February 2, 2015

Defining a Participatory Critical Literacy

Category: Digital Citizenship
musicians band performing song on SNL with Black lives matter shirts

The screen in the room offered the expected prompt: “What is your definition of critical literacy?”

The familiar scratching of pen to paper could be heard throughout the auditorium as ideas were being generated.

There is a strange dissonance to sit in a full room and silently write (like with a pen and paper!) for five minutes. Yes, today’s modern conference is one often obsessed with a backchannel. (Watching Obama’s State of the Union two weeks ago, I spent nearly the entire speech staring at my twitter feed and engaging in dialogue; Obama’s main-attraction content mainly feeding what should have been happening in the background). However, how often are keynote presentations participatory on the frontchannel?

Such was I reminded last week, as fellow DMLCentral blogger Nicole Mirra and Danielle Filipiak kicked off the Literacies of Contemporary Civic Life speaker series at Colorado State University. Sponsored by the CSU Writing Project, the series offers the CSU community and online viewers the opportunity to think through the critical issues of literacies and education for youth in the contexts of today’s participatory culture.

In addition to ensuring that the audience of their presentation was fully engaged, Mirra and Filipiak helped unpack key questions that keep me up at night regarding the shifting nature of critical literacy in schools in 2015. Their presentation is one that prods toward dialogue with students and dialogue with a school community and I encourage you to spend an hour sometime soon watching their presentation.

Yes, Filipiak and Mirra offer salient digital examples of critical literacy including documentaries, green screen photography, and online dialogue (and plenty of resources that can be found at digitalis.nwp.org). However, what I find most important about their presentation are the three framing questions that they have for educators:

    1. What are the purposes for teaching critical literacy?
    2. How might critical literacy support an ethic of agency?
    3. What forms of critical literacy production highlight purpose and agency?

As a field of teachers and educational researchers, I think the DML community should consider how we are unpacking the notion of “critical” literacy today. When I watch D’Angelo perform for millions on last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live in a black hoodie with his band wearing shirts saying “I Can’t Breathe,” I am reminded that the undercurrent of racial dialogue continues to richochet through mainstream media with little guidance being offered for teachers today.

Closing their presentation, Filipiak asked teachers in the room (and watching digitally), “What are you fostering inside of your classroom that makes students feel that they are working toward something important?” As a research community, we know that the online social lives of teens are filled with value, importance, and complex moral quandaries. How are we equipping educators to unpack these aspects of who our students are during the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.?

Banner image: D’Angelo performing on “Saturday Night Live”