Teaching to Change the World: Critical Pedagogy that Inspires Action


Despite growing up with two educators for parents, Carly Heitland wasn’t sold on the idea of pursuing a career as a teacher.

“For a long time I did not want to go into education and do exactly what my parents did,” Carly admits. As she attended high school, however, she began to see the broken pieces of the system that she felt negatively impacted her and her peers.

“First hand, I’ve seen the problems we give to students,” Carly explains. “In high school, there were definitely moments when I thought, ‘as a student, I deserve more than this.’”

When Carly decided to attend East Central University in Oklahoma, she carried with her both her insight from her parents’ work as educators, as well as her own observations about the flaws in our current educational model. It was the combination of these elements—and the subsequent realization of her own passion for English and education—that eventually led Carly to pursue her English education degree, along with a minor in political science.


As her junior year approached, so did her looming honors thesis—a year-long independent, self-guided study. Yet, when faced with the decision of what to write about, Carly didn’t struggle to choose a topic.

“I’ve seen some ways [educators] have gone wrong, and I’ve read theorists who have different ideas on how we can move forward,” says Carly. “There are things we can do to keep progressing in a way that benefits everyone in our society, not just the few people who benefit from our education system as it is.”

Through her education courses and search for solutions, Carly narrowed in on the subject of critical pedagogy, which was first theorized by Brazillian education theorist, Paulo Freire.

“Critical pedagogy wants us to show our students how to transform society, by connecting what they’re learning in the classroom to what is going on in the real world,” Carly explains. “We want to show them there’s a link there, and they have the power to change the world.”

Carly dove headfirst into the niche field of Critical Pedagogy, along with the help of her thesis advisor at East Central University, Dr. Jennifer Dorsey. Dr. Dorsey completed her dissertation in the area of Action Pedagogy, which houses Critical Pedagogy. Carly credits her professor with assistance in everything from locating the more than 75 resources she consumed for her in-depth literature review, to helping her establish helpful deadlines in executing the 130-page thesis. Using this wealth of research, Carly then looked into what this complex pedagogical theory would look like fleshed out in her own classroom one day.

“How do we get from reading a book to taking real action in the world right now?” Carly asked through the life of her project, and this question led her to build out two English classroom units that apply the Critical Pedagogy framework to two literary texts: To Kill a Mockingbird and The Hate You Give.

“I applied this framework to two different literature units over two books in an effort to show awareness of civic engagement and racial injustice against African Americans,” Carly explains. She discovered that although the books were published nearly 60 years apart, the characters, themes, and devices reveal a bridge between the past and present conversation on the topic of racial injustice.

But Carly was interested in much more than just finding a parallel between these two texts in literary motifs and metaphors. She wanted her students to take actionable steps that lead to change in areas of racial injustice.


Through implementing Critical Pedagogy, Carly developed 12 different debates (six for each book) sprinkled throughout the course of her literature units. The debates would ask students to consider the real-world questions inspired by the books, such as, are evil actions the result of systemic oppression or individual action? Students would then be given the chance to take a stance and defend their position, and at the end of the year, their final project would be to do something to demonstrate the belief behind their position.

“They can do things that represent their stances in the world,” Carly says she wants her students to realize. She references several action steps students on both sides of the debates could join, from helping at a women’s shelter to volunteering with an organization like DECA. “But I want to leave it open for them to make their own connections.”

Although Carly still has one more year of her college education to complete, she has become increasingly mindful of how her thesis project will one day affect her future classroom.

“I did want to make [the units] realistic in the sense that when I am teaching I could go in teaching these units, and they’ll be aligned to the standards my state has set forth,” she says. She discusses incorporating student learning outcomes like group collaboration, presentation skills, and learned literary elements into her units. But even beyond mandated learning outcomes, Carly hopes to bring something even more nuanced from her work in Critical Pedagogy.

“I went back at the end of my research and reread my philosophy of education,” Carly says. “It’s so different now. My conception of the effect I want to have on student’s lives has totally changed.

“Before I really wanted to be very loving, to be someone [students] could connect to in a classroom, and I still want that. But I think even more, I want to be empowering. I think this has made me realize, education has the power to do so much.”

Carly points out that many teachers already practice Critical Pedagogy, even without realizing it. She argues for the opportunity that Critical Pedagogy presents for professional development.

“I think we just barely miss ways to connect,” Carly says of educators today. “We’re right there, and then we don’t make the jump in the classroom.”

It’s with this mindset that Carly hopes to move into a teaching role after graduation, and then eventually on to graduate school to receive her doctoral degree in the field of Action Pedagogy.

“If education has the power to change these people, then I want to show my students that they have the power to change the world,” Carly concludes. “We’re not just talking about reading. We’re not just talking about literature and literary elements. We’re talking about so much more than that. We’re talking about how when [students] grow up, they have the ability to do anything. And I want to give them more concrete tools to go forward. Rather than just vaguely saying, ‘You can do it,’ I want to say, ‘This is how you do it.’ And when you leave this classroom, you should be able to affect change.”