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Feminist Pedagogy in the Elementary Classroom: An Agenda for Practice


Source: Feminist Teacher, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2005), pp. 123-131
Published by: University of Illinois Press
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Accessed: 08-03-2019 01:21 UTC

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Feminist Pedagogy in the Elementary Classroom:
An Agenda for Practice

studies courses. Although this work is clearly

Because elementary education is predominant-
ly made up of women, it is interesting that not it does not address the educational
much research in the field has been conducted
experiences of the majority of women who do
not pursue postsecondary education. Follow-
with an inherently feminist perspective. Lisa
Goldstein notes that developmental psychol-
ing our review of the literature, we concluded
that, with few exceptions, feminist pedagogical
ogy has been the theoretical foundation for
practices are relatively unstudied in and virtu-
early childhood education- an irony, especially
considering the pervasiveness of masculin- ally unapplied to the elementary school level.
We believe that it is both possible and a
ist discourse within that field (Gilligan 5-7).
worthy endeavor to translate feminist pedagog
Goldstein remarks as well that "feminist theory
from its more common home in the university
could provide a viable foundation for a new
to the
vision of early childhood education. Looking to elementary classroom. We will explore
possibilities for student-empowering pedagogi-
feminist scholarship as a source of theoretical
authority would give women a voice in a cal practice on the elementary level and sug-
they dominate in silence" (62). gest a new agenda for research into feminist
teaching in K-5 classrooms.
Feminist pedagogy has demonstrated its
value as a transformative approach to educa-
tion (Brady). As the beginning of an effort to of the Problem
extend feminist pedagogy beyond the univer-
Differences in educational outcomes for males
sity, we conducted a review of the literature
and females in U.S. public schools have been
regarding the hidden curriculum in elementary
the focus of extensive literature and research
education and feminist pedagogical practices.
We found that feminist theorists tend to (American
be col- Association of University Women
How Schools, Gender Gaps; National Coalition
lege professors who write about their pedagogi-
for Women and Girls in Education; Sadkerand
cal challenges in the college classroom (e.g.,
Sadker). These differences have been high-
Coffey and Delamont; Diller, Houston, Morgan,
lighted further in studies that focus primarily
and Ayim; Gabriel and Smithson; Mayberry
and Rose). These scholars developed feminist
on drops in self-esteem and achievement of
adolescent girls (e.g., American Association of
pedagogical practices as part of their efforts
to enact feminist theoretical principles in University
their Women How Schools; Gilligan; Han-
cock; Orenstein; Pipher; Sadkerand Sadker).
teaching and bolster the confidence of their
The multiple reasons for this drop in self-es-
students, especially those enrolled in women's


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teem are difficult to discern, but most cer- message that women are not as important or as
tainly schooling that is male centered and the worthy as men. Further, this continual presence
simultaneous socialization of young girls into of males as the authors of great literature; lead-
traditional feminine roles contribute to these ers of world politics and commerce; great sci-
decreases in achievement. entists, inventors, and mathematicians serves
The likelihood that these drops in self-es- to reinforce the idea that boys are "capable of
teem and achievement emerge suddenly and great things" while simultaneously reinforc-
exclusively during adolescence is low at best. ing the impression that women (and people of
Rather, it seems likely that the seeds of these color) have done nothing of much worth and
declines are sown much earlier. Visible changes that girls are not capable of doing much of great
in mannerisms and demeanor are evident in worth.

females in elementary school, as many go Additionally, the gender bias of this hidden
from being very eager, excited learners in their curriculum extends beyond content to class-
younger years to passive, almost invisible pres- room management. For example, studies have
ences in the classroom nearthe end of their shown that most teachers focus disproportion-
elementary years, with many learning to sim- ate attention on students who are discipline
ply work diligently and not be noticed (Sadker challenges (who are most often males). Similar-
and Sadker 79-83; Hancock 1-25; Orenstein ly, classroom observation studies have docu-
12-15). Thus, at least some causation for this mented that many teachers invest extra time
transformation can be attributed to traditional and energy in involving males in their class-
elementary education and pedagogy. room lessons. Moreover, frequently males work
For example, as students progress through to garner teachers' attention, while females
the elementary level, women are conspicuously wait their turn, which does not always come
absent from the formal curriculum. Very few (Sadker and Sadker 42-55).
leaders in history have been women, very little Given these and other elements of the for-
mention is made of women in the fields of sci- mal and hidden curriculum in our elementary
ence and mathematics, and although women schools, is it any wonder that girls' sense of self
are becoming more prominent as authors of diminishes? The hidden curriculum and the so-
children's literature, most stories and poems cialization of young girls into femininity inhibit
given attention within the classroom still focus the democratic participation of a majority of
on male protagonists orare written by male children in schools. Elementary educators have
authors. These factors lead students, and many the unfortunate advantage of watching the vis-
teachers, to believe that women do not "make" ible drop in confidence among girls as they ap-
history, women do not write or participate in proach adolescence. Although good arguments
great literature, women do not "do" science or can be made that boys show less success in
math. schools as evidenced by retention rates as well
Although some improvements have been as disciplinary referrals (Fergusson; Sadker
made in them over the past thirty years, text- and Sadker; Thome), girls exhibit less success
books still provide mostly token inclusions of as evidenced by physical manifestations, such
women (and people of color).1 Women are still as anorexia, bulimia, and teenage pregnancy,
not represented as important authors, mov- not to mention psychological manifestations,
ers, or shakers. Women's achievements are including lowered academic expectations
still primarily relegated to the sidelines orto a through their own efforts to make themselves
month-long celebration that is often brushed acceptable to their peer group (Reis; Orenstein
aside on the elementary level for more enjoy- 160-61). Our challenge, then, lies in prevent-
able activities, such as leprechaun visits and ing these lessons from taking hold by enacting
springtime celebrations. By overemphasizing pedagogical practices that empower girls as
the role of males, the curriculum cultivates the well as boys.


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Our concern lies in challenging the negative ability to act to create a more humane social
effects of the hidden curriculum on both gen- order, and become effective voices of change
within the broader social world. (7)
ders, regardless of race or ethnicity. Feminist
pedagogical practices, taken from university-
Such progressive, politically conscious, com-
level feminist instructors and translated for
munitarian classroom structures in our nation's
the elementary classroom, seem well suited
high schools and middle schools have been
to bring about this transformation in schools.
written about in the research literature (Logan;
Further, feminist pedagogy is the most logical
Orenstein). As our review of the literature re-
step toward proactively addressing the drop in
vealed, however, few published sources have
self-esteem and achievement among girls.
explicitly sought to bring feminist pedagogy
into the elementary classroom. We need to
Definitions of Feminism
translate the pedagogical and theoretical find-
ings of feminism at the college level for use at
There are many branches of feminism and many
the elementary level.
understandings and misunderstandings as to
what feminism entails. We support a broad
definition of feminism and feminist pedagogy. Beginning the Translation
As we understand it, feminism is a theoreti-
Through studying liberatory pedagogies and
cal and political position that affirms the ba-
their applications, we have discovered certain
sic equality and human dignity of all people.
trends that point toward good ways for elemen-
Feminists proclaim this equality/equity for all
tary educators to develop a transformative
people regardless of gender, race, social class,
classroom. Although each liberatory pedagogy
ethnicity, national origin, sexual preference,
on its own can provide a push in the right
religion, physical ability, and mental ability.
direction, adaptations and combinations need
Therefore, pedagogies that emerge from a de-
to be made according to students' age level.
sire to recognize and support this stated belief
The necessity to make elementary instruction
may be considered feminist. These pedagogies
developmentally appropriate, however, should
include, but are not limited to, feminist, critical,
not be invoked as a justification for the status
engaged, culturally responsive, relational, and
quo. Because many educators are more con-
cerned with "what works" than the theoretical
reasoning behind it, the following represents
Feminist Pedagogies information synthesized from various libera-
tory pedagogies- feminist, culturally relevant,
Maralee Mayberry provides the following de-
engaged, relational, dialogical, and critical- as
scription of feminist classroom pedagogy:
possibilities for elementary classroom practice.
The theoretical reasoning behind these possi-
Feminist educators develop and use class-
bilities follows.
room process skills, many of which are used
in collaborative learning environments . . .
where students work together to design • Examine the curriculum for "what is miss-

group activities that demonstrate an aware- ing. "

ness of race, class, and gender dynamics that • How can females and people of color be
added to the curriculum in a way that does
permeate the larger society. Through dia-
not token ize or trivialize their contributions?
logue and conversation, students and teach-
• Utilize narrative to eliminate tokenization.
ers negotiate a curriculum that articulates
their needs and concerns. These classroom
strategies are designed explicitly to empower The work of theorists such as Peggy Mclntosh
students to apply their learning to social (Interactive Phases: Feminist; Interactive Phases
action and transformation, recognize their with Regard to Race), Beverly D. Tatum, and


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Vivian Paley (White Teacher; Kwanzaa) is invalu- look "just right" and be conducive for learning.
able for elementary teachers in the process of In the process, many teachers focus on the tra-
examining the curriculum for "what is miss- ditional and forget to look for the hidden mes-
ing." Feminist, culturally responsive, dialogical, sages that their displays transmit. Looking from
engaged, and critical pedagogies all examine culturally responsive, engaged, and feminist
the canon of knowledge and ask, why this pedagogies, we find the importance of creating
knowledge and not that? As bell hooks notes, an environment that is warm, safe, and in-
the classroom should be "a place where differ- cludes content about women and marginalized
ence could be acknowledged, where we could others (Tite 2-6; Rensenbrink 143-53; Gay 37;
finally understand, accept, and affirm that our hooks 20-21). The feminist perspective insists
ways of knowing are forged in history and rela- that all students are affirmed in the classroom.

tions of power" (30). The kind of classroom for One way to find this affirmation is for students
which hooks and other theorists advocate will to see faces on the wall that look like theirs do
not exist without an examination of both what when they look in the mirror. Further, if a class-
is missing in the curriculum and the hidden cur- room is monocultural, the feminist perspective
riculum being taught in our schools. insists that the students within the classroom
Jane Roland Martin recommends that we understand the importance of affirming the ba-
bring the hidden curriculum into "that which we sic equality and human dignity of all people.
explicitly teach": "An educational agent bent Several Web sites offer curriculum materi-
on the protection of children will proceed on als for teachers to consider when planning the
the principle that one good way to vitiate the classroom environment. The National Women's
hidden curriculum is to move it into the curricu- History Project (<>) is a
lum proper" (Cultural Miseducation 104). Barrie good source for classroom materials, and Inter-
Thorne (162-67) concurs with Martin that we net searches on "women's history curriculum"
should implement a "gender-sensitive ideal" provide other potential resources as well.3
in our classrooms (Martin, Reclaiming 193).
Thorne remarks that in the process of creating • Use more inclusive reading materials.
an equal world, "we may need to emphasize • How many chapter/picture books have male
protagonists and/or females in stereotypi-
gender in order to promote equality" (171).
cal roles?
From the feminist perspective, a new emphasis
• If people are presented in this manner, how
in the classroom on gender, race, and class that
could these books be used to foster discus-
results from an examination of the curriculum
will go a long way toward affirming the basic
equality and human dignity of all people. From the classroom environment, we move
into the curriculum presented within it. Young
• Use more inclusive posters/displays.
elementary students are often like sponges,
• How many posters represent women or
soaking in books that are read to them as they
people of color?
make the transition into reading independently.
• How many move beyond token inclusions
(e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks,
When examining the reading materials made
Susan B. Anthony) within the curriculum of available for our students, we must look for
women/people of color? the messages, whether overt or covert, that
they are getting. The work done by Peggy Mcln-
One of the first things that can be examined tosh (Interactive Phases: Feminist; Interactive
in the classroom for "what is missing" are the Phases with Regard to Race) offers a good start
displays. Classroom environment is a key factor in recognizing the messages that are transmit-
within the elementary classroom, and many ted through the curriculum as well as the role
teachers spend hours getting classrooms to that we as teachers can play in changing those


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messages. From feminist, engaged, culturally respond in turn) can facilitate the connec-
responsive, critical, and dialogical pedagogy tions between the lived experiences of the

(Brady; hooks; Gay; Greene; Shrewsbury; Tite; students and teachers with the content of
the class.
Thome), we see the importance in students'
• Open-ended journal topics allow for com-
cultures and lived experiences being reflected
munication of student needs and personal
back to them in the curriculum, and this cur-
connections to content being studied.
riculum should include related reading materi-
als as they begin to learn how to acquire knowl- Relationships are important in liberatory peda-
edge through words. Even more importantly, gogies in general, not just in feminist peda-
if the books chosen contain stereotypes, dis- gogy. Feminist pedagogies focus on building
cussion and dialogue will help students move and maintaining connections. "Relationships
beyond such thinking and understand why are more than a set of interactions among
what has been represented to them through lit- people. They are a web of existence" (Shrews-
erature can hinder transformative possibilities bury 170). Indeed, dialogue between teacher
(Sadker and Sadker 66-68).4 and student or student and student is a key
part of building relationships. Storytelling, or
• Include discussions about race and gender
the use of narratives, is one way to achieve this
in class. These are lived experiences for all
dialogue. Personal journals are yet another
students- don't be afraid to venture here.
way to have a dialogue with students that al-
lows them to communicate their needs and be
As the curriculum is examined, and areas that
"listened to." Dialogical learning can take place
have once been hidden become a part of the
through narratives, because thought-provok-
curriculum proper, discussions about race,
ing discussions can take place in both oral and
gender, and class automatically ensue. Many
written form. "Dialogic learning requires both
elementary teachers tend to ignore race, gen-
abstract explanations and personal accounts.
der, or class when in the midst of classroom
The explanations help both to establish and
discussions, because they have been taught
debate the ideas supporting it. The personal-
that it is more important to be blind to differ-
ization enables us to see how dialogic learn-
ence than to acknowledge it. As Gary Howard
ing is experienced on a daily basis" (Flecha 1).
has noted, "the belief in the sameness of hu-
Culturally responsive pedagogy points to the
man beings actually den[ies] the authentic exis-
importance of building relationships as well,
tence of people whose experiences of reality
because student-teacher relationships are an
[are] different" (55). Critical, engaged, culturally
important aspect of the multidimensionality of
responsive, and feminist pedagogies all seek
the classroom environment (Gay 45-76). Any
to empower students within the classroom and
tool that can be used to develop relationships
look for ways to end oppression (Freire; Gay;
with students is an important part of feminist
hooks; Shrewsbury). If there is no discussion of
pedagogical practices and as such is an impor-
how race, gender, or class impacts those within
tant element that can be adapted for use in the
the classroom, oppression can be perpetuated
and students who are different from the white elementary classroom.

male norm will find that their lived experiences

• Use a variety of classroom practices- co-
and existence are denied within the classroom.
operative learning techniques, think/pair/
A feminist perspective that advocates both eq- share, centers, or differentiated instruc-
uity and equality cannot ignore difference. tion-to focus on different learning styles or
• Use narratives in the classroom.
• Institute dialogue with questions for which
• Both storytelling and personal Journals there are multiple answers based on per-
(where students write in journals, teachers spective.5


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• Within these practices, use flexible student respected. There are no stupid questions.
groupings- encourage all students to inter- No put downs (even of self) are allowed.)
act often with all other students in the class
in positive ways. Classroom rules are an important part of el-
• Set up groups to enable the strengths of ementary education, but they frequently tend
every member to be realized. to set limits for actions in which students may
• Rotate group members often. engage as opposed to affirming actions that al-
• Provide nooks and crannies- comfortable
low students the opportunities to empower one
spaces for independent or cooperative
another. Carla Washburne Rensenbrink notes
group work.
that discipline and classroom management
Cooperative learning has been a force within techniques should enhance care and respect
elementary education for quite some time, but for others (147). Instead of stating only what

many teachers do not realize the implications students cannot do, classroom rules can lay a
foundation for what students can and should
of cooperative learning for females and people
of color. Cooperative learning allows more do to affirm the dignity of others within and
outside the classroom.
students the opportunity to participate and
shine within a classroom than does traditional
whole group instruction because it provides Future Agenda
a learning setting that is collaborative rather
than competitive. Relational, dialogic, feminist, On the very first day of school, the hidden

critical, engaged, and culturally responsive curriculum starts to negatively affect our fe-

pedagogies all encourage dialogue and place males-and our males. As an antidote to this,

the students at the center of meaning mak- a feminist pedagogy that encourages young

ing (Sidorkin; Greene; Mayberry; hooks; Gay). students to work together and affords them the

Both dialogue and the recentering of meaning opportunity to "create a more humane social

making are central features to cooperative and order" (Mayberry 3) can help even the youngest

collaborative learning techniques. Further, a kindergartners who walk full of hope and won-

variety of classroom practices, and comfort- der into the classroom to maintain their highest

able space for these practices, not only allows potential.

success but also affirms females and students In many ways, the elementary school class-

of color as worthy contributors to the classroom room is an ¡deal place to lay the foundation

community. As such, collaborative practices needed to achieve the broad goals of feminism.
should be at the forefront of transformative el- These youngsters must learn how to work and

ementary pedagogical thought. Another salient live together, regardless of race, class, or gen-

point about cooperative learning is provided der. We do not expect five year olds to be able

by Thome, who reminds us that, "in group- to solve complex algebraic equations, but we
ing students, use criteria other than gender or do expect them to learn the first steps of the

race" (163), because a feminist perspective in process in kindergarten. By the same token,

the classroom seeks to eliminate oppression although elementary school children may not
rather than promote segregation because of eliminate racism, sexism, and other forms of
differences. discrimination in the world, they may learn
ways to behave that makes the perpetuation
• Examine classroom rules. of these cycles of prejudice less tenable in the
• Are they limiting students in their behavior larger society. Indeed, adults can learn greater
or providing affirmation of others? tolerance and acceptance while observing chil-
• (Examples: everyone has a right to an dren enacting principles of equity in their work
opinion and opinions of others are to be and play.


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We have witnessed feminist pedagogical likelihood that all young women and men will
practices in action within the elementary class- achieve their potential. The elementary school
room and feel empowered by the possibilities. classroom is an excellent place to engage in
One of us witnessed such power when her own feminist pedagogy.
daughter, a kindergartner, wrote on a chalk-
board at home, "the wrld is a rambo." When NOTES

asked what she was writing, she began reciting 1. In an article that is dated yet still appropriate
some of the phrases from the song "The World to the conversation, Gilbert Sewell discusses how
Is a Rainbow." She explained that when she textbook companies must cater to so many differ-
and an African American friend at school had a ent forces that they water down the material to make
the textbooks marketable. There are few published
disagreement, they would remind each other of
studies on textbook analysis, particularly of elemen-
the words of the song: that it was okay if they
tary textbooks. In one, Lorraine Evans and Kimberly
did not agree with one another all the time be- Davies, analyze traits of male and female characters
cause the world is a rainbow and feeling differ- in two basal reading series. Although these textbooks
ently about things was just part of making the contained approximately the same numbers of male
world a wonderful and varied place. She also and female figures, the character traits of both males

told of how they would join hands and dance in and females remained fairly stereotypical. Similarly, a
study that examined Native Americans in elementary
a circle while singing this song. For this author,
and secondary social studies textbooks noted that
this lesson is priceless.
they are still portrayed negatively (Hunter).
The other author has also witnessed the
2. A brief explanation of these pedagogies follows.
power of feminist pedagogy, this time within Critical pedagogy (Ellsworth; Freire; McLaren):
her own classroom walls. A transformation in Knowledge is questioned and considered problematic
the decor took place after she had been read- because it is used to legitimize only some privileged
perspectives of the world. Oppression of any kind is
ing and learning about feminist and other lib-
morally and ethically wrong. This perspective emerges
eratory pedagogies, and the students began to
from critical theory and tends to highlight social class
notice and question. "Why aren't there any men issues and concerns.
on this bulletin board of inventors?" was one
Culturally relevant/responsive pedagogy (Lad-
query. The discussion that followed was incred- son-Billings; Siddle-Walker; Gay): It acknowledges
ible. The students were able to name a plethora the reality of cultural differences and advocates the
of male inventors, but not a single female one. building of instruction and curriculum to address this
reality. Whereas traditional schooling reflects the
So the question was turned back to the stu-
dominant middle-class and white culture, this posi-
dents: "Why aren't there any men on this bul-
tion advocates the development of a curriculum that
letin board of inventors?" Each and every one reflects the home culture of the children in the school.
knew the answer.
It highlights racism and race relations as central to the
Young children have a great potential to un- discourse of empowerment.
derstand the lessons inherent in feminist and Dialogic pedagogy (Greene): As Maxine Greene
notes, we tend to live our lives in a kind of anesthetic
other liberatory pedagogies. The hidden curric-
condition (125). This pedagogical perspective engages
ulum remains a threat to our young women and
students in dialogical questioning that enlivens and
men of all classes and races, and, consequent-
liberates. This position encourages engagement in an
ly, we believe that feminist pedagogical prac- existentialist communal project.
tices have the potential to be an antidote to the Engaged pedagogy (hooks): This includes dialogue
negative impact of the hidden curriculum. Femi- to "transgress" knowledge and focuses attention on
nist pedagogy provides vision and clarity to the humanity of those engaged in the educational
process. It encourages respect and care for souls of
critique the status quo, challenge current preju-
others so "learning can most deeply and intimately
dices and inequities, recognize silences of the
begin" (hooks 191).
hidden curriculum, reinscribe the achievements
Feminist pedagogy (Martin; Mayberry): This ap-
of women and people of color, and enhance the proach assumes that knowledge has been defined


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by a few privileged men, rather than including knowl- Ellsworth, Elizabeth. "Why Doesn't T
edge of "others." It highlights sexism, gender, and ering?: Working through the Repres
sexual identity as central to the discourse of empow- Critical Pedagogy. Harvard Educati
erment. (1989): 297-324-
Relational pedagogy (Sidorkin): In this approach Evans, Lorraine, and Kimberly Davie
knowledge is a means for "entering the world wide Here: A Content Analysis of the Rep
web of relations; these are simply tools, tokens, or Masculinity in Elementary School Re
signs that allow students to enter the relational fabric books." Sex Roles 42.3-4 (2000):
of human existence" (Sidorkin 88). Relationships are Fergusson, Ann Arnett. Bad Boys: P
real. "What primarily exists is relation, not entities like the Making of Black Masculinity. An
things and individual human beings" (91). sity of Michigan Press, 2001.
3. Notable in the search for materials on women's Flecha, Ramon. Sharing Words: Theo
history and curriculum is <http://www.womeninworl- of Dialogic Learning. Lanham, Md.>. This Web site is geared toward up- Littlefield, 2000.
per grades, rather than elementary ones, but some Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppr
resources can be retooled for the elementary level. niversary ed. New York: Continuum
4. Some questions that can be used for such a dis- Gabriel, Susan L., and Isaiah Smiths
cussion can be found at < in the Classroom: Power and Pedag
au/gender/curriculum/literacy.htrm. University of Illinois Press, 1990.
5. Some of these teaching practices may need Gay, Geneva. Culturally Responsive
further explanation. For instance, "think/pair/share" Research and Practice. New York: T
is a technique in which students work with a partner; Press, 2000.
they are asked a question to "think" about, then theyGilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological
"pair" together to discuss their answers. Students Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge,
are then given the opportunity to "share" their an- Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.
swers with the class. This practice allows students Goldstein, Lisa. "The Distance between Feminism and
to bounce their ideas off one another and also feel Early Childhood Education: An Historical Perspec-
confident that their answer holds resonance within tive." Intersections: Feminisms/Early Childhoods.
the framework for discussion. Practices that involve Ed. Mary E. Hauser and Janice A. Jipson. New York:
dialogue among students keep learning from being a Peter Lang, 1998. 51-63.
solitary endeavor. Dialogue, particularly when ques- Greene, Maxine. The Dialectic of Freedom. New York:
tions have multiple answers rather than "one right Teachers College Press, 1988.
answer," is the key to learning about various perspec- Hancock, Emily. The Girl Within. New York: Fawcett
tives and points of view. Columbine, 1989.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the
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