Those of us who as children went to school every day, who had books, pencils, lunchboxes, desks to sit at, etc., likely never thought to stop and think about how lucky we were.
In Jonathan Kozol's Letters to a Young Teacher (Crown, 263 pages, $19.95), the National Book Award winner and former educator bestows the wisdom of his many years teaching in public schools to a first-grade teacher he calls Francesca. When she asks him about his first experience in public school, he tells her about his first job, teaching fourth-graders in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood...
"My school was in a ghostly looking, badly overcrowded, and physically decrepit building where my students couldn't even be provided with a classroom of their own. We had to share an undivided auditorium with 35 other children in another fourth grade class, and with a choral group, and sewing class, and with a group rehearsing almost all fall for a Christmas play that somehow never was produced."
Kozol covers a variety of topics, including diversity, which to public schoolteachers in the inner city is pretty much a joke. He notes that there is as much segregation now as there was 40 years ago. Standardized testing is another obstacle. Teachers at inner city schools are forced to provide special study hours just for these tests in order to boost scores so they can get maximum funding. It's a vicious cycle that starting as early as kindergarten, before they've actually learned what they'll be tested on — but not until third grade!
"Many kindergarten children haven't yet learned how to hold a crayon or a pencil," Kozol writes. "They look at these tests in terror. They start to cry. They pee in their pants. The teacher's not allowed to help them other than by offering some faint encouragement."
All is not gloom and doom in this book. Toward the end there's a chapter titled, "Seeds of Hope, Sources of Resilience," where he writes of the exhilaration he gets out of his "day-to-day immersion in the lives of certain glowingly resilient children who, no matter what the painful things they may experience at school or in their homes, are able somehow to retain their faith in the essential goodness of the grown-up world and to keep their little lights of hope alive."
"When it comes to courage, my best teachers have been children."
That's about as mushy as it gets. I would recommend this book to any teacher, anywhere, not just those in urban elementary schools.