Wednesday, December 14, 2016

How is teaching English a political act?

Ernest Morrell, in his address to the NCTE Conference in 2014, argued that teaching English is a political act and I've been kicking around this claim ever since. English teachers, he said, have an important role in creating the literary canon and a responsibility to culturally diverse learners to ensure the canon reflects diverse identities. Having just attended the #ISTE2016 conference where banners larger than my house told me that I am part of some type of revolution, I'm thinking about how the politics of text selection connect with the politics of emerging media channels and media literacy. I'm wanting to make sure I'm clear about what kind of revolution I'm willing to support.

Screenshot of this tweet by @karenacantrell

The politics of text selection

Part of the politics of teaching English is about the composition of the syllabus or the classroom library. Teachers have an opportunity to select readings from authors with diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, interests and identities. By creating text sets that look like the real world in 2016, an English teacher can establish an increasingly equitable learning experience for young developing readers and writers.

A look at recent events through the always-evolving and always interesting prism of social media shows some of the ways text selection is a political issue. The hashtag #slaverywithasmile tied together a protest and a conversation about "A Birthday Cake for George Washington," a children's book that depicted slavery in a positive light. Public outcry occurred on Twitter, in the comment boxes of Amazon reviews, and then echoed into the traditional media's 24-hour news cycle, all of which led Scholastic to take the rare action of recalling the book.

The recent story of Marley Dias offers another example of how the bookshelf can be a political space. Dia, an 11-year-old from Philadelphia, gained media attention and notoriety for her search for 1000 "black girl books." Her one-girl social action project was spurred by her frustration over being assigned books about white boys and their dogs.

The politics of emerging media channels

Speaking with the Philly Voice, she expressed her goals this way:
"I want to be a magazine editor for my own magazine," she explained, without hesitation. "And I’d also like to continue social action. For the rest of my life.”
English teachers, bibliophiles all, might miss the digital media component of Dias' story if we're too entranced by the story of a young black girl who wants to find books about black girls. We might mistakenly rewrite this story to just be about a girl who looked critically at a bookshelf and demanded better. In the case of #1000blackgirlbooks, it is instructive that Dias named her project with a hashtag. In doing so, she made an instant media channel and initiated an action campaign that moved beyond the bookshelf and into the modern world of agentive activism. We shouldn't gloss over the way this girl saw an injustice and created a media channel to lobby for support.  When she says social action is part of her life's work, that's a far cry from saying she just wants to go read her thousand books.

When CNN reported the story they wrote, "Through word of mouth, the campaign has grown into a global phenomenon." It strikes me that the campaign never would have grown to be a global phenomenon if Dias had relied on the word of mouth.

The story of #1000blackbooks shows how the evolution of texts and communication channels is a political issue that requires teachers- especially English teachers- to look beyond the bookshelf and think about the development of community-ready youth who can leverage emerging communication channels.

The politics of media literacy

It is always possible, and maybe even likely, that a journalist, or a teacher, might not understand how a young girl's creation of a hashtag creates a channel. The use of social media channels for civic action is still niche use.


At the same time our culture is seeing the emergence of the #blacklivesmatter movement, our schools are struggling to make sense of the complexities of Internet access. Until now, people unfamiliar with Twitter could be forgiven (or perhaps applauded) for not using the social platform but educators need to take note when young people who have historically been seen and not heard find their voices and carve out community leadership roles in online spaces. We surely are reaching a tipping point where educators need to understand the web's potential as a civic platform. What schools have seen up until now as an access gap they must now understand as a participation gap in which some students engage with the world beyond the classroom about issues that are relevant to them, while other students might be asked to tackle perceived skill gaps in texts that don't help them understand their place and their power in the modern world.


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