Monday, January 2, 2012

Morrell - Urban Lit Ed - 3

Multiliteracy and Motivation

Morrell’s Case for
Popular Culture in Urban Literacy Education

Ernest Morrell gets down to (what in my old neighborhood, people called) the “nitty gritty” in his third chapter of Linking Literacy and Popular Culture. Here, Morrell is asking urban literacy educators to discover the connections – not between popular culture and urban schools – but between urban language arts learners and learning.

What is the case for popular culture in urban literacy education? Even if one views literacy in the broadest sense – why focus on Lady Gaga instead of Lady Macbeth? Why hoops over Hamlet? While pop culture may be a valid specialty area of “media studies,” considering time limitations, what justifies its use in the general language arts classroom?

Morrell suggests that in light of our understanding of multiple literacies, popular culture solves the problem of engagement. Language arts educators can ‘meet students where they are,’ so to speak. It’s not a matter of one type of text being better than another – it’s about motivating students. Additionally, Morrell says it’s about relevance, and cultural relevance. Popular culture stands at the intersection between multicultural ideals – and the intentional diversity, equity-seeking and empowerment aspects of the social justice framework.

Morrell makes his case in Chapter Three by addressing two questions: (1) What is literacy education? (2) How do we motivate urban language arts learners? While the chapter is obliged to follow an academic structure of research references, these notes freely reflect on Morrell’s main message: we can motivate urban learners by connecting to the sophisticated cognitive activity young people already employ in their relationship to popular culture, and use the immediate relevance pop culture has in young people’s real lives to build bridges back to great literature and traditional language arts standards.

“No systematic effort toward change has been possible, for, taught the same economics, history, philosophy, literature and religion which have established the present code of morals, the Negro's mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions.”
Carter G. Woodson


Morrell explores several arguments that lay a conceptual foundation for the theory of multiple literacies and the potential for utilizing film, sports, music, gaming and other forms of pop media to promote literacy development in urban schools. The point being made is that there are many kinds of literacies. Pinning down the precise number and individual scope of the multiplicity of newly understood literacies is difficult. This is due to what Jim Burke characterized as our “evolving notions of literacy.”

There are so many literacies, the lifelong learner must now possess literacy - literacy. Burke, referring to the general area of critical media literacy, says that in our “increasingly complex world of multiple literacies” urban learners need to develop “textual intelligence.” Importantly, his concept of text implies a definition that sees it, as Heather Coffey generously defines text: “[any] vehicle through which individuals communicate with one another using the codes and conventions of society.” Books, yes – but movies, songs, pictures, conversations, and even attitudes are considered texts.

So communications literacy is textual intelligence that includes the realm of the cultural and the socio-physical – leading Judith Langer to describe literacy as, “the ability to think and reason like a literate person within a particular society.” Along with the artifactual, documentary component to popular culture, Morrell contemplates popular culture’s ideal component – ideas, values and attitudes as well as everyday life and language. While not spelled out in his third chapter of Linking Literacy, in subsequent writing and speeches, Morrell has clarified his thinking on the five key literacies, listing:

  • Academic Literacies
  • Critical Literacies
  • Civic Literacies
  • Community Literacies
  • New Media Literacies

Morrell advises that young people are already involved in “many rigorous and relevant literacy activities that are related to their participation in youth popular culture.”

“While acknowledgment of the relationship between education and culture is important, unless the relationship between culture and the socioeconomic conditions within which it is produced is recognized, the so-called at-risk conditions common to peoples living under siege will persist.”
Sandy Grande (Red Pedagogy)


A theory of educational psychology central to Morrell’s work is the Expectancy - Value Theory of Motivation. This Eccles and Wigfield model holds that motivation is a function of two characteristics.  The first one is confidence. Confident in their ability to perform a task, people are more likely to be motivated to do it.  The second characteristic is relevance.  When a person feels that an activity is relevant, he or she will be more inclined to participate.  So, to motivate urban learners, the questions literacy educators must ask are these:

  • What is it that urban learners already do well, and have a high degree of confidence in, that I can draw from? 
  • How can I situate the content in something that is relevant to students in a real way?

Morrell notes that incorporating popular culture in the literacy classroom is also motivating because it promotes critical consciousness. This work positions young people as intellectuals and researchers, investigating the things that they care about in the community. 

“Popular culture involves intellectually rigorous literate activity,” writes Morrell. While many in education claim there is a distinction between popular culture and high culture, “obviously deciding to focus on the latter given its superior rigor, content, and worth to humanity” – Morrell challenges these ideas, insisting “popular cultural consumption and production are intellectual activities that coordinate with the goals of secondary English teaching.”

Beyond academic value, Morrell makes the case that popular culture addresses the issues of multiliteracy and motivation in urban literacy education.


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