Critical Consciousness and the Enhancement of Public Literacy- Part I

Critical Consciousness and the Enhancement of Public Literacy- Part I

post by Amira Abdel-Aal, Member of The Educator Collaborative

Critical Consciousness and the Enhancement of Public Literacy*-

Part I: Centralizing Students’ Lived Experiences

*Some of this content was produced in conversation with Dr. Ahmed Younis, an Assistant Professor of Integrated Studies at Chapman University, an expert in Critical Pedagogy and Leadership Studies.  


Young people in America today are bombarded with messages of exclusion, division, and hate. Regardless of their positionality in society – most young people are spinning in a tornado of messaging, posturing and selling of ideas. When members of Congress are told to go back to where they came from or black and brown communities are referred to as subhuman and rat-infested, young people hear this and are often confused. Paulo Freire teaches us that one of the hallmarks of oppression is the adoption by the oppressed of the narratives laid upon them by the oppressor. As a result, reactions vary from violent opposition to acquiescence that change is impossible, and thus construct a life that centers on survival. 

In such an environment, cultural literacy can change the realities young people experience. In movies, books, comics, music, and film there are a plethora of attempts to center the lived experience of people just like our students (regardless of race, gender, or identity) in stories that bring their challenges into context. If you were to read the Ms. Marvel comic series with Pakistani-American student Kamala Khan, it is hard to hate American Muslims. If you know of Falcon as Captain America, one of the first African-American superheroes, or Miles Morales as Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man, or Jane Foster as Thor, it is difficult to perpetuate the idea that all heroes are white men. If your students are white in a world full of racism, these cultural products can help center them in these conversations in a way that enfranchises them in the process of making our realities better. 

With this in mind, how can we help students search for narratives that reflect their own lived experiences and then center them into the conversation? Experiences where they can find themselves in, that ensure they are assumed to be a part of – not different from or excluded from? How can we help students find themselves in what’s being presented in popular culture today? Do the materials represent everyone? Whose lived experiences do the texts we provide represent? What philosophies do they represent? How can we help them see what is happening in their surroundings?

Understanding that there are barriers that continue to exist, through critical literacy, students can still find themselves in different narratives. However, there will always be either authentic representations of who you are or perpetual stereotypes with which each person will always have to negotiate. Students should be able to find themselves in popular culture and have the literacy skills to research and go through different outlets, whether literature, the arts, science, popular culture, etc. The idea is that we are trying to bring context from these inputs – an essential part of critical literacy.

Teachers and mentors have an obligation to stay current–to be fully engaged in what is being produced at home and around the world. Popular culture, the arts, technology, science, etc. are all available in ways that they were not when most teachers were students. Teaching is a process of identifying pools of water from which students can drink. Let’s make their lived experience colorful, vibrant, and dynamic. Undoing what society is doing requires equipping young people with the tools they need to see themselves in the world and thrive. 

A teacher should help students to negotiate their place in the world. One of the best ways to do that is to offer them examples of similarly-situated people who have negotiated their own place in the world. Incorporating arts and culture is a great way of doing this. 

[End of part one]