The Future of Our Nation Depends upon Critical Literacy

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

~Declaration of Independence

US Capitol

Teachers are the Key to Our Democracy’s Future

Saving our democracy! That’s what we do as teachers. If students don’t become critically literate, our very republic is at stake. We have to teach students to read and question, to become fully literate, not content with just reading the words.

Governed vs. Government – Yeah, but aren’t they the same base word?

Today I was reminded of the  importance of my teaching. My eighth graders were paraphrasing the introduction of the Declaration of Independence. They came armed with a partner, a dictionary, and weeks of studying colonization and the American Revolution. However, when they got to the phrase–certainly one of the more important in the document—“…deriving their powers from the consent of the governed,” I noticed several students used government for a synonym for governed in their paraphrase. What?

While wandering the crowd, I saw the first one, and I stopped to visit. I mentioned that it sounded like they changed the declaration to one advocating communism, instead of our current form of government. We talked about it for a bit, and I helped them see the difference between governed and government.

Then I continued looking at other paraphrases and quickly noticed a trend. Fully, the first four pairs I got to had made a similar switch in terminology.

So, I stopped and kindly, of course, gave the class my “You-need-to-be-critical-readers-so-you-can-maintain-our-democracy-for-future-generations” speech. “You’ll be taking over,” I continued, “so YOU have to be a strategic reader and thinker to be able to protect the freedoms we have in America.”

Together we came up with a list of synonyms for governed and government and they realized, of course, that they were NOT synonymous words.

Government Gets Authority from Us — Yes!

They got back to their work on their paraphrases with a better understanding, writing passionate summaries of the phrase they first glossed over. Here are the summaries they came up with after the mini lesson…

1. …receiving their powers from the votes and permission of the citizens of the United States of America.

2. …taking their just powers from the permission of the U.S. citizens

3. …they obtain their powers through the approval of the people, not the government

4. …obtaining their powers from the approval of the citizens of the United States

5. …receive their powers only from the permission of the people

6. …obtaining their powers only with the permission of the people of the U.S.

7. …taking their authority from us Americans

8. …getting their fair powers from the permission of the citizens

9. …getting their just powers by the choice of the people of the United States

Much better!

Here is one group’s complete summary of the introduction:
When during human history one nation finds it necessary to stop being a colony of another, they should declare the reasons why they are forced to separate. These truths are obvious, all people are created equal. They have God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which cannot be taken away. Governments are set up by the people, and they get their authority only when the people give it to them.

I think they became more critically literate today! I also think our democracy smiled and stood up a little straighter today.

What is the difference between basic literacy and critical literacy?

What stories do you have of teaching critical literacy?

Photo by keithreifsnyder on Flickr with CC Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

4 thoughts on “The Future of Our Nation Depends upon Critical Literacy

  1. Wow! What a great lesson on so many counts. I love that your students are taking such an important document and studying it for meaning. I’m sure the lesson held more fascination and meaning after realizing the difference between ‘governed’ and ‘government’.

    This is a great example of critical literacy and great teaching. I am always amazed at what kids in middle and high school are learning. I think we try at the younger level to get the students to start thinking critically by asking questions and making connections between the text and the world, text and themselves and between different texts.

    Thanks for sharing and getting us thinking about critical literacy!

    1. Thank you again, Nancy, for visiting. I appreciate your support and encouragement. I think the best thing that has happened in literacy education in the last decade is the teaching of strategies like asking questions and making connections! I believe more students are becoming critical readers now than when I first began teaching. Back then we just read and assessed reading with comprehension questions. Now we teach them to comprehend! Awesome. Keep it up.

  2. Hooray! I am so glad that other people feel as passionately about this topic as I do. I have worked at teaching some of the same concepts to older students (college-aged) and they too have difficulty at such tasks.

    I often have found that people who are recent citizens (immigrants) have learned more about American democracy than the typical student who has come through the US school system. (Not intended as a slam against teachers–just a comment on how much harder it is to BECOME a citizen than to BE one!)

    Thank you for working toward a literate electorate–I appreciate it more than you can know.

    1. Lydia, thanks for reading my post and for pausing to comment. I really appreciate it. Good point that it’s harder to become a citizen than be one. That’s for sure. I know eighth graders are not old enough to fully appreciate it what they have, but we’ll keep plugging away and learn on their level! 🙂

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