Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Further reading notes on Kozol's Letters to a young teacher

To see where this started, please see the previous booknote.

When I read books like this, I find myself noting pages or passages that made me nod or stop and think a moment. So, let me make a few reading notes. The first is just something that made me think, and it did remind me of a couple of recalcitrant kids I had back in my time.

  • "None of us should make the error of assuming that a child who is hostile to us at the start, or who retreats into a sullenness and silence or sarcastic disregard for everything that's going on around him in the room does not have the will to learn, and plenty of interesting stuff to teach us too, if we are willing to invest the time and inventiveness to penetrate his seemingly implacable belief that grown-ups do not mean him well and that, if he trusts you, we will probably betray or disappoint him" (67).
Like me, Kozol has no patience for jargon and the self-important consultants and educrats that spout it. The problem with this, unfortunately, is that teachers often have to embrace this pseudolanguage if they want the higher-ups to even listen. Kozol writes:

  • "This kind of jargon, which relies upon the pumping up of any simple notion by tacking on a fancy-sounding prefix or a needless extra syllable, infests the dialogue of public education nowadays like a strange syntactic illness that induces many educators to believe they have to imitate this language if they want to have a place in the discussion" (89).
By the way, that male bovine excrement infestation is very alive in higher education as well. You see various examples of it during accreditation time. Overall, educators learn two languages: "conference" talk or "expert" talk, and normal English (97). Basically, we become fluent as needed. I would speculate that this is a form of code-switching. By the way, a lot of librarianship also suffers from this.

Kozol argues that all teachers should express themselves as witnesses:

  • "So I come back again and again to the need for teachers to speak out as witnesses to what they see each day before their eyes, whether they do this only in the most restrained and quiet ways at schoolwide gatherings or meetings in the districts where they work or in bolder voices at the larger education conferences and in the education journals and the mainstream media. 'Witnessing' is a familiar term among the clergy of progressive and compassionate denominators. As I've said to you before, I think it ought to be the privilege, and obligation, of our teachers" (193-194).
I will add that we librarians ought to be witnessing as well. There are one or two librarian bloggers who fit the bill, but they are few and far between. This is a significant lack in the librarian blogosphere, but I digress. Let me get back to the book.

Kozol also reminds us that education is political. As much as I despise politics, I know that I need to be able to navigate them when the need arises. Kozol writes on this:

  • "There are those in Washington and elsewhere who believe that teachers are already 'too political.' I could not more deeply disagree. I think the problem is exactly the reverse. Teachers, in their large numbers, aren't nearly political enough. (I am also not speaking about teacher unions, which are, and ought to be, political, but about the teacher in and of herself, or himself, as an individual)" (206).
I think the above is very applicable to librarians as well. Sure, the big national professional organization for libraries is very political (and we can look over the good and the very bad some other time). But librarians, as individuals, for the most part, are not political enough. Part of it may be the nature of the profession, but I am digressing again.

Finally, Kozol answers when Francesca asks how does one go on in the face of adversity and an opposition determined to eradicate public education along with any idea of a common good. He writes:

  • "Whenever I tell myself that it just seems too hard or hopeless to continue trying to keep up the battle to defend the values you and I hold dear and to go out in public, when I have to, and debate those very agile and sometimes sadistically effective people from the right-wing think tanks, which is no fun at all, I think of the indomitable courage of so many older women like Bernice, who face not merely trivial and one-time injuries or disappointments or political reversals, but extremes of physical discomfort from untreated illnesses as well as psychological ordeals that most of us can only empathetically imagine" (224).
Talk about putting things in perspective. And this is not always easy. Any good teacher can probably relate to this. Kozol reminds us that we can never give up:

  • "This, Francesca, is the ultimate answer to the question that you posed. I don't believe that any of us has the right to pull back from the battlefield because we are feeling 'weary'"(225).
I think that keeps me going as well when I feel weary. I draw strength from the small victories. And thus we can maintain hope.

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