AUTHOR: Vasquez, Vivian Maria TITLE: Negotiating Critical Literacies with Young Children SERIES: Language, Culture, and Teaching PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates YEAR: 2004 ANNOUNCED AT: http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-2229.html
Seyyed-Abdolhamid Mirhosseini, Board of Education, Tehran, Iran
I found Vasquez’s work a fascinating book that could be a groundbreaking contribution to critical literacy education. Following this short overview paragraph I will present a chapter by chapter synopsis of the book and then some brief critical reflections on her contribution. The book begins with a foreword by the general editor of Language, Culture, and Teaching series in which the book appears. It includes a brief preface by the author, an introductory chapter and seven main chapters. Following the main chapters, five short sections appear at the end of the book: endnotes, references, suggested readings, author index, and subject index.
“A critical literacy curriculum needs to be lived” (p. 1). This is the opening sentence of the introductory chapter in which Vasquez elaborates on the ongoing nature of developing a critical literacy curriculum. She highlights ‘negotiation and contestation’ as the core features of an endeavor aimed at bringing issues of social justice into literacy education. Reviewing her previous inquiries into critical literacy education for young learners, she briefly explains how an ‘audit trail’ generated topics for her critical curriculum and how it shaped the basis for her research presented in this book. The chapter also includes more than twenty pages of pictures illustrating the audit trail as the centerpiece of Vasquez and her students’ negotiated curriculum.
Chapter 1: Finding Space for Critical Literacy
This first main chapter portrays the general atmosphere in which the negotiated curriculum was created. The author discusses how she managed to negotiate and develop the curriculum so that it surpassed the mandated curriculum. Referring to the complexities of engaging with critical literacy, she elaborates on how she found support for her pedagogical practice both within and out of school. Moreover, Vasquez describes the unique classroom environment in which the curriculum was shaped and also the organization of class meetings and activities. The final section of the chapter discusses the role of students’ parents in the negotiated curriculum.
Chapter 2: Getting Started
In this chapter Vasquez explains the way she started the school year with a children’s song from a picture book and how it generated student critical inquiries into serious issues of environment and gender. A student’s question about an illustration of an amphibian in the book created a discussion and inquiry into animal life, rain forests, and environment. Through the inquiry, students contributed various drawings and pictures to the growing audit trail and they also performed a play. While examining various materials in the environmental inquiry, a student’s question about a picture created another critical discussion shaping a further aspect of the negotiated curriculum: “Why is it a man not a woman cooking?” (p. 55). This second chapter also includes an extensive chart depicting various issues represented on the audit trail.
Chapter 3: The French Café
The third chapter of the book is the first of the four chapters in which the author presents four major themes representing her negotiated curriculum. The chapter evolves around teaching French to students at school and the issue that at their school, kindergarten students were not allowed to take part in French classes – ‘the French café’, as they called it. The question that was raised as part of the critical classroom negotiations was “why can’t we go?” (p. 93). Questioning the way the French café was organized, students started a survey about how the French classes were held at other schools and what other kindergarten students thought about it. They took action to tell the café organizers that kindergarten students wanted to take part in the French café and that it was not fair to deny them the right. In her analysis of the French café story, Vasquez discusses the action taken by her students as a process of understanding the socially constructed nature of knowledge, questioning the existing structures, and pursuing alternative actions.
Chapter 4: Our Friend is a Vegetarian
The critical curriculum theme presented in this chapter emerged after the annual school barbecue. The issue was raised when the day after the barbecue one of the students told the class that he had not been able to eat at the barbecue because he was a vegetarian. After discussing the issue, students decided to write a letter to the organizers of the barbecue and ask them to include food for vegetarians at the next barbecue. The author describes how students reflected on marginalization as a critical social concern when they searched for vegetarian food to suggest to the organizers and when they wrote to other schools to ask them to take care of vegetarians if they had barbecues. She also elaborates on how they worked out the language of their letters to the barbecue organizers, the school librarian, and other schools. Through the vegetarian story, Vasquez shares another experience of questioning a social structure “that led to taking social action” (p. 111).
Chapter 5: Save the Beluga
An environment related concern is the critical curriculum theme dealt with in this chapter. It emerged when one of the students talked about a television news report about endangered beluga. Vasquez describes how she and her students “used this media text to reread a picture book” (p.113). The class discussion about the danger caused by toxic chemical waste in rivers led to the critical rereading of the text of a children’s song called ‘Baby Beluga’ and to creating a new version of the song. The beluga story, as part of this negotiated curriculum, illustrates how texts can be critically examined to allow students to ask questions about the way texts are constructed and how they can be created in different ways. Moreover, the critical encounter with the beluga text and other related texts “provided a space to explore the social construction of truth and reality” (p.121).
Chapter 6: We Know How McDonald’s Thinks
The critical theme in this chapter shaped around interrogating the social text of McDonald’s promotional strategies and discourses. The author describes how her students critically questioned the way McDonald’s used toys to attract child customers. After one of the students raised the issue of McDonald’s toys, a discussion started on “how McDonald’s thinks” (p. 124) and students critically explored McDonald’s consumerist promotional strategies. Referring to the story of a student’s boycotting McDonald’s after the discussion, Vasquez highlights the extension of literacy practices constructed in a negotiated curriculum “into the lives of children outside of school” (p.132)
Chapter 7: A Look Back Over the Year
In her final chapter, the author describes how a junior kindergarten conference was organized at the end of the school year and also presents some final reflections. The idea of a conference came from a student whose mother had participated in a conference. Subsequently a junior kindergarten conference, named Celebrating Our Questions, was negotiated in the classroom. Vasquez, in her final reflections, briefly refers to two major features of the critical literacy curriculum she negotiated with her students: social critique, social analysis, and social action shaped the basic tools in constructing a critical literacy curriculum; and, the difference between what happened in this negotiated critical literacy curriculum and what usually happens in other literacy classes is asking “questions that matter” (p. 141).
To many people, the word ‘critical’ might entail complicated issues belonging to the tough world of adults not children and certainly not young preschool children. This is, however, a misconception of what criticality involves. Critical approaches are centrally concerned with questioning the unquestioned in social life and, therefore, they are not to be confined to any particular social group and obviously not to any particular age. In line with this view, Vasquez illustrates the fact that questioning the taken for granted social beliefs by young children is not only possible but also quite meaningfully practical. I would consider this as perhaps the major contribution of this book. Moreover the book depicts a telling example of real negotiation of learning experiences. Many of the educational practices discussed in the book were not based on a pre-planned syllabus but rather emerged out of authentic classroom dialogue. I think, nevertheless, that the author could have incorporated more elaborate descriptions of the classroom context to represent a more touchable picture of real classroom life with all its resistances and challenges. As it is, it looks like everything went on very smoothly with no disagreements and no problem. However, real classroom life, especially one with critical negotiations, is quite likely to be full of problems, challenges, and even fights. Another excellent aspect of the book is that it intriguingly portrays several cases of incorporating critical grappling with linguistic elements at the same time that class participants focus on critical social issues. I found it very interesting that Vasquez at several points represents her students’ critical encounter with linguistic aspects of texts as social practices when they read and also their critical consideration of word choice and sentence organization when they write. The beautiful personal narrative and story telling style of the author and many pictures and illustrations make the book appealing and readable. I would highly recommend the book as a source of insights into critical literacy practices for researchers and students dealing with language and literacy education as well as language teachers.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Seyyed-Abdolhamid Mirhosseini received his MA in Teaching English as a
Foreign Language from the University of Tehran and has been involved in EFL
education at various levels in Iran. His areas of interest include critical
language education, critical discourse analysis, and qualitative research