Practice What You Teach: Social Justice Education in the Classroom and the Streets

reviewed by sj Miller - December 06, 2013

coverTitle: Practice What You Teach: Social Justice Education in the Classroom and the Streets
Author(s): Bree Picower
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415895391, Pages: 152, Year: 2012
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Through a continuum of social justice understanding, three very different sets of empirical examples demonstrate how social justice work can be cultivated through classroom practice in Bree Picower’s Practice What You Teach: Social Justice Education in the Classroom and the Streets. Through six powerful chapters, she walks her talk as she candidly holds herself accountable with a transparent critique of her teaching through various teacher narratives about how seeds of social justice work are planted with students in a dual degree childhood program and how resistance or oppositional stances deter some from taking up activist stances. For the second set of narratives, Picower moves beyond the classroom and shows how teachers and activists hold contemporaneous simultaneity with teaching and activism which are taken up in spaces both in and outside of classroom practice, offering suggestions for supporting teachers in developing purposeful habits of mind that fundamentally lay the groundwork for cultivating teacher-activists through curriculum centered around activism. Picower critiques the limitations of cultivating socially just educators in developing habits of mind that come from coursework and shares how she attempted to support her graduates through a Social Justice Critical Inquiry Project (CIP). In her third set of narratives, she turns to teacher-based activist models from around the country that not only serve as formidable models that can inform classroom practice, but which have impacted the social and cultural, and even national, environments some of her graduates now inhabit. This work is highly personal to her as evidenced by her seamless and synonymous blending of teacher/activist and teaching/activism that foreground the narratives and critical stances she shares.

Picower pleads: “If SJE [social justice educators] remain relegated to the classroom, there is little hope for a more just society to be realized. If educators continue to work as individuals within their classrooms, creating small democratic environments for a few students, they will never reach the ultimate goals of SJE because they will never impact the root cause of inequality” (p. 8), but her words go beyond this admonishment; she takes us into the Critical Inquiry Project by revealing the struggles of her participants. Her view of social justice educators is that students need to have a recognition and political analysis of how injustice operates, to be willing and able to integrate this analysis into classroom practice, and to have the mindsets to take up social justice work outside of classroom practice, both with students and on their own. However, in order to take on this work, social justice educators must be willing to self-scrutinize and challenge themselves to move beyond oppositional stances that may block or inhibit activist stances. This is where the role of the teacher educator becomes critical in cultivating social justice habits of mind that can have efficacy in myriad contexts and hold up over time. These views are seamlessly woven into her examples.

In Chapter Two, Picower details the oppositional stances that many of her students held against becoming social justice educators. With charts depicting their stances on pp. 24-25, she lists many familiar terms that social justice educators most likely hear in their own critical pedagogy-oriented courses. When we read the all-too-familiar phrases, “What do you expect me to do?” “Here I come to save the day,” and “Stop making me feel guilty” [for being white], Picower picks up on these stances, and demonstrates how she challenged students to shift into activist stances by interrupting their inculcated beliefs.  Pages 41-53 are the highlight of the book as she discusses how she uses various socio-cultural texts, films, and constructivist-activities to demonstrate how [white] privilege eschews a person’s ability to see privilege and/or entitlement or to have empathy for another’s circumstances. Although it’s difficult to choose just one to describe here, my favorite, called the “simulation activity” (pp. 45-46), focuses on how to build empathy and to strip away the bars of privilege and entitlement. She divides students into four groups and asks them to create a visual representation of social justice. Each group receives a bag of arts and craft supplies with varying materials—one group receives an abundance, one is heavily under-resourced, and the other two are somewhere in the middle. As students create their visuals, she walks around fielding questions, but limits her attention to the less privileged groups. During the debriefing, students begin to see how unaware they were of what was in each other’s “bags,” and then are able to see more clearly how this metonymic device plays out in schools and communities. Picower doesn’t stop here, but draws from her own activism and identifies through her teaching that coursework is simply not enough to develop social justice educators. This recognition led to the creation of the Critical Inquiry Project.

In Chapter Three, Picower takes us into the activist world of the Critical Inquiry Project, which serves as a model for stabilizing stances for social justice educators. The cohort became a critical friends group that the teachers were able to return to for support, ideas, resources, and emotional comfort. We learn that many of the New York teachers in the group experienced similar tensions. Many noted they felt surveiled, were teaching in a state of fear, felt they lacked historical knowledge that could help them be more politicized, and lacked connection to an activist group that could ostensibly develop tools for change. Unbeknownst to the participants at the time was that the Critical Inquiry Project was a simulation for activism that had potential to have efficacy for classroom practice. Picower encourages her teachers in the Critical Inquiry Project in Chapter Four to closely examine what held them back from enacting more socially just educational practices in their classroom. By entering into critical dialogue with them and supporting them to take up stances, Picower teaches herself critical lessons: she discovers the raw vitality and nuances for how she can embed critical inquiry in her own teacher education courses, engaging teachers to develop empathy, challenge privilege and entitlement, and shift from apolitical and ahistorical deficits into politicized stances that can move beyond classroom teaching.

So what can be done? Chapters Five and Six argue that we can’t sit still, and that inertia and fear are our enemies. Here, Picower offers three commitment-oriented strategies for moving teachers into activist stances: reconciling the vision, moving toward liberation, and standing up to oppression, by taking us into models of teacher activists who engage in critical work with their students both in and out of the classroom. These teachers, from all across the United States (e.g.,  Arizona, Wisconsin, and New York), show us, a priori, how historical knowledge impacts efficacy in taking up politicized stances and how such stances can have a national impact. Together, student and teacher learn alongside each other. The win-win for students and teachers alike? When coalesced, students and teachers are change agents.

The take away from this book is that social justice educators need to be trans-national and trans-cultural and support systems should foreground teaching and activism. It’s not just our students who need the support, but we educators need to be engaged in effective models of change and we need more suggestions for how to take up and take on difficult topics, especially those that are entwined in neoliberal movements that seem to have more power and mobility than years past. So Picower, find us, we’re here, we need this, we need your voice and we need all of the social justice educators’ voices to coalesce now more than ever before, lest education become completely corporatized. Education should be the great leveler and equalizer for democracy but “without teacher activists helping students negotiate such life choices, students will experience only the injustice of education without knowing the liberatory potential it holds” (p. 109). Picower, as teacher and activist, reminds us that in order to get there, we have to take action and practice what we [you] teach.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 06, 2013 ID Number: 17345, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 11:58:57 PM

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