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Constructing Ideas About Equity From the Standpoint of the Particular: Exploring the Work of One Urban Teacher Network

by Thea Abu El-Haj - 2003

This article examines the work of one urban teacher network (TLC) and analyzes the ideas about educational equity and inequality that evolve from its professional development practices. Drawing on archival and ethnographic materials that span 24 years, the author explores how TLC’s oral inquiry processes grounded in a phenomenological approach make visible two different, but interrelated, ethical obligations that undergird practitioners’ work to build equitable educational practices within contexts saturated with inequality. Seeking to build equitable educational practices for all children, TLC’s work begins with the particular, often a single child. Beginning its analysis from what feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith has called ‘‘the everyday world as problematic’’, TLC’s work envisions social change that is deeply situated and attends to the multiplicity, complexity, and uncertainty that characterize human learning. Thus, the grounded knowledge that TLC practitioners collectively develop constitutes a kind of critical social theory that can speak back to and inform those universalist policy approaches to equity that stress uniform and standardized education. As educational reform efforts across the country appear to be turning increasingly to top-down initiatives that direct the work of teachers, it is ever more urgent to consider this grounded epistemological standpoint on equity.

This article examines the work of one urban teacher network (TLC) and analyzes the ideas about educational equity and inequality that evolve from its professional development practices. Drawing on archival and ethnographic materials that span 24 years, the author explores how TLCs oral inquiry processesgrounded in a phenomenological approachmake visible two different, but interrelated, ethical obligations that undergird practitioners work to build equitable educational practices within contexts saturated with inequality. Seeking to build equitable educational practices for all children, TLCs work begins with the particular, often a single child. Beginning its analysis from what feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith has called the everyday world as problematic, TLCs work envisions social change that is deeply situated and attends to the multiplicity, complexity, and uncertainty that characterize human learning. Thus, the grounded knowledge that TLC practitioners collectively develop constitutes a kind of critical social theory that can speak back to and inform those universalist policy approaches to equity that stress uniform and standardized education. As educational reform efforts across the country appear to be turning increasingly to top-down initiatives that direct the work of teachers, it is ever more urgent to consider this grounded epistemological standpoint on equity.

It was 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon. Eighteen women were gathered around Lucys1 dining room table, passing cheese and crackers, fruit and cookies, coffee and water. Bags full of papers and books hung from the chairs and crowded the floor. Before the meeting officially began, the room was filled with the stories of schools and children, family life and work. The women in this room had a lot in common. Most were, or had been, elementary school teachers. Some were administrators, counselors, teacher educators, and researchers. Most of the women were White. The majority worked in the public schools of a large city in the United States. The meeting started with brief introductions and announcements before the group turned its attention to one teacher, one child and one question. For a full 2 hours, the group engaged in a process called The Descriptive Review of the Child.2 Theresa, a third grade teacher, spent the first 45 minutes giving an uninterrupted description of her observations of a 9-year-old boy, Matthew. As she spoke a rich portrait unfolded of Matthew as a scientist, visual artist, and poet. As she painted this picture, she noted concerns and posed the question to the group: How can I help Matthew to be more focused and organized in order to benefit more from classroom instruction and to pursue his interests independently? After listening carefully to Theresas description of Matthew, the participants asked Theresa questions to clarify and extend their understandings of this child. Finally the group made a series of recommendations for how Theresa could change her practice to address her questions in a manner that accounted for Matthews passions, interests, and styles of learning. These recommendations embodied a central tension for practice in their suggestion that Theresa must walk a fine line as she figured out how to help Matthew meet essential requirements of the official curriculum while at the same time supporting his strongly held standards and values.

The scene with which I begin is one that has been repeated by a grassroots urban teacher network, the Teachers Learning Cooperative (TLC) each week for the past 24 years. There is, of course, variation to the meetings. A different child or a different teacher means a different question. Sometimes teachers describe a piece of work that a child has done. Other times they describe some aspect of their classroom practice or examine new policy initiatives, curriculum reforms, and assessment measures. The whole group might describe how they weave play, poetry, or the study of silkworms into their classroom practice. These variations, however, all reflect a shared commitment to employ a set of oral inquiry processes that use observation and description of the particular as the foundation from which to create rich, innovative curriculum and pedagogy. Over the past two and a half decades, the knowledge gained by starting with the particular has supported TLC practitioners to speak back to policies and practices that perpetuate, rather than redress, educational inequalities. In this work, it is the particulars that ground practitioners broader claims about what constitutes equitable educational practices.

This attention to the particular represents a very different starting point for redressing educational inequality than most reform policies initiated by school districts, states, or federal legislation. These official reform policies tend to rely instead on a universalist stance that takes a uniform approach to guaranteeing educational equity often mandating across the board curriculum, accountability, or testing measures for all children to ensure equal treatment.3 (For a cogent critique of these types of approaches, see especially Darling-Hammond, 1997.) In contrast, TLCs practices assume that education that does not attend to particular persons, teachers, classrooms, or communities risks creating or furthering educational inequality. Thus, TLC practices shift the locus of change from generalized policies that speak in terms of all children (all classrooms and all schools) to specific practices that account for every child (every classroom and every school) with attention to the multiplicity, complexity, and uncertainty that characterize human learning.

Grounding their work in the particular, TLC members begin an analysis of equity and inequity from an epistemological standpoint that is related to what feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith (1987) has called the everyday world as problematic. Arguing against the dominant approaches to sociology that account for the world in abstracted and generalized terms, Smith suggests building knowledge and analysis that make it possible for us to look at any or all aspects of a society from where we are actually located, embodied, in the local historicity and particularities of our lived worlds (p. 8). Like Smiths feminist sociology, TLCs analysis of inequality and emergent definitions of educational equity are located firmly within the complex daily life of particular classrooms and schools. That is, it is through an analysis of the particular that the conditions that produce inequality are revealed and that practices aimed at social change are developed.4 TLCs analysis and knowledge are born of a grounded, phenomenological standpoint at fundamental odds with epistemologies that gloss over, rather than confront, particularities and differences.

In this article, I explore analyses of inequality (see Pollack, 2001) and ideas about educational equity that have evolved within the context of TLCs professional development practices. I limit the discussion here to one aspect of the groups vast work: its focus on particular children and their works. I do so because this attention to particular children has been one key foundation on which the groups work rests. It is important, however, to note that TLCs work has also been deeply concerned with examining classrooms contexts as social systems within which knowledge is constructed collectively. An examination of that and other aspects of the groups work is, however, beyond the scope of this article.5

In what follows, I develop two central ideas. First, I argue that TLCs oral inquiry processes grounded in a phenomenological method make visible two different, but interrelated, ethical obligations that undergird practitioners work to build equitable educational practices. What emerges from TLCs work is an understanding that practicing for equity always involves both an obligation to recognize the child (her or his uniqueness and broad human capacities) and an obligation to teach each child the necessary knowledge and skills to navigate school and society successfully. However, TLC practices show how these obligations pull at each other given the dilemmas inherent in practicing for social justice within inequitable contexts. Arguing that success and failure are structurally guaranteed products of our educational system, Varenne and McDermott (1998) propose that, in seeking to redress inequality, educational researchers and practitioners keep circling the wrong question. Instead of continuing to focus our attention on why certain groups of children succeed or fail in schools, they suggest we must understand success and failure as cultural facts. They write, Individuals must be the units of concern and justice, but they are misleading units of analysis and reform (p. 145). Without denying the critical import of their point, TLC poses an interesting twist on Varenne and McDermotts work. I show how TLCs inquiry processes often take as their starting point particular children and yet give teachers a way to relocate the problem of educational inequality outside of the bodies of individuals and within the institutional fabric of classrooms and schools. This capacity to look through the child to make manifest the norms and assumptions guiding educational practices allows practitioners to imagine possibilities for making changes that challenge the dominant arrangements of classrooms and schooling.

Second, I ask how the grounded knowledge that TLC teachers collectively develop constitutes a kind of critical social theory (Collins, 1998) that can speak back to and inform those educational policies aimed at addressing inequality that take a universalist stance. Borrowing the idea of visionary pragmatism from Patricia Hill Collins, I argue that TLC offers a portrait of social activists working for justice in the world as it is, maintaining always an idea of the world as it might be.

In what follows, I begin with a description of TLC and an overview of the research methods. I then offer a brief description of two of the processes employed by TLC. I turn next to an analysis of TLCs emergent definitions of equity. In the final section of the paper, I offer implications of TLCs work for thinking about what it means to work for change within deeply inequitable educational contexts.



Since 1998, my colleague, Katherine Schultz, and I have been involved in an ongoing collaborative research project with the Teachers Learning Cooperative (Buchanan, 1994; Featherstone, 1998; Kanevsky, 1993; Schultz, in press; Strieb, 1985).6 Born in 1978, TLC is an urban teacher network that uses a set of structured oral inquiry processes (see Himley, 2002) to describe children, childrens work, and teachers practices in order to deepen their knowledge about teaching and learning and to develop new approaches to curriculum and pedagogy. This work has been voluntary and unpaid; members meet weekly in each others homes. The groups membership has been predominantly public school teachers and administrators working in elementary and middle schools.7 Over the years, the majority of TLC members have been White women. Teachers of color and White men have also been steady participants. Most of the children they teach are children of color and children from families with low incomes. Within the group, there has been a tenacious commitment to teaching in the citys public schools8 and a steadfast exploration of innovative, excellent education. Educators work with TLC has provided a way of sustaining these values and commitments over the long haul. Thus, this groups work offers a rich resource for examining one way that teachers have found to reach across the boundaries of race, class, and ethnicity to teach for justice and to formulate their understandings of equitable practice.

TLC rose out of the ashes of one of the local federally funded teachers centers of the 1970s. Part of the federal Follow-through program to test different models of education, the various teachers centers in the city had offered practitioners sustained professional development opportunities. When the federal money dried up, a group of teachers decided to continue the exciting and important work they had begun without the aid of outside financial or professional support. TLC was intentionally founded on the premise that teachers could direct their own inquiry-based professional development (Anderson, Herr, & Nihlen, 1994; Carr & Kemmis, 1986; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Zeichner & Nofke, 2001). In a review of teacher learning in communities, Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999) argue for the concept of inquiry as stance to describe teacher learning across the life span. They write the following:

Teachers and student teachers who take an inquiry stance work within inquiry communities to generate local knowledge, envision and theorize their practice, and interpret and interrogate the theory and research of others. Fundamental to this notion is the idea that the work of inquiry communities is both social and political; that it involves making problematic the current arrangements of schooling; the ways knowledge is constructed, evaluated and used; and teachers individual and collective roles in bringing about change. (p. 289)

TLCs work is well characterized by this idea of inquiry as stance. Through the use of systematic oral inquiry processes developed by Patricia Carini and her colleagues at the Prospect Archive and Center for Education and Research (described in more detail later), TLC has offered both new and veteran teachers a community within which to examine, challenge, and create classroom practices; to develop a deep understanding of children, teaching, and learning; and, from this knowledgeable position, to contest theories, practices, and policies that foster educational inequality.


In this article, I focus on one aspect (analyses of inequality and emergent ideas about equity) of a larger qualitative and ethnographic study of TLCs work. The broad aims of this research project are twofold. First, it seeks to describe the knowledge TLC has generated about teaching and learning in urban public schools over the past two and a half decades. Second, it documents how this groups professional development practices, initiated and directed entirely by teachers, support practitioners to develop curriculum, pedagogy, and practices that respond to the ever-changing local contexts in which they work. This research developed as a collaborative project between TLC, Schultz, and myself. Schultz and I both had a long history with TLC. Schultz had been a member of TLC in the 1980s. I had a decade-long relationship with TLC members as a participant in an ongoing, intensive summer institute that brought together teachers involved with the work of the Prospect Center for Education and Research of N. Bennington Vermont. As a practitioner research group, TLC was founded on an unbending commitment to the idea that the locus of authority for educational practice should rest first and foremost with teachers (Carini, 2001; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993, 1999). Moreover, TLC holds that through disciplined study practitioners can generate the knowledge they need to effect change in their classroom and school communities and to influence district policy.

Building on these premises of TLCs work, the current project was designed to support a collective and collaborative research relationship between all members of the team. The data for this research are drawn from three sources. TLC members have kept a detailed written record of the weekly meetings over the past 24 years, which we have transcribed into an electronic archive. Since 1998, we have audio taped TLCs weekly meetings. Schultz and I have participated as members in these meetings, several of which each year have been devoted to some aspect of the research project. In addition, Katherine Schultz, Lynne Strieb (a recently retired TLC teacher), Kira Baker (a TLC teacher), and I have conducted observations of the classrooms of new and veteran teachers. These data sources provide a deep and complex web from which to analyze TLCs work within both its historical and contemporary contexts. Although data analysis was ongoing throughout the school year, each summer since 1999 a research team that included all interested members of TLC, Schultz, Carini (of the Prospect Center), and myself met for weeklong institutes to engage in qualitative data analysis. The great strength of this research team was that most members of the research team had been participants in TLC meetings over several decades and could offer critical perspectives on our analysis. During each of these institutes, we focused intensively on representative years of TLCs archive (choosing one notebook from each five year period) identifying key themes that emerged from the data and then coding the data through a process called charting that was developed at the Prospect Center (Carini, 1979; Chittenden, Salinger, & Bussis, 2001). One outcome of these analytic institutes was that different members of the team became interested in pursuing further analysis of specific themes that had emerged in order to write about particular aspects of TLCs work.

One key theme that emerged during our first analytic institute involved TLCs emic perspectives on equity. Although the actual words inequality and equity appeared infrequently throughout the data sources, the analytic process of charting revealed that ideas about justice and injustice were threaded throughout the groups work. Educators questions about specific children, their own practices, and educational policies were intricately bound up with questions about sources of educational inequality, definitions of equity, and the development of fair practices that meet the needs of children and support an inclusive community of learners. In the case of TLCs descriptive inquiry processes that focus on particular children (described later), we found that teachers predominant concern was with how to expand practices so that all children could be meaningfully and successfully engaged in education. Practitioners did not ask themselves, for example, how must this child change to meet the demands of schoolinga stance we took to be assimilationist. Rather, they most often asked the following: How must my practice change to expand possibilities and opportunities for this child? We determined that from a grounded perspective this question is fundamentally about effecting educational equity for all children, beginning with particular children. Our analysis elaborated this concept of equity noting the two interrelated themes (recognition of the child and teaching children to understand and fulfill successfully the demands of schooling) that undergird this work and are the subject of this article.

Following these summer institutes, I developed further this analysis of the concept of equity, searching across the entire archive and the transcripts of current meetings for instances of this theme. In doing so, I determined that the themes (recognition and navigation) we had elaborated during the summer analytic institute existed persistently throughout the archive. From this process of reviewing the archive, I chose key events (meetings) to analyze in greater depth to develop a broader and more refined understanding of the range of ways that equity has been conceptualized in relationship to the descriptive inquiry processes that take individual children as their focus. To give the reader a sense of the frequency with which these themes, recognition, and navigation occurred in the descriptive inquiry processes that focus on particular children, I have tracked their occurrence across 5 years of transcribed notes. I chose 1 year from each 5-year period of the groups history. (See later discussion for overall statistics on descriptive reviews of children by TLC.) Over these 5 years, the group engaged in 37 descriptive reviews of children, and the dual themes of recognition and navigation occurred 62% of the time. (Note that all descriptive reviews are, at their heart, about recognition of the child.) Throughout the analytic and writing processes, I continually took the work back to the research team and the broader TLC audience to check the resonance of these ideas about equity with the practitioners. In addition, all members of TLC were invited to read and comment on draft versions of this article. Five members of TLC did so, and their perspectives helped shape the final manuscript.

It is critical to locate the wellspring for ideas about equity within TLCs specific forms of practice. In focusing on practice, I do not wish to deny that the autobiographies of many TLC members brought about their deep-seated commitments to equity and urban education. Many of TLCs founding members were drawn into the work of teaching on the tailwinds of the Civil Rights Movement. Some newer members have also come to teaching with similar commitments to social justice. However, not all teachers come to the group with social justice agendas. Some come in search of a professional support group. Other practitioners have an explicit interest in inquiry practices that begin with close observation and documentation of children. I am interested in how the ideas about equity that undergird much of TLCs work have developed from inquiry practices that start with close observation and description of particular children, classrooms, and educational practices.


TLC primarily employs a set of structured oral inquiry practices developed by Patricia Carini and her colleagues at the Prospect Center for Education and Research in N. Bennington, Vermont, in conjunction with teachers from across the country9 (see Carini, 2001; Featherstone, 1998; Himley, 2002; Himley & Carini 2000; Kanevsky, 1993). At the forefront of the growing tradition of teacher research (Anderson et al., 1994; Carr & Kemmis, 1986; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993; Himley & Carini, 2000; Zeichner & Nofke, 2001) Prospects descriptive processes call on practitioners to recognize and specify, in detail, childrens strengths as learners and thinkers in order to build practices that respond to their capacities as human beings. Newcomers to the processes are often struck by how much time is committed to describing one child or one piece of workat least 2 hoursand by the adherence to a structure that allows each participant an opportunity to offer her or his perspective without cross-talk or interruption. These processes assume that observation and description are habits that can be cultivated. These habits allow a teacher to begin from the specific and particular, rather than from abstract ideas, and it is this attention to the particular that forms one basis for developing sound educational practices. Further, the processes position each participant in an active role with the belief that varied, even conflicting perspectives are not only valuable, but critical, to fostering deep knowledge of teaching and learning.

A lengthy description of the format of these processes is beyond the scope of this article (see Himley, 2002; Himley & Carini, 2000). However, I want to give readers a quick sketch of the structure and scope of these inquiry processes. Because the focus of this article is TLCs work around particular children, I describe briefly the two descriptive processes that look at individual children: the Descriptive Review of Childrens Works and the Descriptive Review of the Child. In a description of work, a teacher brings to the group a piece of work that a child has made. This might be a piece of writing, a drawing or painting, a three-dimensional creation or even photographs of a block structure. The group then engages in a formal description of the work. At the direction of a chairperson,10 each person in turn offers first impressions of the work. The chairperson then summarizes themes that emerged from this round. Next the group moves into a formal analysis of elements of the childs work. Again in turn, each person makes an observation about the piece of work, referencing what she or he says to what she or he sees in the work. These observations are grounded in the work. The work is not used to speculate about the childs psychological state. Again the chairperson integrates emergent themes and this summary is followed by another round of observations. These rounds continue until the group has exhausted its observations. What emerges through the process is a growing and deepening idea of the childs perspectives, interests, values, and standards for her or his work. One of the roles of the chairperson is to draw out these themes. At times, the group may follow their formal description of the work with a quicker look at additional creations. The presenting teacher may or may not ask the group for recommendations for practice to enhance her or his work with the particular child under review or with her or his students in general.

The Descriptive Review of the Child is similarly structured. For this, a presenting teacher will have prepared ahead of time. The teacher is asked to observe and describe the child in terms of physical stance and gesture, disposition and temperament, connections with people, strong interests and preferences, and modes of thinking and learning (Himley, 2002; Himley & Carini, 2000). The presenting teacher will have worked ahead of time with the chairperson to decide on a question she or he would like the group to help her or him consider. The chairperson opens the meeting by stating the presenters question. This is followed by an uninterrupted presentation of the teachers observations, which usually takes about 45 minutes. The chair follows this presentation with a summary, pulling forward recurrent themes, paying particular attention to listen not only for coherence but also for divergence. She or he also offers the group the briefest contextual information such as age, grade, and family members. After this presentation, other teachers ask clarifying questions to get an even fuller picture of the child and the classroom context. Following another summary by the chair, group members give the presenting teacher recommendations that address the presenting question. Recommendations range from very specific suggestions for classroom practice to more general ideas about ways to think about the child or the teachers practice. The final part of the format is a critique of the process that asks specifically how well the group maintained respect and confidentiality. The Descriptive Review of the Child is overtly protective of children and families, demanding that the group refrain from analyzing family psychodynamics or pathologizing the child or her or his family. The idea is to focus attention on how teachers can change their practices rather than assume that it is children or families that must change. (For an in-depth discussion of the Descriptive Review of the Child, see Himley & Carini, 2000.)

TLCs vast archive is full of detailed descriptions of children and their works. Although TLC meetings frequently address broad educational issues (e.g., literacy practices, reform policies, new tests) or particular classroom communities, members of the group insist that the foundation of all of their work rests on individual children and their works. It is through individual children that particular policies and practices become consequential. Over the course of TLCs history they have engaged in 195 descriptive reviews of children and 75 descriptions of childrens work.11 In writing about this work from the perspective of research, I have struggled with how best to offer the reader a sense of both the particular learning and the broader ideas that emerge from describing children and their work. The strength of TLCs work lies both in the details and particularities of any one review of a child, as well as in the accumulated knowledge of children and childrens learning that evolves over time. I have decided to preserve a flavor of the rich portraits that emerge from these descriptive processes by focusing primarily on one review while drawing intermittently on others to explore the analysis of inequality and ideas about equity that arise. This focal review was chosen because it reflects recurrent themes that appear throughout TLCs archive of work.


In what follows, I explore ideas about equity that emerge from TLCs practices. These ideas about equity derive from TLCs implicit analysis of the sources of educational inequality. I examine first TLCs foundational premise that education must attend to each childs unique passions and capacities and that failure to do so leads to educational inequality. Next, I explore a second assumption that equitable education must teach children to meet academic demands successfully even as teachers must recognize and respect each childs particular values, standards and broad human capacities. Thus, for TLC, equitable practice involves integrating different ethical obligations.


The cornerstone of practicing equity, for TLC teachers, is a recognition of and respect for each childs uniqueness, value, and broad human capacities. The groups practice of closely observing and describing individual children and their works is the medium through which each childs capacities and uniqueness are revealed. Recall the brief vignette that opens this paper. Through her description of Matthew, Theresa drew a textured picture of this child as scientist, wordsmith, and artist. This type of phenomenological description can be located within a broader philosophical tradition that envisions education as a site for liberatory practices aimed at the development of democratic culture in which each person is recognized and valued (Carini, 2001; Dewey, 1916; Freire, 1998; Greene, 1988). This commitment to the recognition of the person contains within it the belief that one root of academic inequality lies in the educational imperative to evaluate children in narrow and comparative terms. In contrast to the norms of educational evaluation, TLCs processes are aimed at describing, not comparing, children.12 Further these processes do not seek, in describing, to sum up, typecast, or categorize a child but rather to make manifest the childs complexity and capacities. This is an approach that resists reifying normal curves, defining children as successes or failures and labeling them in diagnostic terms. Moreover, in emphasizing the recognition of each person, this phenomenological method rejects educational approaches that rely on uniformity and standardization of curriculum and practices.

I return to the scene that begins this article. At the time that Theresa presented a descriptive review of Matthew, she was in her 2nd year of teaching third grade. Theresa was a young White woman. Theresas students were all African Americans. Most of the families that her school served live at or below the poverty level. Theresa chose to do a descriptive review of Matthew, a 9-year-old in her classroom, to explore the question How can I help Matthew to be more focused and organized in order to benefit more from classroom instruction and to pursue his interests independently? Several of the words embedded in her question reflect common concerns that educators have with focus, organization, and independence. The picture of Matthew that emerged from the practice of describing was, however, atypical in its textured and nuanced description of a student who has many specific strengths and interests.

In a summary of Theresas description, the chairperson for this review painted Matthew with these brush strokes, I underlined [the word Theresa used] flooded because listening to all this you feel flooded with Matthew. Hes big. Hes bold. Even though hes slight and all arms and legs and wiry. His actions, his ideas, everything is on a very grand scale (audio transcript of TLC meeting, 2/8/01). In describing Matthew, Theresa had portrayed the energy and gesture that surrounded this child. This overall picture did not stand alone. It was accompanied by a rich detailed description of Matthew as scientist, visual artist, and poet. Matthew was a wordsmitha child who loved rhythm and rhyme. Theresa presented Matthews stories and poems, revealing his attunement to the music of language and a voice full of both childish joy and poignant social critique. His drawings were bold and detailed. Even as Theresa recognized Matthews strengths as a writer, she worried about his impatience with revision and publication. Matthew was the kind of writer whose ideas brewed for a long time before spilling out in full form; however, once on paper, Matthew had no interest in editing or publishing them.

Theresa described Matthews enthusiasm for experimentation in the classroom, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, saying:

Hes melted lots of crayons in the heater. We did an experiment with putting water with blue dye into a plastic bag and putting it on the window to see the water cycle happen in the bag. And hes been taking it and putting it on the heater to see how hot he can get it. At the end of the day, I find lots of things that are Matthews projects. . . . He likes to spin things. Theres a bunch of us in the room that really like to play jacks. But he likes to spin the jacks instead and he can get them to spin for a really long time. Once, we timed him. He also likes to spin hair bobbles. (audio transcript of TLC meeting 2/8/01)

The type of observation called for by the descriptive review process offered Theresa a way to explore connections between these very different actions of Matthews. It would be easy to read Matthews melting of crayons as reflecting nothing more than defiant behavior or to fail to notice any significance to his penchant for spinning objects. However, Theresa assumed that there was some underlying continuity between these various actions that expressed Matthews curiosity about how the natural world works, as well as a fundamental approach to learning. Theresa described how Matthews ideas and suggestions drew other children to scientific observation and exploration, as, for example, when he turned a walk in the neighborhood into an opportunity for the whole class to sketch from nature.

This sketch of Matthew offers a flavor of the large picture that Theresa had drawn of one child. It reflects only a fraction of what Theresa conveyed to us about Matthew. This type of description stands in sharp contrast to most observations of children that are made in schools. This is not description that focuses on what Matthew can and cannot do in terms of some set of academic tasks. It is not an accounting of what he has accomplished to date. This is description born out of a phenomenological approach that seeks to see each childs uniqueness, sense making, and ways of making a mark on the world. It is description that refuses to smooth out the complex and contradictory aspects of a person. It is through the practice of disciplined observation and description that TLC teachers make visible each childs particularity and agency. It is for this purpose that Theresa paid attention to what Matthew was doing on the sidelines of the class. It is why she took time to discuss his enjoyment of spinning objects or melting crayons. All these aspects of Matthew offered a way to see how he was making sense of the world, what compelled him, what he valued and his own standards.

The descriptive review supported Theresa to resist a reading of Matthew as simply a behavior problem, oppositional, or disorganizedall terms that pervade school discourse and are all too readily applied to African American boys in particular. I must emphasize here that Theresa was not advocating that Matthew be allowed to continue melting crayons into the heater or that his refusal to participate in certain academic activities, such as revision of his writing and end of unit math tests, was acceptable. However, the portrait of a child that grows from TLCs inquiry practices is important because it refuses to reduce a child to his/her behavior or to create a one-dimensional narrative that ignores complexity and context.


One outcome of this type of descriptive process is that there is a focus on childrens strengths and capacities and a striking near absence of deficit discourse about children and their families in the TLC archive. As decades of research has shown, deficit labels and discourse are pervasive in educational settings and are particularly pernicious for children of color and children living in families with low or poverty level incomes (see, for a few examples, Anyon, 1997; Delpit, 1995; Lipman, 1998; Nieto, 1996; Varenne & McDermott, 1998). This is not to say that there are no examples of deficit talk about children or families in the TLC archive. In the archive, words describing children as insatiable and needy, distinctions such as good kids, bad kids and phrases like I resent that others dont have Chapter 1 children indicate that TLC teachers have not been immune from deficit talk and unexamined assumptions about children and their families. However, these examples stand out in jarring contrast to the dominant language of the archive.

This near absence of deficit talk about children is a manifestation of the type of learning that grows from TLCs inquiry processes, especially the Descriptive Review of the Child and the related Description of Childrens Works. It reflects how practicing descriptive processes over time builds a different way of thinking about children. One recurrent theme articulated by TLC teachers is that through the descriptive processes they have developed a language with which they speak back to the dominant deficit-oriented talk they hear too often in their schools. Sara, formerly a teacher and currently a school counselor, talked about the importance of her work with TLC in addressing school assessment policies that sought to label children. Speaking retrospectively about the policy of labeling children at-risk, Sara stated, coming here (to TLC) and listening to the strengths of the children and [then] going back into a building where the deficits were highlighted. [TLC] helped me to be able to give voice to the specifics of why this child was more than the sum total of the score (audio transcript of TLC meeting, 10/25/01). Sara pointed here to one instance of what is a much larger theme throughout TLCs work. The archive documents a persistent effort on the part of many teachers to resist having children tested, labeled, and removed from mainstream education classrooms, especially given the conditions of special education classes and tracks in their schools.

At the same time, TLC has also supported the work of special education teachers. During her 1st year of teaching, Caroline, a White special education inclusion teacher, focused a series of meetings on her student Roberto. Roberto was a 6-year-old, Puerto Rican child in a pre-first grade class. Caroline was a special education teacher assigned to support the schools full inclusion program by working with children in their classrooms. As part of a child study (an in-depth look at one child), at an initial meeting TLC members listened to and described an audiotape of Roberto talking about a book, Clifford, the Big Red Dog. At a subsequent meeting, the group did a description of a picture of Robertos. Finally, Caroline did a descriptive review of Roberto. Throughout this series of meetings about Roberto, Caroline had two concerns. First, she wanted to make visible Roberto, the learner. Speaking of this work three years later, Caroline said:

I brought Roberto to a description of work. There was a child that was struggling with speaking, with being in school, sitting in a chair. And I just brought this one ratty piece of paper. It was [a picture about the book] Caps for Sale. But then underneath it or on top of it there was all this other stuff going on. So, my first impression of how [the Description of Childrens Works] helped me was to say from one piece of raggedy paper theres a whole story born of what the child is trying to create. What the childs trying to make in schoolthe knowledge hes trying to make. And then the other thing that came up for Roberto was how to help students like that be seen as learners in my school. And the third thing that came up for me, also because I was co-teaching, how to bring strengths to the other teachers, bring them sort of as a gift to the other teachers. Like, look I went to this meeting and guess what they all said, that hes great at this, that we should do this. And so it was a gift I would bring to the classroom I felt like. (audio transcript of TLC meeting, 10/25/01)

Looking closely at the work of a child who had been identified very early in his schooling career as vulnerable, Caroline was able to see Robertos strengths as a learner and creator and bring that knowledge back to her school community.

Carolines second goal for this child study was to find strategies to change the ways that the teachers in her school communicated about Roberto. With the exception of his classroom teacher and herself, Caroline reported that by pre-first grade Roberto already had a reputation among other adults in the school community for being out of controla troublemaker bordering, in the eyes of many adults, on the dangerous. This reputation had led to many interactions between adults and Roberto that were, from Carolines perspective, unnecessarily harsh and punitive. Knowing well the serious consequences such labeling could hold for his future education, Caroline asked TLC to help her figure out how to communicate a different picture of Roberto to the other adults in the school. Caroline did a descriptive review of Roberto that was explicitly aimed at shifting the deficit discourse about him in his school. The recommendations to Caroline focused on strategies through which Roberto could communicate to others his strengths for example, as a storyteller and puppeteerand as such interrupt the singular, negative narrative into which he had been caught.13 Reflecting on her work with TLC, Caroline stated:

Whats changed my practice or my way of thinking. I never was really trained as a special education teacher in a certain way of the deficit thinking, but I know thats a big part of my field and I know its also how reports are written. So, I know whats helped methis group has definitely politicized me to what all that means for children. Im not saying, its been a breakthrough. I knew it. But like here its helped me to make it a political act that I do. Its helped me to give me the right words and practices and descriptive review is one. (audio transcript of TLC meeting, 10/25/01)

Thus, for Caroline, it is the practices of TLC that have helped her to see the fuller political implications of the deficit orientation of much of her special education field. Through TLC she developed language and practices for combating that deficit legacy.


Through the process of describing a child or her or his work closely, a holistic portrait is created and the childs strengths, capacities, standards, and values are made visible. Further, these processes allow educators to see where tensions lie between these individual strengths, standards and values and those of the teacher, classroom, or dominant structures of schooling. These descriptive processes do not grow out of a desire or predilection to see each child through rose-tinted glasses nor do they deny the complexities and struggles that arise between teachers, parents, and school administrators as they negotiate decisions about children. However, in making these tensions visible, TLC processes raise questions about the norms and assumptions that undergird classroom practices (a point that will be explored in more detail in the following section). Rather than assuming that the child must change, the processes give teachers a way to develop a collective vision about their work with children by reconsidering their classroom practices. Speaking about how the description of children led her to question and change her practice, Rachel reflected:

My commitment to thematic teaching comes out of all of that looking at childrens work and knowing how important ideas are to kids and being able to recognize that. Connected to that was the way I dropped the basal books when I was studying a child Terry, part of the reading study. But it was through listening to tapes of her reading in TLC that I became aware of how much her own approach to the world was influencing the way she approached reading. It convinced me that using basal readers was a waste of time and being able to give kids opportunities to read independently a lot and do individualized reading with them and the idea of thematic teaching is also connected to that realization that the basal readers were not broad enough and flexible enough. (audio transcript of TLC meeting, 4/11/02)

Through the description of particular children Rachel developed more general ideas about children as learners that supported her to reshape the curriculum. Even though TLCs processes are often grounded in observations of particular children, the knowledge generated and accumulated over time holds broad implications for educational practice. Moreover, the processes offer teachers a way to act in the present rather than to shift responsibility for making changes elsewherewith families, children or outside experts.

TLC has devoted many sessions to the conscious construction of classrooms as spaces that can invite meaningful inclusion of all children into the classroom (and school) community. Although TLC has focused a lot of its work on particular children, the educational practices that evolve are fundamentally concerned with the whole community of learners in the classroom. TLCs inquiry practices have suggested that to be expansively inclusive of children teachers must provide classrooms with a wide array of materials (e.g., various mediums for visual arts, blocks, building materials, fabrics, rich childrens literature, science equipment)14 and create opportunities for children to make decisions about using them. Over the years, many TLC meetings have been devoted to exploring what different materials afford childrens learning. These materials and the choice about their use offer children a way to pursue exploration of ideas and media. In turn, the materials offer teachers a way to see a childs interests and passions. There is a dialectic whereby the act of describing children suggests materials to use in classrooms that create openings for all children to learn and explore, and, also, having materials allows teachers see childrens inclinations and capacities more broadly. Provisioning classrooms with a range of materials becomes a critical component of practicing for equity because the materials are often the guarantors of access to academic and social learning. For example, the archive revealed that teachers often figured out new approaches to teach children to read by paying attention to the childrens work in other mediums. At the same time, by virtue of having this variety of materials available, children who were struggling to learn to read could still contribute fruitfully to the learning community through their work in other areas. Each child, recognized through her/his works, is a vital member of the community of learners.

The recognition of the personin his or her complexity and signature imprints on the worldthat develops though description contains within it a particular idea about the foundation for justice and equity. This is a definition that rests on an assumption that equality derives from our shared human capacity and inclination to shape the world around us. Speaking about children as revealed through their works, Carini (2001) writes:

Children (and ourselves) making things, engaged actively and dialectically with the world have a broadly liberating influenceand sometimes, if unpredictably, a transforming effect. To affirm a view of our human possibility by calling attention to the widely distributed capacity of ourselves as makers and doers, in which works are understood as the self s medium, is an enactable educational, social and political stance. For me that view of the self and the enactment of it offers a solid center and compelling aim for education: to be the poets of our own lives. (p. 52)

In starting with description of the individual child and her works TLC teachers, like Carini, make the assumption that all children are makers and doersthat they are, as Carini writes, poets of [their] own lives15 and that this is the launching point for practice. Lucy, a founding member of TLC, drawing directly on Carinis work, put it this way, Once youve decided to describe a child, it leads to practice. [TLC is] not only a set of processes, but processes that provide a scaffold. But its also a fundamental set of assumptions about how people learn, or what Pat (Carini) calls human capacity widely distributed.

Echoing Carini, and drawing on a Deweyian democratic tradition (see, especially, Dewey, 1916, 1922/1966), TLCs work centers around a specific commitment to education as a force for releasing each childs particular capacities as a maker and doer. Again and again, the TLC archive documents a concern with authenticitythat children be able to show their authentic selves or do work that is authentic. TLC practices suggest that one source of educational inequality rests with the refusal to attend to each childs unique self. This idea of children authoring selves, then, serves as one foundation for the practice of equity.


At the same time, what emerges out of the work of TLC is that a concern with authenticity and recognition of the child is not a sufficient basis for practicing equity in the everyday life of classrooms and schools. Rather, practicing equity involves the integration of two ethical obligations. One is the obligation to respect the childs integrity as a person and to support the development of each childs unique capacities. The other is an obligation to help each child acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to negotiate the demands of schooling (and society) successfully. This second obligation derives from the premise that another source of educational inequality is the failure to equip children with the tools and knowledge needed to succeed in school and beyond (see, especially, Delpit, 1995). For TLC teachers practicing equity involves a precarious balancing act between the liberatory and instrumentalist goals of democratic education. There is, then, a consciousness of the tension that always exists between the need to prepare children to succeed in the educational system as it is and the recognition that it is a system built with some children in mind and not others.

To illustrate how this tension emerges in the context of TLC practices, I return to Theresas review of Matthew. Although Theresa drew a rich, encompassing portrait of Matthew, she had several specific academic concerns for him. She worried that he was disorganized, often losing his work. She noted he was organized about projects that were of special interest to him; for example, he carefully preserved notes he had taken about Dr. Martin Luther Kings life and artwork for a special after-school class. Further, although he was a strong student in all aspects of the curriculum, Matthew resisted participating in certain key academic tasks such as end of unit math tests, the schools 100 Book Challenge literacy activity16 and publication of his writing. One of Theresas greatest concerns was that although Matthew could read very well he rarely would read. Theresa knew that Matthews strong skills and raw curiosity would not be sufficient to be successful in school in the long term. Although she described Matthew as a jewel, Theresa did this review of him for a specific reason; she asked TLC to make recommendations for how she could help him become focused, organized and independent.

The groups recommendations reflected the balancing act that teachers perform as they work for equity in everyday practice.17 There are those recommendations that focus squarely on how Theresa might find ways for Matthew to engage more fully with the curriculum and specific school tasks. Some of these recommendations drew upon what the group had learned about Matthews abiding interests to make specific suggestions for materials and activities, such as particular books that might interest him in reading or scientific experiments that required multiple steps over days. Some recommendations offered Theresa new sources of curriculum materials that would enhance Matthews interest in and knowledge of African American history. Others proposed direct conversations with him that would make explicit how to play the game of school. Recognizing the perils of failing to engage Matthew more fully in the process of schooling, Heather, a veteran teacher, said, It may be great to say that his work is interesting and wonderful, but its going to stop. He really needs to put a lot into it. Find something he can read, because if hes not reading a book, hes going to be done for (audiotape of TLC meeting 2/8/01). Thus, Heather spoke directly to the insufficiency of recognizing and valuing each childs unique modes of learning and expression as if that were enough. She also acknowledged the time constraints Matthew and his teacher faced. She argued that while it was critical for him to pursue his interests, there was also a time to impose school-based expectations in order for him to succeed in school, especially as Matthew approached fourth grade and the districts new high-stakes testing and retention policy. The idea that an equitable education demands that children are taught how to participate successfully in dominant academic practices is threaded throughout all of TLCs work (Delpit, 1995).

However, this commitment to teaching children to negotiate academic demands successfully is always bound up with the obligation of recognizing the person. Even as many of the recommendations urged Theresa to find ways to support Matthew to understand and engage with the explicit mission of schooling, others reminded her to examine the tension between his values, standards and inclinations and those values and standards implicit in the curriculum and pedagogy. Barbara, a long-time TLC member and the reading teacher at Matthews school, explicitly addressed this tension in her recommendation. Noting that one typical school activity Matthew resisted was making lists, she explained:

Im not sure, but [making lists] might be violating some sense of value. The things that are really important, like the Martin Luther King [biography]and particularly because thats a man who spoke for underdogsthat two day lesson was important enough so the notes had to be where when he needed them for the next day he could continue them. When something is important, generally he does keep track of it. y Part of me says, and this is contradicting what everyone else is saying, go with it. Let him keep track of the things that are important. But it does bother me that hes not reading during 100 Book Challenge time. y It doesnt bother me as much that hes not writing the books down, keeping track of them or getting medals. So, I think we need to supply him with books that are the right kind of books. . . . You cant really say, go Matthew, do your thing, because hes part of a whole system thats going to ask him to do otherwise and you have to prepare him for that. But theres a side of me that says, Go Matthew. (audiotape of TLC meeting, 2/8/01)

Barbaras analysis rested on an assumption that we see the person through the choices she or he makes (Carini, 2001). Thus, Barbara had listened for patterns in the types of school activities that Matthew rejected and wondered if they violated some value or standard he held for himself. The assumption that childrens activities and choices are indications of values and standardsa sense of aestheticsrests at the core of descriptive processes. Through the process of close observation and description, patterns emerge, for example, themes the child chooses to explore or particular (often tenacious) approaches to work. The assumption that these patterns are indicative of a childs values and standardsindeed the very idea that children have standards and valuesopens up new angles from which to consider behavior that otherwise is most commonly understood in terms of deficit (e.g., that he cannot do it or that he is being oppositional).

Viewing Matthews behavior as an expression of his values led Barbara to question practice, here in the form of listing books. She suggested that Theresa focus on what was essentialthat Matthew readand let go of the rest for the moment. Admittedly this example of letting go of lists hardly reflects a dramatic shift in practice, especially within the context of this discussion of the everyday practice of equity. Yet this small example holds within it several larger issues. First, it is rare that certain questions are asked in educational contexts such as: What does this child value? What standards does she or he hold for her or himself? These questions are infrequently the starting point for either policy or practice. Yet for TLC teachers a childs standards and values as seen through the choices they make are intimately connected with equity. Jeanne, a former TLC member and participant in our research team put it this way, The idea of choice within academic learning is part of equity. Its unstated, a shared belief. We believe that without choice, learning is flat. Underneath choice is a belief that equity depends on it. Second, many of the decisions that teachers make may appear to be small ones.18 However, all decisions reflect choices and values. The lists that children are asked to keep for the 100 Book Challenge program serve both as a record of the books that they have read and as an enticement to read through books quickly to earn medals. These choices and values often are of enormous consequence for students educational experiences. A child who reads deliberatively or who rereads, for example, is not rewarded equally by such a program.

Taking the particular child as the starting point for practice means recognizing that activities that draw in some children push others out. In another example from the archive, the process of reviewing a second grader, Kareem, raised a question about the new emphasis in math education on writing. Kareem was a child quick to reach math solutions, but with little patience for writing out how he came to his conclusions. As a result, the new official assessments of Kareem did not reflect his strong mathematical capabilities. In an ironic twist, those very reform measures in math education aimed at inviting more children to be successful, in this case risked failure for a child like Kareem. This was one of many examples throughout the archive of programs and policies aimed at ensuring equity that, in missing the complexity of children and their learning, raised new possibilities for failure. At the same time, the archive documents a significant and persistent concern with and struggle over how to protect children from policies and practices, such as high-stakes testing and retention requirements, that threaten to harm.

Barbaras previous comment revealed the balancing act teachers face as they work to create equitable educational practices. On the one hand, Barbara advocated a middle ground that cut through to what is essential educationreading bookswhile simultaneously respecting certain choices Matthew made. At the same time, she argued that to succeed Matthew must learn to participate in dominant academic practices and that part of the goal of education must be to prepare him for that. Thus, Barbara echoed the sentiment of many of the groups recommendations that specifically focused on how to support Matthew to engage with the demands of the official curriculum, without taking an assimilationist stance (Delpit, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Nieto, 1996). The archive is replete with similar instances of teachers engaged in this balancing act.


Thus, analysis of TLCs work revealed that practicing for equity often entailed maintaining a dual consciousness with one eye on the particular child and the other on the knowledge and academic practices that she or he must necessarily acquire. This dual consciousness emerges from ethical struggles that teachers face as they practice within an educational system that, as one TLC teacher put it, assumes failure on the part of some children. Preparing children to succeed within a system rife with opportunities for failure inherently involves dilemmas and compromises. Even as TLC practices begin by attending closely to the particular, the inquiry processes generate discussion and knowledge about the broader educational issues within which the particular is situated (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999). I draw again on Theresas review of Matthew to illustrate this moveone that exists in many reviews throughout the archive. At the end of the meeting, reflecting on the review, teachers had the following conversation about the tension between ethical obligations that undergird practice:




It helped me realize just how much we constrain children because of what we have to do. Or what schools have come to be. How in schools were constraining someone. Like you [Theresa] called this child a jewel and yet we cant let that shine. We have to, you know. Its so hard.

Well, Im really glad hes in school and with you at [name of the school]. I really echo that thing about schools being hard, but I also think this is the best place for him.

Somebody said before the tension it just points it up, between what kids need, what we need to have them do and what they bring to school that they can do. Its reallyWe have an obligation. At the same time we have another obligation. Its a very hard tension. Which I guess is why many of us end up having a time of day when kids can choose. Thats because once they know they can really, really choose, they can go along with other things. (audio transcript of TLC meeting, 2/8/01)

Theresas review of Matthew opened up a wider discussion about the complex and contradictory nature of education and teaching. The review drew Alisons focus to the ways schools limit possibility for children. Moreover, Alison spoke of we [teachers] as agents of this limiting function of schooling, thus raising the ethical issue of educators complicity with the system. However, even as she acknowledged some merit to Alisons critique, Caroline posited another view of schools as sites of possibilityas the best place for [Matthew]. Implicit here is the idea that both schools and teachers can interrupt (even if they might not be able to eradicate) failure and the limiting functions of schooling. Lucy then made explicit the ethical dilemma of practice that rests at the heart of Alison and Carolines divergent perspectives on school. Teachers practice for equity between two obligations they see: an obligation to teach children what we need to have them doto help them succeed in relation to dominant academic practicesand an obligation to value what each child bring[s] to school that they can doto recognize the child. These obligations are ethical in nature. They call on the teacher, as moral actor, to make choices.

However, these are choices constrained by the socio-cultural contexts in which schools operatecontexts that inevitably produce failure and inequality (see, especially, McDermott & Varenne, 1995; Varenne & McDermott, 1998). The TLC archive stands as a record to both the sources of inequality and the work of teachers struggling to practice against inequality. TLC members are acutely aware that the sources of inequality are multiple, including overcrowded classrooms, poorly resourced and understaffed schools, testing and retention policies, societal racism, class oppression, and more.

Within these inequitable contexts, choices present dilemmas for practice. TLCs descriptive practices offer teachers a way of making more visible the tensions or dilemmas that arise from holding these two obligations and as such suggest possibilities for action in classrooms and schools. At the same time, this balancing act that teachers perform between ethical obligations reflects the reality that there is no single path or perfect solution to practicing equity in the everyday. What is revealed through the daily practice of teaching is the imperfectability and complexity of doing this work in contexts where inequality and failure are the weft of social structure. However, rather than despairing of the possibility of working against this inequitable system, TLC has offered practitioners a space within which to examine practice and policy with equity in mind.


For 24 years, TLC has provided a space within which practitioners have explored collaboratively how to teach children well in contexts saturated with inequality. The questions that teachers have asked themselves constitute a kind of inquiry into the roots of educational inequality and a creative exploration of what it means to practice for equity. Like others committed to educational equity, TLC teachers have examined what gets in the way of providing children with equitable education and have asked how to change practice so that all children in their classrooms will be engaged with rich learning experiences. The location from which TLC begins its inquiry, however, represents a different vantage point for analysis than that of most policies that aim to guarantee educational equity with standardized approaches to reform. Although imagining equitable practices for all children, TLCs work begins with the particular, often a single child, and is deeply embedded in the everyday lives of children and teachers in particular classrooms and schools.

Over the course of TLCs history, these practitioners have faced myriad programs and policies initiated by the district that have also been directed at effecting equitable educational outcomes for children. Seeking to address the vast differences and inequalities in the quality of education that children across the city have received, these policies and programs have largely been aimed at guaranteeing that all children receive the same educational opportunities. In the 1980s the district implemented a standardized curriculum and pacing schedules that sought to ensure that, for each grade, all students would be exposed to similar content and expectations. In the 1990s, high standards for all children led the reform banners. Initially this systemic reform effort sought a balance between top-down and grounded approaches to change. Standards set by the district were to serve as guidelines to support curriculum development at the school level. However, this initial vision soon lost primacy as accountability measures and high-stakes testing took over as the driving forces behind school reform. In addition, by the year 2000 the district was directing more and more schools to adopt specific literacy and mathematics programs. Threaded throughout these various initiatives has been a strong commitment to remedying the differential access that children have had to an equal education through the development of universally guaranteed opportunities. I want to be clear that in distinguishing between these universalist policy approaches to equity and TLCs emergent definition, I am not arguing against the important role that policy can play in redressing educational inequality (see, especially, Darling-Hammond, 1997).

However, I am arguing for the importance of considering another perspective. An analysis of TLCs work across these decades makes visible how equitable educational practices imagined from the position of TLC differ from those constructed at the level of most district-initiated programs and policies. From the standpoint of the particular, they are partial, conditional and mutable, grounded in the messiness of life in real classrooms with real children. TLCs professional development practices make visible a fundamental dilemma that teachers face as they seek to practice for equity: a dilemma that arises from the obligations to recognize each child and to provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to survive and succeed in schools and society. TLC practices, however, do not reflect an attempt to choose between these obligations and resolve the conflict (Lampert, 1985). Rather, TLC offers teachers a place to address simultaneously these two obligationswhat some in TLC have come to call managing ahead. TLC members continue this work today even in the face of increasingly prescribed curriculum initiatives and ever more onerous testing policies, exploring collectively ways to maintain educational spaces that expand possibilities for children. Despite the seemingly inexorable assault on teachers autonomy, TLC offers practitioners a place, outside of the official boundaries of schools, within which to sustain what Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999) call inquiry as stanceto generate possibilities of social change.

Varenne and McDermott (1998) remind us that educational inequality is built into our school system that constructs students as successes and failures. Resonating with Varenne and McDermotts analysis, but working from a different angle, TLC practices resist constructing children as successes or failures. TLC practices afford teachers a way to consider the institutional structures that resist the child (Carini, 2001) and to imagine changing classroom practices to allow each childs meaningful participation in the community.

Writing about the Black women she knew growing up, Patricia Hill Collins refers to their social activism as visionary pragmatism and advocates for social change that embodies this spirit. Visionary pragmatism integrates the possibility of acting in this world as it is, without losing sight of the world as it might be. Collins argues against overly pragmatic approaches to social change that do nothing more than tinker with existing inequality. At the same time, she suggests that critical social theorists often posit highly abstract, teleological visions of the good society that are disengaged from the lives of real people and that do little for making changes in the here and now. Visionary pragmatism, Collins proposes, is a way to work for social change in the everyday, holding onto both the knowledge of the imperfectability and mutability of the social world and a vision of social justice.

This idea of visionary pragmatism is one that well characterizes the work of TLC. Through the processes of observation and description of the particular, TLC members develop ways of practicing, pushing back against educational inequality persistently. This is not to imply some idealized version of TLC as professional development that answers the search for equitable practices. It is not to say that TLC practices have addressed all aspects of inequality. For example, one fruitful direction that I would like to take in future work with inquiry groups would build a bridge between the phenomenological approach employed by TLC and a critical race perspective (see for example, Ladson-Billings, 1999; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995); this would allow for a deep examination of how race and racism are at play, not in an abstract sense but in the lives of particular children under review.19

However, even as I can imagine directions for expanding this phenomenological approach, TLCs work offers an important perspective from which to consider what it means to work for equity in the everyday particulars of classrooms and schools. As educational reform efforts across the country appear to be turning increasingly to top-down initiatives that direct the work of teachers, it is ever more urgent to consider this grounded epistemological standpoint, one that takes seriously Smiths (1987) idea of the everyday world as problematic.

Without the generosity of spirit with which TLC members engaged in this collaborative project, this research would have been impossible. This article reflects the thoughtful and challenging responses of Katherine Schultz, Kira Baker, Anne Burns-Thomas, Patricia Carini, Rhoda Kanevsky, Lynne Strieb and Betsy Wice. I would also like to thank, Caroline Brayer Ebby, Ellen Skilton-Sylvester, Paul Skilton-Sylvester, Rosalie Rolon-Dow, as well as the editor and reviewers for their helpful suggestions that greatly improved earlier versions of this text. Katherine Schultz and I presented some of the ideas in this article at the 2001 Meetings of the American Anthropological Association.


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THEA RENDA ABU EL-HAJ is a research fellow at the Alice Paul Center for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on urban education; critical analyses of race, gender, class and disability in schooling; conceptualizations of social justice in educational practice; and the use of collaborative, ethnographic research to support educational reform. Her most recent publication is Contesting the Politics of Culture, Rewriting the Boundaries of Inclusion: Working for Social Justice With Muslim and Arab Communities in Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 33(3). She is currently completing a book manuscript titled Searching for Justice With Difference in Mind: The Journeys of Two Schools.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 5, 2003, p. 817-845
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11136, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:03:29 PM

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  • Thea Abu El-Haj
    Alice Paul Center, University of Pennsylvania
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    THEA RENDA ABU EL-HAJ is a research fellow at the Alice Paul Center for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on urban education; critical analyses of race, gender, class and disability in schooling; conceptualizations of social justice in educational practice; and the use of collaborative, ethnographic research to support educational reform. Her most recent publication is ‘‘Contesting the Politics of Culture, Rewriting the Boundaries of Inclusion: Working for Social Justice With Muslim and Arab Communities’’ in Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 33(3). She is currently completing a book manuscript titled Searching for Justice With Difference in Mind: The Journeys of Two Schools.
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