Teachers’ voices on what critical literacy is: Four snapshots

Rather than begin with how theories and models define critical literacy, I begin here with the perspectives of four high school teachers’ who work on a daily basis with culturally and linguistically diverse youth. Teachers’ work is often unacknowledged but their work and views matter significantly in how teaching and learning gets done. This book is partly about policy and how it discursively constructs official representations of theories and models of literacy teaching, but it is teachers who have substantial power to interpret and make possible varying approaches through enactment (Alford & Kettle, 2017; Comber & Nixon, 2009; Garcia & Menken, 2015). At the outset of my yearlong ethnographically-informed research in urban Australian high schools, I asked each of the four participating teachers in individual interviews what they understood critical literacy to be. Here are some of their responses:

MARGOT: I guess critical literacy is a matter of thinking more deeply about how society works, how institutions work. Understanding the rights that they (students) have because ...the thing is, if you don’t have any knowledge you accept everything at face value; it’s very easy for you to be controlled by individuals, institutions. You know, you become disempowered. So I think that critical literacy is about their (students’) development as an individual and where they fit into our society.

RIVA: it’s an understanding of the way language works to do more than just carry information; it conveys information but it persuades, it distributes power and affects relationships and 1 can’t say this without using the critical language - privileging, marginalising, silencing. I think that’s what language does.

LUCAS: I think that when you’re looking at a text from a critical perspective that you’ve got to take into account that it is a representation of a specific time and a specific place that has produced that text, and that may or may not be . ...relevant anymore; it may or may not represent truth as you know it or knowledge as you know it. 1 think that you can discover those aspects when you approach (literacy) from a critical perspective, as opposed to you know, just the words on the page, where you might look at the language and the themes but not how that language and those themes have been constructed for a specific purpose.

CELIA: I think critical literacy is getting involved in your reading. You might want to take something personally or you might want to reject it and say, “I don’t agree with this at all.” 1 guess critical literacy is knowing that you have the power to do that and that you are aware of where you stand as far as a particular text is concerned, so... you can become emotionally involved with a text. I think that that’s being critically literate as well.

The selection of quotes above presents a range of conceptualisations about what critical literacy is, from teachers’ perspectives. These understandings range from: teaching about rights and empowerment within institutions, to knowing how language distributes power and influences relationships, to exploring representations of truth and knowledge in texts, to getting involved personally and emotionally with texts. They offer glimpses into how critical literacy is being understood and practised in everyday classrooms, by teachers on the ‘front-line’ (Griffith & Smith, 2014; Snyder, 2008) in everyday school contexts. As noted in the Preface, this book is interested in the range of possible ways of demarcating critical literacy discursively, in English language education policy and the research literature, and more specifically, how it is defined and then enacted in teachers’ practice within the field of English language teaching for adolescents who speak home languages other than English.

In the following section, I outline key ways in which critical literacy is being defined in influential literature. I also present a focus on how critical literacy is defined within the sub-field of cnglish language teaching for adolescents/ young adults who speak home languages other than standard varieties of eng-lish1. These definitions contribute, in part, to the discursive formation that constitutes critical literacy or the established order of critical literacy ‘truth’ that organises language and regulates communicative practices at a particular point in time (Foucault, 1972). Discursive possibilities are shifting and come in and out of focus in policy and practice over the course of time, depending on related social, cultural and political changes. What is visible and sayable about critical literacy becomes that which we can draw on, until someone proffers something new. Fairclough (2003), drawing on Archer (2000), notes, though, that teachers have agency within discursive formations and can take up, adapt or resist existing constructions of ‘truth’ and associated practices. Adding to the conceptualisation of agency among teachers in particular, Priestley, Bicsta and Robinson (2013) argue that teachers have a particular kind of agency. In their model, agency is contextually located and consists of the teachers’ previous life and professional experiences, their creative configurations of future goals, and their present judgements amid the contextual constraints in their educational institution. Learning how teachers agentively work with critical literacy is the focus of Chapters 4 and 5 where I explore how they recontextualise constructions of critical literacy from often vague curricular documents into their own classrooms in Australia, a country marked by linguistic diversity within the population but a monolingual mindset within education (Coleman, 2012; Cross, 2012; Garcia, Flores & Woodley, 2012; Lam, 2006).

 
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