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Schooltalk: Rethinking What We Say About—and to—Students Every Day

reviewed by David Casalaspi & Alexandra Barshaw - May 19, 2017

coverTitle: Schooltalk: Rethinking What We Say About—and to—Students Every Day
Author(s): Mica Pollock
Publisher: The New Press, New York
ISBN: 1620971038, Pages: 416, Year: 2017
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Talk is cheap, the saying goes, but according to Mica Pollock nothing could be further from the truth. In her compelling and strikingly accessible book Schooltalk: Rethinking What We Say About—and to—Students Every Day, Pollock argues that the language we use in everyday dialogue has the power to shape the lives of young people profoundly. “Each communication is an action with serious equity implications,” she writes. “The things people say about students in schools shape how adults think about and treat students, how students feel about themselves and their peers, and who offers students which opportunities and assistance. Words lead to treatment and to self-concepts, to expectations internalized by adults and students, and to the distribution of material resources by adults” (p. 4).


Pollock labels the day-to-day communications adults have with and about students’ “schooltalk,” and she argues that too often the language we use undermines efforts to promote educational equity, or the “full human talent development of every student and all groups of students” (p. 8). However, by simply reimagining those small yet impactful interactions and pursuing instead ”schooltalk for equity,” adults can better promote student flourishing.


Written for a popular audience of parents and educators, Schooltalk is divided neatly into two complementary sections. The first is devoted to disputing prevalent myths about students and challenging readers to question everyday forms of schooltalk, which Pollock believes are antithetical to the full development of students’ talents. These include the way we liberally and uncritically label students, casually explain away unequal outcomes, discuss the nature of intelligence, and misunderstand the complexity of students’ cultural backgrounds. The second section identifies ways that schools and communities can create the infrastructure needed to share important information about students, encourage lasting and supportive relationships with students, and better promote schooltalk for equity.


One noteworthy feature of this text is the way that Pollock not only teaches her readers something, but also encourages them to actively reflect on their own language, discuss the book with others, and put its ideas into practice within their local communities. She does this in part by scattering throughout the text “Think/Discuss” activities, which encourage readers to reflect on what they have read, as well as engage in conversations about it with other adults and students. Additionally, there are various “Action Assignments” at the conclusion of each chapter, which encourage the reader to apply what they’ve learned by discussing local schooltalk deficiencies with others, brainstorming solutions, and putting those solutions into practice. In this way, the book aspires to create a dynamic cadre of “equity designers” in each local school community.


Throughout her book, Pollock adopts a critical stance toward the current dialogic landscape, but she avoids being resentful or surly, maintaining instead a conversational buoyancy that keeps the reader engaged. To form her argument, she synthesizes a wide array of scholarship from the fields of anthropology, sociology, history, economics, psychology, and, most conspicuously, critical studies in education. Also woven into the narrative are personal anecdotes from students, educators, and even the author herself, all of which serve to humanize the text’s main ideas and give prominent voice to students and teachers. However, this abundant use of anecdotes also leaves open the question of how generalizable some of these illustrative cases actually are. In most instances, Pollock adequately scaffolds these anecdotes with existing qualitative research that deepens their significance and implications, but this is not universally the case.


Written as a spur to action, Schooltalk necessarily relies on a simple, concentrated argument, that our language matters, although it may fairly be criticized for being too optimistic about the power of everyday language to eradicate some of the most deeply rooted structural problems affecting American education. Furthermore, while Pollock demands that we pay closer attention to the complexity of students’ experiences and opportunity contexts in our speech, the same close attention is not always granted to the educators and parents targeted by this book. Indeed, implicit throughout this text is the notion that schooltalk for equity is a small, positive thing that each of us can do as individual adults. This message is empowering, but it also tends to overlook the fact that our language is sometimes a product not only of our own cognition, but also the organizational or sociopolitical contexts in which we find ourselves.


For example, Pollock cautions against the overbroad labeling of students, such as when we classify groups of students as Black, Asian, proficient, or special needs in ways that mask the real diversity of experiences, challenges, and opportunities confronting those students as individuals. Yet such labels are generally required by state or federal regulations in the reporting of school and student performance, and therefore even if an educator wishes to change their language, they are constrained by federal statutes mandating certain forms of talk. A complete overhaul of schooltalk would in this case require more general changes to public policy and organizational discourse. Consequently, we feel that by more directly situating parents and educators in their broader organizational and sociopolitical contexts, perhaps drawing on insights from organizational theory or ethnographic research about the teaching profession, it may be possible to produce a more complete and nuanced understanding of the impediments and potentialities of schooltalk for equity.


Another area about which we wished to hear more from the author was the relationship between schooltalk and policymakers. Most of Schooltalk’s exhortations are directed toward parents and educators, and only a few scattered attempts are made to integrate policymakers into this conversation. Yet policymakers are uniquely positioned to reshape the educational experiences of young people through their ability to authoritatively allocate resources and promote particular social values. What, we wondered, could policymakers do to promote schooltalk for equity on a broad scale, aside from merely examining their own individual language? On this subject, Pollock is mostly silent, hinting only that once we collectively change the way we talk about students, needed reforms and resources will inevitably follow. This argument is perhaps a bit too sanguine, and a deeper engagement with literature from the field of policy studies could have been a valuable addition. For it is not just language that can shape public policies, but public policies can likewise shape language.


The omission of these literatures does not detract from the overall value of this book, however, and, in fact, the preceding paragraphs highlight fertile terrain for future work in this line. All told, Schooltalk is a notable book for the way it spotlights an under-examined obstacle to educational equity, and simultaneously invites readers to think, reflect, discuss, and act in their local communities to promote educational equity. It is a book designed for ordinary parents and practitioners wondering what they can do to help improve education. In a world marred by resource constraints and limited political will, schooltalk for equity may very well be an effective tool each of us can individually employ to make education problems a bit more tractable.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 19, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21981, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 10:26:14 PM

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About the Author
  • David Casalaspi
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    DAVID CASALASPI is a Ph.D. Candidate in Michigan State University’s Education Policy Program. His research focuses on public participation with education and the way that education policies can promote or hinder democratic practice. He has a B.A. in History from the University of Virginia.
  • Alexandra Barshaw
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    ALEXANDRA BARSHAW is a student in James Madison College at Michigan State University. She is studying social relations and policy with a concentration in education studies.
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