Letters to a Young Teacher by Jonathan Kozol
For decades, Jonathan Kozol has spoken the truth about children in impoverished neighborhoods with a power few other writers possess. Much of his power comes from the fact that Kozol is never a "drop-in" observer of the neighborhoods in the South Bronx and Boston that he writes about. Kozol arranges his life to nurture solid professional relationships with classroom teachers in such neighborhoods, as well as friendships with parents and their children.
His latest book, a collection of letters he wrote to a neophyte 1st grade teacher in an inner-city Boston school, grew out of one such relationship. These letters to Francesca (a pseudonym) clearly speak to a real teacher and the ups and downs of her teaching year. But Kozol also uses this correspondence to send a no-holds-barred warning to all new teachers about how the accountability-focused tide is sweeping in ever more dehumanizing practices for both poor children and caring teachers. Get savvy about this reality before you sign your first teaching contract, is Kozol's message:
We have a major battle now ahead of us, not just about the tone and style of a child's education but about the purposes it should espouse and whether we, as teachers, need to go down on our knees before a brittle business-driven ethos that is not our own. We need the teachers who are coming to our classrooms making up their minds, before they even get here, which side they are on. (p. 109)
From a 1st-Grader's-Eye View
The book is an engaging back-and-forth between such warnings and Kozol's animated discussion about events in Francesca's first year of teaching. Kozol describes his own eye-opening first teaching year, back in 1964. He tells Francesca how he now observes teachers being pressured to treat elementary children as "products." The language of corporate America has crept into school policy. Supervisors monitor inner-city teachers to ensure that they spend each minute "on task" perfecting student "outcomes" and order teachers to post jargon-choked standards on the wall stating what outcome each lesson is aiming for minute-to-minute.
Kozol affirms Francesca's resistance to this kind of teaching. It's delightful how he describes her teaching year from a 1st grader's height, so to speak, praising certain practices not because they are research-based or even successful, but because they bring joy to 6-year-olds. An example is Francesca's Tooth Line, a homemade chart with columns labeled "Wiggly Teeth," "Wobbly Teeth," and "Out!" Each child has a cardboard tooth that he or she moves across the chart to track the progress of a loosening tooth. Students learn sequencing through this chart, but in a way that taps into exciting events in a child's life and lightens up the learning day. Never, Kozol tells Francesca, let the current mania to turn teaching from an art to a science block your creativity or spontaneity.
Two Blights on the Landscape
The letters return frequently to two blights on the current landscape of schooling for children in poverty: increased racial isolation and the decrepit physical condition of many schools. He comes down hardest on racial segregation, "an abiding cancer on the body of American democracy." It is ludicrous, Kozol baldly asserts, to call urban schools that serve 100 percent black students "diverse"" An all black school is not diverse; it is segregated. Yet Kozol finds that both liberal educators and students at such schools bristle at this suggestion. Kozol notes that 9th graders at a New York City high school that is 96 percent black and Hispanic (in a neighborhood full of white children)
went into the most remarkable contortions when I asked them if they thought it was accurate to say that they were in a "segregated" school. … The very introduction of that word seemed to surprise a number of students. (p. 79)
Kozol cheers Francesca for speaking up at an education conference against the misuse of the term diversity
in such settings—and against curriculums about the civil rights era that celebrate the courage of activists in the 1960s while saying nothing about the courage needed today.
Kozol also tells Francesca she must strengthen her elementary students before they enter the "demoralizing and … overcrowded" world of many inner-city secondary schools ("uglifying" places, he calls them). In recounting a time he ate lunch with kids in the cafeteria of a 3,600-student urban high school, Kozol describes a half-hour barrage of inadequate facilities, overcrowding, and degrading procedures—and the antisocial behavior these conditions produced in both students and staff.
Small schools initiatives, Kozol asserts, often leave the blights of racial segregation and degrading physical conditions untouched. He describes situations in New York high schools in which small academies within the same building are almost totally segregated, and with vastly unequal curriculums. The Gates Foundation, Kozol urges, should "transcend [its] damaging mistake" and give "grant support only to those small academies that formally commit themselves to an aggressive effort to reduce the racial isolation of the students they enroll" (p. 187).
Kozol saves his most scathing words for his chapter on education vouchers, which he calls, "the single worst, most dangerous idea" in education. He analyzes the underlying beliefs of some longtime voucher supporters and the concept's connection to corporate interests that speak openly of receiving profits from schools. Young teachers, he insists, need to wake up and see what's really going on—"a well-orchestrated and well-financed plan to privatize the public education sector altogether"—and witness against it (p. 149).
Letters to a Young Teacher is a wonderful read and not all grim. Kozol tells his correspondent that what keeps him going is long-term friendships with inner-city families and kids—and he recounts many joyful interactions with buoyant, quirky children. He expects such individuality and buoyancy from new teachers as well. Toward the book's end, Kozol describes the young persons he wants to see become teachers:
They come into their classrooms with a sense of affirmation of the goodness and fullness of existence, with a sense of satisfaction in discovering the unexpected in their students, and with a longing to surprise the world. … [They are willing] to do away with any semblance of what they may have been taught to think of as "professional decorum," when such a moment may be called for, and instead to act, no matter what their shyness … as outspoken warriors for justice. (p. 207)
Naomi Thiers is Associate Editor, Educational Leadership.
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