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Introduction: Critical Social Justice Across the Spectrum of Teaching and Learning: Theory and Practice in Communities and Classrooms

by Heather Coffey & Ashley S. Boyd - 2021

This is the introduction to the Yearbook on Critical Social Justice Across the Spectrum of Teaching and Learning: Theory and Practice in Communities and Classrooms.

Twenty years ago, Teachers College Press published Teaching for Social Justice, a powerful collection of stories of teachers who specialized in inquiry, adaptation, and flexibility with learners in both schools and community settings. Bill Ayers claimed that at the time of publication, America was in a “time of crisis and silence” (Ayers et al., 1998) We contend that over 20 years later, we are experiencing a similar time of crisis, and we hope to provide the newest generation of teachers, teacher educators, and researchers with an updated collection of stories and research about teaching for social justice.

We are currently living in a moment when, at any time, we never know which way the coin will fall or the pendulum will swing, or whether the shoe will drop. Over the past four years, we have, for the first time, elected a nonpolitical figure as president of the United States of America, seen an exponential increase in mass shootings, witnessed new forces fighting to keep immigrants and refugees from seeking asylum in our welcoming arms, and experienced more disparities in the income gap. Even further, we have been plagued with continued racial injustice and its aftermath, as well as a massive pandemic. Throughout these major moments in the timeline of the United States, public education and those children who are served by the schools have been put on the back burner. In this issue, we focus on how teachers and youth are reclaiming their voices and becoming more engaged in their own advocacy and empowerment. We sought to provide a comprehensive volume related to the work being done by educators as they navigate the oppressive structures of teaching and learning in U.S. public schools. We highlight research and portraits of teachers and students who need to be at the forefront of the conversations occurring to improve public school education.

According to Brameld (1965/2000), “Education has two major roles: to transmit culture and to modify culture. When American culture is in a state of crisis, the second of these roles—that of modifying and innovating—becomes more important” (p. 75). To educators dedicated to social justice, the goal of teaching becomes promoting equity and helping students to understand the relationship between power and oppression (Matteson & Boyd, 2017). By combining a variety of critical pedagogies, teachers can challenge students to engage in social action to improve conditions for their communities.

Existing literature in the field surrounding social justice curriculum and activism with students describes pedagogies and practices in specific disciplinary spaces such as arts (Branham, 2016), social studies (Agarwal-Rangnath et al., 2016), or English language arts (Boyd, 2017), or is differentiated according to grade level, such as the elementary context (Wade, 2007). Often, too, this work is centered on the teacher, excluding student voice and without a nuanced look at how youth can be empowered to direct their own learning. In addition, much of the scholarship related to social justice is either theoretical (Dyches & Boyd, 2017) or practical (Teaching Tolerance), outlining lesson plans, for example, that teachers can reproduce in their classrooms. Although each of these is valuable and contributes to the field of critical education, here we provide a more comprehensive work to present models for readers of the different sorts of social justice that teachers and students can undertake. This collection melds theory and practice, providing the critical foundational perspectives that inform teacher educators’ and practicing teachers’ work and describing the ways that work manifests empirically. We bring together myriad critical approaches that each lead preservice teachers and P–12 students to question their worlds and act upon it in a time when advocacy and change are essential.

In this yearbook, we have assembled a variety of authors who draw on critical theories and methods to illustrate how teachers can engage learners in the development of agency and activism. The authors introduce and provide examples of their practices while also supporting their implementation through empirical research. They capture moments of tension and struggle, as well as success and productive discomfort. Authors in this collection may take up topics that can be perceived as controversial, yet this work is imperative if we hope to ever change the face of a public education system that is failing millions of children.


The yearbook begins by establishing theoretical perspectives for social justice teaching. Garcia challenges readers to explore a gaming community and its cultural values in order to consider how his findings contain pedagogical possibilities for schools and classrooms. With an explicit focus on the ways that race and gender govern interactions and are woven into the fabric of institutions, Garcia prompts deeper understandings of critical pedagogy. Continuing a focus on altering our perspectives of students in schools and ways to cultivate their critical literacies, Tintiangco-Cubales and Duncan-Andrade catalog their research on an ethnic studies program and note the benefits of community responsive teaching, particularly for marginalized students.

Shifting toward critical work with preservice teachers, Farinde-Wu et al. conceptualize sociopolitical development and notes its absence in United States classrooms. Through a mentoring program involving Black female preservice teachers and their Black female mentees, they examine how woke pedagogies can engender participants’ critical consciousness. Tinkler and Tinkler continue this focus on teacher candidates by offering their work with critical service-learning and noting how, through a partnership providing support of resettled refugee youth, their preservice teachers were able to both gain a greater awareness of the identities of learners and enhance their pedagogical knowledge regarding diverse youth and communities. Concluding this section, Kolano and Gutierrez describe their work with preservice teachers using narrative to influence viewpoints on undocumented students. They argue that teacher candidates must be made aware of immigration laws and policies to best serve students.

Articles in the subsequent section focus on teacher communities and highlight how critical work among colleagues is especially key in advancing social justice teaching. Gargroetzi et al. describe their Critical Mathematics Teacher Collaborative, a community of practice designed to integrate discipline-specific equity-oriented lessons. The authors explain their group’s process and note the individual learnings and challenges they experienced by participating. Next, Epstein and Levy share their research with three elementary educators teaching for civic engagement in their classrooms. Emphasizing attention to school context and local concerns, the authors solidify the import of environmental factors in any critical teaching. At the conclusion of this section, readers encounter the successes and challenges of a group of middle school teachers implementing youth participatory action research in Coffey and Barnes’s article. In particular, the authors note how teachers engaged students with community-focused action and how they struggled to relinquish the control that such efforts often entail.

The final section of the yearbook illustrates research conducted with youth and focuses on opportunities for students to feel empowered and develop their own agency. FitzPatrick et al. balance a sociocultural view of literacy with traditional standards by sharing examples from three classrooms of how teachers craft writing assignments for students that mobilize their power and invite them to work with wider audiences. From elementary to middle school, the youth in their study advocate for themselves and for social causes through writing and action. Hancock et al. similarly assume social action projects with students. Situating their work in critical race-based pedagogy, they posit the impactful life lessons that youth can glean by addressing the social injustices important to them.

As a whole, this yearbook demonstrates the myriad possibilities for working toward social justice in various spaces across educational institutions, from preservice teachers and practicing educators to youth. While our contemporary moment can feel dark and limited, what we offer here are portraits to spark hope. The work accomplished by the authors and their participants challenges us to fight back against the systems of oppression that exist in our society and to fully engage educational opportunities for change. If we want to make a better world, we must read and learn from those in this collection who are doing the work and who are modeling for us the ways that we can disrupt and create.


Agarwal-Rangnath, R., Dover, A. G., & Henning, N. (2016). Preparing to teach social studies for social justice: Becoming a renegade. Teachers College Press.


Ayers, W., Hunt, J. A., & Quinn, T. (1998). Teaching for social justice: A democracy and education reader. The New Press.


Boyd, A. (2017). Social justice literacies in the English classroom: Teaching practice in action. Teachers College Press.


Brameld, T. (2000). Education as power. Caddo Gap Press. (Original work published 1965)


Branham, R. (2016). What’s so great about art, anyway? A teacher’s odyssey. Teachers College Press.


Dyches, J., & Boyd, A. (2017). Foregrounding equity in teacher education: Toward a model of social justice pedagogical and content knowledge (SJPACK). Journal of Teacher Education, 68(5), 476–490.


Matteson, H., & Boyd, A. (2017). Are we making “PROGRESS”? A social justice framework for engaging preservice teachers in textual analysis. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 13(1), 28–54.


Wade, R. (2007). Service-learning for social justice in the elementary classroom: Can we get there from here? Equity and Excellence in Education, 40(2), 156–165. doi:10.1080/10665680701221313



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 13, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23751, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:21:10 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.
  • Ashley S. Boyd
    Washington State University
    E-mail Author
    ASHLEY S. BOYD, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English education at Washington State University where she teaches graduate courses on critical and cultural theory and undergraduate courses on English Methods and Young Adult Literature. A former secondary English language arts teacher, Ashley’s current scholarship examines practicing teachers’ social justice pedagogies and their critical content knowledge and explores how young adult literature is an avenue for cultivating students’ critical literacies. Her book with Teachers College Press, Social Justice Literacies in the English Classroom: Teaching Practice in Action, analyzes case studies of practicing English teachers to identify specific pedagogic approaches for advancing equity both inside and outside of the classroom. She has published in the Journal of Teacher Education, Teacher Education Quarterly, Educational Studies, the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, and the ALAN Review.
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