“Aren’t some students too young to talk about critical issues?”

by Jenna Cushing-Leubner & Alexa LaPatka

“Aren’t some students too young to talk about critical issues?”

This is a question that is often asked – by colleagues, by teacher-students in my graduate classes, by my family and friends back home who are not educational researchers, but are very interested in the creation of school settings that awaken and keep alive the vibrance, inquisitiveness, and commitment to equity expressed by nearly any young child.

The question came up repeatedly, in fact, in my recent language teaching methods class for developing speaking and listening skills. As we discussed thinking beyond communicative language classrooms to thinking about critical pedagogy as the way towards increasing investment and interaction in language classes, I gave several examples of high school students in a local Spanish for Native Speakers program where youth develop a breadth and depth of linguistic repertoires (oral and written) while engaging in critical civic inquiry, youth-led participatory action research, and interrogations of the lack of representation of Latina/os in their school learning and of problematic media representations of Latina/os.


In the midst of the conversation, I noticed a number of high school world language and English language teachers nodding, piping in with questions and ideas, and thoughtfully taking notes.  But many of the elementary teachers were noticeably quiet.  Finally, one of them asked point-blank:  “Yeah, but what are the critical topics for young kids?  I just don’t see how this would work.”  Pausing, I thought about my own limited experience teaching elementary-aged students – mostly fifth graders.  They had been keenly in tune with questions of equity and distribution, for example, what could we do with that?  Another teacher raised her hand: “But I work with first and second graders. This is expecting a lot of political knowledge for a child.”  In the moment, I was stumped.  What about bullying? I suggested.  Or what’s in the school lunch, who chooses the menu, where does the food come from?

This question came up again and again across the semester.  And again I would repeat the same increasingly stale examples: Bullying? Lunch?

“Critical pedagogy in ESL maintains that both language learning and language teaching are political processes, and it sees language as not simply a means of expression or communication but as a practice that constructs, and is constructed by, the ways language learners understand themselves, their social surroundings, their histories, and their possibilities for the future.” (Okazaki, 2005)

Critical pedagogy (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008) and culturally responsive/sustaining teaching (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Paris, 2012) are fundamental to interrupting and reversing the oppressive and restrictive effects of schooling experiences that disrupt the full recognition of a child’s multidimensional humanity and ongoing growth.  Both of these require teachers and students to engage in political awareness and consciousness building.  If we are to believe that there is an age threshold for political consciousness, then we are also saying that the reversal of oppressive and restrictive realities that critical pedagogy and culturally responsive/sustaining teaching represent is, in fact, not for everybody, and not something we should expect and demand of all of our schools, our teachers, and ourselves.  Still, I was troubled.  What was reasonable to expect from young children?

Then, one evening, towards the end of the semester, I got an email from one of my teacher-students, Alexa. “My third graders started talking about accents today. It was so spontaneous and interesting, I thought I’d record it. Listen to what they had to say! What do you think?”  [The partial transcript of their conversation is below]

The conversation is uploaded here.

Out of the mouths of babes – Alexa’s classroom story:

Last year I was teaching Academic Language Development (what the school called ELL) at an urban charter school. I taught several intervention-style groups throughout the day, and one group I taught was a group of high level (4-5 on the WIDA scale) 3rd graders. Each day, we started this group with a “question of the day.” It started out as me picking a question to ask students to warm-up and get ready for class, such as “What is your favorite color.” Over time it morphed into the students picking their own questions. For example, each day I would pick a stick with a name on it, and that student would get to pick the question for each one of them to answer. The questions were usually along the lines of favorites, such as “What is your favorite movie?” or “Who is your favorite character on _________ (insert Disney program here).” One day toward the end of the school year, they were taking turns answering the question when they started talking about accents. I honestly don’t remember what the question was, but while answering, one student quipped “Well, accents don’t really matter.” I immediately stopped the student and asked them and the others if they would mind if I recorded their conversation, because I had a feeling that whatever they were about to say was going to be great. They said yes, and proceeded to confirm that feeling:

“If you say you’re going to use an African voice or American (voice), it’s still the same thing.”

“It doesn’t really matter what kind of voice you have.”

“If you have an African accent and you want to speak American will you like, still be talking African but you’re talking English at the same time?”

“Some people, they don’t know American language so they speak another one but sometimes you still learn, but any way you say it….it’s still the same voice you have. Nothing changes.”

Needless to say, I was blown away by their insightfulness and wisdom. I knew my students were bright and special, but I had no idea they had this depth of knowledge. These five 9 year-olds self-created a conversation more insightful than most I have had with my colleagues and peers. If they were capable of this unprovoked conversation on something as abstract as language, what else were they capable of?

 After this conversation happened, I remember just sitting there in awe of what I had just heard. We were in the middle of a month-long unit on summary writing, but I could not bring myself to get to the planned material. I just had to explore this topic a little while longer. We talked for the remaining half hour of class about language and their views on it. Then, after class I immediately sent the audio clip to Jenna, hoping she would be as excited about it as I was. Luckily, this all went down on the one day a week I had class with her. I went to class hoping she had heard it and would at least mention it to me and confirm its greatness. I was not disappointed. Not only had she listened to it, but she asked me if she could play it to the class. We ended up listening to the clip multiple times, spending at least an hour of the class dissecting it and discussing it. I do not remember much of what my peers said, I just remember wanting to do more. I was so proud of the ideas my students shared, and I knew they were capable of more.

I had been planning on writing my final research paper (which was due in less than a month) on student interaction, but I kept thinking how this could be something so much more. Thankfully, Jenna agreed, and with less than a month left I switched my project to further exploring students’ views on language. Over the course of the next few weeks, I drafted questions and conducted individual and group interviews among the same group of students. Again, my students blew me away with their insights. When it was all done, I remember thinking “Man, I wish I would have done that in September.” To think of all the student-initiated instruction that could have driven!

Listening for social justice

Alexa’s story suggests what is possible when we set aside the institutional and curricular constraints increasingly placed on language and literacy development classes in schools.  In a two-minute conversation unstructured by academic language and word banks, her 8- and 9-year old students tackled (among other things):

  • the importance of home/heritage language maintenance
  • the role of English in the U.S. as a language of dominance and power
  • processes of assimilation
  • linguistic imperialism and the use of language as a tool for colonization
  • ways identities can be multiple, hybrid, and essentialized
  • linguistic privileging and dynamic multilingualism

These topics are often far more likely to be taken up with high school students and college-aged/adult learners than with elementary-aged youth.  And while this is important – even imperative – for older youth, we argue that waiting until young adulthood is far too late to allow youth to talk about, make sense of, learn from invested adults and friends, and co-construct knowledge and expertise around issues that are critical, political, and both well-known and deeply important to them.  The question “but can/should we be talking about this with young kids?” sometimes comes from a desire to protect an imagined childhood innocence, sometimes from a limit in our expectations of a young child’s organic intellectualism.  However, young children have access to funds of knowledge and funds of sometimes “difficult” knowledge (Becker, 2014; Marshall & Toohey, 2010) that enable them to intellectualize about complex topics.  Sometimes it is the adults / teachers who are uncomfortable with drawing on these topics to integrate into learning and instruction.

We challenge each of us to ask of our teaching and learning:

What does it mean to listen for these complex issues and create responsive, student-driven, language-rich learning that draws on truly high-level thinking and language use?

What is possible in a communicative language classroom that is structured around critical language awareness, political consciousness, community-strengths and expertise, even collective engagement in transformational actions with and in students’ own communities (including their classrooms and schools)?



Becker, A. (2014). Funds of (difficult) knowledge and the affordances of multimodality: The case of Victor. Journal of Language & Literacy Education, 10(2), 18-33.

Duncan-Andrade, J. M., & Morrell, E. (2008). The art of critical pedagogy. New York: Peter Lang.

Ladson‐Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into practice, 34(3), 159-165.Marshall & Toohey, 2010

Okazaki, T. (2005). Critical consciousness and critical language teaching. Second Language Studies, 23(2), 174-202.

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy a needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97.



Jenna Cushing-Leubner is a PhD candidate in Second Language Education at the University of Minnesota.  For the last three years, she has been working with teachers and Latin@ high school students to develop Spanish for Native Speakers/Heritage Learners classes that use critical civic inquiry, ethnic studies content, arts-based pedagogies, and youth research to support home language retrieval, maintenance, and acquisition, and to forge multilingual spaces in otherwise predominantly English-speaking schools.


Alexa LaPatka teaches English learners at Whittier International School in Minneapolis. She has taught elementary and middle school students in urban Minnesota for two years. She received her M.Ed. in English as a Second Language from the University of Minnesota after receiving a bachelor’s degree in Hispanic Studies from the College of Saint Benedict.


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