During the first class of a graduate English education course designed to develop critical approaches to teaching literature, I asked:
How would you teach about Ferguson, right now?
We had spent that first class together considering what “critical” means, beginning with how the teachers were defining it within their own teaching. We each wrote our definition of critical in relationship to teaching and learning. We then shared our definitions as a way of introducing ourselves to each other. We wrote down key aspects of the shared definitions with which we resonated and shared the connections and affiliations we were making amongst each other.
We then read Mulcahy’s (2008) chapter in class that makes a distinction between critical literacy and critical thinking. Mulchay writes:
Critical literacy is a mindset; it is a way of viewing and interacting with the world, not a set of teaching skills and strategies. From a pedagogical perspective, critical literacy is a philosophy that recognizes the connections between power, knowledge, language, and ideology, and recognizes the inequalities and injustices surrounding us in order to move toward transformative action and social justice. In order to do so, critical literacy examines texts in order to identify and challenge social constructs, underlying assumptions and ideologies, and power structures that intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate social inequalities and injustices. Furthermore, it examines the way in which texts use language to position readers, transmit information, and perpetuate the status quo. Critical literacy aims to delve deeply into the sociopolitical and sociocultural issues embedded in texts in order to identify the root causes of social inequalities. By employing critical literacy, one questions the construction of knowledge and searches for hidden agendas in school curricula, government legislation, corporation policies, and the media. (p. 16)
This definition and the distinction Mulchay makes between critical thinking (a concept with which the teachers were familiar) and critical literacy (a concept that teachers found more difficult to define) provoked some shifts in the way the teachers were thinking about “critical.”
We then discussed Ferguson. I shared with them some resources that educators were circulating on Twitter and other platforms using the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus.
- Teaching #Ferguson: Current events in the classroom and resources (crowdsourced from #sschat)
- Racism and the police: The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson (from Todd Beer)
- How to teach kids about what’s happening in Ferguson (from Marcia Chatelain)
- How professors in St. Louis are teaching the lessons of Ferguson’s unrest (from Katherine Mangan)
I ended that class asking the teachers to answer in their response journals: How would you teach about Ferguson, right now?
And I told them we would talk more about it during the second class.
The second class was designed to take up our definition(s) of “critical” within the conversation about the purpose for and the disciplinary boundaries of English. “What is critical?” was the question for the first class, and “What is English?” was the question for the second class. I asked them to read articles that addressed this second question (Kirkland, 2008; Luke, 1994; Morrell, 2005; Tremmel, 2006).
Below is how the teachers responded to the question: How would you teach about Ferguson, right now? That second class I grouped the students roughly by how they addressed this question in order to start defining what we thought English is. Below are brief descriptions of those groups and their responses.
Leading students in critical questioning, fact checking, research and bias detection
This first group of teachers focused their pedagogic response on how the events in Ferguson are being reported by different media sources. Characteristic of media studies and the types of critical thinking that Mulchay describes, this group wanted their students to suspend judgment and seek out the facts of what happened in ways that consider who is reporting what in what ways and for what reasons. This group shared a healthy amount of skepticism about the different agendas circulating around the shooting of Michael Brown and the events that followed. And, they shared a desire for students to consult multiple sources to compare and possibly confirm facts before reacting to them.
Situating events within larger socio-historic contexts and issues (local, national, global)
This second group of teachers focused their response on helping students understand the shooting of Michael Brown and the events that followed from social and historical perspectives foregrounding particular issues such as: racism, the economy, community-police relations in Ferguson, the militarization of local police, the civil rights movement, and human rights. This group shared the desire for students to understand the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson within the larger context of race relations in our country and the universal rights of people worldwide. These teachers were wary of people and media outlets that focused narrowly on the events without considering these larger issues and contexts. This group was leading a systemic investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown, characteristic of what Mulchay describes as critical literacy.
Understanding marginalization and violence through nonfiction, literature, poetry, and film
This third group sought out texts through which they could help students understand the shooting of Michael Brown and the events that followed. They identified commonly taught nonfiction and literature that would help them start these conversations with students–first about fictional characters or historic figures and second about Michael Brown. They identified texts such as Letter from a Birmingham Jail, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Fire Next Time, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Do The Right Thing as texts that opened up conversations about marginalization and experiencing otherness. Their shared goal was to develop empathy for Michael Brown and adolescents like him who experience thousands of micro aggressions each day that reinforce their marginalization.
Providing an opportunity for students to talk, share, and question
Two of the teachers independently outlined an approach that began with creating a space for students to talk about the shooting of Michael Brown, share what they had heard from different sources, and develop their own questions. These two teachers wisely began by attempting to understand where their students were in their thinking before moving forward with directing them to particular sources and texts or posing questions to help them navigate the media storm around the shooting of Michael Brown and the events that followed. These two eventually joined one of the other groups in our conversation, but they were unique because they planned to begin by opening a dialogue with their students and listening.
If you read this far, you can probably tell that I am excited about all of these responses and the conversations that these teachers are having. This is a great group of teachers, and I think they are representative of many teachers who are considering how to address the shooting of Michael Brown with their classes. From here, we are reading O’Donnell-Allen’s (2011) Tough Talk Tough Texts, reading Adichie’s (2013) Americanah, modeling critical approaches to teaching the tough texts that teachers select, and developing multi-genre projects that take up critical inquiry. I’m looking forward to our conversations, and I’m especially excited for the conversations these teachers will have with their students to help them develop critical and empathetic stances toward each other and the world.
Adichie, C.N. (2013). Americanah. New York: Random House.
Kirkland, D.E. (2008). “The rose that grew from concrete”: Postmodern Blackness and new English education. English Journal, 97(5), 69-75.
Luke, A. (2004). The trouble with English. Research in the Teaching of English, 39(1), 85-95.
Morrell, E. (2005). Critical English education. English Education, 37(4), 312-321.
Mulchay, C.M. (2008). The tangled web we weave: Critical literacy and critical thinking. In L. Wallowitz (Ed.), Critical literacy as resistance: Teaching social justice across the secondary curriculum (pp. 15-27). New York: Peter Lang.
O’Donnell-Allen, C. (2011). Tough talk tough texts: Teaching English to change the world. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Tremmel, R. (2006). Changing the way we think in English education: A conversation in the universal barbershop. English Education, 39(1), 10-45.