The Procession from Passion to Empowerment: On the Relationship Between Literacy and Delight

Posted: November 30, 2017, 7:41 AM THEMES: ALL Articles, Literacy and Multi-literacy, Mindfulness Based Practice

little girl reading shutterstock_358649762 - SMALLER.jpg

by Lesley Machon and Laurie Hill

About the Authors

Lesley Machon, Calgary Jewish Academy, Canada

Dr. Laurie Hill, St. Mary’s University/College, Canada

Lesley Machon is a junior high language arts teacher from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She has taught, learned, and volunteered abroad and cultivates a passion for social justice advocacy in her work. She is committed to fostering greater inclusivity and deeper understanding, both cross-culturally and trans-culturally, and finds herself at home in the intersections between people and place.

Laurie Hill worked as an elementary school teacher for more than 15 years before completing her Ph.D. program at the University of Calgary. Her doctoral research examined transition experiences of first-year university students. In 2015, she joined the Education Faculty at St. Mary’s University where she currently teaches courses for pre-service teachers. Laurie’s research interests include student teacher identity, gender, teacher education, literacy and cultural identity, social justice and higher educational contexts. She is also interested in reflective writing and ways of knowing.



“The text you write must prove to me that it desires me.” So wrote Roland Barthes in his work The Pleasure of the Text. Scholars ask, “Why do individuals in modern societies spend so much time with media, and so little time with books?” I argue it is because media desires, requires, and consistently involves them. Through social media, for example, people are engaged passively on a continual basis with very little effort, rather than in the active manner sitting down to read requires. At a time when students are reportedly more likely to own a smartphone than a novel, I discuss the relationship between delight and literary empowerment, drawing on literature about narrative worlds and my classroom experience to elicit curiosity and summon students’ involvement. I give concrete examples of how letting texts speak to students, and beckon their engagement, leads to a level of enjoyment comparable to the media which, in a sense, desires and absorbs them so intensely.



Text is a medium, but when is the last time someone discussing media in the classroom referred to books? It is easy to become lost in the distracting intensity of today’s social media, which draw us away from writings longer than a hashtag and limited accompanying characters. In a communicative desert filled with mirages of media, how do we lead students to the refreshingly real water of thoughtful text? How do we foster in students a desire to learn and understand longer, more structured, more complicated texts? More importantly, how do we empower students to begin reading in a meaningful way outside the classroom?

“The text you write must prove to me that it desires me” (Barthes 1975, 6). Roland Barthes’ work, The Pleasure of the Text, proffers the notion that authentic engagement and proficient understanding only result from the presence of desire. It is, according to Barthes, a desire to make sense of a story that fosters understanding. A text that ‘desires’ a reader is one that forms a connection with the reader as a distinct body–unlike the passivity of swiftly scanning Twitter feeds or message boards online.

Barthes is referring to a text that forms half of a relationship or conversation between two entities. Readers must be empowered to draw their own meaning from a text and, in so doing, actively and critically engage. Simply put, a text that desires and is desired in return engenders understanding and proficiency in the reader. The passive receptivity of unsought text on a social media platform is thus at odds with the concrete, chronological architecture of a hard copy novel, which requires both physical and emotional engagement to be cracked open and understood as a story containing useful information. In simple terms, the reader must want to pick up the book in the first place, and must want to continue reading it.

I became more aware of the significance of desire in the quality of engagement students have with texts during an educational trip to Europe. Journeying to Germany and Poland on the March of Remembrance and Hope with Canadian university students and two Holocaust survivors profoundly impacted my professional development. On this trip, I became present to the changes in structure I would make to my lesson plans. The subject matter we focused on the trip elicited strong emotional reactions from the students, and I realized students must have a genuine desire to ‘make sense’ of the material to take ownership of their engagement with it. A student who is emotionally invested in a topic will strive for understanding to explore, question, and reconcile the stirring. Students who experience personal agency when engaging with material will be invited into critical inquiry.

To achieve this level of interest and engagement in the classroom, students must be presented with materials of superb quality across a wide range of genres including memoirs, poetry, film, and historical novels. Because spoon-feeding dry material doesn’t invite students to assume ownership of their own learning process, it makes sense to practice an instructional methodology that focuses on engendering a student’s desire to engage with the text. If we hand over a novel without consideration of desire, many students will feign interest and many more will only engage superficially to obtain a grade. Rather than focusing on class material and subsequently hoping for student interest, a teacher can design and craft a situation in which the classroom focus is on student engagement from the beginning, with reading empowerment as the guide and goal of that structure.

Careful and thoughtful selection of narratives is key, and can be augmented by creatively structured assignments that align content with student interest. To illustrate creative classroom processes, I describe two reading programs I developed: Banned Book Project and Story Cafe. First, I describe the formation of the assignments and the intention of the design, and second I share project results and how outcomes were reached, before finally looking at what lessons were learned. I situate this student-text engagement within critical literacy theory, and briefly call upon motivational/engagement theory to better understand the dynamics of desire.


Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

Whilst many different fields and theories tackle the relationship between reader and text, such as critical literacy, engagement theory of learning, narrative theory, and literary theory, critical literacy is of particular interest in the context of this article’s emphasis on resisting the dominant language of technology, and positioning readers as active agents who draw personal engagement from texts, rather than relying on passive receptivity. My project seeks to contribute to the field by engaging this theory with middle schoolers, one of the arguably weaker areas of scholarship in this discipline. Before proceeding, I will briefly discuss the development of critical literacy, to reveal existing weaknesses, and better demonstrate my study’s contributions.

One influential text in critical literacy is Joanne Larson and Jackie March’s Making Literacy Real: Theories and Practices for Learning and Teaching (2015), in which the authors provide a foundation in fundamental theoretical frameworks and fields of study for critical literacy, and explore these frameworks’ applicability to primary and elementary classrooms. Larson and March present the historical grounding of critical literacy by paying homage to Paulo Freire and Ira Shor, two leading proponents of critical pedagogy and critical literacy. Freire’s seminal book on the topic was published in 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed; and, sixteen years later in 1987, Freire and Shor teamed up for their dialogic book, A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education.

Their theoretical work is based on three central critical concepts: i) raising learner consciousness, ii) keeping primacy of dialogue, and iii) recognizing students’ prior learning. Larson and March critique the Shor-Freire model for its historically-bound nature, which fails to effectively address the multi-modal communication of the twenty-first century (Larson & March 2015, 35). Shor wrote a follow-up article in 1999 updating that updated his theory and applied additional practical pedagogical examples, but he did not specify a particular age group in his analysis. Larson and March seek to address this missing area by focusing their work on elementary school education.

Elizabeth Bishop’s review of critical literacy further underscores Freire’s foundational contributions, and includes a discussion of modern developments in the field, specifically in Critical Theory: Politics, Praxis, and the Postmodern by Colin Lankshear and Peter L. McLaren (1993). Lankshear and McLaren (1993) emphasize the social construction of reading, writing, and text formulation within political contexts, and advocate critically reflective teaching and research agendas that include literacy skills and social justice action. This development of critical literacy from the Shor-Freire model into a more socially-focused theory is mirrored in the 2006 work of Karen Wood, Lina Soares, and Patricia Watson, who concentrate on the general rubric of ‘adolescents’ and consider this theory and pedagogy important in helping students develop their voice, by offering guidelines in the areas of speaking, writing, reading, viewing, and listening.

However, only recently (2016) did Casey Medlock Paul focus specifically on critical literacy and middle schoolers. He suggests several ways to do this: developing a critical lens for teachers and students, changing perspectives of the students, altering lesson plans, focusing on critical question asking, incorporating multiple and/or multimodal texts, and creating critical projects.

My work contributes to the field of critical literacy by continuing this focus on the middle school student population, and moving beyond general guidelines to provide two specific examples of programs I implemented with middle school students. In so doing, my work is relevant to Paul’s ‘creating critical projects’ category. I tap into the versatility of critical literacy as a theory with the capacity to evolve over time, and respond to the social needs of those who engage with it. The role of the reader or learner assumed primacy over time, and was applied to different social spaces as scholars with various pedagogical aims engaged with the theory.

This development demands that those engaged with critical literacy focus not only on the agency of individual readers but on the spaces and situations in which they practice reading. Larson and March describe critical literacy as a field that “involves interrogating texts in terms of the power relations embedded within and reflected by them, in addition to positioning readers and authors as active agents in text creation and analysis” (Larson & March 2015, 3). The authors point out that the reader cannot be divorced from his or her environment, because interrogating power relations within texts connects readers to the larger world surrounding them. An important aspect of the theory of critical literacy is thus the ongoing, fluid dynamic between reader and environment that it has come to highlight. Shor discusses this facet:

Though language is fateful in teaching us what kind of people to become and what kind of society to make, discourse is not destiny. We can redefine ourselves and remake society, if we choose, through alternative rhetoric and dissident projects. This is where critical literacy begins, for questioning power relations, discourses, and identities in a world not yet finished, just, or humane (Shor 1999).

Larson and Marsh (2015) affirm this continual development between the learner and learning environment: “through participating in the practices of teaching and learning, those theories develop and change, in addition to the teachers and students themselves. Teaching and learning literacy is a mutually constituted process that changes over time” (Larson & March 2015, 2). To lend specificity, several theorists move beyond the abstract to suggest ways of concretizing these ideas in a school setting. Wood addresses these specifics:

Critical literacy is a somewhat abstract concept, best defined and achieved by strategic instructional practices. The goal of critical literacy is to raise students' critical and social consciousness. Teachers who practice critical pedagogy provide a student-centered environment in which dialogue is encouraged. Dialogue is seen as a means of developing students' critical consciousness and as a vehicle in which students can begin to question their world.... Students are taught to examine multiple meanings in texts from multiple perspectives (Wood, Soares & Watson 2006).

Dialogue between the student and text is thus a necessary component of translating theory into practice, particularly pertinent for middle school teachers, whose students are deeply concerned about their social situation in relation to peers and educators. This developmental stage requires navigation of identity politics both inside and outside the classroom, as students develop a sense of self in relation to the inherent power dynamics of their environment. Shor emphasizes, “the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process” (Shor 1999) as well as “the active co-operation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying” (Shor 1999, 56). 

The classroom thus becomes a container for principles of critical literacy, as the setting for dynamic interactions between teacher, student, and text to unfold. As Shor explains: “All of us grow up and live in local cultures set in global contexts where multiple discourses shape us. Neighbourhood life and schooling are two formidable sites where the local and the global converge” (Shor 1999). He also reminds us that Freire advocates an active role for teachers:

He believed in rigor, structure, and political contention in society at large.... That is, on the one hand, students and teachers were not free to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, and on the other hand, the conceptual knowledge of the teacher was not denied but rather posed as a necessary element. The teacher must be expert and knowledgeable to be a responsible critical educator (Shor 1999).

In the larger context of critical literacy development, as well as in relation to the situation of my project within the theory, the classroom can be regarded as a place of intersection between technology, text, social and cultural power relations, and the birthplace of meaningful engagement with narrative. Wood et al. (2006) highlighted this by suggesting several arenas within the classroom environment to implement critical literacy theory. They explain: “Critical literacy requires that students read and become knowledgeable about important issues before they can write and reflect about them. Providing both a print- and non-print-rich environment for students is essential if they are to effectively develop their voices” (Wood, Soares & Watson 2006). They propose ways to achieve this that include using novels, quality nonfiction, plays, poetry, music lyrics, and technology including video games.

This emphasis on the overall importance of the modern classroom as a place of practice for critical literacy is most pertinent to my project. I chose to develop two creative reading programs. The Banned Book Project employed novels and nonfiction, and The Story Café accessed biography and autobiography. As with Wood et al. (2006), I include novels, nonfiction, and poetry in my definition of ‘text’ and allow that narratives can be on a kobo or in hardcopy.

As discussed earlier, and as Irvin et al. (2007) point out, desire and motivation are central to the success of the learning process that critical literacy focuses on: “As humans, we are motivated to engage when we are interested or have real purpose for doing so” (Irvin, Meltzer & Dukes, 2007). In a classroom-specific context, designing a situation in which invites students to situate themselves within a set of narrative power relations – as critical literacy advocates – is a way to motivate students beyond the passivity offered by social media. As Irvin et al. (2007) further point out, “motivating students is important—without it, teachers have no point of entry. But it is engagement that is critical, because the level of engagement over time is the vehicle through which classroom instruction influences student outcomes” (Irvin, Meltzer & Dukes, 2007). In our teaching roles, intentionally and creatively structured lesson plans and assignments can therefore tap into students’ curiosity and passion by situating them within a larger context, one which asks for their response, or, as Barthes put it, desires their response and is desired in return.


Case Study

Problem Statement & Method

This desire to engage with a novel is difficult to achieve in the modern classroom. Most teachers are all too aware of the competing demands on student’s time, inside which reading competes with pressure to perform academically in other subjects, athletic commitments, service projects, and with the constant immediacy of communication between friends that is afforded by smartphones, tablets and laptops. In short, many young people live fast-paced lives that rely on speed of communication and organization that did not exist even a decade ago. In comparison to this habitual immediacy, sitting down to read a novel may seem an impossibly slow and inconvenient process.

One might infer that the draw of any particular novel would need to be substantial in such an environment, if it is to triumph over other activities on a regular basis. As such, my project sought to address this problem: how might a teacher encourage serious, engaged reading of long-form texts on a consistent basis? This project used a qualitative approach to understand and analyze the manner in which students engaged meaningfully with a variety of classroom texts. This approach used a case study procedure with ethnographic methods.


Landscape, Context, and Participants

The landscape of the modern classroom confronts multiple factors competing for a student’s time, energy, and ability to engage with a novel that a teacher cannot control. That said, there are also variables within a classroom environment that a teacher can command to achieve the desired outcome: engagement. How a teacher might approach lesson structure to achieve engagement depends on an earlier question: What makes a particular group of students want to assume agency when it comes to reading a novel? What can be done to maximize the possibility their taking ownership of learning objectives and outcomes? We must begin here: The Banned Book Project and Story Café both do, with a focus on the architecture of desire.

The projects were implemented over the course of two academic years (2015-16 & 2016-17) with middle school students at the private Jewish day school where I teach in Alberta. The programs lasted in each case between one and two months, and served mandated provincial outcomes for English Language Arts for grades 7-9. All three grades involved, totalling forty-five students, participated in the Story Café, whereas only grade 8 students, numbering seventeen, participated in the Banned Book Project. Demographically, of the total forty-five students I teach, 15% receive school bursaries, 8% are immigrants who speak English as a second language, and 5% are on IPPs (Individual Program Plans designed to address special learning needs).


Data Sources and Analysis: Story Café Solution and Execution

Keeping in mind the diversity of this student group and the perspective offered by critical literacy, which emphasizes the primacy of student engagement, this project sought to address active engagement with the student’s own interests and passions as a starting point. To do so required stepping back from the reading material itself, and seeking instead a point of entry designed to engage interest in the reading. This program began with a short story unit revolving around a simple question: What does it mean to live a life of passion and purpose?

Through reading these short stories and discussing them afterwards to better address this question, I taught students the structural elements of a short story almost incidentally. As the discussion transpired, students focused on answering a question that interested them. Through this process, they easily absorbed knowledge about story construction and structure, as they regarded these lessons as a means to better examining the question. At the close of this section of the program, students engaged in a class discussion. Aside from providing them with the opportunity to benefit from the perspectives of their peers, this discussion also encouraged students to consider their own private reading activities as being engaged with the attention of a larger community– a point I will return to.

At this juncture, students were invited to choose an individual whom they considered, in light of their reading and discussions, to have lived a noble life. These ranged from Malala, to Ghandi, to Alan Turing, Hannah Sanesh, and Rosa Parks. The more creative part of this program began by placing students in a position of ownership over their own chosen individual, whom they would subsequently be required to research. This portion of the assignment considered the personal interests and preferences of the students as central to the learning process.

Presuming shared interest in a single person or topic would be a flawed methodology to use in approaching a group of individuals from different social strata, varied backgrounds, and cultural milieus. Allowing a measure of choice in the assignment also furthered the learning aims of the subsequent phase of the assignment, which were designed to achieve creative expression. Students were tasked with creating a short story or poem about their chosen person which would be shared both with their classmates and with community members invited to a presentation of their work, including peers, parents and religious figures.

At this point no novels had yet been read, despite a mounting volume of time and work spent on the program by the students involved. However, as the discussion of critical literacy methodologies earlier in this paper points out, it is important when considering engagement not to be tempted into an overabundance of focus on specific material at the expense of student interest – the problem of engagement should be addressed at its root, by considering interest and fostering desire. By stepping back from the reading material to accomplish this engagement, the Story Café encouraged students to situate themselves within relevant power dynamics surrounding the topic of their study. Those studying Ghandi, for example, could not help but examine the nature of relations between Britain and India, the attendant moral concerns colonialism engendered, and their personal perspective on how to handle a potentially conflict-ridden situation in a non-violent manner.

The preliminary sections of the program aimed to make the subject matter personally relevant to students by affording primacy to their interests and preferences. The creative components of the work furthered this aim, by relying on pre-existing passions of students to motivate their engagement. Students given creative license over their own projects were free to incorporate styles of writing, poetry, and presentation they had previously enjoyed or found success with. The result was a level of enthusiasm and passion that overflowed into their new learning from pre-existing sources of enjoyment.

The goal of the Story Café before novel reading was thus layered; first, to engage students with power dynamics and position them in a place of agency, and second to coalesce new learning with existing passions to cultivate desire. Students began to assume ownership of their assignments rather than feeling subordinate to them. They began to situate themselves in the same world of power relations as their chosen object of research, both as a consequence of becoming more knowledgeable and as a product of engaging in pre-existing passions in the context of their community through performance and presentation. The way students saw themselves in relation to their surroundings – parents, friends, religious figures and other community members – became an integral part of the project from the student’s perspective and gradually began to inform their work.

Having achieved this level of engagement, students were invited to select a novel written by or about their research subject and to continue to develop their active interest in that person. The result was a deep and surprising focus on reading to the point that students began to stay in at lunch time to read – having been given meaningful context and perspective on the texts and associated power dynamics, students were willing and eager to engage with what they saw as a personally relevant reading experience that spoke to them as individuals. The sense of ownership generated by the initial research choice and creative assignment was carried forward into engagement with the text. This effect was amplified when the community viewed students’ works and opportunities to experience others’ research and book choices were offered as well. In fact, students swiftly began to exchange books and discuss who would be first in line to read another person’s text upon completion.


Data Sources and Analysis: Banned Book Project Solution and Execution

The idea of identifying ways students enjoy themselves in other areas of the classroom and recruiting these as entry points to better reading – as Wood et al. (2006) propose – prompted the creation of a more targeted reading program in the form of the Banned Book Project. This project was less my own brainchild than the Story Café, and more a collection of ideas and suggestions from fellow teachers and outside sources, cobbled together to engage more deeply on some notable aspects of the learning process achieved in the Story Café. Banned Books sought to do this by selecting books that had previously been censored for students to read. A more obvious reason for using “banned books” was that students were unlikely to have read these books before, and also to be curious about why they were banned in the first place.

The pre-reading phase of this program worked to engage students on a similar basis to the Story Café by placing them in a position of agency with regard to their assignments and by recruiting students’ personal interests and choices to guide their work. Viewing and discussing a video of Nazis burning books during the Third Reich situated book banning in familiar historical context and also sparked group discussion based on the individual curiosities as to what sort of books had been banned and why. To further this engagement, I provided students a variety of words connected to censorship and banning of books, ranging from the obvious ‘censor’ and ‘ban’ to more attendant choices such as ‘freedom’ and ‘responsibility.’ Aside from engaging a large group and fostering teamwork, this activity was also an excellent means of encouraging students to connect ideas of censorship and its itinerant issues to their own mental map of censorship (i.e.: where they had previously seen or heard of the word, and how they considered the notion prior to the project).

The creative portion of the Banned Books Project deepened the discussion of censorship by situating the topic in a student-centered set of power relations. This situating was achieved by two related aspects of the program: the first featured pictures taken of the students holding banned books in a mugshot style being framed and mounted on the wall outside the classroom (Figure 1.1), and the second involved my creation of a fictional crime scene, the centerpiece of which was a taped off ‘body’ constructed from printed pictures of banned books (Figure 1.2). By casting banned books and their readers as lawbreakers, students were encouraged to consider questions of taboo, authority, and consequences, and contemplate how they might have been treated had they read these same texts in a different historical moment.

In addition, students were made conscious of their agency as readers. They were situated in a position of knowledge with respect to their peers, and formed personal connections to the subject matter by internalizing it through explanation and conversation with those same peers. Finally, having chosen a banned book to read, students were asked to personally obtain parental permission to read it – rather than allowing official school communication do it for them. Students were asked to maintain the sense of agency and engagement they had already built up through the pre-reading phase of the program and take it into the reading of their chosen novel.

passion to empowerment fig 1.jpg  

Figure 1.1: Banned Book Mugshots

Source: Lesley Machon, 2017

passion to empowerment fig 2.jpg

Figure 1.2: The ‘Body’of Banned Books

Source: Lesley Machon, 2017


During the actual reading of their texts, engagement was further maintained by a series of concurrent assignments. These assignments were in part creative and in part analytical essay writing. Students first created a new cover for their novel, a project which both allowed–as previously discussed–the recruitment of personal preferences and interests towards their reading, and also allowed each individual to focus on specific aspects of the text they found personally relevant or notable. Personal engagement was furthered by the selection of a favourite quote or passage from the text. Students were then tasked with examining their selection in context of broader social issues and questions, literary movements and other literary works to which they felt it might be relevant.

This contextual engagement continued to emphasize the larger networks surrounding the texts and also the students themselves. Framing the entire project as a process involving deep consideration of power relations and dynamics with regard to reading, readers continually found themselves considering texts as relevant to their own lives, to the lives of those around them, and to situations they might be part of or see and hear of in considering current affairs.

The final essay assignment that came as a product of this consideration occurred only after students had been allowed to finish reading their texts and discuss the texts of their fellows with them. Students wrote an essay titled “Should individuals in a society be able to censor texts?” followed by a class debate on the same question. Coming after both the pre-reading portion of the project and careful engagement with chosen novels, this essay and debate worked to combine multiple learning objectives on the subject of censorship. It combined group discussion with a more reasoned, private, and individual consideration of the topic; encouraged examination of students’ views as they matured over the course of the program; and allowed harmony to be achieved between subject matter and public expression. Keeping in mind the primacy of the student’s engagement, it seemed important to engage students with opposing forces at play. On one hand, students were permitted to discuss their opinions and experiences openly; on the other hand, they remained mindful of formal debate structure, which governed courtesy and highlighted the importance of letting others speak.


Discussion and Outcomes

Both programs resulted in personally engaged reading practices on the part of students as a result of contextualizing through the lens of a student-centered, critical literacy based approach to the structure and architecture of lesson plans. Students not only began to engage with their own specific novels, but sought to read novels their peers had chosen and began to devote deliberate segments of their day to reading, even at the expense of recreation time. Several parents of children in both programs noticed ‘strange’ behaviour: students had begun asking their parents if they could go to bookstores as they sought to experience further meaningful and reading experiences on their own, as a result of agency cultivated in the classroom. As Mary Clare Courtland pointed out, students who were encouraged to engage with the subject matter of their reading through “multiple sign systems” (Courtland, 2010) and from different creative, agency-centered perspectives began to display vastly more engaged, careful, and considered reading habits that extended beyond the classroom to any assignments handed out.

This point brings me to the following conclusion, self-evident to some and vastly underestimated by many: a teacher’s role in fostering textual engagement lies in the provision of an environment that makes engagement possible. Within format designed to be personalized, creative, and critical, students are empowered to control their own learning objectives and outcomes with regards to their reading. This empowerment is the result of situating students in a network of power relations and dynamics which elicit their interest, while permitting personal passions to be made relevant to the subjects they read on.

To gain a final measure of the outcomes of the project, and keeping in mind the importance of striving for precision even in a case such as this, where personal subjective views on the part of students form the lion’s share of the study of these programs, students were given a questionnaire to fill out. In terms of critical literacy, the entire purpose of this project was to apply a pedagogy and methodology to teaching reading that assumed a primacy of student engagement from the first to the last, and as such the questions are aimed at both continuing that purpose and helping students to conceptualize what they have learnt in a clear, meaningful way that they are able to explain to others if asked.

1. If you had to choose one thing about this novel that you found particularly enjoyable, what would it be? You could choose a character, a scene or a specific conversation, section of dialogue or description, or you could choose a stylistic or structural element you liked.

2. Why do you think this novel should be read? Does it have social importance, literary importance, or cultural importance on a broad scale – if so, why, and if not, why not?

3. Is there an element of the novel that you found had personal relevance to you, whether as a result of your own experiences, those of your family or friends, or experiences you have heard about in the past?

4. Explain, in your own words, what you think the goal of reading a novel is.

5. If you had to explain reading to someone who had never done it before, how would you do so?



In sum, the lessons learnt over the course of these programs point towards three simple conclusions.

First, student engagement can be a useful and necessary component to successful learning in the context of novel or long-form text reading. On a simple level, it is an excellent place for a teacher unsure of what text they should assign to begin, because every student, to some degree, will have pre-existing interests and passions that a teacher can use to draw them into the exercise of reading.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the process of engaging a student’s preferences should not be considered tied to reading itself in the first place; often, a teacher may need to work creatively, through different mediums and over several weeks, to gain a student’s attention and transfer energy and enthusiasm from pre-existing interests to ownership of the text.

Third, as critical literacy advocates, a versatile and adaptable means of holding a student’s interest and engagement can be found by focusing at all times on the relevance of the text to the student’s own circumstances and the power relations they experience in their own lives, and by allowing the students to question the power dynamics within the book and surrounding the book.

If these objectives are achieved, there is little reason a student should not feel able to engage in meaningful reading experiences on their own time as well as academically. I hope these conclusions will prove useful to those seeking better ways to engage and educate our young people.


I would like to single out and acknowledge Ms. Brenda English of the Calgary Jewish Academy, without whose kind permission, steadfast support and keen insight into adolescent reading practices these projects simply would not have been possible. Her consideration and contributions have been invaluable to the completion of this work, and for that I offer my most heartfelt thanks and sincere appreciation.



Barthes, R. (1975). The Pleasure of the Text. Hill and Wang.

Bishop, E. (2014). Critical Literacy: Bringing Theory to Praxis.

Journal of Curriculum Theorizing (30), 51-63.

Courtnay, M.C. & Gambell, T. (2010). Literature, Media &

Multiliteracies in Adolescent Language Arts. Pacific

Educational Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Irvin, J. L., Meltzer, J., & Dukes, M. S. (2007). Taking Action on Adolescent Literacy: An Implementation Guide for School Leaders. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Lankshear, C. & McLaren, P. L. (1993). Critical Literacy: Politics, Praxis, and the Postmodern. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Paul, C. M. (2016). “Integrating Critical Literacy in the Middle School Classroom.” Middle Grades Review (2), 1-7.

Shor, I. & Freire, P. (1987). A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Shor, I. (1999). What Is Critical Literacy? The Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice, 4(1), 1-21.

Wood, K. D., Soares L., & Watson, P. (2006). Empowering Adolescents through Critical Literacy. Middle School Journal, 37(3),55-59.