National Writing Project

Book Review: Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom

By: Vanessa Brown
Date: February 17, 2010

Summary: Vanessa Brown, director of the Philadelphia Writing Project, outlines how Linda Christensen uses her critical pedagogy to confront the challenges of high-stakes curricular mandates for schools while promoting social justice with and for her students.

 

NWP In Person: Linda Christensen

Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom is a must-have resource text for 21st century educators who teach high school English or language arts because of author Linda Christensen's belief that teachers and their students must find joy in the classroom so that they can define and possess justice in their lives. This joy, she asserts, grows from a focus on student lives and the communities in which they live.

That emphasis also makes a profound statement to practitioners and policymakers who are grappling with the complex task of stemming the tide of school failure in our neediest communities.

Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom is a compelling narrative of the social justice instructional practices that Christensen refined while teaching and leading at Jefferson and Grant high schools, two large, diverse, beleaguered high schools in Portland, Oregon, and as a professional development provider in those schools as part of her work as director of the Oregon Writing Project at Lewis and Clark College.

An extension of her earlier book Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word , this book once again shares Christensen's expertise for building and sustaining a supportive learning community that seamlessly knits literacy skill development with personal story, history, language, and culture. Because of this emphasis on the personal, students and teachers will find a natural intersection between classroom focus, social justice, and human agency.

Her beliefs and impassioned practices—30 years in the making—which frame her picture of a social justice classroom and give rise to the community action projects that follow every unit, have been informed and shaped not only by the stories of her students' lives, but by her own life story as well. She spent her childhood in the same working-class neighborhoods as her students, where she survived dysfunctional family dynamics similar to those affecting many of her students.

Teaching with a 'Curricular Conscience'

In her introduction, she speaks of "curricular conscience," a term that describes the role played by her critical pedagogy group as they "used each other as a sounding board as we developed curriculum to engage our students in literacy and history by critically examining their lives and the world."

In the seven chapters that follow she makes this conscience transparent with meticulous descriptions of how she facilitates the crafting of text from her students' lives and how she connects these texts to the mandates of her school system.

Rigor and high expectations need not be the sacrificial lambs on the altar of literacy development.

She centers reading, writing, thinking, talking, and listening in the lives and histories of the young people with whom she works—finding parallels among nonfiction accounts, fictional events and characters, and the needs of the surrounding community.

Her accessible narrative and the reproducible handouts of writing and task samples that follow each chapter provide supportive direction for teachers looking for new ways to imagine their language arts classrooms.

"My years of working in a critical collaborative community taught me to construct curriculum around ideas that matter and that connect students to their community and world," writes Christensen.

Christensen's tone is familiar, inviting readers into the story of her personal and professional life. Beginning with her first chapter on writing poetry, she describes building community while working on academics. By the time I reached the middle of chapter 3, which includes an activity titled Writing Wild Essays from Hard Ground, I found that I had unwittingly joined her Portland community of critical pedagogy educators and her students.

Social Action and Language Arts Curriculum

For readers who may fear that there is no time in today's classrooms for community building and social justice practices given the demands and mandates that have accompanied No Child Left Behind legislation, Christensen points out that rigor and high expectations need not be the sacrificial lambs on the altar of literacy development.

Into the World, the final activity of the book, which closes out the unit "Language and Power," takes students "beyond the classroom walls to work with diverse audiences, so they can teach others about the politics of language," providing a fitting illustration of the links between social action and the language arts curriculum. Students write poetry, narratives, and academic essays; study literature in the context of historical and fictional characters; and explore the complexities of language and politics.

By the book's end, teacher-readers are assured that they can sustain self-respect, identity, and human agency in the classroom. They can command rigor and high standards in the same classroom where they can create validation, accomplishment, identity, and assurance, but most of all hope.

Vanessa Brown is director of the Philadelphia Writing Project and a Thinking Partner for the Urban Sites Network.

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