American poet William Carlos Williams once wrote, "It is difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day from lack of what is found there." This line speaks to the crucial but often unacknowledged importance of literature in helping citizens to understand and analyze the major challenges that our society faces. Indeed, despite the relationship between literacy and democracy in practice, the fields of literacy and civic education have operated largely in isolation and privileged standardized test preparation and economic competitiveness over meaningful preparation for collective public life. As a result, two interrelated challenges inform my dissertation research: the lack of meaningful civic learning opportunities and the lack of high-quality literacy instruction, specifically with regard to low-income students of color in urban schools.
This study seeks to re-envision literacy instruction as a critical civic activity that helps students and teachers create new ways of understanding and transforming a complex, often unequal society. My mixed-methods study utilizes a nationwide survey of over 300 high school English teachers and ethnographic case studies of three high school English classrooms in Los Angeles to answer the following questions: How do high school English teachers conceptualize `good' citizenship and the purposes of literacy instruction? How do the civic experiences and attitudes of teachers relate to the practices they introduce to their classrooms? How do students and teachers negotiate civic identities through shared engagement in literacy practices?
This study puts critical theories of democracy, literacy, and classroom practice that have traditionally stood alone into productive conversation with each other in order to frame new critical classroom research. The use of critical ethnographic observation provided insight into the micro-processes through which students and teachers construct meanings about literacy and democracy, while survey research targeting a larger, purposeful sample of English teachers from across the country also provided valuable information about the ways that educators think about the purposes of their discipline.
Major findings from my work indicate that teachers nationwide rank preparation for civic and political life as an important purpose of English education and conceptualize literary texts as powerful tools of civic learning that spur discussion and analysis of complex and controversial social issues. Teachers from low-income and high-minority schools are more likely to connect literacy to civic empowerment and develop curriculum that pushes students to use literacy to improve society. Indeed, the teachers in my study encouraged students to use reading and writing skills in conjunction with digital literacy tools to interact with civic leaders and develop community action projects about local issues. Nevertheless, teachers continually negotiate barriers to connecting literacy development to civic learning that must be addressed, particularly the pressures of standardized testing and high-stakes accountability systems.
My research offers insight into innovative classroom practices that can transform the way we prepare teachers, educate students, and conceptualize the purpose of literacy and civic education in public education policy. It provides strategies that aim to create a more robust, diverse democracy through empowering urban youth of color academically and civically.