Classroom Spaces, Teacher Choices

By William Ayers

Among Schoolchildren
by Tracy Kidder

Houghton Mifflin Company
340 pages, $19.95

Tracy Kidder should stick to writing about houses. Or computers. Or Yuba City. Anything but schools. His popular account of one year in the life of Chris Zajak’s classroom — well written, highly-praised, depressingly familiar — is all style, no substance. We are introduced, for example, to a typical rash of colds and flu as “small epidemics [that] passed through the class, and children with puffy eyes and reddened noses, walking Petri dishes, were driven home by outreach workers, leaving temporary holes in the room” (p. 117); or we meet one of a long line of engaging students, this one named Judith, Mrs. Zajak’s “shiniest hope,” a “Puerto Rican child who could certainly succeed on the mainland, and on mainland terms” (p. 318).

Kidder takes his readers on the shortest of journeys: back to school. It is a well-known world, a common place, and everything in it is recognizable. Here is the principal:“Al would lean slightly backward, arms folded on his chest, and bark at the first signs of mischief. ‘Hey, you! Yeah, you! Excuse me! Stay in line with your mouth shut!’” (p. 45)

And teacher meetings: “Al dragged out meetings. Sometimes he gave his teachers printed handouts and then read the contents to them”(p. 45).

Here is the teacher: “‘Out!’ she said. The imperious teacher finger pointed toward the door. ‘I’m going to leave him out there ’til he rots,’ she said to herself” (p. 204).

And the student teacher: “At the end of a day in October, Pam said to Chris, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’ Pam looked sad. ‘You just come in and they’re quiet’” (p. 116).

Here are the students: “there were twenty children. About half were Puerto Rican.

Almost two-thirds of the twenty needed the forms to obtain free lunches There was a lot of long and curly hair. Some boys wore little rattails. Their faces ranged from dark brown to gold, to pink, to pasty white, the color that Chris associated with sunless tenements and too much TV…. There was a lot of prettiness in the room, and all of the children looked cute to Chris” (p.6).

And, of course the environment for learning: “At eight, a high-pitched beep from the intercom announced math which lasted an hour” (p. 28). “On the bulletin boards in the hallways, Halloween displays lingered almost until Thanksgiving. Most of the displays were store bought or inspired by books of ideas for bulletin boards, on sale at all stores that cater to teachers” (p. 128).

Even the book’s cover seduces; it lulls the reader and asks us to settle into one of the little wooden desks: there is the green chalkboard with a multiplication problem written on it, the old school clock, the ever present PA speaker, and American flag, the teacher’s desk and chair solid at the front.

Among Schoolchildren is the taken-for-granted in painstaking detail. It is a blow-up of the stereotyped book cover.

What is missing is any evidence of a critical eye. There is no insight, no serious inquiry. There are acknowledged problems in Kidder’s picture, of course, but they are outside of his story and beyond his scope. In Kidder’s world everything just is—immutable facts, universal conditions, undeniable events. He challenges nothing.

The Challenge of Teaching

Teaching is an intensely interactive enterprise, infused with complex intellectual challenge and ongoing ethical choice.

Kidder acknowledges the complexity of teaching without ever finding it. He skims the surface, never really plunging in. “Decades of research and reform have not altered the fundamental facts of teaching” (p. 53), he reports. And what are these fundamental facts? Women alone in classrooms. The press of time. The impossibly wide range of kids. The elusive rewards. Homework. Classroom management.

Unreasonable demands and inadequate resources.

It’s a claustrophobic account, but Kidder’s hero struggles on. Her project, however, is not against these “fundamental facts of teaching.” It is within them. She accedes totally. When her student teacher observes that Clarence is being hurt by “the structure of the school” and that he “just wants to move around,” Chris explains that “this is what there is” (p. 102). For Kidder at least, “she has no choice” (p. 53). This, then, becomes Kidder’s essential theme, his mantra. This is the backdrop against which we are to interpret Chris Zajak’s world. No choice.

The no-choice theme makes for best-seller material. It’s comfortable. In a culture that promotes obedience and conformity, in a society where freedom means choosing which channel to watch, which brand name to buy, or which expressway to drive along, it’s an easy fit. Don’t worry, be happy.

Choices for victims. Authentic choices are always troublesome and problematic. No choice, no problem.

This theme bumps constantly against an alternative sense of teaching, teaching as an urgent questioning and continuous choice-making activity; teaching as a creative act. The book bristles with unasked (and unanswered) questions: When Chris moves Felipe’s desk because he is “chattering too much,” what is he chattering about? When she keeps a group of children in from recess for failing to do their homework, what had the homework the troubled Clarence not only to “do his work,” really her work, but to “like school and schoolwork someday,” what is there about it to like? Again and again and again, what else could she do?

When Zajak says, “All I want to do is teach. I want a quiet afternoon so I can teach” (p. 223), she is longing to stand in front of the class, to deliver the goods from her lesson plans, to have all hands busy, all mouths closed, and all eyes on her. To act, but not to interact. Teacher as lecturer. Teacher as clerk. It’s all understandable, perhaps, but mistaken.

Real teaching is messy. It involves an authentic meeting, and engagement, between teacher and learners. Teachers must know their students, reach out to them with care and understanding in order to create a bridge from the known to the not-yet-known. Teaching that is more than incidental, more than accidental, demands sustained empathetic regard. This is where teaching begins.

Teaching is in fact initially the art of invitation. It is virtually impossible to invite people to learn if they are strange or inscrutable to you. Teachers find ways to know and understand learners. They observe and record students at work and at play. They create dialogue. They inquire. They map social and cultural contexts. If the contexts are odd, that simply places a straight-forward demand upon the teacher: become a student of your own students as a prerequisite to teaching them. In fact good teaching is a continuous search, an ongoing inquiry into students and learning, and as endless engagement with a basic question: given what I now know, how will I teach this student?

Teaching is humbling in part because it is so closely linked with inquiry, quest, and discovery. It is two-way. Teachers are in a perpetual state of finding out, of looking into the experiences and know-how youngsters bring to them, of gearing into intelligences that are initially obscure to them—and are in any case always dynamic. The inquiring teacher is always in motion, always engaged in a deep intellectual puzzle, and every choice, every practical move, makes the puzzle richer, sometimes more satisfying, sometimes more troubling. There are always next steps, always more to do.

When I asked a group of student-teachers to study a child in each of their classrooms, to diagram the class and the school, and to map the neighborhoods, the wider context of learning, to find out where people worked, shopped, played, ate, and so on, one student said: “I would only map that neighborhood from the passenger seat of my father’s squad car.” My response was that she couldn’t teach children she feared or hated.

The Complexity of Teaching

Some teachers begin with a belief that teaching is telling, talking, cajoling, or coercing. Teachers know, students don’t know; teachers teach, students learn. Very neat, very straight. Some teachers also bring a sense that kids should be automatically eager, attentive, and interested in whatever the teacher or the curriculum guide dictate. They spend their time, then, looking at themselves, at their performance, and not at the kids.

They feel betrayed by the complexity of actual teaching and the trembling reality of real kids. They blame parents typically, and whole communities; they come to think that the biggest obstacle to their teaching is the children themselves. Sometimes teachers say, “I used to be a great teacher, but I can’t teach these kids,” or “I would be a wonderful teacher if I had better kids.” These are easy excuses. Kidder’s Zajak is not that transparent. She goes on trying, but with a thinly-veiled disrespect for her students and their families: “Clarence’s life outside school seemed too distant even to imagine” (p. 105); “‘The boy’s so bright! If only I could change the circumstances, of his life—-’” (p. 290); “Robert’s mother…said, ‘This school hasn’t done nothin’ for him…’ Chris kept wishing she had said, ‘At least we’ve tried, lady!’” (p. 213-214)

“[Clarence’s mother] wore a colorful cloth bandana wound around her temples. She was tall. Her voice was deep. She looked exotic and powerful, and maybe even dangerous if crossed” (p. 177); and “‘What’s in the cats is in the kittens, as my mother likes to say’” (p. 212). For all the spunk and effort and good humor, there is an abiding contempt that defeats any higher teaching purposes.

Instead of seeing children’s culture, communities, and families as an asset in her teaching, Zajak assumes a rejection of all that they are as a step in becoming cultured, civilized.

Instead of tapping into experience and attitude and background, Zajak worries about “‘losing them back to their environment’” (p. 330), something like a swamp or a sewer in her mind.

The art of teaching begins with understanding learners and moves to creating an environment that is complex enough and rich enough to nurture and challenge a range of interests, experiences, purposes, and aspirations. Teaching is about enabling others in some way, making people more powerful, nurturing efficacy and strength. This demands that teachers stay alive to the fundamental curriculum question—what knowledge and experiences are of most value?—and the basic teaching question—what kind of environment, what routines and rhythms and resources will allow students access to those valuable experiences and that worthwhile knowledge? None of this is static, straight-forward, or finished. These questions frame the improvisational dance of teaching. They help teachers make sense of their work.

A decent environment for learning is interactive, flexible, growing, and coconstructed. It is aesthetically pleasing and alive. When the only potted plant in Chris Zajak’s classroom dies, and she mockingly hums the funeral dirge, dumping it in the garbage and says, ‘“I don’t have the time to water plants,’” (p. 117) she is limiting her students and herself with a constrained view of curriculum and environment. Students can help build a learning environment and it should include familiar as well as unfamiliar things. If students don’t know what’s available the environment is not useful; if they must wait endlessly to satisfy interests or curiosity it is self-defeating; if they are expected to receive instead of construct knowledge it is misguided.

These kinds of questions are never engaged in Kidder’s account. For him there are curriculum guides, subjects divided into one hour or half-hour blocks, tracked reading groups, the ritualistic class trip, art lessons like copying Easter Bunnies onto paper, and social studies lessons where “Chris elaborated on how slavery hurts everyone, including auctioneers” (p. 289). The Science Fair has no recognizable link to science, and it finds Chris typically looking to the wrong direction: “Chris felt a secret relief. She had awakened one night not long ago imagining children from other classes standing behind wonderful homemade rocket ships and expounding on physics, while her students explained to fairgoers, ‘This is a potato’ and ‘These are rocks.’ Chris told herself now, ‘At least I don’t feel too embarrassed. Mine aren’t any worse than anyone else’s’” (p. 277).

There is a maddening disregard for children’s feelings, insights, and questions in Kidder’s book. They are routinely ignored, made to feel inadequate, stupid, weak, or bad in school, and yet the focus never leaves the teacher. Robert is humiliated in the Science Fair, and his vulnerability endears him to Chris; he “seemed to recover fast,” While “Chris’ recovery took longer” (p. 284). Why does he think so?

Because Robert walks around the gym “making shaky movements with his hands?” When Jimmy tells Mrs. Zajak that being called on makes him feel stupid, she dismisses his insight and critique out of hand, insisting that he is not stupid. Why can’t she listen to him explain that her teaching has this effect on him?

A Hard Decision

The dramatic heart of the book involves the decision finally to send Clarence out of Mrs. Zajak’s class to a special school with an “evil reputation” called Alpha. Clarence is a problem from the start, and the build-up begins early: “It was usually better at first to let her own opinions form. But she couldn’t help noticing the thickness of some cumes [cumulative records]…Clarence’s cume was about as thick as the Boston phone book” (p. 8).

Clarence refuses to do schoolwork, and is impervious to the usual threats and punishment: “Chris told him gently that if he didn’t he couldn’t go to gym. That didn’t make Clarence comply.”: Instead he fights and rips up some materials. The struggle for Clarence is long and intense but it ends in sending Clarence out: “…sending Clarence to Alpha seemed like a decision to accomplish something that was probably right by doing something that was probably wrong” (p. 167). The twisted logic of schools as sorting-machines, schools as factories.

Chris resists the decision, but is beaten down. Al explains that he “can’t let a teacher go up there and say, ‘Oh no, I can’t send him there’. It’s not for her to make that decision.” Who’s decision is it? As in any bureaucracy the decision is made by committee; it’s rule by no one. And Clarence, his family, and Chris may be consulted, but they can never decide. The decision must have at least the pretense of objectivity: “Too much feeling for a boy like Clarence could only get in the way of what she wanted to do for him” (p. 159).

Once Clarence is sent over, Chris tries to put the best face on it. On Clarence’s last day in class she suggests the students write in their journals about their feeling regarding his leaving. When Felipe says, “‘He said the reason he’s leaving is because you told him to,’” Chris responds disingenuously, “‘Well, there were a lot of people involved.

We all thought it was the best thing for him’” (p. 187-188).

No one’s buying it, certainly not Clarence. In the saddest moment in this very sad book Chris urges Clarence to give it a chance. “‘Nope,’” he says, Chris continues, “‘The teacher seemed nice, didn’t she? Why don’t you want to go? What’s so bad about that school? Tell me what you don’t like about it. I think you’ll like it. I really do.’ He just kept shaking his head” (p. 189). It’s not enough to hurt Clarence; he must somehow thank the school for it, and he won’t do it.

The Clarence experience shakes Zajak up. She doubts herself, doubts the school.

Doubt is also part of good teaching. Good teachers maintain a tension between critical doubt and forgiveness: without forgiveness the complexity of teaching is overwhelming, but without doubt teachers become apologists for the status quo. Zajak raises tentative questions: “She brooded on the general question: Why did the poorest children seem to learn the least in school?” (p. 200). Al is available to cheer everyone up at the teacher’s meeting. “We can’t bring them all up to grade level no matter what we do…But can we improve instruction here? You bet we can” (p. 199). Not to dwell on it, Kidder points out that Zajak’s problems were not philosophical or general, and that she must take stock of the particular problems she faces. In taking stock she discovers that “Most had made normal progress” (whatever that is), and “Normal measures would carry them along” (p. 201). On the verge of real questioning Kidder and Zajak sweep everything under the carpet.

Their reassurance is glib and self-congratulatory.

There is no sense of urgency, no immediacy in Kidder’s account. There is no responsibility. Compared to Sylvia Aston-Warner’s Teacher, Herb Kohl’s 36 Children or Growing Minds, John Holt’s Learning All the Time, Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary, or Phillip Lopate’s Being With Children—each a book by a teacher, a person who must take the risks and then live with the consequences—in Kidder there is no sense of really being there. Kidder wants to do good, but he is not likely to roll up his sleeves and engage in the hard work. He is a tourist, a dilettante, a voyeur.

All the advance publicity, the touted realism, the advertised truth of the book is a sham. In mythologizing a classroom and a teacher, Kidder has obfuscated the system of control and oppressions that has trapped Clarence, Robert, Jimmy, Judith, and even Chris Zajak herself. Kidder’s story is a misty-eyed account of what is, and what is fails all children some of the time and most children all of the time. Among School children contributes to that failure.

William Ayers is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and author of The Good Preschool Teacher (Teachers College Press, 1989). A version of this was printed in the Sept./Oct. 1990 Hungry Mind Review.