Mucking Around in the Questions: Libraries and Critical Literacy

CC image http://bit.ly/1BLslM3
CC image http://bit.ly/1BLslM3

“Teacher librarians have tremendous opportunity to enhance student understanding and engagement with the cacophony of languages, discourses and cultures that are clashing and merging in new communications spaces. Critical information literacies would give different takes on language, text and knowledge than do the acritical, print-based pedagogies of current library curricula. Researchers and theorists have documented the powerful influence of transnational capital and global media, which frame and are framed by the identities of youth, and which distribute educational services and products hand-in-hand with advertising and entertainment (Kenway & Bullen, 2001;McChesney, Wood & Foster, 1998). These economies and cultures of identity formation work in and through text and discourse. Considering that text and knowledge are forms of capital for exchange, issues of ‘truth’ and/or ‘error’ may still be necessary, but they are also insufficient. Instead, key questions for curricular activities of substantive worth to learners and library users should revolve around issues of who gets access to which texts, and who is able – socially, culturally and politically – to contest, critique and rewrite those texts. Based on these criteria, much of the literate work currently undertaken in school libraries is not as effective and empowering as diligent and well-intentioned teacher librarians are led to believe” (Kapitzke, 2003, p. 64).

Have you ever wondered if you are inadvertently impeding learners rather than helping them? Ever since my M.Ed. days in Language/Literacy Education at the University of Georgia, critical literacy has been a lens that has colored my work and way of thinking about our practice.  Like many librarians and teachers, I have striven not only to deepen my understanding of critical literacy, but I have also struggled to put action into practice behind the ideas in a K12 public school setting.

During my time as a Learning Strategist at the Cleveland Public Library in Ohio, precepts of critical literacy bubbled to the surface in my thinking and reading as I tried to better and expand my understanding our branch communities and to contextualize the challenges, hindrances, and successes our staff faced in opening up literacy experiences and learning opportunities for people of all ages.  Conversations there with my Knowledge Office colleagues Tim Diamond and Anastasia Diamond-Ortiz about critical literacy encouraged and broadened my questioning; these “think aloud” sessions eventually led to some helpful email conversations with Dr. James Elmborg, a respected academic librarian who has tried to advance greater conversation about critical literacy and its application to libraries.  In my year and a half here at Norcross High, I’ve had similar conversations with my fellow librarian Jennifer Lund as well as faculty and administration here, including people like Darrell Cicchetti, Emily Russell, Sarah Rust, Logan Malm, Hope Black, and John DeCarvalho.  In my blog posts of the last year for DMLcentral, I’ve attempted to think aloud some of the obstacles as well as possibilities of how librarians might rethink our practices in multiple kinds of libraries using Deborah Brandt’s concept of sponsors of literacy.   Here at the end of 2014, I find myself continuing to dwell in these ideas yet feeling a greater sense of urgency as of late to find concrete ways of taking more meaningful and intentional steps to integrating this into the collaborative work we do with our teachers and students.

For the last three years or so, I’ve increasingly found myself questioning everything I believe our profession and our values.  Many professional and personal events during this time have informed this self-interrogation, an ongoing period of questioning that while uncomfortable at times, is ultimately a positive one that has generated more questions than answers yet deeper and organic reflection that is similar to what I experienced during my graduate school years.   Through a series of events in the last few weeks, I stumbled upon a new reading, “Information literacy:  A review and poststructural critique” by Cushla Kapitzke; while a little dated (2003), many of the ideas feel especially relevant as my experiences as a librarian at Creekview High, Cleveland Public Library, and now Norcross High push me to challenge how I conceptualize information literacy and how a critical literacy stance might lead to more transformative and more germane practices.    How might we deepen research, inquiry, and literacy experiences by giving students the opportunity to look at texts and ideas through lenses of race, class, and gender to better understand the power dynamics, inequalities, privileging/silencing of groups of language and information and to perhaps make the invisible more visible, the strange familiar, and the familiar strange?  Kapitzke warns us that “Unless teacher librarians provide students with knowledge of the way language works to ‘evaluate information’, they could be considered culpable for disempowering the students they strive so hard to serve” (2003, p. 62).   Statements like these and readings of the last eighteen months have frequently given me cause to ask myself if my practices are indeed perpetuating barriers even when they are well-intended.

As we think about what effective practices are for contemporary school librarians (Fontichiaro & Hamilton, 2014), particularly ones that can have authentic impact on student learning and the culture of learning in a school, I can’t help but think of Kapitzke’s 2003 prediction:

“…radical change is inevitable. It will also be contentious because new forms of production challenge assumptions and practices reified in libraries, in disciplinary practices, and in the attitudes and beliefs of the textbook author cited in the introduction of this article.  Situated as they are at the nexus of teaching and learning, knowledge and technology, teacher librarians will contribute to or hinder this ‘inevitable’, educational change” (63).

How how much has actually changed in information literacy instruction and other kinds of literacy learning experiences in school libraries in the last decade?   As we begin a new year and semester in just a few weeks, I hope to think through these questions and wonderings more publicly with my colleagues both here at NHS and in other libraries and schools; I also hope to share our thinking and how we’ll apply that to our instructional design and practice.  I think there is a tremendous amount of fear in our profession (both education and all walks of librarianship) to openly speak about these messy aspects of our work, to challenge all that has been held sacred, and to accept we don’t have all the answers in a nice neat tidy package.  These fears are exacerbated by the emphasis on standardized testing, student growth models tied to teacher evaluation, and pressure for curricular conformity to meet state standards.  It is my hope, though, that the fear of hindering transformative practice and participatory opportunities for our students will spur us to take a bolder stance through a lens of critical literacy in 2014.   I look forward to continuing the conversation with all of you as teachers and librarians in a diverse range of settings (academic, public, medical, school, K-12, higher education, urban, rural, suburban) in the next year.

References
Fontichiaro, K., & Hamilton, B. (2014, September). Undercurrents. Knowledge Quest, 43(1), 56-59. Retrieved     December 15, 2014.
Kapitzke, C. (2003). Information literacy: A review and poststructural critique. Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 26(1), 53. Retrieved December 10, 2014.

 

7 thoughts on “Mucking Around in the Questions: Libraries and Critical Literacy

  1. I think information literacy has become a much more important skill in this age than ever before. People often use search engines as their go-to source to find information quickly and some don’t realize that search engines cater to personalized results as well as misleading advertisements showing up as results. The extra steps in finding authoritative information is often side stepped as they typically require credentials that not everyone has access to (or people don’t know that they can get access to them). I’ve also found that many news websites now allow their journalists to have blogs that are often biased and don’t always label that the blog is just that–a blog. Don’t even get me started on what people post on FB and Twitter that aren’t even fact checked and are sometimes hoaxes. Anyway, I could go on and on.

    1. Hi Gordon! I’m thinking about critical literacy (http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/4437) in a different way—not about binaries of authoritative vs. non-authoritative sources, databases vs. Google (binaries that are not realistic, incidentally since authority can sometimes depend on the context of the information seeking task)), but instead, thinking about how a lens of critical literacy could help us rethink information literacy processes that are more inclusive. Certainly, though, the algorithms of search could certainly be examined from a critical literacy lens to what gets privileged in search results. Best, Buffy

  2. I really like the things you are talking about here and am especially interested to see how high school students respond to such instruction. I wonder if you have developed specific outcomes for that instruction and how they will be measured. That would seem to be sort of a daunting prospect, but I am sure you will find a way. I think it is great that librarians are trying to expand the boundaries of info lit to include issues of power and inequity. I write a lot about that sort of thing on my blog http://unofficialfactchecker.wordpress.com/, and I hope you will stop by. Am always interested in dialog with librarians doing interesting things!

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