January 01, 1996 4 min read

THE PASSIONATE TEACHER: A Practical Guide, by Robert Fried. (Beacon Press, $20.) “To be a passionate teacher is to be someone in love with a field of knowledge,’' Fried, a former teacher and principal, writes in his opening sentence, “deeply stirred by issues and ideas that challenge our world, drawn to the dilemmas and potentials of the young people. . . .’' It may all sound a bit too much, but it’s undeniably true: A teacher armed with technique but no love for his or her subject and craft is but a clerk in an airless room. Sterility is the ultimate enemy of a healthy school life; in its fallow ground nothing can thrive but patches of boredom and recklessness. Fried, now an associate professor of education at the University of Hartford, convinces us of the value of passion by actually taking us into classrooms where teachers dissolve student disinterest not with “tricks’’ but rather with an authentic commitment to what and who they are teaching. These “passionate’’ teachers don’t so much teach, say, biology, as they do treat their students as amateur biologists; they get their students embarked upon a quest. This said, I must also confess to having reservations about some of the classrooms depicted here. They are busy places in the progressive mode, so busy that it sometimes seems as if passion is being confused with relentless activity. Here students are always teaching, or connecting, or designing, or composing; there seems to be little room for reflection. “Students in motion tend to stay in motion,’' the author writes approvingly of one busy classroom, adding that “a spectator is passive, able to drift off or daydream.’' This statement reflects a tendency among progressive educators to confuse sitting inertly--stillness--with passivity. An education that shuns all “drifting off’’ and “daydreaming’’ in the name of what the teacher calls “forward momentum’’ is as guilty in its own way of stifling creativity as the regimented traditional education to which it is a proposed alternative. So let’s have passion, yes, but let it be passion that allows a little time for quiet contemplation.

COMING OF AGE: The True Adventures of Two American Teens, by G. Wayne Miller. (Random House, $22.) Basically, Coming of Age is a simple story about a bunch of high school kids in a New England town, two of whom fall head over heels in love. But the very simplicity of the story is its virtue, for it reassures us that youthful innocence endures against all odds. Yes, an unsavory mass media expose adolescents to far too much, steeping them in a sex-laden culture, but for all the temptations (to which they sometimes fall prey), these are still, by and large, good kids who enjoy Pajama Day and the homecoming dance. If anything seems to define this generation as portrayed by Miller, it is a spirit of irreverence, which sometimes threatens to become sheer cynicism. Senior Dave Bettencourt, the book’s central figure, edits an underground newspaper--called Total Godhead--that is frequently as tasteless as it is vicious; “play with a chain saw’’ is its message to the school’s obnoxious drinking crowd. But the paper is often witty and perceptive, too, showing us that irreverence is far from all bad; it enables these teens to see through all kinds of false pieties. Besides, Dave, like his pals, is a good guy in all the important ways: loyal to his friends, studious when challenged by good teachers, and faithful to his girlfriend whom he treats with kindness and respect. Miller has gone to the front lines and brought back some good news: The kids of today have a lot more going for them than we jaded elders sometimes think.

SPEAKING OF READING, by Nadine Rosenthal. (Heinemann, $23.95.) In this Studs Terkel-like oral history, 77 readers--famous and ordinary, voracious and reluctant--talk about the familial, social, and psychological forces that have shaped their reading lives. One somewhat obvious but crucial theme quickly emerges: The most dedicated readers had parents who were dedicated readers themselves. Growing up among books, it seems, inoculated them as children against all the look-and-see Dick-and-Jane nonsense that so drains reading of life. Luckier yet were those whose parents read aloud to them well beyond the kindergarten years. As the recently retired newscaster Robert MacNeil tells Rosenthal, “A child between 5 and 10 is capable of understanding all sorts of great books if they are read to him.’' (MacNeil’s mother read him Dickens.) Frustrated readers, on the other hand, typically grew up in the television’s blue glow; they find it hard in adulthood to give reading the deep attention it requires.

Frustrated and moderate readers alike are utterly baffled by addicted readers; they think reading in excess isolates people from their families and friends. While the narratives in Speaking of Reading show that no two readers are alike--some read for information, others for spiritual sustenance--many report that they first began reading in response to an emotional crisis; books are, as one woman puts it, “a way to hold up my life before me so I can examine it.’' The message to teachers is explicit: Give your students books that reflect their own concerns, dilemmas, and hopes.

--David Ruenzel

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Books