Making Space for Active Learning: The Art and Practice of Teaching

reviewed by Alan Block - May 14, 2015

coverTitle: Making Space for Active Learning: The Art and Practice of Teaching
Author(s): Anne C. Martin & Ellen Schwartz
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807755397, Pages: 216, Year: 2014
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Tolstoy writes in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  On the one hand, narratives in Making Space for Active Learning: The Art and Practice of Teaching confirm Tolstoy’s observation. Each story comes from a teacher who experiences joys and pleasures in the classroom working with children in the process of learning. These happy teachers are all alike.

Peg Howes, writes in her chapter, “Remembering the Child, Resisting Distraction,” “I may as well say right off, what matters to me most are the children, my own classroom, and the curriculum” (p. 54).  She continued, “I relish the complexity” (p. 72). Describing her experience in the classroom with a unit on silkworms, Rhoda Kanevsky says, “I have learned by listening to children and talking with them that even very young children are complex thinkers, capable of connecting ideas from wide-ranging realms of their experience and memory” (p. 38). In “Reclaiming Kindergarten,” Anne Martin writes, “Perhaps the best way to start is to look at children and remind ourselves of why we went into teaching in the first place and how gratifying (if exhausting) it is to live with young children in the classroom” (p. 166).

In each of the stories, these teachers speak similarly of a love for the work of the classroom. Happy families are all alike. A good teacher—one who carefully observes—constantly reflects and takes into account the learners in the classroom, creating a classroom that stimulates and excites learning for all of the inhabitants of the classroom, including the teacher. Kiran Caudhuri writes, “Teaching thrusts me into relationship, and puts me in the way of opportunities that I must seize or forfeit . . . It challenges me, ready or not, to trust—to trust in human capacity . . . It insists that I examine my values at their root, that I value different perspectives . . . [Teaching] engrosses me in observing, collecting, describing, documenting” (p. 98). When these stories do so engage, they assert in the same way their sense of happiness.


On the other hand, the narratives in this text demonstrate the opposite of Tolstoy’s conclusion; the teachers’ stories suggest that they are all unhappy in the same way. They are oppressed by the encroaching imposition by government agencies (with standards and regulations) that strictly control the activities of the classroom, restricting the growth and learning that can occur there. These regulations prevent these teachers from engaging in exactly those activities that they know to be valuable and rewarding.

Francesca Michaelides Weiss anguishes that, although she knows “play is a way to practice being a person within a social group without the intrusion of grown-ups,” she moans that this decision to allow her children extra playtime adds only another anxiety to her already troubled work. “If children are spending more time playing, then they are spending less time doing something else, such as reading or writing or math. It opens up a whole new Pandora’s box, filled with concerns about standards, expectations, and accountability” (p. 112).

Recess times around the country have been reduced to make more quantifiable time for learning that can be controlled by state mandated standardized curricula. We hear teachers lament that the advancing technologies seem attractive but are too often distracting. Peg Howes writes that in her district the administration has required the use of Smart Boards. “I will learn to use mine, but I know that this, too, will take time away from doing a better job at other things that are important to me” (p. 60).


These teachers are constrained in their efforts by the necessity of mandated testing and the requirement of measurement by rubric that continually underestimates the learning that takes place in the classroom by teachers who have the time to authentically observe. Chris Powers writes, “In 3rd grade, every six weeks, we’re given the Benchmark Assessment, not only literacy and math, but also the science benchmarks. Those are the city-mandated tests” (p. 143). Katherine Walmsley writes, “I constantly feel the pressure of these tests, of a curriculum that is not always reasonable, and of the expectation that the children will leave 1st grade as readers” (p. 153). In this directive, all children are falsely deemed alike! Because the tests are based on the standardized texts, much of the teaching requires the use of the text’s language to ensure the children’s success on the texts.

Bruce Turnquist notes that the plethora of forms he is required to send home every year has steadily increased, many of them purely administrative. But he is most disturbed by “the forms . . . in purple file folders . . . In these files there is a pink sheet for each student with scores from last year’s final assessments along with a sample of writing (scored by rubric), a sample of a Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), the Developmental Spelling Analysis (a phonetic features list) from Word Journeys, and an assessment of math concepts from Math Perspectives” (p. 78). Turnquist despairs that as the students move through the system, the supporting materials for these impersonal number scores will disappear and only the pink sheets with the scores will remain. The students will cease being individuals and become an agglomeration of numbers.


This is a desperate book. The stories narrated here tell of the wonderful work of anxious teachers who sense that the work they know to be valuable will be swamped by the incoming tides of accountability and regimentation. Chris Powers bemoans, “My daughter is a kindergartner. No Child Left Behind has taken a lot of the play out. It’s taking away social interaction and learning” (p. 148). This is also a book of desperation. Each story narrates the wonderful work of reflective, sensitive, observant teachers struggling to hold back the encroaching waters flooding their schools and threatening their lives as teachers.

Betsy Wice tells how “In 2001, several administrators, sent to help us make Adequate Yearly Progress, tried to get rid of what they perceived to be 'clutter.' We were told to bring down to the dumpster any books not in the standardized curriculum. Luckily, the Whole Books for the Whole School collection was housed at the back of Doris Reardon’s custodial closet. She kept them safe” (p. 140). And Katherine Walmsley writes that “I am learning every year and with each child I teach how to push back at the boundaries of the mandates to do what is right to help my students” (p. 157). This struggle lies at the basis of each of the stories in this book. Contrary to Tolstoy’s observation, these teachers are all unhappy in the same way.


The stories suggest that though it is increasingly difficult, teachers can continue to do the work for which they are called and prepared. We all came to teaching because we desired to share our passion for learning and our sense of awe and wonder about the world. There are, in this book, more than a few narratives that speak of the metamorphosis of the silk work into a butterfly (and the failure that occurs when administration denies care for the process).

And so, I think that this book is also one of hope. This book “is a vision that honors the desire we all have to do work of value and meaning, work that holds open space to be awakened to unanticipated possibility” (p. 178). These are noble stories of very dedicated, very capable, and very brave people. These are the stories of teachers.


One caveat, though-this book of stories lacks a sense of historicity, and fails to acknowledge the work upon which their practices are built. Almost one hundred years ago Jane Addams, in “Educational Methods,” addressed exactly this problem. Speaking of the children of Italian immigrants, Addams (2002, p. 83) writes, “If we admit that in education it is necessary to begin with the experiences which the child already has and to use his spontaneous and social activity, then the city streets begin this education for him in a more natural way than does the school.” The descriptive review process through which these teachers are led seems very similar to the reflective processes of currere,1 a model for curriculum and for teacher preparation. But these are minor quibbles.

I prefer to end with the words of teacher Chris Powers: “In spite of the pressures from above I am committed to working to sustain Power’s history of making space for investigations that have real meaning for children and teachers. It’s what makes teaching and learning so gratifying” (p. 149).




1. For example, see William Pinar and Madeleine Grumet’s Teaching a Poor Curriculum (Troy, New York:  Educator’s International Press, 2014).



Addams, J. (2002). Democracy and social ethics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Martin, A. C., & Schwartz, E. (Eds.). (2014). Making space for active learning: The art and practice of teaching. New York, NY: Teacher's College Press.


Pinar, W. F., & Grumet, M. R. (1976). Toward a poor curriculum. Debuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 14, 2015 ID Number: 17964, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 9:27:44 AM

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