The Pedagogy of Teacher Activism

Portraits of Four Teachers for Justice

by Keith Catone (Author)
©2017 Textbook XVIII, 156 Pages
Series: Education and Struggle, Volume 11


Through the artful science of portraiture, The Pedagogy of Teacher Activism presents the stories of four teacher activists—how they are and have become social change agents—to uncover important pedagogical underpinnings of teacher activism. Embedded in their stories are moments of political clarity and consciousness, giving rise to their purpose as teacher activists. The narratives illuminate how both inner passions and those stirred by caring relationships with others motivate their work, while the intentional ways in which they attempt to disrupt power relations give shape to their approaches to teacher activism. Knowing their work will never truly be done and that the road they travel is often difficult, the teacher activists considered here persist because of the hope and possibility that their work might change the world. Like many pre-service educators or undergraduates contemplating teaching as a vocation, these teacher activists were not born ready for the work that they do. Yet by mining their biographical histories and trajectories of political development, this book illuminates the pedagogy of teacher activism that guides their work.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance praise for The Pedagogy of Teacher Activism
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword by Leigh Patel
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: (In)Sighting Teacher Activism
  • Chapter 2. Researching Teacher Activism: Traditions, Framing, and Method
  • Chapter 3. Rosie Frascella: Creating Space
  • Chapter 4. Natalia Ortiz: Growing Consciousness and Community
  • Chapter 5. Kari Kokka: Playing the Game
  • Chapter 6. Lisa North: Building Solidarity
  • Chapter 7. The Pedagogy of Teacher Activism: Purpose, Power, and Possibility
  • References
  • Series index

← viii | ix →


Leigh Patel

American society is replete with chasms between word and deed. The land of freedom incarcerates exponentially more than any other nation on the planet, continues to break records deporting vulnerabilized populations, and engages in myriad legal and extralegal violence upon minoritized populations. Despite its constant avowal of being a site for freedom, democracy, and opportunity, U.S. practices domestically and internationally are marked more by the logics and longstanding history of racist capitalism (Gilmore, 2007; Robinson, 1983). Unsurprisingly, this contradiction is fully embodied in the field of education. In the imaginary, education is the single most sure pathway to upward social mobility, yet in reality it is society’s most efficient conduit for stratification and disciplining of social acceptability.

The four teacher activists you will meet in the pages of this book share a vital theoretical orientation in common: they refuse to participate in the widespread fantasy that the chasm between word and deed does not exist. Even more radically, they refuse to concede that such stark contrasts between mission and practice are intractable. Keith Catone provides beautifully descriptive and caringly contextualized etchings of how these four women came to be agents for change, who refuse that education merely be a site of social reproduction. Catone connects to and extends upon a vital component ← ix | x → of this refusal—the apprehension, the temporary suspension of dynamic forces so that these dynamic forces may be altered. Put more simply, it is difficult to alter what you cannot see or hear. Catone guides the reader to follow the pastiche histories of four activist teachers who apprehended societal harm and reconfigured their personal professional lives to effect change.

Like the women whose portraits he illuminates, Catone makes a key move of refusal. He refuses to concede that pedagogy be conflated with teaching technique. He disallows the reader from projecting the still-dominant education trope of “how to.” There is no lesson plan here, no rubric for evaluating the activism-icity of teachers. Thank goodness. Instead, the details are equally vivid and varied, reflecting the nature of how they are lived. Catone upholds an elusive and vitally needed “conceptual orientation,” as he terms it, to lived pedagogy: there is no singular way. The method is in the multiplicity. It cannot be reduced to a replicable series of steps. And furthermore, it is never personless. Best practices, a harmful yet consistent trope in education, conjures mythic objectivity. Practices are always specific: taken up by specific people acting within specific contexts. In these portraits, woven by Catone and his concise, sharp commentary, it becomes more and more impossible to contend that anyone could merely follow the same biographic steps and emerge as a teacher activist. In these details and descriptions, Catone disallows education from furthering the fallacy that pedagogy, let alone cultural transformation, is mere logarithm.

Of course, refusal has its entire and still incomplete history in populations who were never meant to profit from the heteropatriarchal white settler colonial structure of the United States. Audra Simpson’s (2007) foundational work on indigenous refusal theorizes how freedom-seeking as an act of refusal is fundamentally a praxis of sovereignty. Gloria Anzaldúa, an important theorist in Catone’s work, conceptualized (2012) the borderlands not because she viewed herself as a border crosser incarnate but because her knowledge from the margins could apprehend the dialectic between the constructed center and margins in ways that dominant worldviews simply could not.

As I read about these four dynamic teacher activists and immersed myself in Catone’s careful annotation and analysis, I was reminded of Anna Julia Cooper. Cooper, one of the most prominent Black theorists in American history, was an activist and educator throughout her life. Her work consistently attended to both societal structure and structures of education. In 1892, Cooper (1988), in the still relevant book, A Voice from the South, posited that the nation as a whole would benefit from the more comprehensive ← x | xi → social uplift and educational advancement of Black people, particularly Black women. Offering an astute appraisal of the impactful yet not determinant role of socialization, Cooper theorized that a more pervasive and empowered presence of women would bring more intellectual elegance to education, balancing the competitive and individualist ways that men are condoned to act in society. While none of these socialized roles are static, Cooper, and the teacher activists whom you will learn about from Catone’s elegant description and analysis, speak confidently through words and actions of the beautiful, undeniable entanglements of beings, learning, and society.

Throughout, and in the end, this book raises important questions about what it means to regard education and pedagogy as always constitutive of society. This book was researched and written during an era when minimally “trained” teachers can leapfrog into educational politics and then municipal politics on the mantle of having been in the trenches. This profiting from a few years’ dabbling in teaching can only be possible when there is widespread simplification of the complexity and intertwined nature of schooling and society. This book offers an important, and much needed alternative to educational research that describes the symptom reduction du jour. The four women in this book and Catone’s expert guidance remind us that by contending with how formal education contributes to societal ills, we are much better positioned to alter those conditions.


Anzaldúa, G. (2012). Borderlands/la frontera: The new Mestiza (4th ed.). San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Cooper, A. J. (1988). A voice from the south. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gilmore, R. W. (2007). Golden gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Robinson, C. J. (1983). Black Marxism: The making of the black radical tradition. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Simpson, A. (2007). On ethnographic refusal: Indigeneity, ‘voice’ and colonial citizenship. Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue, 9, 67–80. ← xi | xii →

← xii | xiii →


This book has been made possible by the love and support of so many. First, I am forever indebted to Rosie Frascella, Lisa North, Kari Kokka, and Natalia Ortiz for opening up their classrooms, lives, and memories to my prying inquiries. The journey they each took with me over the past few years has been long and steady. I am thankful for their perseverance. Further, my good friend, former teacher, and artist, Rudy Bravo has blessed the cover with original painted portraits of each woman who appears in this book. Thank you.

My first students and teaching community at Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx have been a source of inspiration for everything I have done and accomplished in my career. My doctoral committee members, Mark Warren, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, and William Ayers, were each instrumental in helping me see this project through from start to finish. I am especially indebted to Dr. Ayers, who never stopped asking me when my book was going to be ready. Dr. Karen Mapp has always been a present, steady source of support.


XVIII, 156
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XVIII, 156 pp.

Biographical notes

Keith Catone (Author)

Keith Catone is a Principal Associate for Community Organizing and Engagement at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. He received the 2015 American Educational Research Association Division K (Teaching and Teacher Education) Outstanding Dissertation Award and earned his Ed.D. from Harvard University.


Title: The Pedagogy of Teacher Activism