As noted yesterday, I’ve decided to join the conversation of BAND (Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees), which poses a monthly question about nonfiction for all bloggers to answer. July’s question, asked by Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness, is “What is one of your favorite types of nonfiction to read? OR What is one of your favorite nonfiction topics to read about?”
Though I love reading a range of social science literature and social theory, the type of nonfiction that I would take to a desert island with me would be writings on critical literacy.
Critical literacy, as I understand it, is an approach to teaching and learning that understands literacy as a social action. Readers are not passive recipients of a text but active meaning-makers who should be encouraged to ask questions and analyze what’s happening in a story. Especially questions about how power is portrayed in the story and why that may be so. Critical literacy scholars say that texts are never neutral and encourage students to contemplate the way a text could be re-imagined and re-designed.
Let me give an example of the kinds of analyses to be found in critical literacy writings. In an essay on the standard story of Rosa Parks found in children’s texts, critical pedagogist Herbert Kohl identifies the flaws in telling this tale as a tired woman who one day got sick of segregation and stayed in her bus seat, sparking the civil rights movement. Kohl rightly points out Rosa Parks had been a leader actively fighting segregation for years before 1955. Moreover, leaders of the Montgomery black community had already planned a bus boycott and were waiting to initiate it until they found “someone who had the respect of the community and the strength to deal with the racist police force as well as all the publicity that would result from being at the center of a bus boycott” (Kohl 44).
Kohl argues that the story of Rosa Parks should be put “in the context of a coherent, community-based social struggle. This does not diminish Rosa Parks in any way. It places her, however, in the midst of a consciously planned movement for social change…” (46).
I know many community organizers who could make the same criticism, but what excites me about critical literacy scholars is that they’re applying the type of critical thinking I love to a topic that inspires my creative brain.
Another positive attribute of critical literacy is that it’s not just about written analysis. It’s about using these analyses in educational practice. In his essay on Babar, for example, Kohl shares reflections from the conversations he held with a third grade class about the colonialist influences of Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar. The Critical Literacy in Practice (CLIP) podcast hosted by Vivian Vasquez, is a great source to listen to other examples of educators holding these kinds of discussions with children.
I set my life goal of writing and publishing radical children’s books well before I ever heard the term “critical literacy.” In college I noticed a curious thing about anthropologists. They discuss at length the ways people have been socialized to think and act certain ways. Lots of anthropologists also want to be part of positive social change on the issues they study. Yet I rarely experienced conversations connecting the dots in those two points to the idea that we can positively affect society by changing the way we socialize children. Putting that argument together with my tendency toward imagined worlds, my plan for radical children’s books came into being.
And to my delight, Herbert Kohl, (whose book of essays on children’s literature I’ve been reading this week, can you tell?) made a call for such books 16 years ago:
I want to plea for the creation of a radical children’s literature that projects hope and provides youngsters with the sense that social forms are constructed by people and therefore that the world can be made into a finer, more caring place. (Kohl x)
From this quote the root of my love for critical literacy as a type of nonfiction: people who write on this subject share one of my greatest passions, and thus they speak to my heart.
What type of nonfiction do you love?
Kohl, Herbert. Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories. The New Press, 1995.