I am a critical theorist (based mostly in neo-Marxist* and critical literacy approaches of inquiry). I therefore bring a critical and counter-hegemonic lens to examining curricula, traditional pedagogies, and even the structure of K-12 schooling. I look at issues of ideological power and control in the ways in which we educate our youth. I believe that while education can be liberating, it can just as easily be oppressive and subjugating; our respective views of the world are conscribed by the facts and philosophies that are presented to us as being legitimate and that come from authoritative sources (schools, parents, churches, governments, media, etc.). From a young age and by many different sources we are socialized to think within specific paradigms. We then tend to reproduce these paradigms until such time as they collapse of their own weight or they prove insufficient for addressing emerging realities (Kuhn, 1962). Dominant societal paradigms are determined and perpetuated neither by independent choice nor, sometimes, even by logic but rather by those vested with power. Both consciously and unconsciously, those with power in a given society attempt to shape other people's thinking so as to reify and reinforce the status quo (Gramsci, 1971). Ironically, dominant paradigms are so powerful that even those poorly served by said paradigms have trouble envisioning viable alternatives (Freire, 1968). This is the essence of hegemony: the maintenance of extant power dynamics via the control of ideas. The clichéd belief that we are free to choose how and what we think is erroneous when, from an early age, all of the information presented to us reinforces certain (aka, dominant) ideologies. Unfortunately, education can and often is a primary tool of hegemony (it is a hegemon). Schools have long been the primary means by which modern societies inculcate their young with beliefs good, bad, and indifferent. I posit that if K-16 public education is to be an avenue toward greater social justice, equity, and liberation, we as educators, scholars, and social activists must expose and deconstruct the many ways in which education serves to reproduce existing power dynamics and social norms. We must highlight the inherent flaws in those norms, especially in those systems that by default result in winners and losers, and provide viable alternatives. Similarly, we as educators have an ethical obligation to teach our students to do likewise.
I advocate the use and teaching of critical literacy. Critical literacy aims to challenge the status quo by teaching learners (K-12 and adult) to realize that we are being inundated with overt and tacit messages that serve to maintain the status quo. We must critically examine these messages and explore how they limit possibilities rather than open them (they encourage us to act in ways that do not serve our or our society's best interest). We must examine which ideologies are being expressed, how they are being expressed, and who benefits from their expression (and who suffers). Just as importantly, we must seek out the ideologies that are being ignored, discounted, or diminished and why this is the case. Our ultimate goal should be not to critique but to change ideologies and systems that limit individuals, groups, cultures, etc. from living fuller and freer lives.
Critical literacy examines not just the messages we receive but the manner in which they are conveyed. Some sources of information are given more legitimacy and authority than others (e.g., the "news," textbooks, official school curricula, etc.) while other messages gain legitimacy through repetition (official pronouncements, shared social media, commercials, messages repeated in schools, etc.). Cognitive linguists like George Lakoff note that when messages are repeated frequently--especially from authority figures and/or from multiple sources--they tend to become "common sense" regardless of truth. For more on critical literacy, see the presentation I created (to the right of this text).
Teaching with Purpose: The New Literacy Studies
When it comes to the English Language Arts (6th-12th grades), I believe that we need to radically change how and what we teach students. First, literacy educators should be well versed in the New Literacy Studies (The New London Group). Learning is always a social endeavor; we come to understand concepts via interaction with and between different dyads: author-reader, teacher-student, student-parent, student-culture, etc. This means that meaning is almost always negotiated; the meaning one takes from a text, from a lesson, from a film, etc. is determined not just by the contents therein but by an individual's highly personal and cultured interpretation of it and her/his interactions with others. In the ELA classroom, this means that teachers (or the creators of curriculum) are not the sole arbiters of meaning. Students can and should be encouraged to create new meanings that may or may not correspond with those that the teacher or the curriculum creators expect. So long as a meaning can be backed up by textual and contextual evidence, the New Literacy Studies hold that it is valid. Such an approach shows students that "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth" (Picasso) with that truth being highly subjective. For more on the New Literacy Studies, see the presentation below.
Re-Envisioning the Literature We Teach
Second, while the English canon is valuable, I believe that it should be used very sparingly in middle and high school English classrooms. Despite perennialists' adoration of the canon, most of those works are not appropriate for adolescents. Canonical literary texts a) were written for more mature and thus more experienced audiences; b) use older vocabulary and syntax that are often off-putting and discouraging to younger readers; c) are overwhelmingly white and western in nature, thereby reinforcing specific ideologies; and d) are not culturally relevant to many of today's youth. We need to be fostering a love of reading rather than creating students with a superficial and begrudging understanding of "classic" texts. We are fortunate in that we now have a wealth of high quality texts written for adolescents and young adults (visit my young adult literature pages for example). The "timeless" ideas of great literature are addressed in many of these texts and are done so in ways that today's students will actually appreciate. The latter point is extremely important. If we are to create lifelong learners, we need to foster in our students a desire to read. Far too many individuals have learned from their high school English experiences to dread reading literature and thus stop reading literature and worse, stop reading more generally. When one stops reading, one is more easily coerced into believing falsehoods and myths. We do not have to look far to see what happens when the American populace cannot or chooses not to read.
Multi-genre Writing and Connecting School Curricula
We also need to seek out new ways to connect students to texts and ideas and change how we teach students to express themselves. While we need to continue teaching students how to write effectively using standard conventions, we need to welcome and to teach new multi-modal, multi-genre, and more stylized forms of self-expression and thereby provide students with new ways of demonstrating their learning and their ideas. Writing a solid prose essay is a valuable skill, but learning that skill should not come at the expense of learning other genres and modalities of self-expression.
I also believe that we need to reshape how we teach adolescents in our secondary school structure; we should be building bridges across content areas so that each content area reinforces others, especially thematically (a model that stands in stark contrast to today's dominant model in which each content area stands alone and represents disparate ideologies and topics). Above all, we need to refocus our energies as educators on true and meaningful individual learning rather than on test-taking. The current focus on "college and career ready" (Common Core State Standards) is misguided. Schools should focused not on the attainment of specific testable knowledge (facts) but on teaching students how to think. School should be exciting rather than dreaded. Learning should be empowering rather than oppressive. School should be a place of great discovery, a place to challenge traditional ideas, a place to re-envision what the individual and her or his world can be. Finally, if we as a society genuinely cherish 'freedom,' we must create schools that are open to and encouraging of new and even radical ideas.
Two-Tiered and Segregated English Education
As a critical theorist and as an observer of English Language Arts classroom practices, I am very concerned with the fact that English Language Arts (ELA) teaching across the country is largely bifurcated and segregated. We have two types of ELA teaching: one for high performing students and an entirely different one for "standard" and lower-performing students. We provide quality interactions with texts for the former and rote learning and drill-and-skill instruction for the latter. Our higher performing students read quality texts chosen for them by their teachers while the latter read abridged texts in "managed curricular systems" (White, 2012) that are created by corporate publishers and correlate highly with tests (also created by the same corporate publishers). For far too many students (the majority), the state of ELA teaching is antithetical to what educational research suggests is best for them. For our "standard" students, school districts, principals, and many teachers have bought wholeheartedly into the assessment/testing craze and a subsequent drive to improve students’ reading scores. Some of this is due to the money attached to test scores and some of it is because the people selling the curricula (and doing the testing) promise that their products perform miracles when rigorously followed. Thus, many school administrators demand fidelity to curricular systems that bore students and frustrate creative teachers (and make teaching relatively easy for mediocre teachers because they never have to think creatively or create engaging lessons). While these curricular systems improve students’ reading in small ways (small to moderate growth on end-of-course state assessments), they ultimately harm students because they dissuade them from reading both inside and outside of the classroom. This, in turn, means that there is regression toward the mean; small reading gains are for naught because students do not continue to read. Like any skill, reading growth takes practice. In short, today's ELA curricula are making far too many students dislike reading. This is completely antithetical to what we should be doing in our ELA classrooms. While we do need to improve students’ reading scores, we should never do it at the cost of helping them find enjoyment in reading!
To make matters worse, boring and rote ELA instruction tends to be exponentially worse at highly diverse and Title I schools; schools with higher SES students (and thus higher test scores) have far more flexibility in what they do in their classrooms compared to their less affluent counterparts. This bifurcated type of teaching relates yet again to test scores. However, I also hold that this differentiated type of ELA teaching relates to something far more pernicious: a larger hidden curriculum that perpetuates an inequitable status quo. Our two-tiered system of ELA instruction ensures that our higher performing students stay engaged and learn so that they are prepared for college, careers, and leadership while our lower-performing students get curricula that alienates them from the curricula (and schooling) and thus leaves them with fewer opportunities beyond K-12. It is a nasty system of segregation. It is all the more dangerous because when the latter students do not succeed, those with power can blame them for their lack of success.
The Need for Guerrilla Teaching
While there are wonderful things happening in higher performing schools and in many lower performing schools, the latter is happening because dedicated teachers and principals see the inequities in the system and are taking a stand against them. They are doing so tacitly or openly (and in most cases some of both) to provide their students with what they need. These educators are engaging in what I have labeled "guerrilla teaching." They set high standards while also tailoring curricula that they know will engage their students. They are supplementing or throwing out the curriculum guides altogether to use materials that they created, to which their students can relate, and they use texts that today’s students actually want to read. They are passionate and engaged in the classroom and that passion promotes students' enthusiasm for reading and learning. They know that so long as students are learning, they don’t need to worry so much about test scores. They know that principals will stay off of their backs (and will protect them) so long as students are showing growth. While these teachers are taking risks, such risks pay off in the most important place: our students’ learning and engagement. There are countless dedicated ELA teachers in struggling schools who quietly defy what their peers are doing and what their principal or curriculum leads demand. These are guerrilla teachers. Behind the closed doors of their classrooms, they are giving students what they need to thrive. They follow the rules outwardly (standards posted on the board, mandatory testing, etc.) but they are doing what is right--according to research-based scholarship and their knowledge of their students' needs--whenever possible. They take chances and risks. They ask for forgiveness rather than for permission (which will likely be denied). They have a strong rationale for what they do every day in each class—a rationale that is built upon educational research and knowledge of their students. These are the truly heroic teachers—the ones that their students respect and remember.
I believe that we need a revolution in education. Until then, we need guerrilla teachers!
More on My Background (than anyone would want to know)
I earned my Ph.D. from the University of Colorado at Boulder where I studied under William McGinley. Bill always encouraged me to think independently and critically and it was under his tutelage that I learned to think about the world (and of course about English education) in radically new ways. He and others at CU Boulder turned me on to the work of Paulo Freire (the single-most influential theorist/educator I have encountered), Henry Giroux, Pierre Bourdieu, James Gee, Brian Street, Michael Apple, and numerous other critical theorists.
While at CU, I developed a strong interest in linguistics and sociolinguistics, especially as they relate to code switching. Most simply put, code switching is the ways in which we change our language based upon different contexts. Schools, courts, different academic and professional disciplines, and different social contexts all demand specific ways of speaking and specific vocabulary. Switching from one linguistic domain to another (what linguists call different communities of practice) is often quite hard and emotionally trying; some people are taught that, in order to fit into a new domain, they should completely forego old ways of speaking (much as many immigrant parents become fearful of using their native tongues around their young children). Asking someone to changer her or his discursive style is often tantamount to asking them to disregard their cultural background. Nonetheless, I believe that the teaching of code switching is integral to academic success. Students need to learn what Lisa Delpit (1995) calls "the codes of power." Only when one knows the codes of power can one navigate in and make substantial changes to a given discourse community. How one goes about teaching code switching is essential; educators need to frame code switching as the learning of a new language--an additive process--rather than as assimilation. Educators must recognize that students' native "ways with words" (Heath, 1983) are culturally based, highly personal, and very effective modes of communication. Our goal cannot be to eradicate a students' socialized way of speaking but instead to get students to "add to their [linguistic] repertoire" (Kutz, 1998). My work in this area led to my theorizing that specific forms of language (particularly academic English) can and should be considered a form of "cultural capital" (Bourdieu, 1990).
I came to my interest in code switching from having seen and experienced it in my past. When I graduated from college I took a job as an over-the-road truck driver covering the southeast. Even though I grew up in the southeast, I never developed a strong southern accent (if anything, I consciously avoided doing so due to the pejorative portrayal of people with southern accents in popular culture). Driving a rig in the southeast, I learned early on (especially in Appalachia) that I was more warmly welcomed when I adopted a southern twang than when I used my normal speaking voice. When conversing with small town southerners, I had more capital when I appeared to be one of them. Reflecting on this state of affairs, I realized that as I child I had seen my father engage in code switching (most notably at the bait store).
Today my interest in this area is more focused on cognitive linguistics, the ways in which language shapes and is shaped by thought. How we use language and how we understand the world are intricately linked and mutually dependent. As George Lakoff has noted, our thoughts are physically represented in our brains; as such, the languages we use become part of our identities and mediate what we think.
Apple, M. (2003). The state and the politics of knowledge. New York: Routledge.
Apple, M. (1999). Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age (2nd Edition). New York: Routledge.
Bourdieu, P., and Passeron, J.C (1990). Reproduction in education, society and culture. New York: Sage Publications, Inc.
Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.
Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Gramsci. A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.
Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kutz E (1998). "Between students’ language and academic discourse: Interlanguage as middle ground." In V. Zamel & R. Spack (Eds.),
Negotiating academic literacies. Teaching and learning across cultures. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp.
*Neo-Marxist approaches to analyzing sociological issues are not to be confused with Marxist political or economic thought; similarly, those who use neo-Marxist approaches in their scholarship and teaching are not necessarily proponents of communism or socialism. Rather, neo-Marxist theory is used to examine the ways that power gets created and reproduced in sociological, political, and economic systems (often tacitly or via hegemonic means). It seeks to uncover the ways that certain ideologies--generally the ideologies and interests of those who have power and wealth--get reproduced via language and structures within a given society. For a better understanding of what neo-Marxist theories attempt to do, see https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/neo-marxist-theory