Literacy, Literature, Testing, Writing

Poetry, Power, and Political Precision

poetry 3
Image credit: Steve Johnson

To wrap up #NationalPoetryMonth, I’m excited to share a piece I wrote with Audrey Friedman and Joelle Pedersen at Boston College called In Praise of Poetry: Toward Access and Powerpublished in the most recent issue of the Illinois English Bulletin.

We collected poems from 20 high-schoolers labeled as “failing” on state writing exams. As you’ll see in the piece, the poems were brilliant, so we had to ask:

“What accounts for this discrepancy in which such a powerful writer can be rendered powerless…. Is the issue truly the writer, or is the problem the very way we understand, value, and assess certain ways of writing and being?” (p. 8).

We discuss how standardized tests compel students to write, not in the forms that are most productive or relevant, but in the forms most easily measured. As we argue,

“The Common Core State Standards’ narrow focus on informational and argumentative writing widens the gap between the language of schooling and the language of life. These genres do not and cannot capture the full range of students’ experiences, identities, or language skills” (p. 15).
Continue reading “Poetry, Power, and Political Precision”

Critical Pedagogy, Education, ESL, Literacy, Research, Uncategorized

Who Gets to be “Critical?”

Image: Burning the “Book of Sports,” 1643

This year continues to demonstrate the importance of reading the world through a critical lens. But who gets to be “critical?” Who gets access to critical approaches to literacy versus who gets timed reading tests?

Educators who use literacy to challenge the status quo often ground their work in critical literacies. This approach goes beyond reading and writing as mechanical skills, using literacy to critique power and inequity–what Paulo Freire called “reading the word and the world.”

But what does this mean when we ask students to read the word and the world in another language?

I took up this question in a recent article for the Journal of Literacy Research. In the journal’s latest issue, Literacy Research and the Radical ImaginationI wrote alongside a phenomenal group of authors working to “radically reimagine the ways in which research can reposition people and ideas to create new and more inviting spaces for literacy.” (JLR, p. 319).

No small task. Continue reading “Who Gets to be “Critical?””

Literacy, Literature

Happy International Literacy Day!

Book pages
Happy International Literacy Day!

One of my high school students once asked me, “Mister, why do we read?” I was pretty sure he was trying to get me off on a tangent (which my students quickly learn is an easy way to get out of homework), so I made some noncommittal reply and moved on.

Later, when I recounted this story to our school’s English Department Head, his eyes got wide as he asked, “Well, what did you say?” When I told him about my dismissive reply, he looked me in the eye and said,

“No. When they ask that tell them we learn to read because we can. We read because dogs can’t. It’s what makes us human.”

Since I’ve been trying to make up for that classroom omission ever since, on this day, as a small penance, here are my favorite quotes on reading and of course… why we read.


1. “Reading is not walking on the words; it’s grasping the soul of them.”

― Paulo Freire Continue reading “Happy International Literacy Day!”

Literacy, Politics

For a Better World, Does Literacy Even Matter?


Many of my favorite authors and educators believe literacy has the power to change the world. Paulo Freire, in particular, drew on his literacy work with the marginalized Brazil for his magnum opus  “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

So imagine my disequilibrium when I came across a writer who challenged the idea that literacy can lead to a better world—based on the fact that, well, it still hasn’t. 

Derek Rasmussen* writes: “It is interesting to note that although we prescribe literacy to the oppressed, literacy has not necessarily cured the oppressor… We say to the supposedly lesser-developed: Literacy will help you build a just society, although it has not done that for us.” 

I had to reread that line a few times to make sure I understood what he was saying (go ahead, I had to). And… he makes a good point. Many of us assume that literacy = access to knowledge = better world. So, how do we explain the fact that, while we live in a world more literate than ever before, injustice is still rampant?

Well before anyone throws in the towel on literacy, perhaps its worth considering that Rasmussen’s argument has less to do with whether or not we can read, and more to do with what we read. Or, in this case, what we don’t read. Continue reading “For a Better World, Does Literacy Even Matter?”

Literacy, Technology, Writing

Is Texting Killing Language?

This just in: Texting is NOT killing written language as we know it. Let’s take a collective sigh of relief and stop griping about teenagers lol-ing.

I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, but the talk above by linguist John McWhorter put the whole thing to rest for me.

McWhorter points out that texting is not, for all intents and purposes, even actual writing. We write in long, thought-out phrases that are meant to be read reflectively or orated as speeches. In texting however, we’re essentially just speaking. And in a conversation, we talk in short bursts of words, giving no thought to capitalization, punctuation, or spelling – just like in a text message. If you haven’t guessed it by now, McWhorter believes that texting functions much more like speaking – it’s just speaking that happens to be written down.

The entire talk is worth a lunch break, with tidbits such as “If humanity had existed for 24 hours, then writing only came along at about 11:07pm,” and an analysis of the shifting function of “lol” (because, if you haven’t noticed, people no longer exclusively use it when something is even actually funny – but I’ll leave that for McWhorter to explain).

Wht do u thnk?

Feel free to comment below or on the blog’s Facebook page.

Follow on Twitter @chriskbacon.

Academic Advice, Critical Pedagogy, Literacy, Reading, Writing

Your Final Project Word Cloud

Critical Literacy Word Cloud‘Tis the season! It’s the end of the semester and students everywhere are frantically typing up projects for classes that all seem to backload 95% of the work onto the final week.

No exception here. Just finished a big ol’ “Literature Review” – essentially our program’s first year initiation right – synthesizing 30-or-so studies on a teacher-research topic of one’s choosing.

At some way-too-late hour of the night, on a whim, I copied and pasted the entire beast into a word cloud generator, the results of which you see above. Not only was it nice to see my main topics artistically arranged on a single page, but it was also useful for editing (making me realize, for example that I had used the word “practice” far more times than was humanly tolerable – to the thesaurus!).

If you’re curious as to why the words critical and literacy look like  Godzilla and Mothra stomping toward a terrified-city-of-other-words in my word cloud, it’s because I reviewed research about using critical literacy approaches with English language learners: the idea being that “literacy” means more than just reading and writing, but is also a political act. As our society often uses literacy to “disempower those who, through Continue reading “Your Final Project Word Cloud”