Spring 2019

Cultivating Critical Literacy Imaginations in Our Selves, Others, and the World

If I had a magic pencil, I would use it to . . .
Draw a better world, a peaceful world.
Erase war, poverty, and hunger.
I would draw girls and boys together as equals . . .
I had at last found the magic I was looking for
in my words and in my work.
~ Malala Yousafzai

Critical literacy researchers have long investigated the benefits of infusing liberating and imaginative teaching practices into the classroom. Over the years, researchers have pointed to the need for educators to be open to what happens when learners are exposed to social justice picture books (Wilson & Laman, 2007); how learners interrogate and unpack bias within texts (Flint, Allen, Nason, Rodriguez, Thornton, & Wynter-Hoyte, 2015); how an expanded understanding of literacy encourages inquiry, personal connections, and reflection and social action (Keyes, 2009); the ways in which learners engage in critical conversations that disrupt the status quo embedded within the curriculum (Leland, Harste, & Huber, 2005); and how learners write, draw, and perform their way through to understanding of social justice issues (Lewison & Heffernan, 2008).

There are some who believe that schools should shelter children, particularly young children, from the harsh reality of society by not burdening them with “issues of the adult world” (Laman, 2006, p. 204). This is not our view, however. Life is not pretty, children do not live in fairy tales, and stories of diversity and adversity take place in our own backyards. For these reasons and so many more, we believe that critical literacy “should begin in the classrooms of the youngest children in our schools so they may grow to become lifelong practitioners of critical literacy who question and transform social injustice in our world” (Gregory & Cahill, 2009, p. 8). In our estimation, difficult topics such as racism, sexism, and colonialism will arise, and educators and schools with critical literacy imaginations will indeed nurture the same in their learners, thus drawing a better world.

In order to explore the conditions that nurture a critical literacy imagination, the nature of learner and educator empowerment through critical literacy, and the ways in which a critical literacy imagination supports transformative learning and personal/social transformation, we allowed ourselves to be “pulled in, called to the mystery of ethnography” (Goodall Jr., 2000, p. 8) with 26 Grade 6 learners and their highly experienced and imaginative educator, situated in a relatively small school in Muskoka, Ontario. As a research process, ethnography is fluid, reciprocal, and dynamic allowing for flexibility and responsiveness to meet the needs of the classroom, educators, and learners; as the end product of research, ethnography offers a naturalistic portrait of classroom life that captures what participants say, think, and do as authentically as possible (Van Maanen, 2011; Wolcott, 1997).

Setting the Stage: What does critical literacy bring to the discussion?

Critical literacy is a lens, mindset, or disposition for both teaching and learning. It is not something educators simply add on to classroom instruction, but rather a way of being in relation to texts, our selves, each other, and the world. Critical literacy is concerned with promoting justice and equality, resisting dominant power and ideologies, and transforming oppressive power relations (Kincheloe, 2008). It works from the view that education is inherently political (Freire, 1970). And finally, critical literacy is a responsive and flexible framework. It is not a set of instructional practices or a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, it looks, feels, and sounds differently in different contexts, and develops, emerges, and accomplishes different things depending on the context and place in which it is being used.

The critically imaginative approach we describe here, takes place at the intersection of critical literacy, social justice education, and learner and educator empowerment. It emerges from our conviction to make the world better–fairer, freer, more equitable, equal, and loving.

Exploring Truth and Reconciliation: A Grade 6 Experience of Discomfort

The day began like most others. The bell sounded. One by one, the learners shuffled into the room, taking their seats so the day could begin. Music played over the PA system and we sang Oh Canada together as a class, followed by a well-chosen passage about reconciliation and forgiveness.

What is true reconciliation? Who do you seek forgiveness from? is what I wrote on the board. A definite departure from my original plan, I took a risk and embarked on an adventure with my learners, capitalizing on the principal’s intention by asking, “Why is this called the year of reconciliation? And to whom are we referring? Is the Canadian government doing the right thing? How do you think the First Nations people are feeling about our celebrations?”

Learners replied, “The First Nations people who were treated unfairly, whose land was taken away, and whose children were taken away and put in residential schools.” Deepening their understanding, I explained that awful things happened in residential schools; children’s “culture, traditions, and values were not respected. Their way of living was not respected.”

Over the course of three days, I helped the learners grapple with deeply complex issues. I challenged learners to imagine a community without children, children without parents, Grade 1 children sent away from home, gently insisting, “I need you to put yourself in their shoes.” Through a variety of texts such as Shi-shi-etko (Campbell, 2005), Shin-chi’s Canoe (Campbell, 2008), and Gord Downie’s Secret Path (CBC, 2016), I situated these lived experiences in the present, reinforcing that, although residential schools closed in the 1990s, their legacy lives on and frequents our current events in the ongoing First Nations’ fight for reconciliation and land.

Wrought with struggle, learners had to come to terms with the “darkest part of [Canada’s] history.” But, I wanted to find a way to empower the learners as changemakers, instilling a sense of urgency to commit to reconciliation. Reminding the learners that, “this is what’s happening now [to] youth living in Ontario,” I offered them an opportunity to take a closer look at current events taking place on First Nations reserves, specifically Attawapiskat and Shoal Lake 40. Learning about the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat and abhorrent living conditions on Shoal Lake 40 incensed the learners. Some wondered why Justin Trudeau was not doing more to help these communities and others understood, all too well, that these young people were “taking their lives because they feel there’s no point.”

Equipped with the language needed to critically unpack and interrogate these issues, learners wondered, “Why would anyone ever think this is okay? Why would the government do that? Why didn’t it stop sooner? And why are there such dumb Canadians in history?” Through discussion and reflection, the learners gained greater perspective about First Nations’ issues, both past and present. By giving the learners permission to ask “Why?” I allowed their classroom to become a space of discomfort and growth by gently nudging them to “get the bigger picture.” In the end, what did they learn? That “one voice can inspire the world.”

Conditions that Nurture Critical Literacy Imaginations

Classrooms that nurture critical literacy imaginations are characterized by a set of conditions that are states of being, doing, behaving, creating; they are not hierarchical or isolated in practice, but deeply embedded classroom practices that continuously move and are held in constant tension with each other (Cambourne, 1995). Six conditions are described, with links to the above classroom and questions educational leaders and educators with a critical literacy imagination can use to interrogate and re-envision their pedagogical practice.

Condition 1: Wonder, curiosity, and adventure. “Emergent pedagogy invites the unexpected to interrupt and change the direction of classroom work” (Gallagher & Wessels, 2011, p. 239). The educator in this inquiry embraced her own sense of wonder, curiosity, and adventure and taught with her head and heart by “feelingly know[ing]“. . . the appropriate thing to do in the ever-changing circumstances of her classroom” (van Manen, 2008, p. 6, emphasis in original). She was willing to model and pursue her own inquiries, engage in reflective practice (Schön, 1983), lean into the discomfort of emergent pedagogy, and relinquish authority to not only facilitate learning, but to also allow and encourage learners to take learning into their own hands. Teaching and learning became about inquiry that was relevant and relative to learners and context. Learning was authentic, meaningful, and spontaneous all at once.   


  • How do I make reflective practice part of my approach to teaching and learning, both for myself and for my learners?
  • How do I lean into the discomfort of emergent pedagogy? How do I encourage my learners to lean into the discomfort of not knowing?
  • How do I enact flexibility and responsiveness to learner and contextual needs?

Condition 2: Community and belonging. Learning within a community of practice requires mutuality and reciprocity (Shor, 1992), a sense of togetherness (Bomer & Bomer, 2001), and trust, “flowering by means of dialogue, kept alive in open spaces where freedom can find a place” (Greene, 1988, p. 134). By trusting learners and inviting them into the decision-making process, the educator in this inquiry provided learners with greater ownership, authority, and accountability. All learners received these invitations, which will support them as they navigate the larger society (Gregory & Cahill, 2009). For example, within the classroom, learners learned about power imbalances, identity politics, and what it meant to have agency both explicitly and implicitly. Critically democratic practices were favoured, not only reaffirming the inherent worth of learners but teaching them how to become thoughtful and committed 21st century citizens.


  • How do I enact trust in the classroom?
  • How do I offer learners ownership and accountability for decision-making?
  • How do I make explicit the importance of inclusion and diversity?

Condition 3: Shared space of freedom. In order for learners to become critically literate and imaginative, the educator in this inquiry created shared spaces of freedom that encouraged inquiry, interrogation, and immersion, while modelling, both explicitly and implicitly, her own critical stance. Taking on the necessary attitudes and dispositions that enable her to become critically literate, she consciously engaged with learners, entertained alternate ways of being, assumed responsibility for inquiry, and was critically reflexive (Lewison et al., 2015). Most importantly, within the shared classroom space described above, the educator not only modelled how to inquire, but also helped learners to recognize that they could and should inquire and interrogate injustices.


  • What is my critically imaginative stance as an educator?
  • How do I explicitly model how to inquire and why learners should interrogate issues of social justice?
  • How do I explicitly encourage inquiry and interrogation?

Condition 4: Championing learners as capable. The educator in this inquiry viewed her learners through a lens of strength and ability rather than a deficit model (Shorey, 2008), helping to position learners as confident and capable, which led to greater levels of self-efficacy, self-advocacy, and empowerment. Giving learners greater freedom to direct their own learning (Conditions 2 and 3) encouraged and empowered them  to become advocates for both knowing and being known (Freire, 1970). Advocating for themselves, learners in this inquiry recognized: “Mike is probably smarter than most adults;” “One voice can inspire the world;” and “We have the power to change the world.” Learners were nudged to the edge of their comfort zones (Vygotsky, 1986) by opening up spaces where teaching and learning for change are at the heart of it all.


  • How do I develop learning partnerships with learners so that they can develop these partnerships with their peers?
  • How do I view learners through a lens of strength and ability? How do I help them view themselves through a lens of strength and ability?
  • How do I encourage learners to advocate for themselves and others?

Condition 5: Fostering a sense of intersubjectivity and interconnectedness. Critical literacy invites learners to stand in another’s shoes and to see the world through perspectives other than our own (Lewison et al., 2015). By offering learners opportunities to stand in another’s shoes, the educator in this inquiry used story to “make visible the workings of racism, sexism, classism, and colonialism” (Pinar, 1998, p. 33). Stories, of any type, provide windows that allow children to see into worlds other than their own; the world might be real or imagined, familiar or strange. Stories have the power to “transform human experience,” especially as we come to “see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience” (Bishop, 1990, p. 1). As learners set their stories alongside those they were reading, writing, hearing, and experiencing, they began “to recognize each other and, in the experience of recognition, [felt] the need to take responsibility for one another” (Greene, 1993, p. 218). Ultimately, they claimed an empathetic process of being grateful, I am…, being emotional, I feel…, and being there, I would…


  • How is learning made real, relevant, meaningful, and authentic? Does it hold real-world value?
  • How do I prioritize diverse stories (e.g., those of diversity and adversity)?
  • How do I interrogate and challenge the status quo inherent in institutional, cultural, and socio-historical contexts?

Condition 6: Being and becoming. The educator in this inquiry was interested in developing a strong sense of agency within her learners (Lewison et al., 2015). Through deconstruction, reconstruction, and composition of text (Luke & Freebody, 1999), she encouraged learners to write and rewrite their identities, to vision and then re-vision the world, and to continually reflect on the relationship between the two. She helped learners to recognize that everything is in process and that learning to name the world (injustices and all) is to change it (Freire, 1970). She was committed to helping learners find themselves–their beliefs, values, interests, passions, and principles–in relation to one another and the world, always asking,  “Who are you? Who do you want to become? What do you want our world to look like?”


  • How do I invest in learners? How do I nudge them along the edge of their comfort zones?
  • How do I suspend judgment? How do I encourage learners to do the same?
  • How do I provide multiple entry points that support multimodality, flexibility, and fluidity?

Concluding Remarks: Imagining the Possibilities for Change

Classroom communities characterized by a critical literacy imagination often work within a pedagogy of discomfort (Boler & Zembylas, 2003) where critically re-evaluating and re-defining beliefs, values, and worldviews can often induce feelings of guilt, frustration, anger, sadness, and even resistance as new ways of understanding push against and conflict with deeply ingrained assumptions, behaviours, habits, and privileges. Here we are called to reframe the conversation for learners, letting them know that, powerful experiences are uncomfortable.

To tap into imagination is to become able to break with what is supposedly fixed and finished, objectively and independently real. It is to see beyond what the imaginer has called normal or ‘common-sensible’ and to carve out new orders in experience. Doing so, a person may become freed to glimpse what might be, to form notions of what should be and what is not yet. And the same person may, at the same time, remain in touch with what presumably is. (Greene, 1995, p. 19) Pairing critical literacy with imagination is about “teaching [and learning] for change” (Shorey, 2008, p. 186), where learners are presented with opportunities to re-write, re-examine, re-envision, and re-design their identities, experiences, and worldviews by working toward local and global change. It allows learners to imagine how the world might otherwise exist and what they can do to positively contribute to that vision. Becoming critically imaginative allows learners to not only imagine the possibilities of change, but to work toward being that change.

Sarah Driessens is a contract lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Lakehead University. She is a recent graduate of Nipissing University’s PhD in Education (Educational Sustainability) program. Her research explores how critical literacy imaginations support educators and learners in being and becoming thoughtful and committed 21st century citizens. Michelle A. Scarlett is an experienced educator with the Simcoe-Muskoka Catholic District School Board. Throughout her teaching career, she has cultivated meaningful relationships with students, families, and colleagues, never shying away from the difficult conversations. Her efforts to embrace change continually make the world in a better place. Michelann Parr is professor in the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University. She currently teaches in the PhD program. Over the years, she has explored and invited critical literacy imaginations in various contexts: in schools, at the post-secondary level, with families and community partners, and in her own research and scholarly work.
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