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  • Cultivating Social Justice Teachers: How Teacher Educators Have Helped Students Overcome Cognitive Bottlenecks and Learn Critical Social Justice Concepts ed. by Paul C. Gorski et al.
  • Alice E. Ginsberg (bio)
Gorski, Paul C., Kristien Zenkov, Nana Osei-Kofi, and Jeff Sapp, eds. Cultivating Social Justice Teachers: How Teacher Educators Have Helped Students Overcome Cognitive Bottlenecks and Learn Critical Social Justice Concepts. Sterling, Va.: Stylus, 2013. 256pp.

“The point here is that, because we are socialized to experience the world in particular ways, we must work to free ourselves from the constraints of common sense.”

—Gorski 96

While many of the topics addressed in Cultivating Social Justice Teachers—such as racism, poverty, and homophobia—are hardly new to teacher educators or courses in teacher education programs, the ways in which they are explored in [End Page 169] this phenomenal new book most certainly are. Even if you already identify yourself as a social justice teacher or progressive teacher educator, you will undoubtedly find yourself thinking, Why didn’t I think of that? Part of what makes this book so provocative is the way the contributors’ chapters focus on their own creative, inquiry-based, and highly interactive strategies and assignments to help students through the “learning bottleneck.”

In the introduction, the editors describe what they mean by a “learning bottleneck”: this is when students are learning about a social justice issue, maybe even coming closer to being about to view it through a new perspective or critical lens, but still not fundamentally able to operationalize it in their practice. The book takes the stance that educating social justice teachers goes way beyond teaching content knowledge or seminal theories; student teachers need to understand how they came to construct and reconstruct their own identities and positionality in the classroom, and the resulting impact on their students. One of the editors, Jeff Sapp, explains that the most commonly asked questions in teacher education are “what or how will you teach?” while we frequently ignore the more significant questions around who: “Who is the self that teaches? How does that quality of my selfhood form—or deform—the way I relate to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world?” (200)1

In other words, the book does a noteworthy job of connecting key theories around cultural identity, power, privilege, equity, and social justice, to an array of unique assignments and teaching reflections that force students to become critical consumers of these same theories—often using themselves as the primary texts for discussion. The book strongly encourages bringing students to a “liminal state,” that is, “when learners are caught in dissonance as they grapple with possibilities of new ways of seeing in light of old ways of knowing” (5).

Moreover, the book suggests that too often we approach teaching social justice purely from a deficit perspective, one that does not take into account important concepts like intersectionality, structural oppression, agency, representation, and voice. We ask questions like How can we help people in poverty? or How can we make the world more equitable for people discriminated against based on their race or sexuality? yet frequently ignore the mirror questions around what it means to have and to recognize the role of systemic oppression in creating “unearned” privileges. When we talk and think about privileges in the classroom, we need to ask hard questions, such as Who constructs them? How do they interact and sometimes shift emphasis? Who benefits from them? If we change one system (e.g., capitalism, meritocracy, separation of church and state, immigration laws) how might it affect another? Moreover, we need to be prepared to ask ourselves even more complex questions about how to make those in power conscious of their various privileges and to consider what their lives would be like if these privileges were eliminated or restructured. As one contributor, Warren J. Blumenfeld, suggests, the process is similar to “moving students from cultural tourism” toward “critical multiculturalism” (130).

One of the first chapters—“The Art of Teaching Intersectionality” by Nana Osei-Kofi—provides an excellent framework for reading the rest of the book. As a “threshold concept,” intersectionality must be at the heart of any discussion or exploration...


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pp. 169-173
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