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Text 1.3.2




 

From LETTERS TO A YOUNG TEACHER (continued)

 

In the Boston schools in those days, there was a prescribed curriculum, not unlike those lists of standards, lesson plans, and day-by-day instructions that are given to the teachers in most inner-city schools today. Obedience to rules and orders was a constant emphasis in all of these materials. Teachers were provided with a list of notable quotations which we were to post on bulletin boards, or read aloud, or have our students memorize: "He who would command others must first learn to obey. . . . The first law that ever God gave to man was a law of obedience. . . . True obedience is true liberty. . . . Every day in every way it is our duty to obey. . . . Obedience sums up our entire duty."

The phonics text I was supposed to use was a basal reader in which there were no black characters. There were a couple of illustrations in the book in which the faces of the characters were lightly tanned, which may have been a timid nod to racial sensibilities, but the stories in the book had no connection to the lives of anyone who was not white and middle class. The antiquated social studies textbook I was given by a woman who was called "the master teacher" for the fourth grade classes in the school, an overtly racist publication, portrayed the people of Africa as "savage and uncivilized. . . . Their skins are of so dark a brown color that they almost look black. Their noses are large and flat. Their lips are thick. Their eyes are black and shining. . . . Their hair is so curly that it seems like wool. They are Negroes and they belong to the black race." Of the children of Switzerland, by comparison, the textbook said, "These children are handsome. Their eyes are blue. Their hair is golden yellow. Their white skins are clear, and their cheeks are as red as ripe, red apples."

The first thing I did was to rip down from the walls and blackboards all of these materials — "obedience" quotations and the rest — and to stash the social studies textbooks in a box and seal it shut and stuff it in the closet. Then, drawing mostly on my own delights and memories, I tacked up prints of paintings by Joan Miro and Paul Klee and brought in some records of French children's songs, and some calming music by Schuman, Ravel, and Brahms.



Again, drawing on my own experience from college days and from the years I'd spent in Europe, I introduced a few familiar poems of Robert Frost, some early lyrical poems of William Butler Yeats, and some beautiful posters of the streets of Paris and its skyline, and a map of Paris too, which became of special interest to the children when I told them I had lived there and showed them the street on which I'd lived.

I ultimately ditched a set of horrible lesson plans in social studies I'd been given and did a unit about Paris, which included measuring distances, calculating costs of buying food at small cafes, and other elements of daily life within a city I knew well enough to make it something of a geographical adventure for the children.

As I said, I can't pretend that all of this was magically successful. I certainly would not propose that any of these amateurish efforts on my part ought to be considered "innovative models" for another generation of beginning teachers. I simply wanted to begin by teaching things I knew and loved and felt that I could talk about with genuine excitement, since I thought — and this turned out to be the case — that my own enthusiasm might well prove to be contagious.



The children, to be honest, never took to Miro, but one of the paintings of Paul Klee, which is called "Bird Garden," was an instant favorite and it caused a pile-up of bodies every time the children had a chance to file past it on the way to recess or when they were lining up before dismissal. The art instructor at the school told me that she thought a painter like Paul Klee was too sophisticated for the children of this neighborhood. I didn't argue with her, but I think the children in my classroom proved her expectations to be incorrect.

I won't go into any greater detail now about the various changes that I made to try to bring some optimism about learning to those 35 fourth graders whose achievement levels had been knocked flat by the time I came into their room. (Only seven were reading and writing at grade level when I came into the class. Nearly a third were still at second grade level. I had to figure out a way to deal with this as an immediate emergency.) The point for now is not to give a breakdown of the strategies I tried but to respond to the familiar questions — "What do you do? How do you break through the lethargy you find?" — that teachers ask me when they come into a classroom where the spirits of the children seem to have been bludgeoned into dull passivity by previous months or years of instability.

Most teachers, fortunately, do not come into situations quite as awful as the one that I encountered, but many have described to me conditions that are only slightly less horrendous. They also tell me — and this is the case not only with those teachers who have entered education on a "fast-track" program that sends them into urban schools with only a few weeks of preparation, but also with those teachers who've attended schools of education — that they have been given almost no advice at all on strategies for breaking through that first and frozen moment of encounter with a class that has already undergone the kind of pedagogic battering my students had experienced before I was assigned to them.



"Start out tough and stick to the prescribed curriculum," new teachers are too frequently advised. This, in my belief, is the worst possible advice. Establishing a chemistry of trust between the children and ourselves is a great deal more important than to charge into the next three chapters of the social studies text or packaged reading system we have been provided: the same one that was used without success by previous instructors and to which the children are anesthetized by now. Entrap them first in fascination. Entrap them in a sense of merriment and hopeful expectations. Entrap them in "Bird Gardens."

Even if teachers are obliged to use those scripted lessons that are commonly believed to be essential instruments of intellectual control for students in the inner-city schools, I still would urge them, if they're given any choice at all, not to start with these materials until they've built a sense of trust and of good-natured camaraderie between the children and themselves. This may require leveling with the kids, even in some rather subtle ways, about the teacher's own opinion of these mandated materials. It may also call for some discussion of the rules and regulations in the school with which the teacher needs the children to comply in order to protect her, and the class, from undue scrutiny.

One of the first things that I told the children in my class was that, if they wanted me to have the freedom to keep on with certain things they seemed to like, they would have to do a really good job in the one specific area I knew was of particular importance to the principal. As you might have guessed, Francesca, this had no connection to the lessons that I taught or, indeed, to anything that took place once I closed the classroom door. It had to do with keeping perfect order when we left the room to file downstairs to the bathrooms or to recess.

The children got the point of this without my needing to explain it further. They already knew what mattered most within the school and proved themselves to be adept at what amounted to a kind of co-conspiracy between us. When we had to go downstairs or file to another room for whatever purpose, they behaved like little soldiers, walking quietly in line, staying on the right side of the stairway, stopping when I told them to, and scarcely whispering a word.

We were soon rewarded by a visit from the principal. "Mr. Kozol," she announced as she stood there in the doorway, "I have a compliment to give your class. The entire school is talking about how these children have been filing in the stairways." She said that this was evidence of how "mature" and "cultured" they'd become. "You can be very proud of them," she said.

One of the children gave me a big "V" for victory the minute that she left the room. For the next six weeks I didn't have a single visit from the principal or anybody else in the administration.

 

3. Work individually. Write down your summary (200 words).


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