By Jesse Gainer
This column is dedicated to the memory of Howard Zinn, who passed away this year at the age of 87. Zinn’s life and work — an unwavering pursuit of justice through focused attention on the marginalized and the oppressed — inspired countless people across the world. Zinn’s work highlighted what traditionally is not present in mainstream history texts, such as the voices and experiences of women, people of color, workers, and social activists. Readers of his work gain knowledge about historical figures and events that were not typically part of most people’s classroom experiences. However, the significance of his work is greater than the factual pieces of the puzzle he helped add to our historical narrative. His work points to a critique of larger systematic and structural inequities that lead to the privileging of a few and the oppression of many. His insistence on shining a light on unofficial history, or as he put it, the “people’s history,” is at the heart of what we call critical literacy.
There is no doubt that technological developments are rapidly changing the way we communicate and, therefore, the demands of what it means to be a literate person in the 21st century. The term Web 2.0, the theme of this issue of Language Arts, refers to changes that have come about because of technology that allow quicker and broader sharing of information. Instead of focusing on technical aspects of the new technologies, Lankshear and Knobel (2006) describe a new ethos that emerges from literacy practices that are more participatory, collaborative, and distributed. In other words, rather than readers passively receiving information from “expert” texts, Web 2.0 blurs lines between consumers and producers of text and therefore increases the participation of ordinary people in knowledge production. Many see this new power to “publish” text to wide audiences as a needed democratization of knowledge that can potentially develop a more engaged citizenry.
What does critical literacy look like in this new media landscape? For many educators, this new participatory nature of publishing, especially on the Internet, is a cause for worry. There is concern about large quantities of unfiltered information— easy to access but difficult for students and teachers to evaluate for credibility. To address this, needed attention has been directed at curriculum and pedagogy that helps students navigate information sources, such as Web pages, and evaluate them for trustworthiness. However, as Fabos (2008) points out, there is also great need to focus on the bigger picture and engage students in Web evaluation, rather than only Web page evaluation. For example, Fabos highlights the commercialization of search engines as a real threat to the democratization of knowledge often hoped for with Web 2.0 culture. Although many people assume search engines are neutral, the fact that they are run as commercial enterprises affects the types of information they generate as links. Therefore, it is important for students to consider the type of information they are likely to encounter when using search engines and also what may be missing.
Critical literacy education cannot stop once students learn to evaluate and critique multiple forms of text, information providers, and the society in which texts are produced. In classrooms that promote critical literacy, students also learn to produce texts that work as counternarratives, disrupting mainstream discourses and standing in opposition to unjust status quo (Morrell, 2008). Although this is not a new concept, with the rise of Web 2.0 and the shift toward expanded possibilities for publishing, the ability to create multiple forms of text takes on heightened importance.
Critical media literacy pedagogy offers a framework for educators interested in exploring such issues with students. According to Jeff Share (reviewed in this column), “this new pedagogical approach to literacy offers the dual possibility of resisting media domination through critical analysis and empowering individuals to create alternative media for counterhegemonic expression” (p. 3). The websites and books reviewed in this column offer educators background, ideas, and examples on how to incorporate critical media literacy into the curriculum regardless of the age of the students.
Zinn Education Project (http://www.zinnedproject. org)
Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change
If you have read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, the chances are you can remember exactly when you read it and how much it transformed your worldview. I know this is true for me, and it’s also true for the people who put together this outstanding website dedicated to helping teachers implement the spirit of Zinn’s work in middle school and high school classrooms. The Zinn Education Project is coordinated by two nonprofit organizations, Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, and includes over 75 free downloadable activities, as well as many other resources for teachers designed to help students gain complex understandings of US history and to develop a sense of agency around social issues.
The website is organized with pages that provide background, goals, and philosophy statements; links to many resources, including books, videos, and other teaching resources; links to regional and national organizations that network social justice educators; and interactive spaces where teachers can provide input and share ideas. The resources available on this site are multimodal, including print, video, and audio sources. You can even see a video of Howard Zinn speaking to the National Conference for the Social Studies in 2008. Another example of what you will find is a podcast of a conversation with Zinn shortly before his death in which Bill Bigelow, Curriculum Editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, asks questions sent in to the Zinn Education website by teachers.
The Teaching Materials section of the website (the largest section) is filled with lessons that can be explored by time period or theme. This Professional Book Reviews section also provides an annotated list of teaching resources, including books, films, posters, and websites, aligned with the social-justice-oriented philosophy of the project. The materials section offers an array of free files containing lessons that range from the colonial period of the United States through present day and include diverse themes, such as colonization, slavery, civil rights movements, environment and food, LGBT, social class, anti-war movements, and many others. Within each theme and time period, well-developed lessons offer ideas and materials for teaching topics such as the Haymarket Affair, the Chicano School Blowouts, globalization, and other issues that rarely find their way into “official” school curriculum.
Full article in PDF, including additional reviews. (You must be registered on this website to access the PDF.)
Copyright 2010 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Posted with permission.