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Jonathan Kozol: Book Excerpt

Kozol Book Excerpt

"Dear Francesca"

Jonathan Kozol writes to a Young First-Grade teacher about ‘Lady Marmalade’ and No Child Left Behind.

Jonathan Kozol’s new book, Letters to a Young Teacher , qualifies for one of his favorite adjectives: “incandescent.” It’s based on letters he wrote after watching a young first-year Boston teacher in action and ranges from daily life in elementary school—"the of colored crayons, chalk erasers, pencil sharpeners, and tiny quarrels, sometimes tears and sometimes uncontrollably contagious jubilation"—to the devastating impact of high-stakes tests. Also featured: Kozol’s own harrowing days as a beginning teacher, his memories of Mr. Rogers, and a recipe for green slime.

When I visited your class the first time, there was a child who gave you so much trouble that you had to put him at a table in the corner where he could not constantly distract the other children. I knew that you felt bad about this. You said, “I kind of love him for his style, his defiance, but he has no common sense and absolutely no politeness.”

One of the other kids told me, “He is mean!...”

The next time I was there, you had moved him to a desk beside the blackboard where you had a better chance to keep an eye on him and where you could try to bring him in from time to time to join some of the class activities....

In academic terms, the first sign of a breakthrough I would sense was when he started filling up his spiral pad with bits of narrative that opened up some of those angry memories and fears he’d been reluctant to reveal to you before....

The letter that he gave you a few days ago will, I bet, soon earn a place up on your wall. “Dear Lady Marmalade,” he wrote—he had asked you what you liked for breakfast and you said that you loved orange marmalade and butter on your toast—“I think you wunder full, plus also cheesy, plus also good and wunder full. Love, Captin Black.” I liked especially what he squeezed in down at the bottom of the page: “P.S. And you beter tell me Thank You for this leter be kuz I worrkt hard on it!”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I hate to have to switch gears…to the miseries of high-stakes testing...but you have told me several times how much this troubles teachers at your school....

In most suburban schools, where students tend to do well on…standardized exams, principals and teachers do not feel the pressure to distort curriculum and resort to other drastic measures to protect their schools from federal sanctions….

It’s a different story in too many inner-city schools.…

I think you wunder full, plus also cheesy, plus also good and wunder full.
Love, Captin Black. —elementary student

At P.S. 65,…fifth-grade teachers had to set aside all other lessons for two hours of the day to drill the children for their tests for three months prior to exams….On top of this, two afternoons a week, children had to stay from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. for yet another session of test-drilling, and on Saturdays they had to come to school again for three additional hours of the same routine during the final four weeks just before exams.

Nobody believed test-drilling was of educative worth. Its only function was to…defend the school from state or federal punishments.

In Atlanta, schools have been intentionally constructed with no playgrounds, so that no time can be wasted on activities that will not raise [test] scores. Chicago has largely abolished recess too; the only exceptions that I know are some high-scoring schools, mostly in affluent communities.

In other districts, standardized exams are now administered to children in their kindergarten year, sometimes beginning in the first weeks of the fall, in order, as the principals say, “to get them ready” for the tests that lie ahead.…Many kindergarten children haven’t yet learned how to hold a crayon or a pencil. They look at these tests in terror. They start to cry. They pee in their pants. The teacher’s not allowed to help them other than by offering some faint encouragement: “Keep going. The whole page. All by yourself.”

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