Rattner (2008) states that it has been known since the
1960s that mostly working-class boys and working-class
minority boys who are slower to read and require more
intervention. However there has been little mainstream
concern over the situation until fairly recently….
The Toronto District School Board is seeking to
act…What is driving the actions of the Board… See The
Globe & Mail , Wednesday, October 21, 2009: Ontario
Board pushes for ‘boy friendly’ school (A1 and A 7).
This research is grounded in three theoretical perspectives.
The critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire (1970), a theorist who linked literacy to social justice and others in the critical tradition (McLaren, 2003; New London Group, 1996; Peterson, 2003).
Advocacy research . We base our work on the literature surrounding the emerging role of the school principal as practitioners and advocates for social justice (e.g.see Fennell, 1999; Shields, 2009). We use the work of Theoharis (2007) who theorizes that principals must act as advocates of social justice to enact meaningful change.).
In addition, we draw on critical and sociocultural perspectives of
The research project was an expression of praxis—reflection and action upon the world (Freire, 1970) in order to transform it, to make it better for some marginalized adolescent boys who struggled in school literacy and through it, my colleagues and I wanted, among other things, to use critical pedagogy to engage the participants in their own acts of criticality and transformation.
Critical pedagogy serves the goal of social justice because it is intended to and can lead to what Freire (1970) refers to as conscientização —“learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality” (p. 19).
The problem we perceived was the growing number of marginalized
adolescent boys who are not succeeding in school literacy and we
wanted to take action.
Perspectives on Literacy
The research project was guided by sociocultural and critical views of literacy (Freire, 1970; Gee, 1996, 2004; Gutiérrez, 2008; Rogoff, 1990; Vygotsky, 1978). These complementary views of literacy assert that school literacies are situated, embodied, constructivist, dynamic sociocultural practices (listening, speaking, thinking, reading, writing, responding, valuing, acting etc.).
These sociocultural practices are learned from and between people (e.g., more knowledgeable adults and peers) over extended periods of time as they interact and carry out a variety of activities geared toward constructing meaning, acting in, and upon the world.
Can literature circles promote the literacy growth and development of struggling and marginalized adolescent boys?
What is the influence of engaging a principal, a school library specialist, and a participant researcher in a literature circle designed to promote critical reading engagement among a group of striving/marginalized adolescent boys?
What can we learn from/about the literacy practices and the interactions of adolescent boys engaged in a critical literature circle characterized by caring, connectedness, and explorations of the social construction of gender/masculinities, social justice, and equity?
Qualitative case study (Stake, 2005; Merriam, 1998, 2002).
What is a case study?
Qualitative research specialist Robert Stake (2005) argues
that case study is not a methodological choice but a “choice of
what is to be studied…By whatever methods, we choose to
study the case . We could study it analytically or holistically,
entirely by repeated measures, hermeneutically, organically or
culturally, and by mixed methods—but we concentrate, at least
for the time being, on the case ….As a form of research , case
study is defined by interest in an individual case, not by the
methods of inquiry used. The name “case study” is emphasized
by some of us because it draws attention to the question of what
specially can be learned about the single case (p. 443).
The driving question behind our research is: What can be
learned about the single case? With regard this research , the
case is that of two university researchers, a high school
principal, and 11 adolescent Grade 10 boys who struggled in
key areas of school literacy: reading and writing.
Stake (2005) argues that a case is “bounded system” – it has
particularities and or features. In this instance, the case is
bounded by gender, grade, and performance in school literacy.
Stake identifies three types of case studies: intrinsic,
instrumental, and collective/multiple case study. Ours is an
Instrumental case study.
This means that though we had an intrinsic interest in the case,
in what happened between these particular boys, the
researchers, and the school principal, we were also interested in
the case based on its potential to provide insight into an issue:
that of leadership, literacy, and social justice. In this scenario,
the case as Stake points out, “ facilitates our understanding of
something else. The case still is looked at in depth, its contexts
scrutinized and its ordinary activities detailed, but all because
this helps us pursue the external interest” (p. 445). For this
research the external interest is growth and development of
school and other literacy practices among marginalized
adolescent boys through the intentional acts of the school
principal and significant others.
Selection of the principal
We selected the principal using reputational sampling (Merriam, 1998).
We worked with a particular principal at a particular school based on
his reputation as a caring instructional leader, committed to progressive social
change and the overall principles of social justice.
Also, the principal had a reputation (among students and teachers) for being an
individual who “stood up for his principles.”
The principal is the leader of a secondary school in a mid-size urban centre
that serves a diverse student population (e.g., socioeconomic, cultural,
linguistic, racial) and offers a broad range of programs.
Using the sociocultural process of literature circles (Daniels, 2002), the researchers, principal and students engaged in a book discussion group based on their reactions, thoughts, ideas, and feelings to the socially conscious texts they read.
In addition to guiding the students to make personal connections to the literature they read (e.g., social, class, race, culture, and gender), we were very much interested in initiating explicit conversations about social justice issues and the boys’ social construction of gender and masculinities.
The researchers provided a corpus of young adult literature from which
students made their selection but which were also suited to the purposes of the research.
We invited the boys to make suggestions about the texts they would like to
read. We were interested in knowing who they are, their interests, and dreams
The books were carefully and purposefully selected to match the reading
interests and development of the boys in the literature circle.
Since we decided to work with marginalized boys who struggled in
literacy, we chose a wide range of texts that were accessible and that
were from a variety of genres (e.g., novels, picture books, song lyrics,
and poetry etc.
Diverse grade 10 boys who were identified through conversations between the teachers
and the principal based on the students’
achievement in school literacy.
Striving readers and writers with rich and complex lives (e.g., some of the boys were workers, others provided care to their siblings..).
Why Literature Circles? (Daniels, 2002)
A recognized pedagogical framework that:
Gives choice in the selection of reading materials (interest and needs)
Allows dialogue and meaningful exploration of texts.
Can be used to create a caring, nurturing, reading community
Encourages critical examination of texts
Is sensitive to problem-posing learning
Rests on making connections: text-to-self, text-to-text, text-to-world
Can lead to sustainable literacy development
Literature Circles: Modified and Contextually Tailored
Group meetings aim to be open, natural conversations about books, so personal connections, digressions, and open-ended questions are welcomed.
The teacher(s) serves as a participant, guide, a member and is conscious of his/her power…Constant negotiations. This is a change…(We were more than facilitators). We provided guidance. We were in dialogue, we were in relationships with the students.
Evaluation is by teacher observation and student self-evaluation .
A spirit of playfulness and fun pervades the room.
Enhancing Literature Circles
Our literature was infused with the pedagogy of care (Noddings, 1996,
“ Caring now refers properly to the relation, not just to an agent who “cares,” and we must consider the response of the cared-for…
Children need more than a “caring” decision; they need the continuing attention of an adult who will listen, invite, guide, and support them” (Noddings, 1999, p. 13).
Enhancing Literature Circles
A caring relation requires the engrossment and motivational displacement of the one-caring, and it requires the recognition and spontaneous response of the cared-for (Noddings, 1996, p. 38).
Caring practices cannot be separated from knowing or doing because, in the human world, caring practice is always bound up in knowing and doing (Benner & Wrubel 1989, cited in Benner, Gordon & Noddings,1996).
Enhancing Literature Circles
When we care-when we are in the position of carer—our
consciousness exhibits two fundamental characteristics. First, we are
in a receptive mode. We attend non-selectively to the cared-for. We
are, at least momentarily, engrossed in the other’s plans, pains, and
hopes, not our own. Second, we feel our motive energy flowing toward
the other. We want to help in furthering the plan, relieving the pain, or
actualizing the hope .
Literature circles as we constructed and lived them, allowed us to
demonstrate that “ to live is not only to be in relationship, but to turn
toward the other, ready to meet him or her where he or she is. To
live is to care deeply for the other ” (Buber, 1970, p. 67).
Enhancing Literature Circles
We predicated our literature circles on a moral vision that included
Frank (2004) explains that:
“ Generosity is the opposite of [the] humiliation of feeling trapped in a
situation you did not create and cannot control . Generosity asserts its
own choice, trusting the promise that if you choose for the other, you
will make your own life possible” (p. 22).
I take up Frank’s vision of generosity and its invitation to see ourselves
as hosts , those temporarily in a position to offer care and to see our
students as guests—those needing care (2004, p. 10-11).
Enhancing Literature Circles
Enhancement of the literature involved the fusing of Freirean (1970)
ideas with those of Noddings (2005) and Frank (2004) through an
orientation that all three advocate: the importance of dialogue. Roberts
explains that to “live well, on the Freirean view, is to transform the world
Through reflective, critical, dialogical action (2000, p. 43).
Dialogue was fundamental to literature circles with the boys. We acted
as communicative beings, willing to enter relationships with one
another and create a social world around or mediated by the use of
texts (Roberts, 2000).
Frank argues that people realize themselves through dialogue with
others (and others have the power to block this realization). He states
that “what dialogue enables, refusal of dialogue can deny” (2004, p.
23). Our literature circles allowed for self-disclosure—for students to
The Literature Circles
The literature circles were scheduled to take place twice per month
from 3:30 – 5:30 P.M.
The library/reading specialist selected and ensured the
books were made available to the students...
The principal worked with boys at school (reminders, equipment…)
The professor of Educational Leadership purchased the
We all read the books and prepared our literature circle role
We started by meeting in a classroom and then moved to the school’s Food
Laboratory….A tremendous gift! It was located across from the library.
A Principal’s Journey
In the Circle…
I was thinking today about what participation in this project will do for me personally and professionally.
I am hoping that professionally I will become a better teacher/administrator. Most of my day and time is spent allowing teachers to do their job. I support what they do; their good work; and attempt to inspire and challenge them to grow professionally.
Participation will help me grow as I will learn, apply and practice a new strategy that of Literature Circles.
I will see a master in action, Barbara McNeil, and will learn from her and be able to model this with classroom teachers.
Personally, it will also have an impact as I will have the opportunity to make close connections and perhaps develop relationships with a group of boys that I normally would not have the opportunity to engage with in a meaningful and on-going way.
The boys asked about getting time to read in class. Some do not have a quiet place to read at home. I mentioned that I could provide a quiet place on a regular basis after school.
This speaks to our middle class assumptions about everyone having a quiet home and can find a place to read or do homework if they want.
I also know that some of these boys don’t have a positive adult male role model in their life. If I can be that and make a difference, however small, what a great reward that would be!
Today I heard a complaint. Students complained about the way they were being taught. Complained about the undemocratic process of having to read books that did not engage them; having no choice in the books they are to read.
How do I respond as principal?
Should students have choice all of the time? Can we balance a required reading list with a literature selection that allows for choice?
The project is of personal interest that has professional implications. I am volunteering my time and the school division has allowed the project to take place at FWJ but I am not getting paid for it. So, how do I justify ‘stealing’ moments during the day or week to feed my interest in it?
I’m trying to be a literacy leader. Yet, literacy leadership impinges on my other job. How do I get them to move closer together i.e. make my established or recognized traditional role more that of a literacy leader?
Met with a teacher earlier today to review her professional growth plan. She indicated that a boy in her class likes to read but is very reluctant to pick a novel. I pulled “Bang!” off of my shelf and suggested that she show him the book and see if he ‘bites’.
It was a great feeling to be able to do this.
I now have novels in my office. Titles we’ve read; accessible text.
It has changed my discourse with teachers. I can suggest titles and ways of teaching; I can speak to students re: titles and make suggestions.
Some students with behavior issues are struggling readers. As I work more with some of them, I ask the question about their ability to read. Some are confused by the question but for others they admit their difficulty.
How can I engage my teachers and students to reader for enjoyment? Does the fact that reading is always connected with looking for answers to questions prevent students to read for enjoyment?
I look at how I perform masculinity. What kind of male role model do I want to be for these young men? It’s important that they respect me as most young people look up to their principal. When they place me on a pedestal, I want to be worthy of the honor. If I am doubly blessed in that they want to emulate me, I want to be proud of the young men that they have become.
I feel the same way about my son. This speaks to the personal nature of education and the personal nature of the project.
As Barbara and I spoke afterward, we discussed that the project would probably work better if it was embedded within a classroom; where the researcher or research team could work with a classroom teacher.
I have coached basketball at many levels and have developed relationships with students. But through the vehicle of lit. circles, the discussion has immersed us in a variety of topics so our relationship is deeper and richer as we speak openly.
The literature is the catalyst. The boy of 15 and the old man of 54 are in a dialogue about significant issues not just making small talk.
My personal & professional reading has changed.
I have read all or parts of:
The Literacy Principal
Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?
I Read It but I Don’t Get It!
When Adolescents Can’t Read
Reaching Reluctant Young Adult Readers
Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it.
Impact at School Level
Used children’s literature in school PD
To introduce the importance of read alouds and to demonstrate that significant issues can be discussed using low vocabulary texts, I read aloud Dr. Seuss “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!”
Used “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” (no text) to examine Reader Response; provided copies to ELA teachers
The boys read, conversed, connected, related to us and each other in nuanced ways, and grew..
The researchers also grew…Greater insights about the
complexities of literacy learning with adolescent boys in an
urban high school
The research was inspiring. We had fun! We are on to something…
Time (to read, for dialogue, to respond, for relationship work…)
Material conditions of the participants
Research design (e.g., after school versus in school)
Limitations of the research and researchers
Visiting the public library is not a sociocultural practice for any of the boys. The school library was not a significant part of their lives when we began the research. There was some change as the research progressed.
We have learned that…
Literature circles are an effective strategy for supporting struggling/striving marginalized adolescent boys in school literacy
Students need choice in what they read, in how they respond, and act on their engagements with texts…
Teachers need support: they cannot do it alone. The teacher- librarian is indispensable and necessary for the success of teachers and students…
We agree with Kuhlthau (2007) that teams of three are effective for supporting students’ development in literacy and other areas
The classroom remains a site of oppression and disadvantage
We have learned that…
Teachers’ power can be used in harmful and helpful ways.
Guided assistance in literacy needs to be strengthened in high schools in explicit, and structured ways
Together, principals, teacher-librarians and teachers create a super power—an effective team for positive and progressive transformations in literacy achievement
Research can be a way of moving toward others, of bearing witness, of starting conversations, of walking with and alongside striving/struggling high school students in agential ways…
We have learned that…
In addition to critical approaches, the success of literature circles is
significantly enhanced through the explicit operationalization of
humanist approaches: articulating pedagogies of love/humanization
(Freire, 1970); pedagogies of care (Noddings, 1996, 1999, 2005; and
pedagogies of generosity, Frank, 2004) and more…
When people learn as a cultural process, whether this be cooking,
hunting, or how to become literate , they learn through action and talk
with others, not by memorizing words outside their contexts of
application or doing work sheets…
The texts students use need to resonate with their unfolding identities
(Gee, 2004, p. 39). Situated language and learning: A critique of
traditional schooling by J. P. Gee.
Lingering Questions, Lingering Tensions
1. Our decision to have a boys only literature circle
2. Issues of ethnicity, language, race, and social
3. The material conditions of the boys involved in
Some things that are certain
There are many youths who struggle with literacy in our province
They need considerable support
Schools can do more
Schools cannot do it alone
Teachers need support
We need community-based actions—a wider circle of people to
enact empathy, critique, hope, and action in service of youth…
Like Sparanese (2008), I believe in the Moon school of library
activism. Moon was activist editor of Library Journal ,
(1959). He stated that “Libraries had a simple choice: to be a
significant thread in the social fabric, an active participant in
social change or to face an inevitable passage toward
irrelevance, possible extinction or an existence as some
kind of grey historical relic.” Socially responsible librarianship is
librarianship that is part of—not dissociated from society and its
needs, problems, and concerns. Intellectual freedom is not the
only ethic of the profession of librarianship and it is not a purist
value, separated from other democratic principles and human
Literacy is a human right and there are many
Saskatchewan youth who are leaving school without it and
who are dropping out of school because they are wrestling
with it and need the support of many caring people and
institutions in order to be successful at and with it.
Can the library be partners in action with schools (through
literature circles) and/or other sociocultural arrangements
to support the literacy growth and success of marginalized
adolescent boys and girls in Saskatchewan?
I am a social dreamer…and you, I hope are likely one too.
Therefore, I ask you to dream and enact socially conscious
dreams with me. Together, let us enact the role of
activist librarians to promote democracy and an informed
citizenry (through literacy) as our main and most important
mission. Let us work together to do even more to help
Saskatchewan children and youth and in this way build a
better Saskatchewan—one that is more socially just and
equitable than it is today.
Thank you….We would love to hear your
The Teacher-librarian as a leader
Some literature on school librarianship emphasize collaboration
between teacher-librarians and school principals (American Association
of School Librarians (AASL) & Association for Educational
Communications and Technology (AECT), 1998; Asselin, Branch &
Farmer for instance, suggests that “teacher-librarians need to align
their efforts with those of the school in general, and specifically those of
the principal” (p. 1). Farmer (2007) rightly contends that “the chief
catalyst for collaboration at the site level [of the school] is the principal,
who serves as the vision-maker and curriculum facilitator” (p. 1).
School Leadership for Literacy and Social Justice
This research project is premised on the view that collaboration
b etween teacher-librarians and principals can be extended into the
area of research as well as in the joint planning and implementation of
an instructional program such as the literacy project described herein.
In other words, the teacher-librarian and the principal can model
instructional collaboration, by teaching students together in order to
challenge inequity in student achievement (McKenzie, Christman,
Hernandez et al., 2008).
Through such collaboration, each person will better understand their
respective roles and see the rich potential of what they can achieve by
working together to combat social injustices.
School Leadership for Literacy and Social Justice
Within the conceptual framework of social justice and
democratic schools furnished by Theoharis and Shields, a
good school is one where inclusive community is anchored
in strong interpersonal relationships and ongoing dialogue.
In this environment, principals and teacher-librarians, as
critical educators, are called to address issues of equity
and social justice.
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