Reviews 2016

Teaching towards Democracy with Postmodern and Popular Culture Texts

Teaching towards Democracy with Postmodern and Popular Culture Texts. Ed. Patricia Paugh, Tricia Kress, and Robert Lake. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2014. 256 pages. $32.00 (paperback).

This edited volume explores popular literary and media texts that have been chosen by the authors for their meaningfulness to the lives of young people. The chapters focus on different genres such as science fiction, dystopia and fantasy, as well as different media, such as graphic novels, postmodern picture books and video games in English language arts classes. In the introduction one of the editors, Patricia Paugh, outlines the humanising dimension and critical pedagogy approach of the volume that aims to underpin the social and ethical-moral training of future citizens (2) and inspire a critical pedagogical disposition in the classroom.

The ensuing chapters offer conceptual evidence and discussion based on theories of reader response, critical literacy and new literacies intended to position students to use literacy as part of a social community, both real and imagined, in ways that prepare them not only to be 21st century workers but more importantly to be 21st century citizens, innovating and creating new relationships that keep social justice and equity at the forefront (3). Thus the volume is connected to the on-going debate "between those who advocate for standardization in education and those who advocate for education to be culturally, linguistically and socially responsive" (4). The following fourteen chapters provide the arguments for social responsiveness and for the critical agency of the student reader, with suggestions for activities and concrete examples of classroom practices. The book mostly convinces me as a reader, and the arguments resound strongly in coming from practitioners and scholars who take the needs of students as well as those of society very seriously. My reservations in recommending this book are mostly connected to the matter of presentation.

The edited volume is published by Sense Publishers, who deserve to be commended for their interest in and support of progressive writing on education and literacy. Nonetheless, far better polishing of the final product by publishers and editors would have produced a higher quality volume. The results of the copyediting, proofreading and, in my copy at least, extremely uneven printing are all disappointing. There are examples of mini slips throughout the chapters, such as the use of singular instead of plural or vice versa, and missing prepositions and articles. Educationalists, teachers and student teachers who demand a highly polished book may find this difficult to ignore. I believe, however, that many readers deeply engaged in education will be able to overlook these faults for the sake of the serious message of the volume.

A chapter that stretches our notion of literacy, including critical literacy, to the limit is Reynolds’ "Neo-Post-Urban-Noir Graphic Novels and Critical Literacy: The Hard Connection" (21–35). The author offers a historical situating of the neo-noir or post-noir graphic novel before exploring his use of Frank Miller’s Sin City: The Hard Goodbye (2005) in a university course Literacy and Language Across the Curriculum. Reynolds cites his students’ strong reactions to the graphic novel, which, in the case of the female students, are characterised by discomfort and shock at the misogynist and violent nature of the material. Yet the students come to see how "in the portrayal of hidden urban environments discussions can arise that lead to questioning of misogyny, race, class and social justice" (31).

Simmons contributes a chapter on a "pop culture sensation" (77), The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay: "Class on Fire: Using the Hunger Games Trilogy to Encourage Social Action" (77–95). The author connects the trilogy to parallel human rights abuses in the real world and invokes the ardour of adolescent students: "we have an abundance of fire in the form of passionate students" (92); the chapter is convincing in its call for social action – with concrete examples – inspired by the trilogy. Some readers may find the summarising of the trilogy (Table 1, 79–80 and Table 2, 84–5, on the thirteen districts of Panem) excessive, as this information can easily be found on the internet.

Paugh’s chapter "The Postmodern Picture Book: Reimagining Children’s Author'ity' as Readers" (97–115) outlines the opportunities for teachers to allow children to co-construct ideas and gain authority over texts in English language arts classes. The author includes a useful typology of features of postmodern picture books, collected from leading research publications such as those of Dresang and Pantaleo (107–8). Although the concept of literacy as power is not new (Anstey is referenced for example as well as Freire and Macedo), these practices "are still largely invisible within current school discourses" (99), and therefore the chapter fulfils an important function in highlighting these educationally versatile texts for readers not yet familiar with them.

The concern with encouraging powerful thinking and students "as agents capable of constructing meaning" (151) continues with Rychly and Lake’s chapter "Exploring the Tensions between Narrative Imagination and Official Knowledge through the Life of Pi" (151–64). The authors use Yann Martel’s (2001) richly imaginative award-winning fantasy adventure novel to explain the importance of metaphorical thinking and imagination in education. With reference to Lakoff and Johnson, they suggest that "metaphor is fundamental to the process of thinking and communicating" (155). The authors succinctly express the fear of many educators in the context of today’s standards-driven classrooms: "If we insist on practicing as though there is only one way to read something and only one possible way to interpret, summarize, or respond to it, then we run the risk of eliminating a need to read at all" (161).

This book has much to recommend it for its closeness to the classroom and the needs of 21st century students to find the agency to think for themselves in a complex world. But the extremely brief introduction and complete lack of an index are drawbacks. I would wish a more rigorously edited edition to be on the horizon for the near future. The volume, its message, and our students deserve it.

Janice Bland
University of Münster, Germany

Works Cited

Anstey, Michèle. "'It's not all black and white': Postmodern picture books and new literacies." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 45.6 (2002): 444-57.

Dresang, Eliza. Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1999.

Freire, Paulo and Donaldo Macedo. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. New York: Routledge, 1987.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1980.

Pantaleo, Sylvia. "Young children and radical change characteristics in picture books." The Reading Teacher 58.2 (2004): 178-87.