This unit is conceptualized using a framework of critical literacy, which challenges students to identify and analyze underlying assumptions of a text. Cara M. Mulcahy in her essay, " The Tangled Web We Weave: Critical Literacy and Critical Thinking," defines critical literacy as, "….a philosophy that recognizes the connections between power, knowledge, language and ideology and recognizes the inequalities and injustices surrounding us in order to move toward transformative action and social justice."
The essential questions of this unit (particularly, Who has the authority to represent? Who decides?) work within this framework for understanding literacy. In this sense, the English classroom becomes more than a place to study and analyze great literature but a place of inquiry where literature is interrogated regarding the ideologies and conventions it subverts or reinforces. Malcahy further establishes her definition of critical literacy stating, "critical literacy examines texts in order to identify and challenge social constructs, underlying assumptions and ideologies, and power structures that intentionally or unintentionally perpetuate social injustices and inequalities." This pedagogical approach fits with Common Core State Standard RL.11-12.7, which is at the heart of the unit requiring students to examine how multiple interpretations of a text present the source text. The literary choices a writer makes are, in a sense, political. This unit requires students to investigate those choices and determine how they complicate an author's representation of a particular community. Students will then use this same approach when operating as writers, thinking carefully and critically about the ways they choose to represent their subjects.
This unit also uses a service learning approach to mitigate disengagement. Although students will be practicing complex analytical reading and writing skills, they will also be synthesizing this constructed knowledge to produce a work of art (drama). Students at the Engineering and Science themed high school are most engaged by hands on learning experiences that allow them to create a product that has an authentic audience. Science fair, debate club, technology expos, poetry slams and student film competitions all attract high student participation and enthusiasm. Using the service learning approach to the unit's performance task draws on a significant level of conceptual understanding while increasing engagement. Service learning is an approach to teaching that blends learning with community service or social justice practice. Service learning is applicable to this unit as students will be investigating and representing marginalized communities both inside and outside the school setting. The performance task (described below) allows students to display their knowledge and understandings while also giving theatrical representation to underrepresented populations. As an extension of this methodology, students might perform their works for community centers or raise donations from performances for a particular cause connected with represented community.
The marriage between critical literacy and service learning, which is sometimes referred to as social justice teaching, is essential. It is not enough to teach students to identify the ideological components of a text—the ways in which it subverts or reinforces dominant ideals. Students must also be equipped with a means to enter into dialogue with the text's ideologies or push back on them, if they should choose to. This approach requires the teacher to present students with texts (visual, written, dramatic, or real life) and guide students through a series of problematizing questions. Bill Bigelow, editor of Rethinking Schools explains the role of the teacher in social justice teaching, " As teachers, it's not our job—and it's not effective—to simply tell our political conclusions to students. But we can pose problems to students and engage them in experiences that encourage them to think about the roots of social and environmental problems.
Additionally we must empower students and infuse hope into our classrooms. Bigelow poses the question, "how do we teach about the enormity of injustice in the world and yet not totally discourage students?" Hope comes through action. Students must be given the tools to investigate their world and then given the space to do something about it.
- How do artists' choices for telling a story (including media format) impact the way we interpret it?
- What is representation?
- What is community?
- Who has the authority to represent? Who decides?
- How do choices regarding race, gender, sexuality and class impact the meaning and experience of a text?
- Can a person from the outside represent a community? How?