A few years back, I wrote a post highlighting some of my favorite books for new teachers. It’s a list full of books I still adore, but was in need of an update. Thankfully, Ilana Garon, teacher and author of Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?, was up to the task. I read Ilana’s book when it came out in hardcover, so I know she and I have similar philosophies, and I love the list she came up with.
It’s September, which means—one way or another—everyone is thinking about school, whether you’re going, your friends or children are, or you’re simply looking all those Facebook posts of adorable little kids with backpacks. For anyone interested in reading a little bit about education, I submit this short list of books, which I enjoyed reading when I was a first year teacher; they informed my views on schools, learning, kids, education, and education writing:
Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
An epistolary novel eventually adapted as a movie and a play, Kaufman’s book—though a bit dated—is still resonant for teachers in dysfunctional systems (particularly New York City schools, whose “up”- and “down”-designated staircases inspired the title). Kaufman’s protagonist, Sylvia Barrett, a newbie English teacher in an inner-city high school in the 1960’s, deals with confounding bureaucratic issues, underfunded schools, indifferent students, and incompetent faculty members. The story is told through notes she writes to students, to other teachers, letters to friends, lesson plans, scraps of paper left in garbage, etc. Sylvia becomes frustrated often, but she is inspired by her students, and ultimately decides to stay at the school when given an opportunity to leave for greener pastures. I think I’d have found this book annoyingly self-righteous and predictable if it hadn’t been the first of its kind. Ultimately, I owe the late Kaufman (herself a teacher, as well as an author) a debt of gratitude for in some ways showing me the type of book I’d want to write down the line.
Death at an Early Age by Jonathan Kozol
One of the author’s first, Death at an Early Age chronicles a year Kozol spent working in public schools in Boston, from which he was ultimately fired for teaching his predominantly black students a poem by Langston Hughes. The book, published in 1967, is one of the first to illustrate the incalculable disadvantages faced by students in socially and economically segregated schools (despite Brown v. Board of Education’s injunction to integrate schools over a decade earlier); Kozol encounters a school where children are “trapped in its antiquated hallways and attitudes,” wherein no resources are allocated for the children’s education, teachers and administrators are outright cruel, and policies are enacted with the thinly veiled purpose of holding children back. It is a startling book, and one that will make readers angry, and force them to ask, “Yes, our school systems have improved since then—but have they truly improved enough?”
Amazing Grace by Jonathan Kozol
Many people have read Kozol’s Savage Inequalities (in fact, this blog has discussed it before!), his scathing indictment of the education offered to America’s poorest children, but fewer have read Amazing Grace, which focuses on one neighborhood featured in the former book—the South Bronx. For teachers in any inner-city setting, this ought to be mandatory reading, if only to be more aware of the circumstances children in these schools face before coming into the classroom. The book deals not only with over-crowded, resource-poor schools, but also with crime-ridden and physically dangerous housing projects, dysfunctional hospitals, and communities torn apart by violence, depression, AIDS, and epidemic hopelessness. At the center of the story are teachers, ministers, community leaders, social workers, families and children, all working desperately to improve their condition of economic and racial isolation. Kozol’s book is an eye-opening and urgent appeal against indifference to our nation’s poor, and a worthwhile read for truly understanding the deep socio-economic disparities still present in American education and in every other institution.
The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy
I did not know famed novelist Pat Conroy had ever been a teacher until I read this thinly veiled novelization of his own experience teaching on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina (here called “Yamacraw Island”) in the early 1970s. The book is not so much life-changing as it is entertaining; Pat Conroy writes charmingly about his students, their parents, and community life on the rural island that lacks infrastructure (including any bridges) and is, in many ways, set in the past. Families on the island are almost all descended from former slaves, many of Conroy’s students are illiterate or innumerate, and he struggles to find ways to help the children connect with seemingly irrelevant educational material foisted upon them by an outside world with which they have minimal contact. Nevertheless, he becomes a fixture of the community, and a strong bond develops between Conroy and his students. Ultimately Conroy is fired for his unconventional teaching style and for butting heads with administrators (much like his counterpart in Death at an Early Age). Conroy’s memoir is charming and, in many ways, a universal teaching story of connecting with students from a background different from one’s own.
Finally, I’d like to shamelessly plug my own book, “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?”: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx, which has just been re-released in paperback this month. In it, I discuss my first four years teaching English at a public high school in the Bronx. I was a naïve 20-something straight out of Virginia, and while I was trying to make my students read Shakespeare and write research papers, they had a thing or two to teach me. Ultimately, my book seeks to undermine the all-too-common narrative of the “hero teacher” who saves students, and instead show how many students circumvent incredible odds to find their own success. In addition, my teaching story is about my own (also, all-too-common) failures in the classroom, failures of character, and about learning incrementally how to do this job better…mostly from the wily, perceptive, and amusing teenagers I encountered in my classroom. My current 12th graders (I am still teaching in this school building where the book takes place) are furious that I did not write the book about them; when I point out that I did not know them yet when it was written, they say I should have known I’d have much cooler students in the future, and waited for them before writing. I submit that notion for you to judge.