Extraordinary educators: some lessons on teaching

Books On ... Education

September 05, 2004|By Bob Blaisdell | Bob Blaisdell,For the Chicago Tribune

We give teachers way too many opportunities to be heroic. Depriving them of adequate educational resources, salary and moral support, we then expect them to be cheerful and creative as they deal with social and behavioral problems in overcrowded classrooms while instilling nondenominational morality and codified knowledge in children. These books are about three such heroes, two of them written by the modest heroes themselves.

For more than 30 years, Vivian Gussin Paley, of the University of Chicago's Labora-tory Schools, has been spinning out little books on educational issues and problems that she has observed and discovered while teaching nursery- and grade-school children. Her latest, A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, (University of Chicago Press, 111 pages, $19) is arranged in vignettes recalling past and present classrooms, with Paley insisting throughout that, of course, a child's work is play.

This is a recurrent theme in Paley's book. In her view, against which there can be little argument, child's play is a foundation of education, revealing and creating social and imaginative skills. But, as every educator or parent of a young child knows, the American craze for standardized testing has squeezed out time and funding for the arts, physical education and play. Paley notes ruefully: "What we are in danger of doing is de-legitimatizing mankind's oldest and best-used learning tool."

She is angry at the way America has betrayed childhood, and her despair about today's educational policy is the book's loudest message: "We no longer wonder 'Who are you?' but instead decide quickly 'What can we do to fix you?' "

Johanna Grussner, who was by day a music teacher in the Bronx and by night a Manhattan jazz singer, is the focus of New York Times writer Anemona Hartocollis' Seven Days of Possibilities: One Teacher, 24 Kids, and the Music That Changed Their Lives Forever (PublicAffairs, 382 pages, $25).

In 2001, Hartocollis wrote a few articles about Grussner's unlikely and charming grade-school gospel chorus that, through a series of happy accidents, was able to travel to Grussner's native town in Finland for a cultural and musical exchange. Hartocollis' char-ming little story, now overblown and inflated beyond sympathy, opens up more holes and problems than it covers or answers. Can a weeklong trip to Europe transform the lives of two dozen unworldly urban children?

Hartocollis seems to hope our hearts will be so warmed by the cultural exchange and our minds so dulled by the labored biographies of everyone and their mother that we won't notice she neither dramatizes nor provides evidence of any such transformation. Hartocollis' and Grussner's antagonist, the hot-tempered but effective principal, Shelly Benardo, doesn't pretend that one teacher and one European vacation can turn the world upside down:

"To think that somehow a few days could actually change not the pathology but the difficulties and lives that had made these kids who they were -- that was impossible. ... If through the generosity and outreach of a whole community the kids could become a little kinder, a little more generous of spirit, that would be great. You couldn't expect more than that."

I like Hartocollis when she writes as a journalist about New York City's educational politics, but she made the unnecessary choice to narrate this book as a pseudo-novelist, usually preferring to imagine her subjects' thoughts than to simply quote them. For how she knows her subjects' hearts and minds, she offers the briefest of disclaimers in the concluding acknowledgments: "Where I attribute thoughts or feelings to individuals, it is based upon conversations with them or on the recollections of participants."

Sam Swope, on the other hand, doesn't distance himself from his subject. The children's-book author was a visiting creative-writing teacher for a Queens third-grade class, and he bases I Am a Pencil: A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories (Holt, 297 pages, $23) on his meticulously dramatized interactions with the children. The title comes from one of the students' poems, which figures in one of the books memorable exchanges:

"The next day I read her poem to the class but Jessica cried out, 'Hey! That's not mine!'

" 'It has your name. It's in your handwriting.'

" 'I'd remember if I wrote it.'

"I handed her her paper, which she studied, disbelieving.

" 'You wrote it, that's for sure, and good for you,' I said. 'That is a good poem.'

"Jessica looked surprised. 'It is?'

" 'Yes.'

" 'Oh!' she said, and beamed with pride.

"Then she got to thinking, and later said to me, as if confessing, 'That poem that I wrote you liked? I don't know what it means.' "

During the wonderful honeymoon of the first year, Swope loves his bright, imaginative, eager students, most of them children of recent immigrants, and they love him back for his silliness and his fascination in them.

His idea of writing a book about the same kids and continuing through their fourth- and fifth-grade classes enabled him to stay with them but seems to have taken the fun out of it, and Swope and the kids lose their spirit for each other. His writing, which is delightful for a hundred pages, sags as the years pass.

In Seven Days of Possibili-ties and I Am a Pencil, we see that the only trouble with creative artists teaching the arts is that the teaching makes them want to do the art themselves. "As we headed into our final week together, I was ready for the end," Swope writes. "After so much time encouraging others to write, I was eager to get back to my own work."

Bob Blaisdell teaches English in the City University of New York system and is the editor of Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy's Writings on Education and the author of several children's books.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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