Literacy is generally regarded as the ability to read and write, and that perception is what gives the impression that English classes are difficult or at the very least that a student can’t find practical application of literary skills or techniques taught in the classroom. My view is that literacy, in its most basic sense, is the ability to understand the nuances of a given topic. A person who is literate in wilderness survival, for example, is aware of the strategies and skills necessary to live in the wilderness and can converse with those who share that literacy, speaking in common terms and jargon.
Critical literacy isn’t terribly different from my conception of “normal” literacy. It’s the ability to not only understand the specific terminology of a given topic but to make decisions based on that understanding. With the example of the literate wilderness survivalist, knowledge of techniques allows one to make decisions that can lead to survival even in dire situations. My wife and I actually found ourselves turned around in the wilderness after dark, and we decided we needed to start a fire and wait until sunrise so we could see where we were going. If it wasn’t for my wife’s familiarity with starting and maintaining fires, we would have been in for a night much colder than it was.
This definition of critical literacy prompts me to challenge my students to not only come to class and fulfill the minimum requirements of the class but to become experts in fields relevant to their futures. While this should certainly promote competency in chosen careers, it also includes the ability to make informed decisions in social or political issues. Students should be able to glean life lessons from whatever they read, whether it’s the literary “canon,” or texts the student reads freely, growing as individuals and as members of society.