One week from tomorrow, all the students and educators in our home (that's all of us except the dog who stopped going to school with me several years ago) will return to the classroom. But tomorrow is actually the beginning of the school year for the adult-types in the house as we have meetings, retreats, training sessions, and the like in the week prior to school starting. I thought it appropriate, therefore, to read two books that I picked up this spring, both with startlingly similar titles: Sam Pickering's Letters to a Teacher (2004) and Jonathan Kozol's Letters to a Young Teacher (2007). I have known of Pickering for several years because of his participation in the AEC Conference on Southern Literature held biennially in Chattanooga. His hilarious, off-beat, and often astute ramblings take a bit of getting used to, but the appeal he would bring in a classroom is undeniable. For you Dead Poets Society fans out there, Pickering is the real-life teacher that inspired screenwriter Tommy Schulman to create the character of Mr. Keating. Kozol, on the other hand, is uber-focused. His Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace are among the most meaningful works I have read. Period. He has spent his entire career working for those who have less power, smaller voices, and fewer opportunities, and he has done so with a grace and lack of condescension that should and must be remarked on. To say that I admire this man is an understatement.
With those accolades preceding them, how could these little books fail to win me over completely? I should have been underlining and laughing and treasuring every word on every page, right? Not exactly. There are some great elements in each book, but the format didn't sit well with me. Pickering's "letters" are just rambling essays really, and he makes no pretense to actually be writing to any one teacher. In fact, his book bothered me somewhat in that it seemed to be written with an Education class in mind. Though his experience is primarily in university teaching (his stint at Montgomery Bell Academy was brief), he seems to be writing primarily to a new or incoming secondary school teacher. His essays are a mix of personal anecdote and thoughtful advice, but they do not weigh in on larger political issues surrounding education and offer little in the way of practical information. The book is mostly an entertaining and somewhat inspiring read but nothing that I would say has changed me or my teaching. Here a few you could put on a poster:
When you and I enable children to grow beyond us and shape thoughts different from our own, we have done well. (17)
Children grow by comparing the familiar with the unfamiliar. (46)
You are teaching children, however, and your responsibility is social. Awaken thought and attempt to make students see the beauty of decency. (222)
By contrast, the Kozol is supposedly a compilation of actual letters he wrote to a young teacher named Francesca during her first year in the classroom. I do not doubt that he maintained thoughtful correspondence with this woman, but I could not believe that he wrote these essays as letters originally. The ideas might have been represented in the letters, but the length and breadth and focus he offers seem unlikely to have first occurred in personal correspondence. But Kozol is a uniquely focused writer, so perhaps my doubt is unfounded. Either way, these letters are weighty. They, too, incorporate anecdote, either from Kozol's years as a teacher or from his observation of Francesca's classroom. The stories serve as rest from the intensely social and political debates that must swirl around Kozol's head even more insistently than they do mine. The letters on "The Uses of Diversity" and "Beware the Jargon Factory" were especially relevant to me, and there were other excellent points throughout. Perhaps because I'm already a bit saturated with these issues, I didn't feel inspired by the book. It just fell flat somehow. I'm not disappointed exactly, but neither am I enlightened and encouraged.
So, I must begin again to behave like a teacher. And perhaps a bit of Pickering and Kozol will invade my classrooms this year. The truth, though, (and I think both these authors would agree) is that I will likely be encouraged and challenged more by my students than by these little books. What about you? If you are an educator, what do you do to get yourself inspired for another year?
PS: I just found out that our annual lecture series will be bringing both Michelle Rhee and Michael Pollan to town this year. I am beside myself with excitement!