Critical Literacy in Early Elementary Grades
My favourite colleague read to her second-grade students as I stood at the back of the room, admiring her talent. During the reading, she paused, allowed for turn and talk, and asked students to make predictions about what was going to happen.
After she had finished reading, my colleague began asking questions about the plot, the setting, and the characteristics of the characters. In many ways, the lesson was a success, as evidenced by the students’ eagerness to participate. My colleague, on the other hand, told me that she wished she could get more out of her read-aloud time. She expressed interest in how she could incorporate ideas from my students’ participation in drama-related literacy activities into her own literacy lessons after seeing them in action. I shared the nine-day critical literacy and drama framework described below with her.
WHAT IS CRITICAL LITERACY?
Although there is no universally accepted definition of critical literacy, it is generally understood to entail examining the relationship between language and power in a piece of written work. In its natural setting, this work is responsive and thoughtful. The chosen text, the students’ comfort and familiarity with the text, and the lesson goals all have an impact on what happens in the classroom. Choosing the right text is essential.
By using critical literacy’s four dimensions as a springboard—disrupting the ordinary, considering multiple viewpoints, focusing on the sociopolitical, and taking action—I examine how purposeful questioning, discussion, improvised drama, and other forms of student engagement can influence how students engage with literacy lessons.
SETTING THE STAGE
A strong mentor text with multiple narratives, in which alternate stories are told between the lines and within the illustrations, is the first step in creating a strong mentor text for your students. A well-written text should serve as a springboard for counternarratives or conversations about identity and social issues, as well as about differences in power and privilege between people. Children should be able to see themselves in the text as well as learn about the lives of others by reading it. Authors such as Vera Williams and Junot D’Az have written books such as A Chair for My Mother, Islandborn, Each Kindness, The Remember Balloons, and Another, and Christian Robinson has written a novel called A Chair for My Mother.
My nine-day plan for discussing the novel Boy by Phil Cummings is outlined below.
Day 1: Introduce and discuss the following: First, I show the students the cover and ask them to make predictions and share their thoughts with the class. Then I read the book aloud to the students, pausing occasionally to facilitate partner discussions. As a follow-up to the reading and discussion, I pose questions like these:
Which character’s voice do you hear the most in this story? Whose voice isn’t being heard?
What do you think Boy wished the villagers had known about him when he was younger?
Is it possible for you to tell us what the villagers were thinking as Boy approached the battle?
How did the dragon come to know about the village? Is the dragon related to anyone else?
What similarities and differences do you see between your life and Boy’s life? What can we learn from this story that will help us see our world in a different light?
Days 2 and 3 are the most important. Examine and prepare for the drama activities: The goal of drama activities is to help participants understand a story more deeply. The drama provides more than just a stage performance; it also serves as a learning tool. Students volunteer to take on the roles of characters from the text in each drama activity.
The hot seat method, in which students interview a fictional character, may be used if the class is primarily concerned with giving a voice to oppressed characters or discovering motive. My students chose to conduct interviews with the dragon, Boy, and the townspeople when they were studying Boy.
Perhaps students want to encourage a character who is going through a difficult time. If that’s the case, I might stage a corridor of voices, in which students line up along a hallway and express what was left unsaid in the text. A town hall meeting allows students to discuss important issues from the book when their opinions are clearly divided. In these situations, a town hall meeting is beneficial. Students took part in a town hall meeting to decide whether or not the dragon should remain in Boy, for example, while on their exploration of the town.
For a final touch, when we speculate about a character’s past, I sometimes have students create flashbacks to shed new light on the story, or imagine future scenes to extend our attention beyond that of the book.
Day 4: Group writing: We each write a piece of writing that we then share with the rest of the group. I bring in linked texts, demonstrate my thinking, and solicit feedback from students. The piece can take the form of a letter to a member of the community, an author, or a character from the story. It could also take the form of a journal entry written by a fictional character or a section of the story told from a different point of view.
Students discuss possible writing forms (e.g., poem, letter, comic, diary entry) in light of the reading, discussion, and drama activities. They also participate in peer conferences in order to brainstorm and receive feedback on their ideas and writing.
Days 5, 6, and 7: Writing: Students require time to complete meaningful works of writing. They write and then revise their work throughout the course. I hold writing conferences with students (either one-on-one or in small groups) to encourage and support them in their writing.
On days 8 and 9, the participants will share their writing and develop action plans, which will be crucial to the process. Students are in charge of developing and implementing the action plans.
Organizing fundraisers, collaborating with community organisations, and participating in service projects are just a few examples. The actions I’ve witnessed over the years have taken a variety of forms, including performing skits at senior citizen homes, volunteering to stock shelves at homeless shelters, and supporting local Special Olympics organisations. It makes a difference in the type and quality of work that students do when they are given the space and time to support action plans.
In the later stages of the semester, I found myself in the back of my colleague’s classroom once more. This time, I sat and watched as she hosted a talk show in which she interviewed fictional characters. Student input had progressed significantly, and when I asked her how she felt about the lesson, she replied, “I will never do it any other way now that I’ve done it this way!”