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Chapter 8: Wobbling With Culturally Proactive Teaching: Facilitating Social Justice Through Youth Participatory Action Research With Middle School Students

by Heather Coffey & Meghan Barnes - 2021

Background: American students represent diverse life experiences, languages, cultures, and community memberships. Given the relatively unchanged demographics of U.S. teachers (primarily middle-class, white females), it is important that teachers engage in culturally proactive pedagogy and design curriculum that both reflects their students’ culture and engages them in developing skills to be participants in a larger society.

Purpose: This chapter explores how three veteran eighth-grade English language arts teachers in a large middle school in the southeastern United States navigated Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) as a culturally proactive and socially just pedagogy and encouraged students to examine power, privilege, and oppression in literature, in informational texts, and in their local communities to identify ways they might change inequities.

Research Design: Findings from this qualitative study suggest that even veteran teachers often struggle to implement social justice and culturally proactive pedagogies.

Findings: These teachers wobbled with their own uncertainty about the differences between a more traditional pedagogy, where they drive the learning, and a critical pedagogy that places the students in charge of the direction of their learning.

Conclusion/Recommendations: From the findings, recommendations are made to teachers who grapple with incorporating socially just and culturally proactive pedagogies into their teaching.

“Teaching is inherently political work.”—Sonia Nieto

Teacher educator and educational research Sonia Nieto (2006) defined the concept of social justice as

a fundamentally political project because it is about power: who has it, who makes the key decisions that can improve people’s lives—or not—and who benefits from these decisions. Secondly, social justice is a quintessentially democratic project because it promotes inclusiveness and fairness. It is about understanding education and equal access to it as civil rights. (Nieto, 2006, p. 5)

For the purposes of our work, we align with Dr. Nieto’s definition of social justice and use it to frame our description of a type of pedagogy and curriculum that is necessary in 2020. As we write this chapter, we have just cast ballots in the extremely controversial 2020 election and await the contested outcome. Additionally, COVID-19, a global health pandemic, still ravages our nation, exposing the most vulnerable populations to inequalities in healthcare and education. We argue that now, more than ever before in our country’s history, we must prepare our youth to ask tough questions related to power and privilege and provide them with the tools to dismantle these systems of oppression that serve to limit the potential for marginalized groups.

As former English language arts teachers and now teacher educators, we recognize the potential of examining power, privilege, and oppression in literature and informational texts as preparation for students to translate these skills into a critique of social issues within their own communities. We contend that this type of social justice teaching is necessary and can be done across grade levels and content areas in all types of school environments. The development of these critical skills supports an activist mindset, and educators who take up this justice-oriented teaching are in fact engaging in the political act of conscientization (Freire, 1973) or development of critical consciousness in relation to sociopolitical issues. Freire (1973) described conscientization as critical reflection and action that lead to individual and collective action to alter the socioeconomic and cultural oppression that produces and perpetuates social injustice.

Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), as defined by Cammarota and Fine (2008), is one pedagogy that has the potential to engage students in developing this type of critical consciousness through research and action. We situate YPAR under the umbrella of critical pedagogies that support students in recognizing and challenging school-based and societal inequities. YPAR is a type of curriculum that presents young students with opportunities to study social issues and develop solutions that might actually be implemented to rectify these concerns in their communities (Cammarota & Fine, 2008).

If engaging students in the development of critical consciousness to more deeply understand the role of power and privilege in society were an easy task, we argue that more teachers might attempt this pedagogy. However, after observing veteran teachers in a large middle school in the southeastern United States attempting to implement this type of pedagogy over a three-year period, we recognized that they struggled to navigate a variety of concerns. In this chapter, we present findings related to how three English language arts teachers implemented YPAR and how they grappled with the transition from a more traditional pedagogy to more of a critical pedagogy, with students taking the lead in developing their own learning paths.


In what follows, we present findings from the third year of an ongoing research study in which eighth grade English language arts (ELA) teachers engaged students in the Responsible Change Project (RCP), a yearlong teacher-developed curriculum that focuses on social justice inquiry, research, informal and formal research-based writing, creation of an action plan, and TED talk–style presentations.

An example of YPAR, the RCP is a yearlong unit taught to eighth graders at Cannon Middle School (all names are pseudonyms), which serves all students in Grades 6–8 in a large public school district in the southeastern United States. Cannon, a Title I school, has a population of around 1,200 students. According to school-reported data, 45% of students identify as white, 31% as Black, 19% as Hispanic, and 2% as Asian, and 3% students identified with two or more races. In regard to socioeconomic status, approximately 65% of students were eligible for free lunch, and 20% of students were eligible for reduced lunch. The teachers who consented to participate in this study worked with approximately 350 students who reflect the demographics of the school as a whole.

We highlight that the RCP is teacher-created not to suggest that students lack agency in this project, but to emphasize that this is not a context-independent project that has been handed to or mandated for the teachers in this study. The RCP was very much student-centered, with students choosing issues within their communities that were of interest to them. All three ELA teachers participated in the National Writing Project’s (NWP) intensive 45-hour professional development for the College, Career, and Community Writing Program (C3WP), which prepares educators to teach students how to engage in public, civic, and civil arguments. During the whole-group training, small-group planning, and individual coaching sessions with teacher trainers from the NWP, teachers built text sets and guided students through the process of using legitimate nonfiction sources in building arguments through writing. Teachers then demonstrated how to recognize an argument and engaged in conversation around a range of viewpoints. The goal of C3WP is to engage students in multiple cycles of this research and writing process in order to teach students not only to have conversations around potentially controversial topics, but also to develop arguments using evidence to support their claims. Ideally, these cycles of writing and conversation assist in the development of discourse skills and thus encourage students to feel more comfortable advocating for a topic of interest.

Answering the call to revise the ELA writing curriculum for eighth grade in the year before participating in C3WP, ELA teachers at Cannon recognized the potential for embedding C3WP into their curriculum. State standards for eighth-grade ELA required teaching argument writing and analysis of informational texts, both of which are the foundation of the C3WP. Thus, in the attempt to combine the new curriculum with C3WP, the eighth-grade teachers reported that they wanted to develop a framework for how the program should be implemented in future years. By the third year of the C3WP implementation, the teachers had developed a unit with multiple writing cycles that would span the academic year.

Meeting early in the summer to determine the text sets with which they would build the cycles of writing in the third year of the RCP, the teachers identified a theme of “advocacy,” which they would interweave throughout the project. Nic Stone’s (2017) novel Dear Martin was the hot young adult literature (YAL) text that year; the students were not only engaged by the text, but also able to draw from personal experiences because there had been police shootings of unarmed Black men in their state over the past few years. These shootings sparked outrage in the community, and students in previous iterations of the RCP had selected police brutality as their research topics. In the two years prior, students participating in the RCP had researched this topic and created social action projects that attempted to mitigate the relationship between the community and local law enforcement. In the first year, students planned a community picnic, inviting local police officers to come get to know students and their families. In the second year, students invited law enforcement to come talk to eighth graders about perceptions of police brutality and the training they received on racial profiling. The teachers knew these students would appreciate this timely, culturally appropriate text, which presents a storyline that is sadly familiar to them.

In addition to reading Dear Martin, teachers planned to use Dr. King’s (1963) “I Have a Dream” speech, which is referenced in the novel. The unit would revolve around advocacy and, more specifically, children who advocate for social justice issues. They also presented profiles of child advocates, including Malala Yousafzai and the Parkland High School shooting survivors, as part of a “gallery walk” around the classroom. As teachers pulled together text sets related to various other current issues, they referenced topics that students researched in previous years, such as animal cruelty, hunger, human trafficking, discrimination, and poverty. The teachers then designed culturally proactive activities (Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen, 2015) and lessons meant to support students in building connections between literature and the real world over the course of the school year.

Once students understood the potential of youth as activists, they selected topics within their own communities to research and develop action projects for making change. Students were encouraged to use community resources to help them gain a better understanding of the policies and procedures in place that might prevent certain outcomes. Then, they were challenged to write a research paper summarizing their findings and to create an action project for change. After developing these assignments, students delivered their recommended changes or ideas through TED talk–style presentations to their peers, middle school faculty, college professors and undergraduates, and even community members.

Though the RCP meets the goals of the traditional ELA curriculum, this curriculum also challenges the traditional canon by prompting students to consider multiple sides of potentially controversial issues and to promote solutions from the perspective of those who are marginalized. Through the RCP, students progressively engage in social justice inquiry, reading of YAL, informal and formal research-based writing, and creation of an action plan or presentation at the end of the school year. All elements of this progression centered on those topics and communities that were relevant and interesting to students.

We situated the RCP and this study within a critical pedagogical framework and looked to literature on culturally proactive pedagogy (Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen, 2015) and social justice teaching as we approached the data. Through these conceptual frames, we reviewed pre- and post-RCP teacher surveys and a semistructured group interview to inquire into the ways in which this particular group of ELA teachers reported navigating the implementation of a justice-oriented approach to teaching. Our research question inquired into how three white veteran teachers experienced implementing an equity-centered/culturally proactive YPAR project with middle-grades students who were mostly culturally, linguistically, and socioeconomically different from them.

We draw on our findings to consider implications for current and prospective justice-oriented teachers as well as those teachers interested in developing a yearlong critical service-learning project that centers the experiences, knowledge, and interests of students.


The widening chasm between the demographics of U.S. K–12 teachers and their students demands that teachers consider the ways in which their instructional and curricular choices address the interests and experiences of students. In other words, student experiences, knowledge, and identities should be centered in the classroom. We place pedagogical approaches, like YPAR, that simultaneously sustain difference and work to dismantle inequities under the umbrella of social justice pedagogies. The RCP presented in this chapter is one such example of a social justice pedagogy born of critical and culturally proactive pedagogical orientations. Because teacher preparation programs rarely attend to implementation of these critical pedagogies, we sought to better understand the ways in which classroom teachers develop a justice-oriented practice.


Teaching is inherently political (Freire, 1970; Kincheloe, 2004; Macedo, 2000). Classrooms and schools are contested spaces with shifting and unequal power relations that teachers and students must navigate (Apple, 1990; Picower, 2013). The critical pedagogue navigates the political nature of teaching by actively connecting “the concerns of students and their communities to the larger constructs of oppression in the form of racism, classism, gender subjugation, homophobia, ageism, and ableism” (Picower, 2013, pp. 172–173). In other words, a critical pedagogical approach requires teachers to center the curriculum with students’ diverse experiences, lives, and interests, which is often challenging given the sparse and inadequate models of this approach to teaching in teacher preparation.


Building on the foundational concepts of culturally relevant (Ladson-Billings, 1995) and culturally responsive teaching (Gay, 2010), Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen (2015) offered the concept of culturally proactive pedagogy as a form of critical pedagogy aimed at achieving equity. A culturally proactive approach places teachers in vulnerable positions alongside their students. In particular, teachers are considered students of their students—tasked with learning as much as possible about the lives, experiences, and identities of their students, families, and communities as they develop curriculum and instruction. Culturally proactive teachers are also students of themselves, engaging in ongoing and critical reflections of their own social positioning to better understand how that position may shape their teaching.

This work is not easy. However, as Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2009) reminded us, “Ambiguities, uncertainties, and unpredictability are the substance of teaching” (p. 74). Fecho (2011) first described this “substance of teaching” as “wobble”—moments of uncertainty when the teacher can respond by either evading or embracing the demand for redirection. Culturally proactive teachers must be prepared to wobble or recalculate the direction of their teaching. As they learn more about their students’ experiences, identities, and academic, social, and behavioral needs and assets and critically examine their own assumptions, experiences, and expectations, many teachers will experience uncertainty. When teachers struggle to move out of their comfort zones and embrace a direction that is not predictable, they often vacillate between two or more options about how to approach a situation. Educational researchers concerned with supporting teachers’ implementing equity-focused teaching (Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen, 2015; Stewart et al., 2020) argue for a more generative view of these moments of struggle as opportunities for development rather than defeat.

Fecho (2011) suggested that these kinds of moments in the classroom allow us to view “with a questioning eye” (p. 55) those events that appear common and look for ways to learn when the commonplace is disrupted. Accordingly, these moments of wobble might offer the space where teachers can learn from the tension and potential discomfort that results from disparate perspectives and observations (Stewart et al., 2020). Guggenheim (2019) offered an example of how engaging preservice teachers in developing confidence in wobbling might move them toward equity-centered practice while “disrupting deficit perspectives of children” (p. 299). When teachers can effectively engage in these practices, they are moving in the direction of social justice teaching.


There are diverse and complex conceptions of what it means to teach for social justice (Bender-Slack, 2010; Skerrett et al., 2018). In particular, Moje (2007) differentiated between socially just pedagogy and social justice pedagogy. Aimed at the work of the teacher, socially just pedagogy refers to those approaches wherein educators ensure that all students have equitable learning opportunities. Conversely, social justice pedagogy centers the actions of students as they are provided with “opportunities to question, challenge, and reconstruct knowledge” (Moje, 2007, p. 4). In this chapter, we work to bridge both conceptions by looking to Cochran-Smith and colleagues’ (2010) definitions of social justice pedagogy as those teaching strategies and approaches aimed at recognizing and challenging school-based and societal inequities.

Regardless of the specific term, approaches to social justice within educational contexts share some common assumptions. Broadly, a social justice framework for education asks that educators and students engage in three practices (drawn from the work of Bender-Slack, 2010; Boyd, 2017; and Oakes & Lipton, 2003). First, educators and students should understand that systems of domination, rooted in inequitable distributions of power, exist in society. However, it is not enough to merely acknowledge inequities. Educators and students must also ask questions as they assume a critical disposition toward systems of domination. These questions might inquire into why things exist as they are, why individuals behave in certain ways, who benefits from these structures and behaviors, and who is marginalized. Finally, educators and students must collectively act for change as they seek out opportunities to disrupt inequities.


Given the central tenets of social justice pedagogy, it is easy to see how YPAR can serve as a justice-oriented pedagogical approach. YPAR, as described in the RCP, engages students in identifying inequitable practices in society, taking a critical disposition toward those practices, and ultimately acting to change the selected inequity.

Building on the work of Freire (1970), Giroux (1983), and Oakes et al. (2006), YPAR normalizes critical research and challenges youth to engage in social justice work. The goal is to teach civic responsibility through encouraging youth to challenge injustice within their communities and beyond. According to Cammarota and Fine (2008), “YPAR is a formal resistance that leads to transformation—systematic and institutional change to promote social justice” (p. 2).

Mirra et al. (2016) extended Cammarota and Fine’s (2008) work by providing detailed examples of how youth engage in YPAR. The authors wrote,

YPAR refers to the practice of mentoring young people to become social scientists by engaging them in all aspects of the research cycle, from developing research questions and examining relevant literature to collecting and analyzing data and offering findings about social issues that they find meaningful and relevant. (p. 2)

YPAR is a means by which to offer students “opportunities to name, explore and analyze their experiences, and respect them as authors and experts on their own lives” (Mirra et al., 2016, p. 5). Teachers who offer students this opportunity provide legitimacy to the voices of youth and the empowerment to challenge systems of oppression and develop critical consciousness.

In this study, we considered the experiences of a group of teachers engaging in critical, culturally proactive, and social justice orientations as they implemented YPAR into their teaching. We sought to understand how moving into this realm of teaching as a political act for empowering students influenced the teachers’ perceptions of the project.


This research reports an ongoing study of the RCP and explores how ELA teachers interpret their own experience engaging eighth-grade students in a culturally proactive approach to teaching using YPAR as their frame. The teachers not only endeavored to build on their students’ literacy (reading informational texts and literature, researching, writing arguments, and public speaking) skills, but they also wanted these students to learn about social action and how they could advocate for their own causes. This study was designed to address our research question: How did three white veteran teachers report their experience implementing an equity-centered/culturally proactive pedagogy with middle-grades students who are mostly culturally, linguistically, and socioeconomically different from them? More specifically, we sought to answer these questions:

1. In what ways do English language arts teachers report developing curriculum to support a justice-oriented approach to teaching?

2. What struggles and victories do English language arts teachers experience when implementing social justice pedagogies?



All three eighth-grade ELA teachers at the school consented to participate in this study. Participating teachers represented a variety of teaching experience, but all could be considered veteran teachers in their content area. At the time of the study, Tim, who identifies as a white male, had been teaching at Cannon Middle School for 16 years. Tim held both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in middle-grades education and had been named the Outstanding English Teacher in 2011 by the professional educator organization in his state. Tim had participated in the NWP Invitational Summer Institute during the early years of his teaching career and currently serves as a teacher consultant for his area chapter. He has published journal articles and a book related to research in his own classroom. Catherine, who identifies as a white female, was in her fifth year of teaching and had been mentored by Tim throughout her tenure at Cannon Middle School. She had participated in the C3WP training two years before this academic year and served as a teacher leader in her school. Farrah, who also identifies as a white female in her 14th year of teaching, demonstrated a strong interest in culturally responsive teaching. She regularly volunteered to attend diversity training and at the time of this study was working with a doctoral student on implementing a unit that presented a counternarrative to the traditional Columbus Day history. All three of these teachers had taught at Cannon Middle School their entire careers and lived within the community.


This study employs a case study research design (Yin, 2008) because researchers sought to learn more about a variety of factors related to the implementation of this unit. Data sources included teacher pre- and postunit surveys, one audio-recorded focus group with three teachers, and planning documents from the entire 2018–2019 academic year. These multiple sources enabled the researchers to develop an understanding of how teachers planned to approach implementation of the RCP, the development of the project over time, and their analysis of their own teaching once the year ended. The pre- and postunit surveys that the teachers completed requested general information about their teaching experience and asked specific questions related to their efficacy in the area of teaching skills and knowledge in working with the RCP. More specifically, before and upon completion of the RCP, teachers were asked to rate themselves on items related to their comfort with teaching writing and engaging students in discourse.

The group interview helped us gain a deeper understanding of teachers’ experiences planning for and implementing the RCP, as well as their reflections following completion of the RCP and ideas for future implementation. We adapted Seidman’s (2013) semistructured interview protocol to use during the focus group discussion so that participants could determine the direction of talk. Thus, the researchers were flexible and revised questions throughout the focus group discussion, based on the participants’ responses. Although each participant was not specifically prompted to respond to each question, each participant responded to each question posed. Together, the pre- and postsurveys and focus group discussion were designed to provide insight into the ways that this group of ELA teachers developed curriculum to support justice-oriented teaching, thus addressing the research question guiding this study.


As we were exploring the ways in which veteran teachers experienced a culturally proactive pedagogy (YPAR) with a group of culturally diverse students, we sought a deeper understanding of how they navigated any tensions in this process. Initial analysis of the transcript and surveys consisted of open coding by both authors. Next, we shared our codes and discussed key takeaways through thematic analysis (Maxwell, 2005). Following discussion of individual analyses, we agreed on two areas in which the teachers reported having tension as they navigated the yearlong curriculum: (1) when to maintain and when to let go of control in the classroom and (2) how to mitigate student assumptions about schooling and power roles within the classroom.


The following sections highlight the ways that Tim, Catherine, and Farrah prepared for and experienced the RCP as they endeavored to teach a curriculum that supported social justice. The findings also illustrate a tension between how these teachers, using scaffolded instruction, determined how and when to shift from more teacher-centered instruction to more student-driven learning and how they mitigated personal assumptions about their roles and how to prepare students to navigate the different components of the RCP. Through analysis of pre- and postsurveys and the whole-group interview, teachers acknowledged that a bit of wobbling occurred in their process. Because the concept of the wobble had been introduced and discussed as part of their C3WP training, teachers were familiar with the potential of culturally proactive teaching and the accompanying uncertainty that often comes with it.


During the group interview, all three teachers commented that they struggled with how to prepare students to engage in the most recent iteration of the RCP. In the past, the project had only been done in the second semester of the school year, but this year, teachers revised plans to incorporate activities and lessons that began in early September and continued into late May. The impetus for this change was a need to provide more scaffolded instruction early so that the students would be better prepared to identify social injustices in their local communities and to develop an activist stance in relation to those injustices. This change in structure caused a bit of trepidation among all three teachers, who struggled to determine how and when to shift from the teacher-centered literary and information text analysis instruction to the more student-led format focused on research and action.

Monitoring Daily Activities

After the initial advocacy and literary unit on Dear Martin, students were asked to select an issue within their community that concerned them. As students worked in small groups or with partners, at times the class looked chaotic. In their interview responses, teachers revealed that they wanted students to have the space and time to really think through what was going on in their communities; however, this often meant that students would sit in small groups around the classroom looking through news stories on their Chromebooks. Sometimes, teachers reported, discussions among their students became heated. All three teachers wobbled with when to take control of the classroom and when to let the chaos of reviewing current events, researching, and problem-solving ensue. Although efficient in the more teacher-centered introductory activities, Tim typically did not look forward to the part of the project when students were working through their research to determine a direction for their activist projects. During the interview, Tim explained that this was the most “dreaded” part of the project: “It’s like ‘aw man there’s gonna be like 1,000 ideas going all over the place and it’s gonna be insane.’” Like the other two teachers, Tim appreciated when students were moving forward with a plan, and there was evidence of progress. With the second half of the RCP,

Everything moves forward differently, depending on what kids are doing. Like, maybe somebody’s waiting for a response to an email . . . everybody’s deciding what they have to do and then working at the pace that it dictates, and it’s not linear or neat.

Similarly, Catherine, who had the fewest years of teaching experience, admitted to feeling like a “chicken with my head cut off” during this part of the project. However, the challenge that her students provided for her when they asked her opinion on a topic was exhilarating. In fact, she actually was inspired by students when they asked her what she was doing about a topic about which she felt passionate. Catherine boasted, “The project teaches them how to ‘be the change’ without a specific lesson from teachers on how to do this.” Thus, it was at this point that she was able to rationalize giving up the control of the classroom.

In the beginning of the year, Farrah admitted that she was not at all excited about this project. The previous year, she taught seventh grade and recalled her former students complaining to her as they embarked on the RCP: “I was kind of, in the back of my mind, dreading this. Like when I was asked to come to eighth grade, this was like a big tick in the ‘no’ column.” For Farrah, the idea of the RCP sent her into an instantaneous panic. Though a veteran teacher, she did not like to give up control and struggled to find confidence in her ability to manage multiple groups engaging in different aspects of the project at different times. Frequently, during the interview, Farrah returned to this theme because she was concerned that students were not really getting the most out of the experience. When asked about the challenges, she explained that while some students thought they were finished quickly, others could not even begin the research process because they had not narrowed their topic. Although Farrah fought the desire to take over and direct students through the project, all students completed their projects and were able to present them to their peers within the deadline.

Order of Curriculum

Because this was the third iteration of the project, Tim and Catherine had tried several different ways to introduce the idea of activism and engage their students in seeing themselves as agents of change. This year, Farrah joined their team. Given Farrah’s experience and interest in teaching C3WP, and literature specifically, the three teachers decided to front-load the unit with literature that supported an activist mindset. During their initial planning session, they wobbled with whether to begin with informational texts or YAL, and decided that YAL would be more engaging. Furthermore, analysis of literary characters fighting for social justice would presumably prime students to think of social justice issues in their local communities and possibilities for activism.

Catherine went back and forth regarding whether to provide space for discussion about social justice topics so early in the year; however, she explained, “The more that we opened up and talked about these issues, the more you could see in their brains like they understood these issues.” She knew that with this particular demographic of students, mostly African American and Hispanic, it was very important to select books and materials that represented issues that were familiar to them.

Once the literary portion of the unit was complete and students had engaged in conversations about youth advocacy, all three teachers explained that they wobbled with the amount of time they should spend on RCP topic selection. They decided to yield time from the more traditional aspects of their curriculum—such as reading short stories from their literature book and answering predetermined discussion questions—to discussion and conferences that enabled students to research and develop an action plan around real-world events they were passionate about. Essentially, by giving the students time to meet with peers, they provided a space for students to develop an understanding of the recursive nature of research and writing.


Across the data, all three participants discussed instances in which they needed and planned to address students’ assumptions about their own funds of knowledge and their promise as activists. Students’ assumptions about their knowledge and abilities were not relegated to the beginning of the RCP, but surfaced throughout the project, necessitating ongoing support from all three teachers.

Assumptions About Knowledge

All three teachers noted that students entered their classes (and the RCP) with assumptions about the amount of knowledge they had on particular topics. As Catherine succinctly stated, “They [students] go into the project thinking that they already know everything that they can about this issue, they’ve got assumptions about the issue.” Often, throughout the RCP process, students would believe that they were done with a particular step (learning about their selected topic, for instance), and the teacher would need to guide students toward resources where they could learn more. For instance, when discussing how to prepare students to complete the RCP, Tim noted the importance of helping students consider multiple perspectives, stating,

We had to spend some time . . . getting students to think from different perspectives. So like, “yes you see it this way because you’re thinking from this perspective. Some kids might see it differently because of their perspective.” In this study, then, so much of the teachers’ role in the RCP was to complicate students’ understanding of the topics they were discussing.

All three participants felt that as students worked through the project, students began, in Catherine’s words, to “learn that there’s a lot they don’t know.” Thus, participation in the project challenged students’ assumptions about their knowledge by introducing them to new ideas and multiple perspectives. Farrah recounted the experience of the museum activity, wherein students developed profiles of activists they encountered through research. Once they completed the research part of the activity, students developed a profile that was hung around the classroom as a sort of art gallery. Students then participated in a gallery crawl, where they learned about activists and their causes. When learning from their peers, many students were introduced to topics they had not considered previously, and even new ideas for activism (which we review in greater detail next). For instance, Farrah felt that students

heard about some topics that they might have never thought about when we did the museum. Students walked around and heard other people talk about activists about a topic they never really considered, but when they heard that, they thought “oh maybe I [could do something].”

Opportunities (like the museum) challenged students to consider new topics and also new ways of acting on those topics. For Catherine, the project taught students “that with everything in life, to not just accept it, to learn more about it and then to be the change that you want.” In other words, the RCP provided a space for students to challenge their assumptions about the nature of knowledge. Rather than viewing knowledge as singular and fixed, through the RCP, students began to really wobble with the complex, changing, and deeply subjective nature of knowledge. Reflecting on their assumptions about the nature of knowledge also contributed to students’ wobble with their assumptions about activism.

Assumptions About Activism

The teachers also discussed students’ assumptions about their abilities to act on the various topics they were learning about. For Catherine, this meant supporting students in seeing themselves as potential activists; she stated,

The hardest part for me is overcoming their [students’] mental roadblocks when it comes to the plan of action. When they sit there and they’re like “I can’t do anything, I’m 13,” we have to be like “alright, well get over that.”

Although this statement during the group interview was followed by a collective and knowing chuckle from the other teachers, Catherine’s statement taps into a very real assumption held by many students: Because of their age, they cannot be activists. Challenging this narrative necessitated a number of supports from the teachers throughout the RCP, such as facilitating discussion about the steps students could take to be activists.

Following their efforts to support students in identifying diverse perspectives, the teachers worked to, in Tim’s words, “get them thinking really early on, like what could you do and what would that look like?” However, merely identifying potential actions was not enough. The teachers reported that the students also needed encouragement from the teachers to step outside their comfort zones—to make phone calls, to draft emails, and to approach individuals who might be influential. Tim recounted the amount of coaxing one group needed to just “go up and talk to the [school] resource officer.” Although the students required ongoing support from their teachers as they worked through the various elements of the RCP, Catherine aptly summarized the positive effect of these efforts by stating, “They learn to become a lot more educated about the issues before they jump to conclusions and they learn to not just accept it. They can do something.” The teachers’ support of students throughout the RCP challenged not only assumptions about the nature of knowledge, but also students’ perspectives of themselves as agents of change.


We explored how three middle school ELA teachers reported their experiences implementing a curriculum to facilitate the development of social justice awareness and an activist mindset with eighth-grade students. Overall findings indicate that teachers were challenged to enact critical pedagogy when the content of the curriculum shifted to more student-centered activities. However, by embracing “the wobble” and working through it as they provided space for student-led discussions, interactions, and tasks, teachers slowly made the move toward becoming more critical pedagogues. Those teachers with the most experience with the RCP were more comfortable with this wobble (loss of control) than the less experienced teacher; however, with strong mentorship, novice teachers (Farrah with the RCP curriculum and Catherine with fewer years of experience) eventually were able to relinquish control of the daily activity to the student-guided tasks.

Maybe the most important takeaway from this research is that teachers reported that it was difficult to get the students to take control of their own learning. We conclude from this finding that students are so accustomed to teacher-directed instruction by the time they reach eighth grade, it is really challenging to break them of that structure. The teachers reported that students often “freeze up” when they’re put into agentive, decision-making, self-directed learning experiences. In fact, students’ experiences with wobble really directed the wobble that the teachers experienced. The teachers did not expect students to necessarily struggle so much when given the freedom and space to create their own projects, nor did they realize that these students would not already be familiar with writing an email or calling an adult to obtain more information. So, even though we were specifically interested in the teachers’ wobble, it’s impossible to tease the teachers’ wobble apart from that of the students in this study.

To facilitate this bridge from teacher-led instruction to student-guided activity, teachers must recalculate what student ownership looks like. These teachers found that small steps, such as making a phone call to a town official or sending an email to a small-business owner, should be celebrated. The teachers also scaffolded student ownership of curriculum through discussion about the literature, identification of characteristics of an activist, and discourse around who can become an activist. By moving themselves to the periphery, teachers began to notice students slowly taking ownership of the action project.


These teachers were uniquely positioned in a district and school that supported culturally proactive and social justice–oriented pedagogies. We acknowledge that many teachers work in districts and schools that are skeptical of such pedagogical approaches, and they feel limited regarding what they can teach because of increasing emphasis on standardization and high-stakes assessments (Alsup & miller, 2014; Dover, 2015). The findings from this research have definite implications for both preservice teacher preparation and professional development in the area of culturally proactive and social justice pedagogies. Teachers can find support in two of their national organizations—the National Council of Teachers of English and the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation—which advocate for the inclusion of social justice and culturally proactive pedagogies in the ELA classroom. Both the National Council of Teachers of English and the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation have adopted standards for the preparation of ELA teachers that require them to demonstrate an ability to plan and implement lessons that are informed by social justice theories and aims in order to be considered for licensure. Researchers have also developed frameworks that can support teachers at all levels of experience as they integrate social justice aims into their teaching. For instance, miller (2010) developed a four-stage meta-framework that includes (1) critical reflection, (2) acceptance, (3) respect, and (4) affirmation, solidarity, and critique to guide teachers as they address social justice aims. Similarly, Matteson and Boyd (2017) offer the PROGRESS framework to acquaint preservice English teachers with eight components of social justice: positionality, race, orientation, gender, relationships, environment, social class, and stereotypes. Both frameworks are specifically linked to the teaching of ELA curriculum and offer practical tools to teachers as they work to make their curricula oriented toward social justice and culturally proactive pedagogies.

Similarly, because we are not seeing a diversification of our incoming preservice teacher candidates, we must begin early and strategically in normalizing the wobble as they wrestle with the discomfort of decentering their own culture in favor of a more culturally proactive pedagogy. Seglem (2020) noted that she introduces the concept of wobble with her middle school preservice candidates by using Pose, Wobble, Flow (Garcia & O’Donnell Allen, 2015). Early in the semester, she introduces yoga poses to these students in the hope of teaching them strategies for feeding their mental health and learning to become comfortable with discomfort. “Without wobble, we cannot achieve those moments of flow, those moments of sheer joy in doing what we’re doing” (Seglem, 2020, p. 65). Not only does Seglem challenge her preservice candidates to wobble in their discomfort, but she demonstrates for them how to broach conversations with their future students in ways that encourage critical thinking and moving beyond the obvious responses.

Seglem also recommends introducing new voices and perspectives to foster the wobble. By using texts such as Dear Martin (Stone, 2017), I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Sanchez, 2017), and Crossover (Alexander, 2014), which feature characters of color who are created by authors of color, contemporary literature opens the floor for discussion and wobbling around the same issues that are discussed throughout the wider society. Seglem (2020) also suggested that “inviting community members from a wide array of perspectives, such as a police officer and a member of Black Lives Matter or a prosecutor and a representative from ACLU, allows students to consider multiple viewpoints” (p. 66). These opportunities provide perspectives other than the teacher’s or students’, which further broadens the conversation and viewpoints.

We contend that the cultural characteristics of the modern American teacher are not likely to change in the near future; therefore, it is the responsibility of the teacher preparation programs to facilitate an understanding of the need for a culturally proactive approach to teaching for social justice. By introducing the practice of wobbling with all grade level and content-area preservice teachers, teacher preparation programs might normalize the steps of becoming a critical pedagogue.


The participants in this study represent the demographics of the majority of classrooms across the United States—primarily white teachers working with racially and ethnically diverse student populations (Taie & Goldring, 2017). Together, teachers and students wobbled with shifting centers of control as they worked to make the curriculum more culturally proactive, socially just, and critical. To manage this wobble, these teachers scaffolded instruction and supported students in taking ownership of their learning and identifying ways they could act for change. Ultimately, students were able to inquire into issues that were relevant to them and to begin developing as change agents in their communities.

To conclude, we return to the assertion that teaching is an inherently political act—teachers either choose to engage in social justice teaching, or they do not. Those teachers who fear the discomfort that may emerge with implementing culturally proactive teaching may never event attempt this type of conscience raising. We strongly stand behind our belief that all teacher preparation programs can mitigate these fears, as Nieto (2000) recommended, by making “social justice ubiquitous in teacher education, and promot[ing] teaching as a life-long journey of transformation” (p. 180).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 13, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23745, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:17:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Heather Coffey
    The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    HEATHER COFFEY, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary and K-12 Education and serves as the Director of the UNC Charlotte Writing Project. Dr. Coffey's primary teaching responsibilities include graduate English language arts methods as well as service-learning courses. Her research interests include ways to develop critical literacy with urban learners, bridging the gap between educational theory and practice in teacher education, and supporting in-service teachers in urban school settings through professional development. Dr. Coffey's record of publication includes book chapters and articles in refereed practitioner and research journals. She is currently investigating the ways in which urban learners can develop agency through research and writing and work for social justice in their communities. Recently, Dr. Coffey was named the Bank of America Teaching Excellence and the North Carolina Board of Governor's Excellence in Teaching recipient.
  • Meghan Barnes
    The University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    MEGHAN BARNES, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the English Department at UNC Charlotte. Her major research interests include community-engaged approaches to teacher preparation; intersectionality and social justice pedagogies; and community-based literacy programs. Her most recent research can be found in Teaching and Teacher Education and Teacher Education Quarterly.
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