Preparing to Teach Social Studies for Social Justice: Becoming a Renegade
reviewed by Christina M. Tschida & Sarah Shear - September 06, 2016
Title: Preparing to Teach Social Studies for Social Justice: Becoming a Renegade
Author(s): Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath, Alison G. Dover, and Nick Henning
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: B01E7N4HAY, Pages: 160, Year: 2016
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According to Merriam-Websters online dictionary, a renegade is a person who leaves one group and joins another that opposes it and/or someone or something that causes trouble and cannot be controlled. It is this word renegade that first drew our attention to Ruchi Agarwal-Rangnath, Alison G. Dover, and Nick Hennings Preparing to Teach Social Studies for Social Justice: Becoming a Renegade. As teacher educators who advocate for critical, controversial, issues-driven, and anti-oppressive social studies education, we were eager to learn from fellow teachers about the strategies they use to battle neoliberalism. Instead we were left pondering some important questions. Does centering literacy, critical or otherwise, abandon dedication to valuing social studies educations contents, contexts, and skills for history, geography, economics, civics, and other social science topics in K16 classrooms? Also, if be(com)ing a renegade is what is desired, whose vision of social justice guides our troublemaking? As Patel (2016) notes, "In such ubiquity and with such wide assumptions that obscure the specifics of social locations and areas of contradiction, social justice has worked to reseat settler logics, situating people as subjects of the state, itself above land. In short, it has become a brand that acts as proxy for institutionalized progressivism" (p. 89). The embeddedness of institutionalized racism and settler colonialism in every facet of the United States gives us pause and forces us to reflect on other important questions. For whom is social justice working for (and against)? What tools are needed? Finally, in what ways do renegades develop the skills necessary to dismantle a system in which they were raised?
Preparing to Teach Social Studies for Social Justice is divided into three parts. Part One examines the conceptual roots of teaching for social justice and what that means in light of today's high stakes accountability driven era. The 20 educators involved in this project are introduced through an examination of three different responses to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). In Part Two, the authors examine the curricular and pedagogical choices these teachers make. Part Three examines the educators journeys in learning to teach for social justice and explores the ways they had to reimagine themselves in response to the tension and challenges of teaching in a system that prioritizes accountability over justice (p. 81).
The first chapter provides a brief discussion of the many ways prominent education scholars have theorized social justice including democratic education, critical pedagogy, culturally responsive education, ethnic studies, multicultural education, and social justice education (p. 6). The authors conclude social justice-oriented social studies teachers work intentionally to challenge the normative thought by integrating multiple perspectives into the curriculum, especially the voices of those dominated, marginalized, or traditionally excluded in texts (p. 7). As an introductory chapter, the authors provide an overview of standardization and accountability in social studies education and introduce three teacher identities framing the book: (a) teachers who embrace the Common Core, (b) teachers who reframe social studies to meet Core requirements, and (c) teachers who resist the Core in order to protect justice-oriented curriculum and pedagogy (pp. 10-11). Unfortunately, the authors do not define or envision what first drew us to the book, the identity of renegade, which lead us to question how and in what ways the teachers who either embrace, reframe, or resist Core-ing social studies education are or are not renegades? It is not until Chapter Six that the authors begin to provide a clearer vision of who is and how to become a renegade social studies teacher.
The authors unpack each of the three stances toward the Common Core in Chapter Two, namely embracing, reframing, and resisting. While illustrations from the participating teachers experiences support the authors thinking on all three stances, a consistent focus across the book is on those who embrace the standards. Regardless of personal stance on Common Core, the teachers in this project emphasize the importance of teachers ability, and right, to think and act for themselves (p. 31) as they decide how to apply the standards in their classrooms.
Turning their attention to instruction in Chapter Three, Agarwal-Rangnath, Dover, and Henning link teaching for social justice with teaching critical literacy, which the authors see as a major goal of the CCSS. Critical literacy is defined in multiple ways and moves students beyond a narrow and technical understanding of what it means to read, write, and speak to incorporate multiple perspectives. It also includes how to think deeply about the messages and assumptions embedded within texts (p. 37) and develop questioning habits of mind (p. 36). The authors connection of critical literacy skills and social studies content may perpetuate the insistence that social studies be taught through literacy and further marginalize social studies as a content area leading us back to the questions posed at the start of this review. Although the term social studies is used throughout the book, the authors focus on secondary examples found within the classroom. Discussion of critical literacy in this chapter limits it to historical thinking and leaves out the concepts and skills necessary for economics, geography, and civics entirely.
The authors continue their focus on teaching in Chapter Four by exploring how teachers determine what content to teach while examining justice-oriented pedagogies in Chapter Five. Agarwal-Rangnath, Dover, and Henning stress the importance of justice-oriented content being both analytical and intellectual (p. 55) and connect students to their local communities. The process for selecting content and specific resources is provided for three of the participating teachers. Chapter Four concludes with a discussion of how these teachers use essential questions to help them determine content. While some of the essential questions are written well, others such as How do we stop the cycle of revolution? and Why did the first peoples come to the Americas? raise concerns of protecting the status quo and dismissing Indigenous ways of knowing. As they transition into the pedagogical practices in Chapter Five, the authors share three key features of justice-oriented pedagogy: (a) create a space of care and respect for students, (b) create multiple spaces for dialogue, and (c) create opportunities for students to work for social change.
It is not until the final three chapters (Six to Eight) that we see the conversation we had hoped for based on the idea of renegade social studies teaching. As previously noted, Chapter Six opens a necessary conversation about teachers engaging in self-interrogation of their ideological stances to justice-oriented work. However, we argue self-assessment must dig deeper to challenge teachers (and preservice teachers and teacher educators) to unpack privileges (or not) of their intersecting racial, gender, sexual, religious, and/or socioeconomic identities. For example, we argue that a white cisgender male social studies teacher must not only contemplate his stance to justice-oriented teaching, but further acknowledge and challenge historical and current systems that privilege his identity as a white man and how his identity impacts relations to social studies content.
Chapter Seven extends the dialogue to encourage teachers to build communities and find mentors engaged in justice-oriented work. The authors pay close attention to the fears and struggles newer teachers often feel and face when attempting this work. In the final chapter, the authors begin by stating, "[t]eaching is an inherently political act. Every decision we make in the classroomfrom the topics we prioritize to the texts we highlight to the pedagogy we employis in response to a politicized system that reflects a complex constellation of factors" (p. 111). Chapter Eight tackles a complex conversation towards teaching justice-oriented social studies in neoliberal times and provides examples of how to build and sustain a passion for transformative education. We wish these three chapters had opened the book rather than closed it as they provide the most useful and contemplative conversation about renegade-style social studies teaching.
Agarwal-Rangnath, Dover, and Henning recognize the complexity of teaching for social justice, the need for teachers to embrace their agency, and the importance of working in solidarity . . . to increase impact and sustain spirits (p. 122). While the renegade of their title may be more controlled than we would like to see, the authors provide a vision for teaching with a focus on social justice within an accountability driven system and examples of teachers around the country working toward this goal in their classroom. We agree with the sentiment intense pressures toward accountability undermine both the teaching profession as a whole and individual teachers ability to use their (curricular and pedagogical) expertise to make instructional decisions (p. 111). However, to be a renegade in this environment requires teachers to resist bending to the ever changing whims of state and national standards and fully commit to justice-oriented social studies at every grade level to openly identify and disrupt Western, white, and heteronormative supremacy in not only history but also in economics, civics, geography, and other social sciences to provide students as many tools as possible to build a better world. As one teacher in the book reminds us, teachers have more power than we realize (p. 120). As Preparing to Teach Social Studies for Social Justice concludes the authors say, A teacher, Warrior. Thats what you are. Its in your bones and its in your heart. Persist, Warrior. Above all, persist (p. 123).
Patel, L. (2016). Decolonizing educational research: From ownership to accountability. New York, NY: Routledge.