Tirmizi Family with Linda K. Wertheimer. From left to right: Hadia, mother; Wertheimer; Rahim, youngest son; Zain, eldest son; Ali, father. Photo source: Linda K. Wertheimer
#Notinmyname. Hadia Tirmizi, the mother of a student profiled in my bookFaith Ed., posted that Twitter hashtag on her Facebook page last week in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris. She is Muslim, lives in Wellesley, a Boston suburb, and knows the backlash that can follow when terrorists are identified as Muslims.
The same week she posted her statement against the terrorists, she also posted photos of her family celebrating her youngest son’s tenth birthday and photos of her and her husband, both physicians, on a vacation to Paris in a past year.
Some Tennessee lawmakers and parents are in a tizzy because they believe seventh-graders are spending too much time learning about Islam as part of social studies.
A Tennessee lawmaker leading the charge has spewed an all-too common refrain, saying the state's schools were leaning toward indoctrination because they emphasized learning about Islam more than about Christianity. The lawmaker last week upped the ante and proposed a bill prohibiting Tennessee public school courses from including "religious doctrine" until students are at least in 10th grade. What the lawmaker means by religious doctrine is fuzzy. But she's a part of a statewide movement of parents and groups taking aim at lessons on Islam. A Christian organization joined the fray by submitting a public records request to every school district in the state asking for curriculum that included Islam.
Linda K. Wertheimer's book launch at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA, August 18, 2015. Photo credit: Christian Coleman
Linda K. Wertheimer had a fabulous book launch at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts last month. In her presentation, she talked with us about the classrooms she visited throughout the US to write Faith Ed. The ones in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Modesto, California stood out. Teachers in Wellesley spend half the school year teaching the world’s religions to sixth graders. High school students in Modesto take a world religions class in order to graduate. You can watch her full presentation here to hear more about her travels and the current state of fostering religious literacy in today’s youth. Here are some highlight questions from the Q&A session that followed.
When I edited the first edition of One Teacher in Ten in 1994, I did so because I recalled how lonely it felt for me to come out as a teacher in 1988. I never wanted others to feel that way again.
1994 was a very different time. Same-sex sexual relations were illegal in one-third of American states (a condition that would persist until, a decade later, the Supreme Court struck down so-called “sodomy laws” in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case). Same-sex marriage was not legal in a single state: it would once again be a decade before a landmark court decision (Goodridge v. Massachusetts DPH) made Massachusetts the first state to grant marriage equality. President Clinton had just signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law as an official policy of the federal government.
LGBT teachers didn’t need President Clinton to tell them about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” as it had long been the (unwritten) policy of our nation’s schools: you could be LGBT as long as you never, ever talked about it. So the first edition of One Teacher in Ten was a radical act, as we were defying the de facto law of the land.
The collection reflected the climate of fear and hostility LGBT teachers faced in 1994. Some contributors were out but many chose to use pseudonyms for fear of the repercussions of telling the truth on their careers.
Nevertheless, the collection achieved its goal of breaking the silence around LGBT teachers and contributed to a climate that was different by the time I edited an all-new second edition of One Teacher in Ten in 2004. By then sodomy laws had been struck down and the march to marriage equality had begun in Massachusetts. Many more contributors were out than in 1994 and I left feeling very hopeful about the future.
As we approach the new school year, parents and teachers of young children have an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to prevent those little ones who are out of step in their ability to pay attention; listen; follow directions; stay seated, still, and productive; and, keep from talking out of turn, from receiving a false ADHD diagnosis. The latest numbers out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that eleven percent of American children have ADHD, the average age of children with the diagnosis being seven years old. As recent as 2003, 7.8 percent of American children were thought to have ADHD. The alarming rise of this condition among young children requires that we step back and look for more common-sense social and developmental explanations for the sort of problematic behavior that gets kids assigned an ADHD diagnosis. As a child psychologist and writer on children’s mental health issues, I’ve studied these concerns for over thirty years and have zeroed in on three core questions parents and educators can ask themselves when a child’s behavior rises to a level where an ADHD diagnosis is entertained:
Last year my students—Chicago teachers and teachers-to-be, educators from a range of backgrounds and experiences and orientations—all read The Beautiful Struggle. I’d put Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir on the list of required readings because I thought it was a fitting and important educational book, a useful text for city teachers to explore and interrogate. Some students agreed; several did not. “What’s this got to do with teaching?”
I chose it because it moved me, frankly, and I thought it might move some of them as well. I chose it because in the details of this one life—the challenges and the obstacles, but especially the elements he assembled to build an architecture of survival—I saw human themes of love and beauty and the universal struggle to grow more fully into the light. I chose it because it took readers inside the life of one Black kid, this singular unruly spark of meaning-making energy negotiating and then mapping the territory between his home and the streets and the schools—necessary reading for city teachers I thought.
To a new teacher, or a teacher with years of experience, the twenty-first-century classroom can seem overwhelming. Along with the traditional challenges that teachers face—disobedient kids, unfriendly administrators, demanding parents, shortages of supplies, or feeling isolated in the classroom—there are so many new aspects to consider, so many new issues to resolve, so many new demands to respond to, coming at us seemingly from all sides:
national Common Core curriculum standards to decipher,
state mandates to respond to,
standardized tests to prepare for by picking and choosing what to teach,
district priorities to pay attention to,
school-wide goals to implement,
grade-level or departmental objectives to work into your lesson plans,
seemingly endless paperwork requirements, and
a flood of new technology, with its potential benefits and drawbacks,
plus the need to respond to diverse children, their special needs, their parents’ expectations. All in all, enough to make your job as a teacher seem well-nigh impossible. The climate created by all of these mandates and pressures may well represent a new height of challenges for teachers, enough to make them feel besieged, overwhelmed, inadequate.
Our 2015 reissue of Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s classic, Thousand Pieces of Gold, is on sale! First published in 1981, McCunn's novel was adapted to film a decade later with actors Chris Cooper and Rosalind Chao. It's been a star of the Beacon backlist for all these years, being adopted by book groups and used in classrooms (middle school, high school, and college). For this new edition, we've reissued it with new historical material. McCunn has written a new essay, taking readers through the challenges she encountered while researching Polly Bemis’s life. Readers will note how her discoveries and the documents she found outline the hardships Polly endured as a legendary pioneer fighting for independence and dignity in Gold-Rush America.
Lalu Nathoy/Polly Bemis left no written records. Neither did the person closest to her: Charlie Bemis. So I looked for the two in pioneers’ recollections, newspapers, photographs, and documents. Sifting through my findings, examining, reexamining each fragment for value, I always feel like a miner panning for gold.
From the start, Polly’s Certificate of Residence and marriage certificate shone bright. These papers, having survived a devastating fire, must have been important to Polly and Charlie. Why?
The 1892 Geary Act required each Chinese laborer living in the United States to register and apply for a Certificate of Residence within the year. Those who did not would be presumed to be in the country unlawfully and, therefore, subject to arrest and deportation—unless a white witness swore that the failure to register had been due to illness or accident. Protests and legal challenges by Chinese failed to overturn this law but did extend the period for registration.
Video used by permission of The School District of Philadelphia. All rights reserved.
It’s the time of year when our newsfeeds are filled with posts highlighting the best commencement speeches of the season. This got us thinking about what Martin Luther King, Jr. might say to young people today who are heading into the next chapter of their lives; his speech “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” immediately sprang to mind. In it, Dr. King, speaking at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, encourages students to be the best people they can be, regardless of their status in life.
Now, you can watch this rarely seen film of that speech. Recorded on October 26, 1967, just six months before his assassination, Dr. King’s words will still resonate with young people today and encourage them to keep moving in the struggle for justice and make our nation a better place in which to live.
“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would enlist an army of young people to help each other and America in the education process. He would trust them to bring their energy and sense of justice to end gang violence and to reverse the feeling of helplessness that hurts so many of our young people. He would keep marching against unjust laws, racism, war, and poverty. Dr. King made America a better place for all people to live during the turbulent years of the civil rights struggle. Using his insights, his courage in tackling difficult problems, and his loyalty to nonviolence both in action and in the language we use with each other, perhaps we can continue building the America he once thought possible. What do you think?”
Citizen Schools founder Eric Schwarz with students (photo by Paul Mobley)
Eric Schwarz made a lot of mistakes as a teenager. His great-great-grandfather had founded the iconic FAO Schwarz toy store in 1862, and successive generations of the family found success in New York, but Schwarz himself floundered amid a sea of opportunity—a fact he readily admits. He bounced through three high schools in three different states, faced multiple suspensions, racked up poor grades and regular “Eric is struggling” teacher conferences, and started drinking as a teen. “But every time I stumbled,” he writes, “I had a helping hand and a new chance.”
With autumn just around the corner, it’s about time to think about heading back into the classroom. Whether you’re an educator, activist, administrator, parent, or socially-engaged citizen, here are five progressive education titles to put on your personal syllabus this fall:
In retrospect, the discussion was about me, though I didn’t realize it while sitting there. My colleagues’ conversation this day swirled around teachers not following State Mandates—how enforced curriculum mapping would ensure every teacher is on the same page, teaching the same topic, at the same time. Later, I realized I was the cause of my cohorts’ discontent, but not until a parent e-mailed, alerting me my job was in jeopardy from teaching “peace instead of literature,” not until students said they were “sorry about next year,” and not until a colleague cautioned that I was “not teaching the State Standards and Benchmarks.”
Languishing under the sweltering sun of New Mexico, where unemployment rates climb nearly as high as the temperatures, in part because of job outsourcing to nearby Juarez, Mexico, two thirds of my students subsist below the poverty level. For many, they would be the first in their families to finish high school, assuming the daily drudgery of educational irrelevance doesn’t dull their enthusiasm for learning, wouldn’t rob them of a lifetime of opportunity. For example, because of the frenzy to meet our high-stakes testing goals, most language arts teachers conformed their curriculum to the District’s thirteen “scientifically research-based” literacy strategies, none of which included reading books. These were disseminated and reinforced through countless vertical alignment meetings, horizontal alignment meetings, and daily team meetings with other content area teachers. These District-mandated literacy strategies promoted robotic writing and acronyms such as ACE (Answer question, Cite evidence, Explain further) and KIM (Key Idea, Information, Memory Clue) as they prepared for their MAP (Measurement of Academic Progress) before taking their CRT (Criterion Referenced Test) under the auspices of NCLB. But after teaching ACE and KIM ad nauseam, while watching my students’ eyes glaze over, I simply couldn’t take the monotony anymore.
Most teachers are curious about what school is like for a student. Meet a kindergarten tyke encountering the classroom for the first time; a middle schooler trying to balance body chemistry, a developing mind, and new ways of learning; a high school teenager looking beyond the classroom into the world and most teachers want to hear how he or she is experiencing one of the most important parts of their lives.
So when I saw my 11 year old niece recently, I asked her how school was going. I was prepared for the standard kid response—“fine.” What I wasn’t prepared for was the sudden sound of defeat in her answer.
Few educators embody that mission more than this year's lecturer, Dr. Chris Emdin, recently honored by the White House as an African American STEM Champion of Change. Dr. Emdin's research focuses on issues of race, class, and diversity in urban science classrooms, and the use of new theoretical frameworks to transform education and urban school reform. A self-proclaimed member of the hip-hop generation, Emdin seeks to popularize the notion that the genius of hip-hop is compatible with science genius. In partnership with GZA (Gary Grice), a member of the Wu-Tang Clan whose love of science is well known, he developed the Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. In a pilot project, students wrote rap songs that captured the complexity of the science and lyricism of hip-hop, and, in a final competition at Columbia University, students’ performances of these rap songs were judged by a panel of scientists and hip hop artists.
With a new school year just around the corner, students are stocking up on supplies and teachers are polishing their curriculum plans. To help the latter, Beacon offers guides to help in teaching many of our most popular titles. Find these and other teachers guides at our Scribd page and at Beacon.org.
Psst: if you're not a teacher, these guides can still be great tools for reading and comprehending some great books!
Teacher Patricia Rigley shares ideas for lesson plans, discussion questions, and sample assignments.
Long before the avalanche of praise for his work—from Oprah Winfrey, from President Bill Clinton, from President Barack Obama—long before he became known for his talk show appearances, Members Project spots, and documentaries like Waiting for "Superman", Geoffrey Canada was a small boy growing up scared on the mean streets of the South Bronx. His childhood world was one where "sidewalk boys" learned the codes of the block and were ranked through the rituals of fist, stick, and knife. Then the streets changed, and the stakes got even higher. In his candid and riveting memoir, Canada relives a childhood in which violence stalked every street corner.
This isn’t about teachers being afraid that they’ll be knifed in class or have their cars stolen in the bad neighborhoods where they teach. Nor are they worried that a disruptive student will threaten them, or that a disturbed gunman will invade their school. It’s not about being berated by an angry parent, or accused of being unfair—or something far worse—by a student.
I follow the education reform debate closely. Over time I realized that most of the voices raised in this debate were those of people who had nothing to do with the classroom. The obvious question was, “What do politicians, business executives, clergy, academic researchers know about teaching?” The people who would know best—teachers—were rarely heard. Yet the ones I knew and came in contact with were eager to talk about what they did. It was a decidedly different conversation from the ones the pundits and critics were having. Yes, most teachers lamented mandated testing, the loss of classroom autonomy and a one-size-fits-all curriculum shaped by test results. But most were happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do, given the day).
So I decided to invite teachers from a variety of educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom.
In approaching teachers to write for the series I was surprised how many at first hesitated. It wasn’t because they were too busy or didn’t have anything to say. Some had even written drafts and then gotten cold feet about going public. None of the articles were vindictive or critical of their school administrations. None were personal attacks or a fault finding feast. If anything the pieces were warmhearted, funny, and insightful. What criticism there was was directed toward our national education policy and its harmful effect on students. Still, in the end, a few teachers backed out altogether while others asked that their full name not be used or that their schools’ location be purposely vague.
And there’s the fear. Teachers were worried that somehow they would get in trouble with their school administrators. From what many teachers report there’s a strong message being given to teaching staffs: Don’t rock the boat. Don’t ask questions. Don’t bring up the inconvenient truth, say, of a school policy implemented to meet a national mandate that contradicts current research or best practices. In such an atmosphere of distrust, powerlessness, and alienation from what should be a culture of collegiality and collaboration what choices do teachers have but to hunker down and try to survive? After all, these days, teacher evaluations have become just as high stakes as student testing.
According to a MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, teacher satisfaction has slipped from 65% in 2008 to only 39% in 2012. Perhaps this fear of speaking out is contributing to that dissatisfaction. The sample of teachers that I encountered may seem small and therefore inconclusive. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that teachers from different schools and different parts of the country felt this fear, this need for caution. But it’s enough to make me wonder what is going on in our schools when teachers are afraid to engage in sincere democratic discourse, a process that we have always valued and that we teach our students is an essential ingredient of a healthy country.
“He spoke quietly, he didn't give big sermons like Martin Luther King. He didn't seek out dramatic confrontations like the Freedom Riders and the sit-ins, but he did inspire a broad range of grass-roots leadership... To this day he is a startling paradox. I think his influence is almost on par with Martin Luther King, and yet he's almost totally unknown.” Civil rights historian Taylor Branch on Robert Moses.
NPR's excellent profile of Robert Moses provides a much-deserved spotlight on the work of a man who has devoted his life to civil rights and universal access to quality education. As a young adult, Moses was an organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was director of SNCC’s Mississippi Project. A MacArthur Foundation Fellow from 1982-87, Dr. Moses used his fellowship to develop the concept for the Algebra Project, an organization whose work is dedicated to transforming math education in disadvantaged schools.
“Education is still basically Jim Crow as far as the kids who are in the bottom economic strata of the country,” Moses says. “No one knows about them, no one cares about them.”
It's exactly this inequality in the education system — based more on class than race — that makes thiswork as important as the work he did 50 years ago, he says. [Listen to the story here.]
The concept of “one person one vote” provided Mississippi
sharecroppers and their allies with a minimum
of common conceptual cohesion. That is, “one person one vote” was a shared
goal. It was an organizing slogan; but more than that, it reflected an ideal that
tapped deep traditions in American democracy and that allowed at the time a
consensus to develop around it. The daily grind of living in Mississippi in
1961 (“if they don’t get you in the wash, they get you in the rinse”) gave rise
to grassroots demands for political access that in turn gave rise to demands
for unity that could use “one person one vote” as an organizing tool.
Organizing, in turn, required space to develop. The “crawl
space,” as I call it, in which we actually carried out such organizing was the
1957 civil rights bill creating the Civil Rights Division of the Department of
Justice. The existence of that new department meant, among other things, that John
Doar and his federal lawyers could investigate beatings of potential voters
walking up to the courthouse in vicious towns like Liberty, Mississippi, and return
an opinion at odds with that of the FBI and local police authorities: that is,
that people other than the “usual suspects” anxious to protect local custom
were watching; Mississippi could not simply lock up voter registration workers
and throw away the keys. This federal involvement—tiny though it was—was
important because it was what provided the little crawl space that enabled us
to begin working.
Both things were important: the consensus around a minimum
of common conceptual cohesion and the crawl space that allowed it to become
The concept that provides minimum common conceptual cohesion
for the work of the Algebra Project takes the form of an “if, then” sentence:
If we can do it, then we should.
The “we refers to a complex configuration of individuals;
educational institutions of various kinds; local, regional, and national
associations and organizations (both governmental and nongovernmental); actual
state governments as well as the
national political parties; and the executive, legislative, and judicial
branches of the national government. The “it”—the goal of educating all our
children well—rests on a complex conceptual consensus that is woven into the
cultural fabric of this country: the idea that young people who grow up in the
United States are entitled to free public education, from kindergarten through
twelfth grade. But there is emerging in U.S. culture something more specific
and powerful than that. In recent years a real national consensus, on the
political left and on the political right, has begun emerging that all children
can learn, and that all children deserve the best education they can get. And
that such an education is absolutely necessary. This is actually a new
consensus; it did not exist fifty years ago, when, schools were segregated
North and South and not finishing high school was much more widely accepted
because lacking a high school diploma was not the handicap to putting food on
the table that it is today. Of course, this expressed belief in the capacity of
all children to learn, and commitment to making the effort to provide them the
opportunity, is an ideal that’s often given lip service more than real action.
And it drives wrongheaded as well as constructive “school reform” efforts. But
it is a widespread public viewpoint. Compare the national consensus in favor of
educating all children well with the absence of such a consensus on health
care. It is clearly not true that Americans as a whole believe (yet) that
"if we can provide universal access to quality health care, we should.”
They do believe it about education.
Obviously, the work of the Algebra Project has to do with
math in particular. The consensus on education—like the “one person one vote”
consensus forty years ago—provides the necessary foundation for a more specific
agenda, in this case the concept that every student will complete a college
preparatory mathematics curriculum in high school. (It is clearly not
sufficient since only 11 percent of students in the United States do so now.)
The work of the Algebra Project is to help close the gap between universal free
public education and universal completion of a college preparatory math
sequence in high school. Specifically, our work is to build a consensus—and organize
a movement—around another hypothetical that gives the required minimum
If we can teach students algebra in the
middle school years, then we should
Like the effort to bridge the gap between the ideal of “one
person, one vote” and the reality of registering every Black voter in
Mississippi, this work of the Algebra Project is ambitious and can be realized.
Like our work in the 1960s, it requires organizing, and organizing requires
some crawl space.
What, then, is our
crawl space? Like the crawl space created by the 1957 Civil Rights Act, it is a
space created in the larger political and social world that we can use to our
advantage. The space for algebra as a civil rights issue is created by nations
and institutions now making a global transition from reliance upon technology
that primarily organizes physical labor to technologies that directly organize
mental labor. I see history’s broom sweeping us all along a common corridor as
a crawl space toward liberation.
If you take the time to watch one TED Talk this week, make it this one. Geoffrey Canada is an educational innovator, and in this video (part of which appeared on PBS) he makes a powerful argument for changing the way we think about public education.
Canada knows how to help kids achieve great things: as the president of Harlem Children's Zone, he has changed countless lives and transformed a community. While the Harlem Children’s Zone started out focusing on a single block -- West 119th Street -- it has since expanded exponentially. It now encompasses more than 100 square blocks and serves an estimated 10,000 children, providing pre-kindergarten care, after-school programs, health care, college planning and classes for soon-to-be-parents.
Long before the avalanche of praise for his work—from Oprah Winfrey, from President Bill Clinton, from President Barack Obama—long before he became known for his talk show appearances, Members Project spots, and documentaries like Waiting for Superman, Geoffrey Canada was a small boy growing up scared on the mean streets of the South Bronx. His childhood world was one where "sidewalk boys" learned the codes of the block and were ranked through the rituals of fist, stick, and knife. Then the streets changed, and the stakes got even higher. In his candid and riveting memoir, Canada relives a childhood in which violence stalked every street corner.
"I wish every city had a Geoffrey Canada." —President Bill Clinton
"Geoffrey Canada's realistic yet hopeful voice finds fresh expression through the comic style of Jamar Nicholas. Canada's account of his childhood and the role that violence played in shaping his experiences provides hard-won and crucial lessons." —Pedro A. Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University
"Jamar Nicholas is a master of his craft—his drawings are full of life and truly stunning." —Bryan Lee O'Malley, creator of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
"Geoffrey Canada is one of this country's genuine heroes. His personal meditation on America's culture of violence is a beacon of hope for our humanity." —Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage
"Canada has never lost touch with the child within himself or with the fears of the children around him struggling to reach adulthood in the violent streets of America." —Marian Wright Edelman, author of The Measure of Our Success
"Canada takes us on a powerful journey. . . . He is a man of hope and a wonderful storyteller." —Henry Hampton, executive producer, Eyes on the Prize
It’s hard reading about the lockstep curriculum
set out by Common Core with its emphasis on “informational readings,” and
seeing all the hoops students and teachers have to jump through to meet its
standards. Quite frankly, it makes me sad.
“Why sad?” you might wonder. Frustrated, maybe, or for that
matter, mad. But sad? Usually when the topic is education reform frustrated and
mad come easily to me. But this is different. I’m a romantic (as I think many
English teachers are) and I see literature—poetry, drama, fiction—and its power
to change people’s lives as the heart of an English teacher’s job.
But the designers of Common Core don’t see it that way. They assert that
students have been raised on an easy-read curriculum and because of this they
are unable to analyze complex reports, studies and government documents. The
administration’s solution is to have informational texts make up 50 percent of
elementary school readings and 70 percent of 12th grade readings by 2014.
Unfortunately, the burden of this solution will fall mostly on English
teachers, leaving them little time to teach real literature. Instead they will
somehow have to figure out ways to get kids interested in such texts as “Fed Views” by
the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) or “Executive Order 13423:
Strengthening Federal Environmental Energy, and Transportation Management”
published by the General Services Administration.
So yes, it makes me sad to see the education of the heart—the real core of any
worthwhile English curriculum—gutted for the sake of global competition, and to
see teachers once again take the hit for “dummied down” education.
But I feel saddest for the kids who must struggle their way
through this type of literal—not literary—education, especially those kids
for whom school is already a difficult and alienating place.
I’ve worked with those students in both
alternative high schools and a county prison, young men and women who have
already had the heart taken out of their lives by poverty, racism, abandonment
and neglect. They have very little interest in school because the traditional
school setting has had very little interest in them. And now this latest
roadblock makes success even harder to attain: a reading curriculum that has
less to do with real life, their real life, and more to do with corporate
As an English teacher it’s never easy to get
disaffected kids to pick up a book and read. I was constantly justifying my
choices, answering the question every literature teacher (and author) is
confronted with in one way or another, “What’s this got to do with me?” But
once we got past those hurdles and students gave a particular reading a chance,
I have seen books—novels, plays, poetry, biography, memoir—save at-risk kids’
lives, if only for the time that they are reading them.
I’m pretty certain that one of the Federalist Papers, a Common
Core selection, wouldn’t have kept 15-year-old Warren out of trouble on the
cell block and coming to my jailhouse classroom. But Manchild in the Promised Land did. As Warren put
it, “I’ve never ever read a whole book before,” but once he got his hands on
Claude Brown’s memoir that changed. Slowly, he got lost in a book that not only
reflected Warren’s own troubled life but also did something else—showed him a
young man much like himself deciding that life on the streets was no life at
all. That book helped keep Warren out of trouble and coming to school long
after he’d read the last page.
The way poetry did for ‘Nor, a 17-year-old
single mom who worked the 3-11 shift at Sears. ‘Nor never missed a day of
school because of the poets she read in class like Nikki Giovanni, Langston
Hughes, Rilke, Luis Rodriguez, and her favorite, the enigmatic Emily Dickinson.
She didn’t always understand what she read but those words helped her survive
life in the projects where too often words had nothing to do with poetry.
And it’s hard to imagine that George Orwell’s “Politics and the
English Language” would have had Tanya, a real cut-up with a long suspension
record from her home school, jumping off the school bus and running towards me
yelling, “Mr. C., Mr. C, I finished 1984! I can’t
believe what they did to Winston!”
Given the way this country is going, haunted by
one tragedy after another, maybe it’s time to re-examine what we want our true
Common Core to be. Maybe it’s time to worry more about the heart of America,
and about all America’s children and less about the bankrolls of corporate
America. Let’s design a reading curriculum that keeps kids connected to their
schools, to their communities and to their best selves.