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Social Conscience and Responsibility: Teaching the Common Good in Secondary Education

reviewed by Sarah Fine - November 22, 2021

coverTitle: Social Conscience and Responsibility: Teaching the Common Good in Secondary Education
Author(s): Jane E. Bleasedale and Julie A. Sullivan
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1475846916, Pages: 150, Year: 2021
Search for book at Amazon.com

Lamenting the apathy of today’s high school students is so ingrained in American society that it has become something of a trope. Thoughtful educators, however, recognize that “the apathy problem” is more about the limitations of an archaic institution than the humans who inhabit it. Teenagers, in this view, are not inherently disengaged; they are disengaged from school because school is most often a place which devalues their identities, ideas, and capabilities. In point of fact, adolescent learners are hungry to grapple with complex questions and will do so readily if educators can muster the courage and tools to support them in doing so.

This line of reasoning is beautifully centered in Social Conscience and Responsibility: Teaching the Common Good in Secondary Education, edited by Jane E. Bleasedale and Julie A. Sullivan and forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield. The volume is quite slim, with most chapters organized to include an introductory commentary followed by a set of proposed unit and lesson plans, each connected to a specific subject area. For example, in the chapter devoted to infusing ethics into the study of mathematics, Robert Bonfiglio outlines a set of lessons which invite students to discuss their experiences with math anxiety, unpack how the same set of statistical data can be used to represent a range of different “truths,” explore the logic that drives mathematical theorems, and consider the “leaky pipe” which characterizes the exodus of women from STEM fields. While it is unclear whether and how these lessons might fit together, the proposed topics and activities are consistently grounded in Bonfiglio’s assertion that “mathematics learning must have a social purpose other than achieving a certain score” (p. 108).

The book’s other chapters follow a similar pattern. Each author provides brief context for their thinking, usually with explicit connections to questions of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Many of the proposed plans seek to upend normative educational practice, both in terms of the proposed content (which ranges from cyberbullying to implicit bias to graphic memoirs written by BIPOC authors) and the proposed pedagogical processes (which feature reflective conversations, opportunities to “write to learn,” restorative circles, and collaborative sense-making). Indeed, this is the book’s greatest strength: the consistency with which the proposed lesson plans are centered in a commitment to student-centered practices which ask adolescents to draw together their own experiences with new content in order to grapple, individually and collectively, with Big Questions. The lesson plans also carefully attend to issues of status in the classroom, encouraging teachers to notice, navigate, and disrupt power dynamics which result in certain students feeling marginalized from the discourse. If such consistency could actually be found in secondary classrooms, the world most certainly would be better off.

For all of their shared commitments to learner sense-making and equity, the proposed units demonstrate limited imagination when it comes to the capacities of young people to leverage their learning into meaningful work. For example, the culminating lesson-sequence in Tricia Land’s chapter on treating ethics in the U.S. History classroom is a “passion project” in which students research and analyze sources on a topic about which they are curious and then present their findings to the class (p. 104). While this activity may well be a logical extension of the lessons which precede it, it seems limited and limiting in its authenticity. Why not have students explore ethical dilemmas related to current events playing out in their own communities and/or leverage their learning into some kind of social, political, or artistic use? Insofar as learning to be ethical is not only about making distinctions between right and wrong but about aligning one’s choices with these distinctions, one might imagine that any unit which takes ethics seriously should culminate with a task that involves taking action.

This point opens a window into other ways in which the book’s focus feels slightly underdeveloped. In a number of places, the connection between the proposed lessons and the domain of ethics—which the Introduction defines as “understanding the balance between good and evil, right and wrong, helping versus hurting” (p. 1)—is left largely to the imagination. How, for example, does close-reading a literary text with the lens of identity development connect to questions about the common good? I have no doubt that this question might have a convincing answer, but it remains hidden to the reader, and in its absence the proposed lesson feels as if it could have been used equally well to illustrate something else (for example: strong adolescent literacy practices or alignment to common core standards in English language Arts). This holds true for a number of the unit and lesson plans featured in the book. I found myself admiring the careful designs proposed by the authors, but losing track of the fact that these designs were intended to showcase a commitment to teaching ethics and social responsibility.

On a separate note: Given the book’s emphasis on equity and inclusion, it is important to note the lack of racial diversity represented throughout. By my count, 10 out of the 11 contributing editors and authors identify as White. White educators, given their positional power and continued overrepresentation in the field, have a critical role to play in amplifying conversations about antiracist education (I say this as a White educator myself). However, in the year 2021, with a growing cadre of brilliant BIPOC scholars writing about antiracist educational practice, the absence of racial diversity among the authorship is striking.

Finally, as one who works day in and day out with public school educators, I would encourage the editors to consider expanding the accessibility of the content contained within the book. Social Conscience and Responsibility seeks to position itself as a usable resource for secondary teachers, but is it reasonable to assume that such teachers will find their way to lesson plans buried within the chapters of an edited volume released as part of a series on educational ethics? If the book’s editors and authors are indeed committed to producing usable knowledge that helps teachers embed the teaching of ethics across subject areas, I urge them to consider augmenting the book with open digital resources that include not only downloadable unit and lesson plans but also, ideally, video examples of how such plans might be enacted in service of powerful and equitable learning. This extension would democratize access to the book’s best thinking and position it as a truly valuable resource for professional learning.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 22, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23908, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 8:34:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Sarah Fine
    San Diego Teacher Residency
    E-mail Author
    SARAH FINE, Ph.D., is an educator and scholar working at the intersection of practice and research. She currently directs the San Diego Teacher Residency, hosted at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, and also teaches courses in educational leadership at the University of California San Diego and at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sarah has written for a wide range of publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Chalkbeat, Education Week, Edutopia, and Educational Leadership, as well as scholarly journals such as The Journal of Educational Change and The Harvard Educational Review. Her recent book, coauthored with Jal Mehta, is In Search of Deeper learning: The Quest to Transform the American High School. In 2019, the book won the Grawemeyer award in Education.
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