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Narratives of Social Justice Teaching: How English Teachers Negotiate Theory and Practice Between Preservice and Inservice Spaces

reviewed by Christine H. Leland - October 16, 2008

coverTitle: Narratives of Social Justice Teaching: How English Teachers Negotiate Theory and Practice Between Preservice and Inservice Spaces
Author(s): sj Miller, Laura Bolf Beliveau, Todd DeStiger, David Kirkland & Peggy Rice
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433101270, Pages: 151, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

One of the most challenging aspects of preparing teachers today is that their jobs keep changing and we’re never quite sure of just what we’re preparing them for. As a profession, we seem to have lost much of our collective power to decide how and what we will teach. While this constraint might apply more to educators at the P-12 level than at the university level, the reverberations of an increased emphasis on accountability and standardization have affected both contexts significantly. We find ourselves in an era where test scores reign supreme and the pursuit of social justice has been removed by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) as an indicator of program quality. What used to matter (seeing education as a social equalizer) no longer matters and what used to be peripheral (test scores) is now front and center. Sometimes it seems like our profession is drowning in bureaucratic mandates and losing every sociopolitical battle that affects who we are and what we do. Sometimes we find ourselves thinking, “it would be so easy to give up.”

Fortunately we have colleagues who have not given up on education or social justice. They include sj Miller, Laura Bolf Beliveau, Todd DeStiger, David Kirkland, and Peggy Rice, co-authors of Narratives of Social Justice Teaching: How English Teachers Negotiate Theory and Practice Between Preservice and Inservice Spaces. Fortunately for all of us who care deeply about keeping a social justice focus in teacher education, they know how to use the power of story to show that there is hope for the future. This book documents stories that matter, even when they don’t have happy endings in which clear lessons get learned and everyone agrees on what needs to happen next. It is a truly postmodern text in that the stories are open to multiple interpretations and there’s no “grand narrative” (Lyotard, 1984, p. xxiv) that each story must connect to in some way. Instead of trying to convince readers that there is an ultimate truth about teaching to be discovered, the stories in this book open up spaces to consider how knowledge is socially constructed. By design, it is a book that highlights struggle and disruption.

Some of the disruption comes from the authors’ wonderful reflexivity—their awareness that they are sometimes complicit in perpetuating practices or a status quo that they are committed to changing. Their willingness to see their own hands in the metaphorical cookie jar should be celebrated, however, since it’s a sign that they are aware of competing forces and the role that power plays in any situation (Lewison, Leland & Harste, 2008). This reflexive stance begins in the Foreword with Ruth Vinz’s compelling story about a sixth grade boy whose designated classroom space was a refrigerator box and weaves its way through the book to Todd DeStigter’s equally compelling concluding chapter about a student who rejected the entire classroom space and insisted on sitting in the hallway.

More disruption emanates from the authors’ conclusion that it’s hard to know what social justice really is. This tension is evident in Danielle Filipiak’s critique of her own teacher education program: “Quite frankly, most of us didn’t know what the hell justice meant. I wished that my teacher education program would have prepared me to define justice so that I didn’t have to tuck my education so neatly into a ‘white box’” (p. 55). Reading this as the teacher educator I am, I could not help wondering if my past students have the same feeling and if so, what I should do about it. In the chapter he co-authored with Filipiak, David Kirkland says that the definition “varies by situation” and notes that “social justice is meaningless unless we make it mean” (p. 62). This suggests that there is no hard and fast definition and we are going to have to figure it out on a case-by-case basis. To assist us in this endeavor, the authors recommend that we participate in a reflexive process they call “the 5 ‘re-s’: reflect, reconsider, reconceptualize, rejuvenate and [to] reengage” (p. 7). It is this process, they argue, that will help us to define both social justice and ourselves as educators.

The book consists of a Foreword, an Introduction, and five chapters that feature narratives. In explaining the rationale for the narratives, lead author sj Miller says they used “the vantage point of classroom teachers to articulate a vision of English education that moves beyond the traditional tidy developmental path of theory divorced from practice” (p. 5). While this is true, what made the book particularly interesting for me was the fact that many of the chapters feature the interwoven voices of inservice classroom teachers, university teacher educators, and former preservice teachers who have moved into the realm of teaching. Following new teachers out into the real world and asking them how well we prepared them is both rarely seen and sorely needed. More often, we say goodbye, wish them the best, and hope fervently that they will be able to maintain their identities as people who value social justice and critical pedagogy. Hearing from past students about what we might do differently to prepare them better is instructive for all of us who work with preservice and inservice teachers.

The conceptual framework for the book is discussed in the Introduction (chapter 1) where readers are asked to consider an important question: “How can teachers stay true to themselves while they truly have no ownership in their school spaces?” (p. 6). I immediately remembered the veteran teacher in my doctoral seminar who choked back tears as she described her district’s increasing reliance on scripted curricula that demoralize teachers and treat students as little more than products on an assembly line. It was easy to accept the ensuing supposition that this lack of empowerment leads to a “struggle between personal and political space” (p. 6). What was not as clear or easy to accept, however, was the subsequent discussion about “horizontal” and “vertical” spaces. Readers are asked to think of actual classroom space as “horizontal” space that is largely claimed by stakeholders and are urged to move “toward a vertical space, or space that cannot be seen to the visible eye.” We are further asked to consider how “vertical space can become a haven for how to support preservice teachers in their conceptualization of social justice pedagogy” (p. 6). This new vertical space is referred to as “fourthspace.”

At this point, I found the idea of “horizontal” and “vertical” spaces somewhat confusing. After all, it’s the vertical (top down) hierarchy that seems to be responsible for taking ownership of classroom spaces away from teachers in the first place, so it is hard for me to imagine vertical space as a haven for social justice pedagogy. The explanation provided is that this theory is grounded in Soja’s (1996) notion of “firstspace,” which can best be understood as concrete space—like the actual classrooms they teach in, “secondspace,” which is imagined, and “thirdspace,” which appears to be both real and imagined. “Fourthspace,” the new addition this book makes to this model, is described as “a double helix, a three-dimensional twisted shape like a spring, screw, or spiral” (p. 7). The authors explain that one side of the double helix represents social space and the other side represents teacher identity. “Each helix, traveling in opposite directions, reflects an emotional, corporeal, and cognitive shift of a teacher as s/he relocates from the firstspace classroom, to a vertical space.”

While this perspective seems to be potentially powerful, I am left with many questions. How is this new idea of “fourthspace” different from Soja’s idea of “secondspace” or “thirdspace?” Is it necessary to expand the original model? What does “social space” include? The double helix graphic provided in this book reminded me of the “Recursive Relationships of Social Mediation That Action Research Aims to Transform” model described by Kemmis and McTaggart (2005, p. 566). Both models have a “social” side and an “individual” or “identity” side. I wondered whether the authors of this book see connections between their model and the earlier one.

Being left with questions is fine with me. It underscores the idea that teaching is a complex and messy endeavor that doesn’t lend itself to simple solutions or “magic bullets.” Teaching for social justice doesn’t fit into a box any better than a sixth grader. The time to worry is when everything does appear to be fitting into the “neat white box” that teacher Danielle Filipiak described. At that point we should follow the authors’ advice and stop to reflect, reconsider, reconceptualize, rejuvenate and reengage.


Kemmis, S., & McTaggart, R. (2005). Participatory action research: Communicative action and the public sphere. In N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed.) (pp. 559-601). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lewison, M., Leland, C., & Harste, J. (2008). Creating critical classrooms: K-8 reading and writing with an edge. New York: Erlbaum.

Lyotard, J. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Soja, E.W. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined

places. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 16, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15413, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:56:28 PM

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About the Author
  • Christine Leland
    Indiana University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINE H. LELAND is a Professor in the Department of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education at the Indiana University School of Education at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). She teaches graduate and undergraduate literacy courses and works with masters and doctoral students. She has worked with many teachers in the central Indiana area through the study group model of professional development. Her recent work includes articles in Language Arts (2005, 2007), Urban Education (2005), The Yearbook of the National Reading Conference (2007, 2008), and a coauthored book: Creating critical classrooms: K-8 reading and writing with an edge (2008, Erlbaum).
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