Wednesday, August 3, 2016


A few weeks ago I read, "Landscapes of Literacy The Challenges of Reading Cree-English Dual Language Picture Books as a Decolonizing Strategy," by Joanie Crandall.  In this article she explores the role of the teacher as a learner and how reading dual language picture books can be a means of examining identity while also being a strategy for decolonization which can engage both mainstream and indigenous readers.  This article is written in a nice style that made it easy to read and since the author share her own experiences, there is a sense of authentic voice and I know why the author is interested in the topic. 

Crandall starts by sharing her experience as a white teacher going to work in a remote Cree community.  From this place she came to an awareness of how some students were struggling to, "...negotiate cultural discontinuity daily."  She cites the body of research showing that affirmation of a child's first language and culture in the classroom, can help them with both questions of identity and improve school success.  In order to put this research in practice, Crandall worked within the community to explore the issues and searched out appropriate texts in Cree, choosing those that focused on family, community and "negotiating cultural discontinuity." 

In the article she describes this process and how it interplayed with her idea of identity and the mutability of that self conception.  Through the experience of teaching in this community, she says that she saw her role shift to that of a "Teacher-learner" and she became aware of how her role in interpretation of knowledge was rooted in her past and changing as she experienced new things.  In this section she quotes work by Paulo Freire (1971) and it me think of our role as parents and the frustration I sometimes feel with myself as I am running just to learn enough to be able to teach the children.  This is very vivid in our practices of decolonization as we try to bring new language, stories and experiences into the home.  This conception of the, "teacher learner" is helpful, in that it is a reminder of our place in the larger circle and is really a call to return to the indigenous idea where the "teacher" is not someone over someone else, but is a role that we each play while simultaneously being a learner.  Maybe coming from a line of teachers I am particularly stuck in that idea of the supremacy of the teacher?  Anyway, I needed the reminder.

Crandall further explores how dual language picture books can be used as a decolonizing strategy.  She argues that while these books may appear simple, they actually offer a rich opportunity to explore layers of meaning in texts, both through the move from one language to another (code switching) but also in the act of moving from the written word to the pictorial.  She thinks that this exploration can be equally effective with young and old learners. I notice that with the rise of the internet these skills have become a more common requirement.  I know that my daughters were both taught in school to read the context of a text/advertisement as well as just the words.  I have also worked with people who were not even aware of these other levels, let alone literate in them and it was frustrating.  Having a full range of tools to express ourselves and understand the world is the best option.

I also wonder if giving equal value to the pictures may also be a more culturally sensitive way of teaching in an environment where observation of the natural world is more important? Crandall feels that this is a part of Aboriginal people's cultural narrative and that this approach would be helpful on those grounds as well.  She talks about the advantage of this approach as an educator, as it opens a space for the teacher and student to share their experiences as learners and for the teacher to even model engaging with uncertainty and exploring uncomfortable ideas.

There is a quote towards the end of the article that really spoke to me, "The children seeks to find the answers to questions about his place in a society much different from the one of his predecessors."  I have invested a lot of time in understanding my answers to these questions, but I know that they may not be the answers for my children.  How much of my knowledge is relevant to them?  Am I better off teaching them about how to look for their own answers than to give mine?  The later lets me be "wise", apart in some way as I am further along in the journey.  The former, perhaps is a better reflection of how a healthy reality should be.  We all learn from each other.  I am better when my children pose their "Whys" to my truths.

Crandall also argues the possibility that through use of pictures and dual language there is a possibility to, "...subvert forms of systemic oppression inherent to Eurocentric canons."  She argues that teachers who do not question their own assumptions about the world end up reproducing forms of learning and development that may be harmful to their students and support existing forms of oppression.  She notes that this self reflection is especially important for non-Aboriginal educators working with aboriginal students, reminding us that school success is built on cultural capital, language skills and euro-centric assumptions about how learning works.  These elements are not evenly shared among all students. 

This section caused me to question my interactions with the school.  As I have written before, I feel that going to see the teachers has become a very performative act, and that we are suspect as parents as there are times when we prioritize other things over school (I note that the same suspicion is not extended when a child travels with their parent frequently).  For us, dealing with a child's mental health issues and teaching healthy life balance is sometimes more important than school.  Snow/slow days can be valuable.  I want to think about this issue and our approach some more.

I think that this style of dual text-picture is also supportive of other kinds of students, both those who maybe new to Canada, and those with learning disabilities.  Crandall also mentions that it provides a natural space for dialogue with a corresponding value on listening.  She feels that this approach can be helpful as a means of decolonization for both student and teacher, and can help to break down the historical dynamic of the outside teacher expert who comes in to educate.  She notes that this whole process is girded by a willingness of all participants to explore notions of power and hierarchy, and to create a space to better understand what happens on the edges of these concepts (do we need Agamben now?  A picture book on the state of exception perhaps?).  It requires a willingness by all participants to be uncomfortable and ask questions.

This article provided a number of helpful prompts: to remember to embrace the role of teacher-learner as a parent; to be less reticent to ask questions in the school context around values; and a reminder to keep reading picture books and practicing Cree with my children even as they are older and it is harder to get them focused.  This work is too important to ignore given the depth of conversation that is possible from these exchanges.

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