22 October 2008

An Evening with Jonathan Kozol

That's right, JONATHAN KOZOL!! I MET him!

Here's how you know whether or not you're an education nerd:
If you're currently squealing with excitement and jealousy, you ARE.
If you're scratching your head and going, Jonathan Who? then you are NOT an education nerd, not even if you're an educator yourself. In fact, if you're an educator or an educational administrator, and you haven't heard of Kozol, then you have some major catching up to do. Also, for the record, if you're an administrator and you've never heard of Kozol, then you must stop rolling your eyes at how lame and uneducated your staff is, because please. You need to read Kozol. And then stop being such an asshole.

Anyway... KOZOL!!

Jonathan Kozol

Several weeks ago, I told my awesome (and certified Major Education Nerd) friend Evone that Kozol was coming to Chicago. Her immediate response was to start looking for plane tickets. Then she turned to her school and talked them into letting her take professional development days to fly to Chicago and see Kozol speak. That's right, Evone is such an education nerd that she flew all the way from New Mexico just to listen to little 72-year-old Jonathan Kozol wave his arms and talk about poor kids for an hour and a half. And it was WORTH IT.

He had to roll up his sleeves and show us his little old man arms

For forty years, Jonathan Kozol has been the voice for poor children in this country. He has taken an unrelenting look at the economic disparities built into the public education system, and with books like Savage Inequalities and The Shame of the Nation, he's exposed the underlying racism and classism in our schools. In fact, Kozol argues that our schools today are more racially segregated than they've been in any year since 1968, the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Truly, it is shameful.

As teachers who have worked with children in rural poverty, particularly in this climate of ruthless and constant high-stakes testing, Evone and I were both thrilled to hear Kozol discuss the ways in which NCLB and high-stakes testing hurt children of poverty. I mean, it's awful, and it's absolutely heartbreaking, but at the same time there's always something so thrilling about hearing someone else put words to your experiences, reassuring you that you're not alone. The woman next to us was literally responding to him as if he was a preacher in the House of Education. "Yes sir," she kept saying. "Amen. Uh-huh! Uh-huh! Amen!"

A part of me wanted to Amen and Uh-huh right along with her, but I was too busy nodding and taking notes.

Mostly, Kozol talked about his latest book, Letters to a Young Teacher, in which he exchanges letters with an optimistic young teacher in an inner-city Boston school. The teacher, Francesca, is an example of what a difference a wonderful teacher can make in the life of a child. Unfortunately, as Evone and I both know firsthand, many such teachers across the country are being hamstrung by administrations and legislation pushing for less love and more "rigor" in the classroom. Many wealthy suburban schools can afford to ignore the mandates of NCLB, because they can afford to lose federal funding. Poor urban (and rural!) schools, on the other hand, absolutely cannot. Therefore, says Kozol, teachers in wealthy, suburban schools can afford the time to allow students to ask the big questions, to jump on teachable moments, to diverge from the lesson plan and wonder and wander and discover and explore. Teachers in poor schools, however, can't afford to do anything but drill, drill, drill. Not when a drop in test scores means the loss of your job. Not when people from the district office and the state department are sitting in the back of your classroom, giving you the evil eye if you deign to allow one off-topic question.

It's hard.

Anyway, Kozol was just lovely. He was incandescent. He was a beautiful spirit, and his was a call to action beyond a mere year in TFA. ("God did not put poor little black and hispanic children on this earth to provide fodder for brief moral interludes in the lives of white college students.") Change in this country must be real and lasting, and it must come from all of us, especially those of us who can speak for the millions of children without voices, who are being trained to fill in bubbles and comply without questions.

Evone asks a question

Afterward, we went down to meet him, to shake his hand and thank him. Organizers of the event stood around him, fussing for him to stop spending so much time with each teacher and student who had a question. They needed to move him into the event next door, they explained, where wealthy stakeholders had paid extra to drink champagne and make liberal small talk with him. The irony of it was rather painful, but Kozol ignored his handlers and happily chatted with us, congratulating the woman in front of us for dropping out of grad school and giving out suggestions of ways to advocate for children.

Finally, they pulled him away and we rode the elevator down to the street and stepped out into the chilly autumn night with his final words ringing in our ears: "Old trees, and the joyfulness of children, will outlive us all."


Rebecca said...

Oh, gosh. As a fellow Grinnellian education nerd, I am so jealous! I was at an inservice/class the other day and the article we were reading briefly mentioned Kozol, so of course I had to point it out. The other people in my group had no idea who he was. I was shocked and depressed to discover that not everyone knows.

E. Stutelberg said...

Isn't he great!?! I met him here in Denver a couple of years ago. He drew a smiley face in my book and then said, "You're a teacher, aren't you?" When I said, "yes," he added a halo to the smiley face. It was an inspiring and unforgettable experience.