By Tracy Kidder — September 06, 1989 10 min read

Among Schoolchildren
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2 Park St., Boston, Mass. 02108; 340 pp., $19.95 cloth.

By Susan Ohanian

Tracy Kidder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who in previous books so ably found soul in the computer industry and in carpentry, lays an egg in Among Schoolchildren. Mr. Kidder offers an excruciatingly dull account of the year he spent observing a 5th-grade classroom in Holyoke, Mass. Savvy teachers will understand the problem with this book all too well: a failure to recognize the difference between process and product.

Although Mr. Kidder’s best sellers The Soul of a New Machine and House are ultimately about process, in each case that process results in a product that clearly defines and validates the process--a product that lets Mr. Kidder and his readers know that the people he profiles are winners. And we all love to get the inside dope on a winner.

But winners are not always easy to identify in the schoolhouse. As chronicler of the classroom, Mr. Kidder finds himself in alien territory. Plenty of readers will decide he picked the wrong horse.

Chris Zajac is the 5th-grade teacher on whom Mr. Kidder chose to focus, and after reading Among Schoolchildren two times, I remain puzzled by that choice. Like her two and a half million counterparts around the country, Ms. Zajac has her ups and downs, but over all, Mr. Kidder makes us feel that a visit to her classroom is about as inviting as a trip to the office of an irs auditor. If this classroom has a soul, Mr. Kidder didn’t spot it.

We watch Ms. Zajac put a lot of effort into making up spelling lists and extracting homework from recalcitrant students, but in the end, Jimmy, among other pupils, never learns to spell, never does the homework. Mr. Kidder and Ms. Zajac seem to agree that if Jimmy’s mother had only been more helpful about checking that homework, they probably would have ended up with a better product.

There is no recognition that the real failure is a failure of process. All year long, Ms. Zajac has been in charge--she prides herself on excellent discipline. All year long, Jimmy has heard her voice at his back, “Think, Jimmy, think.” He hasn’t heard her invite him to explore, take risks, find his own strengths. Neither Mr. Kidder nor Ms. Zajac asks whether the prefab curriculum she feels obligated to dish out gives 5th graders anything worth thinking about.

Mr. Kidder provides just one vignette of students being offered a choice, and it could make a turnip weep. In March, Ms. Zajac decides that the paper witches had better come down from the walls. She4drags an Easter bunny from the closet--ragged and creased from years of folding--and tells the children they can make anything they like, but if they want, they can use her bunny as a pattern for making more bunnies. She adds, “But art is only for the people who don’t owe me work.”

I also have a hard time warming up to a teacher who refers to herself in the third person: “Mrs. Zajac would like you to get to work,” she is quoted in the book as saying. “Mrs. Zajac knows you didn’t do your best work on this paper.” “Why do you think Mrs. Zajac calls on you? Do you think she cares if you learn?”

When a student misbehaves, she mutters, “Patience, Mrs. Zajac. Patience.” When the kids throw her a surprise party, she says, “Oh, my, didn’t Mrs. Zajac look surprised!” After 331 pages of this, I fully understand the concept of lower-back pain, feel a tingling sensation in my extremities, and worry that I’m developing a twitch.

One of the most likable things about Chris Zajac is that she reads aloud to her students every day, and when it’s time to stop, she lets them con her into a few more pages. But Mr. Kidder frustrates us by not once letting us peek over her shoulder to see the name of a book she enjoys--either inside or outside the classroom.

In House, we see what the carpenter reads: the professional journals as well as the 19th-century novels. The only glimpse we get of Ms. Zajac’s reading matter is “a thousand dollars’ worth of store-bought idea books for practically every contingency.” If this is the extent of her personal and professional reading, then shame on her. If it isn’t, then shame on Mr. Kidder.

Ms. Zajac and her colleagues rarely talk to each other at all and when they do talk, it’s about white sales rather than students or curriculum. Throughout the book, the teacher struggles with a student named Clarence, telling him if he doesn’t work, he can’t go to gym, can’t go to recess, can’t have art. Because of a rigid tracking system, Clarence is not in her reading or math class. But not once do we see her discussing Clarence’s progress with his other teachers. Three of her students go off to resource each day, but she has no idea what goes on there. She just grumbles that obviously resource isn’t producing miracles.

Ms. Zajac’s energetic style of correcting children’s speech is another thread running through the book. When a child says something like, ''mines is good,” she goes into action. In Mr. Kidder’s words, “She’d make herself look like a crazy person and pretend that she was going to run her nails down the chalkboard. She’d say, ‘Mine! Not mines!”’ He reckons it’s a funny performance. Maybe he should have asked the children what they thought. But in point of fact, nobody talks to the kids about much of anything. Certainly nobody listens to them.

We see this classroom through Tracy Kidder’s eyes, not Chris Zajac’s. The author spent an entire year with these 5th graders, missing just two days because of flu. But he did not enter that classroom empty-handed. He carried along heavy baggage.

His favorite book about education, Mr. Kidder writes, is a sociological study, Dan C. Lortie’s Schoolteacher (1975). If you read Mr. Lortie and then read Mr. Kidder, you cannot doubt that the former’s work, based on teacher interviews conducted in 1963, provides the schema on which Mr. Kidder builds his notion of the way an elementary school of the 80’s operates.

What he reports about Ms. Zajac’s classroom is filtered through Mr. Lortie’s findings: We get regularity and repetition (it may be boring, but it’s predictable); constant monitoring of student progress as evidence of effective instruction (lots of tests); student behavior conforming to a norm (some of the students spend a lot of time banished to the hall); lack of collegiality; low tolerance for distraction or spontaneity.

After spending a year with Ms. Zajac, Mr. Kidder concludes that “decades of research and reform have not altered the fundamental facts of teaching.” Maybe so. Certainly this Holyoke classroomel10llooks to be in a time warp from the 1950’s. But I’ve been in enough classrooms myself, been observed enough times myself, to know that what Mr. Kidder saw, and the spin he puts on what he saw, presents neither truth nor illumination about what it is that teachers do.

I guess I’m miffed because in his previous books Mr. Kidder went out and found computer engineers and carpenters who were creative, energetic, iconoclastic. He didn’t spend his time finding out how tract houses were put together. But now he gives us teachers who are, to use Mr. Lortie’s term, “bounded": rigid, ritualistic, obedient to petty authority, and parochial.

Mr. Kidder could have made different choices. What conclusions would he draw about Ms. Zajac and other teachers had he read David Hawkins, Frank Smith, and Donald Graves instead of Mr. Lortie, Diane Ravitch, and John I. Goodlad? What if he’d read A.S. Neill’s Dominie Books instead of the Digest of Education Statistics? If he had read Ned O’Gorman’s The Wilderness and the Laurel Tree--and visited Mr. O’Gorman’s school in Harlem--would he still insist that teachers are members of “an anomalous profession,” mere “hirelings of communities?”

Only one passage in the book indicates that either Mr. Kidder or Ms. Zajac is aware of educational trends of the 1980’s. There is an offhand reference to the “gurus” of “the so-called ‘process’ technique of teaching writing.”

If Mr. Kidder had talked to a few of the best and the brighest in teaching, read their publications, and witnessed the environment they help students create, maybe he wouldn’t be so quick to announce that administrative jobs are the only real form of professional advancement for teachers.

David Hawkins’s The Informed Vision (1974) does not appear on Mr. Kidder’s reading list, but if someone interested in schools had just one book to read, this should be it--and if he had time for just one essay, it should be “The Bird in the Window” by the same author. Mr. Hawkins reminds us that “there is an essential lack of predictability about what’s going to happen in a good classroom” because a teacher bases her “decisions on observation of the actual children in their actual situations, their actual problems, their actual interests, and the accidental things that happen along the way that nobody can anticipate.”

Mr. Hawkins points out that the best times in teaching “have always been the consequences of some little accident that happened to direct attention in some new way. ... Suddenly, there it is. The bird flies in the window and that’s the miracle you needed.”

But Mr. Kidder, filled with Mr. Lortie’s data about teacher reliance on blueprints and testing, sits in Ms. Zajac’s classroom for an entire year and does not report a single “little accident.” He notes that she enjoys preparing her lessons, and that for her a good day is when she gets through what she planned.

In House, he describes the ritual and mythology connected with house-building from Walden to The Golden Bough, to Lewis Mumford and Tom Wolfe. We read about everything that goes into the house, from four dozen sheets of sandpaper to 2,500 feet of tongue-and-groove red oak flooring. We know how many nails are hammered into that house, and we learn a bit of the history of nails. Mr. Kidder provides an insider’s view of both the craftsmanship and the economics involved in the choice of one4board over another to build the cornice.

The palpable stuff that fills classrooms is missing from Among Schoolchildren. We learn that Robert’s reading group “finally reached the end of the dreary 3rd-grade basal reader,” but we don’t know what kinds of stories he read or if that damning adjective is Mr. Kidder’s, Robert’s, or Ms. Zajac’s. A brief history of the politics and economics of basal reading systems might have done for Among Schoolchildren what nails did for House.

Ms. Zajac worries that a slow learner might not learn at all if she doesn’t “hurry up” and teach more. She suspects that Pedro is retarded but insists that he must take the same social-studies test as everybody else. Otherwise, how will she have “tangible evidence of progress or decline?” So her students slog along each day in basals they hate, workbooks they despise, a social-studies curriculum they don’t understand, and a science curriculum she doesn’t understand.

We don’t know who chose these books or curricula, or what would happen if she didn’t use them. She is presented as a teacher pretty much without choices and hence without craft.

There is one touching moment in the book--when Robert’s surprising and bedraggled participation in the science fair at the end of the year makes Ms. Zajac see in a flash “a Robert slightly different from the one she thought she’d known just a minute ago.”

For an instant, for the first time all year, she responds to Robert’s needs rather than to the mandated curriculum. Two hundred and eighty pages is a long wait for insight, but it is to Ms. Zajac’s credit that when this bird appears in her window, she doesn’t ignore it. She allows herself a moment of doubt. And for a teacher, that moment of doubt, that suspension of certainty, is worth 10,000 behavioral objectives. In that doubt, there is hope.

Teaching is ultimately an act of optimism. We teach because we think we can make a difference. But even the most expert of teacher-observers has to be quick to catch the fleeting moments of awakening and change.

Yet such is the stuff that motivates and sustains teachers--more than money, power, fame, or even career ladders. You can’t plan for such a moment; it won’t appear on a sociologist’s poll.

And just because Mr. Kidder doesn’t show us such moments in Chris Zajac’s class doesn’t mean they didn’t happen there. What he proves more than anything else is that, unlike house-building and computer design, education isn’t a spectator sport.

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 1989 edition of Education Week as Books