy in Singapore maintains that definitions of critical literacy must be relative, not absolute. For Singapore, where literacy is traditionally viewed as sociopolitically neutral and is associated simply with skills acquisition, ''examination-based'' (p. 79) literacy still dominates the curriculum despite the 1991 introduction of a syllabus emphasizing personal growth through an interactive, learner-centered, process-oriented pedagogy. The small advances in evidence, which Cheah illustrates with a brief text students constructed out of their personal and cultural knowledge, are ''not critical literacy by a long shot,'' but represent, nevertheless, ''a positive move away from the dominant model'' (p. 80).
Angel Mei Yi Lin's chapter on literacy practices in an eighth-grade second-language classroom in working-class Hong Kong demonstrates how the students subverted the purposes of an ''information extraction'' (p. 83) reading lesson and negotiated their own sense of a text. As they reworked it through playful classroom talk in Cantonese, a familiar Chinese folk tale, written in English, was transformed into a humorous, unpredictable fantasy resembling the comic-book narratives popular with this group of children. Conventional in-class reading lessons in Hong Kong, Lin points out, resemble ''reading in the examination hall'' (p. 88)-reading to locate factual answers to preposed questions. She suggests that an alternative literacy model is in order that would capitalize on students' cultural and linguistic resources and allow them the exercise of creativity and ''critical exploration'' (p. 96).
Bill Bigelow's chapter is a teacher's assessment of an interactive educational CD-ROM on the history of the Oregon Trail. Largely through what it omits, says Bigelow, the computer game ''mis-teaches'' (p. 104) by promoting imperialism, racism, sexism, and ecological exploitation. It ignores the lives and decisions of settler women, for example, obscures the reality of such phenomena as the African-American exclusion laws in the Oregon Territory, omits the fact that contact with the settlers ''devastated Indian cultures'' (p. 104), and masks the invasive nature of the push west by Euro-Americans. Worse, it does so covertly, especially because its interactive characteristics appear to offer the CD-ROM user freedom of choice. Because this program is ''not necessarily more morally obnoxious'' (P. 117) than others, what is needed is a ''critical computer literacy'' (p. 114) based on the recognition that educational software is not a substitute for teachers and computer programs ''are not politically neutral'' (p. 117).
Bronwyn Mellor and Annette Patterson write about the dilemmas faced and the questions raised when analyzing the results of their work with children in grades four and five in a suburban Australian school. An attempt to elicit multiple readings of an updated version of Hansel and Gretel met essentially with failure: the students persisted in seeing the stepmother as ''mean'' and the father as ''nice'' despite the father's mutual culpability in the story. The exercise suggests, say the researchers, that a critical reading is as much taught as a dominant reading, and that in reality teachers of critical literacy are often attempting to ''adjust students' readings while apparently denying that [they] are doing so'' (p. 124). Their subsequent work was framed by the conclusion that the simple availability of multiple readings does not in fact ''guarantee desirable readings'' (p. 132), that students will not adopt alternative readings by merely becoming ''conscious,'' and that what is at the heart of the desire to produce alternative readings is the teacher's belief that a dominant reading is in need of adjustment. Although the idea may be uncomfortable, say the authors, it may be necessary to acknowledge that ''critical pedagogy is itself inseparable from the exercise of pastoral power'' (p. 133).
Part III of the volume deals primarily with upper secondary settings. Using data based on what transpired in a 1991 multiracial Grade 10 classroom in a South African independent school, Hilary Janks discusses why a new workbook aimed at developing critical language awareness was largely unsuccessful in that context. The purpose of the exercise was to teach the concept of subject position by generating a range of possible viewpoints related to gender, but instead it evoked angry, polarized debate among the students along racial lines. Teacher and researcher, according to Janks, were unprepared for the ''extent to which students might feel the need in their class and in their school to win power and recognition for their own meanings and be unable to value the meanings of others.'' Predicting responses to texts is not always easy, she says, and without a school environment supporting ''communicative openness,'' students will not want to take the risk of revealing ''sacred meanings'' (p. 149).
Also about ''building a critically reflective classroom community'' (p. 153) in the context of South Africa's massive sociopolitical changes, Pippa Stein's chapter focuses on a 1994 research project with 12- to 16-year-old Standard 5 students in a Black township outside Johannesburg. Interested initially in exploring the linguistic resources of the 37 students, 90% of whom spoke a home language other than English, Stein sought to elicit student voices through story. The use of videotaping became, to her surprise, a central motivation for the students, who produced a wide array of interactive, performance-based, multimodal texts, notably taboo stories and politicized, contemporary versions of folktales. The results of her study and the work of a number of other teachers in the same vein suggest, says Stein, that the time is right in South Africa for ''an educational intervention that attempts to reappropriate and allow for transformation of previously marginalized, infantalized, or invisible cultural forms into institutional spaces'' (pp. 166-167). In the English classroom, such an approach would put special emphasis on giving students the freedom to draw freely on their home languages, discourses, and genres.
Wayne Martino worked with Grade 10 boys in a middle-class coed Catholic school in South Australia in classroom projects designed to ''interrogate dominant constructions of masculinity'' (p. 180) within a framework which did not make what he considers the theoretical errors of comparing boys' responses to girls' or casting boys in the victim mold. He used two texts, a short story and a rap song. The boys responded to the story with high involvement but did not read it for gender. The protagonist, who is given a gun by an abusive father, practices cruelty to animals and comes to use the gun to shoot his own brother. In written responses, the boys tended to describe the character's behavior in terms of psychological issues, not masculinity practices. However, in the case of the rap song, teacher questions enabled the same boys to question their normalizing assumptions. Martino feels that a critical literacy school agenda must target the social and cultural construction of gender and must be supported across the curriculum.
Leora Cruddas and Patricia Watson describe and reflect on a writing project they spearheaded in the context of the new South Africa, where the system seeks to raise Black literacy rates but defines literacy in terms of a deficit model and has engendered publishing practices marginalizing and infantilizing the novice adult reader. The production of a new series of ESL readers for adults utilized Black rural storytellers (''writers'') and White urban writers (''mentor-editors'') working in pairs to generate and edit written versions of oral stories for eventual inclusion in the readers. The authors feel the process enabled novices to become participants in the publishing world, but believe it generated at least two crucial questions: 1) Given the different positioning of writer and mentor-editor within the culture of production created by the project, to what extent were the collaborative efforts not in fact shared experiences? 2) To what extent were the rural Black writers pushed into forms of storytelling not of their own cultures? Despite the negative possibilities suggested by their questions, say the authors, their intervention was successful because it involved ''aiding and abetting the writers who wrote against the texts of race, class, and history'' (p. 201).
Part IV consists of Comber's concluding chapter and studies of critical practices at university sites. Catherine Wallace's piece is a largely theoretical discussion of the meaning of critical language awareness in the classroom and the issues of power and empowerment with respect to teacher and student negotiation of meaning. She see critical literacy as performed rather than possessed as an aptitude, and critical language awareness as a ''metalevel awareness'' that is consciously learned and therefore empowering. Within this framework, she views the teacher's function as practicing a critical pedagogy aimed at enabling the development of an ''interpretive community'' (p. 209) in which ''all class members play an active role'' (p. 214), context is made explicit, and teaching and learning processes kept transparent. In this context, reading is a resistant act instead of the cooperative process of everyday reading, and ''discussion about and around texts'' (p. 216) is an integral part of reading. How the teacher manages such talk is the focus of Wallace's discussion of a critical language awareness course she taught at a British university to European and Asian students in their late teens. Drawing on Goffman and Kramsch, she sees two roles as most supportive of the teacher's central responsibility of offering equal participatory opportunity to all students: as ''principal,'' addressing students from a position of authority, and ''author,'' speaking in her own voice. Kramsch's third category, ''animator,'' in which the teacher serves as a mouthpiece for other points of view-the text, for example, or a student-is judged to be less supportive of critical pedagogy because it removes the teacher's responsibility as ''author for either the content or procedure of lessons'' (p. 226). Although the teacher-student power differential is virtually a given in the classroom, how teacher footings are deployed is what determines whether or not an interpretive community develops.
James Bell's chapter examines the accessibility of critical pedagogy to prospective teachers and the possibilities for using the popular film as its instrument. During his conversations with the four student teacher participants in this study, Bell noted that they exhibited a contradictory perspective: ''a dual sensibility in which critical clear sightedness coexists with an acritical close mindedness'' (p. 242). Discussions centering around the film Pump Up the Volume by Allen Moyle showed that the participants believed teaching should bring hope to the world but that they did not see themselves as agents of change. Committed in effect to a liberal role, they saw themselves as isolated individuals and demonstrated no understanding of the possibilities for power and support contained in their professional community. They were concerned not with their responsibility to guide ''difficult moral and political conversations'' in their classrooms, Bell says, but with the less aware goal of getting their students ''to say anything at all'' (p. 237) of personal significance. Concluding that the student teachers know a great deal because they are embedded in school lives mirroring the world of Pump Up the Volume and yet ''know very little in a critical sense'' (p. 242), Bell suggests that using popular culture texts in the service of critical practice can be problematic because they can evoke temporary interest but cannot guarantee social critique.
Jenny Clarence-Fincham writes about the success of a course in critical language awareness instituted for largely Black, non-Native-English-speaking students at Natal University in South Africa in the early 1990s. Developed with the twin aims of expanding students' academic literacies and encouraging in them a critical perspective on the university as an educational institution, the course was theoretically framed by the concept of multiple subjectivity and the notion that language is a socially-constructed, political phenomenon. Critical language awareness was foregrounded in the program because it concerns itself with exposing covert ideologies in spoken and written discourse and challenges the traditional concept of second-language instruction as training in appropriacy. The curriculum was also framed by the student perspective and student input. It took its inspiration initially from pedagogical questions generated by the empowering experience of one Black female freshman during its pilot phase, and later from positive student evaluation in which a common theme was the awareness of the ability to read more critically as a result of participation in the program.
In the final chapter of Negotiating Critical Literacies which is devoted to original research, Nathalie Wooldridge describes how she sought as a Master's student to investigate what critical literacy looks like in terms of approaches to text and curriculum planning. She and a group of secondary school teachers working in high-poverty areas in South Australia taught and critiqued five critical literacy units and in the process unearthed a number of questions pointing to the importance of the critical reading of teaching itself. Coming under scrutiny were issues surrounding teacher positioning: the risk of intruding on student lives in the name of inclusiveness and authentic action, the difficulty of developing critical literacy skills from a position of limited teacher background knowledge, the ability of the teacher to guide student energies into problem-posing exercises, and the danger of imposing a single view on students rather than acknowledging ''complexity . . . and the unknowable'' (p. 269).
COMMENTARY Earlier and broader treatments of critical literacy, stemming from Freire's elucidation (1970) of an emancipatory pedagogy which aims at new self-knowledge through reflection and new ways of being through social action, have sought to explore such issues as the dynamic between power relations and language practices (Fairclough, 1992), the place of critical literacy in the history of the development of postmodern thought (Lankshear & McLaren, 1993), and questions of normativity in literate practices (Muspratt, Luke, & Freebody, 1997). The volume by Comber and Simpson belongs squarely in this tradition but is based on the recognition of a particular need for descriptive qualitative research carried out, in Comber's words, in ''classroom and school communities where critical literacies and innovative pedagogies are being created.'' The purpose is to contribute to the development of ''a significant corpus of theorized critical stories of young people and radical educators working for social justice'' (p. 279).
To this end, Comber and Simpson have put together a collection that invites reflection and carries the reader on an engaging journey through a multiplicity of classrooms and cultures throughout the Commonwealth and the United States. Background information in the form of treatments of national educational systems as a part of sociopolitical history is carefully researched and illuminating, most notably the well-organized discussions of Singapore and South Africa.
A central theme to the volume is that critical literacy practices entail many routes to empowerment. Dyson, for example, describes transformation through literacy: how female students use a popular film character to resist community gender norms; while Sahni's discussion explores this theme as well as the transformation of literacy itself: how teachers and students involved in critical literacy can challenge social practices which serve to maintain an underclass. Vasquez suggests that empowerment can be opened out by critically examining and revamping language-teaching methodology, notably whole language approaches to reading and writing instruction. Stein focuses on the empowerment of the English classroom through the rejuvenating force of popular culture. Cruddas and Watson, in perhaps the most unusual study represented, describe a project with multivalent possibilities for empowerment: through the transformations involved in the collaborations between differentially-positioned participants in professional writing teams, through the resulting transformations of the status of traditional folk narratives, and through the usurpation of exclusionary print literacy practices.
Routes to empowerment suggested by this volume include the empowerment of teachers as well as they examine their own positioning and work toward transformation through self-questioning and the analysis of failure. Hilary Janks, for example, notes the surprising lack of success she experienced in introducing critical literacy teaching materials to an alternative school setting. Despite our poststructuralist belief that ''meaning is dialogic,'' she observes, what we are up against is the fact that ''our educational practices, which privilege rational deliberation, reflection, and debate, teach students to seek closure'' (p. 141). Cruddas and Watson express the concern that their professional-writer/rural storyteller collaboration teams might have functioned to create unequal participation and a disruption of the rural storytellers' cultural ways. Wallace and Wooldridge both foreground teacher authority, Wallace focusing on how it is managed, both well and badly, through teacher choice of footing in the foreign-language classroom, Wooldridge raising a number of questions surrounding the problems with teacher power that come from limitations in teacher knowledge and understanding.
Issues of primacy and immediacy of voice are implied here, and it is perhaps in the book's potential for ''turn[ing] on the sound,'' (p. 279) in Comber's words, that its greatest promise lies for serving as a template for future research. Described in the chapter by Clarence-Fincham, a Black female freshman, new to a South African university, is assigned the task of interviewing a White administrator. She comments later on the experience:
What I learnt from the interview was that things didn't occur as I expected them. I was so tensed since it was the first time that I had to interview a white man. What I discovered was that he appeared to be a kind somebody. While I was . . . trying to construct sentences for introducing ourselves, the man asked if we would like to have a cup of coffee. I was surprised by the question. . . . I responded with yes but still felt hesitation so I said no. He himself provided me with coffee. Still asking myself why he was lowering himself like that, the man bumpered us with answers of the unasked questions.... The interview was absolutely wonderful. It changed my conclusions about the whites whom I regard as superior. I was brought to the conclusion that some are just like myself, willing to help and to socialise (p. 247).
In the Vasquez chapter, children in a Canadian kindergarten class discover that theirs is the only age group to have been excluded by the administration from a school-wide social function. They create a tape-recorded petition reading, in part:
Today there's something going on in the gym and we want to know why aren't we invited? Because only the grade ones and twos can go so that's not fair to us or to anyone. And maybe . . on the next party we can have it at our class. But we figured out something. If we have dances here then they won't have dances there and if they have dances there we won't have dances here. And that's not fair to us or to the whole world because we don't get to go (p. 65).
Tina, a third-grader in a high-poverty American urban classroom described by Dyson, writes a story remaking Emily, originally a minor background character in a popular children's film, ''preteen, blonde, and quite pretty'' (p. 3):
Once there was a girl named Emily. She was tough. Her and her boy friend [Colt] was eating pizza. . . . So one day they were going to school. . . . Then they went into the room. Bad boys, they love to beat up kids. . . . School is over now. . . . Colt was going away. Emily found him. The bad boys had him. Emily can whip some butt. So she did. So they all ran away. She is tough, I said. So they walk home again. The end (p. 11).
And Bigelow quotes what he refers to with irony as the ''comforting words of advice and social vision'' (p. 113), chillingly ethnocentric, which occur near the end of the American educational CD-ROM on the history of the Oregon Trail:
As more and more Americans move into the region, more cities and towns will spring up, further increasing one's options for economic success. Rest assured in the facts that men and women who are willing to work hard will find their labors richly rewarded, and that you, by going west, are helping to spread American civilization from ocean to ocean across this great continent, building a glorious future for generations to come (p. 112)!
These instances of the gift for bringing life to theory and, indeed, remaking theory give the book richness, purpose, and focus and provide effective support for the editors' interest in inspiring others to describe their successes and failures in conducting action studies of critical literacy. Because the data of qualitative action research are so crucial to lending it sense and validity, however, it is to be hoped that future efforts might direct themselves to finding ways to give even greater and more consistent privileging to data than does the present collection. With some notable exceptions such as the pieces by Dyson and Clarence-Fincham, data are occasionally backgrounded in this volume by discussions of theory, and conclusions are sometimes unconvincing because data from original, longer studies have been too severely pruned. Were a second edition of the volume to be forthcoming, judicious editing would help to correct this imbalance as well as clear a number of the chapters of mechanical errors and inconsistencies.
Despite these minor problems, Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms is an intriguing collection which offers more than adequate elaboration on the centerpiece theme of critical literacies as locally constructed, and manages, in the bargain, to argue for the notion that all discussions of our perennial search for meaningful pedagogies would benefit from explicit accounts of the links between classrooms and community, national, and cultural practice.
Fairclough, N. (1992) Critical language awareness. London: Longman.
Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.
Lankshear, C. & McLaren, P. L. (1993) Critical literacy: Politics, praxis, and the postmodern. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Muspratt, S., Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1997) Constructing critical literacies: Teaching and learning textual practice. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Amy Cecilia Hazelrigg is a PhD candidate in the Program in Educational Linguistics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she teaches courses in first and second language development and ESL pedagogy. Her educational background includes a Bachelor's in Comparative Literature, a Master's in English, and a Master's in TESOL. She has taught ESL on three continents and specializes in ESL reading and composition. Her dissertation, in progress, is a case study of a university researcher-teacher study group understanding and applying aspects of systemic functional linguistics to L2 reading instruction. Other research interests include critical discourse analysis, critical literacy for the L2 learner, classroom ethnography, genre description, and qualitative methods in L2 development research.