Are we really teaching literacy in the classroom?

by Karen Phillips

Iwas watching CNN and Dr. Sanjay Gupta was talking about how we assume everyone is health literate, but in reality the majority of the population is not.

Health literate. That’s something I hadn’t thought about before.

The traditional definition of literacy is being able to read and write; this idea then transformed into the ability to read and write for adequate communication. Today, being literate means so much more than that: it’s being able to use the internet, keeping up to date on political issues and current events, knowing how to use a smart phone, understanding proper nutrition, and so much more.

The definition of literacy has grown to encompass more than just reading and writing — it changes as society changes, it evolves as technology evolves, and it expands as different social and economical issues expand. Shouldn’t how we teach change in the classroom as society changes?

CH Knoblauch is the director of the first-year writing program at UNC Charlotte. In his article, Critical teaching and the idea of literacy, he talks about how students aren’t exempt from the political issues America faces, so in order to empower students to their fullest potential, we need to teach so that they’re ready to face the world. In other words, we need to help students expand their thought processes by including them in the growth that happens in the classroom; the only way we can do this is by encouraging students to think about their place in the community and where they see themselves in the future. We need to teach critical thinking in order to encourage critical literacy.

The traditional classroom scenario is a teacher behind a podium at the front of the classroom lecturing students sitting in rows of desks. The teacher is the boss of the classroom and the students are her apprentices. But does this still work for today’s generation? As a licensed secondary English teacher myself, I think we need to reorganize the entire way we structure our classrooms to include students in their own learning, critical thinking and decision making.

Students have grown up in the information and technology age. My 7-year-old sister knew where all the keys were on a keyboard, how to use a mouse, how to play interactive games on the computer, and how to check my mother’s e-mail when she was 3 years old. When I lived at home, we purchased our first computer in 1995; I was 12.

That says a lot about the amount of knowledge present in the classroom. Is it still accurate for us to say that we know more than our students and therefore they have to listen to and buy everything we tell them? I think teachers sometimes take for granted the amount of information and thought students have to offer. Who decided that the teacher has to do all the teaching? Where’s the evidence that the teacher has all the answers? What would happen if we gave more power to students in their education? Paulo Freire, the famous Brazilian educator and philosopher, was an advocate of critical pedagogy. He suggested a complete overhaul of the traditional classroom setting. What if the high school classroom looked more like a college classroom where the desks were set up in a circle, with the teacher sitting as a part of that circle instead of standing at the front of the room? What if every student got a chance to discuss his ideas and opinions about the material instead of just the teacher? Classrooms could be an open discussion forum for every member so each student not only felt empowered and important, but everyone could utilize the knowledge shared as resources to learn from.

Trying to figure out how to motivate students is always challenging, but if we think outside the traditional box, it can be simple: Give them choices and make them feel important — treat them as equals and as if their opinions matter. Once there is a relationship of trust, we can really make an impact. Problems arise when teachers don’t believe in the potential of their students.

I get really frustrated listening to pessimistic comments from colleagues like, “Yeah, that sounds nice, but they won’t do it,” or, “Sure, until they pull a knife on you and whip out their crack pipe.”

I don’t know if my colleague had these things happen to him, or if he’s just so numbed by the education system and his past experiences that he can’t see the possibility of a bright future anymore, but these types of scenarios shouldn’t be factored into how teachers teach. They aren’t the norm. Just because kids might do more drugs today than I remember them doing when I was in high school has no bearing on whether or not they should feel significant in the classroom. And maybe knives and crack pipes are an issue in some areas because those kids don’t feel like they’re worth anything else. Maybe if we can show them they matter, they might start to believe it and choose a different avenue. Naive and idealistic? Perhaps. But I’m not ready to give up on a vision of a new, more inclusive classroom just yet.

I taught in Guilford County for one year and I experienced more successes than failures. I also coach gymnastics. Faced with a difficult decision to remain in the classroom or remain in the gym, I chose the latter. I’m always teaching my gymnasts how to problem solve and think for themselves in an attempt to help them relate to the world they live in. Critical literacy affects every aspect of a child’s life, and it needs to be stressed more in the classroom.

Whether I keep coaching for the rest of my life, or I find my way back to school, my heart will never stop teaching.