By Jacob Steiss
In “A Transformative Justice Approach to Literacy Education,” Dr. Masiha T. Winn describes how teachers can use “restorative justice as a lens through which to view their roles and responsibilities to students.” She identifies key questions to guide instruction through a restorative justice lens and outlines multiple levels of inquiry for students to examine the intersections of history, justice, race, and language in their lives. This approach to education creates a space for youth to develop and express literate identities while critiquing and speaking back to social, institutional, and political forces affecting their communities.
Winn notes that in her previous research, many students find a love of language outside the classroom. While this at once speaks to the capacity for students to live varied literate lives in diverse spaces, it also points to problems within the classroom and how students are marginalized by or inhibited from participating in certain literate practices. At times, we may fail to recognize our students as multilingual, multicultural, and multiliterate, and in doing so create harm.
Winn defines restorative justice as inviting stakeholders to “address harm and wrongdoing by building community.” This idea can be applied to different educational spaces, including one’s classroom, but also extends to places where education and literacy occur in the community, such as youth activism, libraries and bookstores, digital spaces, and youth-centered writing communities. Such an approach to education also involves recognizing literacy as relational and occurring in social spaces. To address injustice occurring in educational spaces, Winn suggests key questions to guide teaching.
Key Questions for a Transformative Justice Approach to Literacy Education
Winn centers three questions in a transformative justice approach to literacy education:
As teachers, we seek opportunities in the curriculum for students to ask these questions in meaningful ways. This can allow us to “decolonize literacy and support students in becoming agentive and self-disciplined writers, readers, thinkers, and doers.” It may also involve direct engagement with educational norms and school curricula. Teachers and students may ask: Why isn’t multilingualism emphasized in our curriculum? Whose voices are omitted in the content and stories we study? Whose voices should we invite into this critique and into this curriculum?
Winn shares the example of a teacher in the Bronx, Papa Joe, who created a Power Writers program to help sustain the linguistic practices of his students. She writes, “Papa Joe’s students were singers through their work. He encouraged Power Writers to become ‘Jedis of words,’ that is, to study language and never allow anyone to talk over them. Papa Joe borrowed the concept of a Jedi from the Star Wars series to imply that students should develop self-discipline and focus and be involved in justice-seeking endeavors.”
By empowering students to value their multilingualism and engage in meaningful efforts to cultivate all their literate identities, the program “was an effort to make the wrong things right for these young people who experienced multiple harms throughout their academic trajectories.”
Redressing harm and creating spaces for youth empowerment also means emphasizing the following in education:
Highlighting that language matters, and exists within a framework that recognizes interactions between history, race, and justice, students can use their voices and multiliterate skills to challenge problems they see in their communities. To begin this work, a guiding question for teachers might be:
After identifying an issue for inquiry, examining how history, race, justice, and language relate to the issue can provide an opportunity for learning and transformative justice. An example of such a project can be found in the Youth Participatory Action Research project here. #Disrupttexts also offers opportunities to plan instruction around a transformative justice approach to literacy.
To continue a conversation about responsive and justice-oriented practices to literacy, register for the WRITE Center’s 2020 Learning Series where Dr. Winn will present on September 21st, 2020. Her presentation, When life gives you watermelons: Writing Communities, Race, and Transformative Justice, will engage participants in the Transformative Justice English/Language Arts design principles which seek to leverage restorative justice theory and practice in writing communities. Winn will provide a brief overview of restorative justice; introduce the Transformative Justice English/Language Arts design principles; and demonstrate how the 5 pedagogical stances (expanded from the four outlined in this blog)-- History Matters, Race Matters, Justice Matters, Language Matters, and Futures Matter—can serve as tools for paradigm shifting toward justice in learning communities. Participants will build their own toolkits for using the 5 pedagogical stances in their own work.
Reference: Winn, M. T. (2018). A transformative justice approach to literacy education. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 62(2), 219-221.
Professor Winn was named an American Educational Research Association Fellow (Spring 2016). In 2014 she received the William T. Grant Foundation Distinguished Fellowship and was named the American Educational Research Association Early Career Award recipient in 2012. Professor Winn served as the Jeannette K. Watson Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at Syracuse University for the 2019/2020 academic year. She is the author of several books including Writing in Rhythm: Spoken word poetry in urban schools (published under maiden name “Fisher”); Black literate lives: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (published under maiden name “Fisher”); Girl Time: Literacy, Justice, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline; and co-editor of Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Research (with Django Paris). She has two new books, Justice on Both Sides: Transforming Education through Restorative Justice (Harvard Education Press) and Restorative Justice in the English Language Arts Classroom (with Hannah Graham and Rita Alfred on National Council of Teachers of English Principles in Practice Series). She is also the author of numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals including Review of Research in Education; Anthropology and Education Quarterly; International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education; Race, Ethnicity and Education; Research in the Teaching of English; Race and Social Problems; and Harvard Educational Review.
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