Teaching from the inside out

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Teaching For Joy and Justice: Re-imagining the Language Arts Classroom – the title makes it sound so easy to do! In her most recent book Linda Christensen offers a combination of practical solutions, theoretical frameworks, and inspirational anecdotes for teachers who attempt each and every day to make their classrooms sites of just and joyful learning.

As a lifelong and award-winning public school teacher, Christensen speaks from a place of wisdom and expertise. She also speaks to the “skill and artistry” needed for teachers to create authentic learning spaces for children. She advocates for both students and teachers. She is the veteran teacher you pray to have working down the hall from you.

With Teaching for Joy and Justice, Christensen offers a powerful antidote to the typical top-down, corporate-branded curriculum and professional development usually touted in urban districts across the country. This is presumably no accident as she addresses the impact of a deficit-oriented model of instruction in her introduction:

“When we begin from the premise that students need to be ‘fixed,’ invariably we design curriculum that erases students’ home language and culture; we fail to find strength and beauty in the experience and heritage that students bring with them to school. When our curriculum attempts to ‘correct’ their supposed faults, ultimately, students will resist” (2).

Alternatively, Christensen advocates and practices the use of students’ lives as “critical texts” and the exploration of moral and ethical issues as thematic units of study to create a curriculum that resonates with and inspires students. Her self-made curriculum is one that would be nearly impossible in the age of mandated test prep, but is perhaps more closely aligned with the post-modern theory of curriculum that includes the “new Rs:” richness, recursion, relations, and relevance.

Students’ lives and voices are not the source of supplementary activities or special occasion lessons for Christensen; they are the heart and soul of her teaching.

Throughout the book there is a theme of wholeness–she explains how practicing poetry through writing, for example, is much more effective than learning and memorizing literary terms in isolation. It is from the experience of writing, reading, and performing poetry, she argues, that students “know the terms from the inside out.”

Similarly, she uses the lives and voices of her students to engage them in their learning from the inside out. Instead of asking students to check their histories and cultures at the door in the morning, Christensen addresses the wholeness of students and invites their lives, and languages, inside the classroom. And the results are stunning.

Through vignettes and student samples of work, it is clear that Christensen’s students are thinking critically to wrestle not only with difficult issues in their own lives, but also to make sense of the world around them. Christensen provides tangible examples of teaching strategies that she has used successfully with students including dialogue journals, “literary tea parties,” character silhouettes, read-arounds, thesis walls, and writing feedback protocol.

As a teacher, you are often handed tools or ideas that are said to be “good” for your classroom without a clear explanation of the purpose behind them. Teaching for Joy and Justice is a powerful resource for teachers because its purpose is resoundingly clear: to find ways for students and teachers to make their way back in to the kind of curriculum that matters.