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A Critical Inquiry Framework for K-12 Teachers: Lessons and Resources from the U.N. Rights of the Child

reviewed by Craig West - June 28, 2013

coverTitle: A Critical Inquiry Framework for K-12 Teachers: Lessons and Resources from the U.N. Rights of the Child
Author(s): JoBeth Allen & Lois Alexander
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807753947, Pages: 208, Year: 2012
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The contributors to this book –members of the Red Clay Project Outreach study group – offer a model and guide for how practicing teachers can put critical inquiry into practice in their classrooms.  This thoughtful, practical book is largely made up of a collection of individual reflections on the critical inquiry, critical pedagogy, and critical literacy that was put into action in the contributors’ own classrooms.  While these reflections are personal in nature, they are all aimed at providing other classroom teachers with a guide for enacting critical inquiry in K-12 schools, and include practical information that can directly shape classroom teaching as well as more theoretical discussion that can encourage thoughtful educators to reflect on the nature of their role in the classroom.  Influenced primarily by the work of Paulo Freire, A Critical Inquiry Framework for K-12 Teachers: Lessons and Resources from the U.N. Rights of the Child adeptly achieves the stated goal of providing educators with “concrete subject matter in a cohesive structure that can serve as a basis for critical inquiry across disciplinary areas" (p. 2).  

Editor JoBeth Allen begins the book with a very clear articulation of purpose.  She both defines critical inquiry, as her group understands it, and offers a justification for the use of it as both a theoretical and pedagogical tool, citing the work of Paulo Freire and his notion of critical literacy as instrumental to their teaching.  Making a case for critical inquiry in the classroom, though, is just a small part of what the authors of this book are trying to accomplish.  The larger goal is to offer a concrete framework, which they do by focusing their work around the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (which is modeled on the UN Declaration of Human Rights).  While this at first seems to be a somewhat specific and impractical choice, Allen provides a very sound rationale for the use of this as a focal point and content source.  In keeping with Freire’s spirit and the spirit of critical inquiry, the members of the group wanted to focus explicitly on “issues of power and social justice and a framework that could guide us across content areas, grade levels, and state standards” (p. 3).  The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child meets these criteria, and provides a universally applicable document through which to discuss issues of power as they apply to children.  

In her introduction to the book, Allen describes the use of “critical invitations,” which begin each of the following chapters.  These invitations are aimed at teachers, inviting them to “explore, connect with, critique, and challenge” the authors as readers make their way through each chapter.  To be specific, the invitations and accompanying “initiating experience” serve as excellent introductions to each chapter, giving context to the work that is about to be described and offering the reader suggested focal questions, which, in keeping with the spirit of critical inquiry, go beyond highlighting the main points of the chapter and truly encourage the reader to think deeply about how his or her own teaching can grow through reading.  

Chapters Two and Three deal with 1st through 3rd grades, and offer concrete activities that can be used to discuss issues of poverty, health, and disability through critical inquiry.  Each chapter includes teachers’ narratives of their own use of critical inquiry in their classrooms, complete with lists of texts, tools, and resources as well as the actual assignments (or “invitations”) given to students, which can be appropriated and photocopied as desired by classroom teachers.  While each chapter deals with very different issues, they share a commitment to developing critical literacy in very young children, encouraging them to engage in a problematizing and questioning process as they read familiar children’s literature, like Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley.  The authors model how to let children and their developmental stages guide learning; for example, “Third-graders are adamant about fairness, and they are acutely aware that their voices are not always taken seriously.  What better way to allow my students to become agents of change than to study human rights?” (p. 37). In addition to explicitly addressing the use of specific articles from the U.N. Rights of the Child in relation to these texts, the authors of these chapters discuss practical issues such as planning processes, anticipated problems or issues that might arise, and even considerations of how to explain things to parents.  It quickly becomes apparent that the U.N. Rights of the Child are a perfect content framework, as they can be used as a lens through which to examine any text, allowing teachers to use the framework with their own preferred titles as well as the titles suggested in this book. These chapters are excellent mixtures of academic thought and practical application of theory, and provide classroom teachers a model to follow closely or to simply use as inspiration.

Not all chapters deal with classroom assignments and critical reading of familiar texts.  Stephen Lush and Lindsey Lush contribute a chapter that deals with taking action at school and community-wide levels, detailing the development of a group called Latinos for Involvement in Family Education (LIFE) and considering the importance of multicultural education and activism in schools that are predominantly homogenous in terms of racial makeup.  This chapter deals with giving parents a voice in schools, and draws heavily on the concepts of “funds of knowledge.”  Family issues are considered in other chapters as well, with middle school students being given the opportunity to write their own cultural notebooks while simultaneously engaging in a critical reading of state learning standards.  In keeping with the spirit of Freire, which guides most of the contributors, each chapter goes beyond meeting educational goals and helps students find ways to take action to deal with the problems they see in their world.

Chapters in this book cover all grades, K-12, and contain everything from scoring rubrics used to evaluate students and their ability to meet standards to models for how to encourage students to question the validity of the same standards.  High school students are invited to engage in critical reading of traditional and non-traditional texts, while others engage in service learning opportunities, all focused around the unifying lynchpin of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Most noteworthy is the inclusion, in the final chapter, of an annotated bibliography of texts “organized by the Rights of the Child” that were used by the authors and that “are most likely to be addressed in K-12 classrooms” (p. 15).  This annotated bibliography both articulates the articles of the Rights of the Child while also providing teachers with a concrete reading list of sorts; a starting point and list of resources.  

This is a book for the thoughtful teacher, the scholar/practitioner, and the eager-but-floundering critical pedagogue.  It is may be best suited for professional learning groups, study groups, or graduate classes of experienced, dedicated, practicing teachers, as its contents are aimed at guiding teachers in their classroom work, but may take some discussion and group effort to appropriate and put into action.  This book is not without its weaknesses.  Contributors occasionally seem to equate the teaching of non-dominant cultural narratives with critical literacy.  Furthermore, it can, at times, be difficult to harvest more universally applicable material from the somewhat specific cases detailed in the individual chapters.  Nevertheless, the strengths of this book are its cohesiveness, its fidelity to its stated goal, and the fact that it is beneficial for inspiring both academic discussion and practical application.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 28, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17166, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 4:13:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Craig West
    University of Cincinnati
    E-mail Author
    CRAIG K. WEST is a doctoral student of literacy in the Educational Studies program at the University of Cincinnati. He taught high school English in New Hampshire and Maine and currently teachers content area literacy classes for pre-service teachers. His areas of interest include critical media literacy, critical pedagogy, and young adult literature. He is currently studying co-teaching in teacher education programs and conducting a critical discourse analysis of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy.
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