The often unheard story of our public schools


Sometimes I need to get out of my adult world and go talk with some young people. I am especially intrigued by what boys and girls think about reading, writing, ethical issues and literature. So for me, to sit at a table in the conference room at Lucy Laney with fifth graders Antiquita Flint, De’Leon Gardner, Jennifer Decoteau, Carlito Shaw ,Darryl Rollins and their teacher Kelsey Oakes was not just a privilege; it was a delight. We spent an hour talking about books: the structure of novels, stories that capture real lives, stories that are set in future worlds or in Harry Potter’s time.  We talked about movies vs. books, long books vs. short books, black- authored books vs those written by whites.

Since the fall, these students and the rest of their classmates, had been given the job of reading parts of books and looking at the back cover summary to rate each book. They were to decide whether a book should go into one of three categories: “Purchase”, “Maybe Purchase “and Don’t Recommend” purchasing.  These students acted as advisors to their teacher, Ms. Oakes, who would use their recommendations when picking books for her classroom library. An anonymous donor would pay for the books chosen. All the books were written by black authors or had black characters as the main protagonist.

Lucy Laney fifth graders used words like “relatable” in describing whether they could connect to the story. They talked about the way some books are sad at the very end and how hard these are to read. They mentioned that books that presented problems were good because “we all have problems and it is good to see how others deal with them”. It is like science, Carlito said: “You read a hypothesis at the beginning of the book and see if a solution comes true in the end.” They liked books about people who do good things in the world. They did not like ones that focused on spending money. They were fine with books that depicted the system as unfair, because it related to their lives and “because life itself is unfair.”

Books could be better than movies because it makes you use your imagination to read. One young man, Darryl, was imagining a device where you read a chapter in a book and then once done with it, could click on a button and see a movie clip of what you had just read. Others said it was better for you to read the book all at once.

I asked if it mattered to them whether it mattered to them if a book was written by a black author or white author. They all agreed that they liked books by white authors too. Many were reading Harry Potter or the Hunger Games series. Yet they said that it did matter if someone was writing about real events that they could connect with, and that some black authors might understand their lives in a certain way that helped them connect.

I came away from this day in the middle of the winter with renewed appreciation, not only for the serious and well informed students, and not only for their remarkable third year teacher. I came away with renewed hope in the whole complex, crazy, wild endeavor that is public schooling. We hear enough stories about the times that things go wrong. In my day it was a beating at a high school where I worked. This past week it was a riot in the lunchroom at another city school. It is, however, in the day by day conversations, discussions, silent reading, mini lectures, small group activities, parent calls and constant re-evaluation of methods and lesson planning, classroom structure and after school help, where the true story of education can be seen. I understand, as I always do when I go into buildings, why teachers become impatient with those who have never taught in an overcrowded school, or who have never spent every day working in a building that expands its reach in order to help kids in poverty, or even who have never taught in any environment, who claim to be “experts”, sure they have the magic bullet, the “quick fix” for public education. Often such people discount the effects of poverty or racism or inequity of resources and focus on some new technique for discipline or some test prep strategy.

Having stopped teaching over twelve years ago I feel my own lack of connection to the work of being with students each day. It is with great humility that I offer whatever insights I have and with gratitude for teachers’ attention. There is no quick fix. There is no one group that is responsible for failure when students don’t learn. There are no tests that measure the true worth of a teacher’s contribution to a child’s life. To denigrate unions who try and get decent wages and working conditions for those who do this tough work is unfathomable to me. To miss the connection between small classes, decent health care, fair evaluations and excellent student achievement is short sighted. It is not a matter of either/or: either students first or teachers first. It is both first, both respected and both given what they need to achieve.

Spending time with Ms. Oakes’ students, brought so much back: the long days, the high when a teaching day clicks along and kids are learning, the lows when you doubt your own wisdom, and the plateaus when you work hard simply because you believe and love your students’ brilliance and you sense it is coming together.  I know from my years in the classroom that public education is one of the most complex institutions and teaching one of the most rewarding jobs. Teaching is also a job that cannot be understood completely unless you have done it, unless you have taught those children or young men and women before you on a March day, when you have a cold, your car won’t start and the students are restless for spring, just as you are. It cannot be understood from the distanced position of observer, from the point of view of tourist, dropping in for a year or two and then moving on. I believe that teaching can best be understood from the point of view of those who have successfully taught for some years, those who are in it for the long haul. 

Not only do teachers see the things that work for students, they see what needs to change. Ask them.  And ask Antiquita, De’Leon, Jennifer, Carlito and Darryl.

Ask their parents what they want for their kids. Ask the principal and the secretary and the building engineer. In each school you will hear a multitude of responses. And that is as it should be, isn’t it? Each neighborhood, each human being coming through that door has his or her own complexity of mood and song, experience and sorrow. Before prescribing, before insisting, before knowing, take some time.

Take a look at what is working, what individual classroom, with its gathering of twenty, thirty or even forty students is doing that is bringing success. It will take a while. If you are lucky, and leave pre-conceived notions at the door before you enter, you may get to hear Carlito compare reading a novel to the exploration of a hypothesis. You may get to hear Antiquita and Jennifer describe to you why stories that end sad are hard for them to finish. De’Leon and Darryl might describe why they like to read about stories that take them back in the days of racism. If you are lucky you will see a gifted teacher who gives students their voice, runs a structured class and works long hours because she believes in her students’ brilliant ideas. It is all there. Take the time.