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Jonathan Kozol’s Invitation

Forty years ago, Jonathan Kozol published his first book of nonfiction, Death at an Early Age. An account of his first year teaching in the Boston Public School system (he was fired at the end of the year for reading his class a Langston Hughes poem), it was a devastating indictment of segregation in public schools and dramatically unequal treatment of children in inner-city schools. In 1968, it won the National Book Award. Jonathan Kozol

Though conditions in inner-city public schools have not improved much over the years, Jonathan Kozol has remained a tireless advocate for children living in poverty, and has produced a steady stream of well-written, award-winning, often heartbreaking books, including Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace, and The Shame of a Nation.

Letters to a Young Teacher, Kozol's newest work, is a different kind of book. "People tell me my new book...is the first cheerful book I've ever written," Kozol joked.

Gentle, funny, practical, and inspiring, Letters is comprised of a series of letters to a young, idealistic teacher in inner-city Boston. Kozol manages to dispense extremely useful advice while criticizing policies like No Child Left Behind and offering ways for teachers to transcend teaching to the test.

Howard Zinn writes that "Jonathan Kozol's advice...shows all the qualities that make him the nation's wisest and boldest and most clear-headed writer on education." Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, agrees, "This book cuts to the heart of the matter of what it means to be a teacher today."

Jill Owens: I read in your Huffington Post article last week that you've been on a partial fast all summer. Why did you decide to begin fasting?

Jonathan Kozol: What provoked the fast was the devastating Supreme Court ruling on June 28, generally referred to as the Louisville-Seattle ruling, which not only reversed Brown vs. Board of Education, prohibiting state-ordered school integration, but actually went to the extreme of prohibiting even voluntary integration programs, so that states like Massachusetts and several others in which thousands of inner-city kids are voluntarily enrolled in the top suburban districts may now be prohibited from continuing these programs.

These programs have been tremendously successful. I used to teach in Boston, so I know the integration program in Boston very well. It began 40 years ago; I taught in its first two years. I had begun teaching in a gruesome, dilapidated inner-city school, which was totally segregated in the black community in Boston. I had 35 children in my class, and we didn't even have a classroom of our own. We had to share, and we held class in an auditorium. A couple of years later, I was hired to teach in one of our most affluent suburbs in which the integration program was taking place, and I suddenly was able to teach black children in a cheerful, delightful, integrated public school with 19 children in my class. That radicalized my thinking and led me to devote my life to the struggle to guarantee equal education to all our children.

The success of that program is quite remarkable. While inner-city black children tend to have a typical high school completion rate of about 50 percent or lower, 95 percent of the black kids who participate in the integration program here in Massachusetts complete high school with their class, and virtually all of them go on to four-year colleges. It's not surprising that one-third of all the black parents in Boston have their kids on the waiting list.

School integration is out of fashion nowadays; nobody talks about it anymore. In fact, our public schools today are more segregated than at any point since the death of Dr. King in 1968, as a result of Supreme Court rulings starting in the early 90s. But these integration programs that began during the civil rights era have had a spectacular success rate, and we're now faced with the danger that they will all be prohibited under the new Supreme Court ruling.

So that provoked me to start fasting, and then I continued fasting because I wanted to convince many of my close friends in the United States House and Senate to make radical revisions in No Child Left Behind in order, at the very least, to reduce some of these extreme inequalities.

Jill: The tone of your new book is in fact very hopeful and optimistic.

Kozol: Yes — despite everything I've just said, people tell me that my new book, Letters to a Young Teacher, is the first cheerful book I've ever written. [Laughs] That may sound contradictory, but I wrote this book as a tribute and an invitation to what I believe to be a beautiful profession. It's not abstract; it's right from the classroom. It's a year of letters to an absolutely glowing, idealistic and tremendously effective first-grade teacher in an inner-city school, who absolutely refused to pay lip service to No Child Left Behind, refused to drill her kids for tests, refused to impose the proto-military drill-and-kill routine that is often prescribed for minority kids in segregated schools, almost as though they were a different species from the rest of us.

She gave them the same rich course of study that she'd received at first-rate schools and at a very distinguished liberal arts college. She flooded her room with poetry — African-American and Hispanic poetry, but also Western European classics. I was there one day when she read her students a sonnet by the German poet Rilke. Obviously the first-graders couldn't read these books, but they would be fascinated by a word in one of these poems, and they would ask her what it meant and how to spell it.

She taught phonics; she did teach phonics. But she refused to teach it out of one of those boring phonics readers. Instead, she derived phonics out of the stories that the children told her every morning (little kids are determined to tell you stories the minute they walk into the classroom), and also out of the words that fascinated them out of the treasury of books with which she flooded the room. She was fortunate to have a principal who defended her. This was an all-black school, an African-American principal. Francesca, which is the name I give the teacher in order to protect her privacy, reached out very quickly to the parents in the community. She gave them her cellphone number, and they often started calling her in the evening. She won the adoration of the children, who behaved well, not because they were afraid of her, but because they loved her and didn't want to give her a hard time.

So I just kept going back again and again to her class, for an entire year. Francesca is not one of those super-teachers that you hear about in the movies. In fact, those teachers exist only in the movies, as all teachers know. She had all the disappointments that other teachers do, and she made mistakes, but she kept on coming back with this unbreakable sense of determination to give the children all the skills they needed without robbing them of the playfulness and happiness which she believed to be an entitlement of childhood. And in the end, almost all her kids did very well on their exams.

The book is an invitation to this beautiful profession, but it's also a survival guide for good young teachers or older teachers who are young at heart, who consider it unthinkable to turn their classroom into test prep factories, who insist upon giving their children the full range of subject matter that you would receive in a good suburban school, and who also are willing to speak out boldly on injustices they witness in the classroom. As I say at one point in the book, teachers are the best witnesses to inequalities imposed upon our poorest children, because they're the ones who are right there in the classroom.

I might say I know tens of thousands of teachers like Francesca. There are a lot of them in Portland. One of my favorite teachers in Portland is a guy named Bill Bigelow. He's a veteran high school teacher, and he's absolutely superb; I've asked him to introduce me at the event in Beaverton. There are tens of thousands of good teachers that I know personally, and I'm sure there must be hundreds of thousands nationwide, who are coming out of college fully certified to teach but also thoroughly immersed in the liberal arts — precisely the kinds of teachers that our urban systems try so hard to recruit.

I recruit them all the time. They'll come up to me at the end of an event, and they'll say, "I'm in my last year at Amherst, or Lewis and Clark," or wherever, "and I want to teach, and I'd like to teach inner-city kids because I know that's where the need is greatest." They're like the children of the civil rights generation, and they've imbibed those strong idealistic values, but unfortunately, 50 percent of urban, inner-city teachers quit within three years. When I ask them why, they never blame it on the children, because they adore the children. They come to these schools precisely because they think of the urban school as the front line of democracy. They never blame the parents, and the community, and they never say the neighborhood's too rough.

Again and again, when I ask them, Why are you thinking of quitting?, the answer they give me is this miserable testing mania that's turning our classrooms into a state of siege. They say, our principal is so terrified that she won't measure up — I say she, because we're talking about elementary schools, and it's usually a woman principal, usually a woman teacher, too — our principal is a good person, but she's so profoundly threatened by the sanctions in the federal law if she can't pump the test scores up a few points every year that she's handing us scripts to read, tightly aligned with the exams. I've been in schools where the principals make the teachers hold timers in their hands so that every minute of the day will be related in some way to the test their children have to take. That tight timing, which is dictated to a large degree by Washington, compels a teacher to cut off a child who wants to tell her something that matters to her.

A little boy raises his hand, you know, and says "Teacher, guess what! I went to the zoo yesterday with my uncle and I saw a baby bear." A little child, who's filled with curiosity, and has wonderful or sometimes sad stories that he wants to share, becomes a positive threat to the test-driven curriculum, so the teacher has to cut him off. In good schools, in the good suburban schools which aren't terribly frightened by this testing law since their kids do well anyway, the teacher can listen to that little boy, and sometimes at the end of his story after all those wonderful run-on sentences at which children are so good, if she listens, there's a piece of hidden treasure, where the child unveils something she didn't know about him before. Great teachers seize on that moment, and it's like a key they turn to unlock the child's motivation.

I try to encourage teachers not to cut off those little boys and not to allow their own personalities to shrivel up under the pressures of the federal law and never to sacrifice their independence, their spirit, or their sense of playfulness and joy. I guess the reason the book is so much fun is because Francesca has this deliciously mischievous personality. I recommend a very big dose of sly irreverence to inner-city teachers. But I also tell young teachers that if you're going to dissent from the dictates, if you're going to resist the cold winds blowing down from Washington, you've got to be very, very good at what you do. The best defense for a sly-spirited teacher who resists the testing mania is to make absolutely certain that she does deliver the skills to her children, and also keeps a good degree of calm within her classroom. A teacher like Francesca who does deliver the skills, and who can also, in a school that's suffered from a great deal of disorder and chaos, maintain a calm classroom becomes almost inexpendable. Nobody wants to fire her. And I don't want these teachers to be fired. The book is full of all sorts of little tips and big tips that I've learned from other teachers who keep inviting me to come and visit their classrooms.

Jill: You say the book is an invitation. It also seems like a call to action to create the kind of schools you describe at the end of The Shame of a Nation, schools that, because of their dedicated teachers and principals, manage to work within the boxes of segregation and inequity and testing, but still leave room for play, for creativity, for beauty, which you call "places of resistance."

Kozol: I also call those places "treasured places." You're right; I don't want these teachers to be fired, I don't want them to quit and flee out to the suburbs or to private schools. I don't want them to gravitate to these small boutique schools that most school districts are setting up these days, frequently charter schools that are either highly selective in the students they enroll or else more subtly selective in that the parents who hear about them first, and navigate the application processes, are themselves self-selective.

I encourage teachers to go into the schools where the vast majority of American children are going to be educated and to flood their classrooms with all the literary treasures that rich kids enjoy, wonderful children's books — like my favorite children's book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle.

He's written a number of books I like; there's another one called The Grouchy Ladybug. I picked up a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago — there was some reason I wanted to look at it again — so I was reading it on the plane coming east to Washington, and the man next to me who was reading the Wall Street Journal kept giving me the funniest looks. [Laughs]

One of the things that made me the happiest was, not long after proofs of my book went out, I received a phone call from Eric Carle. Wouldn't that make you excited? He called me and said, "I've never written a blurb for a book, but I'm going to this time." So we quoted him on the back cover. I was quite excited. I said to him, "You don't sound like a caterpillar."

Jill: Or a grouchy ladybug.

Kozol: [Laughs] I don't know what a grouchy ladybug would sound like.

That reminds me of a funny moment in Francesca's classroom. A lot of teachers, when I visit their classrooms — this happens in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, New York — a lot of teachers kind of feel they know me, though we've never met. They'll grab me in the corridor and say, "Come in and visit my class." And then when I do, they put me to work! They say, "Okay, teach something. You write these books; let's see if you can still do it." Francesca did that with me all the time, and if I messed up, she would scold me in front of the children.

One time, she asked me to give the children an example of a short sentence of nonfiction. Instead, I gave them a long sentence about animals who talk. (That's what I was thinking when we were wondering what a grouchy ladybug would sound like.) She told the children, "Mr. Jonathan is not behaving like a grown-up," and made me go and sit on the corner of the reading rug. [Laughs] I think they call it a time-out.

I love teachers who have that sense of mischievous delight, and who also refuse to give up on the difficult children. There's at least one full chapter in the book about a little boy named Dobie who really does give Francesca a hard time. He's one of these kids who comes into the class just determined that he's not going to like her. Every teacher has one or a couple of kids like that. But she persists, and finally she ends up going to his home over Thanksgiving, and brings him a box of brownies that she baked for him, and talks with his mom. Then he gives her a hug — she said it wasn't a very enthusiastic hug, that it was a "ho-hum" hug — but the thing that I always found amusing was that then he looks at his mother and says, "She's the best teacher in my school!" Francesca said to me, "How can he say that, when he's been treating me so miserably?"

But from that point on, she wins him over, and he ends up doing some very beautiful writing. Like many kids who seem to be underperforming, he actually knew more than he was willing to reveal at first. For example, he knew the vowel sounds perfectly well, but like many first-graders, he absolutely refused to insert vowels into his written words. I don't know if you've noticed this, and of course it depends on whether they've had preschool and so forth — Francesca's kids, like most inner-city kids, had had virtually no pre-K — some of them did know the vowel sounds, but they would stubbornly refuse to use them in their writing. They'd write a whole couple of sentences with all consonants. She became a good spy, so she could figure out what every word was. I'd look at something with lots of ls and ks and ds in it, and I'd say "What is that?" and she'd say, "Oh, that's obvious — that means 'liked.'" But then Dobie finally started producing the vowel sounds, as well, and ended up being quite proficient.

Jill: You make the point in the book that that's why having small class sizes is so important, so that children like that can get the individual attention they need.

Kozol: Yes. It's absolutely crucial. If the members of Congress want to do one really good deed when they debate the revisions to No Child Left Behind, which they're going to be doing this and next month, if they want to do one really smart thing, they will require the states, before they impose any sanctions on any low-performing school, to guarantee that class size in elementary grades is capped at eighteen, and in secondary schools at 20, 22 maximum. They should also require that before standardized exams can be used to judge or penalize a child or teacher in the early grades, the state has to certify that every one of those children was provided with two years of good developmental preschool.

Those are two things they could do that would differ from almost everything in NCLB in this respect: they would actually have an effect on education. Instead of waiting to punish children for the results of our governmental parsimony, they would proactively provide our poorest kids with the very same advantages that affluent children take for granted in their schools. I've just been begging Senator Kennedy, who is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, to insert those amendments to No Child Left Behind.

Jill: He was also one of the co-sponsors of No Child Left Behind, wasn't he?

Kozol: Yes. Several of the other Democratic senators, with whom I've talked at length, agree with me on several of the proposals I've made, but they told me that Senator Kennedy will ultimately call the shots. So I've tried very hard to reach him. He's been a good friend to me my entire life. He defended me when I was a young teacher; when I condemned the inner-city schools of Boston, he came to my support. But this time, he seems resistant. I believe because he was a co-sponsor of the initial bill and feels somewhat locked into it. But I haven't given up. I'm going to convince him.

Finally, after months of trying to reach him, writing him personal letters, and having my office just bombard him with requests for a meeting, finally, yesterday at four p.m., I received a phone call from his top education advisor, who said, "I think it's time to talk." So I'm cheerful this morning. I admire him tremendously; I just don't like to see my friends in Congress genuflecting before a failed Republican agenda. NCLB has not achieved the goals it promised. After all these years of drill and kill and giving inner-city kids what I believe to be a culturally stripped-down, debased curriculum, it hasn't worked.

The average black or Hispanic twelfth-grade student in America reads, writes, and comprehends at the level of the typical seventh-grade white child. NCLB has not made the slightest difference in those statistics. It sometimes pumps the fourth-grade scores a little bit because if all you do is drill the kids for exams, you can get a slight spike in the scores, but these are testing gains, not learning gains. They don't persist. That's the problem. And the dropout rates have not diminished one bit, although the reduction of dropout rates for minorities was one of the goals of the law. Finally, one of the other objectives of the law was to improve the quality of teachers, especially in our inner-city schools. This too has been a failure. By measuring the success of teachers almost exclusively by the test scores of their pupils, it has rewarded the most robotic teachers, and it's driving out precisely those contagiously exciting teachers who are capable of critical thinking who urban districts have tried so hard to recruit. It's having a negative effect.

I want it to be changed. I don't want to lose these teachers.

Jill: I read and graded essays years ago for standardized tests, before No Child Left Behind, and back then, originality and creativity still counted for 25 percent of an essay's score. It sounds like that's not the case now.

Kozol: You've put your finger on something very important. Under No Child Left Behind and the various state versions of the law, a child gets no points for writing with charm, originality, or even a hint of authenticity. It tends to reward the student who remembers to include the topic sentence, but who is basically producing predictable placebos, devoid of any genuine emotion or originality. Why is it that it rewards only the bare-bones mechanical aspects of a piece of writing? Because it judges a child only by that which is reducible to a number. There's not a word in NCLB about creativity, about a child who's able to move you to tears by her honesty, or a child who creates a jubilant and joyful piece of writing, because those things cannon be simple-mindedly reduced to numbers.

Good teachers encourage that kind of writing anyway, and plenty of them in Portland and Seattle, which I also know fairly well, insist on encouraging that kind of authentic writing. And, as I said before, teaching phonics, to the degree they do teach phonics, out of the words the children themselves are trying to set down on paper — words that matter to them, words that bubble up out of the rambunctious souls of little children. In my book, I try to give them guidelines for giving the children the same culturally rich kind of education they received in good suburban schools but nonetheless, to do everything they can not to isolate themselves within the school in order not to be fired.

There's a lot of emphasis on urging young teachers to look to some of the very wise, older teachers who can give them a sense of almost parental protection. I think that's essential.

Jill: One way you describe it in the book is "to remember like the old and be honest like children."

Kozol: That's from W. H. Auden. Several of Auden's greatest poems were written in 1939, just at the start of World War II. That was one of them, but it was on the death of Freud. He said that all Freud wanted — I quote it exactly in the book — was to remember like the old and be honest like children. I encourage young teachers, who can't remember like the old, to listen to the ones who can.

Jill: I haven't taught young children, but I've taught community college, and your descriptions in the first chapter of both the terror of the first days of class and the magic of what eventually happens in the chemistry of the classroom rang very true. I wish I'd had your book to read before I started teaching.

Kozol: There's a kind of mystical chemistry of trust and love that evolves between students and their teachers. It's something very beautiful to observe; it's terribly moving. I remember the feeling myself when I was a teacher. I taught fourth and fifth grades. I never cease to be touched to the core when I watch this chemistry evolving in another teacher's classroom.

I don't want teachers to allow any of the testing anxieties to freeze their souls and deny their children that chemistry. Nothing in the long run in the public school — not the tests, not the terror, not the tensions created by Washington — nothing matters as much in the success or failure of a school as the high morale of energized and well prepared teachers in the classroom and the number of children they have to teach. Those are the two things.

Schools could do very well without this obsessive numbering of skills, which most states do in a remarkably archaic way. The states make a list of numbered proficiencies the teacher must deliver at a certain minute of the day, and these numbered proficiencies are incredibly narrow. They're like little mini-chunks of amputated cognition. They give children no sense of the context in which that skill will be applied. Wonderful teachers resist that, and refuse to play these numbers games. In some states they're required to even post the number of the standard on the chalkboard. There's absolutely no benefit to the children to posting the official number for the state proficiency. No child's going to come back in thirty years and say, "Miss Francesca, I'm so grateful to you for teaching me Massachusetts proficiency number 253D." It's completely to cover the teacher's rear end in case the NCLB enforcers come around. The teachers call them curriculum cops.

Francesca just refused to do that. She said, "I'm not going to give this gibberish to my children. It's no use to them." Recently, when we were talking, she also made a very strong statement. In regard to the tendency to treat inner-city kids as if they were different from everybody else, and to deny them the happiness and joy that ought to be a part of education, she said, "I refuse to rob them of their childhood." I liked that very much.

Jonathan Kozol will speak at First Congregational United Church of Christ on October 3, 2007, and at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing on October 4, 2007. I spoke with him by phone on September 21.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Death at an Early Age: The... Used Trade Paper $4.95
  2. Savage Inequalities: Children in...
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  3. Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children... Used Trade Paper $4.95
  4. The Shame of the Nation: The...
    Used Hardcover $9.50
  5. Letters to a Young Teacher Used Hardcover $7.95
  6. The Shame of the Nation: The...
    Used Trade Paper $9.95
  7. Ordinary Resurrections: Children in... Used Trade Paper $0.95
  8. Rachel and Her Children: Homeless... Used Trade Paper $8.50



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