Intense interrogation of my beliefs and assumptions as well as close
examination of the intersection of my teaching practices with the theories we
have studied the last eight weeks have been the hallmarks of my journey into
acting and reflecting on what it means to take an inquiry stance on a literacy
classroom. Until this past summer, I had never considered how theory might
inform my practice and how practice could inform my views and interpretations
of theories. I have engaged in both reflection and action over the last five years
of my teaching career, but until recently, I have not reflected with a critical
consciousness or critical lens. Our ideologies and theories of education are the
prism through which we should view our classroom practices; we must scrutinize
our practices, even our most valued and cherished beliefs about teaching, to
grow as teachers and create a space for learning that values all voices. At the
beginning of the semester, Dewey’s discussion about forming a sound philosophy
of education struck me hard like a bucket of cold water; after reading Dewey, I
reflected that “Thus, it is important to have a well-developed philosophy of
education as this is your “north star” while you are chartering new territories in
teaching and learning with more progressive or newer methods.” The question,
“Why am I doing this?” must be at the center of my thinking when I am thinking
about my teaching practices. My immersion into our culture of inquiry, our
readings, and the dialogue among class members are shaping what was once an
amorphous and nebulous idea about inquiry into something with shape and form
like a piece of clay. In early September I noted these observations about Dewey
On p. 39, Dewey states that “Experience does not go
on simply inside a person.” In this paragraph, I am
reminded of Rosenblatt’s idea that meaning is not resident
in the reader or the text, but that instead, meaning is
created in the transaction between the two. Dewey believes
that the meaning of the experience is created between the
transaction that occurs between a person and the external
conditions or objective conditions in which the experience
takes place. This idea is reinforced on p. 43 when Dewey says,
“An experience is always what it is because of a transaction
taking place between an individual and what, at the time,
constitutes his environment…”(Dewey, pp. 39-43, 1938).
Through transactions with texts, class dialogue, and class activities, my meaning
making of what an inquiry stance would look like in a literacy classroom has been
created in a transactive manner, and this meaning making will continue to evolve
over time as my “linguistic reservoir”, experiences, and transactions with
“dialogic threads” shape my learning. My primary questions this semester are:
• What does it mean to take an inquiry stance on a literacy classroom?
• What does inquiry look like in a K-6 classroom (or any Language Arts
• How does an inquiry stance intersect with a critical literacy practices in a
Language Arts classroom?
Freire, Rosenblatt, Bakhtin, Dewey, and hooks seem to be affecting my working
definitions of inquiry so far; I am intrigued by Vygotsky, but I honestly think I
need to read more about his ideas and theories before I can decide how his
ideas play into my working definition of inquiry.
Taking an inquiry stance in a literacy classroom means creating an
environment that is learning centered. Our meaning making is the cumulative
result of the transactions that occur between ourselves and the text, amongst
ourselves and others, and between ourselves and our “dialogic threads”; this
belief is supported by Bakhtin’s assertion that “Understanding and response are
dialectically merged and mutually condition each other; one is impossible without
the other” (Bakhtin, p. 282, 1981). Taking an inquiry stance means focusing on
student questions and generating curriculum from those questions rather than
following a dead and rigid curriculum that values a “banking system of
education” as described by Freire in Chapter 2 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
When we focus classroom learning around students’ needs and questions, we
can create educational experiences that value all voices and build a sense of
community. By taking a problem-posing approach to teaching and learning, we
can use inquiry to disrupt the discourses that oppress certain groups and
privilege particular ways of knowing. Anyone who takes an inquiry stance on
literacy must realize that the endeavor is not a quick fix or easy path to follow;
quite often, the dominant discourses valued by administrators conflict with an
inquiry stance. Dewey warns us that “It is easier to walk in the paths that have
been beaten than it is, after taking a new point of view, to work out what is
practically involved in the new point of view” (Dewey, p.30, 1938). On the
surface, taking an inquiry stance might seem easy, but in reality, it requires the
teacher to be acutely present to the dynamics of her classroom and to be flexible
to follow the lead of where students’ questions and learning may take the class
rather than following a preconceived, neatly packaged lesson; Dewey tells us,
“But the easy and simple are not identical. To discover what is really simple and
to act upon the discovery is an exceedingly difficult task” (pg. 30).
Unfortunately, many teachers find it easy to follow the worn paths and never
engage in praxis or critical thinking about their philosophy and pedagogies. Even
worse, this acquiescence and unwillingness to engage in critical consciousness is
often valued by administrators who want to maintain the power structure. Karen
Cadiero-Kaplan sees the oppressive nature of a school environment and
curriculum that value functional and cultural literacies; schools that value the
ideologies inherent in functional and cultural models of literacy “…prepare
students for positions of power and reject individual experiences while
discrediting or ignoring the influences of popular cultures, ethnic cultures, and
racially diverse cultures. This elitist ideology deems alternative cultural and
linguistic discourse communities with a society as illiterate because literacy is
based solely on the basis of knowing and being able to converse, read, and write
about those topics that make one literate” (p.376, 2002).
So what might inquiry look like in K-6 Language Arts/Reading classroom?
Paula Rogovin, a first grade teacher at the New Manhattan School in New York
City, creates her curriculum around student questions and interviews that
students conduct with community members as part of the inquiry process.
Questions are the foundation of Rogovin’s inquiry stance in her classroom; she
believes, “…it is that spirit of questioning that is the essence of inquiry and
research. I want my students to ask questions and more questions. I want
them to thoughtfully examine the fabric of our society. Inquiry is at the center
of our curriculum” (Rogovin, p. 21, 1998). Through this inquiry approach to
literacy, she challenges assumptions and stereotypes while engaging students in
dialogue about issues and concepts important to them; at the same time, she
values the prior knowledge each child brings to the learning community.
Rogovin understands the importance of Rosenblatt’s concept of the linguistic
reservoir; she maintains, “ …when the children know I will ask about their prior
knowledge, they think more actively. Children are then empowered to teach
each other and their teacher”(Rogovin, p. 73, 1998). In her inquiry based
classroom, “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who
is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught
also teach”(Freire, p. 80, 2000). Students thinking for themselves is valued in
this kind of classroom; Freire maintains, “Producing and acting upon their own
ideas---not consuming those of others---must constitute that process” (Freire, p.
108, 2000). In this literacy classroom, the students and teachers are both
authorities of knowledge and the work of the class/learning community.
Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading and learning supports an inquiry
stance on literacy; in such a classroom, she asserts, “The teacher in such a
classroom is no longer simply a conveyor of ready-made teaching materials and
recorder of results of ready-made tests or a dispenser of ready-made
interpretations. Teaching becomes constructive, facilitating
interchange…”(Rosenblatt, p. 1034, 1994). In addition, this inquiry based
classroom uses their questions and answers as the springboard for instruction in
other subject areas; thus, the curriculum is seamless and interdisciplinary rather
than fragmented. Students see the relevance of their inquiry in all disciplines.
How does an inquiry stance intersect with a critical literacy practices in a
Language Arts classroom? Lewison, Flint, and Van Sluys define four dimensions
of critical literacy: disrupting the commonplace, interrogating multiple
viewpoints, focusing on sociopolitical issues, and taking action and promoting
social justice (p. 382, 2002). Karen Cadiero-Kaplan asserts that when defining
the concept of what it means to be “literate”, we must examine the ideologies
and theories that inform our definition of “literate” and how that translates into
our practices because “…what it means to be a ‘literate’ person is based on an
ideological construct that is inherently political” (p.373, 2002). Until this year, I
must sadly admit that I was not looking at my teaching practices through a lens
of critical literacy. Now, as I struggle to engage in this kind of praxis, I find
myself challenging my own assumptions and biases about teaching and learning
as well as those of my students. Although my school climate is not conducive to
a challenging of the “status quo”, I am attempting to nudge my students in
critical dialogue through an inquiry stance in my classroom.
Last week, Jill Hermann-Wilmarth’s group remarked in their critical literacy
group summary that “…my praxis is leading me into some "dangerous" thinking
and in another class political activism is a part of the syllabus. Praxis in critical
theory has the ability to be dangerous. Now the definition and severity of danger
is defined depending on what side of the oppressed/oppressor binary in which
one falls. But it is all worthless without praxis. Am I willing to devote myself to
living a dangerous life?” (October 11, 2002). The works of bell hooks and Freire
address these very questions as we look at the intersection of inquiry and critical
literacy. On pp. 48-49, I was struck by the idea that the value of being
revolutionary lies in the daily work (praxis)---action and reflection---not an
abstract idea of being revolutionary. This idea is repeated on p. 54 when she
says that “…our lives, our work, must be an example” (hooks, p. 48-54, 1994).
Freire champions the concept of praxis and continual critical reflection and action
when he asserts, “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals
cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and
reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human
beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(Freire, p. 72,
2000). I am trying to be political and revolutionary in my work, but many times,
I feel as though I am fumbling along as I strive to stay true to my principles, but
at other times, feel guilty for acquiescing to school mandated practices that do
not teach anything of value and are geared toward a test that privileges certain
groups who have the “cultural capital.”
Dr. Michelle Commeyras echoes this need to be political and self-interrogative
by viewing ourselves as political and to consider if society is making us
something we no longer want to be (Commeyras, pp. 130-131, 2002). However,
it is not just what we do in our classrooms that we should examine, but what we
do not say or teach; Commeyras points out that “We tend to think that we are
being political only when we do something controversial. But what we do not
say and do not teach also represents a political stance. If we want to be viewed
as intellectuals, then we must be aware of the politics of our teaching
practices”(Commeyras, p. 130, 2002). These views reflect many of the issues
raised in our last two class discussions about Freire, what a Freireian classroom
would like, and the issues we might encounter as we attempt to engage in our
praxis. Many times it does challenge the accepted hierarchy and privileged
values, and we have to be willing to ask the hard questions not just of others,
but also of our ourselves. At first this critical self-interrogation can be difficult;
no one wants to believe that they could be the oppressor of someone else, but if
we are to grow and move forward along the continuum of learning, we must
engage in this reflection and action.
How does this intersection of inquiry and critical inquiry translate into practice
for me? As someone beginning to embark on viewing her classroom and
teaching practices with a critical literacy lens, I need to examine if my reading
and writing workshop activities as well as efforts at teaching from an inquiry
stance are reflective of the four domains of critical literacy. Am I choosing
critical texts and connecting literature discussions with the issues that may
develop from students’ transactions with those texts? Are we disrupting the
norm? Are students’ questions the focal point of our inquiry? Am I oppressing
or privileging certain groups? How do I know? As Dr. Robert Probst points out,
“Culturally established norms become so deeply ingrained in consciousness that
they come to seems as substantial and immutable as physical reality
itself”(Probst, p. 67, 1988).
For me, a significant way to engage in praxis and to engage in a critical
examination of my teaching practices is to conduct teacher action research
throughout the year; it needs to become a seamless part of my instruction and
teaching practices. Through teacher action research, I can reflect on notes on
what I observe in my classroom, examine student work, reflect on classroom
dialogue, and look at patterns in the classroom dynamics with a critical lens.
Like Dr. Betty Bisplinghoff, I can use action research to resist banking-model
curriculum and mandates and justify an inquiry, critical literacy stance. Right
now, I am feeling what Bisplinghoff felt when she began teaching in a new
school district that did not value problem-posing, inquiry based learning. In her
first year in this new district, she shares the struggles, fears, and uncertainties
she felt as she attempted to stay true to her transactive view of language and
learning in a school climate that valued shallow pre-packaged programs that
emphasized fundamental and cultural literacy rather than a progressive or critical
literacy; I identify with Bisplinghoff's memories of feeling isolated and
overwhelmed when she asks, “How could I someday enter into their dialogues as
one who understood their perceived pressures and discuss alternative stances
that stood a sincere chance of being considered rather than discounted as simply
just too far afield” (Bisplinghoff, p. 120, 2002)? Bisplinghoff chose to examine
her own practices and to challenge the status quo through action research and
purposeful, thoughtful reflection; in a sense, her own praxis was an act of
inquiry. I see action research as both an integral part of my own praxis as well
as a form of resistance to the oppressive practices that seem so prevalent in my
current teaching environment. In addition, action research allows me to be
political by critically examining my own classroom practices. Action research will
be an ongoing stance of inquiry for me as I know more questions will arise out of
my praxis. As Bisplinghoff notes, her action research allowed her to disrupt
Dewey’s notion of “inertia of habit”(p. 127, 2002).
In conclusion, an inquiry stance on literacy means asking critical questions of
ourselves, our students, and the practices of our schools. By engaging in action
research, I can critically examine how theory and practice intersect in my
classroom. I hope this inquiry of my own teaching practices will mirror an
inquiry stance in my classroom where my students and I can engage in critical
dialogue through questioning and the creation of a learning community that
values all voices. Our study of the various theorists has caused me to take a
hard look at what I am doing and ask myself, “Why am I doing this?”, an
essential question that we should constantly ask ourselves.
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essays by M.M. Bakhtin (pp. 259-422). Austin, TX: University of Texas
Bisplinghoff, B. (2002). Teacher planning as responsible resistance. Language
Arts, 80, 119-128.
Commeyras, M. (2002). Provocative questions that animate my thinking about
teaching. Language Arts, 80, 129-133.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier/Macmillan.
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Hermann-Wilmarth, J. (Personal e-mail, October 11, 2002).
hooks, b. (1994). Paulo Freire. In Teaching to transgress: Education as the
practice of freedom, (pp. 45-58). New York: Routledge.
Kaplan-Cadiero, K. (2002). Literacy ideologies: Critically engaging the language
arts curriculum. Language Arts, 79, 372-381. Retrieved September 12,
2002 from http://www.ncte.org/la/LA0795TOC.shtml .
Lewison, M., Flint, A., and Van Sluys, K. (2002). Taking on critical literacy: The
journey of newcomers and novices. Language Arts, 79, 382-392.
Retrieved September 12, 2002 from http://www.ncte.org/la/LA0795TOC.shtml .
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senior high school. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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processes of reading 4th edition (pp. 1057-1092). Newark, DE: IRA.