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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Critical Pedagogy: Octavia E. Butler and Ruthanne Lum McCunn

Encourages students to respond to texts as politically aware members of a community.

About the Video

In Part I, Cathie Wright-Lewis’s students at Benjamin Banneker Academy in Brooklyn, New York, investigate the political, social, technological, and environmental issues in Octavia E. Butler’s novel, Parable of the Sower. In Part II, Sandra Childs’s students at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon, discuss cultural and political issues as they relate to Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s novel, Thousand Pieces of Gold. Lum McCunn reads from her novel and discusses it with students.

About the Workshop

Welcome to Session 7: Critical Pedagogy, featuring selected works by Octavia E. Butler and Ruthanne Lum McCunn. To enhance your teaching of multicultural literature in high school we have provided:

  • An overview of critical pedagogy theory
  • Lesson plans corresponding to each video program
  • A guide (downloadable PDF) to the workshop session activities
  • Critical pedagogy teaching strategies
  • Biographies of featured authors along with synopses of their work and further resources
  • A bibliography of additional resources

Theory Overview: Critical Pedagogy


Critical pedagogy encourages students to respond to texts not just as literary critics, but as politically aware members of a community.

One of the central tenets of critical pedagogy, especially as it is outlined by education scholar Paulo Freire, is the establishment of classrooms in which teachers and students learn together. Critical pedagogy allows students to speak with greater authority because they are drawing on knowledge they already possess. While discussing creative assignments, moreover, teachers and students can create a dialogue in which they both learn about the issues they mutually face. At the same time, teachers can help students to find their own voices and their own capacity for action. In this mode, students generate questions and determine the direction of their studies, while teachers participate as equal, fellow members of their shared community.

Critical pedagogy is also a valuable means of helping students to interact with their communities more effectively. By speaking in a self-expressive mode, students are able to connect their own experiences with those of their communities. Just as importantly, students who develop a means for creative political expression begin to consider how they want their thoughts and words to affect others. As students work to guide their own studies, to critique the political ideologies at work in their communities, and to develop creative dialogues with others, they become active, teaching participants in their classrooms and communities. Critical pedagogy, at its heart, moves toward this goal. As educator Henry Giroux writes: “[Critical] pedagogy … signals how questions of audience, voice, power, and evaluation actively work to construct particular relations between teachers and students, institutions and society, and classrooms and communities.”

Impact on teaching literature

Critical pedagogical classrooms encourage students to see literary texts as cultural constructs which both comment on and develop out of given ideologies. They also encourage students to direct their own investigations of literary texts, focusing on issues that are important in their daily lives. That focus often inspires students to read literature more closely, exploring why an author might have made specific literary choices and how those choices support or resist dominant ideologies.

Critical pedagogy also offers students a means of finding connections between literature and their own communities. Because critical pedagogy in literature classrooms combines literary analysis with political action, teachers often find it valuable to move from criticism of a given text to activism in the community. A teacher may begin by encouraging students to investigate the practices of a given culture, for example, and then ask students how these practices support or subvert the political power structure. Students may then write argumentative essays, petitions, or proposals for making positive changes in their communities.

Incorporating critical pedagogy in the classroom

In the classroom, teachers can introduce critical thinking by comparing texts that reflect in different ways on a single political question. A teacher might ask students to compare different kinds of texts that refer to the same issue (for example, medical texts and memoirs that refer to foot-binding); or he or she might ask students to compare multiple literary texts that explore the same issue but in different cultural settings (for example, two memoirs, one Chinese and one African American, both of which focus on the politics of beauty).

By comparing cultural practices from a variety of perspectives, students learn to read critically. In addition, critical pedagogy often forces students to lay aside prejudices about cultures unfamiliar to them. Cultural practices that at first may seem unusually barbaric — for example, the foot-binding practiced in Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s Thousand Pieces of Gold — seem, after further consideration, to mirror the more familiar and “acceptable” practices of dieting or cosmetic surgery.

Teachers will also want to focus on texts with strong political content, such as memoirs that describe the experiences of people of color, for example, or novels that explore the social and cultural practices of a given community. These texts can help students to locate similar practices in their own communities, so that they can become active participants in their worlds.

Benefits and challenges of using a critical pedagogy approach

A critical pedagogy approach offers students a way to bring texts into their lives in an immediate way: They learn how their thoughts and their actions connect. Critical pedagogy also encourages students to explore how they can make effective arguments. Moreover, by finding ways to critique and change practices in their own communities, students realize that they are ultimately responsible for their communities.

Assignments may consist of papers or presentations that combine literary analysis with historical research or proposals for change. Teachers may also ask students to design their own assignments, responding in a way they see fit to the issues raised in class.


Chomsky, Noam. Chomsky on Miseducation. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.
In this collection scholar Noam Chomsky presents his ideas about the politics of education in America.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1993.
Freire’s manifesto details the political significance of critical pedagogy.

—-. The Paulo Freire Reader, edited by Ana Maria Araújo Freire and Donaldo Macedo. New York: Continuum, 1998.
This collection includes excerpts from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Education for Critical Consciousness, Pedagogy in Process, Learning to Question, and other works.

Freire, Paulo and Donald Macedo. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1987.
This practical and inspirational guide treats literacy in its broadest sense, examining its relationship to politics, culture, and social relationships.

Giroux, H.A. Theory and Resistance in Education: A Pedagogy for the Opposition. Massachussets: Bergin & Garvey, 1983.
Giroux addresses the political importance of teaching critical thinking.

Gore, J.M. The Struggle for Pedagogies: Critical and Feminist Discourses as Regimes of Truth. New York, London: Routledge, 1993.
Gore brings together feminist and radical pedagogical theories in this book.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Hooks considers critical pedagogical practice from a feminist standpoint.

Sleeter, Christine E. and Peter McLaren (eds). Multicultural Education, Critical Pedagogy, and the Politics of Difference. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.
A compilation of writings from thinkers of various ethnicities, this book focuses on the politics of curricula in multicultural classrooms.

Tripp, D. “Critical Theory and Educational Research.” Issues In Educational Research, 2.1 (1992): 13-23.
Tripp explores some of the research behind critical pedagogical theory.

Additional Resources

Cheung, King-Kok (ed). An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
This collection introduces readers to the works of American authors of various Asian ethnic backgrounds.

Freedman, Sarah Warshauer, et al (eds). Inside City Schools: Investigating Literacy in Multicultural Classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press, 1999.
This report by a team of teacher-researchers from Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans, focuses on issues of literacy in ethnically diverse classrooms.

Perry, Theresa (ed). Teaching Malcolm X. New York: Routledge, 1996.
This anthology of writings discusses the teaching of Malcolm X’s work to students of all levels.

Reed, Ishmael (ed). Multi-America:Essays on Cultural Wars & Cultural Peace. New York: Viking, 1997.
This collection of essays introduces readers to the many voices of multi-ethnic America and includes selections on assimilation, racial conflict, the gay rights movement, and stereotyping.

Film and Video

Becoming American: The Chinese Experience. PBS/ Public Affairs Television, 2003.
This Bill Moyers special examines the complex history of Chinese immigration to the United States.

Series Directory

The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School


Produced by Thirteen/WNET. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-676-6