Thursday, March 10, 2011

Critical Pedagogy in Kindergarten?

I recently joined a book club that explores teaching resources. Each week someone from the group volunteers to guest blog about the chapter we're on and the rest of us respond. In the spirit of 'going out on a limb' to add richness to my experience with this book, I volunteered to guest post. You can witness the bravery here. What I got out of this was immense. The particular chapter I got to explore was filled with reminders of so much of the theoretical knowledge we had learned in our classrooms at university. It was comforting to be reminded of the optimism that exists in educational theory. In our first year, we were in practicums only two days a week, and our actual teaching was limited. While on campus, we experienced intense discussions about theory and how it can live out in classrooms, interpreting the things we've seen in our placements, and, essentially, trying to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

During spring and summer we had no classes, or placements. A lucky few of us found work that had something to do with working with children, while some of us stuck with waiting tables. Four months of this, and we were thrown back into schools, this time four days a week. Of course, many of us were really excited to be back working with children. However, what has happened to all that theory we learned a lot about but in all honesty rarely saw? I can only speak for myself at this point, but it was very difficult, when surrounded by the commonplace methods and practices of teaching, to apply, or even remember, much of the theory we learned in the previous year. Our one day a week on campus served as a forum for our instructor to share more practical information, which we deeply appreciated and needed, and for us to share our stories about children we'd fallen in love with, who puzzled us, and made us excited about teaching.

I LOVED my placement and it broke my heart to have to leave at the end of the semester. Interestingly, I think this love blinded me to the theory I had once loved also. It's so easy to fall into the routine and commonplace practices and leave the theory behind to scholars and researchers. Now that I've come back to university, and particularly through the explorations of this book, Making Learning Whole by David Perkins, I am remembering all those important lessons.

One of these, which I rediscovered in Chapter five of the book, is Critical Pedagogy (crit ped). I remember learning about it in our Semester 2 lectures by Brent Davis, and in the associated text book Engaging Minds by Davis, Sumara & Luce-Kapler (one of the best, if not the best, educational theory books I have ever read). Back then I wondered about crit ped's place in early childhood, and here I am a year later with the same question! When you have a classroom full of students that cannot yet read, say in Kindergarten, how do you practice crit ped without the fear that you're essentially just brainwashing them to think the way you do? You choose what to read to them and how to read it. Very rarely are children of this age able to articulate their response(s) to text. Heck, even adults have difficulties with this. So how can this be encouraged?

I found a very inspiring article about this from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) by Jeffrey Wood. Lucky me, it involved a Kindergarten class too! I was deeply inspired by this teacher's bold aspirations for building critical literacy (crit lit) skills among his early literacy students. In particular, the way this teacher started out his school year with questions, not only about his mandated curriculum but, about how he could support his students' learning with crit lit and how this could lead to social justice actions. WOW! Social justice Kindergarten! To tie this in with Making Learning Whole,there is a junior game of social justice that might be played here which Wood eventually discovers. Wood sums up a lot of crucial points in one statement: "Critical literacy is not only a type of pedagogy that is different from a more traditional approach, it is a different worldview that transforms teaching and the way we, students and teacher, see and interact with the world". What an incredible goal for teachers! And yet, somehow, it is not overwhelming. On the contrary, a lot of the traditional methods are (for me anyway). I think this is because crit ped isn't just interesting or important for students, parents, or administrators. The work becomes important and life changing for the teacher too, challenging our perspectives and ways of thinking about people and the world. In a lot of ways it's a ground shaking undertaking.

One of the big take-home messages of this article isn't just about crit lit, but teacher disposition and self-awareness. This leads me to another big theme of my theoretical explorations in teaching: Integral Theory (IT). From the little I know about IT, I recall that it emphasizes a holistic approach and strong self-awareness on behalf of the teacher. That is, you become ever more aware of yourself (eg. words, actions, subtleties, etc.) in order to improve your teaching. This isn't meant to create a self-centered teacher, although I suspect there's a danger there. This evolving awareness has the potential to lead to some incredible intentional teaching by avoiding a lot of unintentional teaching that happens automatically -sort of like how babies learn language. Perkins talks about this also, referring to it as tacit learning.

Lastly, I love the way crit ped works with the NAEYC's recent statement about Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP). In particular, the social and cultural contexts in which children live is directly relevant to crit ped and the culture that Wood and his class created.

In the spirit of crit lit I must ask, how feasible is all this for a first year teacher?

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