DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Teacher as Hero, Not Zero

Preach it, Brother Kozol
The accolades of the introduction were done. Today's most eloquent spokesmen for the disenfranchised. A nonstop battler for better education, especially for the poorest students in America. The author of 13 books championing social justice for all. Almost 50 years of pricking the conscience of readers by laying bare the savage inequalities inflicted upon children for no reason other than the accident of being born poor in the wealthiest nation on earth.

Jonathan Kozol, now in his 70s, strode to the microphone. He began with a question. "How many of you are teachers?" he asked the crowd that filled the meeting room at the Sidwell Friends School here in D.C. for the special book talk sponsored by Politics and Prose. Dozens and dozens of hands were raised. Kozol smiled. "I always feel safer when I am in a room with teachers. Teachers are my heroes. They get to be the best thing you can be in life."

Kozol comes by his admiration for teachers and the difficult job they do on a daily basis honestly. Before there was Jonathan Kozol, award-winning author, sought-after speaker, and indefatigable champion of social justice, there was Jonathan Kozol teacher.

Interestingly, Kozol never had designs on teaching and his formative years couldn't have been more different than those of the young students he has been writing about now for almost 5 decades. Kozol grew up a Jewish child of privilege. He attended an exclusive New England prep school, then Harvard University, where he studied classical literature with the great American poet Archibald McLeish. He received a Rhodes Scholarship to further his education at Oxford. He followed that by spending time in Paris with such noted authors as William Styron and Richard Wright. He was set for a life of academia and high-brow writing. And then came the Civil Rights movement.

"Many of us were transformed forever," he said. In the early 1960s, Kozol was living in Cambridge, just outside of Boston. One day, he decided to drive to a black section of Boston and see a minister friend of Martin Luther King. "I had never even been in a black community before," he said. "I went to the Reverend and asked Can I be of use?' He said 'of course, you can, young man. You don't have to go to Mississippi to find injustice in America.'"

Kozol decided to become a teacher in one of the poorest districts in inner-city Boston. "They gave me a kindergarten class. I had no idea what you do with people that size. Little people are very squirmy. They have only a theoretical connection to their chairs. But I survived and they promoted me to the 4th grade."

But Kozol's success in teaching was short lived. In 1964, appalled at the readings his all- black class was required to read, he brought in a poem by Langston Hughes and taught it. He was summarily fired for failing to follow the state-specified curriculum. He turned that incident into the basis for his first book, Death at an Early Age.

Today, one of Kozol's favorite topics is his distaste for the testing craze which is now so embedded into American schools. "There is this business-driven madness about things that can be numbered," he said. "Instead of giving kids beautiful books to read, we test, test, test. But pleasure can't be tested. You get no points for pleasure. But why else should kids' read? Teachers are teaching half the year how to outwit the test. It has nothing to do with learning. Excitement isn't on the 9th grade exam. It's as if if something can't be numbered, it doesn't count."

Kozol said his father was a psychiatrist and used to take him to some of the institutions where he was trying to help people cope. Kozol said he noticed that those with the most extreme problems were often reduced to simply counting things. "Maybe some of these bureaucrats we have today would enjoy a stay in the recovery room," he remarked, sparking laughter from much of the crowd.

Instead of testing, education should be promoting curiosity and questioning, Kozol claimed. "But we're told curiosity and questioning won't improve the scores. In fact, they will impede them. Kids in wealthier schools are taught to question. But our poor kids are just trained to spit out pre-digested answers and the (learning) gap gets greater."

Part of the problem with ending the testing culture is that there is so much money to be made. "People see an opportunity for unprecedented profits if they can invade the public sector and so they slap a punitive label on a child's forehead which is no help at all," Kozol said.

Kozol said he has little patience with the people who ask him - "well, Jonathan what would you do, just throw money at the problem? I tell them yes. Throw the money. Drop it from a helicopter. I'll take it to the schools myself. I don't know a better way than money to fix a roof or hire another teacher."

The author also blasted critics who blame teachers and students for the failures of urban education. "They say if these kids would buckle down and do their work and their teachers weren't so lazy, things would be better. But they have never even seen the conditions the kids are forced to live in. And when did teachers become the enemy?"

Even though Kozol said he would again vote for Barack Obama for president, he was disappointed that the president hadn't "taken more steps to rid us of this madness of testing. He is a brilliant orator. He could make a strong stand for teachers."

Just as he believed as a fledgling teacher in the 1960s, Kozol is still convinced that the way to inspire  kids to learn is through "meaningful, beautiful books." To drive home his point,  Kozol cited an encounter he had recently on a flight across the country. As he so often does, Kozol was reading a kids' book to check it out. The man seated next to him was reading the Wall Street Journal. But he kept sneaking a peek at what Kozol was reading. Finally, Kozol turned to his seatmate and said,"I'm sure what you're reading is interesting, but this book can save your soul."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Mr. Rogers in his neighborhood
Given his strong stance as an unceasing advocate for poor children  everywhere, it's no surprise that Kozol admired and was friends with Fred Rogers, who for years charmed children on his PBS show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Kozol told the Sidwell School crowd about one of his last sessions with Rogers, who died in 2003 of cancer. Kozol and Rogers had just finished a program together in New York and now Mr. Rogers wanted to visit one of the schools Kozol had written about. "I told him the best way to get there was by subway. You know, it's only about 8 minutes to get from the richest parts of Manhattan to some of the poorest parts of the Bronx. Fred was concerned that he might intimidate the children. But I thought - he's Mr. Rogers; I think we can handle it. After we got out of the subway, we were walking down the street, when a sanitation truck stopped, a big burly worker got out, ran up to Mr. Rogers, and just started hugging him. When we got to the school, the kids started squealing and the teachers were almost crying with delight. This one youngster came flying across the room like an airplane and wrapped his arms around Rogers. 'Welcome to my neighborhood, Mr. Rogers' he said. When Kozol first learned that Rogers had cancer, he said he tried to strike a bargain with God. I'm Jewish so we can do those things. I said, please God give him one more year. Then two more years." But eventually the kindliest man ever to appear on television died. Kozol used that incident in his closing. "My friends, we're all going to die. The old trees and the innocent children will outlive us all. We don't know how much time we have left, so we should all use it wisely."

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