Doing THE WORK: Profile of a Critical Pedagogue

Dr. Reshma Ramkellawan-Arteaga, Ed.D   Education Consultant


Urban spaces in particular are rife with educators who unintentionally diminish

the importance of students’ experiences to the acquisition of new learning (Emdin, 2016 p.136; Gay, 2010, p.42; Paris, 2012, p.91; Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008, p.25).

These well-intentioned educators often enter urban classrooms and address children of color with the mindset of “middle class schooling practices” (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008, p. 25). More often than not, they are increasingly disappointed when there is no traction in their efforts, among students. In such instances, I am brought in to support teachers as they attempt to “teach.” The realities of my job as an instructional coach are grounded in the need to help teachers unpack their implicit biases as it relates to the needs of their students. It is my ethical charge to move teachers away from the language of “these kids can’t,” to “how can I improve my pedagogy to be responsive to students’ needs, and the setting in which I chose to teach.” Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz refers to the holistic education of children through socio-emotional relationships as the work.

The Work is a colloquial term that encapsulates the tenets of critical pedagogy, social justice and the culturally responsive spectrum (e.g., cultural reality, culturally relevant and responsive). Pedagogues who do the work perceive their students as not entities to enact education, but rather as human beings who require holistic attention and support. These educators appreciate and value the cultural spaces that urban youth live within (Paris, 2010, p.93; Kirkland, 2013, p.19) and seek to dismantle traditional methods of learning in order to produce achievement that extends beyond the attainment of good grades.

I consider myself fortunate to work with “the work-oriented” educators. These individuals often have the capacity to enact long-lasting changes within their schools, even after my collaboration with them is complete. In this manuscript, I am profiling one such pedagogue; a special education teacher named Ms. Morris.

Ms. Morris And The Work

This school year, I am fortunate to work with Ms. Morris (pseudonym), a second year teacher at the Bronxview Middle School (pseudonym) in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx. Although Bronxview Middle School (BMS) is less than ten minutes from affluent Westchester County, the school services 81 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Racial demographics are as follows: 65.6 percent as Black, 28.5 percent identify as Hispanic, and 3.5 percent identify as Asian. Although students identify racially as Black or Asian, a large portion of the population hail from regions of the Caribbean with African or Indian ancestry.

Ms. Morris is a second-year special education teacher who “gives a damn about her kids.” During the 2016-2017 school year, she taught in a collaborative co-teaching model. The relationship with her co-teacher was difficult. When asked to elaborate, she expressed that her colleague could not relate to her students, and exhibited evidence of implicit bias against colleagues of color. Ms. Morris described a specific instance where she was told to “be quiet” by her co-teacher. While the two were ultimately able to reconcile their differences, Morris decided that she wanted to teach in a 12 to 1 setting or a self-contained class where she could have full autonomy over her instruction.

She believes that within the realm of special education, students in self-contained settings are not intellectually stimulated as a result of deficit-related beliefs. Instead of fixating on these perceived academic deficiencies, she wanted the content to be relevant to students’ experiences. She believes that building academic skills is feasible through responsive pedagogy (Gay, 2010, p.56; Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008, p.28). She states, “If a teacher can relate to the concept or subject they are teaching, then it makes the teaching process more enjoyable. … If I enjoy teaching it, then students will enjoy learning.” Ms. Morris’s intellectual decisions, however, are not the only reason her students gravitate to her.

She exudes a “realness” that her students appreciate. During one of our early conversations, she recalled an interaction she had with one of her students. This student prefers to write the term “king” before his first name. Their dialogue, as recounted by Ms. Morris, is below.

He was like, "Ms. Morris, do you know who I am and how I view myself?" And I said, "No, tell me, cause I'm interested to know why you call yourself king." He was like, "Listen, my father always tells me to put myself on a pedestal," and I clapped for him, first of all. I said, "It's interesting that you say that." I said, "Do you know what I refer to myself as?" He said, "What?" I said, "Queen Sanchez." I said my first name. He was like, "Oh," and laughed at my first name. But I said, "Do you know why I think of myself as a queen?" He's like, "Why?" I said, "Because you know what? People that don't look like you and I, they want us to be something else, something that's negative. When you place yourself high, they can't take you from up there." I said, "My mother always taught me growing up, no one can take your crown. Don't allow them to." I said, "You will not give me any name in front of what I've been named." I said, "I am a queen, I'm giving myself to that. I hold myself to those high expectations," and I said, "You guys should, too." I said, "You are a young black man growing up in a tough world, a world where you may probably never be accepted," but I said, "As long as you're giving yourself that king title, you are gonna have king behavior, and that is gonna take you throughout your life." And I said, "Let me tell you something, my young black brother, you cannot only be a rapper or an athlete. You're not here to entertain them. You are here to be who you are, whatever that is, and be great at that. … I said, "Listen, be careful with the society we live in cause this society will paint you a picture that is not your reality, and I'm tellin' you that now." So I said, "This is why the importance of knowing who you are is like really real. You know what I mean?"

Figure 1. Ms. Morris leading her students in a literature circle reading of The Outsiders. © Jupiter Leo Photography.
Figure 1.
Ms. Morris leading her students
in a literature circle reading of
The Outsiders. © Jupiter Leo


Ms. Morris indicated that the young man she spoke to left the conversation feeling reaffirmed in his purpose and finding her comments to be, “deep.” There is certainly no doubt to her authenticity as a critical pedagogue who believes in the work. Her comments in the above quote are an indicator of the level of respect she holds for the students as a result of her own lived experiences. She does not perceive her students as individuals to be managed, but rather personalities to strengthen for academic and social contexts that are not sensitive to their specific needs.




Curricular Decisions

Like many schools in New York City, BMS utilizes the state recommended curriculum, Expeditionary Learning. There are a number of concerns with the document, most notably the lack of recently published responsive texts (e.g., Dragonwings). Furthermore, the units and lesson plans within the curriculum do not explicitly encourage teachers to make the content relevant to students’ lives. Unfortunately, not all teachers have the capacity to make the content relevant to students in response to the context (Emdin, 2016, p.131). This results in larger issues such as classroom management, student engagement and overall student investment in their own learning (Emdin, 2016, p.137, Sealey-Ruiz, 2011).

Ms. Morris was aware of this based on her experiences in the year prior. As a result, she solicited me to present her case to the principal given my relationship with him: create a hybrid curriculum that pulled culturally relevant texts from both the 7th and 8th grade curriculum. She would use some aspects of the lessons provided, but she ultimately wanted the students to access content that they would find of immediacy to their own lived experiences. We were successful in our lobbying, and she was able to select the following books from both curricula: Inside Out and Back Again, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lyddie, and The Narrative of Frederick Douglass. The protagonists of the aforementioned texts represent Morris’s yearlong essential questions:

1. How do individuals survive in challenging environments?

2. How do culture, time, and place influence the development of identity?

3. How does reading different texts about the same topic build our understanding?

4. How do writers use narrative techniques to convey characters’ perspectives?

Despite her intuitive capacities to make the content relatable to her students, she

still struggled with instructional design that aligned to the Common Core State Standards and stimulate her students’ intellectual capacities. Her initial unit plan, adapted from Expeditionary Learning, saw students spending four weeks on central idea and supporting evidence. There was little variance in the teaching point throughout her modified unit plan, including a lack of opportunity for students to critically analyze the content they were reading. Through conversation and collaborative planning, we revised her pacing calendar.

The overarching standards of the unit would still be RL.8.1, and RL 8.2; determining supporting evidence and the central idea of a literary text. We chose to remain with these two standards to ensure that students were given multiple opportunities to demonstrate comprehension of what was read. Simultaneously, however, we designed questions that prompted students to unpack extended metaphors, author’s craft or historical fiction pieces written through narrative poetry. We embedded opportunities for students to practice analyzing poems through traditional literary analysis and composition of their own pieces. Inside Out and Back Again is a narrative poetry novel, hence the desire to emphasize the previously mentioned concepts. While some would be overwhelmed by the inclusion of so many “higher order” tasks and activities, Ms. Morris was undeterred.

Teaching Inside Out and Back Again.

Before highlighting Ms. Morris’s successes with teaching Inside Out and Back Again, it is important to frame her intentionality around choosing this novel as her first. She states, 

Teaching about the refugee experience of a 10 year old girl, a Vietnamese girl. Me, I am West African, my parents come from West Africa Liberia. Many of my students’ families come from Jamaica, Guyana, Dominican Republic. A lot of our stories relates back to this 10 year old Vietnamese girl’s story. Why? Because her family is experiencing life as refugees. A lot of our families’ experience life
as immigrants to America. So like my story, the students’ stories all tie into one.

       What happens? It relates back to this main character. So if you can make teaching the experience of the main character of a novel relatable, to your own then the experience for the students becomes a lot more powerful. … Because, the point of teaching is, allowing it to be relatable to students, because when a student can relate to a certain concept, then they understand it better. It becomes more simple.

Ms. Morris’s quote exhibits a number of interesting ideas. First, it illustrates that the motivation for her pedagogy is grounded in empathy for her students’ experiences. She acknowledges their familial experiences as immigrants and the implications on identity formation. It is something she is aware of given her own background. Second, Ms. Morris’s instructional choices are not grounded in the desire to cover content for the sake of doing so. She is intentional about teaching her students to read and write well by exploring themes that are of relevance to their respective lives. One of the first tasks students were asked to complete was a short response that unpacked their newly acquired understanding of Ha, the main character, and her family’s life in Vietnam. Morris was initially hesitant about having her students write the short response. Her hesitation stemmed not from believing students could not complete the task, but rather that they would feel frustrated with the writing process. She said, “my students haven’t had great experiences with writing. I don’t want them to turn off or shut down because they are having a hard time creating a claim or explaining evidence.” Her concerns were certainly legitimate, but not insurmountable. We began by unpacking the skills students would need in order to complete the short response.

First, students would need to be able to unpack the question posed to them. Second, students would need to create an assertion or claim, and identify evidence to support their belief. Finally, from a formatting perspective, students would need to condense the information into a paragraph with appropriate transitions. We created a series of graphic organizers that students could use to help with the claim and evidence. Ms. Morris and I then worked on an exemplar paragraph that she would use to model the synthesis process. Figure 2 is an image of her sample paragraph with mark up from the lesson.

Figure 2. Ms. Morris’s model paragraph.
Figure 2. Ms. Morris’s model paragraph.

Morris found that the visual aid, coupled with the modeling or think aloud process was beneficial to her students. One of her students later approached her to say “thank you,” because it made the writing process “feel much easier.” Figure 3 highlights two student exemplars. The pieces were graded in accordance with the New York State two-point rubric. The authors of the pieces receive a score of three and four,
respectively. The first example, according to Morris’s evaluation, did not contain sufficient explanations of the connection between the evidence and the claim. The second example contained stronger details and explanation sentences.

Figure 3. Two exemplar pieces from the task.
Figure 3. Two exemplar pieces from the task.


Ms. Morris has anecdotes of students expressing a stronger level of comfort with their writing that they did not have in instances prior. “This is what I hoped for,” she said. “I wanted to help them realize how smart and talented they really are.”

Morris has also used small stations to reinforce students’ understanding of the novel and build interpersonal connections to the themes. Within the small stations, students have listened to audio files from NPR and unpack the implicit meaning behind images from the war. “The kids are hooked on this book! I can get them to do a lot of the academic work because they can relate to Ha and her experiences. At the end of the day, if they are reading, and enjoying themselves, that is all that matters.” Ms. Morris and her students will complete their reading of Inside Out and Back Again by the middle of December. Students will complete a culminating project in which they create a cypher based on the essential questions and their relationship to Ha, and perform said rhyme if they choose to do so.

Planning For Upcoming Novels

After the upcoming holiday breaks, she intends on teaching To Kill a Mockingbird. “I’m really excited about teaching it,” she declared. “Last year when we taught it as a whole class, we didn’t have as much success as I would have hoped. I had a lot of success with my smaller focus groups, and I want to try to replicate that.” The success that Morris is referring to is a healthy debate that occurred between her students. The debate is based on the end of unit assessment. When discussing the upcoming unit, Morris states,

To Kill a Mockingbird, at the end of the unit assessment, the students have to write an essay, in which, they argue, whether, Atticus Finch was right in supporting Tom Robinson, representing him, or not. The reason why I'm gonna stick with that is because, when I taught this last year, I like the different perspectives. Automatically, when you hear that question, the prompt, you think students are gonna go with the fact that, he was right because of the Golden Rule, okay, a white man defending a black man. But, I had a student write a different perspective, last year. … The experience taught me that a student may take it beyond your level of thinking. Which, is the whole point of thinking, because every day we're learning something new.

         According to Morris’s account, several students argued that Atticus should not have defended Tom Robinson as his deviated attention effected the overall well-being of his children. The “thinking” that she refers to in the above quote is students seeing beyond the information presented and simply regurgitating knowledge (Freire). Staying true to the work, Morris wants her students to not use their education as a means for
replicating the status quo; rather they are using the information to construct their own understandings of the world.
         Although I appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird as a classical literary text, I was concerned around the subtle messaging as Atticus Finch as the “white savior” for the downtrodden Robinson family. There were also lingering concerns with respect to students seeing the relationship between the novel, the prison industrial complex, police brutality and Black Lives Matter. Ms. Morris’s response to my concerns are below.

The theme of this year, is the question that you see on my wall, how does culture, time and place influence the development of identity? So, we're going to be learning about racism in the deep south, in the 1930's, during the Great Depression. This is when this book, To Kill a Mockingbird, takes place. The book is based on the Scottsboro Boys trial. So, I'm gonna be focusing on how race, basically, develops the identity of people back in the south, African American people and what their role was in society, and how they were viewed, and how they were treated, based on their race. How they developed as people because of how society has treated them, and that's the main focus. … Throughout this book, the theme is, the Golden Rule, treating others how you want to be treated. Throughout this book, my main point in teaching is, is really just having the Golden Rules stuck in the back of my students' mind. What does it mean to treat others how you want to be treated? Who needs to treat people the way they should be treated? Who? What particular group? Is it everybody? Is it the white race? Is it the black race? Who? That, is the main focus.

Ms. Morris knows that her students will not read the novel in a silo. Current events and their lived experiences will effect how students react to the characters and plot. Like a true critical pedagogue, she intends on directly addressing students’ emotions through strategic opportunities for discourse. Students will draw parallels between the society of the 1930s and contemporary struggles as it relates to race and equity. Morris is extremely excited about the prospect of teaching the novel in her own space, but even more so about the novel serving as an opportunity to discuss topics that might be legitimized by other educators in the building.

Implications For Practice

In many ways, Ms. Morris is a rarity in the field. Despite her novice status, she possesses a confident understanding of the work and how it can be used to improve student learning. This is already evident in the student tasks and high levels of engagement in her class. Ms. Morris’s character and pedagogical beliefs inform us of several important tenets of the work.

  • Valuing Student Voice: If urban educators sincerely seek to do the work, then it is essential to respect students’ opinions, even when it is information one might not one to hear. At the end of her class, at least twice a week, Ms. Morris engages her students in a co-generative dialogue. Co-generative dialogues (Emdin, 2016) is an explicit conversation had between teachers and students to garner feedback on the efficacy of the day or week’s lesson. Figure 4 highlights the simple reflection questions she asks of her students. Ms. Morris doesn’t ask her students these questions for the sake of doing so; she implements the feedback and suggestions. In turn, students demonstrate their appreciation through increased engagement and investment in the content.
Figure 4. Ms. Morris’s co-generative dialogue.
Figure 4. Ms. Morris’s co-generative dialogue.
  • Empathy NOT Sympathy: The media does an exemplary job of portraying urban students, or students of color, from a deficit-oriented standpoint. As a result, well-meaning educators enter these spaces and unwittingly become “teacher saviors.” The savior mentality stems from having sympathy or pity for one’s students. Students of color do not need pity. They need an educator who understands their experiences through a lens of empathy, and in absence of judgment. Ms. Morris shares similar life experiences to those of her students. In instances where she does not, she asked questions to learn more about them; their motivations, family and ambitions. Empathy is a sign of legitimate sign of investment in doing the work with students as the pedagogue is hoping to serve as a catalyst for critical change.
  • Reflective Practices: Recursive practice is a foundational aspect of effective pedagogy. In order to improve one’s craft, it is important to continuously ponder the successes and failures of daily lessons. Reflection also requires one to actively solicit the feedback of peers, mentors, administrators and students. Ms. Morris actively solicits the feedback of her colleagues and students. Urban teachers who choose to remain in a “pedagogical echo chamber” often improve the least in comparison to those who are open to new ideas.
  • Instructional Design and Content Knowledge: Teachers should be expected to have a strong mastery of their content and the general principles of curriculum design (e.g., Understanding by Design, formative and summative assessments,
    project based assessments, etc.). One would be surprised at how few teachers do not possess this information. True examples of the work occur through methodical instructional decisions. This is also means that teachers must know the content they are teaching, in addition to the long-term concepts students will need throughout their academic careers. Students cannot break the cycle of oppression, if not equipped with foundational information in the core content areas (e.g., establishing voice through verbal and written responses). Ms. Morris wants her students to be critical thinkers. She also acknowledges that they are learners in a system that values specific modes of determining proficiency. An adept educator knows how to manipulate content and curricula in a simultaneous manner to drive this focus.


The above list is by no means completely comprehensive and encompassing of the characteristics associated with those who do the work. Rather, I present these four traits as an initial framework for developing the capacities of other teachers who have the traits to become critical pedagogues, but have yet to discover their voice.



In a conference call with the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings said the following: “We must move away from this belief that you only go to school to get a good job and make money. While this is true, schooling for the sake of moving up economically, isn’t a true education. … Prince William didn’t need to go to school, but he wanted to get an education.” Urban educators who seek to do the work must keep this notion in mind. We must equip our students not only for “economic” success, but provide them with an intellectual experience that emphasize the importance of their cultural realities.




Duncan-Andrade, J. M.R. & Morrell, E. (2008). The Art of Critical Pedagogy. New York: Peter Lang.

Emdin, C. (2016) For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. New York: Beacon Press.

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury. Gay, G. (2010). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research and Practice. New York: Teachers College Press. Kirkland, D. E. (2013). A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men. New York: Teachers College, 2013.

Paris, D. (2012). “Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice.” Educational Researcher, 41 (3) pp. 93-97.

Sealey-Ruiz, Y. (2011). “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline through Racial Literacy Development in Teacher Education.” Journal of Curriculum & Pedagogy, 8 (2) pp. 116-120.