A Look into Critical Literacy for High Schoolers

Mindy Keller-Kyriakides, Author, Student, Teacher, Capella University
Jennie Waldrop, FLVS instructor, NBCT 

Secondary students often ask, “How’s reading this going to help me in real life?” This webinar offers educators a potential answer! Helping students understand how the analysis of a text reveals messages to the reader through silence, marginalization, nominalization, or collectivization is a crucial skill, and by taking that analysis to the next step—civic action—we can help adolescents move beyond the classroom and themselves.

In our webinar, we’ll explore having students use their analysis as a springboard to identify and resolve an issue that they perceive as unjust. From selection of text, to analysis, to action, educators will be offered the tools to create a powerful learning experience for their students, based on the insights at which students arrive while reading. Participants will also be provided with a sample project that they might use or refine for their own purpose.

Let me know in the comments if you'd like a copy of the Tipping Point Project (it's on an Understanding by Design template) and the handout with relevant links! I'll be happy to send it to you!

The title above is a hyperlink, or here's the URL, in case you need to copy/paste: https://sas.elluminate.com/site/external/playback/artifact?psid=2013-11-02.0829.M.3DAD9FA69075EB4C4173628C44E674.vcr&aid=57997


Some Thoughts on Andragogy and the Secondary Classroom

When deciding on my degree program, I ran into the first of many personal learning hurdles. What program should I undertake, if I desire to teach teachers?  Should I focus on the subject matter in the field itself (e.g., secondary curriculum), or should I focus on how to teach adult learners?  In other fields, the choice is much clearer:  e.g., to teach English Composition, one majors in the field of English, not adult education. 

I decided on subject matter as a focus and began my journey in Curriculum and Instruction (in-field). However, I soon became frustrated with the material we were learning as it mirrored my undergraduate work:  same theories, same topics, same theorists (for the most part).  Once one has "Piageted," one has "Piageted." I got it, already! 

The “move” to adult education has offered me some powerful new insights into not only how adults learn, but how I learn. Further, the study of andragogical principles has validated some of the choices I made in instructing high school students. I’m continually struck by the parallels of andragogy and self-directed learning as they pertain to secondary students and what school districts now desire of their students. These have made, and will continue to make, a huge difference in the field of secondary education. 

The push for differentiated learning, critical thinking skills, flipped classes, and Whole Child instruction –all recent “buzz” on the education front--clearly reflect andragogical principles, not just pedagogical ones. (It would be interesting to see how teachers would react to a semantical switch.)

As I straddle this fence of teaching teachers, I am wondering why these principles and theories are not offered as part of a secondary educator’s curriculum. Much like Jarvis, I am more interested in human learning than adult learning or children's learning (McCluskey,  Illeris, & Jarvis, 2007, p. 9), and the distinction between the two seems to be becoming more and more blurred, especially when considering adolescents and young adults in the secondary system. 

I suppose then, the difference all of this might make in the field of secondary education the ability of my intended learners (new teachers) to use what is warranted for their students as opposed to tying their hands with canned and prepackaged with nice educational labels by school districts. 

Did some of my high school students surpass me as their teacher? You bet! Many of my students were just far more intelligent than me, and that awareness made a huge difference in the way I taught them. 

Pedagogy had no place in some of my high school classes. In others, it had a role only at the beginning.   

I want aspiring educators to know that and accept this "contradiction of life" ((Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2011, p. 225) instead of fighting for some illusive perceived entitlement of a position of authority. If embraced by secondary educators, the use of andragogical principles would certainly make their work with students more meaningful—for themselves and the students.   


McCluskey, H.Y., Illeris, K., & Jarvis, P. (2007). Knowles's andragogy, and models of adult learning. In Merriam S. B., Caffarella R. S., Baumgartner, L. M., Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.), 83-104. 


Perpetuating a Culture of Lower-order Thinking

I found this checklist offered as the next "best strategy" on Pinterest the other day. And while I do love easy to use, clear checklists, I pondered what the teacher was actually assessing.

Out of all of the items on this checklist for a "thoughtful" log entry, only one (no. 8) actually entails any assessment of thinking.  Everything else is...mechanics.

Of course, you might say that mechanics was the goal of the assignment. However, the title "Thoughtful Log" seems to belie that possibility. While we're wringing our hands at kids not being able to think critically, we need to stop and make sure that the assessments and evaluations we have designed actually promote that thinking. 

From a student's perspective, as long as I have complied with most every item, I will feel satisfied that I have done a good job.  And you can bet I'm going to do the easy stuff, first.

For example, the ability to integrate evidence from the text with context is certainly a skill that students need. However, checking off that they've "got" the evidence doesn't push their thinking. Rather, the item should offer something along the lines of:

        I've integrated evidence from the text (avoided a "dropped quote").

        I've clearly and purposefully contextualized that evidence.

These two quick revisions ask more of the student. They can still use Yes/No on the list, but they carry far more of a punch, cognitively speaking. 

Not to be outdone, I also came across this gem:


To be fair, this chart is identified as an elementary anchor chart for standard one in K-8 classrooms. Further, the use of the overarching question "How do [I] know?" is relevant and helpful.

Nonetheless, I have to wonder if it is absolutely necessary to have students use "said/says" when referring to text. Why can't we teach them a little bit earlier that text doesn't "talk"? Further, how difficult would it be to avoid having them write in past tense? Especially since the moment they hit high school, they have to use literary present?Consider the student who uses phrasing such as:

                            1. On page ___, the author writes..

                            2. The author argues/asserts/states/discusses...

                            3.  The graphic shows/reflects/conveys...

                            4. An example of ___is...

                            5. I know that ____because...

One thing that's going to happen is the student will most likely be compelled to write more in-depth; literary present does that. Further, the student will be much more aware of the author's role, which is crucial in helping them make the step "up" in analysis.

Or maybe I'm just grumpy, today. What do you think?

Mindy Keller-Kyriakides and former students are the authors of Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Defining the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers.  Become part of the conversation!



The Importance of Student Feedback

I had no idea how important it was to my high school students that I asked them for their feedback on our courses. The impact was far more profound than I ever imagined.

In light of the recent Duncanville issue, where student Jeff Bliss offers criticism to his teacher, the time to discuss listening to student feedback, particularly on how they're learning, is now. Had his teacher taken the time to establish a learning environment where criticism was not considered a form of disrespect, but rather, a constructive dialogue, things might have turned out differently for both of them.

Some of my former students offered their perspective on just how much they appreciated being asked for their feedback.



How to Amputate a Student's Love for Learning

Teachers say they want willing students. We say we want students who love learning. We say that we want to develop life-long learners. But we might be perpetuating the very culture we seek to oppose. Even worse, we are possibly conditioning parents to do the same.

In one of my discussion forums, a parent shared what had recently occurred at his daughter’s school.

          I am a 10-years-old girl's dad. Let me tell a story about my daughter.

          One day, when my daughter came back home from school, I found she was sad. She told me that she
          got 87 (of 100) score in her mathematics test. I tried to comfort her and said that her score was 
          pretty good. She just needed to learn how to double-check her answers. But my words didn't make
          her happy. The reason was that the average score of her classmates' was 95. After my daughter told
          me that reason, I could say nothing.

          At that moment, I was angry about her teacher telling her the average score of the class.

          But on the other hand, I also knew that her teacher just wanted my daughter to feel pressure, in order
          to make her study harder.

The reliability of such a test was the first thing that caught my attention.  A class of 10 year-olds with an average score of 95 on a test suggests there is (potentially) an issue with the test. Statistically, things don't usually work that way.

Cohen and Spenciner (2007) concur:  “When there is little variability among test scores, the reliability will be low. Thus, reliability will be low if a test is so easy that every student gets most or all of the items correct or so difficult that every student gets most or all of the items wrong” (p. 43). Thus, the reliability is suspect, which is issue enough, but why would a teacher make the statement to the class?

What is our motivation for sharing a class average score with the class? Whom does it serve?

I’m not one of those individuals who thinks that everyone should get a ribbon just for participating—I believe those who excel should be praised. However, in this instance, the statement seems superfluous, purposefully used as a means of criticism for those students who did not make the average. More to the point, it over-emphasizes grades and puts the score over the individual student.

A class average on a test is information to drive further instruction. It is not a point of comparison for an individual student in a fourth grade class. That’s too young, too early, too cold, too sterile—pedagogical stainless steel forceps when what is called for is dialogic stained glass.

The parent continued:
                I was also astonished when I saw the statistic of [the] students’ scores.

                I agree with my daughter's teacher's words: What is important to my daughter is to learn how to
                be self-motivated when she is studying something. 

This is a serious misconstruction of the concept of self-motivation on both parts. If the goal for this student’s studying is to “get a good grade,” then congratulations. At the tender age of 10, we have successfully amputated her love for learning. We've also applied a tourniquet of extrinsic motivation, sopped with an elixir of entitlement.

Most likely, the parent and the teacher were themselves part of a culture that perceived “good” grades as the primary objective of school. As a product of a 70s/80s public school education, I had a little experience with that. Unless we move past this outmoded thinking, we will not create the dynamic leap in thinking that we seek, and I put the onus on teachers.

Grades exist, for better or worse. But we do not have to put them on a pedestal.  Rather, let us use them for our purposes of reteaching, redirecting, or determining authentically challenging next steps, designed to build upon the mastery demonstrated.

We must actively strive to ensure that we cultivate learning environments, not grading venues. If we truly desire students who are intrinsically motivated to learn, then we cannot use grades as motivation.  

Cohen, L.G., & Spenciner, L. J. (2007) Assessment of children and youth with special needs. New Jersey: Pearson Education.


Paved with Unintention: One Way We can Stop Perpetuating a Test Culture

I recently came across this strategy on Pinterest, and at first glance, I really liked it. I liked the template wording, particularly for the age group targeted (3rd-8th graders). I also liked the visual appeal.  The strategy is great! However, check out what the teacher wrote under the purpose for learning and the metacognitive indicator. I’m also dubious about the lesson itself. 

The purpose for learning that day –identified by “So that I can”--is, basically, to do well on the Connecticut Mastery Test.
The metacognitive indicator-- indicated by “I’ll know I’ve got it when”-- is the score she receives on this practice exercise.
Finally, while practicing a strategy is certainly laudable, should it be the objective of the lesson? DRP strategies, by the way, are pretty awesome reading strategies. But that’s just it. They are strategies for doing the learning…not the learning itself. 

This is no way to integrate creativity and curiosity, nor is it a way to instill a love for learning.  Nor is it the ONLY way to help students acquire these skills.

One of the biggest arguments I get into with teachers is how to design curriculum that addresses what the students need to know how to do, but does it in a way that instills a greater purpose for the learning.   

The teacher, who created this objective, would probably tell me, “Students need to know  how to use these strategies on the reading passages of the test.” 

Absolutely they need to know these strategies! However, does the use of the strategies have to be the emphasized objective of the lesson for the student? Why? Why can’t it be the means of obtaining a more creative objective? Why can’t the use of strategies be an objective that the teacher has under her belt, but is NOT the focus for the student? 

Most likely, given the reference to an answer sheet, the students are reading a series of passages, probably from a workbook of some sort. The passages will have no rhyme or reason other than to exist for the student to use DRP strategies on. Why not locate and provide several short articles that are based on the current unit of study, whether that’s Sarah, Plain and Tall or Mammals of the Sea? Students can decide which ones they want to read and use the strategies to read them.

The misuse of metacognitive activities, here, is particularly painful. These students begin to perpetuate themselves as data or scores, and they have no idea how they know what they know. Why not find a more simple, authentic way to incorporate metacognition? 

I humbly suggest that teachers can instill a love of learning, while still teaching crucial skills. We need to do everything we can to stop paving the test-culture road. 



Today, I am:  reading and deciding on two articles that will help me with my final project on [whales, the turn of the century lifestyle].

So that I canunderstand more about why [whales, dolphins, the Pioneers] do what they do and figure out why we don’t do the same thing.

I'll know that I've got it when:   I can explain what the article is about to a friend who has read a different article.
 Mindy, together with some of her former students, recently published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation!