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Literacy for a Better World: The Promise of Teaching in Diverse Classrooms

reviewed by Anne Slonaker - November 09, 2012

coverTitle: Literacy for a Better World: The Promise of Teaching in Diverse Classrooms
Author(s): Laura Schneider VanDerPloeg
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807753513, Pages: 192, Year: 2012
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Literacy for a Better World: The Promise of Teaching in Diverse Classrooms, by Laura Schneider VanDerPloeg, sets readers up for the important democratic lessons we will encounter if we both read and work to enact the socially just pedagogical practices storied, theorized, demonstrated, and critiqued in this effective 192 page book. Theories of social justice are woven into a believable praxis through teacher stories (featuring Laura’s and others’ own classroom experiences) of social justice teaching practices toward building democratic classroom communities. As such, VanDerPloeg moves social justice work from a curricular subject position to the pedagogical action position necessary to enact equitable learning experiences in diverse classrooms. Toward this end, the eight chapters of Literacy for a Better World work together to forge a praxis for social justice teaching that tells a pragmatic story about the messiness of enacting a democratic pedagogical classroom stance.

Chapters One and Two describe a vision for socially just teaching, and, through classroom examples, establish the perspective taking needed to move student voices to the classroom center. Perspective taking in education depends on a knowledge of those lenses with which we view our teaching world, and in Chapter One, “Constructing a Vision of Socially Just Teaching,” Laura VanDerPloeg fills out her vision for social justice teaching through five critical lenses of: stance, relevance, access, identity, and agency, with the goal of utilizing these lenses to establish and maintain the equitable conditions to better understand what students know and can do in a democratic classroom. Of particular usefulness are the accompanying charts for each lens that outline: “What Teachers Say and Do” and “What Students Say and Do.” For example, in the Stance Lens section of Chapter One, teachers can, “model reflective thinking and practice,” and students can, “Treat one another as equals and as resources for learning” (p. 14). At the end of Chapter One, VanDerPloeg establishes that it is how to employ these lenses in the actual classroom that makes up the substance of Literacy for a Better World. After having established teachers’ and students’ agency as the essential lens of their own teaching and learning, Chapter Two, “Building Better Classroom Communities: Putting Student Voices at the Center,” links social justice teaching to the belief that, “Powerful classroom communities steep students in a culture of thinking and intellectual engagement while fostering the skills and dispositions students need to participate in civic discourse, inquiry, and collaboration” (p. 26). High school teacher Alissa Heimi Keikkila’s community-building practices are demonstrated and critiqued to ensure that “what students know and can do” is at the forefront of VanderPloeg’s vision in establishing a learning community.

To develop civic skills for social justice, Laura VanDerPloeg builds Chapters Three and Four to puzzle through several classroom examples to establish that, “socially just classrooms thrive on Students’ Voices” (p. 44), and, “Helping Students Develop Purpose for Their Learning”(p. 66) is essential to socially just pedagogy. In these chapters, VanDerPloeg demonstrates and critiques those teaching and learning strategies necessary to build upon what students know and can do as classroom contributors in a democratic classroom and “teaching for ownership and independence” (p. 66). From these actual classroom stories, she establishes strategies both to honor student voice and to hone student thinking through socially just pedagogical practices. In Chapter Three, VanDerPloeg establishes strategies for student talk, direct instruction and modeling in discussion skills, guided practice in clarifying questioning strategies, and guided practice in reading and thinking in order to prepare students for the challenges of taking responsibility for their own learning practices. Chapter Four, “Teaching for Ownership and Independence,” establishes a rationale for creating “Personal Inquiries” because, “without the power to construct a purpose or relevant personal goals for learning, students may not learn to develop agency in their own lives as learners” (p. 67). Through classroom story, this chapter focuses on Alissa’s actual demonstrations as a social justice teacher who dually teaches her students how to “read” for themselves as inquirers and to learn for themselves as readers and writers.

Chapters Five and Six work to wrestle socially just reading and writing activities away from traditional classroom reading and writing interactions that are evident even in teachers who want to build their classrooms into more democratic communities. Essential to this chapter is the goal to “utilize several lenses for analyzing classroom reading events in order to make sense of the relationship between students’ reading and the work of enacting a socially just pedagogy” (p. 87). To illustrate the difficulties of actually enacting a just pedagogical lesson, Laura VanDerPloeg uses an unsuccessful story of social justice pedagogy. This story happened in Melissa Baxter’s classroom where Laura did her dissertation research. In this lesson, Melissa strives to work on issues of race and segregation found in her students’ own high school. One literary piece Melissa uses in her language arts classroom is, A Raisin in the Sun. Contrary to Melissa’s expectations, her black students sided with the oppressed characters Melissa hoped they would read as victimized by a racist system. Secondly, Melissa’s white students stayed silent, while her black students positioned themselves against characterizations of agency. In response to this story, VanDerPloeg includes a charting of classroom activity entitled, “Shifting Classroom Reading Toward a Vision for Socially Just Learning” with a column that moves behaviors from: “Some students silenced or positioned negatively on the basis of identity,” to: “All students have a voice” (p. 108).  In order to insure student voice, Chapter Six establishes three approaches to reading instruction and reading activities: “The First Approach: Repositioning Reading and Shifting our Stance” (p. 110); “The Second Approach: (Re)situating the Identity of the Reader” (p. 124); and, “The Third Approach: Creating Contexts for Reading that Support Diverse Readers” (p. 127). These three approaches work to instruct students about language learning and how to make reading work to read and write their own lives.

Laura VanDerPloeg concludes her book with Chapters Seven and Eight by providing hope that social justice education is still possible. Chapter Seven lays out a unit on reading for social justice that teaches eight lenses students will be able to read through and three phases to the work of the unit: Phase I: “Introducing Lenses and Ways of Reading” (p. 134), Phase II: “Working with Concepts Independently (p. 139),” and Phase III: “Synthesizing and Making a Case” (p. 142). In Chapter Eight, Laura makes an argument about, “Leading for Socially Just Teaching and Learning” (p. 144) by providing the leadership necessary to transform whole schools by focusing on socially just learning communities. The skillful leader for social justice will abide by five principles that range from concentrating on “inquiry, collaboration, and a focus on student learning,” to focusing on the “needs of the most vulnerable students” (p. 149). This leader will be able to coach instructional practices that can greatly affect student access to learning by developing “communities of practice based on assessment, observation, planning, and learning grounded in classroom work” (p. 150), and, finally, to help “communities of practice to develop understanding of the sociocultural nature of literacy learning and implications for students’ reading and interactions in the classroom” (p. 151). This is the kind of leadership that will transform our educational systems toward sustaining a relationship between equitable teaching and learning for all of our students.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 09, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16932, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 5:26:21 PM

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