Implementing Indigenous perspectives in secondary education:

Abstract imagery of books zoomed-in perspective with a photocopy filter effect applied.

A primer for critical literacy reading options in Ontario’s English courses

We can no longer throw up our hands and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ Taking responsibility and working toward reconciliation means saying, ‘We must act together to resolve this’ (Layton).

Jack Layton served as the Official Leader of the Opposition when the Canadian government finally apologized to Canada’s Indigenous peoples. As an educator himself, he understood that teachers and education workers perhaps have the largest part to play in reconciliation, as they ultimately have the power to shape the future through every child educated in Canada. Educators have a responsibility to heed the calls to action in the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Teachers should strive to educate students to develop skills that make society fairer to all by developing a critical consciousness (O’Bryne, “Critical pedagogy: 8 key concepts”). More explicitly, teachers should be actively involved in Indigenous text selection and discussion, situating both within the cultural and political economy of prevailing educational policy and young adult literature (Wiltse, Johnston and Yang). In today’s political neo-liberalist landscape, this results in underlying challenges of funding, resources, training, and long-term commitment where legitimized knowledge is enforced by the elite or ruling class as exercised by government. The only way to change this is to create a praxis (Freire, 1970, as cited in O’Bryne “What is “Critical Pedagogy”?” 2018) that critiques this power and seeks to transform it.

When teachers partner with each other, their students, parents, administration, and community, new understandings of social justice form and dominant ideology changes for the better—creating a new praxis. This article encourages new and experienced educators alike to embrace five texts in their own call to action in their classrooms. These texts were chosen for their unique genres, stories, lessons, and flexibility of application of critical pedagogical strategies—all of which combine to take teen readers on a journey of discomfort, but in a safe environment where risk taking is not only accepted but encouraged.

Critical literacy approaches for consideration

Critical literacy is imperative in society’s quest to integrate social justice into every day. More specifically, “understanding the relationship between texts, meaning making, and power in order to undertake transformative social action that contributes to the achievement of a more equitable social order” (Vasquez, Janks, and Comber). According to Janks’ Independent Model, this sort of transformation involves four dimensions—power, diversity, access, and design­/redesign (Vasquez, Janks, and Comber). Educators first must seek to disrupt the commonplace or the power structure that dictates dominant ideology. Teachers do this by bringing in credible voices through texts that teach controversial issues (Kiefer). Like Kganetso (2017), educators should engage parents by using parent surveys to learn about key topics in the community that parents feel are important to study (Kelly). Engaging the community layers in multiple perspectives of practical components of subcultures, all of which should be valued for their alignment with current ideology.

In line with Lewison (2015), this transformative respect for community subcultures occurs in tandem with considering multiple perspectives, with a focus on diversifying voices by making subcultural understanding the centre pillar of learning in classrooms. They should no longer be additional, but the base from which you build instruction (Ebarvia). By creating literature-based curriculum, educators create what Keifer (2019) calls a “community of readers” through multiple texts that explore diversity. Building critical knowledge and understanding of non-dominant cultures brings acceptance and social change not only during classroom lessons but it will also extend outside the classroom to student families and communities.

According to Janks (2019), embracing multiple cultures through various texts creates access to reading for all. Not only that, Lewison (2015) argues that educators should push this further to focus on the sociopolitical—like the realms surrounding student backgrounds, education policy, and administrative red tape. One must keep in mind that in the process of embracing critical literacy, there will be discomfort experienced by everyone—students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Boler (2002) asserts that experiencing discomfort is a natural part of the process of social transformation. It means everyone who takes part is gaining critical knowledge and embracing that as a deeper understanding of the world emerges for them.

The final dimension of critical literacy, according to Janks (2019), is designing and redesigning curriculum to not only teach, but also, according to Lewison (2015), to take action to promote social justice. Educators cannot stop at reading and understanding, they must push the boundaries to make texts socially transformative. For example, using news articles for media and critical bias, articles that support the textual understanding from the literature being studied (Vasquez, Janks and Comber). Another example would be to end the unit or lesson with something that is either public or permanent, like class participation in an event or an article for the local newspaper (Kiefer). By synthesizing learning into social action, learning impacts not only the students, but the greater community as well. This is what critical literacy is all about.

Connections to critical literacies within the selected texts

Statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools—Stephen Harper
(Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 2008.)
With so much misinformation and fake news in the media today, students benefit from accessing non-fiction texts, balanced with instructional pieces on how to critically analyze sources for bias (NCTE, “Position Statement on the Role of Nonfiction Literature”). Combined, this ensures students are more likely to trust academic sources. Harper’s (2008) apology forces students to ask questions about the power of the Canadian government in silencing Indigenous voices for so long. Accessible to high schoolers, the apology sets a firm tone of understanding Canada’s shameful history, but by accepting that history is not the end of the story educators and students can build forgiveness into their everyday lessons. Analyzing this apology creates “Critical awareness [that] is necessary to create learning opportunities that are genuine and full of real-world conversations about cultural affiliations, diversity of opinion, and social issues that people face each day” (Deliman).

A Short History of Indians in Canada—Thomas King
(Toronto Life. Toronto, 1997.)

Digging deeper, educators need to realize that “as literacy teachers, [they] have one of the most powerful resources available to fight against hate and bias: [They] have stories” (Ebarvia). Pulling from folktales and mythology, King (1997) capitalizes on this, challenging teens to engage in understanding history through the lens of a raven, traditionally associated with mischief. King alludes to the eroding of Indigenous lands and culture under the pressures of modern economic gains, requiring teenagers to read beneath the superficial nature of just words to understand the allegory within. Working with their students, teachers “should collectively cultivate critical literacy practices to critique the social narratives that are endorsed by the books they select and talk back to the literature” (NCTE, “Position Statements: Preparing teachers with knowledge of children’s and young adult literature”).

Code Talker—Chester Nez
(New York: Berkley Caliber, 2011.)

In both Harper (2008) and King (1997) students can challenge the status quo of Indigenous knowledge, whereas with Nez’s (2011) novel, Code Talker, students experience first-hand Ned Begay’s and his family’s “status quo” treatment by society, resulting in an uncomfortable acceptance of societal wrongs through their own empathy. This kind of learning is supported by research, as “research shows that when students are given the chance to read books that respect the questions, challenges, and emotions of childhood and adolescence, they read with greater interest and investment” (NCTE, “Position Statements: Preparing teachers with knowledge of children’s and young adult literature”). It also helps students realize that there are voices that are over-represented and recognize that it gives an unbalanced set of truths (Salvador). What is more, teachers should encourage translanguaging during text instruction, meaning instructional scaffolding of bilingualism by analyzing a language other than one’s own (Heineke). This allows readers to engage in linguistic and cultural decoding of text at the same time. This novel offers a unique opportunity for students to learn how to decode themselves, putting them into the real-life conversations experienced by Navajo so many years ago.

My Moccasins—Duke Redbird
(Saugeen First Nation, n.d.)

“Even the most ordinary prose becomes magical when read aloud at home or at school” (Lerer). One needs only to listen to Redbird’s recital of his famous poem to hear the power with which he speaks. Pairing the previous three texts with Duke Redbird’s “My Moccasins,” makes sense because Redbird speaks to the current state of Indigenous peoples who have lost their traditions, languages, and cultures due to a forced gap in their histories stolen by the government. Pairing texts of similar multicultural backgrounds can help unfamiliar feel more comfortable, especially with indigenous courses where the knowledge base of readers may be more limited (Lehman). He does so by using such beautiful sensory imagery. So much so, that readers will be taken aback when reading the poem, a second and third time, realizing that there is a lot that is not said between the lines. Redbird asks readers to fill in the blanks of the story with their own knowledge, encouraging what (Lewison, Leland and Harste) as well as (Kelly) describe as an environment of safety that includes critical conversations.

Son of a Trickster—Eden Robinson
(Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2018.)

While this is the second fiction text recommended, Simpson and Cremin (2022) refer to something called the fiction effect that was revealed in the Pisa 2009 database, showing that teenagers who read fiction books frequently have stronger reading skills and higher order thinking than their peers. The final text, Son of a Trickster, brings students back to their own lives for critical reflection when they experience life through Jared. It is strongly encouraged that educators read aloud this novel with teenagers. When educators read aloud, they “free kids to think,” so all children have access to the “reading party” inside the book (Billingham). In Wiltse (2014), secondary teacher Terry teaches another of Robinson’s books, Monkey Beach. Terry discovers that students need a lot of background information and support while reading the text, echoing Salvador’s (2021) press for teachers to act as human mediators during difficult readings. Educators must create these spaces that “have the potential for students to disrupt what is considered to be normal by asking new questions, seeing everyday issues through new lenses, demystifying naturalized views of the world, and visualizing how things might be different” (Giroux, 1994, as cited in Lewison, 2015). As such, teachers can expect to be challenged in following traditional curriculum expectations placed on them by governments, resulting in not limiting curriculum to a specific scheme or set of expectations for this novel. According to Boler (2002), there is an exposure to discomfort, risk, and emotion by doing this, but again, this pedagogy of discomfort is required to transform critical literacy pedagogy into practice.

This primer is by no means comprehensive to all learning that would occur with these five texts, but it guides educators to start thinking about critical literacies in relation to the senior English classroom in Ontario. Educators must begin to look at issues in different ways, analyze them, and then put into motion action for change and improvement (Vasquez, Janks and Comber). Maintaining status quo is no longer feasible nor is it desirable to transform society into a diverse acceptance of multiple cultures. Educators need to focus on democracy and justice, focus on questioning, analyzing, and focus on resisting dominant, oppressive ideology through action (Edelsky, 1999, 2004, as cited in Lewison et al., 2015). All teachers have their own pedagogy that chooses to accept status quo power structures or chooses to challenge it (O’Bryne, “Critical pedagogy: 8 key concepts”). There is always a choice. This researcher calls for educators to choose equity as priority, as it is only through seeking equity that society can become whole.

1. Boler, Megan, and Michalinos Zembylas. “Discomforting truths: The emotional terrain of understanding difference.” Rethinking Education for Social Justice. Ed. Peter Pericles Trifonas. Routledge, 2002. 107-130.
2. “Canada Reads 2020: Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson.” 10 February 2017. CBC.
3. Deliman, Amanda. “Picturebooks and critical inquiry: Tools to (re) imagine a more inclusive world.” Bookbird 59.3 (2021): 46-55.
3. Ebarvia, Tricia. “ILA’s Blog.” July 2019. Literacy Worldwide.
4. Harper, Stephen. Statement of apology to former students of Indian Residential Schools. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 2008.
5. Heineke, A., Papola-Ellis, A., and Elliott, J. “Using texts as mirrors: The power of readers seeing themselves.” The Reading Teacher 76.3 (2022): 277-284.
6. Kelly, L. and Djonko-Moore, C. “What does culturally informed literacy instruction look like.” The Reading Teacher 75.5 (2022): 597-574.
7. Kganetso, L. M. W. (2017). Creating and Using Culturally Sustaining Informational Texts. The Reading Teacher, 70(4), 445–455.
8. Kiefer, B. and Tyson, C. Charlotte Huck’s Children’s Literature: A Brief Guide. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2019.
9. King, Thomas. “A Short History of Indians in Canada.” Toronto Life. Toronto, 1997.
10. Layton, Jack. “Statement by the Honourable Jack Layton, M.P.” Canada, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Ottawa: Library and Archives Canada, 2015. 376-378.
11. Lehman, B. “Reading multiculturally, globally, and critically in literacy education: Books as messengers for diversity.” Children’s Literature in the Reading Program: Engaging Young Readers in the 21st Century. Ed. L. Liang, & B. Cullinan D. Wooten. 5th. New York: The Guilford Press, 2018. 3-20.
12. Lerer, Seth. “For grown-ups too: The surprising depth and complexity of children’s literature.” American Educator (2014-2015): 37-41.
13. Lewison, M, C Leland and J Harste, Creating critical classrooms: Reading and writing with an edge. 2nd. Routledge, 2015.
14. NCTE. “Position Statement on the Role of Nonfiction Literature.” 19 January 2023. National Council of Teachers of English.
—.“Position Statements: Preparing teachers with knowledge of children’s and young adult literature.” 2018 July 2018. National Council of Teachers of English.
15. Nez, Chester. Code Talker. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2011.
O’Bryne, Ian. “Critical pedagogy: 8 key concepts.” 17 May 2018. The Necessary Teacher Training College.
—. “What is “Critical Pedagogy”?” 17 May 2018. Dr. Ian O’Bryne.
16. Redbird, Elder Dr. Duke. My Moccasins. Saugeen First Nation, n.d.
17. Robinson, Eden. Son of a Trickster. Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2018.
18. Salvador, A. “Controversial issues in children’s books: Are teachers ready for them?” New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship 27.1 (2021): 83-97.
19. Simpson, Alyson and Theresa Mary Cremin. “Responsible reading: Children’s literature and social justice.” Education Sciences 12.264 (2022): 1-14.
20. Vasquez, V, H Janks and B Comber. “Critical literacy as a way of being and doing.” Language Arts 96.5 (2019): 300-308.
21. Why we should all be reading aloud to children. Perf. Rebecca Billingham. TEDxYouth@BeaconStreet. 2015.
22. Wiltse, Lynne, Ingrid Johnston, and Kylie Yang. “Pushing comfort zones: Promoting social justice through the teaching of aboriginal Canadian literature.” Changing English 21.3 (2014): 264-277.

About Adrienne McEwen
Adrienne McEwen (she/her) President, Teachers’ Bargaining Unit, District 26—Upper Canada

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