Chris Leland


I’m Chris Leland C H R I S L E L A N D. um my affiliation is Indiana University Perdu University at Indianapolis, and that’s written as IUPUI in all caps.

Critical literacy is a perspective on literacy and it really gets into the issue of asking what’s fair, what’s just, uh all text is written from somebody’s perspective. And to have a critical view means that the reader is able to read a piece of text and say hmm who is this written for, who wrote it, and what are they trying to do with it? Um in particular what are they trying to do to me as a reader because there’s no text that’s purely neutral or innocent.

Well we start right with kindergarten. Um I don’t work with pre-schoolers but I’d probably start with them to if I had the chance. But we start right with our kindergarteners um talking about books, children’s books, picture books, that really are saying things about our society. We share books with them that talk about ugly racial incidents, we want kids to have the opportunity to talk about these kinds of things early on. Typically they are not discussed in elementary classrooms. A lot of teacher say oh it’s not appropriate to talk about tough social issues with little kids. Uh we find when we start these conversations children are very grateful because they want to talk about them. Um they see discriminatory acts, they’re seeing them every day of their lives. And um they really welcome the opportunity to talk with an adult or a small group about what’s going on. So we start it early.

We see teachers as facilitators um people who can guide conversations but not really dictate what’s going to get talked about. I see teachers personally as people who open up spaces for kids to talk um teachers need to be able to interact with children and see what what their questions are. See what’s on their mind, what they want to talk about. Sometimes we might discuss a book and children really don’t get into it, they don’t want to talk about it. I would then move on, I wouldn’t force a conversation to say well we’re going to talk about a racism today whether you want to or not. Or we’re gonna talk about sexism whether you want to or not. More more often I would see the teacher as as presenting this story or maybe there is a racial incident and saying to the children what do you think about this, do we need to talk? And then if they want to talk, the teacher would would open up more spaces for them to do that.

Critical reflection looks and sounds like people who are digging below the surface. Um I use to get reflections from my students that stayed right on the surface they never really dug at anything deeper, they would talk about their day or talk about something that happened, and that would be the end of it, they might give an opinion. Like they might say I hate the was the standardized test is driving the curriculum at my school. Ok, now I’m encouraging to say well why is that happening? Why is standardized testing driving the curriculum and everybody else’s? What’s going on here? Um and what are the circumstances in political life that’s allowing this to happen? Um it’s I guess it’s critical reflection is not being satisfied with your first impression, it’s going back and digging in and saying are there other perspectives that we could be looking at? So another example might be if one of my students says oh I just hate the way my teacher is doing whatever. We would then say well why’s she doing it that way? What’s her perspective? Or what’s the parent’s perspective on this, or what do you think the kids’ perspective is, let’s get out all these perspectives and lay them out and then start to interrogate what’s really going on. So it’s it’s really looking at those underlying assumptions of what’s happening and also the multiple perspectives of how would other people see this.

Reflection is very difficult and um I find that my students are extremely resistent at first. They don’t want to reflect. They think if they just say what they see on the surface we should all move on with our lives. And you know I don’t like to make things hard for people, but I just think that they miss so much when they stay at that surface level and don’t really start digging around to see what’s driving things. So it’s a lot easier just to stay on top but um I’m not I’m not satisfied with that anymore. It’s too important. The issues out there are too important. We can’t afford to do that.

Ok, when I’m assessing my students and looking for evidence of their growth um what I’m really looking for is to see A if they’re if they’re using multiple perspectives. Like if they’re talking about the way this person might see the issue, the way that person might see the issue, and the way another person might see the issue, besides how they see the issue, that’s one perspective. But it’s really only one. I’d be looking for that. I’d also be looking for them to make connections to other things we’ve been talking about. Like I’d be interested to see if they could connect um a newspaper article that they’re reading to some literacy legislation that’s going on to the basil reader that the school uses and what the instructions in the teacher’s manual say. I would be looking for them to connect those different pieces and say oh well maybe this is why this is happening this way. To to sort of start sorting out these different issues.

When I was a beginning teacher I never stopped to think about critical issues. I thought that if I could teach those kids to read that was my job. I was a first grade teacher for years and um I really only cared that they could read the words. Af at first, after about the first 3 years it occurred to me that reading the words wasn’t really wasn’t very much because a lot of my kids didn’t understand what they were reading even though they read the words. So I then sort of moved from an emphasis on just decoding which was just getting them to read the words to then an emphasis on making meaning. Which is an important thing too. I gotta stop. (interruption) so I now had decoding and meaning making in place and I still thought that there was something missing. At the time and and in all my years as an elementary teacher I was pretty much not political. I didn’t even vote half the time, um because uh the truth of the matter is that I majored in government in college. I was actually gonna go work for the government. And by the time I had studied government four years I decided that the whole government was not worth working with and I really didn’t want to spend my life doing that. So I sort of became a political and thought well I’ll go work with kids as politics doesn’t come into that. Well you know I fooled myself for 20 years. Because politics is very important in education and if teachers continue to think that they don’t need to be political then what we’re all doing is just giving away our profession to politicians. Because what we’re seeing now in every state is legislatures deciding how we should teach reading, um we’re seeing all kinds of legislation that dictates curriculum. I mean the whole thing is really to my mind it’s out of control and it’s probably our own fault because of people like me who have been teaching for years and saying it doesn’t matter what happens politically I just care about children. If we care about children we need to care about politics.

One of the problems is that once you start to take a critical perspective you really can’t ever get away from it. So now every time I read the newspaper I’m looking at other issues. Um when I read my hometown paper the Indianapolis Star I constantly say why does this paper always want to make the public schools look bad? Because they seem to be having a running feud with the Indianapolis public schools. They constantly um talk about issues that make the school system look bad. What I’m doing with my students now is bringing in some of these articles and saying why don’t you read this and see what you think is really going on here. And after a year of doing this um I keep my students for two years in our program, they start to bring me articles and they say oh Chris you gotta look at this article. What look what look what they’re now doing to the school system. Look how bad they’re making them look. So I guess I keep working with my students um to keep my critical avenues open. I also think it’s really important to be connected to the profession that’s why I come to conferences like NCTE and NRC and IRA. Um I bring my students to these conferences. Um over a years time I usually have 10 or 15 students presenting with me at conferences. Um when they graduate they keep coming and to me that’s the way we can get our political voice heard. We’re gonna have to stick together. And one way to do that is through professional associations.

One of the reason why I um bring my undergraduates and graduate students to conferences is that I want to instill in them the knowledge that they have to keep doing this after they’re out. Um I really want them to see that if they wanna have their profession as a teacher, if they wanna have a profession that they get to call the shots in, then they had better A stick together with other educators and B start getting political. So to me those things are really closely intertwined.

When a school is looking at a new reading program I would like the teachers to have a really strong voice in whether this one gets selected or that one gets selected. I think that’s too important a question to leave to people who don’t work with children on a daily basis. And what I would hope they’d be looking for um is to see if the reading program that they’re looking at reflects what we know about the reading process. Like is there an emphasis on one of the cueing systems as opposed to all 3 of the cueing systems. Um being the graphophonemics, semantics, and syntax. I mean is it is it is it balanced. We hear the word balanced these days but a lot of the programs that I see that are called balanced aren’t. they really just cling to um one of the cueing systems or maybe two and don’t get all three. Um I like to talk to my students about a three legged stool if you knock out one of the legs the stool is just never gonna stand there. So to me they should be looking at all three of those cueing systems. Um I’d also want to see if the reading program is going to get a critical aspect into the uh curriculum. I mean are kids going to be looking at text as analysts in terms of how the text is positioning them. Um I think it would make them better consumers as well because advertising is just the language of manipulation. Somebody’s trying to get you to believe something. So I would look at a reading system and say does it does it does it uh pay attention to the different cueing systems, um does it pay attention to a critical perspective, um and does it allow choices for teachers and students to follow their own interests as well. I’m not good with anything scripted, I find that offensive.

Choices and options are really important for both teachers and students because it really keeps them engaged in what’s going on. Um nobody really can put their whole heart into doing something that they find absolutely boring. It just it doesn’t happen, that’s not how people how people’s motivation works. When we give teachers choices we empower them to make decisions that will affect children in a positive way. Um when we turn teachers into technicians and we hand them a script and say here just read this, what we’re really doing is saying you don’t count for anything. We don’t really care what you think, we don’t care what you believe about reading. Here is what you should say. And I think that that just totally um takes the joy of teaching away for any professional. And in terms of kids um they should have choices so they’re getting to read about things they’re interested in.

Education as inquiry is another perspective on on reading and on education. And what we’re really suggesting here is that um curriculum can be and actually should be designed around the inquiry question of learners. Rather than around some canned program that somebody else decided to put together in some other time and place, not knowing the children who were going to be um using it. Um our teacher’s at the Center for Inquiry in Indianapolis where we do a lot of our work, they try really hard to use an inquiry based curriculum. So what they might do is they might look at the curriculum from the district and if they say well fourth graders are suppose to study um American History or the civil war or whatever, they might put that topic out to the students and say and maybe doing an initiating activity just to get them into the topic a little bit. And then say to them which areas would you like to explore? What are your questions about this topic? Um let’s get the questions down, let’s see if we can get some little research groups put together and then let’s let you explore the areas that are interesting to you. Um this is a lot different than the scope and sequence model where um the teacher simply looks at the things that are are suppose to be covered and then kind of checks them off after she’s talked about them. Because typically the fact that we have taught something does not mean that anybody has learned anything.

Of course the implication here is that if we want schools to work this way and teachers to do this for the students probably we should be doing the same thing for our teacher education students. Um it’s really hard for somebody to pick up a practice that they have not yet lived themselves. So with that in mind um we wor worked really hard in our teacher education program to make it an inquiry based program. We do the same thing with our students that we want the elementary teachers to do with theirs. So we might say here’s an area what are your questions? Or here go out and use some of these books with children like we we have our critical books that discuss these tough issues and bring back your new questions. What do you want to explore? Where do you want to go with this? We have a much more open kind of um syllabus than than most.

Um we have several professional development schools that we use to um that we I don’t want to say use let’s stop that one right there(interruption). We collaborate with several different professional development schools um they love to have our students come there for their field work in student teaching because it brings extra adults into the building to work with children, it gives more chances for one on one and small group work. Um the benefit for our students is they get to see a lot of different approaches when they go into these schools. Um they get to see things that we would recommend as being wonderful, they also get to see things that we probably wouldn’t recommend. But we want them to see a lot of different approaches and sort out for themselves what they think would work for them. We do not really go in and say this is what we think so this is the only thing you should ever try. That’s that’s not what an inquiry approach entails. Rather it entails ok you saw Mrs. X doing this and you thought that looked good, why don’t you go try it. Why don’t you go try it for 2 weeks with se with a group of children and keep a record of what happens and write it up. We we have a lot of many inquiry projects that is part of the work they do for teacher education. And what we’re looking for here is that they’re not that they’re just taking what we say and go do it, we don’t want them doing that. We’re looking to see that they’re trying different things and critically analyzing what happens as a result of trying these different things.

We feel that literacy instruction should be really closely connected to a research perspective. In other words I would like to send my students off with the attitude that I’m gonna believe anything anybody ever tells me until I try it. So if they get handed a teacher’s manual in a program and somebody says here this is what you’re gonna do for reading, I would hope that they would look at it and say fine I’ll try it. And if they try it and they find that it doesn’t really get them where they want to go, I would hope that they would be versatile and articulate enough to say well I tried it but now I’m going to try this other thing and then I’ll get back to you to let you know how that worked. And I have found in the past that administrators um really give a lot of leway to articulate teachers who can state their theoretical position and say exactly why they’re doing something. Um I think it gets us around a lot of the beaurocracy that has enslaved teachers for the last 20 years.

The beaurocracy that has really be created in education and around education is particularly problematic because A people are making a lot of money out of education. They’re taking the money out that really should be going to children and B the teacher representation in this beaurocracy is sparse. It’s not teacher’s making these important decisions, and it’s not children gaining financially from from um selling many of the programs and tests and and uh uh textbooks. It’s other people who are not connected with education at all. I mean the stock in some of the companies, the publishing companies that put out the standardized test has I don’t know I think it increased like 4 times like that’s a huge increase so maybe we should all be investing in these stock options, I don’t know. But what I do know is that there’s still lots of schools that don’t have um that don’t have soap and paper towels for the children by you know March of the school year. There are schools that have one computer for 2 or 3 classrooms. There’s there’s a lot of need for financial support for schools that isn’t getting to the kids.

Multiple ways of knowing refers to the fact that literacy should always be seen as a multi-modal event. And by that I mean um literacy is not always just reading or writing. Literacy can also be seen as taking the form of art or music or drama or mathematics. It’s a way of responding to something you’ve read or heard through a different sign system. Um we call it transmediation when you move to from one sign system to another. So we would encourage children to listen to a story or read a story on their own which would be you’d now be in literacy and then say respond to this story in any way you want. You can use art, you can use music, you can use dance, you can use drama, you can use mathematics. Maybe you should use all four today. Or try as many as you want. And what we get from this is all of a sudden the kids who were marginal in our eyes in terms of being able to um read and write they might draw the most wonderful picture that really pic that really captures the neuances of the story in a way that you probably couldn’t get through writing words. Um we get students who do very um elaborate dramas that show the feelings of what’s happening in the story really more powerfully than we could have done using language. Um so I guess for me the power of multiple ways of knowing is that it opens up spaces for a lot of voices to be heard. Um particularly for children who have often been marginalized like special education students, maybe even ESL students who are not as articulate in terms of using language but might be very articulate in terms of using art or drama or music or some other sign system.

A curriculum that focuses on diversity and difference um really has the goal of opening up new perspectives of hearing new voices. Um the goal of a curriculum focused on diversity and difference is not necessarily that we’re all gonna agree on everything. Um consensus you know we think consensus is wonderful and we should always have it but really when you when you interrogate the assumption of consensus you’re gonna find out that in a consensus somebody gets silenced. Um cause not everybody can be heard. So and also you get a lot of conformity when you get consensus. So we’re really not interested in in consensus as much as we use to be. We’re interested in difference and diversity. We want to hear new voices, we want to hear new perspectives. Um we’re not interested in having anybody students at the the college level or the elementary level just memorizing somebody else’s knowledge which probably by now has been challenged anyway. Um I mean I guess it’s a question of when we look at our textbooks um you know when I was in fourth grade I learned that Christopher Columbus was this wonderful person who did all these great things. Now you know there’s there are a lot of other people who don’t see Christopher Columbus that way these days. And I think the problem is that the textbook was written from a Euro European or Euro-centric point of view. And I didn’t know it at the time. But if you combine a critical perspective with diversity and difference you really get a very powerful approach to literacy.

You know it’s really hard for people who have who have always done things a certain way and thought about things in a certain way to now really start turning their worlds upside down and start asking themselves well could somebody else see this differently? Or is there something here that maybe I didn’t realize was going on all these years that I’ve been thinking about say Christopher Columbus? I think I was a little bit surprised when I first started looking at the new readings of history and saying oh well you know maybe that’s true, I guess when Christopher Columbus arrived all the diseases arrived, all kinds of Native Americans had problems that they never would have had if Christopher Columbus hadn’t arrived. Um it’s hard though, it’s really hard to to to look to turn around at everything that you’ve always believed. Um I think we have to do this though to help kids these days because if they are not able to look to critically look at these issues then they’re not going to really make it in the world today. So I guess even though it’s really hard for us as adults to do this I still think we need to push ourselves to keep digging through what we believe and saying hmmm why do I believe this. And hmmm maybe I should be looking at some other perspectives because maybe there’s something else out there that I just didn’t know about. It’s very hard.

I think the standards movement in America really needs to be interrogated through a critical literacy lens. In other words why is it here, why did it how did it get here, who benefits from it, who loses. Um I guess I’m all in favor of teachers being able to reach high standards but I do worry a little bit about whose standards they are. If they are standards of people who are who write um tests in New Jersey and don’t know the children in my classroom in Indiana then I worry. Um if the standards are being written by people who really have the ultimate agenda of taking away money from public education then I worry. So I think standards are a double edged sword and we have to be very vigilant as educators in how these standards get articulated and how they get implimented. Um they can be a very good thing or they can be a very bad thing to my mind. But that’s the way anything is. There’s there’s different sides to every issue and standards is just one of those.