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Teaching for a Living Democracy: Project-Based Learning in the English and History Classroom

reviewed by Antonio J. Castro - November 16, 2020

coverTitle: Teaching for a Living Democracy: Project-Based Learning in the English and History Classroom
Author(s): Joshua Block
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807764167, Pages: 144, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

Many Americans view the public schools as providing a foundation for preserving our democratic way of life by fostering the next generation of citizens with the skills and knowledge necessary to affect change in their communities and advocate for a sense of the common good. However, civic education is losing its foothold in public schools, either falling completely out of the curriculum or becoming increasingly irrelevant, especially for students coming from marginalized backgrounds. Something needs to change with how teachers envision citizenship education and how students are positioned as recipients of knowledge rather than as civic actors. As society becomes increasingly polarized, as trends on social media overshadow reasoned deliberation, and as a sense of a “common” good grows more and more elusive, we are facing a crisis of citizenship.

Teaching for a Living Democracy: Project-Based Learning in the English and History Classroom offers both a method for civic engagement and a message of faith in the power of young people to serve as agents for change within their own communities right now. He writes, “This book is based on the premise that teaching for living democracy is a complete, constantly evolving practice that should be understood as a process of individual and collective engagement and transformation for both the students and teachers” (p. 4). This approach to teaching civic education requires a shift in the ways that students are positioned (toward student as collaborator) and disregards models of civic education that emphasize learning functions of government or herald lofty platitudes about voting as the central civic act. Instead, Block advocates for an approach that engages students in “messy, unpredictable processes of co-creating work that is intellectually stimulating and has meaning beyond the walls of school” (p. 9). This book unpacks a process for project-based learning that is relevant, transformative, and engaging for the English and history classrooms.

Teaching for a Living Democracy consists of six chapters, an epilogue for teachers, and an appendix with classroom resources and sample project guidelines for some of the projects featured in the text. In the initial chapter, “Reframing School Learning,” Block presents a model for a “living democracy,” one that is “dynamic” (p. 4) and one that young people already participate in. He argues for “utilizing classroom practices and curriculum that result in students developing a stance of self-awareness, critical thought, participation, and social agency” (p. 4). Drawing on the work of John Dewey, Maxine Greene, bell hooks, and Paulo Freire, Block calls for pedagogies that interrupt the dominance of traditional teaching. He shares insights from his 20 years of experience as a project-based educator, most notably at a Philadelphia charter school where he created many of the projects featured in this text.

In Chapter Two, “Designing Curriculum for Deeper Learning,” and Chapter Three, “Elevating Student Voices and Truths,” Block describes his process for planning and implementing project-based learning and how students respond and even co-construct these projects. He admits to never starting with national or state standards, “instead choosing to first focus on the intellectual and creative potential within curriculum designs, attempting to center meaningful goals for the learning experiences of students” (p. 12). Following a backwards design process, he plans the unit to address essential questions related to the larger idea of how students might change the world for the better. He then researches resources, such as texts, community agencies, local informants, and community collaborators. Three projects are featured in Chapter Two: the immigration oral history project, advanced essay process, and the modern-day De Tocquevilles project. In all of these projects, students explore critical questions about citizenship, one’s self, and social issues in the community. Students are expected to collaborate to create dynamic products (e.g., a digital story, a personal narrative, a video), which are meant to be in service of an authentic, community audience and are often shared on blogs, community forums, and websites. In addition, students draw on their own experiences and voice their histories in the projects. For example, in a project on the use of language as part of identity, “students, many of whom had histories of struggling academically, had found ways to integrate personal experience along with quotes from outside sources to develop complex, important ideas about identity and belonging” (p. 37). Block argues, “to ignore young people’s lives and current social realities is to fail students and miss the potential for education to inform, challenge, and inspire change” (p. 40). For this reason, he encourages teachers to use students’ own life situations and experiences as a starting place for any inquiry. This requires the classroom to be a community that fosters collaboration and a norm of compassion and flexibility. Thus, project-based learning is about connections within the classroom among students and teachers and with communities outside the classroom.

In the later part of the book, Block argues for new ways for framing the role of teachers, schooling, and teaching for democracy. In Chapter Four, “Envisioning New Roles for Teachers,” he challenges teachers to relinquish authoritarian notions of power, arguing that “by intentionally limiting power and influence, teachers create participatory learning environments where student ideas are centered” (pp. 66–67). Three roles are offered in this chapter: teacher as facilitator, teacher as lead collaborator, and teacher as consultant/scholar. All of these roles compel teachers to develop more nuanced and meaningful relationships with students. In a similar vein, Chapter Five, “Decolonizing School,” demonstrates how school has traditionally been about conformity and assimilation. Block reflects on his visit to New Zealand and how he became inspired to implement a project that honors cultural diversity and allows for the reclaiming of marginalized identity. This decolonization project, Our Philadelphia, Our America Project, had students explore issues of identity based on the writing of personal fieldnotes and the creation of multimedia (video, audio, photos, art) that represented their own unique visions of the current state of their community. Students were encouraged to affirm their own social and cultural identities in this process. Finally, in Chapter Six, “The Multiple Realities of Teaching for a Living Democracy,” Block considers key aspects of project-based learning, such as the use of art, the messiness of creation, addressing intolerance, and engaging with world issues.

At the close of Teaching for a Living Democracy, Joshua Block confirms that this approach to teaching “is rooted in ideas of equity. It is project-based learning with a lens of social justice” (p. 108). In a book that is part how-to and part personal memoir, Block shares anecdotes, reflections, and insights. This text is not a technical manual or a step-by-step guide on project-based learning. Instead, this text is illustrative, giving beginning educators a sense of “what-does-it-look-like-and-feel-like” and affording experienced project-based teachers affirmation and confirmation of the value of this work. Its conversational tone makes this book accessible and easy to read in one sitting.

As a former history and English high school teacher and now professor of education at a research university, I found discussions about Block’s curriculum design process, ways of interacting with students within a supportive classroom environment, and sample handouts and activity guidelines to be valuable for beginning and experienced teachers. I would assign this text as a supplement to the readings in my education methods courses, especially because it provides personal and real-world examples of key ideas of democratic, social justice, and student-centered instruction.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 16, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23516, Date Accessed: 11/30/2020 9:18:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Antonio Castro
    University of Missouri
    E-mail Author
    ANTONIO J. CASTRO, Ph.D., is associate professor of social studies education at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on the preparation of educators to teach for democratic citizenship in today's racially diverse schools. He has published several articles and book chapters on citizenship, diversity and social justice, and on the preparation of teachers for diverse contexts, including the 2017 chapter on democratic citizenship education in the recent Handbook of Research in Social Studies Education, as well as co-edited a recent book, Teaching for Citizenship in Urban Schools.
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