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5 Ways to Use Liberation Literacies in Your Classroom: Practical Strategies

el_colors2-copyThis week on the Heinemann blog, we’re sharing a series on Language in the Classroom. The series was inspired by an article published by NPR on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, on the ways we teach English Learners in our country. While the NPR article was specific to English Learners, our hope is to use that as a jumping off point to broader topics of language instruction in the classroom. Each day this week we will feature articles, excerpts and insights directly from Heinemann authors and affiliates that further the conversation surrounding language diversity in the classroom, the challenges it presents, and what we know works.

In the first part of this two-part blog, Jamilia Lyiscott introduced liberation literacies pedagogy. You can find it here.

5 Ways to Use Liberation Literacies in Your Classroom: Practical Strategies

By Jamila Lyiscott

Begin the year with a Literate Identity Assessment of each student 

One of the goals of Liberation Literacies as a pedagogical framework is for students and teachers to find and employ agency within the stifling constraints of most classrooms, such as the pressures of teaching to the test. Within Liberation Literacies pedagogy teachers challenge the goals of assessments in their classrooms so that alongside the mandate of rigid exams are a series of assessments beginning on the first day of school to better understand the background knowledge, interests, and learning needs of each student as necessary for shaping curriculum. A Literate Identity Assessment at the beginning of the year can include the following prompt along with one or two others:

  • Name 3 different places where you spend most of your time every day or every week. For each place, describe how you use language. For example, do you speak differently at school than you do when you are at home or with your friends? Explain in detail.

As an essential component of this strategy, Liberation Literacies draws on Critical Language Awareness (CLA) within sociolinguistics to assess student and teacher attitudes toward different languages and literacies in the classroom (see the work of H. Samy Alim, Norman Fairclough, Hillary Janks, and April Baker-Bell). For this reason, along with understanding the types of languages and literacies your students engage in inside and outside of school, try to understand how they feel and how they think others feel about each respective literacy practice. This can serve as the beginning of shaping your classroom into a critical context where literacies and languages are always employed and understood in relation to power.

Add a Multiple Literacies goal into one of your units 

For the duration of just one unit, include texts that are written in a literacy practice other than Standard American English for content instruction (this can be chosen directly from the Literate Identity Assessment. In my work I have used hip-hop, dance, spoken word, art, Spanglish, African-American Varieties of English, social media texts, etc.). Throughout this unit, create opportunities for your students to: 

  • Critically analyze and produce this form of literacy to engage with content    

  • Put this form in conversation with the essential texts and questions being used for the unit

  • Reflect on how these non-standard texts help them to think about content differently

(*I have never had a problem aligning these goals with Common Core Standards. Make sure to do this as you set up this goal.)

Allow your students to decide on one social issue that feels relevant to both their lives and the literacy practice that you have chosen 

For example, if you are Social Studies educator and you have chosen to use spoken word or Creolized English, you might discuss the historical period of your unit alongside the work of Jamaican poet, Louise Bennett to discuss her piece, Colonization in Reverse and explore how multiple perspectives of historical events impact lives (i.e. you would create opportunities for your students to connect this to their own realities).

Create a platform for students to act on the ideas they have been producing 

This may be a student showcase or equivalency project that connects ideas from the unit to their lived realities. For example, discussing multiple perspectives about historical events in social studies and through spoken word might inspire your students to write spoken word pieces about their perspectives on present-day events. The opportunity to act through performance to peers or presenting their concerns to administrators to suggest changes for their school community (these are just two examples) is essential to a Liberation Literacies pedagogical approach.

Challenge yourself to learn new literacy practices and to deepen your knowledge about the social issues that concern your students

A High School English teacher once asked me how he can be expected to teach spoken word when he does not possess the skills to write or understand spoken word on a deep enough level. My response to him was that he was not born possessing the skills to write a 5-paragraph essay, but because this form has been asserted as valuable for academic achievement in school, it continues to lord over our classrooms and exams as inherently superior. Another teacher complained to me that not all students in her classroom would feel authentically connected to hip-hop, so she does not think it is a good idea to use it. I asked her if her students felt authentically connected to Shakespeare and if she would be removing that from her curriculum this year in light of this concern.

If we value the multiple literacies, identities, and perspectives our students bring into the classroom then we have to center, cultivate, and sustain skills in new areas with the conviction that they have the capacity to foster academic excellence and social change. Find the resources, environments, and networks to deepen your knowledge so that this work can be done with integrity. In this way, your classroom should be a community of practice and not a didactic environment so that students see you as a learner and themselves as already having authority over various skills and knowledge in the world. Liberation Literacies cannot be a series of strategies employed without a critical understanding of how many of the classroom practices we have normalized perpetuate inequality.

…But this just scratches the surface! There’s more to come! In the mean time…Be bold in your classrooms and make each year as LITT as possible! Mi say yuh haffi work work work work work work!!!! 

P.S. If you’ve made it this far into the post, here’s an extra treat…



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 headshot3-3Jamila Lyiscott is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) of Teachers College, Columbia University, and a professor at Long Island University where her work focuses on the intersections of race, education, and social justice. The recently awarded Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color fellow also serves as a public speaker, community leader, and educational consultant locally and internationally. Her scholarship and activism work together to prepare educators to sustain diversity in the classroom, empower youth, and explore, assert, and defend the value of Black life. Jamila's recently featured TED Talk, "3 Ways to Speak English," was viewed over 3.5 million times. She has also been featured on NPR, Huffington Post, Upworthy, The Root, Radio New Zealand, Lexus Versus and Flow, and many other media outlets and her scholarly work has been published in several peer-reviewed journals. As a testament to her commitment to educational justice for students of color, Jamila is the founder and co-director of the Cyphers For Justice (CFJ) youth, research, and advocacy program, apprenticing inner-city youth and pre-service teachers as critical researchers through hip-hop, spoken word, and digital literacy.

Topics: Education, TCRWP, Teachers College, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Grammar, Jamila Lyiscott, Language Arts, Language in the Classroom, Literacy, Poetry, Social Justice, Strategies, Teaching

Date Published: 10/26/16

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