Identity Work in the Classroom: Successful Learning in Urban Schools
reviewed by Katherine Crawford-Garrett - March 11, 2016
Title: Identity Work in the Classroom: Successful Learning in Urban Schools
Author(s): Cheryl Jones-Walker
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0807756911, Pages: 107, Year: 2015
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Cheryl Jones-Walkers new book, Identity Work in the Classroom, presents compelling evidence that neoliberal school reform undermines efforts to achieve equity for the nations most marginalized students. She persuasively argues that identity-work can transform education at both the micro and macro level.
Jones-Walker asserts that her goal is to expose critical work that makes meaning of individuals daily lives and that can inform our work toward larger educational reform (p. 7-8). She problematizes the ways in which current approaches to school reform favor technical rationality and efficiency, entailing that identity-work is, at best, peripheral to student learning. Noting that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has done little to improve student achievement and fails to recognize the social dimensions that impact academic success like other reforms, Jones-Walker argues that the very changes designed to increase access and opportunity contribute overwhelmingly to student failure.
In theorizing identity, Jones-Walker merges the notion of dialogic identity construction, which attends to the contextualized, localized, and interactional facets of identity, with critical social theories, which assert that there is a sense of self that persists across contexts and situations. In uniting these somewhat contradictory perspectives, the author notes,
Too often, models of identity consider that we must focus on large-scale structures or person-to-person exchanges rather than taking into account how micro-level interactions are informed by larger socio-historical models and act together to inform individuals and the spaces they inhabit. (p. 5)
Given this framework for identity which foregrounds localized instances of identity making being shaped by broader sociopolitical forces, Jones-Walkers book operates on two distinct levels. On one hand, she chronicles how two urban schoolteachers leverage identity-work in their classrooms to enhance student engagement and achievement. On the other, she considers how these teachers beliefs and practices are shaped by their backgrounds and the U.S. educational context writ large. Moreover, Jones-Walker analyzes what is at stake on the national stage when issues of identity are systematically ignored in favor of more mechanistic approaches to schooling. This format aptly reminds readers to consider how daily classroom practice is intimately shaped by the broader policy discourses surrounding it.
Jones-Walkers account focuses primarily on two urban teachers: Andrea is a fifth grade, African-American, humanities teacher who comes from a working-poor urban background and Ellen is a White, middle school math teacher who was raised in a middle-class family in the rural south. These rich portraits are based on data from a critical ethnography that Jones-Walker conducted of two classrooms in neighboring K8 schools. The author engaged in 200 hours of participant observation in teachers classrooms, conducted life history interviews with 6 teachers, and facilitated five teacher study group sessions. From this, Jones-Walker details how these teachers engage in identity-work in their classrooms through curriculum, classroom structures, and personal relationships. Despite distinct differences in their backgrounds, classroom contexts, and beliefs about teaching, both educators were deeply driven by social justice goals, specifically seeking to grant their students access to increased opportunities.
Teacher autonomy brings a critical theme to the surface in this text as both Ellen and Andrea are granted high levels of autonomy as a result of their students progress on classroom and state assessments. Each teacher leverages this autonomy to make her class meaningful and relevant for students. While Ellen focuses on rigorous preparation for mathematics assessments using innovative classroom structures and pedagogical practices that position students as experts, Andrea creates curricular projects that present students with important points of cultural and historical connection. Like Ladson-Billings (1994), Jones-Walker aptly demonstrates that approaches for attending to student identity can look different depending on the teacher involved. These distinct approaches provide students with unique opportunities to make sense of themselves within and against school and classroom contexts. Moreover, recognizing the value of increasing teacher autonomy on a macro-level, Jones-Walker shares an account of school reform efforts in Boston in 1995 that illustrate how increased teacher and leader autonomy, paired with expanded notions of accountability, was used in productive rather than punitive ways to improve student learning.
One of the most compelling insights offered in Identity Work in the Classroom concerns how discussions of race were taken up, or not, within each classroom. For example, Jones-Walker documents that when Ellens class discussed issues of race, the conversations often felt tangential, partially due to Ellens focus on the mandated curriculum and preparations for assessment and testing. In Andreas classroom, race was discussed more directly but often privileged the personal aspects of racial identity, with little attention paid to the systemic and structural dimensions of race. Jones-Walker insightfully connects these observations to the broader discourses on achievement that fundamentally inform national perspectives on schooling. Pressures placed on mandates and curriculum particularly compromise the race-focused discussions that happen in classrooms. In light of these tensions, she offers important implications for the field of teacher education. Specifically, Jones-Walker suggests programmatic changes that would address teachers discomfort facilitating discussions about race in their classrooms and illustrate the importance of creating spaces where students can engage issues of social inequity in rigorous and meaningful ways.
Jones-Walker concludes Identity Work in the Classroom by reminding readers that a tremendous amount is at stake as neoliberal ideology dominates U.S. school reform efforts and students and families are increasingly positioned as consumers rather than citizens. To counter these dominant perspectives, she argues for a complete reframing of accountability in schools and advocates for more holistic educational approaches that incorporate attention to health, housing, jobs, and other services to local communities. Lastly, Jones-Walker asserts the importance of investing in meaningful teacher learning and reflective practices. Teacher inquiry, when implemented in ways that allow teachers to pose and investigate pressing questions about their practice, can serve to shift instructional beliefs and provide a platform for trying out new approaches. Both of these goals align closely with desires to improve schools and create institutional contexts where teachers want to invest for the long term.
I hope this important book is read widely as it offers substantial lessons for the field of teacher education, educational leadership, policy, school reform, and classroom teaching. While countless scholars and practitioners have recounted concerns about neoliberal ideology or asserted the foundational role of identity in student learning, Jones-Walker unites these ideas in fresh, unexpected, and potentially transformative ways.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African-American children. New York, NY: Jossey-Bass.