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Classroom Talk for Social Change: Critical Conversations in English Language Arts

reviewed by Tara N. Meister - July 27, 2020

coverTitle: Classroom Talk for Social Change: Critical Conversations in English Language Arts
Author(s): Melissa Schieble, Amy Vetter, & Kahdeidra Monét Martin
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807763497, Pages: 160, Year: 2020
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Melissa Schieble, Amy Vetter, and Kahdeidra Monét Martin's work in Classroom Talk for Social Change drops into a ready sociopolitical context: COVID-19 amplified racist disparities in economic insecurities and in who is most vulnerable to contract COVID-19 and die (Jordan & Oppel, 2020). Police killings of #GeorgeFloyd and #BreonnaTaylor ignited rebellions around the nation and the world. Books on anti-racism top bestseller lists, as people grapple with the moment, a moment that extends into history in predictable ways.

Schieble, Vetter, and Monét Martin, experienced middle and high school teachers, begin their book with the need for critical conversations in classrooms, rooting the work of English Language Arts teachers on Hess and McAvoy’s (2015) question: How should we live together? This question relates equity in distance learning and abolitionist teaching practices (Love, 2019). The authors follow the question with a discussion of the sociopolitical context, citing disproportionate police killings of young Black men (Gabrielson, Sagara, & Grochowski Jones, 2014) and the violence connected with race, gender, and sexuality as an imperative for critical conversation. Milner, Delale-O’Connor, Murray, and Alvarez (2016) developed the Teachers Race Talk Survey to understand teachers’ beliefs and feelings about various questions regarding race, its place in schools, and race-based violence. They found that 90% of teachers across racial groups believe that race influences students’ education and is “an important discussion topic in the classroom” (Milner, 2017, p. 85). However, only about half of teachers believe they should discuss race-based violence in the classroom and are prepared to do so, with only 31% feeling that their teacher training programs prepared them for race discussions (p. 87).

Schieble, Vetters, and Monét Martin’s work fills the need for teacher support to build and sustain effective critical and racial conversations. Grounding their work in the racist and hetero-patriarchal context, they demonstrate that “everyday language use has both violent and unjust physical and material outcomes for people” (p. 2). Teachers do not avoid the violence in society but create incubators to grow status quo dispositions, ideologies, and practices or protect and sustain disruption and humanizing growth. They argue that critical conversations enhance understanding of the power of words, support learning, and develop students’ development as change agents or at least allow them to gain a more nuanced understanding of society. Their work offers frameworks for new and experienced teachers, literacy coaches, administrators, and teacher educators to facilitate critical conversations and fulfills its explicitly outlined purposes: (a) prepare teachers and students to engage in critical conversations; (b) support teachers in facilitating conversations “in purposeful and reflective ways” (p. 4); and (c) use reflection and analysis to improve, modeled on their teacher inquiry groups.

The authors argue that incorporating critical conversations is challenging, ongoing, and messy work that begins with the self. This critical learner stance, along with knowledge about power, serves as the foundation for critical conversations. Therefore, aligned with Milner’s (2017) work, the authors describe the interplay between teachers’ beliefs about race and culture and how that influences their critical talk moves, critical pedagogies, and vulnerability in the classroom. Their book follows their conceptual framework: after defining what critical conversations are, they use teacher preparation as a foundation and then move into classroom structures for risk-taking and vulnerability, students’ stances during critical conversation, and teacher talk moves. Throughout, the authors provide structures, ample additional resources, and examples to support teachers in using critical conversations, offering potential shifts to a more restorative justice-based, democratic, and collaborative classroom.

Within the authors’ framework, several pieces are particularly noteworthy and generative. They note the interest many teachers have in using critical conversations, but also the “struggle to do so with fidelity” (p. 12). Fidelity here means unearthing oppressive systems rather than engaging individually or interpersonally. While individual experience centers our actions and interactions, we must analyze patterns beyond the individual to change institutions and push against the status quo. Moving from individual to institutional pushes teachers beyond reinforcing damage through pain narratives (Tuck & Yang, 2014) and shifts the blame onto institutions, not students, deconstructing them.

The authors effectively synthesize the difference between safety and comfort, two often conflated words. Teachers’ frequent description of classrooms as safe spaces ignores how schools are complicit with and sustain white supremacist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal dominant narratives. Doing the integral work of critical conversations requires risk-taking, vulnerability, and discomfort, and teachers must help students sit in discomfort to unpack oppression. While discomfort is part of critical work, the authors could do more to decenter whiteness in this conversation: How does discomfort shift depending on someone’s positionality? When is discomfort generative of growth? When is it harmful and trauma-reinforcing? The final chapter about the structure and processes of teacher inquiry groups includes reflections from Kahdeidra Monét Martin, a Black teacher, about her use of silence and stepping back from the conversation in humanizing ways. During this discussion in particular, I wondered about the need for affinity groups, at least as a component of teacher inquiry group work, so the emotional weight of conversations rooted in oppression don’t weigh disproportionately on BIPOC and also provide opportunities for liberatory growth.

The chapters on students’ meaning-making stances and teachers’ talk moves are effective and practical to support teacher growth and reflection. The chapter on students’ meaning-making stances of humanizing, problematizing, and resisting exposes the received curriculum (Uhrmacher, McConnell Moroye, & Flinders, 2017) of critical conversations to enhance teachers’ ability to perceive and reflect on students’ responses to classroom talk and pedagogical and curricular moves. Consistent with the clarity of the whole book, the stances include clear vignettes, reflection, and questions, providing educators with tools to talk and think about their contexts. The subsequent chapter extends to teachers’ talk moves (inquiry, disruptive, inclusive, and action), shifting to the operational curriculum (Uhrmacher et al., 2017) of what the teacher actually does or does not do, demonstrating concrete alternatives to the normative Initiate-Respond-Evaluate pattern of classroom talk. Provided example questions offer support, differentiate, and reflect on the impact of various teacher moves and choices, thus enhancing professional responsibility and teacher agency.   

Finally, poignantly and simply, Schieble, Vetter, and Monét Martin describe the role of positioning theory in teacher inquiry groups for reflection on how teachers position themselves in the classroom as “facilitator, lecturer, or authority” (p. 118) and how they position students as “participants, listeners, or problem-solvers” (p. 118). The discussion of student and teacher positioning, while brief and reminiscent of Freire’s (2011) work on banking or problem-posing education, is particularly useful for teacher educators and coaches. The authors provide question examples around reflexive positioning, “How did you position yourself in the discussion?” (p. 120) and interactive positioning, “In what ways did you position your students in the discussion? In what ways did student position you as a teacher” (p. 120). These questions push teacher responsibility about how power and identity operate in classrooms. To build classrooms that hold the potential for humanizing, problematizing, and resisting power and oppression, how we interact and relate is central. Overall, this book offers a lot for teachers of various positions and experiences.


Freire, P. (2011). Pedagogy of the oppressed, 30th anniversary edition (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York, NY: Continuum.

Gabrielson, R., Sagara, E., & Grochowski Jones, R. (2014, October 10). “Deadly force, in Black and White.” ProPublica. https://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white

Hess, D. E., & McAvoy, P. (2015). The political classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Jordan, M., & Oppel, R. A. (2020, May 9). “For Latinos and Covid-19, doctors are seeing an ‘alarming’ disparity.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/07/us/coronavirus-latinos-disparity.html

Milner, H. R., Delale-O’Connor, L., Murray, I. E., & Álvarez, A. (2016). Teachers Race Talk Survey (TRTS) [Survey instrument]. https://pitt.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/preview/SV_cIsNBHIZlAfqx6t?Q_CHL=preview&Q_JFE=qdg

Milner, H. R. (2017). Race, talk, opportunity gaps, and curriculum shifts in (teacher) education. Literary Research: Theory, Method, and Practice, 66, 73–94.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2014). Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(6), 811-818.

Uhrmacher, P. B., McConnell Moroye, C., & Flinders, D. J. (2017). Using educational criticism and connoisseurship for qualitative research. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 27, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23394, Date Accessed: 8/8/2020 7:53:07 PM

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About the Author
  • Tara Meister
    Pacific University
    E-mail Author
    TARA N. MEISTER, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Learning and Teaching at Pacific University. Recent publications include "Hidden in White(ness)?: Using Racial Logics to Interrogate the Instructional Arc of a Crisis Intervention Team Training" (2018) and "Juxtapoetics: Aesthetic uncovering of racist logics within a Crisis Intervention Team training’s instructional arc" (2019). She is currently working on projects around educating teacher candidates and supervisors around equity and culturally relevant and sustaining practices, connecting between individual identity and institutional structures and practices.
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