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Review of  Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms

Reviewer: Amy Cecilia Hazelrigg
Book Title: Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms
Book Author: Barbara Comber Anne Simpson
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Issue Number: 13.1630

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Comber, Barbara and Anne Simpson, ed. (2001) Negotiating Critical
Literacies in Classrooms. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates xv+290 pp.,
paperback ISBN 0-8058-3794-9, $29.95,

Amy Cecilia Hazelrigg, Division of Language, Literacy and Sociocultural
Studies, College of Education, University of New Mexico.

Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms is a collection of papers
editors Barbara Comber and Anne Simpson have put together to meet the need
they perceive for theory-based accounts of classroom practices in critical
literacy. With a final summary chapter by Barbara Comber which underscores
the central conception of critical literacies as ''positive and locally
negotiated practices'' (p. 272), the anthology contains fifteen papers
describing classroom studies situated in a variety of geographic locales
and educational institutions and one chapter on critical approaches to
teaching materials. Classrooms range from early primary to adult basic
education to university. Locales include Australia, Canada, Hong Kong,
India, Singapore, South Africa, the UK, and the US. Twelve of the
contributors work in university settings, three in public school systems,
and the remainder in government, publishing, or consultancy positions.

The four chapters making up Part I are concerned with early primary
settings. Anne Hass Dyson's study of second- and third-graders in a
high-poverty urban school in the US examines how students ''dialogize,'' in
Bakhtin's terminology, a popular film character. She describes how
classroom composing activities-talking, dramatizing, writing-generated
critical reflection and action among the children involved. She sees their
dialogizing as a process of ''articulating and reimagining the taken for
granted'' (p. 16) that depended heavily on the opportunities the teacher
gave them to contribute to the developing life of the classroom community.

Urvashi Sahni's chapter summarizes the findings of an observational and
interactional study of the school contexts and developing literacy of
second- and third-grade children in rural North India. Profiles of the two
focal children describe their interactions with the researcher and their
move from literacy, as one child described it, as '''copying' print'' (p.
29) to literacy as confident authorship. Reflected eventually in their
writing, according to the author, was a form of empowerment she believes is
specific to children. For adults, she says, empowerment involves ''direct
social transformation''; for children, it is ''an achievement of their
personhood'' (p. 33). Their critical consciousness manifests not in the
process Freire has described as naming the existing world, but in ''an
imaginative narrative and poetic invention of possible worlds and possible
selves'' (p. 33).

Jennifer O'Brien's article is a reflective piece on her efforts to bring
together literacy instruction and critical practices in South Australia
classrooms. In one early primary classroom, she had departed from
traditional literacy instruction and made texts the object of critical
scrutiny, but found that she occasionally resorted to conventional
''teacherly moves'' (p. 46) when students were critical of her own positions.
In two other classrooms, projects designed to consider how junk mail sells
values resulted in critical analysis and the production of alternative
texts. These literacy events show that children are ''inventive and
skeptical'' (p. 52) readers rather than passive learners in need of the
intervention of enlightened teachers.

The final piece in Part I, by Vivian Vasquez, describes the researcher's
work with kindergarteners in a multiethnic middle-class Toronto suburb.
Over a school year, teacher and students constructed a learning wall or
''audit trail,'' a collection of artifacts-photographs, drawings,
conversation transcripts, newspaper clippings, and so forth-that allowed
the participants to ''make visible'' (p. 58) incidents that inspired their
learning and actions taken to ''destabilize traditional social systems'' (p.
59) at the school. The audit trail became the centerpiece of an emerging
critical curriculum which enabled teacher and students to challenge and
alter inequities in the school.

Part II focuses on upper primary classrooms. Yin Mee Cheah's study of the
changing face of literacy in Singapore maintains that definitions of
critical literacy must be relative, not absolute. For Singapore, where
literacy is traditionally viewed as sociopolitically neutral and is
associated simply with skills acquisition, ''examination-based'' (p. 79)
literacy still dominates the curriculum despite the 1991 introduction of a
syllabus emphasizing personal growth through an interactive,
learner-centered, process-oriented pedagogy. The small advances in
evidence, which Cheah illustrates with a brief text students constructed
out of their personal and cultural knowledge, are ''not critical literacy by
a long shot,'' but represent, nevertheless, ''a positive move away from the
dominant model'' (p. 80).

Angel Mei Yi Lin's chapter on literacy practices in an eighth-grade
second-language classroom in working-class Hong Kong demonstrates how the
students subverted the purposes of an ''information extraction'' (p. 83)
reading lesson and negotiated their own sense of a text. As they reworked
it through playful classroom talk in Cantonese, a familiar Chinese folk
tale, written in English, was transformed into a humorous, unpredictable
fantasy resembling the comic-book narratives popular with this group of
children. Conventional in-class reading lessons in Hong Kong, Lin points
out, resemble ''reading in the examination hall'' (p. 88)-reading to locate
factual answers to preposed questions. She suggests that an alternative
literacy model is in order that would capitalize on students' cultural and
linguistic resources and allow them the exercise of creativity and
''critical exploration'' (p. 96).

Bill Bigelow's chapter is a teacher's assessment of an interactive
educational CD-ROM on the history of the Oregon Trail. Largely through
what it omits, says Bigelow, the computer game ''mis-teaches'' (p. 104) by
promoting imperialism, racism, sexism, and ecological exploitation. It
ignores the lives and decisions of settler women, for example, obscures the
reality of such phenomena as the African-American exclusion laws in the
Oregon Territory, omits the fact that contact with the settlers ''devastated
Indian cultures'' (p. 104), and masks the invasive nature of the push west
by Euro-Americans. Worse, it does so covertly, especially because its
interactive characteristics appear to offer the CD-ROM user freedom of
choice. Because this program is ''not necessarily more morally obnoxious''
(P. 117) than others, what is needed is a ''critical computer literacy'' (p.
114) based on the recognition that educational software is not a substitute
for teachers and computer programs ''are not politically neutral'' (p. 117).

Bronwyn Mellor and Annette Patterson write about the dilemmas faced and the
questions raised when analyzing the results of their work with children in
grades four and five in a suburban Australian school. An attempt to elicit
multiple readings of an updated version of Hansel and Gretel met
essentially with failure: the students persisted in seeing the stepmother
as ''mean'' and the father as ''nice'' despite the father's mutual culpability
in the story. The exercise suggests, say the researchers, that a critical
reading is as much taught as a dominant reading, and that in reality
teachers of critical literacy are often attempting to ''adjust students'
readings while apparently denying that [they] are doing so'' (p. 124).
Their subsequent work was framed by the conclusion that the simple
availability of multiple readings does not in fact ''guarantee desirable
readings'' (p. 132), that students will not adopt alternative readings by
merely becoming ''conscious,'' and that what is at the heart of the desire to
produce alternative readings is the teacher's belief that a dominant
reading is in need of adjustment. Although the idea may be uncomfortable,
say the authors, it may be necessary to acknowledge that ''critical pedagogy
is itself inseparable from the exercise of pastoral power'' (p. 133).

Part III of the volume deals primarily with upper secondary settings.
Using data based on what transpired in a 1991 multiracial Grade 10
classroom in a South African independent school, Hilary Janks discusses why
a new workbook aimed at developing critical language awareness was largely
unsuccessful in that context. The purpose of the exercise was to teach the
concept of subject position by generating a range of possible viewpoints
related to gender, but instead it evoked angry, polarized debate among the
students along racial lines. Teacher and researcher, according to Janks,
were unprepared for the ''extent to which students might feel the need in
their class and in their school to win power and recognition for their own
meanings and be unable to value the meanings of others.'' Predicting
responses to texts is not always easy, she says, and without a school
environment supporting ''communicative openness,'' students will not want to
take the risk of revealing ''sacred meanings'' (p. 149).

Also about ''building a critically reflective classroom community'' (p. 153)
in the context of South Africa's massive sociopolitical changes, Pippa
Stein's chapter focuses on a 1994 research project with 12- to 16-year-old
Standard 5 students in a Black township outside Johannesburg. Interested
initially in exploring the linguistic resources of the 37 students, 90% of
whom spoke a home language other than English, Stein sought to elicit
student voices through story. The use of videotaping became, to her
surprise, a central motivation for the students, who produced a wide array
of interactive, performance-based, multimodal texts, notably taboo stories
and politicized, contemporary versions of folktales. The results of her
study and the work of a number of other teachers in the same vein suggest,
says Stein, that the time is right in South Africa for ''an educational
intervention that attempts to reappropriate and allow for transformation of
previously marginalized, infantalized, or invisible cultural forms into
institutional spaces'' (pp. 166-167). In the English classroom, such an
approach would put special emphasis on giving students the freedom to draw
freely on their home languages, discourses, and genres.

Wayne Martino worked with Grade 10 boys in a middle-class coed Catholic
school in South Australia in classroom projects designed to ''interrogate
dominant constructions of masculinity'' (p. 180) within a framework which
did not make what he considers the theoretical errors of comparing boys'
responses to girls' or casting boys in the victim mold. He used two texts,
a short story and a rap song. The boys responded to the story with high
involvement but did not read it for gender. The protagonist, who is given
a gun by an abusive father, practices cruelty to animals and comes to use
the gun to shoot his own brother. In written responses, the boys tended to
describe the character's behavior in terms of psychological issues, not
masculinity practices. However, in the case of the rap song, teacher
questions enabled the same boys to question their normalizing assumptions.
Martino feels that a critical literacy school agenda must target the social
and cultural construction of gender and must be supported across the

Leora Cruddas and Patricia Watson describe and reflect on a writing project
they spearheaded in the context of the new South Africa, where the system
seeks to raise Black literacy rates but defines literacy in terms of a
deficit model and has engendered publishing practices marginalizing and
infantilizing the novice adult reader. The production of a new series of
ESL readers for adults utilized Black rural storytellers (''writers'') and
White urban writers (''mentor-editors'') working in pairs to generate and
edit written versions of oral stories for eventual inclusion in the
readers. The authors feel the process enabled novices to become
participants in the publishing world, but believe it generated at least two
crucial questions: 1) Given the different positioning of writer and
mentor-editor within the culture of production created by the project, to
what extent were the collaborative efforts not in fact shared experiences?
2) To what extent were the rural Black writers pushed into forms of
storytelling not of their own cultures? Despite the negative possibilities
suggested by their questions, say the authors, their intervention was
successful because it involved ''aiding and abetting the writers who wrote
against the texts of race, class, and history'' (p. 201).

Part IV consists of Comber's concluding chapter and studies of critical
practices at university sites. Catherine Wallace's piece is a largely
theoretical discussion of the meaning of critical language awareness in the
classroom and the issues of power and empowerment with respect to teacher
and student negotiation of meaning. She see critical literacy as performed
rather than possessed as an aptitude, and critical language awareness as a
''metalevel awareness'' that is consciously learned and therefore empowering.
Within this framework, she views the teacher's function as practicing a
critical pedagogy aimed at enabling the development of an ''interpretive
community'' (p. 209) in which ''all class members play an active role'' (p.
214), context is made explicit, and teaching and learning processes kept
transparent. In this context, reading is a resistant act instead of the
cooperative process of everyday reading, and ''discussion about and around
texts'' (p. 216) is an integral part of reading. How the teacher manages
such talk is the focus of Wallace's discussion of a critical language
awareness course she taught at a British university to European and Asian
students in their late teens. Drawing on Goffman and Kramsch, she sees two
roles as most supportive of the teacher's central responsibility of
offering equal participatory opportunity to all students: as ''principal,''
addressing students from a position of authority, and ''author,'' speaking in
her own voice. Kramsch's third category, ''animator,'' in which the teacher
serves as a mouthpiece for other points of view-the text, for example, or a
student-is judged to be less supportive of critical pedagogy because it
removes the teacher's responsibility as ''author for either the content or
procedure of lessons'' (p. 226). Although the teacher-student power
differential is virtually a given in the classroom, how teacher footings
are deployed is what determines whether or not an interpretive community

James Bell's chapter examines the accessibility of critical pedagogy to
prospective teachers and the possibilities for using the popular film as
its instrument. During his conversations with the four student teacher
participants in this study, Bell noted that they exhibited a contradictory
perspective: ''a dual sensibility in which critical clear sightedness
coexists with an acritical close mindedness'' (p. 242). Discussions
centering around the film Pump Up the Volume by Allen Moyle showed that the
participants believed teaching should bring hope to the world but that they
did not see themselves as agents of change. Committed in effect to a
liberal role, they saw themselves as isolated individuals and demonstrated
no understanding of the possibilities for power and support contained in
their professional community. They were concerned not with their
responsibility to guide ''difficult moral and political conversations'' in
their classrooms, Bell says, but with the less aware goal of getting their
students ''to say anything at all'' (p. 237) of personal significance.
Concluding that the student teachers know a great deal because they are
embedded in school lives mirroring the world of Pump Up the Volume and yet
''know very little in a critical sense'' (p. 242), Bell suggests that using
popular culture texts in the service of critical practice can be
problematic because they can evoke temporary interest but cannot guarantee
social critique.

Jenny Clarence-Fincham writes about the success of a course in critical
language awareness instituted for largely Black,
non-Native-English-speaking students at Natal University in South Africa in
the early 1990s. Developed with the twin aims of expanding students'
academic literacies and encouraging in them a critical perspective on the
university as an educational institution, the course was theoretically
framed by the concept of multiple subjectivity and the notion that language
is a socially-constructed, political phenomenon. Critical language
awareness was foregrounded in the program because it concerns itself with
exposing covert ideologies in spoken and written discourse and challenges
the traditional concept of second-language instruction as training in
appropriacy. The curriculum was also framed by the student perspective and
student input. It took its inspiration initially from pedagogical
questions generated by the empowering experience of one Black female
freshman during its pilot phase, and later from positive student evaluation
in which a common theme was the awareness of the ability to read more
critically as a result of participation in the program.

In the final chapter of Negotiating Critical Literacies which is devoted to
original research, Nathalie Wooldridge describes how she sought as a
Master's student to investigate what critical literacy looks like in terms
of approaches to text and curriculum planning. She and a group of
secondary school teachers working in high-poverty areas in South Australia
taught and critiqued five critical literacy units and in the process
unearthed a number of questions pointing to the importance of the critical
reading of teaching itself. Coming under scrutiny were issues surrounding
teacher positioning: the risk of intruding on student lives in the name of
inclusiveness and authentic action, the difficulty of developing critical
literacy skills from a position of limited teacher background knowledge,
the ability of the teacher to guide student energies into problem-posing
exercises, and the danger of imposing a single view on students rather than
acknowledging ''complexity . . . and the unknowable'' (p. 269).

Earlier and broader treatments of critical literacy, stemming from Freire's
elucidation (1970) of an emancipatory pedagogy which aims at new
self-knowledge through reflection and new ways of being through social
action, have sought to explore such issues as the dynamic between power
relations and language practices (Fairclough, 1992), the place of critical
literacy in the history of the development of postmodern thought (Lankshear
& McLaren, 1993), and questions of normativity in literate practices
(Muspratt, Luke, & Freebody, 1997). The volume by Comber and Simpson
belongs squarely in this tradition but is based on the recognition of a
particular need for descriptive qualitative research carried out, in
Comber's words, in ''classroom and school communities where critical
literacies and innovative pedagogies are being created.'' The purpose is to
contribute to the development of ''a significant corpus of theorized
critical stories of young people and radical educators working for social
justice'' (p. 279).

To this end, Comber and Simpson have put together a collection that invites
reflection and carries the reader on an engaging journey through a
multiplicity of classrooms and cultures throughout the Commonwealth and the
United States. Background information in the form of treatments of
national educational systems as a part of sociopolitical history is
carefully researched and illuminating, most notably the well-organized
discussions of Singapore and South Africa.

A central theme to the volume is that critical literacy practices entail
many routes to empowerment. Dyson, for example, describes transformation
through literacy: how female students use a popular film character to
resist community gender norms; while Sahni's discussion explores this
theme as well as the transformation of literacy itself: how teachers and
students involved in critical literacy can challenge social practices which
serve to maintain an underclass. Vasquez suggests that empowerment can be
opened out by critically examining and revamping language-teaching
methodology, notably whole language approaches to reading and writing
instruction. Stein focuses on the empowerment of the English classroom
through the rejuvenating force of popular culture. Cruddas and Watson, in
perhaps the most unusual study represented, describe a project with
multivalent possibilities for empowerment: through the transformations
involved in the collaborations between differentially-positioned
participants in professional writing teams, through the resulting
transformations of the status of traditional folk narratives, and through
the usurpation of exclusionary print literacy practices.

Routes to empowerment suggested by this volume include the empowerment of
teachers as well as they examine their own positioning and work toward
transformation through self-questioning and the analysis of failure.
Hilary Janks, for example, notes the surprising lack of success she
experienced in introducing critical literacy teaching materials to an
alternative school setting. Despite our poststructuralist belief that
''meaning is dialogic,'' she observes, what we are up against is the fact
that ''our educational practices, which privilege rational deliberation,
reflection, and debate, teach students to seek closure'' (p. 141). Cruddas
and Watson express the concern that their professional-writer/rural
storyteller collaboration teams might have functioned to create unequal
participation and a disruption of the rural storytellers' cultural ways.
Wallace and Wooldridge both foreground teacher authority, Wallace focusing
on how it is managed, both well and badly, through teacher choice of
footing in the foreign-language classroom, Wooldridge raising a number of
questions surrounding the problems with teacher power that come from
limitations in teacher knowledge and understanding.

Issues of primacy and immediacy of voice are implied here, and it is
perhaps in the book's potential for ''turn[ing] on the sound,'' (p. 279) in
Comber's words, that its greatest promise lies for serving as a template
for future research. Described in the chapter by Clarence-Fincham, a Black
female freshman, new to a South African university, is assigned the task of
interviewing a White administrator. She comments later on the experience:

What I learnt from the interview was that things
didn't occur as I expected them. I was so tensed
since it was the first time that I had to interview
a white man. What I discovered was that he appeared
to be a kind somebody. While I was . . . trying to
construct sentences for introducing ourselves, the
man asked if we would like to have a cup of coffee.
I was surprised by the question. . . . I responded
with yes but still felt hesitation so I said no. He
himself provided me with coffee. Still asking myself
why he was lowering himself like that, the man
bumpered us with answers of the unasked questions....
The interview was absolutely wonderful. It changed
my conclusions about the whites whom I regard as
superior. I was brought to the conclusion that
some are just like myself, willing to help and to
socialise (p. 247).

In the Vasquez chapter, children in a Canadian kindergarten class discover
that theirs is the only age group to have been excluded by the
administration from a school-wide social function. They create a
tape-recorded petition reading, in part:

Today there's something going on in the gym and we
want to know why aren't we invited? Because only the
grade ones and twos can go so that's not fair to us or
to anyone. And maybe . . on the next party we can
have it at our class. But we figured out something.
If we have dances here then they won't have dances
there and if they have dances there we won't have
dances here. And that's not fair to us or to the
whole world because we don't get to go (p. 65).

Tina, a third-grader in a high-poverty American urban classroom described
by Dyson, writes a story remaking Emily, originally a minor background
character in a popular children's film, ''preteen, blonde, and quite pretty''
(p. 3):

Once there was a girl named Emily. She was tough.
Her and her boy friend [Colt] was eating pizza. . . .
So one day they were going to school. . . .
Then they went into the room. Bad boys,
they love to beat up kids. . . . School is over now. . . .
Colt was going away. Emily found him. The bad boys
had him. Emily can whip some butt. So she did.
So they all ran away. She is tough, I said.
So they walk home again. The end (p. 11).

And Bigelow quotes what he refers to with irony as the ''comforting words of
advice and social vision'' (p. 113), chillingly ethnocentric, which occur
near the end of the American educational CD-ROM on the history of the
Oregon Trail:

As more and more Americans move into the region,
more cities and towns will spring up, further
increasing one's options for economic success.
Rest assured in the facts that men and women who are
willing to work hard will find their labors richly
rewarded, and that you, by going west, are helping to
spread American civilization from ocean to ocean
across this great continent, building a glorious
future for generations to come (p. 112)!

These instances of the gift for bringing life to theory and, indeed,
remaking theory give the book richness, purpose, and focus and provide
effective support for the editors' interest in inspiring others to describe
their successes and failures in conducting action studies of critical
literacy. Because the data of qualitative action research are so crucial
to lending it sense and validity, however, it is to be hoped that future
efforts might direct themselves to finding ways to give even greater and
more consistent privileging to data than does the present collection. With
some notable exceptions such as the pieces by Dyson and Clarence-Fincham,
data are occasionally backgrounded in this volume by discussions of
theory, and conclusions are sometimes unconvincing because data from
original, longer studies have been too severely pruned. Were a second
edition of the volume to be forthcoming, judicious editing would help to
correct this imbalance as well as clear a number of the chapters of
mechanical errors and inconsistencies.

Despite these minor problems, Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms
is an intriguing collection which offers more than adequate elaboration on
the centerpiece theme of critical literacies as locally constructed, and
manages, in the bargain, to argue for the notion that all discussions of
our perennial search for meaningful pedagogies would benefit from explicit
accounts of the links between classrooms and community, national, and
cultural practice.


Fairclough, N. (1992) Critical language awareness. London: Longman.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.

Lankshear, C. & McLaren, P. L. (1993) Critical literacy: Politics,
praxis, and the postmodern. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Muspratt, S., Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1997) Constructing critical
literacies: Teaching and learning textual practice. Cresskill, NJ:
Hampton Press.

Amy Cecilia Hazelrigg is a PhD candidate in the Program in Educational
Linguistics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she
teaches courses in first and second language development and ESL pedagogy.
Her educational background includes a Bachelor's in Comparative Literature,
a Master's in English, and a Master's in TESOL. She has taught ESL on
three continents and specializes in ESL reading and composition. Her
dissertation, in progress, is a case study of a university
researcher-teacher study group understanding and applying aspects of
systemic functional linguistics to L2 reading instruction. Other research
interests include critical discourse analysis, critical literacy for the L2
learner, classroom ethnography, genre description, and qualitative methods
in L2 development research.

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