Education in the 21st Century: Critical Literacy and Agonistic Conflict as a Response to Current Issues (of Justice)

Antonino Giambrone


Given the complexities of education in the 21st century, how might transformative approaches to literacy, a critical literacy embedded in social justice, offer one way of responding to current issues? My interest in this question emerges from my work as a classroom teacher working with diverse students for ten years. In my work with elementary school students (Grades 3 to 8), my approaches to teaching aligned with critical pedagogy (Freire, 1970; Kincheloe, 2007; Andrade and Morell, 2008). That is, I sought to engage students in societal critique through dialogue, and to foster various forms of social action as responses to the issues we explored. I wanted my students to be literate, I believed they were capable of high levels of literacy, and believed that their literacy could be a tool to explore the underlying causes of injustice and take action to redress them. I often aimed at what Lesko and Bloom refer to as “happy-ever-after endings” (1998, p. 390): I hoped students felt good about our learning, their social action, the money and awareness we raised for particular justice initiatives, and about the people the social action aimed to help. In my teaching, I found that providing opportunities for critical talk in response to various texts and opportunities for drama improvisation activities to be powerful ways to engage students in the complexities of social justice issues, particularly those students who seemed to be disengaged during more traditional instructional approaches. Such in and out of role talk was my way of getting students passionate about an issue, and to foster embodied responses to texts that I (as teacher) introduced.

I felt at the time that I experienced success in engaging students using dialogic and dramatic pedagogies associated with critical literacy. I taught in a school where most of the students identified as White and middle to upper-middle class. Students at this school responded with enthusiasm to my conceptions of social justice and my connected literacy practices. For example, I often invited analysis and critique of various media texts, organized community service learning projects, and accompanied students to demonstrations aimed at raising awareness of various issues that students and I associated with local and global injustice. We often discussed the plight of Others1. I began to wonder, however, why my students seemed to be buying in to my pedagogy. I wondered whether or not what we were doing was actually working toward social justice.

When I began teaching at a large elementary school populated by students who had recently immigrated to Canada (many under refugee claims), were racially marginalized, and/or were of lower socio-economic status, this challenged my prior conceptions of critical literacy work embedded in social justice. Many of these students did not seem to respond as positively to what I considered important issues (that I assumed were also important to them). My new context provoked questions about what I was doing, how I was doing it, for whom, and the role played by my gender, racial and class privilege in my attempts at transformative social justice teaching. I began to wonder whether my teaching reflected and valued these students’ lived experiences. When I became an equity consultant for my school board, I continued to question the relationships between my (and other teachers’) experiences, those of my (and their) students, and the realities of people directly harmed in the issues I addressed. I wondered: How did students with different social identities and life experiences interpret my pedagogy and content? Why did some students seem to care about issues of justice (as I presented them), and others not? How might conflict be a productive component of critical literacy for social justice, and what diverse ways could students demonstrate their “literacy”?.

In North America, the term ‘social justice’ has become a catch phrase in education circles, with many schools, school boards, and faculties of education incorporating it into their mission statements and curriculum documents. Indeed, diverse understandings of social justice manifest themselves through various approaches to education. For example, anti-oppressive, multicultural, and democratic citizenship education all, to various extents and with different emphases, claim to incorporate social justice goals. These approaches reject current neoliberal trends in education that are manifested through pervasive standardized testing, scripted curriculum, and continued disparities in the educational achievement of groups marginalized by racism and poverty. Many critical scholars argue that an emphasis on curriculum standards and testing functions to privilege certain perspectives and dominant groups in society (De Lissovoy, 2015; Kumashiro, 2009) and marginalize Others. Such neoliberal trends challenge teachers who wish to work through critical literacies with students to address injustice (Ayers et al, 2009; Kumashiro, 2009; Soloman & Singer, 2011). At the same time, some researchers argue that social justice approaches risk imposing perspectives rather than acknowledging diverse student experiences and intersubjective constructions of knowledge (Sonu, 2009a). Social justice education is a complicated endeavor, defined and practiced for particular goals, and situated within particular contexts.

Critical literacy scholars, such as Allan Luke, Barbara Comer, and Vivian Vazquez, focus directly on literacy practices that manifest in classrooms, and what those literacy practices mean for addressing broad issues of social justice. Critical literacy practice involves teachers in weaving critical questions about various texts into the fabric of everyday life at school. This paper builds on such work focused on critical literacy teaching in elementary school classrooms, and student responses to it – in particular, I frame critical literacy as students’ encounters with texts and with each other. Such encounters can include opportunities for students to engage rich talk – dramatic in-role talk included - in relation to multiple text forms. These opportunities are meaning making events-where the analysis of power relations can potentially provoke creative responses.

I present and discuss two vignettes from two urban elementary classroom case studies—a grade 6 class in a demographically mixed area and a grade 8 class in an economically and racially marginalized neighborhood in Southern Ontario, Canada. The teachers in these classrooms regularly implemented dialogic literacy pedagogies on conflictual social justice topics. I also worked with small groups of students from these classrooms, and engaged them in improvised drama session (described below). Teachers’ and my own pedagogies included not purely talk or deliberation, but emotive political exchanges, embodying neither fixed identities, fixed social positions, nor straightforward solutions to complex issues. Within this paper, I explore moments of paradox, concurrence and dissonance between two educators’ (one classroom teacher and myself as researcher) intentions and various students’ responses. These moments illustrate the possible dangers, and transformative potential of eliciting conflictual exchanges in the critical exploration of issues associated with social justice.

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