Book Reviews

By Barbara Hiron & Blake Rodman — August 01, 1998 5 min read

MAKING CONVERSATION: Collaborating With Colleagues for Change, by Mark Larson. (Heinemann, $18.50.) Eight years ago, author Studs Terkel began an interview with Larson, a high school English teacher, by asking “Who are you?” “I’m a teacher trying to do the right thing,” Larson said, before tripping into a monologue of battering self-reproach. Larson described himself as humiliated, confused, and appalled by his confrontational behavior that had some kids at Evanston Township High School near Chicago threatening to do him harm. Larson told Terkel that he was worried he was becoming a racist: Two-thirds of his students were black, and he found himself thinking as a new school year began, “I know exactly what they’ll be like.”

Terkel’s deceptively simple “Who are you?” changed Larson’s life. Why, Larson mused, had he become such a rigid, uncompromising teacher? The answer, he realized, was that he believed his students needed order and structure, things he had gone to draconian lengths to impose, but all he got in return was surliness, disobedience, and bundles of bland, ordinary prose. So Larson decided to reinvent his teaching style on the run.

As Larson describes it here, his first real breakthrough came with Sheldon, a truculent student whose longest piece of writing had consisted of his name scrawled repeatedly across the page. One day, Sheldon walked into class asserting, “This is the worst day of my life.” Larson typed those words across the computer screen, and they became the opening of Sheldon’s first real essay. Larson realized that over the years he had wrongly interpreted his students’ resistance as inability when, in fact, their writing difficulties, like their hostility, stemmed at least in part from the way he’d treated them, virtually denying them any self-expression.

Over time, Larson makes a complete break from his teaching past, demolishing his prior sense of “English class” and rebuilding from ground zero. He gives students great freedom over what they read and write, and he writes letters to his colleagues that question such sacred cows as the literary canon, the five-paragraph essay, and the omniscient posture of the teacher.

But Larson, to his credit, never plays the part of the enlightened guru; he is willing to let his colleagues have the last word. One, Anny Heydeman, frequently plays the role of the wise contrarian, writing aphoristic messages to Larson, such as, “There are many more negative consequences in the real world for people who do not write correctly than there are for those who do not write from the soul.” Larson is able to take this kind of criticism to heart. Heydeman, in fact, helps Larson see that the freedom he has given his students has spun out of control and that they need some structure if they are to focus their “raw energies.”

Finally, Making Conversation is less a book about the merits of progressivism vs. traditionalism than the importance of relentless self-examination. Larson teaches us that dogmatism of all stripes is the enemy of good teaching and that the most important questions teachers ask are not of their students, but of themselves.

POLITICAL LEADERSHIP AND EDUCATIONAL FAILURE, by Seymour Sarason. (Jossey Bass, $32.95.) One of American education’s gloomiest observers, Sarason begrudgingly concedes here that a small number of American schools have reformed themselves into places of intellectual challenge and high expectations for all students. But why, he wants to know, have there not been more--many more? Why do good schools remain the exception and not the rule?

Sarason’s answer is that “the system is not geared to spread a new idea, a new methodology, a new practice.” The stasis, he argues, can be traced in part to a lack of political leadership. The initiatives of our so-called “education presidents” have been characterized by pipe-dreaming and incoherence. President Bush’s Year 2000 goals--all students will meet high standards by the millennium--were purely utopian. Meanwhile, President Clinton’s proposals to fund massive class-size reductions and wire all classrooms may be good ideas but are disconnected from any larger vision of what public education might be. Few political leaders, Sarason writes, have ever launched a persistent, systemic effort to heal our education ills.

As in his many other books, Sarason remains an astute diagnostician of why things go wrong with school reform. But his chronic pessimism seems much less persuasive than it did 10 years ago. These days, critics like Sarason are simply wrong in at least one important respect: Positive reform has, in fact, taken root in many of the nation’s schools and districts. Whole swatches of suburban elementary schools, in particular, have transformed themselves by engaging students in work of a genuinely intellectual nature. Sarason is certainly right in saying the diffusion hasn’t gone far enough--too many of our poorest urban schools remain untouched--but his unwillingness to acknowledge any real gains suggests that it’s the author--not the schools--who is really mired in the past.

THE TWO SEXES: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together, by Eleanor Maccoby. (Harvard University Press, $39.95.) Parents and teachers have always recognized that the sexes diverge in early childhood, typically forming mutually exclusive societies. In this book, Maccoby, a psychology professor at Stanford University, draws on more than 20 years of research to argue that this phenomenon is an inevitability, something that occurs in spite of and not because of socialization. Even the most progressive, gender-sensitive settings will produce the familiar cliques of rampaging boys and doll-playing girls.

Interestingly enough, Maccoby’s research demonstrates that boys and girls play easily with each other in family and neighborhood circumstances. The strong identification they develop with their same-sex collectives at places like school occurs less because of play preferences and relational styles than because of a prevailing herd mentality. “I am arguing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Maccoby writes. “By virtue of the same-sex interaction that occurs, a group identity, a group esprit, is built up, distinctive to all-girl or all-boy groups.”

What are the implications of these findings for same-sex schooling? Maccoby resists hard and fast conclusions but suggests that girls may benefit in all-girl schools free of male dominance. On the other hand, she is wary of all-boy schools, as strengthened male ties may foster “male exclusionary attitudes toward women and girls, to say nothing of sexist attitudes toward women as sex objects.” Maccoby wisely recommends cautious experimentation with different kinds of single-sex schools, something that has already begun to occur across the country.

--David Ruenzel