Teaching Outside the Box but Inside the Standards: Making Room for Dialogue

reviewed by E. Namisi Chilungu - August 01, 2016

coverTitle: Teaching Outside the Box but Inside the Standards: Making Room for Dialogue
Author(s): Bob Fecho, Michelle Falter, and Xiaoli Hong (Eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807757489, Pages: 144, Year: 2015
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Before even reaching the table of contents in Teaching Outside the Box but Inside the Standards, readers encounter an eyebrow raising inscription: “This book is dedicated to the teachers who daily work against the soul-deadening instruction that comes from overzealous enforcement of standards and narrow views of literacy learning.”


The editors and authors of this book articulate clear criticisms of standards-driven education, specifically the Common Core State Standards. The writers argue that over-emphasizing standards hinders a teacher's ability to facilitate and a student's opportunity to experience dialogical learning spaces. Dialogical learning spaces invite dialogue among all community members as a means to co-construct knowledge and understanding. In the authors’ words: “Ultimately we ask whether teachers can achieve their desired goal of a more engaged dialogical practice while fulfilling the requirements in Common Core State Standards” (p. 94). However, this book is more than a critique of standards. It is also an investigation of dialogical practice in action with examples from practicing teachers’ classrooms. It is a testimony to the perseverance and dedication of teachers who commit themselves fully to their students and teaching even when faced with external pressures that feel contradictory to their practice.


Teaching Outside the Box is bookended with a preface and chapters written by the editors. In the preface, Fecho, Falter, and Hong provide an overview of how this book came to be. We learn that it is the summation of a collaborative research project between university researchers (the editors) and four K–12 teacher-researchers (Altman, Cole, Dean, and Hall). The editors briefly describe the methodology used in this study: an oral inquiry process they developed based on Carini’s Descriptive Review of the Child (Himley with Carini, 2000). The resulting process is a blend of university-based, teacher-educator research; teacher action research; and a critical friends group (for a description of CFG, see National School Reform Faculty, 2014). This format works well at engaging the reader in critical issues raised throughout the text. The book format could be imagined as the movement of a Prezi presentation: readers first take in an overview of the process and the players, zoom in more closely to examine each teachers’ classroom and other instructional spaces, and then draw out to survey the bigger picture again.



One of the compelling aspects of Teaching Outside the Box is the opportunity to look over the shoulders of the four teachers as they navigate their instructional spaces. I use the term instructional spaces intentionally as the authors and anecdotes remind us that these teachers’ work and commitment to their students often extends beyond the walls of their classrooms or schools. In the first chapter, the authors introduce the teachers, each describing in their own words what Fecho calls a wobble moment. These moments occur when teachers experience significant events or interactions in their teaching that give them pause; they are an opportunity to engage in self-reflection of one’s own instructional practice. The rest of the book centers on this idea: opportunities to increase self-awareness. Wobble moments lead the experienced teachers to enhanced understanding of their own identities as teachers. The four teachers carefully record and individually reflect on these moments, share and deconstruct them with the critical friends of the research team, and finally write about them to share with a larger audience. Teachers who are willing to acknowledge and sit with the potential discomfort of these moments create opportunity and space for a deeper and fuller understanding of who they are as teachers. These educators recognize that teaching is a complex, dynamic endeavor that involves ongoing self-reflection, nuanced understanding of human interactions, and a sophisticated approach to helping learners understand content. This notion is presented throughout the book in stark contrast to the restrictive nature of standardizing education such as through the Common Core.


The bulk of this book includes chapters written by the teacher-researchers in which they communicate their classroom, school, and community experiences. Cole, Hall, Altman, and Dean present their narratives to the reader, describing wobble moments that highlight significant tensions faced within their practice and lead them to new understandings. Each teacher writes about events that will resonate with other educators. For example, Cole describes an interaction with a parent that leaves her feeling defensive about teaching. Both the parent and student question Cole’s decision to prioritize a class discussion that she felt was meaningful and they viewed as superfluous. Hall chronicles protesting her student’s participation in a professional learning meeting and being uncomfortably singled out because he was deemed representative of failing males in the school. Altman details a tension-filled experience observing and then intervening in an interaction between one of his undocumented students and a state senator with conservative views on immigration legislation. Finally, Dean describes facilitating a conversation in which one of her white suburban students characterized Black and Hispanic inner city individuals as more likely to commit crimes. In each of these moments, and several others described in the text, the teachers experience tensions. They are faced with on-the-spot decisions about how to respond in sensitive situations. They reflect on their roles as teachers in balancing their own ideals and ideologies with expectations from others (e.g., students, parents, administrators, state government, etc.). They must decide how to facilitate meaningful learning through dialogue while also facing the pressures of time and standardization. At any moment, a probably well-meaning administrator can walk in and ask students to recite the standard.



Teaching Outside the Box captures the frustration many teachers experience in their practice. In the concluding chapter, Fecho and Hong write:

[These teachers] all care deeply about the work they do and the students they teach. They believe enough in dialogue to know that they don’t have all the answers, but they equally believe that administrators and policymakers don’t have all the answers either . . . Paige, Lisa, Ian, and Angela have earned their anger. They have seen the voices of teachers eroded over the first 15 years of this century as rigid standardization has taken hold. (p. 103)


We understand from reading these teacher stories that they are not just concerned about being heard for their own interest but because they act as advocates for their students, many of whom are marginalized in education and society. We understand that we must also be concerned. Just as I was wondering about the alternatives the authors would suggest in place of standards, Fecho and Hong write: “There is nothing antithetical regarding standards and dialogical practice” (p. 100). They urge school faculty members to allow themselves sufficient time for thoughtfully considering how to create dialogical projects that address multiple standards. In fact, this book would work well for school professional learning communities because it raises questions and offers many opportunities for meaningful dialogue among educators.


It seems that we are still left wondering how teachers can meaningfully have their voices heard, particularly in contexts that implement the standards more rigidly and restrict dialogue. How do teachers fight to have their words listened to when it can feel threatening to do so? This book offers some concrete suggestions. Each of the teachers’ chapters conclude with “Suggestions for Action” and the editors supplement these with additional ideas that include “Working Within Standardized Schools” and “Positioning Yourself as an Agent of Change” (pp. 100-101). The authors do not make these suggestions as a panacea and as a reader and educator I am still left with the feeling that individual or small groups of teachers are riding out tsunami-like waves of standardization: it can feel overwhelming.


A natural next opportunity for these authors would be to highlight the experiences of other stakeholders: administrators, students, parents, and policy makers. It seems there is potential for investigating how large, cohesive, and sustained movements against restrictive standardization policies (Kornhaber, 2015) compare to places like Georgia where these teachers are based. How have these movements supported the work of teachers in ways the teacher-researchers in this book feel they lack? This book does a nice job of working within the tension between policy and practice. Ultimately, in keeping with their emphasis on dialogical practice, the authors seem to ask the readers “Now what? Now what will you do?”


Himley, M., & Carini, P. F. (Eds). (2000). From another angle: Children’s strengths and school standards: The prospect center’s descriptive review of the child. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Kornhaber, M. (2015, May 18). What’s behind the ‘opt out’ protests against the common core? Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/whats-behind-opt-out-protests-against-common-core-332560

National School Reform Faculty. (2014). Critical friends group purpose and work. Bloomington, IN: Harmony Education Center. Retrieved from http://www.nsrfharmony.org/free-resources/protocols/a-z

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 01, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21538, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 10:23:53 PM

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