Literacy is Liberation: Working Toward Justice Through Culturally Relevant Teaching

By Brent Gilson

For the archive of this chat please check out the Wakelet here

This week we had the pleasure of having Dr. Kim Parker join us to discuss her new incredible book Literacy is Liberation. The title caught me immediately when Dr. Parker announced this book would be coming out and made me think of other leaders in the field of literacy like Dr. Gholdy Muhammad and her important work.

At a conference a few years ago Kylene Beers and Robert Probst were speaking about literacy and asked us what we thought literacy was. Of course, we got the standard answers shouted from around the hall: Reading, Writing, Talking, Representing… Kylene then put forward the comment Literacy is Power and Privilege. This got the wheel turning, as I have been studying and trying to learn more about practices that we use in the classroom this idea of Literacy as power comes up often. As I read the title of Dr. Parker’s book I thought it was a perfect way to describe what Literacy really is and the power it has.

As the chat kicked off we had the opportunity to reflect on the title of the book and our understanding of what Literacy is Liberation might entail.

As we discussed our early thoughts the common link between all those in the chat was that literacy needs to be intentional for everyone in our classroom. That we need to be doing what is best to aid ALL students in being successful. This means we need to be responsive. Shift with the interests and abilities of our students. Plan with a strength-based mindset and then work to help all students realize their potential by addressing those individual needs.

The conversation moved towards our curriculum and the intentional decisions we as educators need to make to ensure that the literacy practices in our classrooms are indeed liberatory. What is the story our curriculum tells? Who does it provide opportunities to see themselves in? Who does it leave out? How can we as educators push our curriculums (often a political document) towards a more equitable and liberating experience? In my own classroom, I have found simple but purposeful steps to make my content more inclusive while still operating within the curriculum. Moving away from texts that are 30, 40, and 50 years old to texts that are more relevant today is often seen as some revolutionary act with those who lead these discussions (Dr. Parker is also a founding member of #Disrupttexts) being targetted by those who would prefer a curriculum that erases students in the name of upholding white supremacy. The idea of auditing our curriculum and the resources that support it is not something that should be seen as revolutionary it should be the norm. As the world has changed significantly since 1960 so should our resources and curriculum in a purposeful effort to provide liberation through our literacy work. These shifts might not always be easy but if we center our decision-making on our students’ needs, interests, desires, and experiences it provides us with opportunities to center around Culturally Relevant Pedagogy which is good practice regardless of student demographics.

As our chat wrapped up we spent some time reflecting on the topic of harm. Specifically how the choices we make in our classroom can harm our students. Two lessons I have learned in my visits over the years with Dr. Parker have really shaped a lot of my interactions towards intentionally avoiding potential instances of curriculum violence. The term itself was new to me and this article was one that Dr. Parker put in my path. I think about the unintended results of a Black student having to read a book like To Kill a Mockingbird which many have recalled being uncomfortable with because of the language used including the N-word. How can a Black student feel that sense of liberation that literacy work can bring if their white peer is given permission to read that word aloud in class? While not intentionally causing harm the impact is there and impact is always greater than intent. Another piece of wisdom Dr. Parker has shared with me is to not assume “best intentions” or extend the benefit of the doubt when people do make choices that oppress students or groups of people. We all make mistakes and calling attention to those mistakes and learning from them are important steps if we as educators intend to be co-conspirators in the quest to have liberatory classrooms for all students.

As I work through reading Literacy is Liberation I love the inclusion of Takeaways and To-Do’s that Dr, Parker includes in each chapter. She provides us with not only the theory but tangible practices that we can bring into our classrooms in the service of all students.

It is a bit of a scary time as we have political forces intentionally trying to limit discussion and erase whole parts of history around the world. Literacy is Liberation is another resource that can provide teachers with the support they need to create more equitable, culturally relevant, justice-focused classrooms where all students are seen, heard, respected, and uplifted as they develop into their full genius and brilliance.

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