Thursday, September 17, 2009

Educating Esme Book Review

Teachers, as a whole, are vastly under-appreciated. Most people think that a teacher comes to work fifteen minutes before school begins and leaves fifteen minutes after it ends - and that may be the case for a tiny handful - but the vast majority of teachers deal with issues and put in hours equal to that of any corporate executive... only the pay is nowhere near the same.

Why do teachers subject themselves to long hours, unappreciative students (and parents) and unending constraints on their creativity to be the kind of teacher that will produce educated, inspired students (instead of just students who correctly fill in the bubbles on their state tests)? In the beginning, they do it because they, themselves are inspired - they have stars in their eyes and passion in their hearts to inspire a group of kids each year to be the best that they can be. As the spouse of a teacher, I've witnessed first hand, all too many teachers becoming frustrated as the years pass by - bound by state-mandated curriculum (optimized for increasing test scores, not for learning), caught up in bureaucracy instead of inspiring those very kids who drew them into this profession.

I just finished reading Educating Esmeby Esme Raji Codell, the diary of a first year teacher in Chicago. She, too, had those optimistic stars in her eyes - only she didn't give in to most of the bureaucracy handed to her by a less than sympathetic administration - or students who, for the first time in their lives, had a teacher who really cared about them.

Educating Esme is an easy read that should be a requirement for anyone thinking of becoming a teacher, teachers who are disillusioned by "the system" and everyone who has a child in school. It runs the gamut from funny to tear jerker, and is true to life as any teacher will confirm. At times the language can be shocking - but now days kids speak in ways during casual conversation that no one would have imagined would become the norm back in the 70's.

Madame Esme (as her students call her), begins the school year with a room full of fifth grade children from the inner city who bring with them their own individual baggage. On Esme's first day of school, she looked around the room and though:

"This is my destiny, to have this group of children before me. As they were
growing, aging to be fifth graders, I was training, and now we meet, in this
unique place and time.
The moment felt holy."
The problems Esme faces with her class are not unique, but she deals with all of them in her imaginative way. When her kids are having trouble learning to multiply double digits, she pulls out big pieces of butcher paper, writes equations on them, tapes them to the floor and teaches the children to "cha-cha" in order to learn how to multiply each row and move subsequent digits over. She builds a time machine out of an old refrigerator box where the children take turns sitting in it and reading books about different periods in time. When one child is continually disruptive, she gives him a taste of how hard it is to do her job by making him be the teacher for a day.

Esme makes it out of her first year as a teacher with a new perspective on things - one I see on a daily basis. The mindset that says - "In order to be an effective teacher you must write up your paperwork to appease the state guidelines, but once your classroom door closes, you can share... teach... inspire... in the ways that make your students hungry for more. That is how you become an effective teacher.

Recently, Esme participated in a Q&A session - here is an excerpt from that session:

Q -What was one of your most embarrassing teaching moments? Your most rewarding?

Esme - As a student teacher, I was reprimanding the class about something, I don’t remember what. I backed into a wastebasket, lost my balance, and fell in. The children laughed and laughed. I figured the universe was trying to tell me something, so I decided to stop raising my voice and just laugh along. Then there was another time I had something in my nose, in front of the seventh graders . . . but that’s just too painful to recount, it gives me post-traumatic stress just thinking about it.

Work in support of novice teachers has been some of the most professionally satisfying of my career. If I had to pick a rewarding classroom moment with a child, though, it actually was one I had as a parent. I went into my son’s second-grade class to read aloud, but I wasn’t feeling well and was having trouble pulling off an effective reading. My son crept up next to me and said, “Let me take over.” It was an overcrowded city classroom, a potential management challenge even for a seasoned teacher. But he read aloud "Abe Lincoln: The Boy Who Loved Books" by Kay Winters, holding up the pictures, putting on different accents, making them laugh, the whole nine yards. When you teach a child to read, that’s thrilling. It’s a relief because you know they have something that will help them survive. But when you see a child share a book, then you know something really special has happened. I love that “aha” moment when the light bulb goes on, but it’s even more rewarding to me when kids work by that light that’s been created, when kids want to share their new skills with others. And when they learn to tell their own story, that’s what makes teaching so exciting.

Q - Do you think the profession has changed since you wrote this diary?

Esme - The extreme to which educators “teach to the test” feels different today. Teachers seem to be held to a new level of stringency in terms of content, and the climate is more fearful due to the punitive responses when schools don’t perform up to standards. Who wants to work in a setting where the children and the teacher feel they can’t make mistakes or where they can’t use their imaginations?

Contrary to the belief of many third graders and public figures, most people don’t become teachers because they want to give tests. When the No Child Left Behind Act and all of the ensuing mania over high-stakes standardized testing came along, I sincerely tried to ignore it, to shut my door on it, but it has really intruded on the culture of education. If I were just starting out now, with things the way they are . . . well, I think I might have been discouraged from the career path altogether. It saddens me to see teachers I knew to be joyous and effective worn down like the nub of a number two pencil.

One blogger offhandedly referred to our national policy alternately as “No Teacher Left Teaching.” Even with our new president, there’s a lot of holdover in that attitude. I, for one, am happy to be accountable the day we decide accountability is not a synonym for success on standardized tests. Accountability means “that which can be explained.” In my own mind, then, accountability is a synonym for documentation. In other professions, like science, people are allowed to make mistakes, to have outcomes they don’t expect, to be creative in finding solutions. . . they just have to describe what happened, try to learn from it, and try to improve. Without this kind of leeway, the teacher corps will attract a very different kind of educator and our students will suffer. I also think it’s worthwhile to remember that most remarkable individuals in American history never took a standardized test, and there have been and will be many people who contribute positively who aren’t that good at filling in blanks. Instead they color outside the lines. But I am hopeful, because necessity is the mother of invention. More teachers are starting to say, “Hey, you’re trying to make me work in a way that’s not allowing me to be effective with children.” And people are listening. I believe we’ll hit a tipping point, and something positive will come of all this.

The newest version of the book Educating Esme also includes a foreword by Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia, along with the legendary Jim Treleae's original afterword. It also includes a brand-new guide filled with Esme's invaluable advice and practical tips for beginning teachers as well as the more experienced. Plus, there's a fantastic shopping list of "must-haves" for a teacher's first classroom.

If you're a new teacher, a teacher who's put in more years than you care to count, in a credential program, a parent, or anyone who's ever been curious about what the world of education is like, you'll definitely enjoy Educating Esme by Esme Raji Codell.

- Liz

Posted by Liz of Pink Lemonade


Lisa said...

Standardized tests take all the joy out of teaching AND learning. Sounds like an interesting book.

Juliet said...

I agree that many teachers can be unappreciated!
I also believe that many teachers have been teaching for too long and a book like this might inspire them or perhaps make them realize that it is time to retire! :)