Teaching Social Justice and Democracy Through Young Adult Literature and the Pedagogical Approach of Critical Literacy

America has a problem. Presidential candidate Donald Trump galvanized his supporters, using the campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. But ‘great’ by what yardstick? The 1940’s or 1950’s era? Since Trump’s election victory on November 8th, 2016, diverse groups across the country have expressed their fear for a growing imbalance in power relations, further marginalization within public domains, and discriminatory intrusions on their personal and collective freedoms (including restrictions on their movements). But perhaps a positive outcome of the 2016 election is that this problem – reactionary response against the dismantling of white male privilege – has been brought out from the secret corners of the country into the light, now publicly visible where it can be addressed collectively towards a resolution that works for America’s diverse multicultural population as a whole. This same problem has also come to light in Canada since the US election, challenging Canadians towards a collective fix. How do we do this?

In the wake of Trump’s election victory, Harry Potter film star and United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson personally circulated copies of Maya Angelou books on the New York City subway, fostering the opportunity for empathy, enlightenment, healing and solidarity through literary engagement for a handful of lucky subway riders (Watson, 2016), and for 23.3 million more (her Twitter followers) through role-modeling and readers’ advisory by promoting this action via social media. Watson’s social action pinpoints some of the most valuable aspects of literature and reading as resources for affecting social justice: Their potential for building community, challenging the dominant worldview, and therapeutic effect, all critical for teaching and inspiring action towards social justice as a civic imperative and (re)constructing the personal and group processes/dynamics for achieving it.

Classrooms and libraries are ideal spaces for this pursuit, where teachers and students work collaboratively to engage with literature towards curriculum outcomes. [And with the US Common Core for K-12 education threatened by Trump’s selection of Becky deVos for Education Secretary, who is not in favour of the Common Core (deVos, 2016), libraries and librarians may play an increasingly important role in connecting young Americans with materials that foster their civic learning and engagement, inspiring them towards social action in pursuit of social justice.]

In this paper I explore the potential for teaching adolescents democratic processes and social justice experientially through literary engagement within learning communities, and I examine the enhanced benefits of young adult literature relative to other materials such as the classics in this learning. I describe the pedagogical strategy of critical literacy, which includes actively and collaboratively confronting embedded power relationships and the language that constructs power in both texts and literary engagement processes, and collectively recreating these structures of engagement within learning communities to maximize democratic participation and level privilege. Finally, I examine the model of African-American Freedom Schools (a Children’s Defense Fund program) as a case study for using literature and critical literacy to dismantle power structures and reconstruct self- and social-identity, mediating barriers to maximize positive freedoms within diverse communities of learners.

What Does Social Justice Mean?

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) emphasizes an essential relationship between social justice and democracy:

“Social justice is a dynamic goal of democratic societies. It includes respect for the democratic rights and civil liberties of every individual and for the inherent right of every person, without discrimination, to equal treatment under the law and to equitable access to food, shelter, meaningful work, health care, education, and public services. All individuals and all groups have an obligation to promote social justice. The right to education is both a human right and a right which is essential to the common good of society. Education’s most basic purpose is to enhance life and the dignity of the human person — an objective that is difficult to achieve in the absence of fundamental human rights.” (CAUT Council, 2013)

This definition identifies what is paramount to social justice: Positive freedoms, i.e. not simply a lack of proscriptive inhibitors, but rather the dismantling of impediments that restrict people from enacting their freedoms, such as socioeconomic and/or psychological barriers (Bean & Harper, 2006). This definition provides an impetus for individuals to engage in processes that may fundamentally challenge and change their worldview, privilege and the contributions they make to the reinforcement of barriers that marginalize others, as part of the processes of dismantling these and recreating social structures towards maximizing the positive freedoms of all citizens.

Engaging with literature offers a means to facilitate these processes, and classroom settings provide ready-made communities of learners, especially those comprising young adults as they are being prepared for democratic participation as adults (Bean & Harper, 2006; Santoli & Wagner, 2004; Wolk, 2009). Process, then, becomes a pedagogical outcome, and literary engagement is incorporated to support students in developing and practicing the skills needed to affect social change towards democratic ideals (those embodied in the US Constitution, for instance) (Jackson & Boutte, 2009; Wolk, 2009).

Why Young Adult Literature?

Reading is critical for informed democratic participation that includes voting as well as social action (Wolk, 2009). Wolk (2009) asserts that reading connects people with content and processes that “help shape political, moral or cultural identities” (p. 664) and that “part of the purpose of engaging students with literature is to help them develop a lifelong [intellectual curiosity and] love of reading, or at minimum to value reading as a way of acquiring knowledge and reflecting on their perspectives” (pp. 665). This includes the ability to analyse power relations embedded, expressed and reinforced through text, and the evaluation of the authenticity of messaging and voice (Bean & Harper, 2006; Gregory & Cahill, 2006; Wolk, 2009).

While school curriculum and many teachers tend to prioritize the classics, these texts are accompanied by a number of barriers that threaten to undermine young adults’ literary engagement and counter the development of a love for reading that fosters lifelong reading motivation and habits (Alvine & George, 2004; Groenke, Venable, Hill, & Bennett, 2011; Pope & Kaywell, 2001; Santoli & Wagner, 2004; Stallworth, Gibbons, & Fauber, 2006). The classics typically comprise material and subject matter not written specifically for young readers (even when they are about adolescents); narratives are commonly too complex for many adolescents to fully grasp; subject matter is abstracted, offering little or no real-life connection for readers; and these texts generally privilege and reinforce dominant (white) culture, perspectives and ideologies (Alvine & George, 2004; Groenke, Venable, Hill, & Bennett, 2011; Pope & Kaywell, 2001; Santoli & Wagner, 2004; Stallworth, Gibbons, & Fauber, 2006; Woolfolk, Winne, & Perry, 2011). Additionally, Santoli and Wagner (2004) highlight that not all adolescents come to the classroom with the same level of reading skills, meaning that many lack the capacity to engage with the classics.

Santoli and Wagner (2004) suggest that young adult literature, on the other hand, helps translate complex issues in a way that students can understand and relate to in real-life terms, with diverse subject matter that presents alternative perspectives that have the potential to engage marginalized students through relevance, identification and affirmation (a starting point for the critical literacy approach, describe below). Works such as M. T. Anderson’s Feed, Deborah Ellis’ The Breadwinner trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Walter Dean Myers’ Monster, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alexie Sherman’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart connect young adult readers with diverse perspectives and counternarratives that challenge dominant/mainstream ideologies.

Though they describe that young adult novels are typically shorter with condensed plot lines and fewer characters than the classics, Santori and Wagner (2004) suggest these aspects help make these materials more accessible to adolescents and assert that good young adult literature contains the same elements as the classics, including situational and character archetypes. Further, Cole (2008) points to research evidence that indicates allowing for student choice increases motivation and engagement, and that the choices of adolescent students consistently favour young adult literature over the classics.

Teachers, as well as librarians, may support young adults in developing a lifelong path of literacy through connecting them with materials that enable access to complex subject matter, concepts and experience that are purposeful and relevant to them and that foster inquiry-based investigations into the moral and ethical questions that encourage the real-life performance of civic responsibilities (Wolk, 2009). Through these experiences, young adults gain practice in decision-making and democratic engagement, such as evaluating the political positions of electoral candidates to inform their voting (Wolk, 2009). In this way, literature offers simulations for adolescents to engage in risk-taking and skills practice from a relative position of safety, while at the same time enabling them to tackle important real-life issues that impact them. This includes practicing democratic participation within a community of learners, and connecting the experiences drawn from these processes to the broader context of society outside the classroom (Santoli & Wagner, 2004; Wolk, 2009; Woolfolk, et al., 2011).

Community of Learners & Critical Literacy

Fundamental to social justice within democratic contexts is the concept of positive freedom[1], which Bean and Harper (2006) describe focuses on a broad range of abstract and/or subjective factors, such as fear, that impact a person’s capacity for making choices and enacting their freedoms. They highlight the necessity of community for constructing and enacting freedom, as these processes require dialogue and interaction:

  • Exercising freedoms is a social activity, the space where we make choices, negotiate and define values and act on these, in our relations with others and with society as a whole;
  • Freedom is defined relative to and within the context of community;
  • Plurality enables us to choose and create our individual identit(ies);
  • Exposure to others within community spaces enables us to challenge our ideas and to progress. (Bean & Harper, 2006)

Through engagement in learning communities, students (guided/facilitated by teachers) exchange ideas, relate and share authentic experiences, and develop a common sense of purpose (Bean & Harper, 2006; Wolk, 2009). Students consider how each other’s engagement is supported or restricted, challenging assumptions and (historical, social and political) contexts in order to shape the engagement process towards greater inclusion to maximize the ability of all members to enact their freedoms in the collective process of knowledge creation (Bean & Harper, 2006; Wolk, 2009). Social responsibility moves from understanding to action, taking on the additional obligation of creating change (Wolk, 2009; Woolfolk, et al., 2011).

Inherent in this process is identifying, acknowledging, confronting and leveling power relations, which in literature is embodied and expressed through language; This process is formalized in pedagogy as the critical literacy approach (Behrman, 2006; Gregory & Cahill, 2009; Janks, 2000, 2013; Wolk, 2009). Wolk (2009) describes that critical literacy deconstructs where power is situated within texts, how it is used within texts, and how it shapes reader engagement with the text and with each other.

Inquiry-based investigations into context in literature reveal how materials privilege some while excluding others, and explore how this impedes marginalized readers from engaging with literature and in democratic participation, both enactments of positive freedoms (Bean & Harper, 2006). A good example is lower reading and educational engagement rates amongst African-American male students in response to Eurocentric texts and pedagogical approaches (Jackson & Boutte, 2009).

Critical literacy is a democratizing process, with the specific objectives of confronting language and power relationships, and fostering the reconstruction of these relations within classroom/learning communities (Bean & Harper, 2006; Behrman, 2006; Gregory & Cahill, 2009; Janks, 2000, 2013; Wolk, 2009). Behrman (2006) describes critical literacy as a pedagogical approach that may:

“… foster social justice by allowing students to recognize how language is affected by and affects social relations. Among the aims of critical literacy are to have student examine the power relationships inherent in language use, recognize that language is not neutral, and confront their own values in the production and reception of language.” (p. 480)

This approach involves renegotiating power, which for some means relinquishing privilege, towards and through enacting democratic principles and values through collaborative literary engagement (Behrman, 2006; Wolk, 2009). Bean and Harper (2006) describe that learners collectively work through authentic democratic participation and experiential learning, considering what issues such as freedom and democracy mean to each individual and to the group (and society) as whole.

An important aspect of critical literacy is that is does not comprise a distinct instructional methodology (Behrman, 2006), instead offering an iterative approach, a “living curriculum” (Wolk, 2009, p. 666) that shapes itself to individual classroom needs, making it a highly constructivist process. Janks (2000, 2013) identifies four domain perspectives within the critical literacy approach – domination, access, diversity, design – relating to the positioning and use of language, recommending teacher-student collaboration through its classroom application should encompass all four (Behrman, 2006; Janks, 2000, 2013).

Behrman’s (2006) ‘state of the field’ review of studies on classroom practices identified six categories of implementation of critical literacy instruction:

  1. Engaging with supplementary materials – (e.g. non-fiction, films, music);
  2. Reading multiple texts on a subject – (for critical comparisons of authorship and situated activity);
  3. Reading from a resistant perspective – (enabling readers to explore a text from multiple, including marginalized, perspectives and identities);
  4. Producing counternarratives – (student-produced texts taking a counter-perspective on the same topic or subject matter);
  5. Student choice projects – (i.e. exploring real-life problems, challenges, events, etc. from students’ individual lives);
  6. Taking social action – (moving real-life concerns into the public domain)2.

What these tasks aim to foster amongst the community of learners is mindfulness in how one’s own language use embeds and articulates power relations; skills for identifying and critiquing power relations embodied in and perpetuated by others’ language use (including within media and public domains); empathy with and validation of marginalized perspectives, as a reflective process in confronting one’s own assumptions, perspectives and privilege; and generating collective purposeful action towards change and effecting social justice that targets broader society, replicating the democratizing processes that have been learned through critical literacy in the classroom (Behrman, 2006). As noted earlier in this paper, allowing students self-direction in choice of reading material enhances motivation and engagement (Cole, 2008). Similarly, motivation and learning engagement improves when students are able to connect their learning with real-world issues and activities (the rationale for including volunteer community service work as a curriculum requirement) (Woolfolk, et al., 2011).

Case Study: The African-American Freedom Schools Initiative

As an example of how literacy and freedom can be mutually constituting, Jackson and Boutte (2009) describe how the Children’s Defense Fund[2] Freedom Schools summer program initiative in the US aims to reconstruct the relationship between African-American youth and literature, challenging the misconception that these youth “do not read or do not like to read” (p. 109). The Freedom Schools model embodies the critical literacy approach, and though in this example it is implemented within a somewhat homogenized social context, it demonstrates how power can be renegotiated away from dominant perspectives and resituated with those who have been traditionally marginalized within/through mainstream classrooms and pedagogy (Groenke, Venable, Hill, Bennett, 2011; Jackson & Boutte, 2009).

As described earlier in this paper, African-American students (especially boys) are at risk for disengagement through exposure to mainstream language arts and social studies education that typically privilege texts that privilege dominant ideologies and thereby silence them (Groenke, Venable, Hill, Bennett, 2011; Jackson & Boutte, 2009). Jackson and Boutte (2009) describe that students encounter materials in which African-American perspectives are either not represented or peripherally represented, and are typically misrepresented, while dominant White culture, perspectives and political ideology are reinforced, thereby reconstructing these power relations amongst students within ethnically diverse classrooms, and thereby marginalizing African-American students within and through literary engagement. These negative experiences may impede (or at least influence) African-American students’ development of a love of reading and lifelong reading habits, and may contribute to cycles of reading disengagement/dormancy and to mainstream assumptions stemming from this regarding African-American students’ relationships with literature (Groenke, Venable, Hill, Bennett, 2011; Jackson & Boutte, 2009).

Freedom Schools programming encompasses African-American focused young adults literature – such as Sharon Flake’s Begging for Change and Bang!, Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun, Sheila Moses’ Joseph, and Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Groenke, Venable, Hill, Bennett, 2011; Jackson & Boutte, 2009) – that provides positive and authentic representations of African-American identity with which students can connect (Groenke, Venable, Hill, Bennett, 2011; Jackson & Boutte, 2009). But more than this, programming embodies an Africa-centred approach advancing cultural identity that incorporates African-American literary achievement and affirmation; and incorporating holistic development through a culturally relevant activity-based curriculum that integrates ceremony, communalism, movement, oral tradition, and social action (Jackson & Boutte, 2009).

“[Africa-centred pedagogy] posits that Black students be immersed in an educational environment that supports the development of a positive racial identity by viewing them as educable and as descendents of a long line of scholars, not tracked towards a White dominated benchmark for success.” (Jackson & Boutte, 2009, p. 110)

Integrated reading, which includes intergenerational collaborative reading, is central to Freedom Schools programming, advancing counternarratives that challenge mainstream ideology and assumptions regarding African-American intellect, learning, and literary achievement (Jackson & Boutte, 2009). This approach helps African-American students reconstruct perceptions regarding their culture through literature (Jackson & Boutte, 2009). Literature engagement is encouraged through positive representations with which these students may identify and through which they may experience affirmation (Jackson & Boutte, 2009).

Jackson and Boutte (2009) highlight that Freedom Schools are situated within communities experiencing unique local issues, enabling the Freedom School curriculum to incorporate the exploration of these as a means of bringing real-life issues and experiences into the classroom to inspire students towards collective social action outside the classroom.

Though direct transfer of the Freedom Schools model to mainstream schools would ne neither realistic nor appropriate, teachers may adopt some of its pedagogical aspects in conjunction with the critical literacy approach to better engage and empower traditionally marginalized students in their socially diverse classrooms. Instead of limited inclusion of ‘non-mainstream’ materials as isolated components of language arts or social studies curriculum, such an approach would foster integration encompassing content (exposing White students to African-American texts, for example) along with more holistic pedagogical methods that facilitate authentic democratic processes aimed at maximizing the positive freedoms of all participants in the learning community (Bean & Harper, 2006; Jackson & Boutte, 2009; Wolk, 2009). This includes literary engagement and development of a lifelong love of reading amongst all students, including traditionally marginalized students (Jackson & Boutte, 2009).

Discussion and Conclusion

Once again, ideological fundamentalism threatens humanity with political will favouring the construction of walls to separate people, create ‘otherness’, and preserve privilege (Blackwell, 2016; Mozur & Scott, 2016; Quora, 2016) This threat has resurfaced even as the World Wide Web has continued to break down silos and facilitate connection. We are entering a new era of media control, at a time when the Internet has furthered our capacities for free speech and enhanced public scrutiny. And a critical new threat was exposed during the 2016 US presidential election: The pervasiveness of fake news (especially circulated via social media) and its tangible influence on people’s democratic participation (i.e. its influence on citizens’ decision-making in election voting) (Mozur & Scott, 2016; Quora, 2016).

What has ensued post US election is a clash of mainstream narratives and counternarratives, expressing privileged vs. marginalized perspectives and voices, respectively. However exigent these circumstances may be, they perhaps signify or may transition into a society-wide process akin to critical literacy.

In a rapidly evolving era of global connectivity and unverified information, consolidated agenda-driven mass media, and the resurgence of nationalist and racist sentiments across North America and Europe, young adult literature and the pedagogical strategy of critical literacy offer potential for supporting the next generation in developing the skills needed for navigating this 21st century environment and collectively forging a world in which they want to live. Curriculum models that integrate young adult literature and critical literacy teach democracy and social justice through experiential learning encompassing both content and processes through which adolescents collectively practice questioning, deconstructing and reconstructing ideology and social structures towards maximizing equitable engagement opportunities and positive freedoms. These models exist and have proven effective.

Jackson and Boutte demonstrate the efficacy of literary approaches to effect specific pedagogical outcomes. Wolk, Behrman and others provide learning models within which young adult and classical literature can foster an awareness of and a passion for social engagement and active democratic participation.

Literacy is an equalizer. As Jackson and Boutte (2009) assert, “Literacy is inseparable from the struggle for freedom because education interrogates power(p. 110). It is imperative that young people develop skills and motivation for lifelong reading; the ability to evaluate the authenticity of information, discern which perspectives it privileges, and how it reinforces power relations vis-à-vis those perspectives it marginalizes; and how to challenge and change these. Investment in initiatives such as Freedom Schools, and a shift in focus to democratic literary engagement and critical literacy in classrooms will be a fundamental feature of any effective long-term response to reactionary pressures now threatening to drive public policy in the West.



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[1] In contrast to negative freedoms, i.e. objective barriers, such as laws, restricting the choices available to a person and intruding into people’s private lives (Bean & Harper, 2006).

[2] From Wikipedia: “The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is an American… nonprofit organization that focuses on child advocacy and research… The organization’s stated purpose is “to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start, and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.” (Children’s Defense Fund, 2016).



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