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Letters to a Young Teacherby Jonathan Kozol
"In his most recent book, Letters to a Young Teacher...Kozol combines his critical observations on today's schools with a memoir of his own experiences as a teacher....He urges young, idealistic white teachers...in poor black urban schools (Kozol's world is often cast strictly in black-and-white) to go to the homes of the seemingly apathetic black parents who eschew PTA meetings." Sandra Tsing Loh, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
In these affectionate letters to Francesca, a first grade teacher at an inner-city school in Boston, Jonathan Kozol vividly describes his repeated visits to her classroom while, under Francesca's likably irreverent questioning, he also reveals his own most personal stories of the years that he has spent in public schools.
Letters to a Young Teacher reignites a numberof the controversial issues Jonathan has powerfully addressed in recent years: the mania of high-stakes testing that turns many classrooms into test-prep factories where spontaneity and critical intelligence are no longer valued, the invasion of our public schools by predatory private corporations, and the inequalities of urban schools that are once again almost as segregated as they were a century ago.
But most of all, these letters are rich with the happiness of teaching children, the curiosity and jubilant excitement children bring into the classroom at an early age, and their ability to overcome their insecurities when they are in the hands of an adoring and hard-working teacher.
"'Forty years ago, Death at an Early Age catapulted Kozol into national prominence as a compassionate yet clearheaded observer of the rotten state of American education. His latest book reviews many of the basic issues he has spent his life exploring through teaching and writing. Here, he cleverly weaves his observations — as well as a thinly disguised biographical memoir — into a series of 16 letters written to 'Francesca,' a first-grade teacher at an inner-city public school in Boston. Overall, the book will delight and encourage first-year (or for that matter, 40th-year) teachers who need Kozol's reminders of the ways that their 'beautiful profession' can 'bring joy and beauty, mystery and mischievous delight into the hearts of little people in their years of greatest curiosity.' But his encouraging words rarely lapse into treacle. In fact, he offers tough observations on American education addressed to a larger audience. His forceful opinions are convincingly argued — most notably, that educational vouchers will deepen divisions between diverse groups in racially decided cities; that middle schools demoralize students and should be abolished entirely; and that the Gates Foundation made a 'damaging mistake' in aggressively funding a 'small school craze' that will reinforce 'the racial isolation of the students they enroll.' (Sept.)' Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)"
"As Washington policymakers work to reauthorize the landmark No Child Left Behind Act, controversy abounds: Has the law fostered excessive test prep? Squeezed out science and social studies? Shortchanged gifted kids? Not surprisingly, authors have been putting flesh and bones on these edu-issues, taking a venerable genre — the book-length tale from the classroom trenches — and updating it in assorted... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) forms for the age of accountability. In 'Tested,' the most ambitious of these new volumes, Linda Perlstein, a former Washington Post education reporter, got what she calls an 'all-access pass' to Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, Md. Despite all the usual challenges — many of the school's low-income black and Latino kids have huge academic deficits and face tough home lives — the school's hard-driving principal has succeeded in improving results on the state exam, the Maryland School Assessment, so much so that Tyler Heights has been hailed as a turnaround success story. Perlstein's narrative is much bleaker, however. Deploying the fine fly-on-the-wall reporting skills that made her previous book, 'Not Much Just Chillin',' so uncannily evocative of the lives of middle school kids, she opens a window into a school that has become over-the-top test obsessed. Along the way, she weaves in extensive discussions of federal education policy, pushing readers to the conclusion that the standards and accountability movement in general — and No Child Left Behind in particular — have gone badly awry. Perlstein paints a sobering portrait of Tyler Heights. Students slog through a rigidly scripted curriculum and spend an inordinate amount of time practicing the paragraph-length 'BCRs' (for 'brief constructed response') that are used to answer questions on the Maryland state test. Science and social studies are given short shrift: Cool experiments, field trips and just about all activities 'seen as irrelevant' to the state exam are backloaded to the end of the school year. To her credit, Perlstein acknowledges that systematically tracking student test results has some advantages: 'Floundering children who once might have been allowed to flop undetected from grade to grade were pulled aside daily for special attention.' But her overall assessment is so relentlessly dire that one wonders whether her case study is truly representative — and, if it is, how she thinks an effective accountability system might be set up. Could it be that the problem is not the tests but the inappropriate, even absurd, ways in which schools are responding to them? It is sad to read of the impoverished education these impoverished children are receiving. But although Perlstein doesn't seek them out, there are plenty of contrasting examples (some of which are described in Karin Chenoweth's recently published 'It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools') that show children need not be taught this way to get great results. If Perlstein's case study is extreme, thorough critiques like hers at least must be taken seriously by anybody trying to make sense of today's education debates. Not so with 'Letters to a Young Teacher,' from Jonathan Kozol. Forty years after Kozol published 'Death at an Early Age,' his arresting account of teaching at an inner-city school in Boston, the prolific author has become the patron saint of educational progressives. His latest book, filled with new material and many retrospective vignettes from his earlier works, takes the form of a series of missives to 'Francesca,' the pseudonym of a beginning first-grade teacher in an urban elementary school. Kozol may be a white Harvard grad who is now past 70, but he takes pains to let readers know that he is still down with the people. For one thing, he has many personal friends in the hood. Also, he believes teachers should not be 'servants of the global corporations or drill sergeants for the state.' Naturally, he opposes school vouchers, along with charter schools and, of course, No Child Left Behind. What is Kozol for? Above all else, unleashing children's natural creativity and playfulness. He also wants inner-city teachers to become activists, bearing witness to social injustice without worrying overmuch about, say, teaching grammar. Kozol is surely right to declare on the very first page that teaching is — perhaps he should have said can be — 'a beautiful profession.' But his bumper-sticker rant of a book ('childhood does not exist to serve the national economy,' he fumes) combines kids-say-the-darnedest-things sentimentality with so many rabid and ad hominem attacks on his ideological foes that it quickly becomes tiresome. Kozol seems really to believe that efforts to ensure that students can read and do math, using uniform standards, measured by tests that can be compared from classroom to classroom and school to school, are evidence of corporate repression. Sure, those efforts aren't always well conceived or thoughtfully implemented. But, at least in principle, couldn't the ability to be academically self-sufficient instead be viewed as a path to personal liberation? Mercifully, the sanctimony quotient is considerably lower in Dan Brown's compelling diary of his year as a newbie teaching a troublesome class of inner-city fourth graders. With introspection and good humor, Brown tells the lively and often appalling story of how an NYU film school grad comes face to face with a group of students from a dirt-poor Bronx neighborhood who are intensely needy, shockingly ignorant and quick toassault one another. Part of a crop of unconventional recruits brought into the public school system through the New York City Teaching Fellows program, Brown has his share of small breakthroughs with individual kids, but many, many disappointments. He recounts not only his ceaseless struggles to maintain order, but also the dirty little secrets of the education bureaucracy. He faces pressure not to make special ed referrals, for instance, even when kids desperately need extra help, and he is advised by a colleague to 'teach them something they already know' to create Potemkin-village classroom observations. Like Kozol and Perlstein, Brown is not a fan of standardized testing. But tellingly, after describing how the officious school bureaucrats who are his main villains question the effectiveness of his teaching, he makes a point of letting readers know that his kids did better than almost any other class on ... the state test. Ultimately, the greatest strength of his book is its vivid depiction of just how hard first-year teaching is — and its implicit lesson that urban schools urgently need to attract and retain more thoughtful and dedicated people such as Brown. It is disappointing, if understandable, that Brown gives up on his dysfunctional school — 'I fought the Bronx, and the Bronx won' — but heartening to read that he is studying to be a high school English teacher. A completely different side of the New York City school system is on display in 'A Class Apart,' Washington Post reporter Alec Klein's anthropological account of a semester in the life of his alma mater, Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School. A celebrated public school where admission is by a competitive city-wide exam, Stuyvesant embodies America's promise of meritocracy as do few other institutions: Klein affectionately calls the school 'a fierce anachronism' aimed at 'fostering an aristocracy of talent.' By shadowing a handful of students and administrators, he memorably catalogues the daily dramas of the small town that is high school, with details unique to academic hothouses like Stuy. There is intense pressure, to be sure, but also the exuberance of accomplishment. And loopy humor: Apparently kids at schools such as this really do tell physics jokes. Yet Klein is less successful at thoroughly exploring the big-picture questions he asks (Is it a good idea to segregate kids by academic ability? Have gifted students been unfairly ignored in the quest to raise basic skills?) than he is at capturing the distinctive and endearing atmosphere of a place 'where the brainiacs prevail.' At Stuyvesant, at least, success on exams is still seen as a gateway to better things. Making that true for kids who attend the nation's non-elite schools will mean rejecting Kozol's false choice between creativity and drill-and-kill. Instead, accounts such as Perlstein's and Brown's might profitably be used as cautionary tales: Test-based accountability is here to stay, but reformers badly need to figure out how to get it right. Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow in research and policy at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and former education editor of U.S. News & World Report." Reviewed by Ben Wildavsky, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Letters to a Young Teacher could have collapsed under the weight of its own sincerity, but to Kozol's credit, it doesn't." Los Angeles Times
"It must be difficult to be called to report the failure of one of our country's most cherished ideals: a free and equitable education....There are competing agendas in Kozol's book of letters, but the strongest is to inspire and encourage new teachers." Oregonian
"What a wonderful book! Anyone who cares about rebuilding our public education system should read it. I could not put it down!" Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education, Stanford University
"This book cuts to the heart of the matter of what it means to be a teacher today. The truth about testing, vouchers and their impact on public schools — it's all captured here. But here, too, we also experience the exhilaration of putting together lesson plans, the joys of comforting children, and the anxiety of a teacher's first days in school. Francesca's journey will leave you hopeful for our nation's children." Reg Weaver, President, National Education Association
"Jonathan Kozol's advice to the teacher Francesca shows all the qualities that make him the nation's wisest and boldest and most clear-headed writer on education: his passion for teaching, his respect for students, his refusal to submit to the stifling demands of the educational bureaucrats in and out of government. He tells personal classroom stories with a refreshing honesty, and conveys the excitement and joy of preparing a new generation to remake the world. Teachers, students, parents alike will find this book inspiring." Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States
"In Letters to a Young Teacher, Kozol's tone is conversational but his challenge to all of us is urgent. On a range of educational questions — segregation, vouchers, testing, and the profession of teaching — his perspective is informed by a gentle perplexity that sometimes spikes into outrage. 'How can this be?' he seems to ask us. 'How can we allow this to happen to our children?' The more people who read him, the greater our chances of climbing out of the dark hole into which American education has fallen — or been pushed." Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve and The Homework Myth
"[I]t is a privilege to glimpse the joy and struggles within [Francesca's] classroom." Christian Science Monitor
About the Author
Jonathan Kozol is the National Book Award-winning author of Death at an Early Age, Rachel and Her Children, Savage Inequalities, and Amazing Grace. He has been working with children in inner-city schools for more than 40 years.
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