Critical Digital Literacy Through Self-Reflective Practices
By Anne Drew Hu and Jessica Velez Tello
Note: Quotes from interviews edited for length and clarity.
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno is Professor of Bilingual Education & Bilingual Program Coordinator at Brooklyn College.
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno is the undergraduate deputy, bilingual coordinator, and all-around person to ask questions if you need help in the Childhood, Bilingual, and Special Education Department at Brooklyn College.
Her career as an educator spans two decades, from bilingual K-12 schools to higher education, where she works as a professor in literacy and language. Joining CITE was a natural step after her work in computing-integrated bilingual classrooms with the research practice partnership Participating in Literacies and Computer Science (PiLa-CS).
“One thing that helped me to design experiences for teacher candidates was to start thinking, “what does it mean for your identity to be part of creating knowledge?” Like many others, when I was younger, I thought that knowledge was outside oneself and I had to get it, not that knowledge was something that was really part of our collective history.
I have been inspired by newer thinkers like the authors of the book, Revolutionary Love, and Gholdy Muhammad. Their work is connected to past scholars, and I think they’re applying it to education in a way that needs to be heard now. But a lot of these ideas have always been part of educational traditions. I mean, I think that’s the message of Goldy Muhammad’s book, that there’s a long history of African American education that’s really important. But I think what’s new are these coalitions and the interest in working across different communities.”
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno’s “Why” for CITE
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno is an experienced researcher and educator who has been working at the intersection of literacy and computing for years. Her work with PiLa-CS was instrumental in developing her understanding of computational literacies and how to integrate them into other content areas. She wanted to build on the work from PiLa-CS by integrating computational literacies into teacher education:
“…In PiLa-CS, we always talked about how the next step was teacher ed – it couldn’t just be in classrooms when teachers were in schools and with principals. We had to prepare teachers in teacher ed programs.”
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno’s Context
Among other duties, Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno teaches CBSE 3204/3301: Integrated Methodologies for Language Arts/ Bilingual Language Arts. This is one of two literacy courses (dubbed the “literacy block”) in Brooklyn College’s undergraduate Childhood major. It offers a pivotal opportunity for students to reflect on literacy pedagogy and the role of literacy in the development of students’ critical stances toward texts. In her own words, “the goals of these two classes are to provide students with a theoretical foundation for literacy (reading and writing instruction), help them understand how it applies to diverse populations, and teach them how to enact literacy pedagogy in urban environments… The course aims to maintain focus on developing deep and nuanced understandings of the reading process as well as providing teacher candidates with actionable skills that they can bring into the classroom.”
Considering how the definitions of “text” are continually evolving, Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno wanted to integrate critical digital literacy into a class which had, in the past, been mostly about traditional print media. She also wanted to help teacher candidates understand that when they use digital tools for classroom literacy, they must do so in purposeful ways. Throughout all this work, Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno aims to take a justice-centered approach and consider the values embedded in teaching. This means considering the content of the books teachers assign, the reasons they are teaching/integrating computing, and the digital tools they use:
“We want to ensure that students know the basics of teaching literacy … but at the same time have the tools to understand that the curriculum has a stance, it comes out of certain theoretical perspectives. It’s not just neutral.”
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno’s Learning and Design Journey
When coming up with the idea for her artifact “Cultivating Critical Digital Literacies,“ she remembered a student in her class who said, “I don’t know what to believe when I read” during the 2016 election. To support teacher candidates to navigate complex digital media ecosystems, this artifact engages them in studying their own reading behaviors, specifically their digital reading experiences, analyzing them from a critical perspective. She hoped to help teacher candidates (TCs) “see learning to read as engaging with a dynamic body of knowledge that is connected to their own lives as readers” and to consider connections between social justice and (digital) literacy, saying:
“… there has to be a foundation of social justice and equity within your class in order for the CITE project to be successful. It can’t be that the CITE project is the only vector that’s engaging with it or that you only approach equity through the CITE project. If you’re teaching a class and the class doesn’t look at those issues really deeply, then the CITE project is just going to be like frosting on a cupcake. It’s gonna be like a little tiny portion that is not going to really be transformational or even deep.”
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno’s artifact
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno’s critical digital literacies artifact consists of a series of activities that are deeply intertwined with the content of the literacy course. Through in class activities and discussions spanning several weeks, teacher candidates explore their own textual histories, their current digital reading behaviors, the messages in their social media feeds, and eventually the algorithms that impact the information they have access to.
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno takes the approach of designing the course around a central topic–in this case immigration narratives. In centering all literacy work around the concept of immigration, rather than positioning the critical digital literacies project as an addition to an already crowded course, Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno situates literacy work as an essential component of efforts to achieve criticality in literacies.
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno has been incorporating racial equity into this read aloud project since before she joined CITE by focusing on the lives of immigrants and how they are represented in media. This artifact addresses equity in teaching critical digital literacies by asking teacher candidates to explore how immigrants and immigration are presented through traditional and digital texts. It thus supports student thinking and deepens understanding of how “race, ethnicity, gender, and power circulate in the media.”
“One of the essential questions that runs throughout the class is what is literacy? This project addresses this by having students consider a diversity of texts – in this case digital texts – that they, and their students, can critically process. This diverges from the current focus on printed text as the primary medium through which reading is taught.
Another major thread of the course is how reading theories translate into pedagogy. Through an exploration of their own use of digital literacies and through mini assignments, students will acquire experiences that will support them in carrying out similar activities and lessons with their future students.”
Activities In A Nutshell
- Reflect on what literacy is, what digital literacy is, and what connects digital and traditional literacy.
- Research their own use of digital information and its sources, using collaborative digital tools
- Share findings with peers in class through small group discussions
- Read a digital text and compare its text features to the text features of a physical text
- Develop a critical stance by reading digital texts relating to immigration, identifying narratives and counter-narratives (e.g. 1, 2)
- Choose a digital text and critically analyze it
- Examine their own social media feed to identify the topics and themes that appear.
- Become familiar with the algorithms behind the information that we receive given our choices and the data collected on our reading habits.
- Understand that issues of bias affect how technology is used and, in particular, our literacy habits.
- Determine the purpose of coding and computational thinking as it is integrated in literacy through the digital literacy project.
A Day of My Digital Literacies (Week 5)
Teacher candidates were asked to reflect on their own digital media consumption and create a visual representation of what they read online in a day. The following image is an example of a Jamboard where images of representing the content they read is posted and organized by source, whether Instagram, Twitter, or online newspaper. TCs create their own jamboards of their digital literacies, incorporating the various types of text that they are exposed to and the variety of named languages that they use on a daily basis.
Reflection on teaching digital texts (Week 7)
This artifact engages teacher candidates in exploring the affordances of technology and asks them to reflect on how digital texts differ from traditional texts. For example, this activity from week 7:
What are some issues teachers need to think about concerning digital texts?
- How is reading digital text fundamentally different from reading traditional texts?
- Which features of digital texts require explanation?
- How are digital texts accessed?
- How do the features of digital text advantage or disadvantage certain readers?
Inquiry into the Messages in our Social Media (Week 8)
This activity looks at how narratives are conveyed through social media, specifically Instagram. Before beginning, students read a graphic novel, When the Stars Scattered, by Omar Mohammed, and discuss immigration and equity. They develop a definition of an equity lens in literacy that applies regardless of whether they are reading traditional or digital texts. For the activity itself, teacher candidates look at themes and messages embedded in sample Instagram posts, then they are challenged to analyze their own contributions to social media.
Teacher candidates look for themes and messages, considering diversity, equity, and inclusion, guided by the following questions:
- Who is the narrator? What is their point of view?
- Which groups of people are represented and which groups of people are not represented?
- What do you think the narrator is trying to convey about a particular group of people, an individual or an institution?
- Do you agree or disagree with the narrator’s representations? Why or why not?
- What’s the setting?
- Is this a single story or a story to consider alongside many others?
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno’s Next Steps
Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno made it clear that her artifact could not exist in a vacuum, and aimed to integrate the CITE framework and goals throughout her course and others for it to be successful. For her own class, she connected the digital literacy activities to other course content about computer science, computational thinking, and the social impact of computing that she had started to introduce prior to creating this artifact. In fact, during the critical digital literacies project, the computational thinking and Scratch activities she incorporated a number of years prior to attending CITE became even more purposeful. After she had explored critical digital literacies for weeks from both a personal perspective and as an educator, considering how TCs were taught about data collected about individuals and how these collection practices relate to computational thinking, the reason for understanding coding and computation literacies as they relate to literacy became much clearer. This one course is the culmination of years spent working to connect social justice, literacy, and digital literacy.
In the future, her goal is to keep working to apply a social justice lens throughout the whole course. She views this as a process that requires continuous re-evaluation.
Ending Reflections: Critical Literacy and Digital Information
Throughout these activities, Dr. Ascenzi-Moreno was able to scaffold learning for teacher candidates, engaging them in consideration of the different dimensions of literacy and how they encountered them in their everyday lives. Teacher candidates were able to think deeply about their engagement with social media across different platforms. They discussed how algorithms both collect data on individuals and affect the information that individuals receive, and they compared the features of digital texts with those of traditional texts, discussing how differences could impact students’ literacy development.