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What is Literacy?

As years have passed the concept of literacy has changed from an elementary decoding of written information to a range of more complex and diverse skills and understandings (Lonsdale. M & McCurry. D, 2004). It is also impossible to define literacy in a way in which all individuals agree with because each individuals experiences in teaching or everyday day lives is what underpins their own definition of literacy. In this essay I will attempt to describe my understanding of literacy and the experiences which have shaped my view on literacy. I will also try to define critical literacy and the value it has in the classroom, and more specifically ways in which it can be used in a science classroom. There are many other literacies that I value and find that need to be included in my teaching but in this essay the focus will be on critical literacy. My view on literacy is strongly influenced by Paulo Freires work on critical literacy. I believe that everyone in the world has the right to question their world and their reality in order to become active members in society. There is also a need to decode and critically analyse written text. In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) Freire describes this as people both read their world and write their world. My understanding and view of literacy has come from analysing experiences that I have had as a student and later as a teacher of English in Chile and as a teacher of science in Australia. Chile is a third world nation where politics and inequality between socio economic classes plays a very important role in peoples lives and in their education. Opportunities are far greater for graduates of private schools rather than public schools, which as lead in my opinion to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Since arriving in Australia about 20 years ago, I returned to Chile to teach English. The school I taught at was located in a low socio economic area of Santiago. The cohort of students varied from middle class students to drug and alcohol addicted students. Resources and facilities available were very limited and the teachers were simply there to deliver their content, which is what Freire calls the banking system (p.83), where teachers deposit knowledge into students heads without students questioning the facts. Giroux and Purpel, 1988 suggest that the consequences of the banking system has led to the marginalization of poor, minority and learning disabled students. This is what I saw at the school. Teachers also had very low expectations for student results. I quickly realised that the methods of teaching privileged certain students over others, that many students attended school to be off the streets for a while and that certain subjects had no relation the students real lives. The families of these students have so many problems at home that attending school for some seems to be a place they go to get away from these, it is not seen as a place where they can gain skills and become better equip to face life and all their problems. For me teaching English was very difficult as for many students there was no place for English to be used, there was no need for it. At the same time though there were students who understood the value of learning English in their country and so worked hard and to learn as much as possible.

After returning to Australia I have taught science in a few public secondary colleges and have found that in my teaching certain topics in the VELS curriculum have no relation to students and as a result there is limited questioning and engagement of the material being taught. This has lead to some discipline and class room management problems. These experiences have allowed me to think about and to a greater extent question the way I want to continue my teaching. I have realised that knowing my students, where they have come from, their strengths and weaknesses, their experiences, relating the content to their lives and their willingness to question the material is the key to becoming a better teacher and for students to become active learners whether in school or their everyday lives. These experiences have shaped my view on literacy and they are the reason as to why I have taken on board critical literacy as the foundation of my teaching. Critical literacy aims to challenge the status quo by disrupting common place notions of socially constructed concepts such as race, class, gender and sexuality. It allows for a multitude of viewpoints within the classroom (Lewis, Flint and Van Sluys, 2002. p 382). In my thinking it should also include print and non print texts and the attitudes, behaiviours and values that accompany each discourse event. Students must be able to engage in a range of literacy practices drawing upon different sets of skills and processes situated to those particular practices (Stevens & Bean, 2007, p. 18). Current practices rely on traditional texts to inform students understanding of reading, writing and literacy instruction, as teachers we rarely include other non traditional texts such as TV, advertising , music, clothing, film, art, internet and others that students negotiate with everyday to make sense of their world and resist the ways society has positioned them (Flinders, 1997). Including critical literacy in everyday teaching is a very hard task and it should be something that every teacher should aim to include in their lessons and fit in to the very rigid curriculum, to allow students to engage in what is being taught and to question the world they live in. By employing critical literacy, one questions the construction of knowledge and searches for hidden agendas in school curricula, government legislation, corporation policies and the media (Mulcahy, 2003) and in my belief this is something that as a teacher I do little off. The book by Laraine Wallowitz: Critical Literacy as Resistance also describes a very important concept I find to be important in the classroom and this is that the teachers role is always changing: at a moments notice s/he is a guide, a facilitator, a devils advocate, and or a learner. However the most important behaviour is self reflection. Learning from our successes and failures within the classroom is the only way I believe to move forward and take with you what worked and leave behind what didnt and this is achieved by self reflection. This leads me to discuss the challenges in including critical literacy I face teaching science to secondary students. There is a common belief that science is the least likely place for critical work or critical literacy and this is because science is viewed as neutral, universal and objective and is disconnected from culture, history, gender, race, class, place, economics and politics (Love, 2008). As a result it is taught with a curricula and textbooks that are totally separate from any social or cultural relationships and the scientific knowledge that these contain is rarely questioned by teachers or students.

Another very important aspect as to why science is rarely questioned is that science serves as an authority in culture. This is because science has been remarkably successful in producing knowledge about the way the physical and the observable world operates and this knowledge equals power, people perceive sources of knowledge in terms of authority and lastly there is a tendency for the human mind to hold beliefs about knowledge and nave conceptions of science and propagate science as authority (Hogans and Craven, 2008). Having a scientific background myself, science to me has been the knowledge I have needed to be able to work in my field. It also explains how things work in our world; it has provided medications and cures for certain diseases and many other developments. I have never questioned this knowledge until now, due the experiences I have had teaching and it makes me think about ways that I can incorporate this scientific knowledge in my teaching to be able to question together with my students where this knowledge has come from and why and how it relates to the world we live in. So now how do we change this mindset about science? I could start of with saying that teachers need to offer opportunities for students to begin cultivating a habit of mind where one questions so-called facts and seeks answers rather than, as Perry (1970) notes, unquestioningly accepting knowledge from authority. Examples of how this could be achieved in the classroom are using text articles representing the entanglement of science and politics i.e., global warming, stem cell research, abortion etc. Students would then need to answer and consider possible questions such as Who is benefiting from this issue/argument? How is the science being distorted? Are there specific groups of people being denied access to the information? Another activity could be showing students science based television shows and getting students to think about questions such as: What evidence is there to build the argument? Are multiple perspectives of the topic introduced? Who is responsible for producing the show? These ideas and activities have come from the research completed by Hogans and Craven, 2008. The activities provide opportunities for students to improve or begin to use their critical literacy skills. They also provide ideas for teachers on how to incorporate critical literacy in the curriculum. There are a number of commons based projects taking place at the moment in Detroit that demonstrate Bowers (2006) argument for conserving and revitalizing the cultural commons. These projects are community based. One involves a community garden and the other craft making. In both projects students work with their community to interact with elders in the community about growing plants, food preparation, traditional recipes and interaction with craft makers in the community to allow student to learn a craft. At the same time as students are learning all the practical aspects they are learning the science that is involved. For example plant nutrition, plant cycles, food preparation and the fundamentals of materials, physical properties, forces that are used in craft making. These projects allow for students to be involved and engaged in their community and to question common practices that occur in their lives and without realizing they are learning very important science concepts. These are some ideas of critical literacy that I found in my research which I believe can be slowly incorporate into current curriculums but before we do this, as science teachers we need to question our views on science and whether or not we are open to changing how we teach and if we dare to challenge this knowledge that has been around for so long.

Literacy is a very hard concept to define and in a way what each person believes it to be has a lot to do with where they have come from, teaching and life experiences and then trying to match this to the literature. This essay has focused on critical literacy, its value and ways in which it can be incorporated in the science curriculum. In schools literacy should not be isolated to simply reading and writing but incorporated in all the different subjects as each subject area has its own literacy, which includes skills and practices that students will use as they experience life.

References Flinders, L. (1997) Just Girls: Hidden Literacies and Life in Junior high. New York: Teachers College Press. Freire, P. (1970/1997). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: continuum Giroux, H.A. & Purpel, D.E (1988) The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education: Deception or Discovery? Berkely, CA: McCutchan Publishing Corp. Hogan, T & Craven, J (2008). Critical Literacy as Resistance: Chapter 4: Disempowering The Authority of Science: Preparing Students for a Public Voice. Peter Lang Publishing Inc, New York Lewis, M. , Flint,A.S. , & Van Sluys, K. (2002). Taking on Critical Literacy: The Journey of Newcommers and Novices. In Language Arts, 70 (5), 382-392 Lonsdale, M & McCurry, D. (2004). Literacy for the New Millennium, National Center for Vocational Education Research, Adelaide Love, K (2008). Critical Literacy as Resistance: Chapter 2: Being Critically Literate in Science. Peter Lang Publishing Inc, New York Mulcahy, C.M (2003). Emergent Federal Government Policy on Literacy in the USA. Irish Educational Studies, 22 (Autumn) 91-100 Perry, W.G (1970). Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston. Stevens, L.P & Bean, T.W. (2007). Critical Literacy: Context, research and practice in the K-12 classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Wallowits, L(2008). Critical Literacy as Resistance. Peter Lang Publishing Inc, New York