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Book Review: Educating for Empathy by Nicole Mirra

Written by Jennifer Archie, Stephanie Collins, and Kelly Metzler

Nicole Mirra’s 2018 book Educating for Empathy seeks to answer driving questions about the role of empathy in our classrooms, specifically English classrooms, on the quest to develop participatory and civically engaged students. Throughout the text, Mirra returns to these questions: “What role (if any) should schools play in fostering empathy for students? What, for that matter, is empathy? And what kinds of educational practices can reverse the empathy deficit and produce compassionate, democratically engaged young adults?” (3). 

In order to establish the need for teaching critical civic empathy, Mirra needs first to define how she uses the term “empathy.” She offers readers the standard idea that empathy allows us to see from another’s perspective, but also that one can move “beyond oneself and into the perspective of another person” (4). This process, she suggests, happens naturally in English classrooms, where students can use their imaginations while reading to move into other times, places, and characters’ experiences. In addition, she also implies that this connected process empowers students to become active critics of the world around them, sparking, perhaps, some activism on their part. She calls this process “critical civic empathy,” and she defines it in this way: “1. It begins from an analysis of the social position, power, and privilege of all parties involved. 2. It focuses on the ways that personal experiences matter in the context of public life. 3. It fosters democratic dialogue and civic action committed to equity and justice” (7). From a teacher’s perspective, this seems like an overwhelmingly important but problematically challenging concept, which is one of the main difficulties with this text. 

Mirra does offer a series of really inspiring philosophical and pedagogical ideas. In particular, her focus on the “power of text for social transformation” (9) is one that most English teachers would applaud. She waxes poetic with language like “teachers and students must engage together in reflection and action aimed at breaking down structures of oppression that ensnare us all” (10). Almost all of the English teachers we know would approve of this message; we want students to feel texts at such an impactful level, and we try to engage students in this type of dialogue. However, there are also a variety of impediments to taking this discussion into the realm of transformative power, especially as it relates to disempowering social and political structures in the world around us, restrictive curriculum, and test-driven pedagogy to name just a few. Mirra also hammers home the idea that individual empathy is not sufficient; collective empathy needs to be developed in order to effect more change in reworking our power structures and fully empowering all voices to be present in the discourse of civic socialization. 

Mirra continues her call to action with her first chapter in which she seeks to explore why reading helps develop empathy, how certain stories get privileged, and how imagining an alternate world view offers students a chance to project a vision of change onto their current society. Mirra cites several studies (Bal & Veltkamp, 2013; Mar & Oatley, 2008) that suggest frequent readers demonstrate higher empathy ratings than nonreaders. Additionally, while discussing the literary canon (and its controversies), she paraphrases Guillory’s 1993 work stating, “…critics argue that the canon inappropriately privileges particular stories as representative of American culture when, in fact, no single American culture exists; as such, its very existence serves to marginalize stories that deviate from those told by people in positions of power” (20). Most English teachers feel this burden; they need to offer more stories that not only reflect the lives of their students, but also stories that challenge and complicate students’ thinking, especially about power and privilege. 

As evidence of how to combat this challenge, Mirra uses two teacher leaders to demonstrate ways of pushing back against the status quo. The first teacher she recognizes is a 10th grade ELA teacher, Jerica Coffey, teaching in a public charter high school in East Los Angeles. Ms. Coffey works with her students to develop the idea of a warrior-scholar mentality, explaining that “she developed this concept as a way to communicate to students her commitment to a vision of literacy linked to self- and social empowerment” (24). Students embraced this commitment and recognized their voices, taking actions like writing to their state governor about the juvenile justice system. The second teacher, Ashley Englander, also a 10th grade teacher, works at a traditional public high school in East Los Angeles. Ms. Englander serves as a “bridge-builder” between the smaller community of her students and families and the larger community in which they live. She does this by taking traditionally taught texts, like Night by Elie Wiesel, and moving the conversation beyond oppression and resistance during to Holocaust to these same concepts in their lives and communities today, using a research article to “provoke discussion about the role of schools as institutions of either marginalization or empowerment for students” (29). For teachers fostering ideas of empowerment through literacy, these two teacher leaders could serve as exemplars for what challenging the status quo looks like in a high school setting. 

In chapter 2, Mirra stresses the need to develop engaged and thoughtful citizens through the use of structured debate as demonstrated in New York City public middle schools. She presents the idea that making slight changes to the way debate is implemented can “build relational trust and democratic community within classrooms and across schools” and “foster the development of critical civic empathy” (36). Debates possess mutual respect, discourse, and structure, which is seemingly nonexistent in today’s political climate. Our students are constantly exposed to what Mirra refers to as “ferocious verbal sparring” (35) in both formal and informal settings, especially with the presidential election looming. The thought of reimagining the purpose of debate as a trust- and community-building task represents the ability to empathize may seem like a daunting task for today’s educators. 

The chapter goes on to present Mirra’s research exploring how students in the Middle School Quality Initiative (MSQI) in New York City responded to debate. Overall, participation in debate “benefited students’ academic literacy and critical-thinking skills…, and also their dispositions toward critical consciousness and civic engagement” (38). Ben Honoroff, a colleague of Mirra’s, was able to use the power of debate to give life to a school struggling with low test scores, declining enrollment, and the negative effects of gentrification. It should be noted that Honoroff was able to unify the school using a curriculum called Word Generation to address a high interest debate topic once a week across the entire school. While this curriculum is composed of vocabulary-rich interdisciplinary units, its implementation seems highly unlikely in the traditional public school setting considering the pressure of state testing and strict adherence to common core standards.

Youth participatory action research (YPAR), the central idea of Chapter 3, is defined as “the practice of encouraging young people to develop their own research questions about topics that are meaningful to them and related to issues or challenges they see reflected in their communities” (53). Mirra argues that YPAR can foster empathy by helping young people see their own thoughts, experiences, and voices as valued. Writing shifts from research to YPAR when “the three Ps” are taken into account: “purpose, practice, and positioning” (55). Purpose allows students to challenge the narrative, practice gives students the ability to create their own schooling experience, and positioning shows students as experts of their experiences. Mirra especially notes the benefit of YPAR with students from minoritized communities. She states that “young people who have grown up listening to dominant narratives about their communities- narratives that often highlight problems and risks—often begin to internalize deficit-oriented views of themselves and their peers” (67). The YPAR process seeks to help minoritized students change the narrative through “counter-storytelling grounded in community cultural wealth” (67), allowing them to do something about problems in their communities and not just place blame.

Chapter 4 focuses on the use of technology in and outside of the classroom and is well worth reading. Mirra claims that technology is damaging empathy by taking away both trust and perspective-taking as students are unable to pick up on non-verbal clues and online activity is impacting self-esteem as others post their fake and elaborate lives on social media. As access to technology increases, classroom disputes that either stem from or are further developed outside of school through social media and internet access routinely disrupt our classrooms. 

The second part of this chapter delves into the ways teachers can use technology. Mirra suggests that teachers need to help students “leverage these tools to achieve the kinds of academically oriented, peer-supported, and interest-driven learning outcomes that the tools can facilitate” (84). She adds that this “takes dedicated pedagogy and a mindset change” (84). To support her initial statement that there is a need for more collective empathy, Mirra introduces the idea of Connected Learning vs. the 21st Century Skills, differentiating that the first focuses on a collective advancement whereas the second lends itself to individual advancement. This chapter offers the definitions of each principle within connected learning and suggests ways teachers can incorporate connected learning skills that are meaningful to students and give them a buy-in rather than using technology just to please administration. These principles are useful for all teachers to engage in at every professional level. 

Mirra shifts in Chapter 5 to distinguish between Politics with a capital P and politics with a lowercase p with the former being our traditional view of political parties with elections and the latter encompassing the way our ideas about Politics plays a role in our everyday lives. This chapter strikes a chord as it first challenges the teacher to incorporate and facilitate more conversations within the classroom that allow students to become civically engaged in the community. This is a daunting idea to teachers as it is written in some districts’ handbooks that discussions must not lead into the political realm and stay focused on the curriculum. Mirra then shares a survey conducted with high school English teachers about the purposes of teaching reading. The study revealed that teachers identified college preparation as the first purpose whereas civic duty fell in the middle. Where this chapter becomes worth the read is when Mirra describes her beliefs that “teaching is an act of civic engagement” (100), but it is not enough; she believes we need to participate as private citizens as well. She further defends this by reiterating that every choice we make promotes beliefs, values, and actions and thus is political. Mirra argues that fostering civic empathy must start with our own involvement and teachers should reflect on how we are getting civically engaged in the community. This reflection will help teachers better understand the dynamics in the community that impact their students. 

In her conclusion, Mirra states that her goal in writing was to “demonstrate how the foundational activities of literary analysis…can be transformed into opportunities for encouraging mutual humanization and community social action” (102). However, this book is clearly geared toward the high school level and above. For elementary teachers, more research would be needed to find ways to bring civic empathy and engagement into practice with younger children. Though inspirational in nature, implementation is problematic at the elementary level due to a lack of models for developmentally appropriate activities. Middle school implementation is possible through the use of thoughtfully selected texts and community collaboration, but the high school level offers the easiest pathways to implementation, especially in larger urban settings, due to Mirra’s presentation of research, examples, and resources in those areas. 

Book Review: We Got This: Equity Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be by Cornelius Minor

Written by Gwen Dandrea, Kristen Mascitelli, and Morgan Schwalbe

Introduction

Cornelius Minor’s, We Got This: Equity Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be, is an empowering resource that emphasizes the importance of effectively listening to your students, changing the way you teach to best support learning, and working towards more inclusive practices. Minor identifies tools, traits, and strategies that help teachers craft effective and meaningful instruction to reach the diverse learning styles in our classrooms today. One of his most valuable messages is the importance of listening to your students. Much of his book is devoted to learning how to truly listen in order to meet the needs of all your students. Minor (2019) begins with this powerful quote that summarizes his beliefs, “Our journey starts with an understanding that no great good can be done for a people if we do not listen to them first. Powerful teaching is rooted in powerful listening” (p. xi). 

The book is broken into 2 parts: Part 1 – This Ain’t Everybody’s Hero Story – It’s Yours and Part 2 – Taking Your Dreams off Deferment. The first part focuses primarily on the idea that teachers have important powers and responsibilities. Teachers must not only understand our students, but also act on that understanding. It is also our responsibility to recognize the need for change and effectively find ways to better serve our students. The second part focuses on the circumstances that teachers are presented with every day and how to create a space where kids feel safe. Lastly, Minor urges educators to truly reflect on curriculum and the way we teach in order to be the best employee/teacher we can be. “Any curriculum or program that we buy, adopt, or create is incomplete until it includes our students and until it includes us” (p. 104). The power is ours to have and it is imperative that we act upon it. “We got this!” 

Chapter 1 – Begin by Listening 

“We lose lots of human capital each year because people bearing essential insights and experiences are wearing labels that we’ve been conditioned to ignore” (p. 11). In chapter one, Cornelius Minor explains that testing and mandates are problems, but they are underbosses to the real enemy; business as usual attitudes, binary thinking, and inflexibility. He tells us that each time we accept a label for ourselves; we are not covering our whole humanity. If we continue to do things as they have always been done our students become data points. 

Minor does an excellent job of hooking teachers in with relatable examples. For instance, some teacher labels are new teacher, veteran, admin, rural, suburban, and urban. Wherever you are in your teaching career, you are one or more of those labels. By making the reader think of herself as a label, Minor triggers feelings of empathy for students.

“The antidote to all of this – our teacher superpower – is not some mythical teacher goodness or hyperbolic self-sacrifice” (p. 11). Our superpower is listening. There are three components: the act of listening, naming what we think we heard and planning a response, and making active and long-term adjustments. One of the things he encourages us to do is to build a bridge between what we do in class and our students’ lives right now. Teaching is dialogue and it is important to be clear about why an experience is happening in our classroom. Although listening will not make teaching easier, it will give us our children back.

In summary, we need to listen to what students are really communicating and teach them how to use their voices. We must allow children to have choices so they will not feel the need to fight the teacher as an authority figure. When this happens, you become a better teacher. It is not always easy to stand up for children, but by listening, that is exactly what the teacher can do. 

Chapter 2 – You Can Disrupt the Status Quo in Your Class

“When our vision for kids and for classrooms is guided by a community’s vision for their own children, our work becomes real to children and to parents” (p. 28). In chapter two, Minor discusses the need to disrupt the status quo in the classroom. He shares a story about a student named Jeff. In this story, Minor does not stop to think about Jeff’s need for routine. Rather he thinks of his own need to have his students finish a project. At the end, he realizes that he understands Jeff, but that he did not act on that understanding. He goes on to tell us that racism, sexism, ableism, and classism are systems. 

“The hard part of knowing that oppression lives in systems too is understanding that systems don’t change just because we identify them; they change because we disrupt them” (p. 31). Minor explains the importance of understanding that identifying these systems will not change them. He offers some actions that can influence how to identify what can be changed “right now” in order disrupt the status quo. By changing the status quo, students are able to be included. Being included does not mean that you are simply present. It means that you are in a place where you are able to thrive. Education has ensured that power has not shifted due to our established systems. Minor argues that we need to make a shift in that power. “When considering if I am doing the right thing, I’ve got to define what the right thing is. To me, the right thing is any practice that gives children greater access to literacy, to math, to the arts, to science. To power.” (p. 44).

In conclusion, it is okay to make mistakes. As long as you are thinking about and striving for the maximum number of students to have productive access to classwork, you will be attempting to disrupt the status quo. The ultimate goal is to work toward more inclusive practices for the whole community. 

Chapter 3 – Do You Homework and Then Go for It 

“Sometimes the things that we have to do become tradition, and as tradition ages sometimes those practices do not serve all children. Sometimes we have to change an established way of doing things in order to better serve our kids. Most times, changes that enrich the student experience are sought and welcomed, but sometimes the need for change surprises or eludes us altogether” (p. 49). As educators, we often become so accustomed to our teaching practices that we fail to recognize the need for change. Other times we conform or comply in silence in order to not rock the boat or upset the establishment. 

In chapter three, Minor calls for the urgency in teachers to recognize a need for change to ensure that we are reaching all students. He first emphasizes that this will take time and involves true self-reflection. “After all, it takes time to be a hero” (p. 49). A blank template is provided with questions that help recognize the need for change. These questions focus on what is not working for our students and other teachers, ways to be more effective, and why the need for change. 

Once you have decided the change that needs to be made, it is vital to focus on how that change would most benefit your students. This requires research and time spent following “your hunch” to find the best answer or approach to implement your vision. An informal research template is shared to aid in this inquiry. 

Next, Minor urges you to decide what to do and make a plan for the change. He encourages you to reach out to colleagues, coaches or mentors to assist in this process so that others can support your vision and prepare you for the journey ahead. In order to attempt change in this way, it is also important to be prepared to “make it happen”. Be sure to realize that this change should be small in scale and not yet ready to take on the entire system. The following suggestions are offered when making your plan

  • Imagine how this change might happen.
  • Select a small population of students to study.
  • Make a five-day plan for how you will implement the changes you have chosen.
  • Choose how you will measure the impact that your work is having on students.
  • Decide how you will share your findings. 

Now, it is time to set that plan in action. Minor reminds the reader to be prepared that it may not go as planned. It is important to continually revise your plan as you begin to implement the change. People will support you if your plan is well researched, thought out, and based on data produced from your classroom. Keep in mind your reason for change and ultimately have your students’ best interests at heart. 

Finally, and maybe most importantly “find a productive way to say no”. It is vital to recognize that not all change is good, the need for change may vary, and that things may not go well from the beginning. There are many variables that affect what we value in our classrooms. Minor emphasizes how our values and the students we teach impact our decisions to make a change. 

In conclusion, chapter three provides a structure for identifying and changing things that are not effective in the classroom. Minor’ rules of conduct for change advises that you do some reflection, conduct research, make a plan for implementation, determine the impact of the change, and finally communicate your findings with administration. “This work is not about saying no just because we do not like a thing. This is about carefully considering the needs of our students and using our no power to ensure they get what they need” (p. 70). 

Chapter 4 – Show Kids That You Hear Them

As educators, how quickly do we take our students and turn them into enemies (p. 80)? This powerful chapter urges teachers to ask ourselves this profound question and truly reflect on how we view our children. Are we quick to judge students with disabilities? Do we characterize them based on their behavior? For whatever reasons, our unspoken actions and reactions often do not allow us to look deeper into our students’ beliefs and perceptions. “The kids are not the enemy. They are simply responding to the things in their world in the best ways they know how” (p. 80). It is up to us as educators to simply listen to them. 

The idea in this chapter is to show kids that you hear them. As a classroom teacher, we have the power to create a space where “kids feel safe” and will in turn become active listeners holding the same power as you. One suggestion is to plan for and hold regular classroom meetings. Minor believes that these simple meetings will build rapport with your students and work towards maintaining a successful classroom community. Meetings can address many topics and can take place in many unlikely places throughout the day. “These meetings do more than feed you information. They give your students the experience of being heard” (p. 83). The relationship building that occurs during this time is so valuable in allowing your children’s voices to be heard. Providing the time and structure of a classroom meeting will greatly impact your classroom practices. 

It is also important to hear your students through designated feedback. Giving students the opportunity to be heard shows that you value them and their opinion. It also allows students to work on self-improvement and positive communication. Minor asks for feedback in these three areas: use of time, the clarity of his demonstrations, and how well assignments and assessments are constructed. These areas help to build trust, student engagement, and a positive classroom community. He believes that after time with these types of feedback will in turn “condition” them to begin to discuss your teaching practices and how to better suit their individual needs. 

Finally, Minor calls for a shift from a punitive to an instructive mind-set. “We often assume that kids know and have what it takes to succeed in our classroom. This is a dangerous assumption to make, because it leaves so many children without a way to access success” (p. 92). This profound statement challenges educators to again show kids you hear them by providing them the skills and resources to be successful. Being prepared for the challenges that lie ahead allows you to begin that shift in mindset. A blueprint for shifting your mindset is provided to facilitate success each week and finding ways to help each other in the classroom. These approaches will help foster a sense of community, as well as a shift towards student independence. 

“My job as a teacher is not to teach the curriculum or even to just teach the students; it is to seek to understand my kids as completely as possible so that I can purposefully bend curriculum to meet them” (p. 101).

Chapter 5 – Make Curriculum Work for Your Kids

“Crafting and sustaining an inclusive approach and pairing that with academic content takes insight and time and research and resources that I don’t always have” (p. 105). Chapter five focuses on learning experiences that are accessible and meaningful to students. In order to create curriculum and lessons that students can access, we need to know our students. By understanding students’ background knowledge and learning styles, we can help students create connections between curriculum and their own experiences. 

Minor shared several ideas for teachers to think about when planning from a curriculum that we have been given. He said when we are working with a Universal Design Framework (p. 109), we should think about how individual children seem to respond when we… 

  • … consider different ways that the information that I present can be represented? 
  • … create different opportunities for action and expression in the classroom? 
  • … foster multiple ways to sustain engagement? 

By readjusting our instruction to meet the needs of the students in our classroom, we create more opportunities for them to experience success. 

Additionally, Minor talked about the importance of teacher collaboration. Whether it is planning or just conversing with a colleague, these conversations about curriculum allow us to determine how to best deliver our instruction and make it accessible for all students. Minor’s chart about dissecting a lesson (p. 116) encourages teachers to look at curriculum through a different lens to focus on purpose, importance, delivery, assessment and reflection. 

Finally, Minor addresses a topic that many teachers can relate to test prep. “It has been well documented that standardization, assessment and measurement are not bad things at all. But an unhealthy emphasis on any of these things can be detrimental to a learning community and harmful to children” (p. 119). While test prep is a reality in many schools, he reminds us that test prep is not teaching. It is more of helping students apply what they already know in different situations. Minor’s final reminder is that it is most important to be mindful of how we are presenting information that is effective and meaningful for all of our students. 

Chapter 6 – Being a Good Teacher Versus Being a Good Employee

“When we want to be self-determining in terms of our professional growth, the first thing that we can do is believe that things can be different” (p. 129). Minor focused on the importance of teacher mindset. Our attitudes towards any aspects of our career drive our decisions and expectations. It is time for a shift in our thinking when we begin to complain and gossip about things happening in school. 

Minor provides a number of tools to engage in mindset work. It is important for us to be open to advice from others. Searching for creative ideas to incorporate into the classroom betters our instructional practice. Setting goals and communicating them with students, colleagues and administration helps to hold us accountable for following through with mindset work. 

Keeping a universal design framework in mind, feedback is a key component in this process. “There are three kinds of feedback that I consistently seek in school – mine, kids’, and colleagues’. Most times I seek them in that order” (p. 137). Being reflective as a teacher enables us to determine strengths and areas of growth. Student feedback is important because they are the ones being directly impacted by our instructional decisions. Feedback can be evident in a number of ways, especially in students. We need to focus on the verbal and nonverbal feedback because this can be powerful. Being receptive to feedback from colleagues allows us to grow professionally, too. 

As teachers, our ultimate goal is to help students be successful in and out of the classroom. Having a reflective approach towards our teaching allows us to be a great teacher instead of just a good employee. We can inspire positive change within the school system and empower our students to be responsible for their own learning. 

Conclusion

We would recommend this book to any educator who is looking for a way to change or improve their classroom practices. It is a quick and easy read to help navigate change, make curriculum relevant, and provide equal opportunities to all students by simply listening to what they have to say. Additionally, a user-friendly book provides a number of graphic organizers to help teachers be more reflective in their own teaching. Minor’s ideas and theories are applicable across grade levels, fields of study and diverse socioeconomic school settings. 

In conclusion, this text is a powerful resource for teachers who are seeking individual growth as an educator. By focusing on equity, collaboration and engagement, Minor provides countless opportunities for teachers to reflect on their own instructional practices and make small adjustments that can have a long lasting impact on student achievement. Minor’s ultimate goal is to inspire teachers of all levels to promote change and to be heroes in their own classrooms. 

Book Review: Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen

Written by Katie O’Neill, Kimberly DiBiasi and Michelle Ruiz

In Pose, Wobble Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literary Instruction by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen, readers gain strategies for incorporating literacy into their diverse classrooms. Acting as professors to pre-service teachers in Colorado, the authors of this text emphasize that teachers should strongly consider what they hear from their students, as well as the contextual factors impacting their students’ lives, not just the standards laid out in the curriculum. They argue that these factors should shape and guide a teacher’s instruction, rather than simply following a one size fits all, curriculum-based approach to teaching literacy. To accomplish this goal, the authors suggest that readers must do three things: pose, wobble, and flow. 

Posing entails teachers taking a stance on particular topic or idea, both within their classrooms and beyond. In order to establish a pose, however, the authors suggest that you must first wobble. By wobble, the authors intend for you to struggle and be open to different perspectives and stances, often going outside of your comfort zone. As the authors state, “It (wobble) causes us to stare and consider. Wobble taps us on the shoulder and induces us to ask why. It nudges us towards action” (Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen, 6). Flow is the ultimate goal that one accomplishes after a period of wobbling; “This harmonious and effortless state occurs when we feel immersed in achieving a worthwhile goal that is precisely appropriate for our level of ability” (7). The authors intertwine this framework throughout the text and use it to organize each of their six poses that they present in the text, making it an easy and enjoyable read. 

Garcia and O’Donnell-Allen’s first chapter leads teachers through the development and maintenance of their first pose, culturally proactive teaching, which they claim ties together all of the other poses in the text and helps teachers to achieve the ultimate goal, “praxis.” The authors define praxis as “that inextricable union between critical reflection on oppressive conditions and the social action necessary to transform the world into a more just and equitable place” (17). They admit the difficulty, awkwardness and discomfort that culturally proactive teaching entails, as it involves dealing with issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, but they also emphasize the powerful end result. The authors’ use of bullet points and sidebars summarize this pose well, helping teachers to understand the key features of culturally proactive teaching: questioning existing inequalities in your school and society, anticipating students’ needs, adapting teaching to students’ interests, forming your own cultural personality, reflecting on how it impacts your teaching, incorporating your students’ backgrounds into your teaching, and teaching literacy skills with the purpose of using them for social change. The authors suggest that teachers must reflect deeply and “recognizing that you possess privilege is the first step in using your unearned power for good” in order to achieve this pose (20). This message may be difficult for some readers to hear, but it adds to the overarching theme of wobbling in order to achieve flow. The authors end with a call for readers to disrupt the status quo and work with other teachers to enact change and bring about a greater sense of culturally proactive teaching. In the final lines of the chapter, the authors reiterate Bob Fecho’s powerful message; “The idea is not to achieve perfection, but to incline toward perfection” (30) This ideology of making change one step and one day at a time is one that all teachers can apply to their own classrooms and lives. 

While the first chapter focused on a shift in teaching ideology and general teaching practices, the second chapter’s focus was more language arts specific. In this section the authors introduce the pose of “hacking,” one they claim will lead to culturally proactive teaching. As put simply in the opening lines of the chapter, hacking means we as teachers must “figure out how to fiddle with it in order to improve it” (33). While the authors acknowledge that this may be a difficult pose for new teachers, they challenge all teachers to wobble in this area. They align the traditional classroom to a “banking model,” suggesting that teachers actively deposit knowledge into students and then later withdraw it for the purpose of assessment. In this relatable and accurate model, the authors emphasize the passive and meaningless role that many students have in their own learning. In contrast, the authors suggest that teachers enact changes to create an environment that supports vulnerable learning, views learning as production oriented, and positions and views students as makers. Furthermore the authors encourage teachers to wobble by pushing back against systemic constraints that could limit student learning. Rather than the traditional banking model, the authors present scenarios and examples of vulnerable and inquiry driven learning where students learn that not knowing something is an essential part of creativity and of learning. This pushes students towards their “learning edge” where they can “take risks to consider new perspectives and ideas…to consciously take risks to learn something new” (37). The authors reiterate the importance of creating a safe and nurturing environment with clearly established norms in order for students to allow themselves to be vulnerable and engage in this new style of learning. As always, it must start with the teacher; “By taking on the pose of Teacher as Hacker, you can be a powerful model for your students that learning involves vulnerability, uncertainty and change” (34). The authors conclude with concrete and adaptable examples and activities to support teachers in establishing this flow in their own classrooms. 

In the third chapter, a call to teaching social change through civic engagement is prominent. Antero and O’Donnell-Allen suggest that teaching reading and writing civically is our duty as educators and should be done using specific audiences and with tangible results our students can see. Some ways they suggest accomplishing this is through the use of technology, which students connect to more today than they ever have. “Henry Jenkins, et al. write, ‘Participatory culture is emerging as the culture that absorbs, and responds to the explosion of new media technologies that make it possible for the average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways’” (63). The access to digital information expands the platform for civic education and allows it to transcend from the classroom into the real world much easier than in the past. It also allows for more accessible topics to be discussed. Although examples in the text include using events such as Ferguson and the slaying of Michael Brown, which are much heavier than our fourth graders can handle, they can still become involved civically through events happening in Springfield or even in Philadelphia via newsfeeds, blog posts or local news sites. Teaching them to have a voice and a stance young can also give them confidence in their writing that can grow and evolve throughout the years so that they are ready to handle the more weighty topics Antero and O’Donnell-Allen described.

Following chapter three’s focus on civic education, chapter four discusses the pose, wobble and flow of turning the teacher into a writer, which was quite an abrupt shift in topics. To establish ourselves as writers, the authors suggest creating a routine for ourselves. “To write requires doing what writers do. Writers must create routines and habits that help them embody their writing identities” (79). By creating this routine for ourselves, we are able to reflect upon our preferences as a writer and apply those ideas in our classroom, which can sometimes feel like it’s easier said than done when so much starts to pile up. What Antero and O’Donnell-Allen do well here, though, is remind us that we need to experience the role of writer if we’re going to teach children how to be writers, which means making the time to write. “To adopt a Teacher as Writer pose means to commit fully to being a writer.” Our students need to see us struggle, they need to see us enjoy ourselves and they need to see us in our writing identity if they are to be writers themselves. This is a great reminder to educators that it’s acceptable to make mistakes and struggle in front of our students.

Chapter five focuses on rethinking reading in the classroom. It expands the idea of “text” and “reading” to explain the wobble teachers face in repositioning themselves as curators in their classrooms, schools and districts. Wobbling with curation means becoming an attentive reader. Teachers are the ones who help create a love of reading to their students. We need to be thinking about the types of books that are chosen for students. We cannot think of just creating a list of “right” books, but instead pick books that promote culturally proactive teaching. We have to think of the students who sit in front of us each day. As educators, it is our job to teach the classics, but not only the classics. We can not forget that our students want to read about issues that happen in their lives. It is our job to blend these types of books for our students and give them a choice. “A guiding principle to remember is that the texts that count in your classroom and in your teaching practice are the texts that you curate as valuable” (93). Our students will value what we value. We need to show our students that we read and not only one genre. They learn from us, so it is important for them to see us read a variety of books and struggle through some of them. “To see themselves as readers, students must also have opportunities to make decisions about what they will read” (98). Not only do teachers need to be curators for their students, but for themselves. Teachers need to remember the importance of reading education research and not just for them, but to share with their fellow teachers, so everyone’s teaching can be enhanced. 

The book concludes with the pose of the Teacher as Designer. We need to shape culturally proactive classroom space, but also think of the other spaces for learning. Classroom learning is limiting, there are many obstacles that teachers face, which are out of their control, but we need to learn how to push through those obstacles and become the designer of our classroom. “The world, be it a classroom, a home, a park, a student commute from home to bus to school, must be understood and read” (109). Any space can be turned into a learning environment. Students come into the classroom with feelings regarding school, it is our job to change those negative feelings and create an environment that is welcoming. Students need to feel that they belong and they have ownership within the classroom. Students should be part of the design of their classroom. Technology has become a huge part of the classroom design, but if technology is not used effectively, it just takes up space in the room. In attempts to fix long-standing educational problems, technology is added to classrooms. Without proper training, the technology will do nothing to fix the problem in the school. The pose of Teacher as Designer should not stop at the classroom door. We need to support students inside and outside of our classrooms. The classroom needs to be a place where literacy is taught, but it should not end there. We need to engage the students beyond the classroom. Finding your “flow” can take time and you will most likely experience some big-time fails, but when working with your students, you can create a learning environment that works for everyone. When students help design their learning environment, they are more willing to feel a connection to the space and in turn learn more easily. The space needs to be a place where they can be heard and should reflect their culture. Remember that as you wobble with the pose of Teacher as Designer, don’t get discouraged, you will find your flow, but it might take some trial and error. 

This text has many features that make it accessible and applicable for a variety of educators. For educators like us that have limited time for professional reading, this book serves as a great guide, providing modifications and changes that teachers can implement immediately to support and encourage a classroom that is accepting of diversity. Each chapter is a blend of specific teacher-student scenarios and a follow up description by the author of how this pose or ideology can be applied in the classroom. In addition to success stories, the authors were willing to share failures. These relatable scenarios make the reader feel that they are not alone in their wobble. 

The organization and theme of “Pose, Wobble, Flow” permeate throughout the chapters. Even though different cultural stances are discussed in each of the six chapters, there is a consistency that incorporates the larger framework of pose, wobble and flow. This makes the text a predictable and flexible read. Similarly later chapters reference earlier chapters and “poses” from the text so that readers are constantly reminded of previously discussed concepts and see how they connect. One could sit down and focus on a single chapter or stance at a time, or read the entire text in one sitting. 

As readers, our biggest take away is that as modern educators, we need to push ourselves outside of comfort zones in order to create a culturally relevant classroom. It is imperative for us to struggle in order to recognize the struggles of our own students. For some teachers this struggle is about being open to sharing oneself within the classroom in order to connect and understand one’s students. The authors emphasized how it is the responsibility of the teacher to draw a connection between the lessons in the classroom and the real world. This might also include changing your perspective from “my classroom” to “our classroom.” The authors provide relevant strategies for collaboration. 

As much as the authors discuss the pose, wobble, flow concept and make it relatable and meaningful for teachers of all grade levels, many of the examples used in the text are not applicable in our fourth grade classroom. All of the sample scenarios are set in an urban classroom setting where teachers have more discretion to discuss controversial topics. As fourth grade teachers in a conservative, suburban school district, we have to be more careful about what we do and say in our classrooms. We noted this continually while reading the different scenarios and poses. Additionally, regardless of demographics, our fourth graders do not have the developmental maturity or experience to handle these weighty topics. Therefore, secondary teachers may benefit more so from this text than elementary teachers. While we were able to make connections and find applications throughout the text, we feel that the scenarios are better suited for an upper level teacher. 

Book Review: Renew! Become a Better and More Authentic Writing Teacher by Shawna Coppola

Written by Robyn Chegwidden, Amanda Dudek, and David Richard

Take everything that you know about the “writing process” and put it on hold. Shawna Coppola challenges the effectiveness and orthodoxy of every aspect of what it means to be a writing teacher. At times cheerleader, at others a scold, Coppola leads the reader through many different methods of teaching emerging writers their craft.

 “The minute—no, the very second—that we believe we have done all we can for our student writers—that we have learned all there is to learn about, say, teaching them how to write satisfying conclusions, or how to generate ideas for writing—well, that is also the very second we become less effective.”

The author contends that there is no one way to reach a finished project and many of the traditional methods may not be helpful to all students. Rather than a linear process that begins with a “brainstorm” on through a finished, polished final draft, the writing process may take many different routes. Rubrics may be too confining. Five paragraphs may not be enough. Five paragraphs may be too much. Indeed, limiting the process at the outset does both the author and the evaluator a disservice. Donald Graves, largely hailed as the creator of the early ideas regarding the writing process says:

“Don’t be fooled by the order in which I describe the writing process. I have to use words, which follow each other in systematic and conventional fashion, for you to understand what I am about. This suggests that thoughts follow in a systematic order for everyone. Not so.” (Grave 2003, 220-221)          

Coppola is nothing if not passionate about her subject. Her anecdotes, gained from sixteen years as a public-school teacher and mother of two, illustrate the practices that she wishes to challenge. Are rubrics helpful? What should a graphic organizer look like? How is a story told? What should the revision process look like? What is the most effective way to grade? In the end, the most important idea about writing is that the story gets told. This can be accomplished either through visual composition, written word, or a combination of both. All these topics and more are discussed in her easy to read, 100-page work. The author includes many different ideas and concepts with which to assess our own writing pedagogy in the ongoing struggle to meet the ever-evolving needs of our students in a constantly changing social environment.

           Renew! is easy to read; it is aimed at those that teach emerging writers in the elementary grades. Secondary school teachers may find that much of the content is inapplicable to students in high school, but this detraction is ameliorated by the upbeat tone and lively language of the author. There are so many different techniques offered that there is guaranteed to be something for every teacher of writing to apply in the classroom. Renew!Become a Better—and More Authentic Writing Teacher, is sure to offer some new ideas for all. It is Coppola’s hope that we all can internalize a habit of rethinking, revising, and most–important –renewing our teaching practices.  

Book Review: Being the Change by Sara Ahmed

Written by Danielle Agan and Karen Friel

Sara K. Ahmed offers an equitable approach to fostering social comprehension in the classroom through her book, Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Ahmed offers a personal approach to teaching social comprehension through the lens of a Muslim American identity. The introduction of this text is not one to be skimmed over. Ahmed gets the reader ready to face their own social comprehension and the work ahead by providing essential questions and guiding principles to reflect upon. As she states, “we have an obligation to make kids feel visible” (2). Now, more than ever, we have an obligation to create a space that feels safe and accepting for all of our students, which is the focal point of this text. The text guides a teacher and class through an entire school year, offering the progression of teaching social comprehension, while providing detailed lesson plans and mentor texts as resources in chapters one through five. In chapter six, the text is concluded with thoughtful reflection and reminders with how to proceed into the future and the importance of celebrating identity. 

Ahmed’s personal voice is strong and passionate about the topic in this easy to read book. She offers several mentor texts and resources to get a teacher started with incorporating lessons on identity into the classroom. This is a great tool for a beginning teacher, or a veteran teacher who is looking to incorporate social comprehension into their curriculum. Ahmed does not fall short in offering a plethora of resources including: picture books, poetry, short stories, short story anthologies, novels, nonfiction, and videos. All of these resources are equipped with appropriate lessons that are detailed and spelled out for the educator. The text is embedded with scripted dialog, or “teacher talk,” so if you are someone who would like this as an support, or are not yet comfortable with social comprehension, it is available to you. However, it is easy to skim over due to the different font and color, so if you prefer just to focus on the lesson itself, this can be easily done. 

The versatility of the lessons and mentor texts makes this an appealing read for teachers K-12. As mentioned before, Ahmed leaves no stone unturned, and packs the book with mentor texts for all levels. In chapter one, Ahmed informs the reader how to “affirm our identities” through identity webs. This lesson begins with a mentor text in order to give the students a model of what an identity web is and how to create it. Then, the students are in charge of creating a definition of identity. Together they brainstorm and jot down words that come to mind on a giant piece of chart paper. From there, the work of social comprehension can begin. The goal of an identity web is to get to know your students while also starting to bridge connections between the kids and yourself. It is a way to initiate the process of learning about each other in a safe space. Ahmed thinks of just about everything with her lessons, including a “follow-up” section and an “addressing tensions” section to coach you, the teacher, through difficult situations that may arise in the classroom. 

Overall, Being the Change would be a strong book to add to your collection of professional development books. Ahmed’s passion about social comprehension resonantes through each page and guides any reader through activities that are ready for the classroom. As reviewers, Karen and Danielle are in very different stages in their careers. Danielle is a first year teacher. She teaches 7th grade English Language Arts, and was able to try these activities in her own classroom. She started at chapter one and is now on chapter three, and plans to continue progressing through the lessons until the end of the school year. Her biggest takeaway is that even if you do not follow each lesson exactly, it is about making a safe space for identity and differences. Karen has been teaching for seven years, as a reading specialist. While she teaches small groups and does not have a classroom of her own, she realizes the importance of having ongoing conversations around social comprehension. Karen highly recommends Chapter 2 – Listening with Love. She agrees with Ahmed’s beliefs that by teaching active, empathic listening real communities are built which strengthen real learning.

Book Review: Oh, Yeah?! Putting Arguments to Work Both in School and Out by Amy Ahart

As part of an independent book study for the Reading and Writing Argumentative Texts course, Amy Ahart created the following flyer. The advertisement highlights key parts of the book that directly affect English instruction.

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After checking out some of the key concepts in this book, what do you want to learn more about? What are some of your go-to professional texts for teaching argument writing?