Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Critical inquiry and multi-literacies in a first grade classroom

Crafton, L. K., Brennan, M., & Silvers, P. (2007). Critical inquiry and multiliteracies in a first grade classroom. Language Arts, 84(6), 510-518.

Here is the story of a first grade class that did some really significant, high level literacy learning, and computers were a tool that furthered that learning. The students responded to a newspaper story about an elderly woman (“Grandma Ruth”) who was being forced from her home by a real estate development. These young children really got into issues of social justice and did some authentic reading, writing, and thinking. Although the article is more about “critical literacy” than about multimodal texts, electronic technology was used productively to build these very young children’s literacy.

It was significant that I read this article on a day when I spent some time visiting in our local elementary schools, so reality was strong as I read. The thing that struck me most about the article, and about the school days I was observing at the time, was that teachers often do not know how to incorporate technology in a meaningful way into their classroom practice, especially with the youngest students. There is worry that such young children won’t be able to handle computers, and, having spent some time with a very brave second grade teacher who did an ambitious project with a class in a large computer lab, I fully understand the challenges! Though a few of those second graders were more “tech-savvy” than I was, most needed constant monitoring and help. Two adults could barely handle all of the “how-do-I?” questions that arose during our computer lab sessions. So I see what primary teachers are worried about, though I do think the rewards outweighed the hassles in the case of the project I was involved in. If the brave second grade teacher I worked with is reading this, she will recognize herself, and I invite her to put in her own two cents worth here as to whether the efforts we put in ultimately paid off in learning.

I think teachers should try high-level, technology-supported projects, even with primary grade students, and even with the challenges. Computers are becoming increasingly common in classrooms, but I see too many cases where the computers sit on one side of the classroom and are not utilized. Many of the preservice teachers I work with describe seeing hardware in classrooms, but rarely seeing them used by students or for instruction, though the teachers may use them for various management purposes. Computers may not even be in the classroom, but may be confined to a computer lab which must be reserved. If young students do get to use computers, it’s to play drill-type software on lower-level skills or as part of a center with games to be used “if there is time.” Rarely do I see computers used for authentic communication or research in elementary classrooms, and especially not in the primary grades.

I see even less interest in incorporating critical inquiry in elementary schools in my local area than I do in incorporating authentic uses of technology. Do we believe we “don’t have time” because of testing pressures? Is it because we are afraid of encountering difficult social issues and political agendas, and of not always being able to answer our young students’ hard but important questions? Are we worried about upsetting children (or maybe about upsetting ourselves?), so we’d rather pretend all is right in the world and read pleasant stories to primary-grade children? Do we think they are incapable of understanding and dealing with injustice? The teacher in this article took a big, brave step and had her first graders use the computers to communicate with others about a case of injustice they had read about in the local newspaper. These first graders showed they were capable of handling difficult issues and using technology to learn more. It was a case of high expectations being met.

Please react to the Crafton et al article and/or my annotation above. If you need help to start thinking, address one or more of the prompts below, but it’s not required if you don’t need them. As always, it’s better if you read the article first, but all discussion is helpful. Maybe our discussion might make you want to read the article if you didn’t before!
• How are computers used in the elementary schools you know? Is it just skill and drill or are any meaningful projects being tried? What about access? And is the hardware used fully or does it often sit idle? What about tech support?
• Teachers and future teachers, what kind of technology education did/do you get? What would you like to learn more about?
• Why don’t we do more meaningful projects like the one in the article with primary grade children?
• What barriers might there be to doing projects like this?
• Is social justice something that should be part of the school curriculum?
• What do you think of the “Grandma Ruth” project?
• If possible, look at the four “core questions” used in the “Grandma Ruth” project and try to imagine yourself using them with first graders.
• Look at the list of children’s “Trade Books That Support . . . on p. 513. Several of these books are well known and you may have them or be familiar with them. Either choose one you know or find one at a library. Why was your book included here? How does it support critical inquiry? Try using the four “core questions” with them.
• Do we run the risk of promulgating particular social agendas when we do critical inquiry with children, who are, after all, captive audiences? If so, how can we be ethically responsible and keep our classrooms from becoming political podiums?
• What about the “side” of the developers in the “Grandma Ruth” case? Was it covered here? Did it need to be?
• Are first graders “too young” to become competent with electronic texts?
• How do we keep young children “safe” on the Internet? The reporter that the children in the article communicated with turned out to be safe and supportive, but that wouldn’t always be the case.
• Are first graders “too young” to discuss and propose solutions to difficult social problems?
• Computers can be used for either mindful or meaningless purposes. Describe examples of either that you know of.
• React to this quote: “Teaching them to read must mean more now than just following the curriculum and using leveled texts.”
• Do computers and electronic texts really facilitate critical inquiry better than print texts and pencil and paper writing?
• The authors noted that there was a gender gap in computer literacy in the elementary grades: “boys tended to be the experts and girls the learners” (p. 512). How do you account for this? Have you observed such a gap?
• According to today’s literacy theorists, “text” isn’t just language any more, but can include images, sign systems, symbols, movement, sounds, and many other modalities. With the growing the emphasis on non-print texts in today’s multi-media, is written language no longer dominant? What might that mean for schools, where written language has traditionally been dominant? What might that mean for teaching children to “read and write”?

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