Books Worth Remembering

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Some books about education never go stale.

For most of us, teaching is a craft without memory, and so we end up repeating ourselves. Recently, I reread some "teacher books" that have touched my life. This is not the first rereading. Since any book that matters will last a lifetime, with different sentences resonating at different times in our careers, each of these books contains underlinings, exclamations, quarrels, and commentaries from at least three previous readings. Significantly, none of these books was recommended to me by a professor of education I encountered during the 60-plus education units I've picked up over the past 20 years.

People who think that, say, William J. Bennett, Chester E. Finn Jr., Albert Shanker, the standardists, the collaborationists, or even the whole-language evangelists have given us startling new insights would do well to read Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd (Vintage, 1960). Utopians such as Mr. Goodman are out of fashion these days, but his decades-old examination of how the spiritual emptiness of our technological society wastes human resources, particularly the young, remains a milestone. Mr. Goodman points out, for example, that people objected to progressive education on the grounds that it "flouted the Western traditions, the three R's, Moral Decency, Patriotism, and the Respect for Authority." His letter to the New York commissioner of education, included in the book, nails the absurdity of lesson plans on the nose.

Today's teachers would do well to search in libraries for copies of Josephck Featherstone's Schools Where Children Learn (Liveright, 1971) and What Schools Can Do (Liveright, 1976). As well as offering a fine analysis of what schools can do, these books remind us that the big issues in education don't change much from one decade to the next. For starters, Mr. Featherstone predicted both the coming of the teacher-effectiveness mania and its shoddy content. "Teaching practice is so complex, and our modes of knowing about it so limited," he writes, "that it is difficult to believe that any emerging paradigms of technical knowledge will be anything but scientific mumbo jumbo, concealing their essential inadequacy under a veneer of statistical precision." Reading Jay Featherstone is a poignant reminder that today we teachers talk only to each other. Nobody else is listening. The fact that Mr. Featherstone, an education professor, was once a regular contributor to The New Republic reminds us that today there is no general-interest publication in America that takes education seriously.

I must admit that I did encounter one significant book in an education course. At 9:30 p.m., while sitting in the back row of an English methods course at Hunter College, I'd just finished a paperback thriller and wondered how I'd stay awake for another half hour. A classmate and I traded books. I definitely got the better part of the deal, because the classmate handed me Sylvia Ashton-Warner's Teacher (Simon & Schuster, 1963; 1986), in its own way a thrilling book.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner insists in this classic work that when words have no emotional significance for the beginning reader, they may do him more harm than not teaching him at all. Such words, she writes, will "teach him that words mean nothing and that reading is undesirable." Ms. Ashton-Warner helped me see why my teaching the required Silas Marner turned out so badly, and why I must promise myself never to do such a thing again.

Although I have been a reading teacher for much of my career, David Hawkins, one of the organizers of the Elementary Science Study, probably influenced my teaching more than anyone else. The Informed Vision (Agathon, 1974) is a collection of essays wherein Mr. Hawkins uses mathematics and science as a starting point for a practical, idealistic inquiry into the way children learn. He points to the "essential lack of predictability about what's going to happen in a good classroom ... because the teacher is basing his decisions on observation of the actual children in their actual situation, their actual problems, their actual interests, and the accidental things that happen along the way that nobody can anticipate." Mr. Hawkins advises us not to answer questions about, say, objectives, but to question the questions. He insists that one-month test results aren't of any interest, slyly adding that "[t]he seven-year test hasn't been made yet."

I reacted to James Herndon's The Way It Spozed To Be (Simon & Schuster, 1970) with an immediate shock of recognition. How was it that this veteran teacher on the outskirts of San Francisco knew so much about kids in upstate New York? Mr. Herndon's ability to describe the way it is as well as the way it is "spozed" to be convinced me of two important facts: I wasn't nuts and neither were my students. From him, I learned to relax a bit, to stand back and look for the natural rhythm of a class, to build on that rhythm and give the kids some time to organize themselves. James Herndon also helped me appreciate a no-nonsense black colleague from my early teaching days named Sylvia. It was Sylvia who ended up organizing the most difficult 7th graders in the school, kids who tested on less than a 4th-grade reading level, into what folks today would call a shared-reading group. Each day, she would permit a few minutes of horsing around, but within five minutes, she usually had her students sitting at a table together reading Soul Brothers and Sister Lou. Mr. Herndon writes of similar efficiency among his tribe of students, observing that not even "an experienced teacher with a machine gun" could organize them to read a book as efficiently as they organized themselves.

In "Twelve Easy Ways To Make Learning To Read Difficult," Frank Smith says the teacher must respond to what the child is trying to do.

In How Children Fail (Pitman, 1964), John Holt points out that "[m]ost children in school fail." Then he asks, "Why? What really goes on in classrooms? What are these children doing?" His answers are timeless, compelling, and instructive. I love his observation that the popular primary-grade adage hung on so many classroom walls, "When two vowels go out walking, the first one does the talking," has some problems. There are two pairs of vowels in that sentence, both of which violate the rule. This knocked my socks off, because by the time I had sat through all the night-school courses and cut through all the red tape to receive my permanent certificate as a secondary English teacher, my school district appointed me remedial-reading teacher in grades 1-4. Nobody but me seemed to care that I was singularly unqualified for this job, but I decided I'd better find out what reading teachers were "spozed" to do.

My sister, a certified reading teacher, sent me a big box of textbooks. I read all of them, with their insistence that "setting up a sequential curriculum is the first step toward effective diagnosis," with their ugly terminology, their "mediated word identification," their claims to scientific formulae, their factor analysis, indecipherable graphs, 16 rules for syllabification, diphthongs, and schwas, and I knew I'd never make it as a real reading teacher. John Holt gave me the clue that some of this esoterica might have very little practical use.

Then I encountered Frank Smith's "Twelve Easy Ways To Make Learning To Read Difficult" (since reprinted in Essays Into Literacy; Heinemann, 1983), which gives me and every other person of strong heart the license to chart our own course--if we dare. Mr. Smith says the teacher must respond to what the child is trying to do. And, he cautions, this is no cinch. He insists it is a very difficult step to take, one requiring "insight, tolerance, sensitivity, and patience; it demands an understanding of the nature of reading, a rejection of formulae, less reliance on tests, and more receptivity to the child."

In The Wilderness and the Laurel Tree (Harper, 1972), Ned O'Gorman's advice is similar. "A teacher will learn about children by watching them first of all; not by reading about them or talking to experts about them." Mr. O'Gorman tells us to "[s]it down now and then watch the children," writing down what we see. Then, he advises, we should take our notes home and think about what we have seen. Ned O'Gorman, a poet and Harlem principal, is no pie-in-the-sky theorist but a practical idealist. He can say in one breath, "I killed another 500 cockroaches this morning," and in the next proclaim, "[t]eaching is a joyous, exhilarating task."

Although I am not a particular fan of the classic A.S. Neill work, Summerhill, I could love Mr. Neill forever for his Dominie Books (Herbert Jenkins, 1915; Hart Publishers, 1975). First published in 1915, these three books give us a front-line account of the everyday problems of a young teacher. We see how a teacher develops a philosophy and how that philosophy helps him withstand the pressures to conform and standardize his curriculum, pressures exerted by his peers and his supervisors.

While relishing Mr. Neill's one-line zingers, we also see how universal the genuine issues of education are. For example, he curses the prevailing utilitarianism of education, tossing out math books full of problems of the how-much-will-it-take-to-paper-a-room type. In 1915, Mr. Neill insisted that "[a]rithmetic is an art, not a science," rejecting problems that "smell strongly of materialism, problems that appeal to the mechanical part of a bairn's brain instead of to the imagination."

Not all the "teacher books" I treasure are written for or by teachers. Take, for example, those by Edward Abbey, who exhorts us all to remember that "[o]ne brave deed is worth a thousand books." Teachers, by profession and personality often a polite, even passive, lot, would do well to read Mr. Abbey's outrageous books. Iconoclast and gadfly, as well as by nature a conservative man, Edward Abbey argues for open spaces and individual eccentricity. He works hard at inflaming his readers "with malice aforethought," as he says, against "armies of government and greed." Deliberately subversive, complaining that we have yielded too much too easily to machines and money, he points out that measurement and analysis do not equal understanding. He recounts a story of Beethoven that teachers should remember when called upon by some bureaucrat to "demonstrate that learning has taken place." When asked to explain the meaning of one of his sonatas, Beethoven is said to have simply sat down at the piano and played it through again.

Teachers who feel the pressure to use the advice of corporate America would do well to read Pultizer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam's The Reckoning.

Teachers who feel the pressure to use the advice of corporate America would do better to read Pultizer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam's The Reckoning than an analysis of the worldwide math scores of all 5th graders or William Bennett's exhortations on morality or the standards documents that are proliferating faster than dustballs. In compelling and fascinating detail, Mr. Halberstam uses the story of the rise and decline of the U.S. auto industry as a paradigm for our national attitudes about work, money, power, and ethics. This is a must read for any teacher who is tired of being blamed for the national debt, the balance-of-trade deficit, welfare, or plantar's warts. And it is as readable and engrossing as a summer novel.

I recommend to teachers all books by Wendell Berry, a poet, farmer, and teacher who speaks for the accountability of language and for deeds faithful to words. If we "stand by our words," says Mr. Berry, then we must speak in specifics about this child and this curriculum. When we are unable to stand by our words, we speak in abstractions, making use of the slippery language of public relations and standards documents. Wendell Berry talks of the need for profound change, and, as he says, we must not wait for "other people" to bring about this change. One person, he insists, "can begin it in himself and in his household [read "classroom" here] as soon as he is ready--by becoming answerable to at least some of his own needs, by acquiring skills and tools, by learning what his real needs are, by refusing the glamorous and the frivolous." Wendell Berry, poet and fellow teacher, reminds us that "good teaching is an investment in the minds of the young, as obscure in result, as remote from immediate proof as planting a chestnut seedling. ..."

Teachers can learn more about the wonderful resilience (and stubbornness) of children from reading Max Apple's "Stranger at the Table" and "Bridging" (collected in Free Agents; Harper 1984) and Roommates (Warner, 1994) than from a score of courses in educational psychology. Mr. Apple draws on his own childhood and his experiences as a single parent for his poignant, hilarious, and ultimately profound stories.

Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life is an autobiographical account of a boy who, by the time he is done writing his own letters of recommendation to prep school on pilfered high school letterhead, has just about convinced himself that he is an Eagle Scout and a champion diver, even though his school doesn't have a swimming pool. As Mr. Wolff puts it, "We listened without objection to stories of usurped nobility that grew in preposterous intricacy with every telling. But we did not feel as if anything we said was a lie. We both believed that the real lie was told by our present unworthy circumstances." This is the story of a boy who is peculiar, sneaky, obstreperous, and a liar. And every teacher with any heart will be rooting for him all the way--and taking another look at her peculiar, sneaky, obstreperous students.

We teachers could wish for more good books in our faculty rooms and administrative offices. Moreover, we need to remind members of the august commissions on excellence in education and the writers of standards of Sylvia Ashton-Warner, James Herndon, David Hawkins, John Holt, Tobias Wolff's This Boy, and Max Apple's grandfather. We need to exhort them to read more and talk less.

Susan Ohanian, a long-time teacher, writes for a variety of publications, ranging from Washington Monthly to Phi Delta Kappan to USA Today. Her latest book is titled Ask Ms. Class (Stenhouse).

Vol. 16, Issue 02

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