Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Clara Lee Brown

Committee Members

Chonika Coleman-King, Susan Groenke, Dolly Young


Thousands of migrant and refugee children with limited or interrupted formal education enroll in U.S. schools each year. Mainstream society positions them at the margins of society, by default, placing them at risk of adopting impoverished identities that preclude full participation in society. As proposed by Freire (1970/1996), critical consciousness development has been explored as a way to empower youth to become agentive in authoring their own lives. This study describes the nature of critical consciousness, or the recognition and challenge of oppression through agentive acts, expressed by adolescent refugee English learners (ELs). The ELs’ perceptions of injustices in their lives formed the basis of collective interrogation and challenge of injustice in two urban middle school English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms. Critical pedagogy consisting of culture circles, modeled on Freire (1970/ 1996) and Souto-Manning (2010) and thematic unit lesson plans (Brown, 2004, 2007) were implemented to draw out expressions of students’ critical consciousness. Audio-recordings of culture circles, regular class sessions, and semi-structured interviews were collected and transcribed. Student writing, field notes, and the researcher’s reflective journal were also collected. Thematic analysis was conducted using a template approach based on Freire’s (1970/1996) critical consciousness continuum using the categories semi-intransitive consciousness, naïve consciousness, and critical consciousness. The template went through several iterations as analysis revealed Freire’s categories to be insufficient in describing forms of agency and action evident in the data. The final template analysis revealed dynamic and transcategorical tendencies in the ELs’ consciousness. Varying degrees of critical awareness, agency, and action were manifested simultaneously. It also became clear that students’ agency and awareness levels were not aligned. As a result, this study highlights the urgency of critical pedagogy practices in ESL classrooms. Critical pedagogy can nurture students’ sense of agency, a necessary precursor of action. Teachers must afford students opportunities to grapple with injustice in a supportive environment. Students need to feel safe in voicing their opinions and concerns in order to develop a sense of agency which can help them succeed in school and become full participants in society.

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