Education Letter to the Editor

Letters to the Editor

October 04, 1989 4 min read

To the Editor:

Susan Ohanian says Tracy Kidder “lays an egg” with his depiction of Chris Zajac’s classroom in Among Schoolchildren (“Searching for the ‘Soul’ of a Classroom,” Books, Sept. 6, 1989).

The problem, she thinks, is that in searching for the “soul” of a classroom, Mr. Kidder picked a loser.

It is precisely this fact--that we’re not given a view of, say, Nancie Atwell’s classroom--that gave the book meaning for me.

As a reading and writing consultant, I spend four out of every five days in classrooms exactly like Ms. Zajac’s. I’m astounded by Ms. Ohanian’s lack of insight into Mr. Kidder’s brilliant decision not to go out in search of a teacher she might call a “winner.”

All of us need a clearer view of what’s happening, and why, in American schools. The fact that we don’t like what we see is no reason to close our eyes.

Unlike Ms. Ohanian, I found in Mr. Kidder’s book many truths and insights about “what it is that teachers do":

The lack of collegiality in Ms. Zajac’s school is not rare at all. Many teachers who want to talk in school lounges about their profession simply don’t. The reasons include exhaustion, the need for distance, and the fear of seeming too innovative or energetic in a time of great turmoil and overload for all teachers.

Many classrooms, not just Ms. Zajac’s, seem as inviting as a trip to the irs auditor. The teacher-centered, workbook-laden classroom is ubiquitous, and to deny it is to resist a shake-up.

As in Ms. Zajac’s room, patterned art is everywhere, and the tradition of art after work is alive and well in many of the classrooms I’ve seen.

Decades of research and reform, as Mr. Kidder writes, have not altered the fundamental facts of teaching. Even Donald Graves laments the fact that too few children in this country have the opportunity to write daily--perhaps 7 percent.

There are many teachers like Ms. Zajac who are not monsters but professionals in the midst of change who go, for the most part, unnoticed.

Because Ms. Ohanian is locked into her viewpoint about Among Schoolchildren, she doesn’t remember that Chris Zajac read Lucy Calkins’s The Art of Teaching Writing during her summer vacation and then encouraged her children to choose their own topics, write more than one draft of a paper, and conference.

There were several references to “the so-called ‘process’ technique of teaching writing,” not just the one “offhand reference” Ms. Ohanian claims. One need simply flip through the book and note all the children’s journal entries.

And Ms. Ohanian does not mention that Ms. Zajac tossed out those “store-bought idea books.”

Many teachers who seem “bounded” are not. Real change comes slowly, often in small, silent moments. Ms. Zajac’s positive response to an angry essay written by Jimmy after she caught him with a book report copied from the description on the book’s cover illustrates such a moment.

Getting inside children’s neighborhoods and visiting their homes holds great benefit for all. Mr. Kidder’s view of the homes, cultures, trials, and small celebrations of Ms. Zajac’s children, and of her trip to Puerto Rico gave me a sense of what I’d do to change things in her classroom. Ms. Zajac gathers information, too, and uses it in many of her moves throughout the book.

Some critics of teachers--perhaps including Ms. Ohanian--8don’t recognize the plots of some of the most famous books in children’s literature. Ms. Ohanian complains that Mr. Kidder doesn’t tell us the names of the books Ms. Zajac is reading, but what educator wouldn’t recognize From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? In the context of Mr. Kidder’s allusions to these books, the titles aren’t important.

The President’s education summit may accomplish something if the participants read Among Schoolchildren and realize that many teachers teach the way they were taught, or the way they were taught to teach their first time around--and that solving such problems will take commitment, time, and money.

Things might change if the participants realize many children come to school exhausted, undernourished, and smelling of urine because they were too afraid to get up in the night to go to the bathroom and too poor to change their underwear. Our President and many of our state legislators haven’t seen much of this first hand, and, like Ms. Ohanian, might prefer to “get the inside dope on a winner.”

And things might change if all of us--politicians, educators, and parents--admit what needs to be changed, but at the same time celebrate change more often.

Mr. Kidder has not screamed, as other authors before him have; he has left the screaming to us. I think this is the better of the two scenarios.

Ruth Nathan
Oakland University
Rochester, Mich.

To the Editor:

In reading your article on Connecticut’s Beginning Educator Support and Training program (“In Connecticut, Moving Past Pencil and Paper,” Sept. 13, 1989), I was struck by how familiar the assessment sounded.

After some thinking, I realized it was almost the same as one that we developed in the early 1970’s in Livonia, Mich.

Our purpose was to identify “observable traits of effective teaching"--to establish a spectrum of observable performance, with an eye to making the “traits” objective and useful to the teacher, and to create a clear guideline for the evaluator.

I do not know whether the program is still used, but I can say it did not take all the money Connecticut paid. And the district could not afford the intensive training the best program offers.

It will be interesting to hear how the affected teachers feel.

Robert G. Crumpton
Executive Secretary
Oregon Education Association
Tigard, Ore.

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 1989 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor