'So, What Do I Do? I'm a Teacher'

In the Classroom: Dispatches from an inner-city school that works

By Mark Gerson

Free Press

258 pp., $23

'In the Classroom" has the feel of a long dinner-table conversation in which teacher and author Mark Gerson tells a distant relative or friend what he's been up to during the past year. The friend asks Gerson's opinion about race, in light of his recent teaching experience. Gerson's answers and examples lead the two to discuss religion, politics, and immigration.

By the end, Gerson has won his conversation partner's trust and makes more concrete suggestions about what he feels the nation must do to improve education.

Only in his 20s and after just one year of teaching, Gerson asks tough questions about some of the most pressing concerns in education today: To teach standard grammar in the schools, or not? To use a curriculum that imparts knowledge or one that instills skills? How to best educate inner-city students in light of the breakdown of their lives outside the classroom?

His answers bring these issues to life and turn them into an enjoyable read. He includes no checklist and few overt statements about what works and what doesn't. He simply catalogues impressions and lessons learned and corrects misconceptions the public has of inner-city students.

The text is broken into topical chapters such as "Discipline," "History," and "O.J." Each is a mixture of the inner-city youths' opinions on related issues (affirmative action, for instance, in the chapter on race); ground Gerson gained in his year of teaching (in "Discipline," he tells how he learned the hard way of the importance of fairness in punishment); and indirect insights into what's wrong with America's school policy.

The writing breaks free from the jargon that chokes much of what is written about education, instead offering a book full of anecdotes and quotes from his lovable and insightful students. It allows the reader to become an on-site observer of his 10th-grade history classes.

The life stories of Gerson's students are the most captivating aspect of the book and are likely to linger in the memories of readers, humanizing the often abstract debates on education. Readers come away feeling that Shanquilla, Walt, Charles, and the many other students and faculty at St. Luke High School have much to teach them about what is necessary to create successful inner-city education - and that these voices go unheard far too often in the nation's debates on the subject.

There is the story of Anita, who had to give up her position as lead counsel on a statewide mock trial team in order to go to work at a movie theater to support her brother. Charles, who became distracted in class because of the fear that his brother would be raped in prison. And Shanquilla, whose mother died of AIDS two days before her exams.

"In the Classroom" is a timely, much needed contribution to the nation's heated debate about its schools.

* Christina Nifong is a Monitor staff writer.

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