‘Why aren’t we watering the concrete? The value of linguistics and critical pedagogy to the teacher’, by @EGH324 student Isobel Wood

One of us (@DrofletJess) has been running a third year undergraduate module exploring current research and debates around English Education this semester at the University of Sheffield, UK. We felt that some of the students’ submissions would be of huge value and interest to the wider English Education community and as such we are featuring them as guest posts on this blog. You can access the first in the series, which explores literature teaching, here.

Below is the second essay in this mini-series: a challenging and nuanced exploration of linguistics and social justice, by final year Language and Literature student Isobel Wood (@issywood_ ). Drawing on examples from the recent BBC documentary Tough Young Teachers, which followed new teachers undertaking Teach First – a course which puts excellent graduates into some of the UK’s most challenging schools – as well as a body of research from the US, Isobel explores the value of linguistics, not just as subject content knowledge for teachers, but as an enabling tool to help practitioners reflect on their interactions with students.

‘Why aren’t we watering the concrete?’: Exploring the value of linguistics and critical pedagogy to the teacher.


(Shakur 1999)

The current education system in the UK and the USA can be effectively explained using Freire’s banking concept. The teacher’s task is often to ‘fill the students with the contents of his narration’, rather than creating a stimulating and useful dialogue with which to cope and view the world (Friere 1970: 52). Drawing upon Tupac Shakur’s metaphor of urban youth as roses growing in concrete, I am going to explore why ‘watering the concrete’, isn’t seen as a priority within the western education system. I will also explore how this can be addressed through using the classroom as a supportive discourse space that equips children with the skills to understand their own position and critically engage with the world around them; rather than the use of education as another form of oppression that is characterised by social class, race and wealth.

Social deprivation

Let’s be honest with ourselves about what our young people are really carrying when they come to us.

(Duncan-Andrade 2016).

In order to understand why children behave the way they do, educators must look to the real lives of the children they are teaching. One of the things that has led me down this route of research is the lack of understanding that some teachers appear to have for children that are simply labelled as ‘naughty’ or ‘disruptive’. Watching Tough Young Teachers in particular led me to question why these teachers are not concerned with establishing the root cause of a student’s behaviour. Exclusion, dismissal or a focus upon punishment rather than rehabilitation is prevalent with all the teachers shown on the programme (BBC 2015). Duncan-Andrade (2010) states that educators need to begin with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in order to successfully understand student behaviour; he claims that if a child is misbehaving, one of their basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, safety) is ‘under attack’.

Consider the following extract from Tough Young Teachers, a recent BBC documentary which followed new teachers on the Teach First programme. You can find out more about Teach First here. A student, Caleb, has been disruptive in the teacher’s lesson:

Teacher: Ultimately there comes a point where, he [Caleb] wasted time in my lesson there you know? I didn’t get through as much as I would’ve done, so he’s disrupting other people’s learning, erm, which isn’t fair. And so, there’s only so much effort that I’m going to put into convincing him that… he’s making the wrong decision.

(BBC 2015)

Here is an example of a teacher dismissing a child, seemingly through a combination of frustration and inconvenience, rather than exploring the reasons behind their behaviour. Within this episode, the teacher does not try to ask the student, Caleb, why he is unwilling to engage. He uses the phrase ‘wrong decision’, suggesting that he believes Caleb’s behaviour is a conscious and obnoxious effort not to engage with his education, rather than assuming that there are underlying causal reasons. The teacher also addresses the issue of ‘wasting time’, highlighting a constraint of the profession whereby a lack of time permits certain children to slip through the cracks.

This next extract shows Caleb’s response following his exclusion from the teacher’s lesson for refusal to participate:

Caleb: I’m just a little yout’ that can’t… I have no say in my life, what happens in my life, so what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to make a change if I can’t do anything? I have to take orders from next man which is just somebody’s else’s son, just like me another human being with blood flesh and and … tears and.. just like me. And I can’t do nothing about it, ‘cause I’m just a little yout’ that was born couple years ago. Like I don’t have a mind and a heart and shit that I wana pursue in my fucking life as well. Nah fuck that. I’ma do what I wana do, I don’t care about school, I don’t care about nothing. I can do anything I want, I can be anything I want when I’m older. Cos I got them skills. I don’t need nobody. I don’t need no family, no teachers, nothing, I don’t need shit. Cos I can go out there and make way more money than they’re making right now.

(BBC 2015)

The concept of mind-modelling is useful here. Mind-modelling explains that no individual can authentically experience the mental process of another person, suggesting that we use what we know about our own cognitive processes and project them onto another in an attempt to understand their behaviour (Stockwell 2009). These two extracts shown side by side, effectively demonstrate that the teacher has failed to mind-model Caleb’s reasons for his academic apathy. Caleb’s dialogue suggests that he knows he is part of a system that is designed to assist his failure. Caleb comments on his lack of autonomy by claiming, ‘I have no say in my life’, suggesting that he feels there is no point in his academic achievement because his route and outcome have been pre-determined by social bias and oppression. Constantly affirming that he is just like everybody else, Caleb refers to basic physical qualities such as ‘blood, flesh and tears’, suggesting that Caleb feels dehumanised by the system. He makes reference to being ‘just another human being’ and, ‘somebody else’s son’ and goes on to describe more internal qualities such as ‘mind, heart and dreams’, implying that he feels the necessity to assert and explain his humanity; justifying his importance as a human being.

Caleb concludes his speech by demonstrating aspects of the rugged individualist narrative often found in rap music. His comments surrounding his capability of succeeding without help from others, represent the failure of the education system in supporting and encouraging students; and demonstrates how young people like Caleb can become alienated into believing that no one is there for them. He claims that he doesn’t ‘care about nothing’, or need family or teachers, and that he can ‘make way more money than they’re making’, without engaging in the school system, leaving the audience to infer his participation in criminal activity, despite his claim to having ‘them skills’. When questioned in a later episode, Caleb admits that he wants to do well in his GCSEs and expresses that he believes he could get A’s and B’s, but doesn’t think he will. This exchange proves that in reality Caleb knows that his education is important, but doesn’t have faith in his success, regardless of whether or not he tries. This demonstrates the self-fulfilling prophecy of engaging as a failure in a system that is designed to fail you.

Following Duncan-Andrade’s (2010) research, the link must be made between the social conditions of a child’s life and ‘how it’s affecting their bodies’, which in turn, affects their behaviour in the classroom. Considering the sentiments expressed by Caleb, how are students who constantly have to contend with these underlying feelings of oppression supposed to actively engage with a system that they know is structured against their academic and social success? Duncan-Andrade (2010) refers to:

the ‘multiple accumulation of negative stressors’ within a child’s life, but more specifically, day or morning, ‘without the resources to cope’, which manifests itself as disobedience or disruptive behaviour in the classroom.

Instead of excluding children and ignoring their subconscious cries for help, these root causes need to be addressed by rebuilding communities (Canada 2001).


‘…So what, now what?

If urban youth are like roses in the concrete and can grow in spite of severe neglect, then what might the world look like if these youth were given the right amount of nurturing in their homes, communities and schools?

(Kumasi 2012: 35)

Canada (2013) refers to the education system as a business model and questions how a failing model can continue to be applied year after year, where in the cases of profit-led institutions, this would not be allowed to happen. Cases where schools and educators have realised this and began to reform, are unfortunately of the exception. Linda Cliatt-Wayman (2015) describes how she began to rehabilitate the high school Strawberry Mansion in North Philadelphia, that had been on the ‘most dangerous’ list for four consecutive years. She explains that she restructured the school day to incorporate extra subjects that she deemed essential; ‘remediation, honours courses, extra- curricular activities and counselling, all during the school day’, therefore recognising and actively addressing the need for emotional support within the schooling system (Cliatt-Wayman 2015). The Beacon school programme that Canada is involved with, also recognises the need for support and extra-curricular development, supporting the idea that education encompasses more than merely ‘the act of depositing’ (Freire 1970: 52). Canada addresses the fact that children simply deserve opportunities for leisure time and the time to develop different skills, as well as the positive social impact that this time creates:

One critical strategy of the Beacon Schools Program is providing activities designed for adolescents during the late evening and weekends… If we expect our young people to engage in positive activities, we must provide them the places and structure to do so. Leaving thousands of them on street corners with nothing to do only invites trouble (2001).

Here, Canada addresses the reasons behind the creation of street culture and why children become involved in a self-perpetuating cycle of crime, violence, incarceration and/or death. As well as providing physical opportunities for children, Duncan-Andrade (2016) addresses the need for ‘truth and reconciliation’, engaging with the notion that without being truthful about a child’s position in the world, there is no chance for liberation and improvement of conditions. He declares the need to nurture and teach a generation of people who find educational injustice ‘intolerable’, linking to Freire’s claim that ‘the more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend to simply adapt to the world as it is’. (1970: 54). Adapting to the world as it is hasn’t been successful for the current generation of urban youth who are trapped in the concrete. This emphasises the need for social programmes that allow children to break free of their social cycles and be exposed to the truth of their conditions, in order to incite change.

Using the classroom as a discourse space

‘Authentic thinking, thinking that is concerned with reality, does not take place in ivory tower isolation, but only in communication’

(Freire 1970: 54)

Using the classroom as an honest discourse space is a crucial step towards successfully serving students in urban and socially deprived areas. The mere imparting of knowledge ‘by those who consider themselves knowledgeable’, projects ‘ignorance onto others’ which Freire describes as the characteristics of oppression (1970: 53). The act of becoming critically conscious of your own position is liberating in itself and is necessary in order to use education as catharsis, with the end goal of creating social change (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell 2008). In order to do this, an education that is ‘focused on dialogue instead of a one-way transmission of knowledge’, thus subverting education as banking, is necessary (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell 2008). Liberation can be achieved through ‘acts of cognition, not transferrals of information’ (Freire 1993: 60). This can be seen being put into practice by Duncan-Andrade and Morrell as they exemplify their students using ‘critical media literacies for political advantage’, as students decided to call local media outlets following a health and safety crisis in their school. The students compared these conditions to those of a wealthier school nearby; thus demonstrating their willingness to question events and incite social change through the medium of critical linguistic practices; as well as encouraging a critical dialogue within their community (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell 2008: 59). This engagement however, must be done in a way in which the students can relate. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell (2008) exposed their students to literature from different time periods, as well as comparing poetry to rap music, enabling the students to ‘make connections to their own everyday experiences’, challenging the normative system that is ‘alien to the existential experience of students’ (Freire 1970: 52).

Considering hip hop and rap music specifically, this medium is effective in penetrating the divide between education and the real world as it is a politically conscious, linguistic art form that is present in student’s everyday lives. Morrell argues that the use of popular culture can guide students to ‘deconstruct dominant narratives’ (2002: 72). He comments upon the image of rappers as educators and how they see ‘their mission as raising consciousness of their community’ (Morrell 2002: 74). Similarly, the form of problem-posing education that Freire claims opposes the banking concept supports the ‘emergence’, rather than ‘submersion’, of consciousness (1970: 62). By allowing students to become ‘critically literate’, they are able to take these texts familiar and relevant to them, and use them as a ‘lens to examine other literary works’ which thereby transforms the classroom into a discourse space to examine and be critically aware of the world around them (Morrell 2002: 73-74).

It must also be recognised that these skills can be used as tools for social action and are not just ‘a decontextualized skill set’ (Hallman 2009). Hallman’s (2009) data analysis shows that ‘literacy success was largely dependent on recruiting ‘out-of-school’ literacies for in-school learning’. Thus proving that engaging with a ‘multiliteracies framework’ is a positive and necessary step towards watering the concrete (Hallman 2009). It can help lift individuals from their position, with the ultimate goal of raising awareness, improving conditions and lifting the entire community, supporting Duncan-Andrade’s (2010, 2016) view that

‘the purpose of education is not to escape poverty, the purpose of education is to end it’

For many urban youth living in social deprivation, education is their only source of hope for producing better lives for them and their communities. If these issues do not begin to be addressed as a rule in mainstream education, the system can only be seen as ‘morally bankrupt’ (Duncan-Andrade 2010). Educators need to recognise the situations our youth have to contend with and provide a space for them to talk about this, become angry, be critical of the world; while at the same time providing them with skills to critically apply these feelings academically in order to better themselves and create social change. By applying critical pedagogy and using the classroom as an honest discourse space, we can begin to water the concrete. Through education, we can transform the exceptional rose, into collective roses, all of whom can and will succeed within a system that has been re-designed to help and nurture them, rather than curtail their success and ensure their failure.

Did you hear about the roses who

were trapped in concrete?

Given no hope they

suffocated, were incarcerated

by their oppressors,  who cut their stems,

starved them, polluted the air.

Where is the hope for the roses

For whom there’s no one there?


 did you hear about the roses that GREW

from cracks in the concrete?

Proving society wrong they

were helped to stand on their own feet

by their educators, who fed their dreams,

gave fresh air.

Long live ALL roses trapped in concrete

because it’s OUR time to care. [1]

[1] I wrote this poem as an answer to the Tupac poem with which I began the essay. I wanted to trace the roses in the concrete, from Tupac’s era, through the modern conditions that I have outlined in this research journal. This practice, of starting and ending research with a relevant cultural and literary artefact, mirrors a history of tradition that researchers by whom I have been influenced (such as Jeff Duncan-Andrade), practice within their own work.


  • BBC Three. (2015) Tough Young Teachers http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03pzp8y [accessed 4.10.16]
  • Canada, G. (2001) ‘The best way we know how’, Reclaiming Children and Youth 10(1): 54-6.
  • Canada, G. (2013) ‘Our failing schools. Enough is enough!’ (TED Talks Education) <https://www.ted.com/talks/geoffrey_canada_our_failing_schools_enough_is_enough> [12.11.16]
  • Cliatt- Wayman, L. (2015) ‘How to fix a broken school? Lead fearlessly, love hard’ (TED Women) <https://www.ted.com/talks/linda_cliatt_wayman_how_to_fix_a_broken_school_lead_fearlessly_love_hard> [5.11.16]
  • Duncan-Andrade, J. (2010) Note to Educators: Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete (HarvardEducation) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8z1gwmkgFss [accessed 20.10.16]
  • Duncan-Andrade, J. (2016) Leadership Summit 2016 Dr. Jeffery Duncan-Andrade (American Reading Company) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQcb8emHXA4> [12.11.16]
  • Duncan-Andrade, J. and Morrell, E. (2008) The Art of Critical Pedagogy. 
  • Freire, P. (1996) Pedagogy of the Oppressed London: Penguin.
  • Hallman, H. (2009) ‘“Dear Tupac, you speak to me”: Recruiting Hip Hop as Curriculum at a School for Pregnant and Parenting Teens’, Equity & Excellence in Education 42(1): 36-51.
  • Kumasi, K. (2012) ‘Roses in the Concrete: A Critical Race Perspective on Urban Youth and School Libraries’, Knowledge Quest 40(5): 32-37.
  • Morrell, E. (2002) ‘Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Popular Culture: Literacy Development among Urban Youth’, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 46(1): 72-77.
  • Shakur, T. (2006) The Rose that Grew from Concrete. London: Simon and Schuster Ltd.


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