Critical Literacy Helps Students Appreciate Multiple Perspectives

Katherine Batchelor and the quote "Critical Literacy encourages students to use language to question their everyday world experiences"

James M. Loy, Miami University

Across the country, schools are becoming more culturally and racially diverse. But even so, there continues to be a lack of multiculturalism in most classrooms today.

“Unfortunately, 80% of teachers identify as white middle class females,” says Katherine Batchelor, Miami University assistant professor of teacher education. “So you've got this imbalance. There's a bit of, ‘Well, I'm the teacher. I'm coming at it from my perspective.’ Instead of realizing that students are not going to have the same viewpoints and ideologies. And sometimes people walk in with blinders on.”Miami Students with Dr. Katherine Batchelor

According to Batchelor, this status quo needs to be disrupted. And she uses critical literacy to help future teachers design more inclusive and culturally relevant lessons, and to help them recognize the limitations of their own viewpoint.

For Emily Moroz, a Miami graduate and current high school English teacher, this approach has become a daily practice. Because the majority of her Salt Lake City students are either Latino, African American, or from refugee families, critical literacy helps her engage and empower students on several levels.

“I see it as my responsibility to get texts that represent their identities and ideologies, and the world outside these four walls,” Moroz says. “So often in our English classrooms, the only books we expose students to are tough to read, written almost in a different language, and written by dead white guys who don't have the same life as my students.”

So instead, her students are reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

“After we finish that, we're going to talk about how people get over inequalities and get through adversity,” says Moroz. “And they'll be doing a social justice project. They will choose any injustice in the world. It doesn't have to be race. It could be immigration reform, or something with religion or sexuality. They'll write a research paper. Then they'll create an action plan. So, what are they going to do about it?”

Encouraging multiple perspectives

“Critical literacy encourages students to use language to question their everyday world experiences,” says Batchelor. “In particular, the relationship dynamic between language and power.”

In most cases, these dynamics are rarely obvious. More often, they are part of many nuanced and interconnected factors that underlie the plots and perspectives of the narratives we consume. And unless viewed through a critical lens, the inherent biases that are often present can go unnoticed and unquestioned.

critical literacy not only encourages multiple perspectives, it also helps is step back and get a clearer look at a bigger cultural picture“For example,” Batchelor explains, “if you're reading Little House on the Prairie, asking students to consider the indigenous voices, and who was there on the Prairie besides the family.”

So critical literacy not only encourages multiple perspectives, it also helps us step back and get a clearer look at a bigger cultural picture. And since she works primarily with education majors studying to become English teachers, Batchelor exposes students to a variety of texts by helping them to re-see the world in numerous ways.

And these texts can be more than just books.

Eye-opening new research

In a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Batchelor asked her students to analyze groups of different texts that included YouTube videos, songs, poetry, dance performances, graphic novels, young adult literature, video games, and more.

The study was based on a class project, where students first choose an urgent social issue before then assembling a related group of texts that they, as potential teachers, would consider sharing with their own future students.

In class, 23 students chose 23 different issues, and some of the topics they chose were the Black Lives Matter movement and ending the stigma around mental health, among others.

“The students created a topic that was tugging at their heart, but then I had them go one step deeper,” Batchelor says. “I said, ‘Now that you created this unit that you think is awesome, look at it again from a critical literacy lens.’ Whose voices are missing? Whose are not heard? Whose are being privileged? Look at all the different positionalities that you identify with, and then look at it from a different lens.”

And students were surprised by what they saw.

“They were blown away,” Batchelor says. “They said, ‘Wow, even though we have gone this whole semester talking about these things, and all these different groups. Why didn't I include these voices?’”

Overall, the project showed students just how easily some voices can be left out of certain conversations, and why it’s important for them to identify their own unconscious biases.

“There's a whole variety of people that are being marginalized and not represented, especially when it comes to using literature in the classroom,” says Batchelor. “And sometimes it may not be your fault because the books just aren't there. They haven't been written yet. Or, they are there and you just weren't realizing it because you're coming at it with your own positionalities in mind.”

The project also highlighted the importance of embracing our growing multiculturalism as well.

Particularly for those managing increasingly diverse classrooms, critical literacy can give teachers the tools to engage different students, many of whom may have perspectives and life experiences that diverge greatly from their own.

“That becomes very eye-opening to practicing teachers,” Batchelor says, “as well as pre-service teachers going into the field.”