Book Review: The Art of Critical Pedagogy by Duncan-Andrade and Morrell

“Perpetual urban school failure is tolerated because deep down our nation subscribes to the belief that someone has to fail in school.  In fact, this quasi-Darwinian belief sustem is build into most schools through the existence of a largely unchallenged pedagogical system of grading and testing that by its very design guarantees failure for some.” (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, p. 2)

This book will be a game changer for many educators.

My first visit when beginning a new educational text is to examine the “street creditability” of the authors who have put together the content of the book.  In this case, Jeffery Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell continually articulate their ability to bring together their personal-practical theoretical perspectives throughout the novel.  As practicing teachers in both post-secondary and secondary institutions in the United States, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell outline their practical methods for engaging at-risk students in urban setting in critical pedagogy while consistently justifying these practices with a solid theoretical framework.

A reoccurring salient feature of their practice that spoke to me was their ability to engage students in critical practices while maintaining a high level of academic demand and rigger.  In describing their underlying principles for an application of critical pedagogy in a secondary English class in Oakland, California, Duncan-Andrade and Morrell (2008) state:

“Without agreeing on much else, we could agree with our colleagues in the English department at East Bay High, our on-site administrators, and state administrators that students needed to achieve academically in our schools.  Regardless of our philosophical foundation, we understood that our students existed in a world where they would be expected to take and perform well on standardized tests that served as gatekeepers to postsecondary education and, as a consequence, professional membership.” (p. 50)

As you increase and include critical pedagogy in a classroom, you need not jeopardize academic standards and expectations.  Duncan-Andrade and Morrell frequently address this issue by proving the high level of academic standards they placed on their students throughout the book.  In one situation, they had high school students examining university level texts and sources to acquire knowledge.

The authors also examined the relationship between critical pedagogy in the classroom and student apathy.  Too often teachers shy away from topics because some students in the classroom do not care about the topic.  Critical pedagogy can be one of the these topics as it requires students to have a desire to look critically at the curriculum and topics that serve as means to oppress them within society.  However, is forcing the student to engage in a critical practice not an oppressive act within itself?

A signifiant challenge was dealing with student apathy, student fear, and resistance in the context of the class. At times, prodding students meant telling student to get to work or directly confronting self defeating resistance.  These occasions often left sour tastes in our mouths; it seemed antithetical to our emancipator missions to force or coerce students to engage in critical work.  We struggled with an approach to students who verbalized that they did not want to participate in class assignments, even when these assignments emanated from students’ interests and addressed students’ concerns.  To let them progress through the course without developing academic and critical literacies would have been unconscionable, bit to use the threat of failing students to increase student productivity seemed equally unacceptable.  We ultimately decided that we would have to develop strategies to positively motivate students while also providing the mentoring and supports that they needed to function at a high intellectual level.  however, we were not about “getting on” students who were capable of more than they were producing.  After all, our role as educators required us to demand excellence from students even when they were not demanding excellence from themselves.” (p.96)

This was reassuring to me as I often feel as though “getting on” students for not producing is against many of my personal beliefs and understandings about student motivation.  However, at times, I do feel that it is appropriate – especially when the student is capable.

Finally, I appreciated the balance that was always present with Duncan-Andrade and Morell’s practices.  In particular, their understanding of the importance for students to identify and conquere the “master’s tools” and their inclusion of student experience and interest while continuing to include “dominate” texts and sources.

The authors (2008) describe the “master’s tools” as the ability for students to master a critical double consciousness by acquiring the “mechanical skills necessary to navigate oppressive social conditions and institutions and the critical skills to analyze and resist the hostility he or she endures and to develop a strong sense of community.” (p.84)  This ability to successfully navigate the hegemonic school structure while remaining critical is extremely important in the  ability for students to continue education in the present system.  Many educators are not yet with them and students will need to have the tools to be successful.

I made many connections with this idea in relation to my classroom.  Students with mental health concerns frequently struggle to learn the “master’s tools” of the classroom.  This struggle between their individual needs and learning style balanced with teacher expectations is an ongoing struggle.

Student experience is the key to success in the classroom.  Duncan-Andrade and Morrell describe an poetry unity that paired hip-hop text with canonical works.  Their reasoning for the inclusion of hip-hop into their poetry unit was “other teachers and members of the larger society perceived many of the students… as functionally illiterate and lacking in intellect” and that these assessments “ran counter to the our observations of our stdents’ sophisticated literacy practices that accompanied their participation in hip-hop culture.” (p.59)  John Dewey’s ideas come to mind: “the child should be at the center of the curriculum.” 

If this is the case, why do so many teachers continue to ignore technology integration in the classroom or use a computer lab for simple word processing.  This idea of using student experience to build on knowledge is not new, with Dewey writing “Experience and Education” in 1938, yet teachers have yet to incorporate student experience with their personal experience in the classroom.

It is a fantastic book with a solid mix of theory and practice.


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