Tag Article List: Teacher Education

“No te voy a dejar nunca” – Culture and Second Language Acquisition for Survival in Fear the Walking Dead

Sharon M. Nuruddin
Doctoral Candidate, TESOL & World Language Education Program
Language & Literacy Education Department
The University of Georgia, Athens, GA


Popular culture reinforces and shapes the beliefs and values of the individual, the community, and the masses. It can also transmit hidden messages about aspects of human behavior that are reiterated in scholarly research. In the field of education, particularly in world language teacher education, film and television can be used as an effective tool for examining how we acquire a second language. Using a symbolic convergence theory perspective (SCT) (Bormann, 1972), I employ Sellnow’s (2014) three-step process for the rhetorical analyses of mediated popular culture texts to reveal “covert messages” (p. 9) within the popular American Movie Channel (AMC) television series, Fear the Walking Dead (FTWD). These messages inform how second language and culture acquisition develop and serve as life-saving resources in extreme cases of cultural and linguistic isolation. In Season 1 of FTWD, Nicholas “Nick” Clark, embarks on an unintentional language and cultural immersion trip to Mexico. His experience reflects research on second language and culture acquisition, reinforcing the understanding that languages can be learned rapidly when it is a matter of survival. My analysis will show that while language learning can transpire through a formally-structured classroom experience, it can also transpire informally—through a Vygotskian (1978), sociocultural, “survivalist” language and culture learning experience—as reflected in FTWD. Applying Sellnow’s process and Bormann’s perspective can help teacher educators and their students find deeper meaning through new and engaging popular culture texts.  

Keywords: Fear the Walking Dead, zombies, second language acquisition, teacher education, Spanish language teaching, popular culture, survivalist language learning, symbolic convergence theory, rhetorical analysis, zone of proximal development 

Author Bio 

Sharon M. Nuruddin earned her BA in Spanish and Sociology from Villanova University and her MA in Translation from the University of Puerto Rico, with a focus on literary translation. Prior to pursuing her doctoral degree at The University of Georgia, she was a Spanish instructor at a university in Atlanta, Georgia. That experience sparked a desire to become a K-12 world language teacher educator determined to support pre-service teachers in their efforts to serve a new generation of bilingual students. As an emerging researcher, she fuses literary, literacy, and sociocultural theories to promote world language education in marginalized communities, and is interested in the intersections of SLA and popular culture. She is also a student of arts-based research methods and has published poetry and participated in poetry events with professors and fellow students. In addition to Dialogue, her work will soon be featured in an upcoming issue of Intersections: Critical Issues in Education. 

Suggested Citation 


Nuruddin, S. M. (2019). “No te voy a dejar nunca” – Culture and Second Language Acquisition for Survival in Fear the Walking Dead. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 6(3). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v6-issue-3/no-te-voy-a-dejar-nunca-culture-and-second-language-acquisition-for-survival-in-fear-the-walking-dead/


Nuruddin, Sharon M. “‘No te voy a dejar nunca’ – Culture and Second Language Acquisition for Survival in Fear the Walking Dead.Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol 6, no. 3, 2019. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v6-issue-3/no-te-voy-a-dejar-nunca-culture-and-second-language-acquisition-for-survival-in-fear-the-walking-dead/


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Four Decades, Three Songs, Too Much Violence: Using Popular Culture Media Analysis to Prepare Preservice Teachers for Dealing with School Violence

Edward Janak
University of Toledo
Toledo, OH, USA

Lisa Pescara-Kovach
University of Toledo
Toledo, OH, USA



Since teacher education has morphed from normal schools into colleges of education, the goals of preparing teachers have expanded. While it is essential to prepare teachers to utilize scientifically proven methods as well as to read and use research in the field, there are ever-expanding other goals that must be met as well. For one example, with the increase of school violence taking place in the United States, it is imperative to include preparation for preservice teachers on how to prevent bullying and how to handle traumatic events, such as school shootings, with their future students. However, broaching such a sensitive subject is a challenge: how can teacher educators lead into such discussions without alienating students or raising overwhelmingly powerful emotions? This article examines one preservice educator’s attempt to prepare preservice teachers for the worst; by using media analysis of songs and videos, preservice teachers can launch into discussion of societal recognition of school violence and thereby ease into discussion of how to prepare themselves. Included is an appendix of online resources available to help educators at all levels help their students deal with these tragedies.

Keywords: school shooting, violence prevention, teacher education, media studies

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook.

These were all horrible, senseless tragedies that struck at the very hearts of people in the United States. Thanks to a variety of factors, the media have ensured those names remain emblazoned in the memories of Americans. These factors include proximity to large media outlets (allowing quick access for camera crews) and demographics of the student population (largely white, middle class).

Red Lake. Northern Illinois. Oikos. Casper. Umpqua.

These were all equally horrible, senseless tragedies. However, they did not strike home with the same level of profound angst as those aforementioned. In sad fact, there has been a wiki page devoted to keeping track of acts of school violence. A glance at the School Shooting Timeline Wiki (“School Shooting Timeline”) reveals the extent of shootings, including incidents about which some readers might have not heard. Indeed, in the years 2014-2015 the U.S. saw eleven incidents of school violence as well as one significant one in Kenya, and the assumption that “it can’t happen here” is rapidly disappearing; the shootings that took place in 2013-2014 occurred in sixteen different states (California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington). In fact, it is easier to report the eleven states that have not experienced a school-related tragedy (Arizona, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia) than those that have been impacted. This is not to say school violence is a uniquely American thing: three provinces of Canada and fifteen foreign countries on three continents have also experienced the tragedy. In addition, mass stabbings have become an alarming occurrence in China. This trend began in 2010; there were 18 children killed in four separate school incidents.

The point of this comparison is not to attempt to rank the scope and damage of these incidents; the loss of any human life, let alone that of a child, is always a tragedy regardless of where it takes place and what the social identity of the victim. The point is to demonstrate that there have been an inordinate number of acts of violence on public school and university campuses in the United States, seemingly growing every year. And, as the number of incidents continues to increase, more and more often teachers are being called upon to serve as first responders—if not to put themselves in the line of fire to save their students like heroes, such as Nevada’s Michael Landsberry and Georgia’ Antoinette Tuff, then to keep them safe during the event and help them heal in the aftermath.

However, there remains a stunning lack of any kind of institutional, bureaucratic support for the notion. This article presents one teacher educator’s attempt at filling this void using popular culture to gain entrée into the greater conversation. This is intended to serve as a pedagogical tactic, not a formal research study of the effects of this approach. While there was no formal gathering of data, this piece examines the culmination of several semesters’ use of this method. Beginning with a brief history of the development of teacher education in the United States, this article presents a media analysis framework useful for future teachers and details a series of lessons used by the instructor to get preservice teachers thinking about infusing anti-bullying throughout their future curricula and what to do if the worst happens.

This approach admittedly is somewhat limited. The ideal approach would be holistic in nature, providing preservice teachers (students enrolled in an education program on a path towards certification) with knowledge on bullying and school shooting prevention, intervention, active response, and recovery. Prevention should take the form of integrating discussion about the social, school, family, and personal dynamics of the majority into preservice curriculum. Preservice teachers also need to know how to work with at-risk students to intervene when warning signs are present and how to respond if an incident unfolds. Of utmost importance in preservice training is recovery. Those who witness and survive a school shooting suffer tremendous mental health issues with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder being a common outcome among survivors. However, due to the constraints of the course curriculum, the instructor used available prefatory materialand provided resources to the preservice teachers for future use. Due to its location in the Rocky Mountain region, each year there are preservice teachers enrolled in the class who are survivors—of Columbine, of Casper, of Umpqua or other incidents. With emotions and tensions raw, the topic must be somewhat eased into—and popular culture provides a means of doing such.

Unfortunately, the frequency of the incidents may be one factor leading to the lack of societal outrage over these events. For example, on the same day (April 13, 2013) that a shooter at New River Community College in Christianburg, Virginia, shot and wounded two girls on campus, online and print news media focused on the episode of Glee that dealt with a school shooting with the almost offensively flippant title “Shooting Star” rather than reporting an actual school shooting, at least in the outlets that chose to address the topic at all. For example, a simple Google search of “Shooting Star + Glee” returns 177,000 results, coming from both entertainment and more formal news outlets; a simple Google search for “New River Community College + shooting” only returns the relatively few 7,630 results, mainly from local news outlets. It seems as a society we are more comfortable talking about school violence when debating its entertainment value than in reality, one of the many reasons for the popular culture approach outlined in this article.

At the time of the “Shooting Star” episode’s initial broadcast, many critics lauded the producers of the show for taking on such a topic; however, the show failed to actually examine the issue of school violence in any meaningful way. Indeed, as argued by Kyra Hunting and Amanda McQueen (2014), the show simply used an accidental discharge of a gun—and the terror it caused—merely as a means of forwarding on its multiple serial plot lines and introducing one plot twist: “’Shooting Star’ thus appears to center on a singular episodic theme, and one that is largely unique to teen dramas—the school shooting—but the episode blends that narrative with elements of comedy and melodrama to move serial storylines forward” (293).

While there was widespread praise for the episode, many articles written in entertainment blogs and websites questioned the morality behind the use of a school shooting to move plot elements forward. Typifying the criticism, Autostraddle.com detailed the failings of the episode and the media’s unwarranted praise. One blogger, writing soon after watching the episode, wrote a scathing indictment of the show and its intent:

Everyone is so busy praising Glee for the appropriateness and emotion with which they handled school violence that few seem to see that Glee didn’t address the issue of school violence at all. They held us captive to their characters emotions regarding the potential of violence, but in the end the students were never actually in danger. It just feels emotionally manipulative…I’m sorry, Glee, but you do not get to bask in your own glory just because you wrote an episode about a serious issue and showed shaky-cam crying kids. You do not escape criticism simply because you attempted to tell a story about something which is scary and fills us all with queazy [sic] dread. I refuse to jump on the bandwagon of praise. Here’s the issue: this country doesn’t have a problem with intellectually disabled students accidentally firing off guns in school. This country has a problem with students bringing guns to school with the specific intent to harm other students. To conflate the two scenarios is inexcusably offensive. (Lizz. “Why I Think Glee’s ‘Shooting Star’ Missed The Mark On Gun Violence”)

Why the Need? The Changing Face of Teacher Education

While the media has lost sight of these tragedies, scholars across academe have begun to assume the mantle. Indeed, in recent years, much educational scholarship has begun centering around the topic of school violence. In the aftermath of the Columbine shooting in 1999, journal articles in the hard sciences (Beldean-Galea, et al, 2012; Fisher & Ketti, 2003; Johnson & Fisher, 2003; Jones et al, 2012; Olsen, et al, 2014), social sciences (Bon et al, 2006; Brown et al, 2009; Crews, 2014; Eitle & Eitle, 2003; Furlong et al, 2006; Hawkins, 2004; Shafii & Shafii, 2003), law (Lintott, 2004; Peterson et al 2002; Pierre-Louis, 2008; Time & Payne, 2008; Volokh, 2000), and even theology (Hartsig & Wink, 2001) began looking at the issue of school violence. Education journals took up the mantle in earnest: The Journal of School Violence began publishing in 2001. Beyond its scope, administrator journals looked at the legal and preventative issues (Blaya, 2003; Debarbieux, 2003; McCarthy & Webb, 2000), while theoretical journals debated the sociocultural elements involved (Ayot, 2000; Haselswerdt & Lenhardt, 2003; Malaby, 2007; Rutkowski et al, 2013; Speaker & Peterson, 2010; Watson, 2007; Willert & Lenhardt, 2003; Yablon, 2012).

Journals aimed towards PreK-12 and post-secondary practitioners as well as School Resource Officers (SROs) examined past incidents to develop best practice on addressing causes, prevention, and intervention in school shootings (Morrison & Skiba, 2001; Fein, Reddy, Borum, & Modzeleski, 2002; Drysdale, Modzeleski, & Simons (2010); Robers, Zhang, Truman & Snyder, 2010; Doll, 2013; Pescara-Kovach 2015). Today’s more progressive school administrators, SROs and educators follow the rules of threat assessment, which arose shortly after Columbine. Behavioral Threat Assessment is utilized by numerous institutions throughout the United States and beyond. In fact, threat assessment is now mandated in Illinois, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It involves an examination of the school, personality, social, and family dynamics in effort to reach a prospective shooter before it’s too late. In truth, many incidents can be prevented if we follow the suggestions put forth in the practitioner journals.

Unfortunately, like many other areas of education, there often exists a disconnect between scholarship and classroom practice. While teachers are being called upon more and more often to prepare for the unthinkable, they are not being trained to fulfill this function: at the time of this writing (2016) neither of the two accreditation groups that oversee teacher education in the United States, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, have coping with bullying or violence in their standards. In 2010, the two groups agreed to merge as one umbrella organization, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). While the group is still determining its standards for accreditation, a draft is available for review and comment. Of the five proposed standards, it is only Standard One that deals with Content and Pedagogical knowledge.1 Within that standard, which demands that “Candidates demonstrate an understanding of the critical concepts and principles in their discipline, including college and career-readiness expectations, and of the pedagogical content knowledge necessary to engage students’ learning of concepts and principles in the discipline;” there is no call for preparing teachers to understand their moral imperative to ensure the safety of their students if and when the worst happens (“Standard 1: Content and Pedagogical Knowledge”).

Teacher education is a relatively new phenomenon when compared to the history of universities, or even the history of public schooling in the United States. As summarized by historian of education James Fraser, teacher education began with seminaries for women teachers beginning in the early 1800’s but truly blossomed in the 1830’s with the rise of normal schools, a means to try and standardize the preparation of teachers as much as a means to perpetuate the feminization thereof and summer teacher’s institutes. The Normal School movement would see its heyday between 1870 and 1920 (Fraser 114). However, all of these movements were extensions of the nation’s secondary schools; typically, normal school training would either be additional courses taken by high school students or an additional one to two years after high school done in teacher preparation. While some normal programs became affiliated with colleges and others evolved into either junior colleges or small, liberal arts colleges in their own right, the majority had no postsecondary affiliation; there were no “colleges of education,” so to speak.

The aforementioned structure was prevalent until the turn of the Twentieth Century, when universities began offering four-year training programs to better prepare teachers. Generally speaking, these programs were organized differently for future elementary teachers and secondary teachers. Elementary teachers would do essentially two years of liberal arts education, followed by two years of training in education, including significant time in a practice or demonstration school. Secondary teachers would earn a degree in their field, their senior year spent in education courses and some practice teaching. As James Fraser further explains, it wasn’t until the period between 1920 and 1965 that there was a push to get every teacher in the nation to earn a college degree, not just a normal certificate (174). It was this period that many normal schools became Teacher’s Colleges or Schools of Education.

Out of this evolutionary process, a theme of disconnection between pedagogical theoreticians and practitioners emerged. As delineated by Fraser,

If being a member of a university faculty means being a specialist, education professors have tended to develop their own specialized research, and their own impenetrable jargon. They, too, have distanced from practice…[as a result] the deep commitment to the work of teaching and the success of teachers—has virtually disappeared from professional preparation in education. The words of normal school students and professors from a century ago often seem quaint, but their sense of passion for a high calling, a calling that included doing whatever needed to be done to ensure student success, would be a welcome addition to the curriculum of many a 21st-century school of education. (Fraser 5)

This critique is not new. Indeed, in his 1963 work The Education of American Teachers, James Bryant Conant warned that the trend in Colleges of Education and state departments of education could be accused of forming “a national conspiracy on the part of certain professors and their friends to use the processes of teacher certification as a device for protecting courses in education and for maintaining a ‘closed shop’ among teachers of the public schools.” The unfortunate byproduct, which Conant warned in 1963 and has arguably come to pass, is that “highly talented people are kept from the classrooms, and responsible laymen and distinguished scholars in the academic fields have been denied a voice in the formulation of programs of teacher education” (15). As a scholar of the foundations of education, cautions such as Fraser’s and Conant’s ring in my ears as I develop and design courses to help prepare classroom teachers. Regardless of the course I teach, I always keep one eye on the practical, giving students “real-world” examples and applications for their studies.

The course from which material in this article is drawn is titled “Teacher as Practitioner.” Accordingly it is programmatically the perfect place to achieve praxis—merging of theory and practice. In this case, students involved are at the junior level. At this stage in their professional preparation, they have taken a variety of coursework both foundational (child and adolescent psychology and development, social foundations) and practical (working with students with special needs, incorporating instructional technology). However, their junior year is where they begin to put the elements together; the course that this unit took place in, required of all preservice teachers elementary and secondary, is where they get their first exposure to elements of planning, instructional strategies, and classroom management. In addition, students spend an extensive amount of class time on practicum, working with one teacher/class for five weeks culminating in the preservice teacher presenting a lesson/unit to the class. With such an explicitly practical focus and extensive classroom exposure, it is a natural fit to begin preparing teachers to deal with crisis.

Media Analysis Framework: Ohler and Postman

Teacher as Practitioner is loosely designed into three segments of five weeks each. The first segment, the most information intensive, is preparing them to enter classrooms. Topics therein include lesson and unit planning, instructional strategies, and classroom management, amongst others. The second five weeks are spent on practicum with students spending all their class time in PreK-12 classrooms observing and working with students. The third five weeks focuses on contemporary topics of importance for future teachers, but not necessarily specifically pertaining to pedagogy, curriculum, or management. It is in this final third of the course that students are introduced to the concept of thinking about themselves as the frontline of violence prevention and as first responders. Violence prevention is much needed in schools, as students deal with stressors brought on by normative and non-normative life events. Programs such as ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate) are drilled now required lockdown procedures in a number of states. As such, teachers must be exposed to the issues to better prepare them for school violence prevention and response.

It is also in this last third of the course that students are introduced to the media and technology analysis of Neil Postman and Jason Ohler. Students coming in to Teacher as Practitioner have completed a prerequisite course on instructional technology which provides students a good opportunity to work with a variety of software and hardware that they might encounter as teachers. However, what is not covered extensively in that course is approaching technology from a somewhat more philosophical point of view. In short, the preservice teachers get much information on how to use technology in their classrooms, but almost nothing on why, which becomes the starting point for the conversation in Teacher as Practitioner.

Cultural critic and media theorist Neil Postman highlights the philosophical utility of technology in teaching. In his book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, Postman essentially argues that everything we need to know to be successful came about during the Enlightenment and that if we return to the lessons of that period, life will be much more effective. Each chapter deals with a different topic of analysis, from Progress to Language to Children to Education. However in his chapter on Technology, he provides a set of questions, echoing the work of Marshall McLuhan, to provide an analysis regarding technology. Postman argues that before adopting a new piece of technology, we must ask the following questions:

  • Whose problem is it?
  • Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?
  • What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?
  • What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?
  • What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes? (Postman 45-53)

In classroom discussion, first I model applying the questions to instructional strategies regarding use of PowerPoint and daily music selections. Next, students working in groups apply Postman’s questions to both classroom technology (“Do I need to use a smart board or class set of tablets to get this across?”) and personal technology (“Do I really need that new smart phone or game console?”). Initially students struggle with the concepts in Postman’s last two questions, which ask them to contemplate issues of economic and political power in ways that they have not and analyzing language with critical lenses; however, a robust class discussion typically helps to clarify.

Once students are comfortable thinking about the why behind technology, the conversations shift into a focus on how technology has created a new literacy. Jason Ohler explains that there are “shifts in literacy” taking place today that must be addressed by teachers. Ohler argues that we must redefine what it means to be literate in today’s world: “being able to both read and write narratives in the media forms of the day, whatever they may be.” We live in the age of digital expression, however, with three core assumptions: first, “new media demand new literacies”; second, “new media coalesce into a collage”; and third, “new media are largely participatory, social media” (205-206). In short, educators must redefine the word literacy to include image and pictorial representations as well as letter and word. Ohler admits that his definition is ahistorical, as historians typically “object to the use of the word literacy to denote anything than literacy with one medium: letters.” Ohler continues: “Generally speaking, a literate person is still considered to be someone who has the ability to read, write, and understand words” (205).

As such, I try to design some lessons that tap into this new literacy, getting students to actively engage in messages that incorporate linguistic, visual, and auditory media to create the message. It is Ohler’s new literacy that dictates the methods and structure of the following lessons, getting students to begin thinking about the potential for school violence-related tragedy in their future practice. It is one of the times I am able to practice media analysis with my students. Part and parcel of this analysis is an exploration of how it can be effective; as explained by the editors of Rethinking Schools, “[e]ducators have a particular responsibility to take up media issues. We see the impact of media on young minds” (Marshall & Sensoy 16).

Bullycide: Shouldn’t It Get Better Now?

To open the unit, students watch the teaser trailer for the documentary Bullycide: The Voice of Complicity.2 Class discussion begins with an analysis of the trailer focused around a set of questions which they discuss in small groups:

  • Which of the adults in the clip most resonated (positively or negatively) with you? Why?
  • Which of the children? Why?
  • Is bullying worse in this generation than in previous generations? If so, how/why? If not, why not?
  • What is your job as teachers in regards to this issue?

This discussion becomes free ranging and widely divergent. Some students choose to reveal how they were victims of bullies or had siblings who were targeted. There is typically a wide discussion on the impact of social media and how the nature of bullying has changed from physical to relational, and whether current forms of bullying are equally or more traumatic to its victims than forms of the past. The class discussion tends to expand from the teaser trailer to discuss responses which typically surround bullying, whether in the form of comments to online stories or discussions with friends and family; as students point out, the all-too typical response of many posters is that kids just need to “get over it.” Students in the class question why so many people tend to believe this and whether “getting over it” is even possible.

This discussion feeds into an examination of the Center for Disease Controls’ work in preventing bullying, particularly via social media. Students often comment that the name of the documentary trailer, “Bullycide”, is a bit too harsh; however, when looked at in light of the work of the CDC, particularly in light of preventing violence to youth on social media (“Violence Prevention and Social Media”), students begin to soften their stance. Ultimately the conversation comes around to strategies in which they, as future teachers, can engage the students they will teach some day in their own classrooms to prevent this bullying in person. Part and parcel of this conversation are the legal and ethical limits to which they as future teachers can engage with their future students online.

Eventually and inevitably, at least one student brings up the “It Gets Better” project. Initially started by Dan Savage in an effort to combat the rising tide of suicides amongst LGBT teens, it became a movement in and of itself. From YouTube channel to its own webpage and project to a book edited by Savage and Terry Miller, millions of Americans have wanted to have their voice heard, that they had experienced bullying and violence, but that they persevered and life improved. The most popular testimonials on the website include those of President Obama, Chris Colfer of Glee, comedienne and actress Sarah Silverman, R&B artist Ciara, actor Zachary Quinto, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and pundit Stephen Colbert. While the celebrity contributions of It Gets Better are heartfelt and have resonated with the general public, it holds little in terms of practical applicability to preservice teachers;  issues of relatability proved problematic as well.  For example, a student who grew up on a Montana ranch had little point of connection to narratives from urban locales or large university settings. To many of my students, hearing from Lady Gaga or Adam Lambert, David Sedaris or Al Franken is alien; when it comes to bullying, the power of celebrity holds no sway. In addition, all too often preservice teachers are left to wonder how it is possible that those who have wealth and fame could have been bullied.

Shootings through the Ages

Once students have discussed bullying and potential anti-bullying elements they can infuse in their future classrooms, the conversation turns even more serious. One of the potential outcomes among those who externalize the pain of being bullied is the victim reacting violently, as happened in Littleton, Colorado, at Columbine High or in Fredericksburg, Virginia, at Virginia Tech. In previous semesters, I attempted to bring in numbers and statistics; however, it became apparent that the impact of the numbers was lost in white noise. I had to bring home the point to students in a powerful, yet meaningful, manner. Thus, Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Mark Foster of Foster the People enter into the discussion. The songs are not chosen for being contemporary or even necessarily familiar; they are chosen for their powerful thematic elements that reflect the violence in U.S. schools.

Students are given handouts that include a timeline of school shootings and lyrics to three songs with quotes from the songwriters about the inspiration. After presenting an overview of the frequency of school violence, students are a bit taken aback. Then the discussion turns to social reaction and whether this has changed over time. To demonstrate this point, the first example shown is the video for the Boomtown Rat’s song “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Released in the summer of 1979, we begin with this song for its historical significance: it was one of the first songs that achieved great popularity, particularly abroad, to look at the issue of school violence.3 According to writer/lead vocalist Bob Geldof, he was making an appearance at a radio station when a news report came in over the telex machine detailing the San Diego shooting perpetrated by Brenda Ann Spencer, in which two adults were killed and eight children injured. When asked why she opened fire on an elementary school playground, Spencer’s reply was “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” She is considered by many to be the “mother of such schoolyard massacres as Columbine and Newtown,” and even admits in interviews to feeling “partially responsible” with each passing shooting (Bovsun, “Justice Story”). Geldof was shocked by the incident, as were most Americans at the time. As he later recounted in an interview with Smash Hits magazine:

I was doing a radio interview in Atlanta with Fingers and there was a telex machine beside me. I read it as it came out. Not liking Mondays as a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel and I just said ‘Silicon chip inside her head had switched to overload’. I wrote that down. And the journalists interviewing her said, ‘Tell me why?’ It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it. It wasn’t an attempt to exploit tragedy (Clarke 6-7).

The video4 features the band singing choir-like, in a schoolhouse, then moving to a stereotypical working class flat and watching themselves on television, then to an all-white studio wearing costumes that can best be described as very 1980’s. Likely due to their regional and temporal unfamiliarity with many of the images utilized in the video, for the most part students believe Geldof was not trying to exploit tragedy but simply illustrate it. They agree that there is a sense of senselessness5 not only about the images of the video, but the lyrics as well, particularly in the song’s bridge: “And he can see no reasons/’cos there are no reasons/what reasons do you need to be shown?” (“I Don’t Like Mondays”).

Once a tone of awe over the flippant nature of a perpetrator has been set, the second video is shown: “Jeremy,” by Pearl Jam. Released on the band’s 1991 debut album, Ten, the video would earn multiple awards—and would be the last video made by the band for almost a decade. Lyrically, the song is fascinating as it draws inspiration from two sources. The first was the story of a teenager, Jeremy Wade Delle, who shot himself in front of his second-period English class. At the time, the story didn’t receive much national attention—typically a paragraph summary buried in newspapers in sections such as “Around the Nation”—which bothered singer/songwriter Eddie Vedder. In a 1993 interview with Seattle’s KISW radio, Vedder commented:

It came from a small paragraph in a paper which means you kill yourself and you make a big old sacrifice and try to get your revenge. That all you’re gonna end up with is a paragraph in a newspaper. Sixty-four degrees and cloudy in a suburban neighborhood. That’s the beginning of the video and that’s the same thing is that in the end, it does nothing … nothing changes. The world goes on and you’re gone. The best revenge is to live on and prove yourself. Be stronger than those people. And then you can come back (Vedder, Rockline Interview).

The story also triggered negative emotions for Vedder: it reminded him of another incident with which he was familiar involving a junior high schoolmate. The boy, with whom Vedder had gotten into frequent fights, brought a gun to school and repeatedly discharged it into a classroom, though nobody was injured. These memories give the song a perspective not only of the senselessness of such tragedies, but also a taste of the perspective of the bully: “Clearly I remember/pickin’ on the boy/seemed a harmless little fuck/But we unleashed a lion” (“Jeremy”).

Beyond the power of the lyrics, this piece is chosen due to the incredible imagery of the video, which contains a videographic collage conflating images of the band (though save the singer not performing the song) intercut with images of Americana, religious typography, isolation and the neglect of a young boy. The overall effect is to create a troubling, discordant feeling in the viewer. Students watching the video, many for the first time, find themselves needing time to process and interpret what they just watched as they analyze the lyrics. The tenor of the conversation moves from shock to anger, even outrage, at a society that can create children willing to commit such acts.

The mood of the room changes, however, when the third song is cued. “Pumped Up Kicks” is ostensibly by the band Foster the People, though the recording featured the song’s writer, Mark Foster, playing every instrument and mixing it himself. Initially released as a free download on the band’s website in 2010, the song was quickly licensed for television and commercial outlets, leading to the commercial signing of the band. The song was then featured both on the 2011 EP Foster the People and that same year’s full-length album Torches.

There has been some controversy to the origin of the lyrics. Foster argues that the lyrics are an attempt to get behind the mind of a young person that would be so isolated, so denigrated, or so tormented that they would either fantasize or act out a revenge fantasy. The lyrics to bear this out: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/better run, better run, outrun my gun/all the other kids with the pumped up kicks/better run, better run, faster than my bullet” (“Pumped Up Kicks”). In the aforementioned lyrics “pumped up kicks” is analogous to expensive shoes. To date, at least two of our nation’s most notorious school shooters (e.g., Seung Hui Cho and Elliot Rodger) released videos, which criticized the wealthy, spoiled nature of their potential victims, prior to engaging in the Virginia Tech and University of California Santa Barbara shootings. There has been much speculation, hotly denied by Foster, that the song was based on an actual incident. In December 2007, 19-year-old Robert Hawkins entered a mall in Omaha, Nebraska, killing nine (including himself) and injuring five (CNN, “Police: Nine Killed in Shooting at Omaha Mall”). The song’s opening lines, “Robert’s got a quick hand/He’ll look around the room, he won’t tell you his plan” (“Pumped Up Kicks”) seem to allude to this incident, though it could be coincidence.

This song is chosen because it is often familiar to the students, but most of them never paid attention to the lyrics or meaning. While lyrically, the song ruminates on the state of youth violence, the tonal contrast of mood proves anomalous. Driven by a catchy hook and up-tempo chorus, the song sounds downright chipper, leading one to question the significant disconnect between lyric and melody. In interviews, in spite of a band member being related to a Columbine survivor, Foster admits there was an element of flip-ness to the song: “”It’s a ‘fuck you’ song to the hipsters in a way—but it’s a song the hipsters are going to want to dance to” (Doyle, “Band to Watch”). And it’s this interpretation preservice teachers cannot quite get over; whether Foster intended irony or camp, the students become irate.

The cheerful tone is echoed in the video as well. In spite of the song being essentially recorded by a solo artist, the music video is an amalgamation of Foster and his bandmates playing live and having fun. They are shown drinking, dancing, playing Frisbee, and using a rope swing to dive into a natural pool. As students read the lyrics and watch the video, there emerges a sense of incongruity, even disbelief on some parts. Many students clearly—and angrily—see how youth violence has been commercialized and trivialized due to the flippant tone set by the video.

Reactions and Conclusions

Students are often angry at the perceived shift away from outrage regarding youth violence. These lessons typically leave a stunned, silent classroom, unusual for this instructor; the preservice teachers tend to file out in quiet, thinking and digesting. However, as time has passed since I started these lessons, I have learned that for most students, the course topic moves into their daily lives. Dinner conversations, student group meetings, even their own postings on social media are all shaped by what was discussed in class.

In one case a student returned to class after the weekend and explained that the topic had become a discussion item in her sorority. She wanted to make all of her sorority sisters aware of the lyrics of “Pumped Up Kicks” and what it meant to her as a future teacher. In sympathetic response, her sorority agreed to a ban on playing the song at parties. In another case, a student approached the instructor and asked for the lesson to be taught as a professional development segment for a student group of which she was a member. In yet another, a student returned from a holiday break to tell the story of witnessing bullying of the student’s younger brother—and how the student was able to teach the brother, and her parents, how to be proactive in combatting it.

I knew these lessons were impactful but didn’t know how much until my teaching load changed. I was being asked to move from this course to its immediate predecessor, the course in social foundations. On my last day of class, I asked students to complete an informal course evaluation, one question of which was if there were any lessons they believe I should put on my “must teach” list for the foundations course. Almost all students listed the lessons in media awareness and/or bullying and violence in this manner; therefore, while somewhat more condensed, these lessons are on my syllabus and will remain as such.  For educators seeking help in these issues, a list of online resources is provided in an appendix to this article.

Far too often, the real impact of teachers upon their students is essentially immeasurable. Elementary school teachers don’t see how the choices they make produce high caliber students once those students have moved on to the secondary grades. High school teachers don’t see how the choices they make prepare students for careers, college, or both. And university professors, particularly those in professional schools such as colleges of education, don’t see what an impact we have on the future professionals we produce. I have no idea if there will be a long-term drop in youth violence as a result of these lessons; I have no idea how many teachers will witness an incident of bullying and hear a few bars from “Jeremy” or “Pumped Up Kicks” in their mind as they make a teachable moment out of it. However, I can sleep well at night knowing that I have given the preservice teachers some of the tools they will need to make this impact and thank Bob, Eddie, and Mark for providing an entrée to the discussion.


Works Cited

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[1] The other four standards are: Standard 2: Clinical Partnerships and Practice, which deals with practicum placements and student teaching opportunities; Standard 3: Candidate Quality, Recruitment, and Selectivity, which deals with admissions standards; Standard 4: Program Impact, which deals with collecting data from schools in which graduates teach to prove program effectiveness; and Standard 5: Provider Quality, Continuous Improvement, and Capacity, which deals with how the college uses data gathered to monitor and improve its program. (“The Caep Standards”).

[2] Later iterations of the lesson replaces the documentary with the video for the song by Rise Against, “Make It Stop.” As opposed to many other videos on bullying, while this one depicts three teens precariously close to commiting suicide, all three get flashes of their potential futures; all three see themselves as having worth and therefore choose to live. It is extremely impactful.

[3] For another example, Harry Chapin’s “Sniper” centers on the Bell Tower shooting at U of Texas in 1966. That song was released in 1972.

[4] All videos are found on the popular video sharing site Youtube.com.

[5] Admittedly, The stylistic choices within the video such as the temporal/clothing of a past era, the blurring of vaudevillian/choir performance to school, the British Hammer horror treatment of eyes/communal brainwash of audience, the sitcom-esque familiarity of the everyday being intruded upon by the band, etc. are far from empty signifiers. However, students are unfamiliar with these so the intent is lost upon them.


Appendix: Informational Resources for Educators PreK-16

  1. University of Toledo Center for Education in Targeted Violence and Suicide (http://www.utoledo.edu/education/centers/targeted_violence_suicide/)
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Violence Prevention (www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention)
  3. STRYVE (http://vetoviolence.cdc.gov/apps/stryve/)
  4. Stop Bullying (www.stopbullying.gov)
  5. Surgeon General’s Report on Youth Violence (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44294/ )


Author Bios

Dr. Edward Janak is Chair of the Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership, Judith Herb College of Education, University of Toledo. He earned his B.A. (English, ’92) from SUNY Fredonia and his M.Ed. (Secondary Education, ’96) and Ph.D. (Foundations of Education, ’03) from the University of South Carolina. Primarily a scholar in the fields of historical foundations of education and educational life writing/biography, he is the co-editor of both The Pedagogy of Pop and Educating through Popular Culture. His work on teaching with popular culture has appeared in the edited collection How Television Shapes our Worldview: Media Representations of Social Trends and Change as well as The Journal of Popular Culture. He also serves as national chair of the “Education, Teaching, History and Popular Culture” area of the Popular Culture Association. His most recent monograph is Politics, Disability, and Education Reform in the South: the Work of John Eldred Swearingen.

Dr. Lisa Pescara-Kovach, is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology. She currently teaches courses in the field of human behavior and development as well as graduate level seminars on the causes, consequences, and prevention of extremes of intrapersonal and interpersonal school violence. She is the Director of the Center for Education in Targeted Violence and Suicide and also serves as the co-chair of The University of Toledo’s Anti-Bullying Task Force. She authored School Shootings and Suicides: Why We Must Stop the Bullies and serves as Ohio Director of Bully Police USA, a grassroots organization geared toward assisting state officials in developing bullying-related legislation. She works as a bullying, suicide and school violence prevention consultant in several school districts and hospital systems. She has given invited presentations on the topic of behavioral threat assessment as well as causes and consequences of bullying at the regional, state, national, and international levels. She served as Hiram College’s Margaret Clark Morgan Scholar, an award reserved for scholars who make a considerable difference in their fields. She is curriculum expert for the BRAVE (Bullying Resources and Anti-Violence Education) initiative and is a campus prevention and protection trainer and K-12 behavioral threat assessment trainer through a grant funded by the United States Department of Justice.


Reference Citation

Janek, Edward and Lisa Pescara-Kovach. “Applications in the Classroom: Four Decades, Three Songs, Too Much Violence: Using Popular Culture Media Analysis to Prepare Preservice Teachers for Dealing with School Violence.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy vol 4, no. 1, 2017 http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v4-issue-1/four-decades-three-songs-too-much-violence-using-popular-culture-media-analysis-to-prepare-preservice-teachers-for-dealing-with-school-violence



Janak, E. & Pescara-Kovach, L. (2017). Applications in the classroom: Four decades, three songs, too much violence: Using popular culture media analysis to prepare preservice teachers for dealing with school violence. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 4(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v4-issue-1/four-decades-three-songs-too-much-violence-using-popular-culture-media-analysis-to-prepare-preservice-teachers-for-dealing-with-school-violence

The Power of Books: Teachers’ Changing Perspectives about Using Young Adult Books to Teach Social Justice

Janis M. Harmon
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas, United States

Roxanne Henkin
University of Texas at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas, United States



This study examined teachers’ knowledge about social justice and their perspectives and understandings about the use of young adult books to teach social justice. The participants were 14 graduate students in a graduate literacy course. The course provided learning experiences about social justice, including the use of young adult books. These learning experiences were designed to deepen students’ understanding of how to address social justice issues with students in the elementary, middle and high school classrooms. Using qualitative measures, the researchers found changes in participants’ understanding of social justice and the use of young adult books as a powerful resource for teaching social justice.

All four discussion groups noted a change in their thinking with the themes of awareness and acceptance evident in their responses. For two books, Shine (2011) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), what stood out for three of the four book discussion groups were the many social issues evident in the books. In the book Shine (2011), some participants felt that the social issues were not fully addressed, and others focused on the “dark” topics in the book including language usage, sexual molestation, and parental abuse. In their discussion of Trafficked (2012), three of the four groups felt that the book raised their level of awareness and gave them a new perspective about the issue of human trafficking.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) changed the thinking of all four groups of students about Native American culture and reservation life in regard to cultural assimilation and disparities that continue today. However, the experiences of the participants in reading the three books also deepened their understanding that some books address social justice issues in very strong and powerful ways—ways that may result in constraints that need to be acknowledged regarding appropriate classroom use. The participants in our study reported that they acquired a more detailed and more in-depth knowledge base about social justice. This was especially evident in their growing awareness of social justice, in perhaps their personal acceptance of the issues, and in their comments about taking action that might lead to change in existing problems surrounding social justice.


Social Justice, Young Adult Books, Teacher Education, Bullying, LGBT


Today’s news headlines continue to show that many people are the victims of unfair and unequal treatment by others. We read about instances of teenagers who are bullied and even killed, women who are abused, police violence, and young people embroiled in gang violence. In the midst of these challenges, we, two literacy educator/researchers, wondered how we could address such social justice issues as teacher educators in our college classrooms in ways that would encourage these teachers to address social justice with their own students. Turning to the rich resources found in young adult books, we investigated teachers’ knowledge about social justice and their perspectives and understandings about the use of young adult books to teach social justice.

We first present how we framed our study within the context of what we know about the meaning of social justice as well as within the context of existing scholarly works about the use of young adult books for teaching social justice. We then describe our efforts and findings in addressing the following research questions:

  • What are teachers’ understandings about social justice?
  • What are teachers’ beliefs and perceptions about the use of young adult books as a tool for social justice instruction?

Understandings about Social Justice

The term social justice appears frequently in a variety of educational contexts. For example, in many instances teacher education programs include social justice in their mission and vision statements to emphasize a fundamental belief in the interest and well-being of all in a diverse society (Hytten & Bettez, 2011). Many of these programs are built upon specific principles and ideas associated with social justice, such as inclusion, equity, promotion of critical thinking, and social change (Bettez, 2008; Hackman, 2005; Michelli & Keiser, 2005, as cited in Hytten & Bettez, 2011). Hytten and Bettez (2011) further emphasize that the phrase is “used in school mission statements, job announcements, and educational reform proposals, though sometimes widely disparate ones, from creating a vision of culturally responsive schools to leaving no child behind” (pp. 7-8). While the term is ubiquitous on this broad level, it also a term frequently used by scholars in the field as well as practitioners.

Yet, it is difficult to pinpoint a precise definition of social justice since it may mean different things to different people. An informal poll of several undergraduate students seeking teaching certification revealed these differences. When asked what social justice meant to them, some replied with general responses about treating all people fairly regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomic status and upholding equality for all while providing for the needs of everyone. Others talked about social justice as a progressive theory socially constructed to provide equality in the field of education. More specifically, some felt that social justice refers to the treatment of minority groups to prevent discrimination and to ensure that their voices are heard. Still others viewed social justice as a matter of perspective. In particular, a currently popular idea of what is morally just and equitable focuses on societal issues of race, culture, and personal beliefs. The fundamental idea underlying these informal responses about the meaning of social justice, as well as the use of the term in broader educational contexts, is respect for all regardless of individual differences—a respect that leads to fair and equitable treatment. Our knowledge and awareness of social justice encompasses these ideas in that it is a perspective that values equity, equality, and fairness and seeks to understand the complicated issues that lead to social inequality and discrimination.  Social justice education focuses on ways that students can make real change in the world.

Social justice is such a broad term that is also closely related to social responsibility and stewardship (Wolk, 2009).  Wolk (2009) views social responsibility as encompassing a wide spectrum of themes, including caring and empathy for others, existence of social problems, government issues, power and propaganda, historical consciousness, nonviolence, and even environmental literacy. While all of these social responsibility topics warrant careful and close attention, the existence of social problems, or rather social injustices, such as bullying, abuse, and gang-related problems continues to be prevalent in many of our schools today. From an educational standpoint, teachers can be instrumental in effecting change by helping students understand social justice. Young adult books can serve as a potentially effective vehicle for this instruction.

Young Adult Books and Social Justice

Young adult books hold appeal to adolescent readers because they address the issues, topics, and concerns that are relevant to these readers. As young adults are developing their sense of self-identity, which is a major factor during their transition to adulthood, young adult books allow the readers to safely explore various life situations vicariously. These situations resonate with the readers and enable them to consider the potential consequences for particular decisions made by characters in the book. Young adult books as a whole cover a variety of themes and issues dealing with realities of life, ranging from family relationships to gangs and violence (Bond, 2011). Young adult books also address particular issues of social justice, including the reaction of characters who bully others who are different. In these books the characters are different in many aspects, including race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, or culture (Harmon & Henkin, 2014). Many of these books speak to adolescents in direct, open, and sometimes starkly realistic ways.

This study is situated within the context of existing scholarly works that have addressed the use of young adult books as a tool for teaching about social justice. In the words of Glasgow (2001), “Young adult books provide a context for students to become conscious of their operating world view and to examine critical alternative ways of understanding the world and social relations” (p. 54). From this perspective, we note that various social justice issues as represented in young adult books have been addressed by others, such as Simmons’ focus on social action in The Hunger Games trilogy (2012) and gender identity in the book Stitches as a topic in North’s social studies methods course (2010). Moreover, Stover and Bach (2012) view young adult books as an important venue for not only introducing to students social justice issues but also serving as a catalyst for active involvement in service learning or social action as discussed by Simmons (2012).

According to Quinn, Barone, Kearns, Stackhouse and Zimmerman (2003), teaching socialization skills and tolerance can no longer be addressed as part of a hidden curriculum. It must be viewed as part of a democratic classroom where reading and writing are important tools for learning humane behaviors that include respecting others. Unfortunately, such admirable endeavors are at times overshadowed by the political context of today with its strong focus on standards and competition. Nonetheless, there are literacy proponents in the field who advocate the use of young adult books as an instructional tool to teach social justice (Groenke, Maples, & Henderson, 2010) and in particular social responsibility (Wolk, 2009). It is the responsibility of everyone to confront the social problems facing many youth today, especially discrimination because of culture, gender, sexual orientation, and economic class.

However, while Davis (2010) argues for the role of books to teach about social justice and social action in democratic classrooms, he also cautions that such efforts require “genuine dedication…on the part of teachers everywhere” (np).  In a similar vein, Golden (2008), in his interview with Linda Christensen, noted social justice educator, includes her belief that any teaching of social justice is challenging and rigorous. Therefore, it appears that the effectiveness of teaching social justice to students and using young adult books to do so is no easy task and may depend heavily upon what knowledge, awareness, and inclination the teacher brings to the task. This study therefore closely examined what teachers know about social justice and potential changes in their beliefs and perceptions about the use of young adult books as a tool for social justice instruction.


The purpose of this study then was twofold: (1) to investigate teachers’ understandings about social justice; and (2) to examine the impact of course instruction on teachers’ beliefs and perspectives about teaching social justice using young adult books as a resource. The participants were 14 graduate students in a graduate literacy course offered at a large urban university in the southwestern United States. Most of the students were practicing teachers with varied years of experience and varied grade levels. The course, Integrating Reading in the Language Arts, was a required course for students interested in pursuing a reading specialist certification. The course in general focuses on reading processes and instructional practices that promote an integrated language arts curriculum across the grade levels from primary to secondary classrooms. In the following sections, we describe the project on social justice and then discuss our data collection and analysis process.

Course Project

As part of the required course activities, graduate students participated in a variety of learning experiences designed to deepen their understanding of addressing social justice issues through young adult books. The learning experiences included: (1) exposure to young adult books that address social justice issues; (2) personal and critical response to the readings in professional online blogs; and (3) development of instructional tasks to accompany the young adult books. Specifically, the student participants were required to read three novels in which social justice issues played a critical role in character and plot development. The books represented different social justice issues, including poverty, dysfunctional families, human trafficking, sexual orientation, and ethnic discrimination. Furthermore, in following Glasgow’s (2001) notion that young adult books provide critical contexts to help students become aware of their own worlds, these three books represent different contexts and different ways in which characters view and react to the social conflicts in their lives. The books were Sherman Alexi’s The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Trafficked by Kim Purcell (2012), and Shine by Lauren Myracle (2011).

In Sherman Alexie’s The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Junior, the major character, uses humor and wit to tell his story. He leaves the school on the Spokane Indian Reservation where he lives to attend a much better school in a nearby farm town—a school with only white students. In doing so, Junior rises above the expectations of others as he faces discrimination at school and contends with family and cultural issues at home. The context in which Junior finds himself forces him to grow up both at home and at school.

In Trafficked (2012), the issue of human trafficking is brought to light as we come to know Hannah, a Moldavian teenager who moves to Los Angeles to become a nanny for a Russian family.  She quickly learns that she is an indentured servant to this family and has no hope of escape. In this context of being a modern-day slave in a foreign country, Hannah is left to her own devices to change her situation.

In the coming of age book Shine (2011), sixteen-year-old Cat tries to figure out who perpetuated a terrible hate crime against her gay best friend. Set in a small southern community where everyone knows each other, Cat exhibits great courage as she confronts serious issues of drugs, intolerance, and poverty, all of which contribute to what had happened to her friend. She does so within the context of her own past experiences with others in the town, especially one encounter that has left her withdrawn, despondent, and alone.

For each book, participants wrote personal comments, impressions, and insights in individual blogs on the Google-site. These blogs served two purposes: (1) they allowed students to interact with each other online, and (2) they provided a springboard for entry into small group and whole class discussions of the book during class sessions.  In this way, class members had an opportunity to think about and articulate their own questions and insights before the group discussions began.

The students then developed a unit based upon an appropriate social justice theme of their choice. The unit included an explanation and rationale for the social justice issue, ways in which the unit could be implemented into the curriculum, descriptions of critical literacy instructional activities, a sample lesson plan, and an annotated list of at least four high quality picture books as well as at least four high-quality, longer children’s books (both fiction and/or nonfiction, trade books and/or informational books).  Students were given guidelines on book selections that included choosing high quality books with recent publication dates.  They were also asked to follow the guidelines for culturally appropriate books found on the wowlit.org website.

Data Collection

Our data collection came from several sources. During the semester, we collected data from teacher pre- and post-questionnaires about social justice issues and the ways in which teachers envision teaching social justice issues. (See Figure 1 for the questionnaire.)


Figure 1

Pre and Post Questionnaires

Pre Questionnaire

What is social justice?

What different issues or themes do you associate with social justice?

What are the responsibilities of an individual in regard to issues of social justice?

Should social justice be taught in schools? Why or why not?

If so, whose responsibility is it to teach social justice?

How should it be taught?

Can books serve as a vehicle for social change? Why or why not?

If so, what are some examples of books for children and young adults that address social justice?

How would you teach social justice with the children’s and/or young adult books?

Post Questionnaire

What is social justice?

What different issues or themes do you associate with social justice?

What are the responsibilities of an individual in regard to issues of social justice?

Should social justice be taught in schools? Why or why not?

If so, whose responsibility is it to teach social justice?

How should it be taught?

Can books serve as a vehicle for social change? Why or why not?

If so, what are some examples of books for children and young adults that address social justice?

How would you teach social justice with the children’s and/or young adult books?

What have you learned by participating in the social justice books unit?

The learning experiences described previously served as the intervention of the study across six weeks. In addition, another data source included the completion of a language chart for each book in which groups of students discussed their responses to the readings of the young adult books. A sample of the language chart for one book is in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Sample Language Chart Used in Group Discussions for Trafficked


Questions Group #1 Group #2 Group #3 Group #4
What stands out to all of you about the book? The current issue of domestic slavery stands out and especially the fact that many people have no clue about it. Also, Hannah’s naivety and how she did not stand up for herself stood out. Sergey and Lillian played on her ignorance to keep her contained as a slave. Her efforts to improve her life stand outs but yet she struggled so much and was constantly pushed back down. A girl can want more opportunities by coming the U.S. but can end up becoming another statistic. She had innocence about her and seemed oblivious to what was really going on. She started to live the dream until she got into the home of Sergey and Lillian. The main character never considered herself as being trafficked.Sergey was tender toward her; he seemed like not such a bad character; he seemed to help.The neighbor Collin stood out. Also,The innocence and ignorance of the character–Hannah and the children stood out.Females are really the villains.
Has the reading of this changed your thinking about human trafficking? In what way? The book raised awareness of how bad an issue it was.We saw how they manipulated immigrants using fear. The book gave us a completely new perspective on human trafficking. Previously we thought of it as kidnapping but not the type of living like Hannah was experiencing. The prevalence of it was also shocking. We didn’t really connect with it or thought it could really happen to someone coming to the U.S. from a different border other than the Mexican border. This “face” of trafficking was different. The majority of the time we only think of the “sex traffic” part. It make us think of how close we are to it and how well hidden it is.
Is the book appropriate for classroom use? Why or why not? Yes.It should be used for small books circles and self-choice readings.Grade level: high school Yes.It is relatively tame for the topic level. It is a prevalent issue to study with them.Grade level: upper high school Yes.It can show students how another person’s kindness can change a life whether they know it or not. It is an occurrence and is real so if students see a different perspective, they can relate.Grade level: high school Yes.It is a good jumping off point for awareness and research.The sexual content is not as explicit.Grade level: 9-10Upper levels–use as resource–language too simple
What are the constraints for using this book in the classroom? How could you get around them? The constraints are the graphic content and serious topics—sex and abuse.Allow individual choice.Warn students about the upsetting content ahead of time. You will possibly need parental consent.It would be interesting to do with a gender study. One constraint is the graphic words used.We could ask parents to read it first to give them an idea of it. We could get parental consent. The topic of sexual abuse is a constraint. The book demands a mature audience Old-fashioned, classic literary teachers may not use this book. There may be objections from parents. The book could be anelective read. Teachers could use excerpts that lead to discussions but would need parental notice.


We collected these class assignments to analyze for themes about social justice and related instruction.

Data Analysis

After compiling the questionnaire responses, we used a constant comparative data analysis technique to examine all the data (Merriam, 1998). We first read the responses to the open-ended questions in the questionnaires individually and then came together to discuss our findings, address differences, and arrive at consensus. In addition, we tallied the frequency of occurrence of specific topics that the participants discussed. For example, in the pre-questionnaire where participants were asked to define social justice, we noted 31% focused on the topic of action. One participant stated that social justice was “ensuring that people are treated fairly and with equality.” Another comment categorized as action was “standing up for what is right, even if society does not accept it.”

We followed this same procedure with the instructional artifacts developed and completed by the participants. These artifacts included instructional tasks developed by the instructor to support participants’ engagement with the young adult books as well as the instructional activities the participants developed with their own self-selected books. We examined this assignment closely to determine if the instruction was an appropriate match with the young adult book(s). For example, one participant focused on slavery for her instructional unit. She selected several quality young adult books, such as Sold by Patricia McCormick (2008) and Copper Sun by Sharon Draper (2008), to represent various forms of slavery for an eighth grade class. The unit contained several activities that engaged students in responding to the readings through writing and discussion. The culminating activity for the unit involved a visual aid representing a form of slavery and consideration of realistic ways in which to take action against modern-day slavery.

Limitations of the Study

We acknowledge the limitations inherent in this study. First, the instructor of record for the course was one of the researchers. While this had the potential to influence the outcomes, the responses to the questionnaires were anonymous and were not administered by the instructor/researcher. In addition, we realize that students typically learn something when they participate in a university course. However, given that the unit of instruction was focused on social justice, our goal was to capture the nature of this learning and the students’ own acknowledgement of what they learned. Finally, we realize the pitfalls associated with self-report data but also understand that these data can be a rich source of descriptive information that may inform future investigations.


We discuss the findings in terms of two major strands of data that were collected and analyzed in this study. The strands are the following: (1) participants’ growing understandings about social justice; and (2) the nature of instruction about social justice. Across the two strands we noticed that the themes of awareness of social justice, acceptance of others, and the need to take action were evident.

Participants’ Growing Understandings about Social Justice

We documented participants’ growing understandings of social justice through several data sources (e.g., questionnaires and in class discussions) and found changes in the ways in which participants defined social justice. We present the findings for this section, highlighting participants’ growing understanding of the meaning of social justice, changes in their thinking about social justice, and their recognition and appreciation of the responsibilities associated with social justice.

Defining social justice. Initially, approximately one third of the participants provided more generalized responses with references to issues facing those in leadership and government positions as well as issues relating to how groups of people are treated in society. More specifically, in the pre questionnaire, participants focused on issues, such as educational opportunity (14%), race relations (10%), and economic hardships (12%). In contrast, in the post questionnaire, the participants provided more specific issues in that bullying, racial inequality, and sexual orientation accounted for 40% of the responses about social justice issues.

The number of issues also changed, with participants mentioning ten different descriptions in the pre-questionnaire and 29 in the post-questionnaire. These differences were not only in terms of topics that participants associated with social justice but also differences in terms of the depth of understanding about social justice. The depth of understanding changed as illustrated in this general pre questionnaire response: “Social justice deals with issues that are continuously dealt with by leaders and people from government.” In contrast, in the post questionnaire one participant defined social justice as “an all-encompassing topic including such issues as bullying, race relations, and equality of education. Social justice discusses, speculates, and researches ways to implement understanding and solutions of these issues.”

We also noticed that the definitions provided by the participants in both questionnaires fell into distinct categories, including awareness, action, and equality. For example, while initially 31% of the participants defined social justice from an action standpoint, they did so in terms of what is done or should be done to others. In contrast, in the post questionnaire, the 15.3% of the participants who talked about action did so in reference to actions that need to be taken against unfair treatment and wrongdoing. Another difference was that some participants (15.3%) in the post questionnaire talked about social justice in terms of developing an awareness of the issues–something not evident in the pre questionnaire.

Changing ideas about social justice. As described previously, participants’ definitions of social justice changed from general ideas to more detailed understandings of the concept. Other changes also occurred. For example, 18% of the participants reported that they learned about the widespread use of the term social justice. They came to realize that social justice included not only bullying but also other issues such as lying, cheating, and stealing. Moreover, one student commented that social justice is “so much more than just being aware of an issue. We have to learn to take action.” In addition, 22% of the participants felt that they now realized the value in using engaging books to help students grapple with the issues of social justice. One participant commented that “literature brings humanity into the situation. Most people need to view the situation through others’ eyes in order to better understand the issues of social justice.” Still another noted that “the more we can identify with book characters or story lines, the more we can see where there are problems that need attention and hopefully [lead to] correction.”

Thirteen percent of the participants mentioned their understanding of the multiple ways to address social justice with students. One participant wrote “I have learned several different ways to present social justice issues to students. I have also learned that social justice issues can be taught to all students regardless of ability or age. All students have a voice.” Another student learned that “there is more to social justice than what’s going on in my class. It involves entire communities…with some issues that can be corrected through awareness and knowledge.”

All participants except one admitted a change in their thinking about social justice. These changes were varied. For example, 15.8% were more open to the different issues associated with social justice, 21% claimed to have an increased awareness of social justice, and another 21% felt their knowledge base of social justice had broadened and deepened. One student wrote: “I previously saw this as an issue best addressed in higher grades. I now realize the importance of starting younger as well in order to prevent injustice.” Another stated that “I have always felt strongly about issues and have always felt passionate about standing up for others, but it made me realize how common certain issues are and how these can be discovered through books.” Still another wrote: “I feel that these are important issues that many people push aside. If we bring it up more often, perhaps children will discuss the issues.”

Determining responsibilities associated with social justice. While the importance of taking action was mentioned in both the pre and post questionnaire, one major difference was an individual’s responsibility to bring awareness of social justice issues to others. This awareness was not mentioned in the pre questionnaire. After the course unit on social justice, however, all participants felt that the topic should be taught in schools and that it was the responsibility of the teacher to teach about social justice.  In particular, in the post questionnaire 23.9% of the participants stated that the responsibility of teaching social justice issues rests on the shoulders of not only parents but all those who work in schools (e.g., teachers, administrators, counselors). In fact, after the course unit, a few more participants who had not included parents initially now felt that parents are responsible for teaching social justice—an increase from 14.8% to 19.6%.

Nature of Instruction about Social Justice

In response to how social justice should be taught, most participants initially focused on general instructional procedures, such as by example, through modeling and explanations, and through the use of multimedia. In contrast, in the post questionnaire, participants provided more specific suggestions involving the use of multimodal traditional and multimodal digital tools. For example 16% felt that visuals, such as posters, photographs, movies, and video clips, were useful for teaching about social justice. The use of visuals was discussed in whole class discussions and used by the instructor and students in class.  Another 20% stated that active participation in classroom activities is important for teaching students about social justice.  Again, active participation was modeled in the course. These activities included skits, plays, and other dramatizations as well as discussions and even dance.

In both the pre and post questionnaire, approximately the same number of participants mentioned the use of books for teaching about social justice (24% and 25%). However, when asked directly about the use of books for teaching social justice, only two participants in the pre questionnaire were not sure about the use of books to teach social justice. By the end of the course unit, however, all participants stated that books can serve as a vehicle for social change. The reasons especially focused on how books enable the reader to relate to characters. For example, one participant stated:

Yes, many times books can help us see things that we may have never paid attention to before. It can help give us empathy by putting us in someone else’s shoes. Many times children may ignore a history lesson, but a book they can relate to may help to see similarities that they never saw before. Books can make us aware of more issues to where we want to work towards creating a world free of discrimination.

Another stated:

Many students might not know how to talk about a certain issue. Reading a novel can help open the door to what can be talked about. It gives students the opportunity to step into the issue and really live it & experience it while learning.

Initially, 30.4% (7/23) did not know any book titles addressing social justice. Those who did provided titles of fairy tales and well-known titles such as the Harry Potter series, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969). At the end of the course unit, as expected, participants provided a variety of current, quality book titles that address social justice issues, such as Jennifer Brown’s The Hate List (2009), The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002), and Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky (1999). After the course unit, more participants (41.2% compared to 33.3%) mentioned the use of book discussions. While in both the pre and post questionnaires participants talked about the use of videos and drama activities, only in the post questionnaire did participants (10.3%) mention the use of writing.

After reading the three young adult novels that focused on different issues of social justice (i.e., trafficking, inequalities, and sexual orientation), participants initially shared their individual responses to the following questions in blogs and then discussed their thoughts in small groups.

  • What stands out for you about the book?
  • Has the reading changed your thinking about _____? In what way?
  • Is the book appropriate for classroom use? Why or why not?
  • What are the constraints for using this book in the classroom? How could you address these constraints?

We report the findings from their collective group responses in categories based upon the questions previously listed and also include examples from the blogs of their individual thoughts to support the findings. These categories include what stood out in the readings, changes in thinking about social justice issues, and classroom use of the books.

What stood out in the readings. For two books, Shine (2011) and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), what stood out for three of the four book discussion groups were the many social issues evident in the books.  In the book Shine (2011), some participants felt that the social issues were not fully addressed, and others focused on the “dark” topics in the book including language usage, sexual molestation, and parental abuse. For example, one participant wrote “the book also did bring to light for me how the stigma of being gay is still incredibly shameful for many people and how that can be exasperated by your upbringing and community.” Another noted the following about Shine:

The bullying definitely took center stage in this book. There were so many instances of bullying, such as verbal abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse. The author put a lot of issues into this book, but I think that young adults can relate to most of those issues. The language was a little harsh for my taste, but honestly it made the story line seem more real to me.

On the other hand, in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), participants in all four discussion groups mentioned their new awareness of the many issues found on Indian reservations, such as extreme poverty, death, eating disorders, racism, bullying, and prejudice.

One participant reflected about these issues at a deeper level as evidenced in the following comment:

Sherman Alexie truly brings to life the impact of robbing someone or some group of their hope. He has truly opened my eyes to the ramifications of Americanization and of forcing someone to give up their culture and heritage. Previously, I have been involved in discussions about the power of hegemony and of Westernization and the dominant culture. However, I now understand that those were surface-level conversations and did nothing to open my mind’s eye or heart to the life-altering impact those powerful concepts can have. It took a work of literacy and seeing the world through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy for me to truly understand.

Two groups also commented about the author’s use of humor to lessen the harshness of these issues as well as the use of illustrations to depict character development.

For the book Trafficked (2012), the literary element of character made a strong impression on all of the participants. The groups mentioned several things that caught their attention as they read the book. Three groups noticed Hannah’s innocence and naivety and the fact that she did not stand up for herself. One group felt that Hannah probably did not see herself as being trafficked and another commented on the futility of her efforts to improve her life. To illustrate this point, one participant wrote in her blog:

The thing that stood out the most to me was the fact that Hannah herself did not realize she had been trafficked until someone else mentioned it. She was willing to come over from her home and do whatever was asked of her in order to live in America and have the opportunity to become a doctor. She went on accepting that there was a chance she would not be a nanny but would end up being a prostitute…The fact that she would be willing accept such a life even for a short time and not even consider that she was being trafficked leads me to think that it is possible that the ones most likely to become victims are the ones least prepared to recognize the danger.

In addition, one group mentioned that Sergey and Lillian capitalized on Hannah’s innocence to keep her contained as a slave in their home.

Changes in thinking about social justice issues. All four discussion groups noted a change in their thinking with the themes of awareness and acceptance evident in their responses. For example, in their discussion about Shine (2011), three shifts in thinking resulted for the groups—one on the topic of bullying and hate crime, the other on acceptance, and the last on communication. Two groups talked about how their thinking changed about bullying. They had never considered the varying forms of bullying, including physical, verbal, or relational (Harmin & Henkin, 2014). One participant stated, “This book has changed my thinking about bullying. There are so many different ways a person can be bullied…from the area they grew up in, to their sexual orientation, to the size of their bodies, etc. This book relates to many different forms of bullying, [such as] the ‘hick’ terms that are used throughout the book.” One group focused on changes that involved the uplifting experience that comes with forgiveness and acceptance, and another group felt that proper communication could have prevented the major problems in the book.

In their discussion of Trafficked (2012), three of the four groups felt that the book raised their level of awareness and gave them a new perspective about the issue of human trafficking. One group commented on how well hidden such trafficking is while another group felt they could not accept the idea that such trafficking could happen to someone coming to the United States from another country other than Mexico. As in the words of one participant,

Reading this story changed my thinking in how we address these issues with young adults today either in school or at home. I think most of the time these controversial topics are ignored because we think that something like that could never happened where we are….While this topic is ugly and un-glorified, I think that it still needs to be addressed to teens. We need to stop hiding the fact that it does happen and that in order to do justice to others, we need to attempt to help them and get them out of situations that are beyond their control. I have always been a believer in bringing up controversial topics, and I have always thought that these books make the best reads. However, I have not always promoted them to their targeted audience of young adult…We need to trust them [young adults] more and trust their instincts and provide them with the knowledge they need to be informed about what happens in the world.

Another participant wrote:

This book has changed the way I look at trafficking. I have heard the term but had never really thought about it on a deeper level… I feel like I could relate to the character and this made me feel unsafe. The kind of unsafe feeling that you know you will never be the same again because you have been made aware of something that you can’t take back. I feel like this is happening and in many times right under the noses of unsuspecting people.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) changed the thinking of all four groups of students about Native American culture and reservation life in regard to cultural assimilation and disparities that continue today. One group wrote, “The feelings you get from reading the book are far beyond what you would get from a history lesson.” This quote illustrates how young adult books can contextualize events within social, cultural, and historical settings enabling readers to broaden their understandings about diverse populations and cultures (Groenke, Maples, & Henderson, 2010). The following written response about this book from one participant represents this change in thinking about social justice issues:

I reflected back to a professor I had who taught Navajo Indians for many years and shared her experiences with my class. The most important lesson I took from her stories was that the Navajo’s (sic) taught her far more than she taught them. When I think back to that and pair it with this novel, I see the vast differences between the two. The lesson that will now always be at the forefront of my mind is that attempting to conform others to be like us is wrong in so many ways. Instead, we must actively seek to learn from others who are “different” from us to avoid having a “part-time” identity.

This is such an important insight.  As educators, it’s important to build on the students strengths and to see their culture as important and valuable.

Classroom use of the books. The two major topics covered about classroom use were the appropriateness of the books and the ways in which constraints for classroom use could be addressed.  For the book Shine (2011), three of the four groups felt that the book was inappropriate for classroom use. Their major concern was the many controversial topics included in the book, topics such as molestation, drug use, physical abuse, strong language, and hate crimes. In addition, one of these three groups raised concern that, because too many of the issues were left unresolved, class discussions could lead to “uncomfortable and unpredictable situations.” One participant noted the following:

My first inclination is to declare this novel as inappropriate for classroom use. Shine contains extremely mature content. The combination of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, drug use, and coarse language seem to me difficult hurdles to pass. If it were used in a classroom, as with all books that deal with such issues, the maturity of the students needs to be kept in great consideration.

The teachers’ hesitation to use Shine reflected their reluctance to discuss controversial topics in their classrooms.

One group in particular stated that teachers may be reluctant to use the book due to the mention of faith and religion.  In contrast, one group felt strongly that the book was appropriate for high school classrooms. They argued that the types of bullying portrayed in the book mirrored reality and that students could engage in discussions that addressed bullying from these different angles.

As one participant stated:

I think it’s appropriate for 8th or 9th grade. I think it’s very engaging; students won’t want to put the book down. I think the message it brings is very powerful. Your emotions are transformed to that of the characters. You feel how lonely and hurt Cat is. You feel her braveness and it makes you feel proud. You can feel how annoyed she was with Robert but also how patient she was with him. Students can get into this book and also learn from it.

Another noted:

I feel this book is appropriate for classroom use. There are some instances such as when Cat gets attacked by Tommy at her house, and how the dad’s (sic) in the story either had alcohol, drug, or mental issues that will need to be discussed while or prior to reading this book.  I feel like many students will relate to the book, which might make it easier to talk about and or express feelings they may have about certain issues.  The grade level that I would choose would be 9th-12th grade. I think you might want to get parents(sic) permission due to the level of homosexuality that is discussed in the book. Sadly, many parents do not want their child discussing homosexuality and I don’t know how reading a book about it would make them feel.

For the book Trafficked (2012) all groups agreed that the book was appropriate for classroom use in grades 9-12 despite the constraints of the serious content of sexual abuse and the use of graphic language. One group recommended the book for self-selected independent reading and another group felt that the book could be used as an introduction perhaps to an inquiry project on human trafficking. Similarly, for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), two groups of students felt that the mature content of the book was better suited for high school students despite the simplistic reading style used by the author. The other two groups felt that the book was appropriate for eighth grade students. However, all four groups voiced concerns about the sexual content and strong language used in the book. As one participant noted:

I am truly torn about whether or not I would feel comfortable using this book in the classroom. While I think it is a transformational piece of literature, I think it requires an audience of a certain maturity level. I wouldn’t want to use it below a high school level…I would primarily be concerned about the frank discussions and descriptions of masturbation in the book. I am certain that there would be parents (myself included) who would not want their children exposed to this kind of endorsement. I do recognize that I come from a very sheltered life and that I probably didn’t even know the meaning of the term when in high school. Thus, I realize this has an impact on my perspective. On the other hand, the book is such a powerful tool in transforming one’s thought processes about accepting those who are different, that I think it would be a wonderful thing for students to read.

To address the constraints imposed by controversial topics and graphic language, participants in all four groups mentioned the need, first of all, to seek parental consent to use the book in the classroom as a required assignment. One noted that for the book Trafficked, “I would agree that at some high grade level, probably high school, this book could be used for instructional use in the classroom but it may require parental permission because it has some sexual content.” In addition, participants also felt it was appropriate to include the books in a classroom library. In this way, students would have the option to select the books for independent reading.


This study investigated the changing perspectives of graduate students in a literacy education course about the learning and teaching of social justice. We did not set out to have the graduate students develop their own strict definition of social justice, a murky concept that can mean different things to so many different people. Rather, given that social justice has no firmly established meaning agreed upon by all and can be a controversial topic to many, we wanted our participants to grapple with the complex and broad issues related to this social concept. The instructor, using the books as a medium to guide the social interactions among the participants, served as facilitator rather than erudite professor with an agenda about social justice.  Therefore, with no solid, concrete definition for social justice leading the experiences in the course, the participants were able to individually generate their own personal understandings of this concept and did so through reading and discussing young adult books. For example, in her response to the book Shine, one student wrote:

…This book was much more than a story about the atrocities of an anti-gay hate crime. It was more about contrasting the negative impact and overwhelming power that hate and self-loathing can have on a person’s life with the liberating glory, joy, and light that can come from forgiveness and acceptance. For example, we can trace Cat’s journey from darkness, hatred, gloom, and loneliness to forgiveness, acceptance, joy, and love.

This response illustrates how the books mediated the participants’ developing notions about social justice. It may be that this book enabled her to think more deeply about the meaning of life and the lessons that can be learned from life’s events.

We also wanted them who? to focus on the use of young adult books for teaching social justice to students. The participants did report that they understood how books can serve as an important instructional tool for teaching about social justice as illustrated in this student’s comment about the book Trafficked:

This book is appropriate for high school kids. I would focus on a small group or individual reading assignment so that the discussion of the controversial issues would be a little more intimate than a whole class discussion. I bet most students are not familiar with trafficking (I know I wasn’t in high school) and this book would be a great opportunity to open their eyes to this issue.

However, the experiences of the participants in reading the three books also deepened their understanding that some books address social justice issues in very strong and powerful ways–ways that may result in constraints that need to be acknowledged regarding appropriate classroom use. The same student who made the comment just mentioned above also had this to say about the constraints for using the book Trafficked in the classroom:

This book has some horrific scenes of abuse. A few times a sexual encounter is referenced, but not really [explicitly] described and then toward the end, the sexual encounter between Sergey and Hannah is fairly graphic for adolescents. However, I thought the author kept it pretty clean overall. I would ask parents to preview the book before asking their child to read it and, of course, be open and willing to discuss anything that makes a student feel uncomfortable.

This comment illustrates that, on the one hand, participants learned that the issues need to be out in the open and discussed with students, but, on the other hand, discussion of such controversial issues may create other problems that need to be addressed. This is not a new dilemma that many teachers face when making decisions about what texts to use with students (Golden, 2008). Yet, we believe that teachers want to create a safe environment where difficult issues can be discussed openly. In this way, students can hopefully be equipped with a variety of ideas and strategies for addressing the challenges they may be encountering in their own lives.

The importance of teaching educators about social justice must not be overlooked. We hope and believe, that in any course students take, they should learn something. Thus, after participating in the social justice unit of instruction, it appears that the participants in our study reported that they did acquire a more detailed and more in-depth knowledge base about social justice. This was especially evident in their growing awareness of social justice, in perhaps their personal acceptance of the issues, and in their comments about taking action that might lead to change in existing problems surrounding social justice. Overall, these educators appeared to value their newly gained knowledge about social justice that might lead to changes they could personally make in their own lives and, as mentioned above, in the lives of the children they teach.

We advocate that children and adolescents need to be taught about social justice, but we also realize the challenge this may present and the questions that arise. As teacher educators, we believe that all those involved in the field of education need to address the issue of social justice in ways that can evoke change.  Hence, teacher preparation programs with a mission to transform practice need to consider the inclusion of social justice as part of these programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Furthermore, we advocate that teachers consider the use of young adult books as an instructional resource for addressing social justice in the classroom. These books can be vehicles for transforming the lives of the students we teach as well as a springboard for future change in society.



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Books Cited

Alexi, S. (2007).  The true diary of a part-time Indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Angelou, M. (1969).  I know why the caged bird sings. New York, NY: Random House.

Brown, J. (2009).  The hate list. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Chbosky, S. (1999). Perks of being a wallflower. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Collins, S. (2008). The hunger games. New York, NY: Scholastic, Inc.

Draper, S. (2008). Copper sun. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Huser, G. (2003). Stitches. Toronto, Canada: Groundwood.

Lee, H. (1960).  To kill a mockingbird. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

McCormick, P. (2008). Sold. New York, NY: Hyperion Books.

Myracle, L. (2011). Shine. New York, NY: Amulet Books.

Purcell, K. (2012).  Trafficked.  New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Sebold, A. (2002).  Lovely bones. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.


Author Bios

Janis M. Harmon is currently a Professor of Literacy Education and serves as Associate Dean for Undergraduate Student Success in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Theory and Practice from The Ohio State University and an M.Ed. and Educational Specialist Degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette.  Her research interests include children’s and young adult literature and effective middle school and high school literacy programs with a special emphasis on vocabulary acquisition and instruction. She has written articles that have been published in such journals as Research in the Teaching of English, Journal of Literacy Research, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, the Middle School Journal, the Elementary School Journal, and the National Reading Conference Yearbook. She served as co-editor for Voices from the Middle from 2006-2011.

Dr. Roxanne Henkin is a Professor Emeritus in the Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching Department at The University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her doctorate from Northern Illinois University. Dr. Henkin’s research interests include multiliteracies and multimodal digital literacies, confronting bullying through literacy, critical literacy for social justice, writing process and instruction, and in-service staff development. She has published many articles and two books, Who’s Invited to Share: Using Literacy to Teach for Equity and Social Justice and Confronting Bullying: Literacy as a Tool for Character Education, (Heinemann.)

Dr. Henkin is President-Elect of Whole Language Umbrella. She was also the lead co-editor of the NCTE journal Voices from the Middle (2006-2011) and the Director of the San Antonio Writing Project (2006-2016). She has helped to create and teach writing projects in South Africa, India and the Philippines.

For more information see Dr. Roxanne Henkin’s BlogAcademia.eduResearchGate, and Confronting Bullying website.


Reference Citation:

Harmon, Janice, and  Roxanne Henkin. “‘The Power of Books: Teachers’ Changing Perspectives about Using Young Adult Books to Teach Social Justice. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2016, http://journaldialogue.org/issues/the-power-of-books-teachers-changing-perspectives-about-using-young-adult-books-to-teach-social-justice/.

Harmon, J. & Henkin, R. (2016). The power of books: Teachers’ changing perspectives about using young adult books to teach social justice. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 3(2)http://journaldialogue.org/issues/the-power-of-books-teachers-changing-perspectives-about-using-young-adult-books-to-teach-social-justice/