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Commuter Series: Identifying Dominant Narratives

Red Center (11)

Students today are learning the importance of analyzing all forms of text for accuracy and truth. A great way to engage students in honing this skill is to practice identifying dominant narratives and seeking out counter narratives. In this excerpt from their audiobook, The Civically Engaged Classroom, authors, Mary Ehrenworth, Pablo Wolfe, and Marc Todd offer practical advice and resources for starting this work in your classroom.


Heinemann Audiobooks


Below is a transcript of the episode:


Hi, this is Brett from Heinemann. Thanks for joining us on the commute.

Students today are learning the importance of analyzing all forms of text for accuracy and truth. A great way to engage students in honing this skill is to practice identifying master narratives and seeking out counternarratives. In this excerpt from their audiobook, The Civically Engaged Classroom, authors, Mary Ehrenworth, Pablo Wolfe, and Marc Todd offer practical advice and resources for studying this work in your classroom.

Speaker 2:

Lesson: Considering the Effects of Dominant Narratives.

First, make a connection to the lesson. If you're introducing your students to the concept of dominant narratives, you might want to begin by watching the jarring Schoolhouse Rock!'s Elbow Room with its overt celebration of a dominant narrative of Manifest Destiny.

Then explain. A dominant narrative gives an account of events that shows a dominant group's perspective, often justifying that group's dominance. It does not reflect the perspective of those who are not in power. For instance, the dominant narrative of Manifest Destiny, the belief that it was destiny that settlers expand westward, justified in the settler's minds the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Dominant narratives of the superiority of some and the inferiority of others not only constitute a perceived justification for oppression, but also rewrite history to favor some groups and erase others. Dominant narratives can be less dramatic and less obvious, but their impact can be significant because they are so ingrained in society that they are not questioned.

Second, teach. Chances are if you open any US history textbook to the chapter on the Pilgrims or the Founding Fathers, you'll get a strong sense of the dominant narrative that a small group of idealistic white men founded this country and made it what it is today. If you have any of these kinds of textbooks in your closet, get one out. Now is the moment to find an excerpt to share.

One example is a feature in a US history textbook, the Pilgrims before the Mayflower, extolling the virtues of the Pilgrims entitled, They never gave up. You might demonstrate finding one dominant narrative in a text and leave others for students to find.

Third, engage students. If you stay with the same text you can invite students to suggest other possible dominant narratives, or you can move to a second text. Chart some of the dominant narratives that emerge. We found a particularly compelling text to be Jay-Z and Molly Crabapple's video documentary, A History of the War on Drugs, which explicitly dismantles racist dominant narratives propagated deliberately in the war on drugs.

Finally, launch independent work time. When kids go off to work, you might suggest that they read, alert to some of the dominant narratives that emerged in the mini lesson if you studied a content related text. Or suggest that their partnership or study group revisit their research briefly, charting some of the dominant narratives that emerge. Then they can read on, alert to the presence of these dominant narratives.

Lesson, center counternarratives.

First, make a connection to the lesson. If US history textbooks mostly align with a dominant narrative that this nation was honorably founded on the ideals of a few enlightened white men from the British colonies, then the Broadway hit, Hamilton, subverts that dominant narrative. At almost every level, people of color are cast in most of the roles. Women fight on the battlefield alongside men, and two of the most important characters, Hamilton and Lafayette are celebrated as immigrants. You might play a video of the cast's 2016 performance at the Tony Awards asking kids to ponder what this show suggests about who has peopled and made America "great."

Explain. In history, popular culture and literature there are not only dominant narratives, but also counternarratives which show the perspectives of those who have been oppressed by the dominant narrative. By seeking out and studying counternarratives, we can gather a fuller understanding of an event, movement or time period.

Then, teach and engage students. Here is where you want to emphasize and highlight voices who have been underrepresented, and voices who offer counternarratives that suggest possibility, especially to kids in your class. You might turn to teen activists such as the Parkland kids whose speeches and activism have disrupted a dominant narrative of teens as children and victims. Or to any of the climate warriors such as Autumn Peltier, who have led the world in activism. Or you might return to your content, bringing out the counternarratives that are often submerged there.

Some texts that can be helpful in offering explicit counternarratives. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People by Debbie Reese, Jean Mendoza, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, A Queer History of the United States for Young People by Michael Bronski and Richie Chevat, A Young People's History of the United States by Rebecca Stefoff and Howard Zinn. An African American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz, Home of the Brave: 15 Immigrants Who Shaped U.S. History by Brooke Khan and Iratxe Lopez de Munain, American Trailblazers: 50 Remarkable People Who Shaped U.S. History by Lisa Trusiani, VICE Magazine, including their VICE profiles.

Finally, launch independent work time. At this point, you can send kids off to actively seek counternarratives that relate to the research they've done so far. Or you can send them off to go on with their research alert to the possibility of counternarratives.

Speaker 3:

Involve families and communities. One of the most immediate ways to involve families and communities and helping to raise children who question sources and seek alternative voices is to actively seek the perspectives of family members and community members.

Invite students often to interview family members for their perspective on the topic students are studying and the texts they're reading. Ask family and community members to suggest voices and text that will deepen and broaden students' perspectives. No single teacher can ever know as many texts and histories and voices as those that will be known and celebrated by our students' families and communities. This will be especially true when we teach multiliterate students.

Then our own language barriers may prevent us from accessing texts that our students can access. Ask for help from families, colleagues, and students. When you have curriculum night or parent-teacher conferences, it can also be helpful to share ideas for magazine subscriptions and magazines that are found at the local library or online. Giving kids access to Latinitas, or Teen Ink, or Sesi can help kids to find themselves in print communities and to develop a personal reading life and a sense of identity they bring to their school selves.

Be ready for anything. Expect this work to be difficult for your students as they're unlikely to have had much experience directly critiquing sources of information. At this point in their academic lives, your students have largely expected that the text given to them are simply true. And the idea that people will have varying angles on what's true is complex and disconcerting. Students will need lots of practice with analyzing sources. Try to introduce sources in pairs so that through comparison and contrast, students can see where text overlap and differ. Then introduce a third text and ask, "Which one does it align with more and why?" Getting into the practice of triangulating, meaning from multiple sources is a key habit for critical readers and engaged citizens.

In a similar vein, you may find that students find it difficult to hear bias during your strategic read alouds because they are unaccustomed to questioning sources. You may want to begin your first read through a text with emotional language rather than academic language in your prompt. For example instead of listen for bias, you may start by asking, "How does this text make you feel?" Priming the students with social and emotional prompts generally leads to greater success when you follow up with a thorough academic second read.

As with much of this book, there is a risk of conflict when pointing out the bias or slant of different news publications or political advertisements. You'll want to make sure that you frame your work as universally as possible. Show that publications and political campaigns across the political spectrum use the same techniques to sway their audiences.

Practice what you teach. It's easy to look up a news story that has been debunked and wonder how anyone could have fallen for it. But the truth is, no one is immune to propaganda. The following questions might help you recall anecdotes to help you remember what it feels like to learn the lessons this chapter teaches. And perhaps to share your own experiences with your students and to let them know that their own learning curves in this work are to be expected.

When were you surprised by disparate coverage of an event? When have you realized that one of your trusted sources of media actually had biased coverage of an event? When were you duped or confused by a source? When have you inadvertently liked or shared a post on your social media account that you later realized was disinformation or untrustworthy? When have you seen studies, charts, infographics that paint a persuasive picture but are actually flawed? Or when have you seen egregious examples of propaganda techniques and advertising either for products or political campaigns?

We have all had lapses in our news literacy. And acknowledging it can help us and our students realize the importance of vigilant reading. As civically engaged educators, we can learn from our own mistakes and even help our students to learn from them as well.


As the authors mention, questioning sources may be a new experience for students. However, preparing students to do this for their lifetime is at the foundation of civic engagement.

If you'd like to learn more or hear more from this audiobook, you can stream and download it wherever you get your audiobooks. Thanks for listening, and let us know how you'd like to spend more of our time together on the commute. You can learn more about Heinemann's Audiobooks at heinemann.com/audiobooks.


Mary Ehrenworth Heinemann Author

Mary Ehrenworth, Senior Deputy Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and co-editor for the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Middle School series, works with schools and districts around the globe, and is a frequent keynote speaker at Project events and national and international conferences. Mary’s interest in critical literacies, deep interpretation, and reading and writing for social justice all inform the books she has authored or co-authored in the Reading and Writing Units of Study series as well as her many articles and other books on instruction and leadership.



Pablo Wolfe is a Washington DC-based educator who promotes civic education as a means to improve student engagement, celebrate student identity, and embolden the next generation of citizens. He's been a public school administrator, a staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a teacher, and a parent, and in all of these roles has sought to make school a training ground for civic life. He is the co-author of The Civically Engaged Classroom: Reading, Writing, and Speaking for Change and the Unit of Study: Historical Fiction Book Clubs. His work has also been featured in School Library Journal and Middleweb Blog. 

You can connect with Pablo and apply to join CCEE, at www.civically-engaged.org

Marc Todd Heinemann Author

Marc Todd teaches Social Studies at IS 289, the Hudson River Middle School in New York, and is a national presenter for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. He collaborates with teachers around the world and leads workshops and institutes on culturally relevant pedagogy and teaching students to be critical readers of history. Marc believes in immersing kids in nonfiction reading and making notebook work inside of content classes both serious and joyful. He incorporates Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed into his curriculum.





Topics: Podcast, Mary Ehrenworth, The Civically Engaged Classroom, Pablo Wolfe, Marc Todd, commute

Date Published: 11/06/23

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