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March 01, 2004 5 min read

One Season in a Progressive School
by Elizabeth Gold
(Tarcher, 336 pages, $24.95)

So many books have been written about teacher-heroes that they constitute a genre all their own. Typically, they feature a charismatic outsider who reaches students long considered unreachable; the classic case is that of legendary math teacher Jaime Escalante, who taught the intricacies of calculus to his students from the barrios of Los Angeles.

Elizabeth Gold, the author of this devastating if often hilarious memoir, turns the genre on its head. If Escalante is Prometheus Unbound, the divine teacher who brings the gift of knowledge to his students, Gold, an admittedly poor teacher, is a lame Icarus who flies but a few feet off the ground before crashing to earth.

A cash-strapped poet, Gold begins teaching freshman English at the pseudonymous School of the New Millennium as a midyear replacement, hoping to earn some money while inspiring students with her love of literature. Instead, she’s quickly overwhelmed by adolescents who seem determined to torment her and each other. A group of boys incessantly chant “homo, homo, homo” at one another; girls shout “I hate you” at Gold; and many kids tear up the behavior contract she’s written for them and their parents.

Things do not improve over the course of the semester. While Gold does connect with a few students—mostly immigrants shocked by the rudeness of the native-born—the majority are in a state of permanent indignation. One girl, upset about her richly deserved failing grades, coolly tells Gold, “We are going to get you fired, Elizabeth.” When Gold tries to get the students roused over the Amadou Diallo verdict—several police officers had just been acquitted after having shot the defenseless African multiple times—they express interest for a couple days before once again lapsing into routine hostility.

The surprising thing about all this student anger and indifference is that the school Gold calls New Millennium was intended to be a new kind of public institution—a K-12 progressive school of 500 students where each child is a valued member of the “family.” This gospel of family, regularly preached by the principal, causes Gold to reflect: “If this is a family, this is not my family....It’s the family with the son who prowls the neighborhood at night, strangling cats.”

Brief Intervals gets much of its ironic power from its exploration of the gap between the lofty idealism the school espouses and the everyday realities of life. While the school’s mission is “developing New York’s leaders of the future,” most of its students are followers, afraid to break away from the oppressive cliques to which they belong. And while school leaders speak of every child having “a voice,” Gold deftly notes that the only people “who do not have a voice are the teachers.”

In fact, the further we read, the more we wonder if the chatter we’ve heard over the years about “visionary new schools” isn’t just sloganeering. At New Millennium (named in one publication as one of the city’s best schools), tag lines like “Never damage a child’s self-esteem” seem like a cover for mass enablement. The teachers, overattentive to students’ wants, are hesitant to exercise authority, and the kids know it; hence “speaking their minds” often becomes whining, and “working independently,” doing little of anything.

As the book ends and Gold is about to leave her students behind forever (yes, she quits after only one semester), she finally loses her temper and shouts at a girl who has just told her to “kiss my ass.” There is initial silence and then, to Gold’s surprise, raucous applause from the other students. It is Gold’s one heroic moment, but it’s too little, too late.

Teaching and Learning in Troubled Times

by Herbert Kohl
(New Press, 160 pages, $22.95)

Herb Kohl, the venerable author and progressive educator who now heads a teacher education program at the University of San Francisco, is, in this collection of compelling essays, mostly concerned with what he calls “institutionally induced stupidity.” Kohl is not writing about a lack of intelligence here but about something that happens to teachers, especially good ones, when they’re forced to act in ways that run “counter to the work they must do to help their students.”

The examples are abundant in an age of ever more mandates. Kohl offers the case of a gifted teacher ordered by his administration to follow to the letter the script of the Open Court Reading program, even though it meant neglecting the most creative aspects of the teacher’s curriculum. Such educators can stay and feel frustrated to the point of tears, or they can, as this one did, leave the profession.

While Kohl does an excellent job of sketching the dilemmas of progressive educators working in an increasingly rigid and top-down system, he does little here in terms of offering solutions. Teachers in his program, for instance, study works by such leftist educators as Paulo Freire and William Ayres. But how are they going to feel when they begin teaching in California schools with an elaborate testing and accountability system? Sadly, one can only imagine more stupidity and tears.

Enhancing Public Education and Freeing Family Time

By John Buell
(Temple, 176 pages, $16.95)

Buell’s earlier book, the controversial The End of Homework, landed him and co-author Etta Kralovec on talk shows across the United States. In his new book, Buell, a columnist for the Bangor Daily News, expands on many of the same arguments, explaining that homework interferes with play and family time, places an unjust burden on poorly educated parents who find it difficult to help, and does little to improve student skills.

As a parent who’s fought his own homework battles, I can accept some of Buell’s arguments as reasons to limit homework. But Buell doesn’t want to just limit the practice—he wants to abolish it altogether. And the logic behind the proposed ban is often specious. He acknowledges, for instance, that students who do more homework get better grades and test scores, but then denies that homework necessarily improves academic performance. (Do grades and test scores mean nothing?) And while it’s certainly true that homework places a greater burden on less- educated parents, so does everything else in life.

Buell also makes a number of peculiar assumptions, arguing in the area of foreign language, for instance, that “practicing vocabulary and pronunciation at home in fact can entrench mistakes.” But such drill, anyone who has studied languages knows, is indispensable to mastery. Here, as in many other places, it seems that Buell simply hasn’t done his homework.

—David Ruenzel


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