Beyond the Classroom Walls: Teaching in Challenging Social Contexts
reviewed by Adam Julian Alvarez & Daniel Tulino - June 19, 2019
Title: Beyond the Classroom Walls: Teaching in Challenging Social Contexts
Author(s): Jerome Cranston
Publisher: Lexington Books, Lanham, MD
ISBN: 1498565050, Pages: 130, Year: 2018
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In Beyond the Classroom Walls, Cranston illustrates how social context issues related to poverty, child labor, violence, migration and displacement from war can influence not only how and where children can learn but also who, depending on resources, can teach them. By using narrative ethnography to explore the material realities that shape teaching and learning across three sites located in South Asia and Central Africa, the author concludes that globalizing and professionalizing the work of teachers can increase intercultural awareness and collective power to build on the hope and empathy emanating from within the classroom walls.
After framing the need for intercultural awareness among teachers from a global perspective, Cranstons second chapter outlines the research methodology. This chapter provides an overview of the research sites of interest, the research questions, and the process of collecting and analyzing the narratives. Before advancing to the actual cases, the author attempts to address potential critiques of narrative ethnography. However, some readers may feel that critiques were not adequately addressed in this chapter. For instance, while there are certainly broad connections between educational quality and social context, readers may argue that comparing one-room schools with bare floors where some kids stand to U.S. schools is inappropriate. More critical readers may also view Cranstons depiction of schools as essentializing and deficit-based. Despite these potential critiques, Cranstons next three chapters lay out the particular nature and historical context of each research site.
Chapter Three highlights Kolkata, India, focusing in particular on schools that serve migrating families who work in the brickfields, one of the dirtiest, most difficult, and most dangerous occupations. Through an historical discussion of human rights violations, Cranston captures the ways in which serial migration can negatively influence childrens emotional and cognitive development. Notwithstanding child labor laws, young children, out of necessity, often contribute to their families work in the brickfields, which in turn poses safety risks and loss of learning time. For this reason, Cranston argues, education for many of these children is nothing more than an illusion (p. 25). Because government initiatives to educate all children are typically unsuccessful due to teacher shortages, children in brickfield schools tend not to have their academic needs met. One underfunded program, the Barefoot Teachers Training Program, sought to meet the needs of children in Brickfield schools. Unfortunately, as Cranston writes, these teachers had very little time to learn theory and were often trained to lead simple lessons. Even though circumstances at brickfield schools are portrayed as bleak, they nevertheless present hope that education can reach all children.
Cranstons fourth chapter takes place in Rwanda. This chapter centers on the narratives of 10 teachers who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide and chose to enter the teaching profession. The teachers motivation to teach was grounded in their sense of responsibility to share their genocide stories with students and their interest in rebuilding their nation. They also shared their fears related to the way in which education had been used to promote conflict and ethnic division in Rwanda. While the teachers spoke of contributing to a new national identity, they also touched on the importance of rewriting social norms and values. The chapter insightfully describes the tension surrounding the establishment of a new post-genocide narrative as an attempt to transcend a historical tragedy. The chapter closes appropriately with questions about these and other unspoken tensions among the teachers.
Chapter Five highlights the third and final case: the Bhutanese refugee crisis in which roughly 120,000 people were forced to resettle. With resettlement, an education program was necessary, but there were major challenges. Cranston notes that attending school helps refugee children and their families to restore a sense of normalcy in their lives (p. 66). Whats more, recruiting teachers who are committed to serving students in refugee camps is difficult because of the myriad challenges that students face socially, psychologically, and economically. Cranston describes the Bhutanese Refugee Education Program, which focuses on success through vocational learning. However, these successes for children are often dependent on funding that is tied to achievement outcomes. Unfortunately, achievement is often assessed without taking into account the burden and stress associated with being homeless and transient. A powerful recommendation is made in this chapter that funding mechanisms for refugee educational support should be tied to the particular needs and challenges of the social context.
The final chapter reiterates the ways in which systemic barriers uphold educational and social inequality. As a result, power and privilege shape the lives and experiences of marginalized people. Cranstons charge is to see hope not as a rationale for dismissing the harsh conditions in which some children live and learn, but rather as a lever for building a stronger collective movement to improve educational experiences for young people. Cranston closes with a powerful statement: Recognizing the potential for marginalization and oppression in xenophobic forms of teaching is key to ensuring that our apathy does not allow hatred to come in through the back door of our classroom practice (p. 94).
While readers can make their own assertions about this text, our takeaway is that when discussing inequality, it is essential to understand that schools and social contexts matter, of course, but also that teachers can play a vital role in supporting students. This support can be provided in the classroom and in the outside world, where teachers can help to build social and political movements to reshape how educational opportunities are distributed.