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Braggins, 12/18/14

Literacy and Social Justice

In what ways can a teacher who is interested in social justice and equity use literacy and the
language arts to facilitate students critical thinking about their own worlds, life
circumstances, and social opportunities? How can literacy and the ELA classroom
environment and curriculum motivate students to begin thinking in critical ways, explore
questions about equity and justice, and further their understandings of their own worlds and
their senses of agency? How does (or can) a teacher facilitate this kind of thinking without
being overly leading or without pushing the teachers agenda? How can meeting equity be
aligned with what we know about comprehension and understanding from the research
on reading?

Not only can literacy and the language arts help to facilitate the teaching of social

justice and equity in the classroom, they can also help to motivate students as they explore
critical questions and develop understandings of their world. Social justice content and
literacy complement one another. Students need literacy and language arts reading,
writing, listening, and speaking to make connections, build understandings, and explore
their own senses of agency, and language arts instruction itself can be enhanced through
the inclusion of social justice and equity issues. A variety of tools are available to teachers
as they incorporate social justice issues into literacy instruction, including the use of
picture books and mentor texts, utilizing writing, and practicing student-centered learning
and inquiry. These practices can motivate students to take ownership of their learning to
further their understanding of these social justice issues, and can also have a positive
impact on their comprehension and understanding based on reading research.

Using picture books and mentor texts in the classroom is essential for introducing

social justice issues into an elementary classroom. Miller (2013) extends insight into her
big ideas and goals that she wants her first graders to know and remember after
spending a year in her classroom:

Taylor Braggins, 12/18/14

I want children to understand that readers read to get smarter, and to learn about
themselves, other people, and the world that reading is something they can do
independently that empowers them to control their lives and make the world a
better place. (p. 29)
Having picture books in the classroom that address, or provide an opportunity to address,
social justice issues and reading them aloud to the students are first steps toward
accomplishing Millers (2013) goal because they introduce students to the idea of social
action. Leland, Harste, and Huber (2005) described Kim Hubers extensive use of picture
books as a basis for discussion and learning about social justice and equity. In her first
grade classroom, Huber noticed that after introducing books such as So Far From the Sea
(Bunting, 1998), The Lady in the Box (McGovern, 1997), Fly Away Home (Bunting, 1991),
and many others, her students began making intertextual connections, referencing multiple
perspectives, and looking critically at any new text they encountered (Leland, Harste &
Huber, 2005). Not only that, but Huber conjectured that the discussions about the books
served as a scaffold for pushing the childrens thinking and for giving them a platform to
share their thoughts, (Leland, Harste & Huber, 2005, p. 262). These interactions with
social justice and equity texts are quite sophisticated, moving beyond the surface-level
questions and responses that sometimes accompany texts on less controversial less
messy topics. While I have not seen the use of social justice or equity texts in my
placement, I have witnessed the use of mentor texts as a jumping off point for learning. My
mentor teacher read aloud the book I Wanna Iguana (Orloff, 2004) to the class, and using a
students idea, created a writing project in which the students wrote letters to one another
in a persuasive style similar to that in the book. Rather than write about wanting an

Taylor Braggins, 12/18/14

iguana, the students used their social studies content about rural, urban, and suburban
communities as the basis for the letters. The students each chose one type of community
and wrote persuasively to one another about that community, just as the boy had done
with his mom in the book. This project inspired creativity, excitement, and high-quality
writing from the students. Transferring this strategy to texts that inspire students to think,
discuss, and write critically about their own lives and the lives of others would accomplish
both social justice and literacy goals.

Another tool that teachers may use to facilitate the teaching of social justice and

equity, and which tends to motivate students to explore their questions and senses of
agency, is writing. We have conversed in class several times about the importance of an
authentic audience; social action and awareness in writing and speaking open many
possibilities. Vasquez (2004) and Cowhey (2006) both describe instances of student-led
critical literacies based on social justice concepts. Vasquez (2004) describes in chapter
four, Our Friend is a Vegetarian, four-year-old students writing letters for a cause
getting vegetarian food at the next school function. One does not usually expect four-year-
old children to write letters with well-formed ideas and clear intentions, but because the
students had a real purpose and goal, they were motivated to work hard and to grow.
Similarly, Cowheys first graders initiated writing in reaction to ideas related to social
justice. After learning with shock that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, her students wrote
letters to this historical figure, and some created posters to hang around the school alerting
their peers to this alarming information (Cowhey, 2006). While these students did not
advocate issues as present as Vasquezs students, they did engage with historical concepts
at the core of many social justice issues, while simultaneously growing as writers and as

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advocates. Kim Huber, a teacher who engaged her students with social justice themed
childrens books, also noticed changes in the students writing. As she watched her
students interact with and respond to social justice texts, she noted that her students wrote
more than usual and drew pictures with more detail (Leland, Harste & Huber, 2005). A
reluctant writer in her class was clearly willing to write, when responding to a text he
found important (Leland, Harste & Huber, 2005, p. 262). These examples, even when
related to very young children, highlight the power that social justice topics can have to
motivate writers. In my placement in Lansing, my third grade class participated in their
own social activism to raise awareness and funding for juvenile diabetes after hearing their
classmate speak about her own struggle with the disease. They engaged in many literacy
activities in the process: active listening and speaking about the issue, reading an article
explaining another persons experience with the disease, and creating posters to hang
around the school that would raise awareness about the disease and advertise for a school-
wide walk fundraiser. Children are caring, empathetic young people, and they are
motivated to learn and create when they feel it is important. Social justice can create the
space for students to discuss and write in meaningful, effective ways, and become better
writers in the process.

It seems logical that the process could also work conversely: writing could be a

place to foster student exploration of their own wonderings about equity and justice a
place to develop understandings about the world. Stephanie Terry, as described by Rose
(1995), as well as Rief (1992) both created classroom environments where writing was
wholly student-centered. While they did not describe student writing that was specifically
connected to social justice ideas, they certainly set up cultures in which those literacies

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could be nurtured. Both of these educators set up classrooms in which students see
themselves as authors and view their work as important. Stephanie Terrys first graders
wrote everyday, usually on a topic of their choice, and they collaborated within their
community of writers to seek help and to give encouragement before sharing their
writing in the Authors Chair (Rose, 1992). These students would have been set up to
genuinely reflect upon and explore concepts of social justice through their writing because
they would have had the support, motivation, and audience to do so effectively. Working
with older students, Rief (1995) created a classroom culture of writing that emphasized the
process, inspired student buy-in, and helped students to learn about themselves through
self-evaluations and workshop. These students also would have been well equipped to
consider equity and justice through writing because they were already engaged in an
extremely reflective writing practice.

Facilitating student learning and exploration in social justice and equity while taking

care to not be overly leading requires that teachers leave room for student-centered
learning and inquiry. Johnston (2004) argues for students to be the doers and thinkers in
the classroom, to be the protagonists of their own learning. He explains, providing
information preempts the students opportunity to build a sense of agency and
independence, whereas figuring something out for yourself offers a certain thrill in the
figuring, (Johnston, 2004, p. 8). If students are the ones doing the thinking, there is less of
a risk of teachers pushing their own social justice agendas. Additionally, learning that is
not explicit, but is discovered and figured, leads to the most powerful and long-lasting
learning, which is usually a goal in the teaching of social justice (Johnston, 2004). Lindfors
(1990) offers a literacy strategy for promoting student thinking: authentic, student-led

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inquiry. Authentic inquiry involves engagement with a text that goes past present
understanding, and as Lindfors (1990) describes, can be imperfect and messy for they are
acts of going beyond, not acts of having arrived, (p. 63). This kind of student inquiry
requires teachers to be facilitators, guides, and sometimes co-learners, but not lecturers.
This strategy also implies a sense of flexibility not all questions start with who, what,
where, when, why and how. One thing that I noticed in my field experience was a list of
these question starters for students to use when interacting with a text. Not only will this
not nurture genuine inquiry, but it also keeps the students ideas contained. In order to
have student-led and student-centered learning around social justice, their inquiries must
come from personal thinking, reflecting, and connecting. Cowhey (2006) and Miller (2013)
both present examples of students actively and authentically questioning texts, and using
those questions as starting points for future research. When the students are provided
with a space to ask questions and seek answers, the learning will be student-led, rather
than teacher-led. Putting this in the context of social justice could lead to powerful learning
that would extend from a place of student empathy and advocacy rather than from a
teachers agenda.

Not only does social justice and equity learning stem from reading, motivate writing,

and facilitate student-led thinking and questioning, but it also compliments and aligns with
the current research on reading comprehension and understanding. Smith (2012)
asserts, reading cannot be separated from thinking, (p. 27). He goes on to identify three
constraints on thinking related to reading: prior knowledge, disposition, and authority
(Smith, 2012, p. 28). Learning about social justice through reading and responding can
promote student thinking through those constraints. First, using childrens books and

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stories that appeal to empathy and human nature might activate a connection to the
students own lives as thinking, feeling people. Further discourse, reflection, inquiry, and
response would allow for additional opportunities for students to connect with the ideas in
a text and therefore better understand what they have read. The disposition of thinking
refers to a persons propensity to challenge other peoples assertions or question our own
opinions, essentially, a persons tendency to think critically while reading (Smith, 2012, p.
28). The basis of literacy in social justice revolves around critically questioning and
reflecting on a text. As Kim Huber found in her classroom, once exposed to the practice of
thinking critically about a text, her students looked critically at all texts, looking for clues
into the meaning the author intended, and looking at how the readers are being
positioned through these texts, (Leland, Harste & Huber, 2005, p. 264). Perhaps, this
disposition toward thinking while reading is one that can be supported and fostered. Social
justice seems to make an effective medium for this learning. The authority of thinking
refers to challenging conventional thought or other peoples opinions, or even drawing
ones own conclusions, while reading (Smith, 2012, pp. 28-29). This, too, is evidenced in
equity and justice learning through discussing and questioning texts and ideas, and writing
to enact change. Smith (2012) offers this definition of comprehension: reading always
involves asking questions of a text, and comprehension ensues to the extent that such
questions are answered, (p. 61). If students are interacting with texts asking questions,
challenging assumptions, re-reading, making connections because they are motivated to
do so by the equity and social justice content, it seems logical that they would have a more
in-depth level of comprehension and understanding of the text based on Smiths (2012)

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The content of social justice and equity learning is not extra. It does not burden a

teacher with yet another thing to add into an already tightly packed schedule. Rather,
learning about social justice and equity can become a highly effective lens for literacy
instruction and development. The students of Vasquez (2004), Cowhey (2006), and Huber
established meaningful, purposeful, important connections with literacy through their
studies of social justice and equity. Students need to find a purpose in reading and writing
in order to establish a life-long connection with it, and social justice can provide that
relevance. Leland, Harste, and Huber (2005) reinforce and justify that sentiment:
To prepare literate individuals for the 21st century, we need to do more than teach
them how to decode and comprehend texts. What is needed now is a critical
understanding of language as a cultural resource that can be used to challenge or
maintain systems of domination. (p. 260)
Our students deserve to engage in critical literacies that move them beyond what they
already think and know about their world to a place of questioning, thinking, and doing.

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Cowhey, M. (2006). Black ants and Buddhists: Thinking critically and teaching differently in
the primary grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse. (Excerpt: Chapter 7: Teaching History
so Children will Care)
Leland, C. H., Harste, J. C., Huber, K. R. (2005). Out of the box: Critical literacy in a first-grade
classroom. Language Arts, 82, 257-268.
Johnston, P.H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects childrens learning. Portland,
ME: Stenhouse. (Excerpt: Chapter 1: The Language of Influence in Teaching)
Lindfors, J. W. (1999). Childrens inquiry: Using language to make sense of the world. New
York: Teachers College Press. (Excerpt: Chapter 3: Inquiry Purpose in the
Miller, D. (2013). Reading with meaning: Teaching comprehension in the primary grades (2nd
ed.). Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Rief, L. (1992). Seeking diversity: Language arts with adolescents. Portsmouth, NH:
Heinemann. (Excerpt: Chapter 7: Evaluation)
Rose, M. (1995). Possible lives: The promise and peril of public education in America. New
York: Penguin. (Excerpt: Chapter 3: Baltimore, Maryland)
Smith, F. (2012). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning
to read (6th ed.). New York: Routledge.
Vasquez, V. M. (2004). Negotiating critical literacies with young children. Mahwah, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum. (Excerpt: Chapter 4: Our Friend is a Vegetarian)