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Pedagogical Possibilities: Engaging Cultural Rules of Emotion

by Michelle G. Knight-Manuel & Heather A. Oesterreich - 2009

Background/Context: Teaching, leading, and learning are inextricably connected to emotions. Yet, the significance of emotions is rarely addressed in educational settings, and when it is, the relationship between emotions and curricula is most often framed by of an overly individualistic behavior model that focuses on the management and regulation of emotions. This model obscures, if not denies, the structural-collective aspects of students� and teachers� emotions and thereby fails to recognize that emotions are culturally based, with patterns of selectivity deeply embedded in social and cultural structures. These patterns of selectivity operate to influence decisions that can lead to educational and social (in)equities. This article focuses on an imperative to understand how emotions function as sites of knowledge to create cultural rules of interactions that promote and/or hinder the preparation of teachers to act as agents of change.

Focus of Study: In seeking to better understand both individualistic behavior models and structural-collective aspects of teachers and students� emotions as sites of knowledge within the classroom, the authors focus on the role of emotions in preparing preservice and in-service teachers to confront educational and societal inequities.

Research Design: The authors conducted a retrospective qualitative case study of 14 graduate students�reflecting a diversity including age, gender, and race�enrolled in a course on urban education. Using multicultural feminist theories, they analyze students� understandings of a critical incident in the course about gender inequities through individual semistructured interviews, focus group interviews, and document analysis.

Conclusions: Students enter classrooms with �pretexts� of how teachers and students will interact in the classroom. These pretexts are integrally related to the negotiation of power in the intersections of race, gender, and class and underlie emotional selectivity. In these pretexts, a pedagogy of discomfort and a pedagogy of challenge simultaneously exist. The blurring and blending of these two pedagogies create a unique third space in which emotions serve as sites of struggle and contestation, and possibilities for changing the status quo of inequities. Four prevalent patterns of emotional selectivity emerged within the specific context of gender inequity in educational contexts: (1) denial of emotions, (2) mere existence of emotions, (3) simultaneous acceptance and denial of emotions, and (4) emotions-reason informing knowledge, identities, and actions. The fourth of these patterns offers pedagogical possibilities for challenging personal, educational, and societal inequities as it situates the focus of teachers� roles as active agents of change.

Teaching, leading, and learning are inextricably connected to emotions. Yet, rarely do we find “the significance of emotions as a feature of the daily lives of teachers and students” (Boler, 1999, p. xxii; see also Hargreaves, 1998, 2001). When we do, we tend to frame the relationship between emotions and curricula in terms of an overly individualistic behavior model that focuses on the management and regulation of emotions (Goleman, 1997). This model obscures, if not denies, the structural-collective aspects of students’ and teachers’ emotions and thereby fails to recognize that emotions are culturally based with patterns of selectivity deeply embedded in social and cultural structures (Boler; Lutz, 1990). Boler defined patterns of emotional selectivity as “inscribed habits of (in)attention” to emotions that have been shaped in political ways to reflect specific cultural agendas (p. 180). This emotional selectivity operates to influence decisions about (in)action in relation to (in)equities by teachers.

Recently, educational researchers have begun to examine how socially and culturally embedded emotions shape educational reform (Hargreaves, 1998, 2001; Lasky, 2001), curriculum (Boler, 1999; Britzman, 1992), leadership roles (Schmidt, 2000), and teacher education (Boler; Knight, 1998). Many of these studies attempt to describe how teachers, leaders, and learners express and experience emotionality. The role of emotions in the preparation of teachers to confront educational and societal inequities to make the world a more just place for all their students remains unexamined. We focus on an imperative to understand how emotions function as sites of knowledge to create cultural rules of interactions that promote and/or hinder the preparation of teachers to act as agents of change.

The overarching purpose of the graduate course on curriculum and teaching in urban education was to provide a theoretical, analytical, and practical framework to engage students in understanding, challenging, and intervening in personal, educational, and social inequities found in urban contexts. As a female African American professor and a female White graduate teaching assistant, we restructured classroom relationships of power to challenge traditional structuring of the curriculum and pedagogies that perpetuate societal inequities. We accomplished this through our efforts to create a more inclusive curriculum with scholars such as Theresa Perry, Jeannie Oakes, Sonia Nieto, Peter Murrell, Shirley Brice Heath, Martin Haberman, and James Fraser. Additionally, we centered these texts and others while simultaneously grounding the course in the realities of the graduate students’ everyday knowledges through discussions and engagement in their raced, classed, and gendered identities in and out of schools (Luke & Gore, 1992). The university situates its students as future leaders capable of leading and transforming a wide variety of educational institutions in urban centers. Toward this end, the professor and the teaching assistant designed the course to provide opportunities for students to develop critical analytical lenses to examine educational inequities. Furthermore, the instructors wanted the teachers to assess their specific locations within (in)equitable educational structures through their social identities presentations and social action projects.


As the professor and teaching assistant, we conducted a retrospective qualitative case study of the course. We specifically asked students to reflect on their understandings of gender (in)equities in urban contexts through a critical incident in the class. We sent a written invitation to all 23 students in the course to participate in the study; 14 of the 23 students agreed to participate in the retrospective case study. The 14 participants in the study reflected the multiple sites of heterogeneity in the course. With these 14 students, we conducted individual and focus group interviews and collected written documentation of these graduate students’ social identity papers, social action projects, and student journals. We analyzed classroom transcripts from each 2-hour session of the 15-week course.


The 23 preservice and in-service teachers who enrolled in the course self-identified into a diverse list of racialized/ethnic and gendered categories: 5 African American/Black females, 3 White females, 1 Hispanic male, 1 White Jewish male, 1 White Catholic male, 2 White males, 2 African Caribbean females, 1 African American male, 1 American Russian Jewish female, 2 Hispanic females, 1 White Jewish female, 1 Korean American male, 1 Filipino female, and 1 African female. According to Jess, one of the White females,

If you just walk into the classroom and no one said anything, you would say this is a diverse classroom—racially, genderwise . . . sexual orientation, no one offered that, it’s my assumption. A perfect classroom to walk into as long as no one said anything and as long as people sat there quietly, just to look at. A really good photograph for the front cover of the [college] catalog—diverse people who looked diverse. By appearance—it looked like that.

Although the heterogeneity in the course resembled a microcosm of the larger university and society, the degree of diversity was far deeper than it first appeared in the classroom. A greater degree of heterogeneity surfaced in class discussions, which revealed an even wider variety of cultural perspectives and backgrounds. For instance, professionally, students worked for elementary, middle, and secondary public schools, private schools, and community after-school programs as teachers, student teachers, and administrators.


In critically interrogating how emotional rules or patterns of emotional selectivity are embedded in relationships of power within this course, a new conceptual third space emerged. Soja (1996) explained that the “‘third space’ is [a] purposefully tentative and flexible term that attempts to capture what is actually a constantly shifting and changing milieu of ideas, events, appearances, and meanings” (p. 2). The third space surfaced through the blurring and blending of socially constructed boundaries between the ideologies of a pedagogy of discomfort (Boler, 1999; Fisher, 2001) and a pedagogy of challenge (Hoodfar, 1997; hooks, 1994; Ng, 1997).

Thus far, a pedagogy of discomfort has been predominantly theorized by White feminists about White students in predominantly White institutions within the literature on higher education. This pedagogy operates within understandings of White students’ actions in response to their experiences of discomfort when having to question their own individual privilege and power in relation to educational and societal inequities (Boler, 1999; Fisher, 2001). A pedagogy of challenge, situated within the understandings of feminists of color, addresses the need for all students to act individually and collectively in responsibility toward educational and societal inequities without guarantees for change in the status quo (Canon, 1996; Ng, 1997).

To examine the emerging third space between the pedagogy of discomfort and the pedagogy of challenge, we draw from and elaborate on Boler’s (1999) argument that the theorizing of the politics of emotions in graduate student classes must include (a) the social context of power relations of gender, class, and race, and (b) the patterns of emotion selectivity within this social context. Accordingly, in the complex social dynamics of heterogeneity among the professor, the teaching assistant, and this group of preservice and in-service teachers within a feminist critical classroom on urban education, we analyze four patterns of emotional selectivity that emerged from the data. These four patterns are (1) denial of emotions, (2) mere existence of emotions, (3) simultaneous acceptance and denial of emotions, and (4) emotions-reason informing knowledge, identities, and actions. These patterns simultaneously contribute to the reification of the status quo and the transformation of personal, educational, and societal spaces. We contend that the fourth pattern—emotions-reason informing knowledge, identities, and action—holds the most promise for challenging the status quo in personal, educational, and societal spaces. This pattern offers possibilities for transformation from observational discomfort to active challenge that looks different across individual graduate students but impacts inequities in education.

In the sections that follow, we first point to some common features of the “pretexts” with which students enter into feminist critical classrooms. We highlight and critique the role of pedagogy of discomfort and the pedagogy of challenge in terms of safety, risk, responsibility, comfort, conflict, control, and knowledge in feminist critical pedagogies by Asian, Black, Latina, and White feminists as we examine the interactions of students, professors, and the subject matter in a graduate preservice and in-service teacher education course addressing educational and societal inequities (Fisher, 2001; Ng, 1997). We posit that these pedagogies are not stable and fixed. Rather, in the blurring and blending of the pedagogies of discomfort and challenge, possibilities for change can occur.


Students bring with them to each course “pretexts”—that is, individual and collaborative constructions of how a classroom should operate. These pretexts create multilayered rules for teacher–student interaction, student–student interaction, and subject content (Fisher, 2001). Without a second thought, students entered the teacher education course on urban education expecting texts to present an authoritative last word on the subject matter and a clear-cut vision that the teacher should operate as the repository of knowledge and keeper of the peace within urban classrooms (Hoodfar, 1997; hooks, 1994). Ayana, an African American female, said that she had grown to anticipate the lecture format in a graduate classroom. She explained, “When conflict or tension arises in [the] classroom, I am conscious of the [professor’s] role as police.” Mary, a White female, agreed with the teacher’s role as the controller in a K–12 classroom when she asserted that a teacher’s “responsibility [is] to take control” because “students look to the teacher to know if this OK; they look to the teacher for judgment.”

With the teacher situated as the expert and responsible for all interactions, students are able to be watchful observers. When issues arise that challenge students to look at themselves, others, and social inequities, they can choose to sit in silent disagreement with each other, the teacher, and the texts of the course. Ayana explained, “[In my other teacher education classes], I don’t think anyone would ever step out of the bounds or norms of what everyone else’s views were.” Tina, a White female, explained, “In traditional classrooms, we [n]ever looked to see people who didn’t speak and why they didn’t speak.”

In this pretext, if students choose to sit in silence, they may do so without any actions from classmates or the teacher. Although students may disagree with views, disagreements are kept private, leaving themselves, classmates, and the teacher unchallenged to engage difference and discomfort. Thus, the 14 students in our study came into this graduate class on urban education expecting the classroom to be a space void of emotional expression, particularly expressions of discomfort, anger, challenge, and struggle. They expected to avoid emotional expressions and to maintain safety, comfort, and control.


Within the literature on teacher education, a pedagogy of discomfort has often been theorized among teacher educators in programs that support a stance on social justice. These teacher educators ask preservice and in-service teachers to reflect and act on their own roles in sustaining or challenging inequities. A pedagogy of discomfort challenges some of the traditional pretexts of classroom discourse and invites students into “mutual” exploration around difference (Boler, 1999). “Mutual” exploration includes students’ lived experiences as texts (Fisher, 2001), challenges their views, beliefs, and assumptions (Boler; Fisher), and requires students to listen to one another to understand perspectives and see differently. This pedagogy acknowledges the emotions often evoked when students engage in issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender. Definitely, these emotions include anger—an anger that may show its face as self-protection in instances in which students feel slighted and unwilling to accept responsibility for their role in oppression. This pedagogy recognizes the discomfort and pain that arise when someone is misunderstood, and the uncertainty inherent in changing the lens with which one sees the world (Fisher; hooks, 1994). Furthermore, a pedagogy of discomfort calls students to action—“action to ‘bear witness’ to the inequities that exist in the world with the primary aim of explor[ing] beliefs and values; examin[ing] when visual ‘habits’ and emotional selectivity have become rigid and immune to flexibility; and identifying when and how our habits harm ourselves and others” (Boler, 1999, pp. 185–186).

In classrooms where teacher educators use a pedagogy of discomfort, they call for people to experience classmates as allies “without severe injury [or harm] to any party,” without recognizing the harm and injury done in each space of individual and collective silence and bigotry that has long functioned in classrooms within schools and universities. Interactions in these classrooms are continually posed as “invitations to inquiry” and “not a demand or requirement” (Boler, 1999, p. 183). The concentration of discomfort centers on Whiteness rather than expanding to an understanding that people of color and other minorities have long lived in discomfort without having to be invited to engage with it. Which students have never had the privilege of accepting or turning down an invitation to self-reflect? A lesbian must constantly watch the spaces in which she explodes against heterosexuality. An African American male regulates how he releases his anger about the collective oppression he shares with other Black people. A woman in a wheelchair must fight to uncover the difficulty of physical accessibility to educational and other spaces. These are students who have never had the privilege of living in safety, comfort, and control.

However, disagreement with, and challenges to, ideas and experience translated to a “lack of safety” or loss of control for students in the urban education course who operated in the privilege of speaking without anyone challenging what they said. Ayana explained that people chose to hide in the language of safety so they could not be challenged. “I spoke to a few people who said, ‘I am not even going to participate because whatever I say is going to be attacked,’ or ‘the class isn’t saying things from my viewpoint.’” And although Jess, a White female, believed that you can’t “talk about [issues of race, class and gender] without talking about your heart, or talking about the way you’re feeling,” she felt that “people got kind of carried away in their emotions.” She later expressed, “I think that when our emotions take control, we lose control.”

Lewis (1992) noted in her college classroom that addressed issues of equity in the context of race, class, and gender that “those who embody positions of privilege are often not attracted to an articulation of their interests in the terms required by self-reflexivity” (p. 178). At its heart, the pedagogy of discomfort may call for self-reflection, learning to listen, and student interaction, but the pedagogy remains about safety, comfort, and control for those who have long functioned in the privileges of an inequitable society, or at least a return to it, when differences arise in the classroom.


A pedagogy of challenge embraces risk, conflict, action, and individually and collaboratively constructed expectations of individual and collective social responsibility. These expectations work against the status quo, including static notions of safety and (dis)comfort in feminist critical classrooms with no guarantees of success. Thus, although alternative possibilities of the role of emotions, knowledge, and transformation occurring during interactions in feminist critical classrooms are rarely considered when the rhetoric of emotional dynamics stops at safety, comfort, and control, we assert that multiple complex alternative interpretations of emotions, knowledge, and the desire for safety exist (Luke & Luke 1999). For example, hooks (1994), an African American feminist scholar, argued that in the teaching of predominantly White students, “the scholarly field of writing on critical pedagogy and/or feminist pedagogy continues to be primarily a discourse of discomfort engaged by white women and men” (p. 9).

Upon further examination of the role of emotions and knowledge in classrooms by feminist critical scholars of color, we noted that a pedagogy of challenge emerges and renders visible the static notion of safety and (dis)comfort in the classroom (Henry, 1993; Hoodfar, 1997; Ng, 1997). These scholars assert that topics preclude safety. “The classroom is not a safe place. Teaching and learning about race/ethnicity, culture, religion, language, background, socio-economic background, gender, sexuality, and able bodiedness are difficult” (Henry, p. 2). hooks (1994) also challenges “the idea that the classroom should always be a ‘safe,’ harmonious place” (p. 30) and pushes us to realize that when “we address in the classroom subjects that students are passionate about there is always a possibility of confrontation, forceful expression of ideas, or even conflict” (p. 39). In the urban education class that we taught and studied, students critically reflected in their journals on how the investigation of learning at the point of tension/conflict allows for a different kind of insight into their own teaching and learning in the graduate classroom and in their own pre-K–12 classrooms. As inquirers, they were asked to discuss a situation in which they felt tension or conflict, how they were defining tension or conflict, what role they played in the situation, and what curricular or pedagogical insights they gained around individual and collective responsibility.

Moreover, in arguing for a pedagogy of challenge around existing modes of thinking and working, Ng (1997) critiqued unexamined notions of working against oppression. She argued that “doing antiracist work is by definition unsafe and uncomfortable, because both involve a serious (and frequently threatening) effort to interrogate our privilege as well as our powerlessness” (p. 52). Ng went on to state,

To speak of safety and comfort is to speak from a position of privilege, relative though it may be. For those who have existed too long on the margins, life has never been safe or comfortable. . . . Teaching and learning against the grain is not easy, comfortable, or safe. It is protracted, difficult, uncomfortable, painful, and risky. . . . It is a challenge. (p. 52)

Thus, a pedagogy of challenge inclusive of risk, conflict, and action is reinterpreted in multiple ways, not merely through the lenses of discomfort, but rather “the decision to care and to act although there are no guarantees of changing the status quo” (Welch, 1990, p. 68). Therefore, we look to emotions and knowledges to facilitate more than an invitation to collective action and inquiry within a pedagogy of (dis)comfort framed only within notions of Whiteness (Boler, 1999). We examine both a pedagogy of challenge and a pedagogy of comfort to understand how teacher educators can facilitate the ways in which preservice and in-service teachers can recognize, address, and act on educational inequities.

However, neither a pedagogy of discomfort nor a pedagogy of challenge reigned in the urban education course that we studied. Rather, the contradictory pedagogies of challenge and discomfort coexisted as a result of shifting relationships of power between teachers, students, and topics of inequities. We discuss a major critical incident that the preservice and in-service teachers identified in their journals as a situation in which they felt tension or conflict within the urban education classroom. We describe a critical incident of gendered inequities. We then share the findings of how four patterns of emotional selectivity emerged in the blurring and blending of a pedagogy of challenge and a pedagogy of discomfort, which continue to perpetuate and/or challenge the status quo of gendered inequities in urban contexts.

The critical incident of gendered inequities. Nick, a self-identified White Catholic male, taught at an alternative site for incarcerated youth. Each student from the class was asked to present one of the reading assignments to the whole class. Nick had chosen Shakeshaft’s (1993) article, “Meeting the Needs of Girls in Urban Schools,” which suggests that the interactions of teachers and students in schools situate girls as passive recipients of knowledge and acquiescent to teacher authority. He began his presentation by reading six quotes from the article and then stated that he disagreed with Shakeshaft.

His critique emphasized Shakeshaft’s reliance on the political agenda of agencies such as the American Association of University Women, which publishes information about the miseducation of girls and women. He highlighted five research articles that he had found to rebut the notion that girls are marginalized, and he argued that schools shortchange boys. He stated, “It is probably true that teachers spend most time with boys, and girls are ignored, but boys get attention for disruptive behavior and girls get attention for academics.” He continued to explain that “competition is part of being a boy,” and pedagogy is more female oriented when “projects are done cooperatively.” As he talked about the high school classroom where he teaches in an alternative school, with its predominantly African American female student body, he discussed his pedagogy, which emphasizes the woman’s responsibility to say no—no to boys and no to abortion.

Students shuffled in the room. Nick explained that he had articles to further contest Shakeshaft, but because his time was short, he concluded, “There are distinctions between boys and girls that cannot be ignored. Education cannot satisfy the needs of both sexes. Perhaps Shakeshaft’s should be this conclusion—the abolishment of coeducation.”

When he was done, two women sitting across from him both shot their arms in the air. One student threw both her arms in the air and shook her head. Nicole, a Black woman sitting next to him, raised her hand to speak. She swung her legs out from under the table, squared her shoulders to face Nick, and began with a few citations to counter his argument. She proceeded,

I’m not sure you can step out of your maleness and look at this objectively—whether there’s such a thing as objective or not—and to me that’s personal because you’re teaching a group of girls, and that’s hard . . . I have issues with it, and so that everything you believe is focused on your girls every day they step into the room, so in my eyes, you’re blindsided, so you blindside your kids to say that they come into an environment that’s unsafe for them because you’re a male person who hasn’t dealt with a lot of these issues . . . emotional abuse is just as devastating as physical abuse, and that’s my line.

As Nicole finished, many of her classmates began clapping. One student said, “I knew if you spoke, you would speak for all of us,” and another told her to take a deep breath. The professor stood and walked to the front of the room and asked, “Was this a civil discourse? Don’t answer that now . . . just think about it.”


When Nick decided to argue against Shakeshaft’s message of female gendered violence in urban schools, he uncovered a series of emotional spaces that erupted into anger, disgust, empathy, outrage, and clapping and cheering. In this section, we construct a more complete social accountability of the actions of the preservice and in-service teachers within the interpretive context of recognizing, addressing, and acting on gendered (in)equities in urban contexts. We highlight this incident surrounding gender inequity through an analysis of the individually and collaboratively constructed patterns of emotional selectivity (Boler, 1999). According to Boler, emotional selectivity involves the interaction of emotions and power within a social context that create cultural rules of emotional expression and conduct to uphold specific cultural agendas. We examine four of the six patterns of emotional selectivity that emerged in our data and discuss the interplay of these emotions within notions of students’ responsibility and actions: (1) denial and distancing, (2) mere existence, (3) simultaneous acceptance and denial, and (4) emotions-reason informing knowledge, identity, and action. These patterns represent a few of the many patterns in the interactions of students’ shifting identities, social and historical constructions of inequities, and written and lived texts. We do not discuss two familiar patterns of emotional selectivity—resistance and nurturance—because these have been extensively covered in the literature (Lewis, 1992; Lutz, 1990). Of all these patterns, the fourth pattern—emotions-reason informing knowledge, identity, and action—offers possibilities for challenging personal, educational, and societal inequities.


One of the main patterns of emotional selectivity emerging within this critical incident is the politics of denial and distancing, specifically in the clapping that occurred after Nicole responded to Nick’s critique of Shakeshaft’s article. How do we begin to interpret the clapping that took place? What did this bodily expression of emotions legitimize for some and delegitimize for others?

We began to examine the multiple and varied responses to the clapping after Nicole’s response to Nick. Out of the 14 participants in the study, 13 denied clapping after Nicole responded to Nick. Why did they deny clapping? A month after the course had ended, Mary reflected,

When the clapping occurred, I was embarrassed and proud of the outburst. Embarrassed because it was clear that the class was asserting an opinion over Nick’s and disrespecting his views, proud because I had/have huge philosophical problems with Nick’s view. . . . As the situation evolved, I wanted to distance myself from the clapping. I thought it was disrespectful and actually hurt more than it helped.

She further argued, “I never want a situation where the class feels they have the right to assert a collective opinion over individuals’ [opinions].” In this case, she established a hierarchy of knowledge of emotions with this position—a hierarchy in which individual knowledge is asserted over the collective forms of knowledge. This positioning devalues collective cultural forms of knowledge (Collins, 1998; Tierney, 1992). In devaluing collective cultural forms of emotions and knowledge, Mary’s position is accentuated by her constant use of the singular self-reflexive pronoun I and shaped by her emotional investment in efforts to maintain a comfort zone in public and private spaces. Moreover, in situating a hierarchy of individual knowledge and responsibility over collective knowledge and responsibility for the clapping, collective responsibility remains invisible, and responsibility stays solely with the individual—who in this case denied any responsibility for the clapping.

In addition to a denial of socially constructed emotions and a valuing of individually constructed knowledge, Mary said that she wanted to “distance” herself from the clapping; this implies a distancing from emotion. It also allows Mary to disconnect from the emotions taking place within the classroom and within her. This response appears contradictory considering that Mary legitimized the role of emotions in teaching adolescents. “I encounter a range of emotions and feelings on a daily basis,” [ and I am] “not teaching or interacting with objects. Rather, they are children, whose needs, desires, and dreams shift on a daily basis.”

Wanting to “connect” to her students through explanations of power and emotions while teaching Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Mary talked with them about “[her] positions, [her] power as a white woman and how [she] would have reacted to segregation on buses.” Through literature, she tried to have students “view [themselves] as a collective part of a broader world community,” to “identify the pain of Walter, the anger of Beneatha, and the disappointment of Mama, as shared emotions of human beings, complex feelings which link us together.”

In the preceding excerpts, differences in Mary’s perspectives on emotions and power emerge within the embedded context of race, gender, and class. In her classroom, in which she is a White middle-class woman teaching predominantly Latino and African American students from underresourced neighborhoods, Mary uses her power and authority to teach her students to connect to the emotions emerging from the inequities that the characters face in the literature. Yet in a diverse graduate school classroom of her peers where her power is more diffused, she wants to disconnect from the emotions being expressed toward gender inequities during and after Nick’s presentation. Emotions, power, and the knowledge produced are perceived differently when Mary is studying and teaching about inequities and emotions, as opposed to when she is interacting with the emotional responses of herself and her peers to inequities in the classroom. Furthermore, Mary’s theorizing about emotions and power reflects her contradictory locations (Collins, 1998). The illusion of distancing and objectivity provides a means whereby contradictory actions informed by emotions and power are left unexamined and unquestioned. Bringing up “hot topics” of inequities in literature may be “uncomfortable,” but it certainly does not embody the “danger” of facilitating an open discussion on hot topics in which unequal relationships of power are altered that challenge the status quo.

The complexity of the politics of denial and social distancing from expressions of emotion and varied epistemological inquiries surrounding emotions, power, and responsibility can also be seen in a small focus group interview with 4 students, the professor, and the teaching assistant. The “social uptake” (in which one topic is taken up by others in the course) that occurred among African American and White females explicitly constituted a range of collaborative constructions of emotional expressions (Boler, 1999; Campbell, 1994). The interactive emotional dynamics of the group moved us in and out of the participants acknowledging not hearing the clapping, stunned about the clapping, denying they participated in clapping, and theorizing the possibilities of clapping.

Nicole (African American female): I don’t know where the clapping came from, but for me, I didn’t even pay it any attention until we had to write that journal article about it. It didn’t even dawn on me that people were clapping until. . .

Ayana (African American female, interruption): You weren’t emotionally attached to it the way some of us were.

Heather (TA, White female): Yeah, I didn’t hear it. We came back to the office and [the professor] said “Oh my god, the people are clapping. I’ve never seen that,” and I thought. . .

Mary (interruption): Clapping in the classroom. It stunned me!

Natasha (African American female): Don’t you think that’s part of the emotion? People were so angry with him.

Mary (White female): I totally could see that anger, and I agree with it one hundred percent.

In the preceding cross-cultural interactions, we are offered a glimpse of how the group begins to explain the sound of clapping as they grapple with their own behavior and patterns of response. In the next interaction, emotion erupts when the group creates a second layer of denial by not assuming responsibility, as we discussed who clapped and who did not.

Nicole: So it’s our responsibility to come back and say, which we handled in the journal, where is our responsibility here, should we be clapping, how does it make people feel . . . I still don’t think most people took ownership because after we talked about it, people were like, I wasn’t the one who clapped. I can’t say clapping happened and nobody said, “OK I was the one who clapped.” Not one person raised their hand and said I was a clapper right?

Michelle: (professor, African American female): Right.

Nicole: So where does the sound come from if nobody’s doing it? When you take no responsibility, but you have agency, what’s the effect of that? Are you being more harmful about things than when you take the responsibility about that?

Ayana: That’s why I said I don’t know if I did or not. I remember agreeing with you, but at this time I couldn’t tell you if I did or not. At least I’m not saying, “I know I didn’t.”

Natasha: I don’t think I clapped, well I might have clapped, I don’t think I clapped. [Everyone talking at once and laughing] I don’t think I clapped . . . But I remember thinking, “Yeah.”  

Amid the theorizing of some vague, predetermined yet unknown value of rightness or wrongness in a discourse of emotions, the conversation is pulled away from the topic of collective responsibility of a pedagogy of challenge and toward how the individual role or responsibility to (not) claim or justify this bodily expression of emotion emerges within a pedagogy of discomfort. At one point, members of the focus group began questioning why spoken forms of emotional expression are given more legitimacy then bodily forms of expression such as clapping. For example, does the clapping and collective denial of clapping reveal the underlying tensions of the difficulty of cultural rules grounded in “docile regulated body practice[s]”(Bordo, cited in Kohli, 1998, p. 516)?

In collaboratively constructed politics of denial or in an individual choice to deny participation, it is easy to abdicate self and social responsibility for socially constructed inequities in our classrooms and society. As one student remarked, “I resorted to the familiar by looking to the teacher to be the police—to somehow direct the energy of the class.” This denial of self and social responsibility toward inequities allows the preservice and in-service teachers to fall back into the assumption that the teacher is responsible for addressing bodily expressions of emotion. Emotions are to be managed by the professor, not interrogated for the inequities they perpetuate by the teachers.


Another pattern of emotional selectivity within the boundaries of the public sphere in the classroom is the mere toleration of the presence of emotions. Initially, preservice and in-service teachers’ decision to tolerate the presence of emotions appears to contradict the traditional Western mind/body split in which reason is valued over emotions. However, tolerance obscures the maintenance of unjust power relations when people are not accountable to questioning, let alone challenging or changing, unequal power relationships between reason and emotion. Rationality continues to dominate over emotions. Nicole noted that both the preservice and in-service teachers’ academic identities and emotional identities exist together. However, no attempts were made to discuss how they were not separate or how they worked together, thereby enabling the status quo to remain. Therefore, reason and emotion exist in parallel tracks, never interacting or influencing interactions and reactions. As Nicole noted,

I don’t think we separated it [academic identity and emotions]. I don’t think we actively worked to meld it all together. I think we just let it exist and it existed for people in varying degrees—like we didn’t work one way or the other. We accepted that it was here but we let it just play on the court without guiding it or trying to develop it to something else.

In the preceding excerpt, the theorizing of one’s academic identity is a collaboratively constructed endeavor within the public sphere of a graduate student classroom. Furthermore, this endeavor contradictorily suggests that teachers’ academic identity is perceived as one that can be a seamless web of emotions and reason while simultaneously never engaging the melding of the emotional and rational aspects of one’s identity. As one teacher shared, “look at all of the emotions and the social regard [for emotions] within the academy. I am thinking through, on some level, how do we evolve with emotions?” Thus, although there is no separation between the mind and body within one’s academic identity, reason is engaged, and emotions are not. In this conceptualization of reason and emotions, the richness of the possibilities of engaging both as part of one’s public identities in the public sphere is lost. In essence, this contradiction of the presence-absence of emotions functions to publicly regulate the melding of emotions and reason to the private sphere.

This type of selectivity denies the possibilities of what we could have gained by acknowledging that emotions play a role in our constructions of the rules of the classroom and by defining what counts as knowledge. In this way, this pattern denies emotion’s role in both expanding and limiting class discourse and the status quo on gendered inequities.


In constructing knowledge and legitimizing arguments, the interplay of emotions and reason impacts students’ contradictory self-reflections on Nick’s and Nicole’s actions. The following interaction illuminates the dismissability of emotions and knowledge based not on Nick having emotions but rather on “overstepping the boundaries of emotions”—in effect, having “excessive” emotions (Campbell, 1994, p. 47).

Ayana: But I didn’t feel uncomfortable the way that everybody reacted to him because it pissed me off.

Mary: I agree with that, I was like, damn!

Ayana: That he said that only because he put too much emotions in it, he did not back anything up with any reading, it was just all what he felt and to me that was not. . . . He talked about key points, but he argued every point down personally. And I listen to what other people think because that they may open me up to something I haven’t seen before, but you’re not going to open me up to your personal opinion.

Mary: I agree.

Ayana: I listened to other people say well, you know, he shouldn’t have brought all the emotions into it—it would’ve been OK. If he would’ve at least found some kind of data to support the way he felt and then said it. But it was just all his own personal authority on things. So that was the one time, I hate to say it, maybe I’m wrong but I almost did not feel like it was wrong, the way people reacted to that because I feel like he kind of overstepped the boundaries a little bit.

Mary: Frankly, I agree with you, he did overstep the boundaries, but I remember when he was giving a presentation I was horrified. This man taught at an all-girls’ alternative school setting.

What enables the women to not hear Nick’s five citations to refute Shakeshaft’s argument of gendered inequities while simultaneously hearing the citations and emotions that Nicole employs to refute Nick’s argument? The “uptake” occurring between Mary and Ayana, a White female and an African American female, legitimized collaborative constructions of their emotions while simultaneously expecting Nick to separate his emotion and reason (Boler, 1999; Campbell, 1994). Yet, several of the females and Unoka, an African American male, affirmed and validated Nicole’s response, which combined emotions and reason. For example, Tina and Mary, two White middle-class females, were impressed by Nicole’s response. Mary remarked in the context of a focus group, “I was impressed by the intelligence and compassion with which [Nicole] said it, but at the same time it was very clear that you were extremely emotional towards his emotion.”

Tina noted, “It was intelligen[ce] backed up by rational thought, something that I thought lacked in his presentation.” Relationships of power are altered to legitimize emotions as they were intertwined with rational thought. This intertwining enabled students to accept Nicole’s defense of gender inequities against young girls and women.

Can the intensity and immediacy of the clapping that followed Nicole’s comments of Nick’s presentation be interpreted as a form of collective agency of expressed anger, and, in effect, a method of “talking back” against gendered violence? Yet, we questioned, why is it that in the aftermath of the eruption, none of the female students can own this construction of collaboratively constructed anger? These African American and White females do not appear to make any connection between their public verbal anger expressed in the focus group interview and their bodily anger expressed through clapping in class.

As Boler (1999) argued, “There is little discussion of who historically has been taught not to express anger and who has been allowed to express anger. Neither is there discussion of the importance—both as emotional and physical defense—for some people in some situations to exercise anger” (p. 84).

Unoka, having once been unable to understand or see the role of females and males together creating “a new planet [Earth] to live in,” was the only class member to publicly own his clapping as an agent of change while simultaneously “feel[ing] for [Nick]” and himself as situated males. He summed up in his journal entry the emotional and social conflict in the perpetuation of inequities toward women in the class and in society:

My man [Nick] and Shakeshaft: His discourse was blazing. His listening for female education was presencing itself and was very hard to allow its full expression. He has adopted a discourse that is now aging and debilitating. Male thinking is being reshaped by female speaking. Female thinking is creating a new planet to live in. The strong gentleness needed to shake men loose from our dominating thinking is greatly needed. We need to be developed, not just put in our place, like the back of the bus. I felt for him, even though I applauded Nicole’s response.

In holding contrasting emotions toward Nick and Nicole, Unoka’s need for women’s “strong gentleness” to “shake men loose from our dominating thinking” reveals a discourse of “othered” responsibility. Responsibility falls on women, as opposed to men, for taking responsibility to let go of their dominant thinking. Thus, Unoka’s “othered” responsibility and the self and collective denial by the women of their responsibility for the clapping represent patterns in classrooms and in society that continue to perpetuate gender inequities. Both responses situate responsibility for fighting gender inequities outside the locality of the self as student in the graduate classroom and as teacher of young men and women.


How do we begin to understand how emotions-reason informs our knowledge, identities, and actions toward inequities that “can’t leave anybody calm,” according to Iveta, one of the in-service teachers, or not willing to engage in a “move toward struggle” (Collins, 1998)? In many of the aforementioned patterns of emotional selectivity, students focused (or not) on the unequal relationships of emotions and power between and among themselves in the urban education course and, in some cases, between themselves and their own students in K–12 classrooms. Possibilities for change expanded when the following were legitimized: The students allowed themselves and others to have emotions-reason, the acknowledgement of and interaction with students’ emotional-rational histories toward inequities, and the engagement of emotions-reason in addressing gendered inequities existing within the classroom and in society to be realized.

Next, three students—Lisa, Nick, and Nicole—provide insight into cultural norms and agendas of power and emotions as they intersect with their race/ethnicity, nationality, spirituality, economic status, and gender (Collins, 1998; Espiritu, 1997). Of all the patterns, we encounter hope in this one as these students explore and engage the interplay of emotions-reason and responsibility to self, to others, and to society, and join in the struggle against inequities. We provide brief portraits of these three students to illustrate this point. In providing these portraits, we acknowledge that these teachers are not representative of their race, ethnicity, and/or gender, but rather provide insight into this pattern of emotional selectivity and possibilities for change.

Lisa: learning fear in the oppressive binaries. There is a paucity of research literature in teacher education that includes the perspectives of Asian/Asian American preservice teachers. In describing the experiences of Asian American preservice teachers, Goodwin, Genishi, Asher, and Woo (1997) illustrated the invisibility and marginality of Asian American teachers in recruitment efforts, teacher preparation curriculum, and K–12 curricular practices. Su (1996) explored African American, Asian American, Latino/Latina, and White preservice teachers’ views on teaching as a profession and their perceptions of the role of teachers in school reform and school change. She concluded that ethnic minority teachers enter preservice programs aware of inequities in schools and society. Their roles as agents of change are informed by a social consciousness and their subsequent social responsibilities to educational and societal inequities.

Building on this literature, we begin to look at the role of emotions-reason in the construction of Lisa’s identities and how emotions-reason informed the knowledge she creates in learning to teach against the grain. Lisa, a Filipina middle-class female, provides an example not only of how emotions such as fear inform and shape her identities and actions but also of how students cannot be fixed within any one of the aforementioned patterns of emotional selectivity. Lisa demonstrates the shifting and contingent movement that occurs within these patterns. Lisa initially reflected in her journal assignment about the need for the emotional nurturance of Nick. She described the presentation on gender inequities as “a reflection of society in general.” In Lisa’s construction of the binaries of White/Black, male/female, and conservative/liberal, she noted that

Nick, a conservative white male, was being challenged by Nicole, an opinionated black female. Liberal supporters cheered her on, while silent assimilators (perhaps Asian Americans like myself) quietly forming their own opinions but choosing not to “rock the boat.” Does it take two extremes for action to take place? Does being “in the middle” always guarantee that someone else will fight for what we believe?

Although not explicitly stated, Lisa was noting that within any two binaries, one is subordinate to the other (Wildman & Davis, 1997). Lisa’s use of the term opinionated in referring to Black, female, and liberal seems to privilege White, male, and conservative. Some of Lisa’s identities as a middle-class Asian female have been constructed in fear and in the oppressive silences of the dualistic binaries of Black/White. Furthermore, Lisa constructs her identities as a silent Asian American middle-class female in the “middle” of these binaries. For example, over the semester, Lisa moved from a position of self-proclaimed “ignorance” of racial inequalities, to questioning her location in the silences of the “middle,” to one of action. Lisa explained, “[my] ignorance of racial inequalities came from a fear of examining myself and the “other.” It is a “fear that came about, in part, from the way I was taught in schools. That way did not include or acknowledge my own culture in any way.”

Yet, as Espiritu (1997) argued, Asian Americans’ “ambiguous, middling positions maintains systems of privilege and power but also threatens and destabilizes these constructs of hierarchies” (p. 109). Thus, it is not surprising that in examining the fear that initially constructed and constrained her multiple identities as a middle-class Asian female, Lisa began to shift from the role of passive participant having no responsibility for what took place in the classroom, to understanding her role as an active participant taking on some responsibility to change inequitable practices. Near the end of the semester, she wrote, “I participated in being silent. I reacted only through my journal entry for that day. I felt no collective responsibility because I was too fearful of forming my own opinion. Situated “in the middle” and afraid to fight for what she believed, Lisa asserted in her journal,

The reading and class discussion confirmed my views that I have a lot more work to do on myself. I cannot be the transformative teacher about whom Giroux writes if I give into my fear of challenging the status quo. I will keep this situation [on gender inequities] in mind when something similar arises in one of my future classes. Being silent will not benefit my students, especially my students of color. In being a teacher, I will have the chance to show them that “those of us in the middle” don’t always have to be afraid to challenge dominant beliefs.

Although Lisa never examined her protective stance toward Nick or her construction of Nicole as “opinionated,” her movement to struggle, to agency within the “middle,” emerges through her desire to speak for herself and to provide the conditions to empower her students to speak for themselves. Thus, in understanding the role of emotions-reason in Lisa’s story, power and knowledge are situated not in the center or at the margins but in the “middle.”

Nick: Moving in (dis) comfort. The feminist and critical literature is replete with examples of White male resistance to addressing gender inequities (Lewis, 1992; Ng, 1997). However, Nick’s story enables us to move from an essentializing norm of discomfort and resistance to one that emphasizes the intersections of discomfort and movement. Nick provides insight into the possibilities of engaging in a pedagogy of challenge inclusive of one’s responsibilities to female gendered inequities. Nick’s movement from his disagreement with the focus on the social practices of gendered violence against women in urban schools during his presentation in class was challenged when he examined gendered practices within his own school as part of his final project. He addressed issues surrounding his “intake” class of Black adolescent females who were in the foster care/juvenile justice system. He noted, “I have chosen this problem as my focus, because I am watching intelligent girls who have issues to deal with as well as needing extra academic help, get treated as second-class citizens, never being given the chance to compete.” In reflecting on the inequities his students encountered, Nick stated, “The existence of this problem leads to the emotional and educational downfall of my students. It sets them up for failure.” He wrote in his final paper,

Although I did not agree with many of the points in the article by Shakeshaft, she does point out that school districts do put females at risk and also how she mentions the public school systems tends to ignore females. . . . After reviewing the situation at my district I am inclined to agree with her. Since my students are not classified for at least six months from the date of their arrival at the school they are denied special services for that time. . . . Special services include after school tutoring, math and reading remediation classes, they are not allowed to compete on sports teams since they are not considered permanent students, they are not allowed to receive counseling or testing modifications.

Nick continued to situate his response to inequity within a framework that would allow girls to compete equally with boys, and his initial resistance to even examining gendered inequities was informed by the examination of the situation of his own all-girls class and the inequities he realized they faced. His movement to even consider the inequities that women encounter does not look like Lisa’s movement to empower herself and students but does offer a different vision of the expressions of emotions-reason in addressing self and educational inequities.

Nicole: enacting epistemologies within warfare, fighting, and justice. Nicole wrote in her journal how she “feel[s] like we are in war on multiple levels, physical, spiritual and mental. Every day that we do not rise to the challenge to defend our children, poverty and ignorance takes another as prisoner. This for me is devastating.”

The report A Nation at Risk once dominated the national landscape (and some say it still does) and explicitly proclaimed that “the mediocre educational performance that exists today might well have [been] viewed as an act of war” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983, p. 1). When we begin epistemological inquiries from a position of warfare, fighting, and justice, how do emotions tightly interwoven with images of war begin to define what counts as knowledge and how these emotions inform one’s actions to maintain or challenge the status quo (Assal & Farrell, 1992)?

In closely examining Nicole’s self-interrogation of the spiritual warfare she finds herself fighting, we found a “concern with justice fused with deep spirituality” (Collins, 1998, p. 248). This concern appears to be highly significant to how some African American women have conceptualized critical social theory in response to past and current inequitable social conditions. Central to spirituality within critical social theory is the deeply felt collective engagement within an “overarching moral framework” that moves one to struggle toward political actions against injustice (Collins, 1998). Spirituality, broadly defined, embodies the everyday passionate struggles of Black women to survive. Without knowledge of Black women’s spirituality in their everyday lives, we may never begin to grasp Black women’s power, their ways of knowing, and their ways of being moved to passionate struggles for justice.

Collins (1998) asserted that in the past, “Black women could exercise power only from positions of authority in Black civil society, and not in private and public spheres controlled by Whites, namely, within White families or the social institutions” (p. 7). Yet, in Collins’s analysis of African American activist Sojourner Truth, we are exposed to a woman moving in and out of multiple racialized and gendered communities. Spirituality served as a vehicle in Truth’s struggles for social justice within these communities. Collins (1998) further argued, “Truth’s spirituality found expression through a Christian religious ethos, whereby she talked directly to the ‘Lord’” (p. 245). “Thinking and feeling [did] not work at cross-purposes, but rather, seem[ed] to energize one another, and her sustained commitment to social justice emerged in the connections between “deep caring, moral authority, and freedom struggles for justice” (p. 246).

Nicole’s struggles for social justice in the heterogeneous classroom resonate with Truth’s journey in multiple communities. We are better able to understand Nicole’s “move to struggle” in her decision to address current inequitable social conditions through some of the following processes. Nicole posited that “often educators with opposing philosophies are the vehicles used to determine [her] location in this journey.” She proceeded to give the example of Nick’s presentation, in which “he presented some articles with opposing research to demonstrate the view that females do not encounter the extent of violence as depicted in his critique of Shakeshaft’s article.” In reflecting on her decision to challenge Nick’s views, she continued to write and speak from multiple locations of relationships of power, noting first how her emotions within spirituality engendered a responsibility to self, God, and kids. In the following excerpt, Nicole acknowledged how her emotions energized ensuing decisions.

His comments were spirit affecting and soul disturbing to me. When my first reaction is to say are you crazy, I must find a way to develop my second reaction which will be more productive. Thus, when I claim to love and respect all people because they are God’s creation, then I must be able to understand their point of view, negotiate discussion and maintain open dialogue.

While engaging a pedagogy of challenge, Nicole “remembered being upset and talking very quickly filled with emotion in order to make [her] points within the time limit and to carry across [her] feelings of complete disagreement.” Her pedagogy of challenge emerged within a conscious “need to be responsible.” She said, “If I don’t hold people accountable to the things that I disagree with, they might not know that I disagree and that there’s another opinion out there! My responsibility is to kids . . . and then my responsibility is to say [something] to the person affecting that child.”

Nicole’s interrogation of her own subjectivities resonates with hooks’s (1990) three interrelated components of Black women’s political activism to challenge the status quo: breaking the silence about the violent oppression of young women in urban contexts, developing self-reflective speech, and “talking back” to legitimated discourses that disadvantage children and youth. Black women’s spiritual political activism remains instructive and challenges educators to further examine how emotions shape our responsibilities and ethical actions toward pedagogy of challenge and responsibility to educational and societal inequities.


Examining patterns of emotional selectivity of gendered (in)equities emerging in the blurring and blending of pedagogies of (dis)comfort and pedagogies of challenge within a graduate urban education classroom reveals possibilities of change and transformation as well as the maintenance of the status quo of educational inequalities. The role of cultural rules of emotions in this study revealed the “disciplining, regulating and normalizing tendencies” of the relationships of emotions-reason and power, which are often unexamined and a central interactive dynamic of cross-cultural classroom discourse (Kohli, 1998, p. 517). Educators who wish to disrupt these tendencies need to understand the role of emotions, knowledge, power, and responsibility in the curriculum in preparing teachers as agents of change within an increasingly diverse world. Thus, engaging and analyzing differences of emotions-reason within its social and cultural context enable educators to engage the blurring and blending of pedagogies of (dis)comfort and pedagogies of challenge and risk in their social context (Ng, 1997).

The focus on preservice and in-service teachers’ shifting and contingent patterns of emotional selectivity highlights the possibilities for students’ movement and transformation to address self and educational and societal inequities. Describing her experience in a feminist critical classroom, Ayana stated, “I didn’t have someone just standing in front talking, or being broken into groups and we all talk about something that was really nice and not controversial and didn’t have anything to do with what I go through every day in my classroom.” Or, Nicole’s assertion that we cannot “define alternative ways that we don’t think fit in a traditional classroom” through her cogent argument, “I’m here, nothing is pushing me, nothing is making me think hard or nothing is offending me. Nothing is making me listen to a view that is really different. Nothing is disrespecting me [so] where do we find ourselves in terms of moving for mutual responsibility?” Lisa’s, Nick’s, and Nicole’s multiple locations within the four patterns of emotional selectivity produced contradictory knowledge of the complex relationships between power and emotions and how emotions informed and shaped individual and collective responsibility.

Second, situating the preparation of teachers as change agents in the social and political context of the blurring and blending of emotions and reason provides conditions whereby teachers can examine and construct an understanding of their own professional identities as it informs their curricular and pedagogical practices and their students’ identities (Kohli, 1998). Without such an examination of the separation of emotion and reason within the curriculum, possibilities that allow teachers to explore their own emotional experience and develop conscientious “philosophies of emotion to inform their pedagogies and interaction” are lost (Boler, 1999, p. 81). Moreover, as Kohli argued, theories that continue to separate reason and emotion are inadequate to address change. Thus, opportunities for individual and collective self-reflection and examination of cultural rules of emotions and practices in K–12 schools and postsecondary curricular and pedagogical practices must be included in educators’ desires to prepare teachers to challenge and change existing inequities. The findings of this study reveal the patterns of emotional selectivity that teacher educators and teachers can recognize, the need to name them for ourselves and our students, and how to address the ways that emotions-reason perpetuate or challenge the status quo of gendered (in)equities in urban contexts.


1. All names are pseudonyms.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 11, 2009, p. 2678-2704
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15455, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 8:51:18 AM

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About the Author
  • Michelle G. Knight-Manuel
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    MICHELLE G. KNIGHT-MANUEL, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her scholarly work includes three distinct yet complementary strands of inquiry: college readiness and access, immigrant youths civic strengths, and culturally relevant teacher preparation and professional development. She has published in such journals as the American Educational Research Journal, Teachers College Record, Race, Ethnicity and Education, Review of Research in Education, and the Journal of Educational Policy. Her two books, co-authored with Joanne Marciano, are Classroom Cultures: Equitable Schooling for Racially Diverse Youth and College Ready: Preparing Black and Latino Youth for Higher Education through a Culturally Relevant Lens.
  • Heather Oesterreich

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