Worn Out: Critical Pedagogy and Implications

By Guillermo Vela

    Worn Out: Critical Pedagogy and Implications

    About the Author

    Guillermo Vela
    Manager of College Success
    Denver, CO, US
    1 Article Published
    Guillermo Vela

    Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost border region of Texas, I unknowingly experienced inequity in education. As one of the least educated parts of the state, we were reminded time and time again of our “shortcomings” in high school and higher education. Lucky for me and my peers, we were a part of a charter school network that prides itself on achieving 100% college admission for their students. In my case, I flew through high school with an A and B average without notetaking or studying. Entering my alma mater, I believed I was capable of continuing this success in college without practicing any academic habits. Naturally, I failed. Two years into my bachelor’s degree, I was put on academic suspension and kicked out of school.

    Beyond the feelings of inadequacy, I went through a possible eviction and a period of home insecurity. Persevering through these hardships built in me a motivation to return to education with more fervor. With my return to college, I knew I had to go above and beyond to ensure I was understanding and executing the work I had in order to achieve the grades I needed to recover my GPA. As I committed myself to schooling, I fostered a burning passion for education and learned my role in life is to serve students.

    Transitioning into an English teaching role in Denver, Colorado with Teach For America, I have continued to develop myself professionally in effort to show up for my students as my very best. Engaging with the content of my graduate program, I have become increasingly curious of the current state of education in the United States and am urged to influence the status quo. There is tremendous work that must be done to build a schooling system that truly is for our students. Akin to the community I grew up in, I am blessed to be working within a school that serves students of color where, everyday, I learn to be a better teacher and an educator that rejects the prejudice that is a poison on our world.

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    This essay analyzes the effects of long-held racism on American education and proposes the employment of critical pedagogy as a way forward. In the United States today, students of color face an education industry that has and continues to fail them. The work of education theorists, equity advocates, and critical pedagogues supports the development of anti-racist educators and schooling. Their work is used as a foundation for the creation of justice-charged lessons and their implementation in a Denver high school is examined. Fighting for equity, lessons aligned with critical theory and social-reconstruction promote the revolutionary change that is long overdue in American schooling.


    Evaluating curriculum theory that is now prominent within education, this essay discusses the development of pedagogy in the context of a 10th grade classroom in Denver, Colorado. As the world largely remains one of overt racism, teaching nationwide must prepare our students to critically examine the world around them. I hope to find that fellow teachers begin or continue to engage in reflection on their own practices as it relates to curriculum, curriculum theory, and critical pedagogy. This publication contains my own reflections and course development work that may be replicated or reshaped to fit the contexts of a variety of classrooms.


    Schooling and curriculum in the United States is a war zone occupied by racist and anti-racist parties endlessly fighting to influence the status quo. This never-ending battle, to the detriment of our children, results in a stagnant and complacent education system. What’s more, the decentralized reality of education in the U.S. leaves it up to states to control the curriculum that is taught. In some progressive states, this makes room for the necessary teachings aligned with critical pedagogy and, perhaps most controversially, critical race theory. That said, there remain a dangerous number of states that are against the accurate teaching of history so as to minimize possible backlash against White people for their crimes against people of color. How does curriculum development unfold within this war zone?

    Examining the development of curriculum in the United States, Eisner (2002) discusses the explicit, implicit, and null curriculum that is a deliberate driving force in the socialization and education of American students. Serving as an itemization of the major curriculum theories, Schiro (2013) investigates the spirits of scholar academic, social efficiency, learner centered, and social reconstruction educators. Finally, Baker-Bell et al. (2017) highlights the racist world that we live in and welcomes the work of Delgado and Stefancic (2017) in Critical Race Theory. In my view as an educator, it is imperative to develop the United States into a nation of equity and justice, and for teachers in today’s world to be actively anti-racist, brave in their development and execution of curriculum, and proponents of critical pedagogy.


    I and the students I serve are implicated in the fighting for our schooling system to transcend its racist foundation. To start, navigating the readings of this course gave insight on three elements of my pedagogy that need revamping, that is, committing to anti-racism, aligning with critical pedagogy, and creating innovative curriculum. First, it is clear that the state of America is still one of overt racism (Baker-Bell et al., 2017; Delgado and Stefancic, 2017). Despite the passage of equity-oriented legislation, our people and students of color still experience prejudice as government and institutions work to perpetuate the legacy of slavery.

    Driven by a deepening anger towards the racist pillars that uphold White supremacy in this country, I am an English teacher at a school in Denver, Colorado that serves an almost entirely Black and Latine student population. Unsurprisingly, there are severe limitations that I must navigate in this work, the worst being high-stakes testing. It is important to understand that high-stakes testing, being developed by and for white people, is a detriment to students of color; that said, my charter network does require it. As our students are tested on district tests as well as the SAT, my curriculum must explicitly prepare these kids to perform on these exams. To support my students, I have implemented ‘SAT practice’ as a part of our short-day Wednesday lessons. The goal of this being that my students, people of color who are disregarded by educational policy, have a fair shot at unlocking opportunities that are gate-kept by a White-owned College Board.  Knowing the hostile reality these students face creates a necessity for me, and really all educators, to situate pedagogy within the framework of critical race theory.

    As these kids are experiencing a nation that benefits its White people, I must build in them dexterity for critically examining the systems around them. Perhaps the most effective strategy, drawing upon the lives and backgrounds these students bring with them to school everyday, has proved essential as I work to bridge critical theory and my classroom. Terribly, my students’ community is a prime example of inequity as it is a mere 10 miles from downtown yet sells expired goods in grocery stores and is classified as a food desert; this reality, another example of institutionalized racism, lends itself to a critical analysis within our classroom. For this, structured research, discussion, and argumentative writing will develop their command of language and prowess for critical thinking. In retrospect, my pedagogical practice has leaned principally on scholar academic and social efficiency ideologies (Schiro, 2013) as my students model thinking after historians and face writing efficiency challenges to meet the time-constraint of our district’s final exam. This in mind, my goal now is to employ the learner centered and social reconstruction approaches to pedagogy. By restructuring lessons to be more learner centered, I give students more freedom for choice, within rigor-driven boundaries, to increase engagement and diversify the content they are exposed to. Approaching lessons with a social reconstructionist lens, I can ensure students are participating in a class that confronts prevailing inequities and cultivates analytical thinkers who are dissatisfied with the existing conditions in the United States. 

    To kick off trimester two, I piloted the aforementioned pedagogical restructurings, most intentionally PSAT practice and social reconstructionist activities. First, my English Language Development class (ELD) is made up of students who score below a 2.0 on the ACCESS exam, which tests English listening, writing, reading, and speaking. In this course, I have a group that scores substantially below their non-ELD peers on the high-stakes behemoth that is the SAT. To support their growth, I began delivering chunked SAT practice tests over the reading and writing portions. In summary, students have 12 minutes to complete nine questions on the reading test and 14 minutes to complete 11 questions on the writing test, giving them the same time per question as if they were taking the sections in their entirety. Upon completion of each SAT section, we discuss answer choices as I facilitate students’ modeling of their thinking process to reach the correct answer. To continue building students’ mastery of the SAT’s English content and the skills they must practice, SAT testing recurs in our ELD class between two to four times a month. By exposing students to no more than a few specific grammar or reading challenges for consecutive weeks, I have found their understanding of grammar rules and thinking processes have strengthened; once the group shows mastery on a set of skills, we move on to the next.

    I also teach three sections of a co-taught World History ELD class where all students receive general education content and a third qualifies for ELD scaffolds. In these classes, I, with backing from my co-teacher, have worked to realize a classroom experience that incorporates social reconstruction and learner-centered approaches to education. To start this, we developed an activity, based on our unit covering the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas, that tasked groups of students with embodying an indigenous group from around the world (off a list), researching the way climate change is affecting them, and brainstorming a method for reducing climate change’s impact on their people. Over the course of three days, students learned a lot about their indigenous groups and collaborated with others to both find resolutions and exchange resources. Through this, students, in their indigenous groups, drafted clauses and resolutions that had to be passed by our school’s first Indigenous People’s Global Summit. In similar fashion, larger group projects like this and Socratic seminars have become a natural force in our classroom. As our third trimester has begun, we have seen the highest levels of engagement, questioning, and discourse around caste systems and hierarchies that permeate even our own society, colonization and apartheid that is reminiscent of de jure and de facto segregation that exists in our city, and the White-washing that has and continues to occur around the world. 


    The implementation of SAT practice and social reconstruction-aligned activities has had a positive impact on my pedagogical practice. To begin, the four students I have in ELD are challenged by the reading and writing questions in each week’s SAT packet. Crucially, the deliberation we have after completing each section has supported students in understanding the grammar rules and processes they should employ when challenged by similar questions. Discussion is key when developing SAT practice like this as students experience many grammatical realizations that they carry on to subsequent tests. Ultimately, this process has been well received and will continue to be a part of our weekly lessons. 

    Next, Elevate’s Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit truly changed our game and brought about the highest student engagement we have seen this year. Students began by thoroughly researching their indigenous groups, taking notes on the resources they need, and drafting an opening statement to fight for their group’s survivability. Through this, students grew increasingly excited about fighting for their people as they conceptualized resolutions for mitigating the effects of climate change; some resolutions included collaboration between groups experiencing rising sea levels and those experiencing drought, limitations placed on nations’ abilities to use harmful energy resources, and the establishment of a supervising agency to ensure the world is compliant. Overall, this activity really amped up our students as they worked with, and sometimes against, each other. They were charged with analyzing the far too real reality of climate change and worked to reconstruct the situation, especially with regard to its impact on groups that have a virtually imperceptible carbon footprint. Students were granted freedom in choosing the indigenous group they would represent and the research process they would use. This form of activity, one that presents an issue, requires students to reconstruct society to solve it, and gives them freedom of choice, is very much aligned with learner-centered and social reconstruction ideologies that will inform future units.

    Akin to our Global Summit, we have employed the social reconstructionist view of education through Socratic seminars and inter-group projects that have revolved around caste systems and hierarchies, apartheid and segregation, and the white-washing of history. The development of our students, future leaders and contributors in society, is essential as we strive to influence the current state of the world. My students, Latine and Black, are severely affected by the racist world around them; it is most fundamental, then, for these kids to explicitly build the critical thinking skills necessary to deny complacency in the face of such an inequitable system. 


    These formats (i.e., SAT practice tests), the Global Summit, and social reconstructionist activities are aligned with my professional goals of modeling anti-racism and fostering critical thinkers in the classroom. First, SAT practice testing in ELD is grounded within the implicit curriculum that Eisner (2002) discusses as students are challenged to work diligently and accurately to satisfy the time limit of the SAT. This exercise also explicitly teaches the English reading and writing standards that are common on the SAT, a historically racist test that either opens or closes doors of opportunity for high school graduates. Actively building students’ familiarity with and exposure to SAT reading and writing questions is oriented with anti-racism as my students of color have, throughout history, been excluded from higher education on the basis of these standardized tests. This practice is also in line with the social-efficiency model that Schiro (2013) highlights, as students strengthen their capacity to complete a timed test. While I do not necessarily seek to embody the social-efficiency ideology in my day-to-day lessons, I do understand that students need to perform on this exam in order to have options upon graduation. This exam often bolsters or limits student potential and impacts life trajectories without taking into consideration the fact that not all students, even the “best,” are strong test takers. Next, the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit boosted engagement to a level I had not yet seen in my two years at Elevate. This activity was largely positioned within the social reconstruction model of teaching as students sought to restructure our world and resolve the consequences of climate change (Schiro, 2013). Moreover, this lesson was driven by the work of critical pedagogues as our classes scrutinized the power dynamic between nations, the elite, and indigenous groups, the erased. This examination of power is a major aspect of critical race theory (Delgado and Stefancic, 2017) and is often rendered null in mainstream teaching (Eisner 2002). Being a human living in the United States, I have read, seen, and experienced racism in a multitude of spaces. As more and more students of color enter our American schools, anti-racism needs to be a common practice among those working within these institutions. The grim reality is, however, that many educators are complacent with the current state of education; the need for critical pedagogy and social-reconstruction is more important now than ever in order to encourage current and future generations to radically change the institutions we have built.

    In an effort to foster equity and justice in schooling, educators must embody anti-racism, be courageous in curriculum, and advocate for critical pedagogy. As a plethora of studies and statistics show, education in the United States is substantially inferior to that of many “first-world” nations. This fact can be attributed to slavery and segregation, racism, and complacent attitudes. The development of education in the United States is one of separation; schooling for White people and schooling for people of color were, and arguably still are, progressing independently. White people historically denied students of color access to their educational institutions and later, when the Civil Rights Movement brought about integration, flocked to private schools, which price out students of color besides the tokens lucky enough to get a spot. In the current state of education, the approaches to supporting students of color are not radical enough to make change now. Making matters worse, the education system as it stands reveals the discrepancies between White and non-White students, the former, backed by this nation’s institutions for centuries, are highly supported by teachers and accepted as scholars in society. Meanwhile, students of color continue to be disregarded, provoked, and criminalized by those in education meant to build them up. Teachers, and I have seen this in my school, often allow their biases, conscious or not, to show up in harmful ways. Often, students of color express their learning in ways that we, as a national body of teachers that is predominantly White, have not experienced before. That said, we must not allow ourselves to become stagnant in such a style of teaching that is the result of White education and White normalization. Perhaps most dangerous, students of color can, after years of being criminalized in education, accept and begin to embody such a subordinate position in society. It is vital, then, that the educators who are creating and executing lessons challenge these racist realities. With that, the work of critical pedagogues and social-reconstructionists is perhaps most fundamental for reshaping the status quo. By truly being a teacher for the students, as is the job description, we must evolve and respond to the detrimental realities they face and actively attack those who seek to restrict our people of color.


    Baker-Bell, A., Jones, R. L., & Everett, S. (2017). The Stories They Tell: Mainstream media, pedagogies of healing, and critical media literacy. English Education, 49(2), 130-152. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317618240_The_Stories_They_Tell_Mainstream_Media_Pedagogies_of_Healing_and_Critical_Media_Literacy

    Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017). Critical Race Theory (3rd ed.). New York University Press.

    Eisner, E. W. (2002). The Arts and the Creation of Mind. Yale University Press. 

    Schiro, M. (2013). Curriculum Theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns. SAGE.  Excerpt from School: The story of American public education. University of South Florida. http://courseresources.mit.usf.edu/edu/edf3604/videos/1900-1950/part_01.html


    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Vela, G. (2023, May 23). Worn out: Critical pedagogy and implications. Social Publishers Foundation.  https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/worn-out-critical-pedagogy-and-implications/

    Copyrighted by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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