Reading for Change

Critical reading allows students to navigate the “quest for mutual humanization.”

In Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed he writes, “… the humanist, revolutionary educator … From the outset, her efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization.” 

Humanization recognizes that we, as individuals, bring unique perspectives formed by our identity, experiences and backgrounds. Each experience and perspective is valued equally and seen as a tool to learn from and contribute to the perpetuation of humanization. As a middle school classroom teacher, I attempted to promote humanization through assigning varied literary and informational texts and asking my students to find commonalities and differences with the authors and characters: their identities, their actions, how they approached conflict and so on.

One example I used in the classroom was a play detailing the Greensboro sit-ins. As they read, my students stopped to ask themselves, “What traits do I see in the participants? What traits do I see in the people against whom they are protesting? What about the participants’ identities motivates them to be so bold and courageous? What about their opponents’ identities affords them the belief that they are superior? What was happening in the world at that time that a powerful civil rights movement emerged?” As my students grappled with these questions, they used their unique experiences, as well as the experience of their peers, to connect to the text and relate it to the world around them. 

As they read, I constantly challenged my students to deconstruct archetypes and clichés and to create working, reality-based definitions of equality, morality and justice. This process helped my students to not only name traits possessed by people who catalyzed and resisted change, but also to reflect on those traits within themselves and see them in others. It allowed them to see themselves as valued and empowered young men and women. It supported their ability to think critically about the world around them and their place in it.

Given that my students were 14 years old and came from diverse backgrounds, it was often difficult for them to reconcile competing messages about concepts such as morality and justice.

After Moammar Gadhafi was murdered, my student, Kassy, came to school distraught. She felt that, as an American, she should value patriotism and be happier about the celebrations she saw in the mass media. However, as a young woman living in the crossfire of a drug war that employed people from her community, she believed that Gadhafi’s guilt was, in part, due to his experiences, and that without understanding those, we couldn’t understand his leadership or his death.

A year after Trayvon Martin was killed, my students shared their heartbreak regarding the George Zimmerman verdict, again employing language we used in class. If America is just, why did Zimmerman leave the courtroom without consequence? Why, in an equitable country, is Zimmerman free while prisons are overpopulated by people who look like my students? Who is questioning these disparities? Who is not?

Even when my students’ responses to current events were emotionally charged and uttered as questions and incomplete sentences, their outrage and their curiosity spoke to their humanity and their desire for a better world. They expressed their hope and—despite largely being members of marginalized groups—they believed they can change their reality.

As a teacher, I operated with the belief that my students bring unique and valuable experiences to the classroom that deserve to be validated and used to empower them individually and collectively. They need to see themselves reflected in the work that we do and practice applying their reflections. Whether we read a story about a middle-class white family or a migrant farm worker, my students needed to connect to it, relate it to the world around them and leverage it as a means of navigating their own quests for mutual humanization in an often-troubling world.

Sturdevant is a writer who teaches a media class with a social justice theme in South Dakota. She previously taught eighth-grade reading in Texas.