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Change Matters: Critical Essays on Moving Social Justice from Theory to Policy

reviewed by Christine Clayton - August 16, 2011

coverTitle: Change Matters: Critical Essays on Moving Social Justice from Theory to Policy
Author(s): sj Miller and David E. Kirkland
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433106825, Pages: , Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

A central idea in Change Matters: Critical Essays on Moving Social Justice from Theory to Policy, edited by sj Miller and David E. Kirkland, is that teaching for social justice cannot simply be an intellectual endeavor. Rather, it is a fundamentally practical action having a real and noticeable impact on the lives of children. In an era dominated by a policy discourse obsessed with testing, accountability, and even recrimination, it is refreshing to envision a different set of policy questions and practices through the prism of the concerns posed by a social justice worldview. In this sense, the essays that comprise sj Miller and David Kirklands collection issue an important call to action for those engaged in social justice work in education.

The book is exceptionally well structured and includes concise articles written by prominent authors from a range of fields within teacher education, English education, and literacy, all of who share a research and teaching passion for social justice. This edited collection of 18 articles is divided into four sections, each with a section overview and closing comments. The volume is framed by a foreword written by Glynda Hull, an introduction by the editors, a glossary of terms, and an afterword by Peter McLaren. Appendices offer examples of teacher education activities and assignments.

The premise underlying the editors goals is stated in the introduction: Without influencing policy, we well understand that social justice, like so many other catchphrases, will be as marginal as the populations for which we advocate (p. 2). Thus, their goals are stated, variously, with a central focus on promoting social justice theory, practice, and research that can move us toward social justice policy (p. 2). Additionally, to do so, they aspire in this collection to broaden what can be considered social justice work (p. 2). As I read this book, I wondered, does this volume deliver on its aims? Even more importantly, how does it speak to us in this age of social injustice through imposed standardization and testing? I review each of the four sections and framing pieces with these critical questions in mind.

Section One sets the stage by introducing conceptions of social justice in three chapters that offer different, yet complimentary, angles. Millers opening essay traces the historical development of teaching for social justice, reading a bit like a glossary of greatest hits, while Johnsons autobiographical piece provides examples of how the personal and pedagogical intersect in a social justice orientation. Souto-Manning and Smagorinskys dissection of Freire and Vygotskys contributions to the development of social justice conceptions lives up to the editors aims particularly well in this section by showing how theoretical ideas can move English educators towards actions for social justice that call into question social inequities of schools in order to imagine how school and curriculum might be structured differently.  

Section Two discusses methodology and methods of social justice pedagogies in five chapters with diverse topics and origins. Miller again starts the section with examples from methods classes on how to embed identity issues in courses; the appendices for the volume complement the article presented here. Bolf-Beliveau and Beliveau offer insight into teaching for social justice with the concept of using fragments and frictions in textual analysis. They illustrate these concepts in a fascinating analysis of alternative texts - a film and a political speech which effectively model this method for interested readers. Other teaching methods are showcased in Jocsons piece about multimedia writing where the complexities of such analysis are exhibited. Hagoods discussion of multiliteracies and identity articulates the social justice dimensions of this view on literacies in a unique way that bridges the fields of literacy and social justice. Her argument that social justice is, in fact, realized through attention to and integration of the new literacies in the curriculum rests on the relationship between identity and ways of expression. This is an excellent complement to Millers opening piece, which also approaches identity issues but from a different perspective. The section closes with Alsups rather unsurprising set of suggestions for data analysis that is transformative. With the exception of the last piece which may have been more appropriately positioned in the next section, these chapters offer a collection of practices not always located within the discussion of social justice issues. With this section, the editors and these authors, have, indeed, pried open the boundaries that define the field of social justice, making it more inclusive and pressing us readers to reconsider what social justice work might be.

Section Three specifically focuses on social justice research methodologies in the largest section with six chapters. The section showcases a range of research methodologies, expanding both the breadth and depth of what is considered social justice research. In the first, Willis discusses critically conscious analysis related to literacy research in general terms that lack more guiding specifics for researchers. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattaris (1980/1987) nomadic science, Eakle shows in greater detail how a collection of theoretical ideas can inform and frame social justice research. Bloome, Carter, and Brown show how critical discourse analysis can serve social justice aims with a bottom-up (p. 133) analysis. This excellent piece demonstrates the method by laying out the data of a discussion transcription from a class and making transparent the analytical questions and interpretations that arise. Kirklands discussion distinguishes critical ethnography by suggesting that the researcher help to empower participants to pay attention to the noise (p. 147) in their contexts. Drawing on Smitherman (1977), Kirkland advances the idea of collecting the noisemaker (p. 148) to suggest that discourse research must comprise the socio-cultural and political history of the context in which voice and language are embedded. In a similar way, Fecho and Hill in their piece on narrative and Janet Millers article on autobiographical research show how these research genres can pivot more explicitly toward social justice. True to form, Fecho and Hill share stories about their use of narrative in research and teaching to suggest that individual narratives can never be divorced from historical, present, or future contexts (p. 155) and, ultimately, to show how the narratives they encounter, in turn, shape them. Janet Miller starts, likewise, with her own story a passing encounter in a hallway with an aspiring graduate student. Her poststructuralist view challenges the limits and possibilities of autobiography in research. She interrogates a unitary or normalized view of self that can emerge with an emphasis on story and suggests that poststructuralist critiques of representations in autobiographical research serve fundamentally important social justice aims.

The scope and quality of these articles distinguish section three from the others in this volume and may make the greatest contribution to the field. Together, they offer a compelling overview of research methodologies with a distinct and well-articulated social justice turn that would be useful to novice researchers as well as more seasoned scholars who need a fresh perspective on a particular research genre.

Section Four aims to make good on our promise to move social justice theory to policy (p. 13) in four chapters. Cochran-Smith opens the section with a cogent and timely piece detailing debates about school reform that largely dominate federal policy particularly Democratic Party policy on schools. Focusing on the language of competing policy documents, this excellent article puts in greater relief the underlying assumptions about the achievement gap and policy mechanisms necessary to address it. Also focusing on the language of policy documents, Burns examines NCTE statements for assumptions related to language policies.  Juzwick and Ferkany complement earlier pieces on discourse by making more explicit recommendations on how researchers in this genre may better influence policy. Their suggestions highlighting points of commonality, pursuing long term, comparative studies, and designing larger scale studies focused on student learning are important for all researchers who desire to conduct social justice research that in fact matters for policy decisions. Likewise, Campano and Sanchez end the section with a set of general recommendations intended to speak to policymaking that, more broadly, speak to working in education during these times. As a whole, the section did not quite accomplish its intention. While informative, most recommendations were general and primary critiques focused on the language of policy documents. Choosing to leave this section for the end, the editors marginalized their section on policy, which, by all statements, they intended to position as central to this volume. Perhaps, integrating policy issues within each of the above sections might have enabled the editors to come closer to making the contribution they ultimately desired linking teaching and researching for social justice, methodologically and theoretically, to policy outcomes.

Thus, the closing section which details the editors own recommendations on English education policy for policymakers, falls flat. Though they claim their recommendations are derived from the articles in the collection, it is not always easy to see clear connections. Additionally, some of these recommendations  - like the call for a Students Bill of Rights on social justice or new policies to make the distribution process of access, power, and opportunity equitable (p. 216) seem vacuous, vague, or even too general. One wonders, will policymakers read this book in its current form? Who is the audience for this book? By making recommendations to policymakers have the editors failed to conclude the book by addressing its more likely audience teacher educators and teachers and calling them to action?  

McLarens afterword seals this deal. McLaren believes change matters but that matters also change (p. 220). The change he addresses in this final piece is what puts public education at its greatest risk in these times: Nothing can save public educationnot even a powerful book such as this oneunless capitalism itself is overcome (p. 220). His critique of the corporatization of education and the dismantling of the public in that process is compelling, as usual, but an interesting choice to end a book aimed at moving social justice work away (solely) from the use of language for critique and toward critical action. McLarens piece is masterful in its critique but less convincing in its call to action. Based on this critique, I wonder if the greatest contribution to be made here is what was accomplished particularly in the third section. Is the change that matters really embedded in the policy recommendations that conclude the book or in the ideas that assist researchers in pivoting their inquiry towards social justice questions and methods that will produce evidence policymakers must address? Change matters. Absolutely. But change in research methods and methodologies is what matters most for the policy changes we so desperately need.


Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus:  Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press. (Originally published in 1980.)

Smitherman, G. (1977). Talkin and testifyin: The language of Black America. Detroit, MI:  Wayne State University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 16, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16514, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 12:52:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Christine Clayton
    Pace University
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINE CLAYTON is an Associate Professor of Adolescent Education at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York. Her research interests include inquiry learning and teaching, new teachers, professional development, and teacher education. Recent publications include a 2011 article entitled “Using Wenger’s Communities of Practice to Explore a New Teacher Cohort” in The Journal of Teacher Education. Current projects explore uses of inquiry in teacher education and professional development.
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