Building Adolescent Literacy, Part II: Critical Thinking

In mind-bending metacognitive fashion, I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about critical thinking in schools. It is a buzzword that appears on grant proposals, curriculum documents, schools’ promotional materials (k-12 through higher ed!), as well as the mission statements of businesses, educational institutions. In a grand fit of irony few people think critically about throwing it around, or if it really means anything at all.

What’s more, teachers aren’t often charged with the task of being critical thinkers. Instructed to follow policies and procedures, mandates and directives, it is sometimes difficult to take the time and mental energy to *really think* about what choices we make every day, and the consequences those choices carry for our students.  I agree that too many schools dole out “educations in sitting quietly and taking it, rather than speaking out” (Bomer, p. 306). But it’s not just students that should be speaking up and out–it’s teachers too. The statement about sticking to your principles resonated with me, something I learned around the middle of my first year of teaching: “teaching always involves educating people outside the classroom almost as much as those inside. That work is never complete” (Bomer, p. 292).

In all this roundabout thinking about thinking, my last thought is that there has to be some action that goes along with thinking, or none of the critical work of education will get done. Perhaps there has just been too much doing, doing, and doing without any thinking, and what I am advocating is for more of a balance between the two.

So what should critical thinking be in today’s English classrooms? By biggest takeaway ideas from this book are (in addition to what Jen so nicely said about the role of notebooks as thinking tools and developing a Reading Agenda) that English class should be filled with a thoughtful attention to differences in context, audience and purpose. This means shifting from assignments to literacy practices that truly support students’ meaning-making as readers and writers, providing real audiences for students’ writing and discussions of texts instead of just the teacher, and refusing to settle for the answer “because we have to” as the purpose of an activity or unit. It is true that the classrooms described in this book, and the model of teaching in learning in a workshop classroom are drastically different than what you would see in traditional classrooms. Perhaps that’s because today’s classrooms don’t really prepare students to think critically about what they’re doing or be a member of “a participatory culture in which making things is of increasing value” (p .306).  Oddly (or perhaps not to my classmates!) this brings home the point that teaching literature in schools is still something we should do. What more fantastic tool do we have to show students how to play with and explain context, audience and purpose than literature? My perspective may be a little skewed, but hey–at least I’m able to recognize that it is =).

P.S. As predicted, I no longer feel lost in the Continent of Literacy Purposes. Armed with an “aware[ness] of the decisions that have to be made” (p. 306) and comforted by the reality that “no one English class will contain everything I have written here, not even all the things I have claimed to be very, very important,” (p. 277), I feel ready for the journey. I appreciate that it isn’t made out to be simple or easily navigated, but then neither is life out in the real world. And that’s where we hope our students will use English (and language).

P.P.S. This is beautiful: “Because her worth is not under threat, Greene can face her own unfinishment. Because she has been recognized, she can change, can keep becoming” (p. 301). I like thinking about the job of the teacher being to truly recognize (not necessarily celebrate), and then move on to the process of change and becoming. I then think of all the harm that schools have done to students in the past by not recognizing them, and get very sad. Hopefully, things can be different.

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2 thoughts on “Building Adolescent Literacy, Part II: Critical Thinking

  1. I teach a science discipline in UK higher education institution, and critical thinking is just as much of a mess here. I’ve given up talking about critical thinking and now talk rational thinking instead. I can at least have a stab at measuring that !

    • One of the greatest messages from Dr. Bomer’s book is that we need to constantly re-evaluate the terms and language we use in the classroom, because when terms and trends “fossilize” in a profession, people tend to stop “examining whether those words are doing the job that they should.” Thanks for taking the time to really think about it!

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