'A battle for the soul of education'

Through letters to a first-year urban teacher, Jonathan Kozol hopes to rally a new generation of educators.

I wonder if urban teachers await each new book by Jonathan Kozol as eagerly as their students anticipated the latest Harry Potter. After all, Kozol casts a light on their classrooms that make them seem places of magic and mystery where each small victory against shadowy forces is to be celebrated.

Kozol has had a cult following in the education world ever since 1967 when he wrote "Death at an Early Age," a searing tale of his experience as a first-year teacher in an urban classroom. But never before has he addressed teachers as directly as he does in Letters to a Young Teacher, based on letters he wrote to a new teacher he calls Francesca, who welcomed him to her first-grade classroom in Boston – the city where he began teaching 40 years earlier.

Kozol has made a career of advocating for inner-city students. He has observed their schools, spent time with their teachers and families, and told their stories to the world. Those stories, intertwined with his own, inform his trenchant critique of an educational system that continues to segregate children and relegate low-income minorities to overcrowded, underfunded classrooms.

Now he's making his battle cry even more explicit, urging young teachers to take a stand if they, too, see injustice in their students' lives. But his weapons of choice are peaceful ones – the teachers' own creativity and their commitment to nurturing their students' sense of delight.

In one chapter he tells about a teacher who could calm her rowdy classroom by putting her fingers to her mouth as if playing a flute; the children knew the signal and did likewise, dancing with her to an imaginary tune. Then Kozol holds a mirror up to Francesca's own classroom, recalling how excited her students were to track the status of their loose teeth on a chart she had made with categories such as "Wiggly," "Wobbly," and "Out!"

In another chapter he takes on the high-stakes testing environment. He laments the way the language of the business world has crept in, so that school mission statements treat children as products who have to be prepared to take their place in a competitive global marketplace. "Childhood does not exist to serve the national economy," he declares. "In a healthy nation, it should be the other way around."

Editing his letters into book chapters – and including some composites from other young teachers' classrooms – does help to create a message that works for a larger readership. But the format of the book is at times distracting. It feels contrived, leaving the reader to wonder which parts were Kozol's actual, spontaneous words to Francesca and which were crafted for the benefit of a wider audience. It's also disappointing to know Francesca only through Kozol's response.

Still, it is a privilege to glimpse the joy and struggles within her classroom. In his letters, Kozol urges Francesca to hold on to her somewhat rebellious spirit, reminding her that the nation's most vulnerable students need teachers who aren't afraid to be honest about the injustices they face. Too many schools have children chant slogans like, "If it is to be, it's up to me," leaving the adults and the systems they create off the hook.

Francesca's first year includes its triumphs. At the beginning of the school year, one student was so distracting to others that Francesca reluctantly seated him alone at a table. By Kozol's next visit, Dobie was sitting near the blackboard, beginning to participate. But it was after Francesca stopped by his house that the trust began to build.

Soon he started writing about his turbulent life and his father in prison. She needed to correct his grammar, but the opening was there, and by Christmas, he wrote to tell her, "I think yur wunder full."

Kozol praises Francesca for her patient persistence, describing such challenges as a "complicated mysterious duet between a teacher and a very vulnerable child." Had she had more than 20 children in her class, as urban teachers often do, the story could have been very different for Dobie.

Kozol wants us to know these stories because he believes "a battle is beginning for the soul of education." And this new generation of teachers, he tells Francesca, "must be its ultimate defenders."

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo is the Monitor's education reporter.

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