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September 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 1


The Schools Our Children Deserve

The Schools Our Children Deserve by Alfie Kohn. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999
Alfie Kohn dreams of a future where all schools take kids seriously. Good schools, he argues, have a different "center of gravity"—one that keeps kids at the core instead of teachers, textbooks, and traditional practices. From all that we've learned from research in cognitive psychology and constructivist learning theory—research well documented by Kohn—we know that he's right. Kids should be at the center. But remember, John Dewey said the same thing exactly 100 years ago. How far have we come in the past century? How far do we have to go? These are the questions that Kohn tackles.
Schools at their best, Kohn says, break free from an "aggressive nostalgia that's loose in the land" that commands educators to get "back to basics" and implement "tougher standards." But, he points out, these politically popular notions are riddled with "fatal flaws." For example, getting tough usually translates into a preoccupation with test scores instead of a concern for kids' genuine learning and understanding. For another, studying the basics implies that teachers need to concentrate on covering curriculum topics instead of helping kids learn through "discovery, invention, reflection, and problem solving." Mincing no words, Kohn accuses schools that think that reform means getting back to the basics and making standards tougher of getting teaching and learning "wrong." And, he says, these wrong ideas all but guarantee that schools will remain on a "shaky foundation"—and that they'll continue to deny many kids opportunities to develop and learn.
Kohn is known for challenging educational practices piece by piece. In his earlier work, he ripped apart assumptions that underscore numerous bad practices: homework, character education programs, and rewards and incentives to make kids read and study. In this book, he goes after the entire educational enterprise. Perhaps Kohn has the right mix of research, fearlessness, influence, and dedication to help kids finally get the schools they deserve.
Published by Houghton Mifflin, 215 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10003. Price: $24.
—Reviewed by Susan Black, Researcher and Writer, Hammondsport, New York.

Racism Explained to My Daughter

Racism Explained to My Daughter by Tahar Ben Jelloun. New York: The New Press, 1999
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this book is the courage and forthrightness with which Ben Jelloun initiates a conversation about a subject that most parents and educators would just as soon avoid. Given the impetus of his own daughter's questions, Ben Jelloun gracefully and sincerely approaches the topic. Sparked by her participation alongside her father in a protest against a law dealing with foreigners' rights in France, the 10-year old begins with the essential question: What is racism? Other questions naturally follow: What are superiority and inferiority? What is genetics? Why do Africans have black skin and Europeans, white skin? Is any race better than another? Ben Jelloun responds forthrightly and sensitively.
In his introduction, Bill Cosby stresses the urgent need to deal straightforwardly with this plague on humanity: It is disheartening to see that children are still shaped by racism—racism that these children learn from parents, relatives, and friends in lessons reinforced by the media and society at large. Ben Jelloun lets young readers know that they should not let themselves be bullied by racist children and adults, or be made to feel inferior by narrow-minded people. Instead, they should realize that racists themselves are deeply troubled and in need of healing, for racism is an illness.
Poet David Mura's description of his awareness of how his identity as a Japanese American was shaped by "honorary" white status is disturbing but honest. He describes his inheritance of favored minority status in relationship to African Americans by discussing his father's ability, while in an internment camp in Jerome, Arkansas, to obtain passes to go to Little Rock to see movies. He rode in the front of the segregated bus; blacks were forced to ride in the back. In the theater, he sat with whites beneath the balcony; blacks could sit only in the balcony. Mura ascertains that Asians willingly align themselves with whites for privilege and power but experience embarrassment if blacks ask them to join them in solidarity. He explains in depth how black friends helped him understand the African American perspective.
The book concludes with Lisa Delpit's bittersweet and poignant letter to her daughter, in which she relates her pain at recognizing that Maya, 9, must endure racist experiences in the South at such a young age. Maya's only protection is her naivete and her mother's ability to shield her from overt racism. When police officers stop Maya while she is walking her dog in their mostly white neighborhood and ask her "where she lives," Lisa knows that they are not just being friendly: I didn't tell you exactly what was going on when we took that trip to the Georgia mountains. You and your friend played outside the restaurant. . . . You told us that a white man and his wife—he with a minister's collar—stared at you "with mean looks" and made monkey sounds and gestures. You asked why they did that, and I told you that some people were just not very nice. I made you promise to come to me immediately for help whenever an adult was giving you any trouble.
This book is a must read for every adult and child because it is time for all of us to be free from the senseless violence, cruelty, and oppression that are the offspring of racism.
Published by The New Press, 450 W. 41st St., New York, NY 10036. Price: $16.95.
—Reviewed by Folasade Oladele, Program Manager, Language, Literacy, African American Culture, Oakland Unified School District, Oakland, California.

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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