Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission Awareness - Education - Inspiration

Critical Literacy in Early Elementary Classrooms


By THGC Admin

By Melanie Weinberger, THGC Intern

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This week in my first grade classroom, I taught a lesson with a small group on The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles. I held up the cover, which includes an illustration of Ruby at the forefront, surrounded by a background of angry white adults. I asked the group, “Just based on the cover, what do we think this book will be about?” One student looked at me and stated simply, “Hatred.” He is 6 years old.

Critical literacy is the ability to actively read literature to promote a deeper understanding and analyzation of socially constructed concepts. These concepts may include power dynamics, inequality and injustice found among the diverse facets of our society. The purpose of critical literacy is to disrupt the commonplace and master narrative, include multiple perspectives, unpack socio-political issues, and to take social action and promote social justice. The goal is to encourage students to consider questions of power, and ultimately, become thoughtful and engaged individuals. Becoming critically literate means that students can read, analyze, critique, and challenge the messages found within any text. They are then able to apply these skills to messages deeply-rooted within our society. Critical literacy is more than reading and writing: it is reading, writing, and viewing our world through an investigative lens.

As I have seen in my classroom, children as young as 6 and 7 years old are already absorbing social constructs as they make sense of the people and society around them. As teachers, we must equip them with the critical thinking and reflection skills to necessary to think about these constructs and ask, “Why?”

Approaching questions of race, or any construct, with a “color-blind” approach does nothing but delay the conversations and questions that students will eventually ask. Children are not blind to the diversity of our society. They color themselves with peach and brown and black skin when drawing self-portraits; they wonder why some children live in large homes, while others have no homes at all. During our read aloud of Ruby Bridges, one student asked me, “Why were white and black children not allowed to go to school together? I don’t get it. We all go to school together now.” Students are curious and eager to understand the questions of our past that are still far from answered. We cannot ignore and push aside this inherent curiosity and desire for understanding; we must nurture it, so eventually our students have the investigative skills and motivation to nurture it themselves.

Critical literacy simultaneously gives our students opportunities to begin to grapple with these questions, but also presents issues in the context of applicable and age appropriate classroom content. Any piece of literature can be made into critical literature. By setting up classroom environments that encourage our students to think about and dissect constructs at such an early age, our students are able use the reasoning, reflective and analytic skills needed to discuss broad themes of prejudice and discrimination. They are then prepared to have the mindsets necessary to later learn about more advanced acts of injustice and terror. When we give our students practice exercising these mindsets during early elementary years, we lay the groundwork for eventual more meaningful study and competence of the Holocaust and genocides.

It is empathy that lies at the core of our classrooms. A deeper understanding of the prejudice and inequalities that exist in our society cannot be attained when our students’ own actions and thoughts are not framed with empathy. Confronting these issues by using critical literacy builds the foundation for our students to become socially responsible, knowledgeable upstanders. The more we learn about and question the unfamiliar and misunderstood, the more we are able to create safe, supportive spaces to constructively unpack them. My student’s answer of “hatred” should not be the end of the conversation--it should be the beginning.

Edited May 11, 2016, 3:03 PM, by Cheyanne Perkins

Tags: classroom critical literacy education elementary literature ruby bridges upstander


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