Myers, J. & Beach, R. (2004). Constructing critical literacy practices through technology tools and inquiry. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education [Online serial], 4(3). Available: http://www.citejournal.org/vol4/iss3/languagearts/article1.cfm
Constructing Critical Literacy Practices Through Technology Tools and Inquiry
Pennsylvania State University
University of Minnesota
This article describes how students have made use of technology tools
in several critical literacy activities that help to achieve the paramount
goals of language and literacy education to enable students to develop
critical consciousness and community agency through literacy. The technologies
helped students define intertextual connections, pose questions about
the basis for meaning, integrate multiple voices and perspectives, and
adopt a collaborative inquiry stance. The technology tools include software
programs for video editing, hyperlinked knowledge bases, and asynchronous
virtual communication. Examples of technology projects are embedded
as links in this article.
Beliefs About Literacy, Technology, and Pedagogy
In Inquiry-Based English Instruction (Beach & Myers, 2001) an
English language arts curriculum is detailed in which students explore how words,
objects, and symbols are used to enact literacy practices and discourses that
construct multiple social worlds, each with its own valued identities, relationships,
and activities. The book provides a framework for teachers and documents how
students have made use of technology tools to conduct inquiries into issues
related to their own lived peer, family, school, community, workplace, and virtual
social worlds and the social worlds represented in literature and media.
In this multimedia, multicultural world, teacher educators must prepare future
teachers of literacy, language, culture, and citizenship to expand the forms
of representation typical in the school classroom and to reframe the purpose
of school on the critique and production of diverse representations of experience
and knowledge (Gallego & Hollingsworth, 2000). As students learn to use
technology tools to build representations of a social world’s characteristics,
they generate reflective critical thought through their analysis and critique
of the identities, relationships, and values constructed by the cultural practices
and discourses in that social world.
A social worlds curriculum focuses the study of language, literature, media,
and culture on the central issue of how people construct meaning from experience.
Meanings about the words people use, the objects we produce, and the activities
in which we engage, are negotiated through social interaction with others in
multiple, overlapping, and often contesting communities. Through our participation
in these communities, or social worlds, we develop skills in using particular
objects, or tools, or texts to accomplish the activities valued within these
social worlds. In English language arts classrooms, these skills are often identified
as reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing, with more specific subskills
like summarizing, using transitions, intonation, note taking, and identifying
propaganda techniques. In the study of literature, students focus on inferring
elements of character, plot, theme, symbolism, and so on.
Often these literacy skills are defined as cognitive abilities with which
some students struggle because they lack ability or motivation. Students’ lack
of motivation helps English educators to envision language arts skills as
socially constructed literacy practices, or goal directed ways of using language
and symbols valued within a social group to which the student hopes to belong.
Although skills may readily transfer to other social contexts, the skills taught
in the typical English classroom seem to many students to be valuable only
within the specific context/discourse of school. When students and teachers
begin to understand skills as socially developed over time in particular
cultural groups, they can analyze how language and symbols shape their
identities, relationships, and activities within particular social worlds.
We (the authors) have found technology projects to be especially beneficial
in supporting the development of language and symbol use within social worlds.
These technology projects also support the realization that skills are socially
negotiated ways of using symbols (not cognitive predispositions and limits)
that enable all learners to extend different language actions into different
contexts to develop new forms of negotiating meaning, belonging, and social
activity within and across social worlds (http://www.ed.psu.edu/k-12/socialworlds).
Surrounding any classroom literacy project is a cultural practice that frames
and directs individuals’ use of words, symbols, and objects to interpret and
produce meaning. Words, symbols, and objects can be described as the tools through
which individuals construct a social world with shared meanings for desired
values, relationships, activities, and identities. Literature provides a wonderful
example of just how this construction of a social world takes place. In teaching
about character development, we have long focused on what a character thinks
and says, on what others say about the character, and on what the author describes
about the character. Words are the tools of constructing the meaning of a character’s
identity, desires, and agendas. The character moves through many social interactions
in a story that often creates some tension within a social world or between
multiple social worlds. The character may be staunchly positioned in one world,
caught between loyalties to several worlds, or challenged by others within an
unraveling and uncontrollable social world. For example, the following excerpt
from the novel, Bless Me, Ultima (Anaya, 1972), illustrates how Antonio
moves within multiple, competing social worlds as he attempts to negotiate and
construct his identity, relationships, and values:
Then the golden carp swam by Cico and disappeared into the darkness of the
pond. I felt my body trembling and I saw the bright golden form disappear. I
knew I had witnessed a miraculous thing, the appearance of a pagan god, a
thing as miraculous as the curing of my uncle Lucas. And I thought, the power
of God failed where Ultima’s worked; and then a sudden illumination of beauty
and understanding flashed through my mind. This is what I had expected God to
do at my first holy communion! If God was witness to my beholding of the
golden carp then I had sinned! I clasped my hands and was about to pray to the
heavens when the waters of the pond exploded. (p. 114)
As this story, and any story, develops and concludes, social worlds emerge,
dissolve, retreat, overlap, and persevere, all through the symbolic meanings
constructed through the words and objects used by the characters in particular
social interactions or cultural practices. The worlds and its members are
co-constructed dialectically through the symbols.
The English language arts curriculum needs to reframe activity with texts
around the development of literacy activities that highlight and critique these
social, constructive, negotiated practice of using words, symbols, and objects
to negotiate membership within and across multiple social worlds (Alvermann,
2002). Students of all ages and language experiences are able to inquire into
how words, symbols, and objects are used by various groups within their lived
communities to define valued identities, relationships, and activities.
Likewise, texts such as literature, film, and mass media, offer represented
social worlds that can be analyzed in terms of the identities, relationships,
and activities promoted within the media text world. Through inquiries into both
lived and represented social worlds, students can use many technology tools to
produce their own representations that describe the identities and activities
valued in a social world. In some cases, students can also explain how valued
ends are constructed through the way words, symbols, and objects are used in
As teachers of English, we have come to think about video authoring as an
indispensable technology tool for interpreting any work of literature. We have
emphasized so often the strong connection between reading and writing, how one
supports the development of the other. Similarly, media authoring supports the
development of critical media literacy. When students author multimedia
products, like video, they begin to see the way commercially produced film and
video manipulates image and sound in an attempt to persuade an audience.
Students have authored video biographies, novel enactments, film trailers for
novels, issue documentaries, and mass media critiques. Students often liken
their projects to music videos, sharing comments like the following:
The coolest part was the video. We really got to express our feelings on
our topics. The least was the essay. I thought it was boring and not very
fun. I learned a ton of technical stuff but I also learned to problem solve
before looking for help. We wasted time and it affected us in the long run.
I would have people do certain jobs. This project was really fun. It was almost
like a vacation from English. (Teen Issues Project, 2/99; see http://www.ed.psu.edu/k-12/teenissues/)
We find it interesting as English teachers who seek opportunities for our students
to learn to express their ideas, that they found that a rich ability in authoring
a video but did not consider it an English classroom activity because it was
not restricted to the printed word. As educators, we firmly believe that hypermedia
authoring develops significant critical literacy skills.
However, as teachers we have noted one extremely difficult tension in our evaluation
of students’ videos. The nature of the media itself relies on the implicit communication
of ideas far more than the explicit communication of ideas characteristic of
written essays. Thus, we often find ourselves in interpretive limbo, seeing
some fascinating ideas in student videos and not knowing if they were intended
critiques or messages. Likewise, we sometimes miss what we think students might
have been communicating because we lack the intertextual background that the
students take for granted in their peers because they share lived social worlds.
Of course, we talk about these interpretive issues with students, because intention
and audience are essential rhetorical issues in any act of representation and
are part of the critical literacy practices of inquiry, questioning, and negotiating
multiple perspectives. However, to evaluate video authoring intentions adequately,
we require students to provide a written account of their process and product
to help us most fully understand their rhetorical understandings. Students also
write presentations to evaluate the larger rhetorical purposes for their videos
in preparing them for display in classroom film festivals and award ceremonies.
We have found that most all rubrics traditionally used to evaluate writing projects
work equally well with evaluating students’ video projects.
Over the past decade, we have worked with students from the age of 12 and
older in the authoring of QuickTime videos using various software projects. The
most expensive and powerful of these tools has been Adobe Premiere, while Avid
Cinema, Strata Video Shop, or iMovie have shipped free of charge with computers
or video input devices. With all of these tools, we have found the learning
curve to be very short with students and long with teachers. Although teachers
may struggle with many technical issues, teachers who have experienced success
with the use of these tools in their classrooms have been willing to take the
risk of not knowing as much about the use of the tool as the students and to
learn from them. As in any learning situation, giving students responsibility
for teaching teachers and peers can bolster their sense of agency and membership
in the social world of school achievement.
Video Editing Tools With Fahrenheit 451
Technology tools can be used to help students engage in critical inquiry
about social worlds (Beach & Bruce, 2002; Jonassen, 2000; Myers & Beach,
2001; Myers, Hammett, & McKillop, 2000). These tools can be used to foster a
collaborative inquiry stance and analysis of significant themes in and
characteristics of the social worlds represented in literature.
Tenth grade English teacher Peg Vlasak and her intern Andrea Acker built the
study of Fahrenheit 451 around the students’ identification of central
themes over the course of reading the book, then included a culminating project
in which small groups created their own video interpretation of one of the book’s
themes. Drawing from a reader response style of discussion over 2 weeks of reading,
the students identified “thought control, censorship, utopia, individuality,
and knowledge as power” as five main themes in the novel. While reading and
discussing the novel, the students connected their responses to the novel with
other texts from their life experience, such as music, movies, pictures, news,
or other books. They took turns bringing in these media texts to play for the
class and explaining how the meanings of the media and novel intersected.
By juxtaposing various media texts to the quotations from the novel, the
students established the critical literacy practices sought by the teachers.
Playing a song or a movie clip created a meaningful connection between the
literature and life. The meanings of the once separated media text and novel
text became connected and generated new layers of meaning for each other. The
discussion of connections and new meanings elicited multiple voices and
perspectives in the class and raised new questions about the basis of
interpretation from prior readings of the once separated text and media.
What pushed this study of a novel beyond what many English teachers already
do were the culminating video projects accomplished by the students over the
final week of the unit. During this week the students worked in small groups
of three or four each in the computer lab to author QuickTime videos using Macintosh
computers and software called Avid Cinema. Either Macintosh or PC computers
can support video editing software, and most recent computers with hard drives
of at least 4 gigabytes have plenty of memory for video editing. Video editing
hardware components are abundant now and can be easily added to computers at
a cost of approximately $100. The short 2-3 minute videos brought together images,
movie clips, music, quotes from the novel, voiceovers, and text to make a statement
about one of the five main themes identified by the class over the past weeks.
The teachers noted high levels of engagement and collaboration as students often
paged back through the novel for ideas and negotiated how to organize the material
of their video to make the greatest impact. We will examine the literacy practices
constructed through this tool by drawing from the videos produced by three classes
and published on the web at http://www.ed.psu.edu/k-12/fahrenheit.
|Figure 1. Knowledge as Power – Period
The critical literacy practice of defining intertextual connections forms the
basis of play, creativity, and critique with this tool for deconstructing and
reconstructing meaning. The students combined and juxtaposed multiple texts
in ways that created new composite texts that interrogate the meanings of the
original texts. The “knowledge as power” (http://www.ed.psu.edu/k-12/fahrenheit/knowledgeaspower4.mov)
video made by a small group of 10th graders in fourth period includes
one segment in which soft piano music frames the image of a fireman’s silhouette,
surrounded by flames, with a scrolling quote from the novel about the calmness
with which the character lights her porch on fire in resistance. As shown in
Figure 1, the textual word “contempt” is visualized by the image of flames and
the calmness of the music prompts reflection on the act of self-destruction
Likewise, in the “utopia” (http://www.ed.psu.edu/k-12/fahrenheit/utopia8.mov)
video authored by a small group in Period 8, a gospel voice singing “everybody
is free” is used to replace the soundtrack for the “Wizard of Oz” scene of
Dorothy and friends running through the field of flowers. This new juxtaposition
redefines not only the pace and style of movement of the movie, but the sense of
meaning about the characters’ goals as they run toward the Emerald City.
|Figure 2. Utopia – Period
Peppy acoustic guitar music by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young begins the small
group “utopia” (http://www.ed.psu.edu/k-12/fahrenheit/aperfectworld7.mov)
video from Period 7, as four definitions of the term utopia are timed to flash
as text on a black screen. The spirit of the music makes the ideals of the juxtaposed
definitions of utopia seem possible in life. The cheerful music continues as
a student-drawn cartoon of a sunny day with faces cut from photos form heads
on cartoon bodies that bounce happily into the video frame (Figure 2).
This sequence illustrates how the careful use of transitions also supports
the construction of a message by creating textual connections between sequential
juxtapositions or links. The video continues with alternating text scrolling
above or below images of smiling groups of people and the music changes over to
a song from Rusted Root creating a very happy and optimistic utopian outlook.
However, the scrolling text suddenly begins to question the kind of utopia
one should desire. This problematic representation heightens with the text over
the image of Hitler that gives the viewer the incomplete sentence “Hitler’s idea
of a utopia was one in which . . .” After time for the viewer to reflect, a
flying block transition into the next image of two people illustrates the text
that scrolls to complete the thought: “everyone with blonde hair and blue eyes.”
In this video format the viewer most often misses the fact that over the entire
sequence of words and images the text itself does not construct a grammatically
complete statement or question because the entire experience of image, sound,
and text creates a complete thought by enacting the critical literacy practice
of posing questions that interrogate the basis of meaning for words, images, and
sounds. The students quickly learned how to pose questions and critiques about
ideas like utopia by using these new intertextual grammars of multimedia video
Figure 3. Knowledge as Power – Period
The vast number of ways to juxtapose media texts in a QuickTime video makes
it easy for authors to integrate multiple voices and perspectives. The best
examples of this integration invite the viewer to inquire into a variety of
possible meanings about the video’s central idea. Period 7’s small group video
on “knowledge as power” (http://www.ed.psu.edu/k-12/fahrenheit/knowledgeaspower7.mov)
opens with a female vocalist repeatedly singing “sitting on top of the world”
juxtaposed with words torn from magazines and newspapers: “Decide & Conquer,”
with two frames of a cartoon featuring Garfield the cat sitting in front of
a computer first in deep thought, then with a light bulb glowing in his thought
balloon. A music transition to “you’re world champion now” accompanies a series
of new images “ASK,” “THINK,” “LEARN,” and a scrolling quote from the novel
about knowledge being lost for good if they die (Figure 3).
With this initial series of events, the video quickly suggests that knowledge
involves different forms of thinking and remembering, all with consequences
for great power over others in the world. The video next introduces a perspective
on power through a movie clip in which a man tries to impress ladies by quoting
fancy words from books as his own ideas. As the man is exposed as a fraud, the
message suggests that one should think on one’s own to have genuine power. Then,
music and scrolling text introduce another perspective “POWER INVOLVES LAWS.”
This is followed by a cartoon, a quote from Fahrenheit 451 that emphasizes
the importance of books and a student speaking, “Communication is the key to
love. Communication is the key to life. There must be over a thousand ways to
communicate,” to generate even more perspectives on power through communication
and reading. The video later presents additional perspective on power through
several dissolve transitions of sports cards with scrolling text “Knowledge
about your interests makes you powerful!” (Figure 4).
|Figure 4. Knowledge as Power – Period
It concludes with an overlay of all the text presented in the video and a group
singing repeatedly, “looking back, looking back,” which could very well suggest
even another perspective about power and knowledge being based in the activity
Critically Examining Media Representations Through Media Collages
Another example is of using technology tools to examine critically media representations
of different aspects of social worlds (as advocated by Alvermann, Moon, &
Hagood, 1999; Hammett & Barrell, 2002). Media representations found in television,
newspapers, magazines, art, photography, film, music, MTV, etc., are the ways
in which the media portrays particular groups, communities, experiences, ideas,
or topics from a particular ideological perspective. Rather than simply reflecting
or mirroring “reality,” media representations serve to “re-present” or actually
to create a new reality (Hall, 1997).
In studying ideas relevant to students’ lives by examining media representations
along with the study of literary representations, students pose questions such
as, “Where do these representations come from?” “Who produces these representations?”
“Why are they producing these representations?” “How is complex understanding
about life limited by these representations?” and “What is missing or who is
silenced in these representations?” (Hall, 1997).
Media representations also reflect various discourses, or ways of knowing or
thinking that guide how a representation is made, communicated, and interpreted
(Fairclough, 1995; Gee, 1996). These include discourses of gender, class, race,
age, business, religion, science, law, technology, etc., that shape the possible
identities of people as they use these discourses. The way words and symbols are
used in these discourses position the speaker and others according to certain
ideological orientations. Museums frequently represented colonized cultures in
terms of the discourses of “Orientalism,” reflecting a Western imperialist
ideological position (Said, 1978). Discourses of gender construct models of
identity are related to idealized notions of what it means to be a male or
female. Different racial or ethnic groups are represented both in terms of the
images portrayed and the discourses of race constituting those representations.
Central to the cultural construction of race is a discourse of whiteness as the
desired norm, against which people of color are defined as “other” (Roediger,
Rather than assume that students are passive dupes who readily accept these
representations teachers can use technology tools to help students construct
alternative representations that challenge various media representations (Radway,
2002; Tobin, 2001). Part of this entails assuming an active role in constructing
their own alternative, counterrepresentations as is evident in Ad-Busters’
Magazine (http://www.adbusters.org/) that parodies
ads. In doing so, students are taking the original, problematic representations
and re-contextualizing those representations into their own critical framework
or space. For example, the female adolescents use online zines as a tool to
challenge and subvert sexist media representations (Knobel, 2002; Radway, 2002).
Creating Media Collages
Students may begin the critical thinking process by constructing media
- Selecting a certain group, world, topic, issue, or phenomenon and then finding
different representations of this topic/phenomenon in magazines, television,
newspapers, literature, Web sites.
- Noting patterns in these representations in terms of similarities in portrayals/images,
instances of stereotyping, or essentializing categories.
- Noting value assumptions in terms of who has power, who solves problems,
how problems are solved, and who is best served by solving the problem.
- Defining the intended audiences for these representations: What appeals
are made to what audiences? Whose beliefs or values are being reinforced or
validated? How are certain products linked to certain representations for
- Defining what is missing or left out of the representation: What
complexities or variations are masked over? What is included and what is
- Considering the larger discourses (gender, class, race, or age) and
institutional forces shaping these representations.
In a recent media studies methods course taught by Beach, small groups of teachers
selected a topic: gender, class, race, age, love, home, family, and body weight.
They then cut out images from popular magazines that represented these different
topics. Next they attached these images to poster-size sticky notes and shared
their critiques with the class. The group dealing with representations of race
noted that whiteness was the presumed norm—that people of color were shown only
in limited roles as athletes or celebrities. The group dealing with representations
of class noted that class was represented primarily by images of consumer goods
functioning as upper-middle or middle-class status markers. The group dealing
with love noted that most of their images related to sexuality; there were few,
if any, images associated with romantic love.
Using Hypermedia Productions to Critique Media
Through constructing and critiquing the representations in these media collages,
students can also construct hypermedia productions that critique media representations.
For example, a high school student named Stephanie created a Quicktime video
containing a montage of images from magazines that portrayed how the media represents
ways in which participation in sports is shown as marking one’s identity in
a peer group or community (http://www.ed.psu.edu/k-12/socialworlds/stephanie.mov).
As she explained,
For my final project I used the computer and scanned in pictures and added
music to it. The social world I was portraying was sports teams while linking
it to the social world of friends. In my final project I chose all the images
from magazines for a purpose. I went through tons of magazines before I found
them.…When you play on a sports team one thing you should expect is for people
to cheer for you and give you team spirit at your games. The very first image
of the fans in the crowd was chosen because not only do you become friends
with your team but you become friends with the fans as well. Everyone’s dream
and desire is to win their game they are playing. One of my pictures fitted
this thought. This picture was of a baseball player sitting on the shoulders
of his teammates because he won the game. (Beach & Myers, 2001, p.
Technology can also be used as a tool for engaging in critical inquiry about
community issues and representations of those issues. A group of preservice
English teachers worked with middle-school students involved in study of a St.
Paul neighborhood. Teachers and students communicated with each other on a WebCT
bulletin board, in which they described activities related to the project,
communication that can create ongoing dialogues about issues (Doering &
Beach, 2002). Groups of students focused on studying a range of issues
associated with particular aspects of an urban neighborhood: architecture,
community development, community history, parks and recreation, business
development, segregation, entertainment opportunities, employment opportunities,
housing, public safety, restaurants, pollution, and recycling. Both teachers and
students formulated perceptions of issues based on background reading of texts
and Web sites, discussed issues common to urban neighborhoods, defined questions
related to these issues, engaged in interviews with neighborhood people, and
took digital photos and field notes. Based on the data, teachers and students
then analyzed neighborhood people’s ability to address particular issues and how
those issues are represented in the media. For example, the group focusing on
crime examined the ways in which local television news often represented this
and other St. Paul urban neighborhoods as crime ridden.
A central focus of these projects was the use of digital photography to
document and display the nature of the problems facing community members. For
example, students and teachers employed photos to document the range of
available housing, from dilapidated to upscale, gentrified housing that local
residents could no longer afford. The teachers and students used these photos
for presentations of a poster-session in the school gym open to students and
community members. Teachers developed hypermedia presentations in consultations
with their students and created Web-based presentations about specific issues.
Integrating Hypermedia Inquiry Projects Into English Teacher
Our hope in this article was to illuminate how various technology tools can
support critical literacy practices with the entire range of text and media
and to describe some curricular activities for adding inquiry projects that
make use of technology tools to the traditional print based English classroom.
Additional inquiry frameworks for technology projects can be explored at http://www.ed.psu.edu/k-12; additional links
related to critical inquiry can be found at http://www.inquiry.uiuc.edu/.
We encourage teachers to learn how to integrate these new technology tools
for representing life worlds into the study of ideas and issues represented
through text. Teacher educators must also include hypermedia projects in their
teacher preparation courses if there is any hope of bringing the field of English
education in line with the multimedia lives of citizens. Not only are these
tools for making and sharing meaning pervasive among today’s youth, when the
media texts they produce are brought into juxtaposition with print texts, both
forms of representation are brought into a critical space in which meaning can
be better negotiated as they seek to make sense of and construct shared value
for life experience.
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Pennsylvania State University
University of Minnesota