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Critical Literacy in Practice

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Vivian Vasquez
Photo of Vivian Vasquez by Abbey Becker

Have you ever read a book for class and thought, “How does this relate to the real world?” Through her Critical Literacy in Practice (CLIP) podcast, School of Education, Teaching, and Health professor Vivian Vasquez aims to use critical literacy as a way to connect what happens in and outside of the classroom, especially with young children. “We can only ever speak using the discourses available to us,” she explains. “How do I make available to young children powerful ways of being in the world that helps them to change inequities and to position themselves differently in the world, even though they’re very young?”

Before coming to American, Vasquez spent 14 years as a classroom teacher, mainly working with 3- to 8-year-olds. While she wanted to use critical literacy—using the children’s interests to build a curriculum that would help them learn about the world around them—with her students, many of her colleagues were skeptical. “They thought that if you did this kind of work with children, they’d become cynical about the world around them,” says Vasquez. “What I’ve found is they’re very passionate about it, because they realize that we could bring their interests in the world out there into the classroom.”

Critical literacy is often applied to the critical analysis of text, but Vasquez believes in taking it even further. “We look at how language and images position you as a reader of a text in particular ways. It’s helping children understand that they come to these texts with particular positions based on their own experiences,” she says. “It’s not about telling the kids what to think and how to think about those things. It’s offering different ways of thinking about things so that they can make informed decisions in the world.”

Vasquez wants children to take what they’ve learned and not just form their own opinions, but to take action as well. “The redesign part is always a piece of it, and that’s the piece that’s often left out,” says Vasquez. “So you’ve critically analyzed this text or situation. You can’t just leave it like that. What are you going to do about it?”

The CLIP podcast has reached audiences across the globe, and her listeners are passing on her teachings to others. “People would hear about the show before they even heard about articles I’d written,” says Vasquez. “It allows other people who are using my books in their courses to make accessible these stories. It adds a different dimension to the work.”

In fall 2011, she was contacted by members of the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis who listened to her podcast and are actually applying her teaching firsthand. “They use the work to inform what they’re doing in the community with very young children,” says Vasquez. “I am so touched that the work is crossing fields, which is exactly what I had hoped would happen.”