Text Sets & Critical Perspectives

Just what is a text set, anyways? Turns out, a teacher’s text set depends a lot on their perspective on literacy. In this blog post series, I’ve described the QTS text set from the cognitive perspective and the Project READI text set from the disciplinary literacy perspective. To complement those, this post sketches the collaborative curation framework for critical literacy, which I’ll abbreviate CCC.  This post’s framework is drawn directly from the work of Dr. Kate Lechtenberg in her 2019 article “Curating Against the Canon: Collaborative Curation for Critical Literacy”, and which was published in an anthology titled Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms, and coedited by CLE scholars Drs. Mike and Kati Macaluso. 

What does the CCC framework have to offer? While the QTS focused on developing students’ ability and motivation to read cognitively challenging material, and the READI model focused on developing students’ literary interpretation, the CCC model focuses on developing students’ ability to read with and against both canonical and noncanonical literature—and the critical literacy of interrogating ideologies of power within those texts. No doubt the QTS model and READI model might consider this important, it’s not their focus. The particular benefit of the CCC model is how it scaffolds the development of critical literacy, a goal of many English teachers. 

Fulcrum Texts

The ultimate “goal” or anchoring text of the unit, the fulcrum text provides “a challenging focus for shared inquiry” (Lechtenberg, 2019, p. 5, the term dates to Wesseling 2011). As with the other models, challenge is important, but the CCC model doesn’t conceptualize the specific kinds of challenge as part of the fulcrum text. Rather, the challenge emerges as the fulcrum text is placed in conversation with other voices and other texts in the unit—the counterstory and texture texts.  Finally, Lechtenberg argues that the fulctrum texts should be organized around concepts, not merely topics or themes: 

For example, the topic of literary devices becomes a conceptual inquiry into the concept of
representation, knowledge of Harlem Renaissance authors gives way to inquiry
into tradition and modernity, and a narrow focus on the literary type of unreliable
narrators becomes a broader inquiry into reputation or truth.

Lechtenberg herself chooses Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as a fulcrum text for her adolescent literature course for teachers-in-training. Certainly a hallmark of 20th century postcolonial literature, the work highlights the response of an African writer to Western narratives of colonialization, but also portrays the complexity of voices within the Ibo community in response to colonization. The complex orchestra of voices within the novel lay a strong groundwork for selecting texts to respond to, echo, and refract those voices in the other types of texts.  Conceptually, the idea of colonial and postcolonial narratives is a strong organizing concept. In my own students’ text set design, they’ve selected works like Paul Fleischmann’s Seedfolks to discuss racial stereotypes,  or Pride:  A Pride and Prejudice Remix to discuss intersectionality and love. 

Counterstory Texts

Essential to the CCC’s model is wrapping the fulcrum text with one or more counterstories, which explore the conceptual framework from a different perspective.  A counterstory might offer the voice of a narrator of a different race, class, or gender—or might offer a conceptually contradictory perspective to the fulcrum text. In this case, counterstory texts that present essentialized African identities might present the counterstory to Achebe’s complexity. These texts might, like Project READI’s cultural data sets, be drawn from popular culture, to remind students that the concepts under study are often stealthily operating in popular culture. 

Texture Texts 

As counterstories to Things Fall Apart, Lechtenberg’s students chose works, for example, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, and Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch.  Both these texts explore the complexities and tensions in contemporary African identities, Noah’s through memoir and Okafor’s through fantasy.  In concert with Achebe, reading these works invites students to resist superficial conceptualizations of identity and instead dig deeper into the complexities.  

Contrasting Perspectives: QTS/READI and CCC

The strengths of the other frameworks—such as the QTS’s focus on building student motivation to read and the READI model’s specific articulation of how to scaffold the reading of literature—are noticeably absent in the CCC.  However, the critical dimensions of an ELA classroom and the ability to interrogate texts’ perspectives and the cultural assumptions embedded in our social discourse is on full display in the CCC model.   Still, it’s possible that a text set could bring together some of these goals. A single text might serve as a hook text to build engagement (per the WTS model), a gateway text to explore a literary theme (per the READI model) and a counterstory (per the CCC model). In my next and last post in this series, I’ll lay out my best attempt to produce such a text set. Perhaps ELA teachers can challenge students cognitively, enrich their practices of literary interpretation, and empower them to challenge ideologies in their texts and their worlds.