Monday, July 20, 2015

On Re-reading Jonathan Kozol

    The above tweet from Elham Kazemi, linking me with Jonathan Kozol, is the source of profound feelings of honor and humility.  It turns out that Jonathan Kozol, and his book Death at an Early Age,  played an important and formative role in my development as a teacher.
    Death at an Early Age was written when Kozol was 28 years old.  It describes his experience teaching fourth grade during the 1964-1965 school year at Christopher Gibson Elementary, which was located between the struggling Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods in the city of Boston. The book was published in 1967, and in 1968 it won the National Book Award.
     Elham's tweet inspired me to dig out my copy:

My edition, from 1985, carried a "20 years later" epilogue from Kozol.  I had picked it up on the recommendation of one of my education professors at the University of Arizona.

   Although I knew its exact spot on my bookshelf, I hadn't opened it in 30 years.  And while I couldn't remember details, I did recall that it had a tremendous effect on me.  I was a pre-service teacher at the time, pursuing a path somewhat at odds with family expectations, and if I needed any validation that I had chosen the right career, reading this book convinced me that I had made the correct choice.  What would it be like to read it again, 30 years later, with 30 years of teaching  behind me?  I had to find out.
   Kozol's description of his experience at this inner-city elementary school is powerful and heartbreaking.  Institutional racism, crumbling infrastructure (a bank of windows collapses into his classroom, narrowly missing a student's head), corporal punishment, outdated textbooks, overcrowding (some classes reach 40 students, others are held in a urine-smelling basement or squeezed into hallways, and Kozol teaches his class with three others running simultaneously in the auditorium), and a revolving door of substitutes (one class has 7 in 10 days) are all described in harrowing detail.
     In an attempt to reach his students with something meaningful, Kozol reads them a Langston Hughes poem called "Ballad of the Landlord".  They are spellbound.  Some ask for copies of the poem to take home and memorize.  But with just 8 days left before the school year is scheduled to finish, Kozol is called into the principal's office and informed that he is being fired for "curriculum deviation".  He is asked to leave the school grounds without saying goodbye to his students.  The poem is not in the approved grade four "Course of Study".
    Jonathan Kozol's experience inspired him to explore the nexus of poverty and education, and he continued to report on, write about, and advocate for children in the most distressed corners of our country.  In 1991, after reading his book Savage Inequalities, I was inspired to write him a letter, in which I quoted some lines from John Dewey's The School and Society:

     What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children.  Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.

     Several weeks later I received a reply:

It was my intention to bring this note, along with my copy of the book, to the 2012 NJEA convention in  Atlantic City, where Kozol was to deliver the keynote address.  Hurricane Sandy had other plans.

     Jonathan Kozol has spent his life championing the economically disadvantaged and the educationally under-served, bearing witness and forcing us to confront unpleasant truths about our country and our society.  I've spent my career in a relatively privileged, suburban school district, and would never, even for a minute, pretend I have the courage to work in a school like Kozol describes in Death at an Early Age, or in the communities that he describes in Savage Inequalities.  They existed in 1965, and in 1991, and they exist today.
     Looking back over a 30 year career of grading papers, planning and delivering lessons, administering assessments, parent-teacher conferences, field trips, class management schemes, faculty and committee meetings, workshops, after school activities, curriculum writing, report cards, and the thousand other things, both big and small, that make up a teaching life, I think I know what I learned from Jonathan Kozol in those first, formative years: To remember that my students are, first and foremost, human beings.  To remember that they are much more than the sum total of their test scores.  To remember that they have abilities and talents that do not always manifest themselves in a school setting.  To remember that they have wonderfully complicated inner lives.  To remember that they deserve to be treated with humanity.
     I know there have been times over the course of 30 years when I've fallen short.  But maybe it's the Jonathan Kozol in me that has provided the inspiration for my current work as a math specialist: to take a subject that often has children asking, "Why do we go to school?" and try to answer, as Elham put it in her tweet, "To find joy."

Thank you.