In the elementary classroom, teachers often shy away from teaching a more critical viewpoint of “traditional history” for fear of how this shift will be received by parents or others. However, they are all eager to teach students how to read, to love reading and how to read for information. Teaching critical literacy impacts and lifts the level of reading for information.
Critical literacy is teaching children to think deeply and talk thoughtfully about social issues by using quality texts. It is a method that encourages students to perspective-take, empathize, form an opinion and draw their own conclusions. Even a “bad” text (i.e. full of stereotypes and historical inaccuracies) can lead to amazing critical conversations when paired with another book and time to think critically and engage in dialogue.
How Do I Know if a Book Can be Used for Critical Literacy?
Harste gives some criteria that teachers can use to find books that lend themselves to critical literacy. These books should have at least one or more of the following traits:
Investigation of differences.
Lifting of marginalized voices.
Showing resistance to social ills.
Exploring dominant systems that create “others.”
Providing realistic and complex endings rather than happily ever after.
Additionally, teachers should consider the writer’s identity, intent, and the social and historical context of the text.
One of my favorite questions to ask is, “Whose voice is missing?” This question can provoke thoughtful conversation and inquiry. Specifically for Thanksgiving, with many books, we will find that the voices of Indigenous People are missing. How would you feel if a story was written about you and no one asked for your opinion?
From here you can take students on a critical literature hunt to find the missing voices. Do we know how the colonists felt? Do we know how the Native People felt? The unwavering sense of fairness for elementary students makes a critical look at a text fairly reasonable. This concept can be easily attained preemptively with classics such as “The Three Little Pigs” and the varying tales with perspectives from the wolf and other animals.
Students can use graphic organizers to compare and contrast different texts about Native Americans before colonization, after, and now. This timeline allows students to de-center colonizer narratives, and acknowledge the existence of Indigenous people before it, as well as the reality that Native people still live in the U.S. today.
One text that does this well is “When We Were Alone”by David A. Robertson, an Indigenous writer. It addresses resistance through actions, holding on to culture, passing down culture, empowerment and triumphant resilience through the voice of Indigenous People. It tells the critical truth of a challenging and painful history in a developmentally appropriate way.
Without indoctrination, teachers can help students use critical literacy to engage with any concept as a means to decide for themselves how they feel about colonization. Teachers can tackle writing objectives for compare and contrast essays, persuasive essays and even information books.
Critical literacy can be used to teach students how to debate, and can even prompt student voices to act for change in their own schools around curriculum and even school holiday observances. Critical literacy is ultimately a life skill that empowers students to take action in their daily lives.
Erica Snowden, a Detroit native, has been an educator for 16 years within the Friends Schools network. Erica earned her bachelor's in biology from Lincoln University, a master's in the art of teaching from Marygrove College and a master's in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, she is the Lower School Dean at Greene Street Friends School in ...