For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood. . . and the Rest of Y’all Too (Emdin)

I am the target audience for this book. I am one of the white folks who teach in the hood. I’ve been doing it on and off for 20+ years and expect to do it for the rest of my career. And I wish I had this book 20 years ago. For those who read teacher education books regularly, you know that there are some books that are philosophical and some that are practical. I loved that this was a combination of both. For a short while, I was irked by the occasional grand statement. And conclusions that include the phrase “would probably” concern me.

I got over it. Quickly. Swept away by Emdin’s combination of evidence, anecdotes, and pedagogy, I became a firm convert. Certainly, there were times I wanted to argue with him. For example, I think he places too much emphasis on grades. I recorded my brilliant rebuttals in the margins.

Emdin’s practical suggestions on how to work with students he calls “neoindigenous” are challenging and, I think, definitely worth considering. I do not want to be complicit in anything that smacks of educational colonization (Emdin’s examples from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School are sobering), but I am not sure I can try everything at once. The logistics of the cogen – a kind of secret student-advisory board – seem particularly challenging. And I was not persuaded by the need to or my ability to keep this sort of thing secret.

A wise student of mine once said, “Every time someone wants to do something for black kids, they roll out a basketball.” Are we doing the same thing with rap / spoken word / hip-hop? Certainly as someone who has turned out to have many more skills with words than basketball, I value words more. But should I have students turn a scene from, for example, Romeo and Juliet into a rap? What message does this send them? And there are some black students who don’t like and/or are no good at rap.

I am willing to be goofy about handshakes, and I do try to listen to the music that is popular with the students. I could definitely do more co-teaching. And while I got into the community more as a younger teacher, I definitely have less energy for that now. I also have children. Still, I could do more.

I agree with Emdin (and Bill Ayers before him) about the dress code, but there is something to be said about teacher consistency. Is this the battle worth fighting? Considering what could go wrong, is the grafitti wall the choice I want to make?

I agree with so much of what Emdin offers (my students are brilliant) and find this book inspiring. My plan is to share it with colleagues. It would be very useful to have allies in this work.




The Turner House (Flournoy)

Two signs that I am getting old:

  1. Childhood heroes are dying (see Prince, David Bowie).
  2. Events which I lived through are now being brought back to me through the arts (see Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing, OJ’s trial, and the 2008 housing crisis).

It is the 2008 housing crisis that Flournoy takes up in her stunning debut novel, The Turner House. The Turner House is located in Detroit and the mother of the 13 children has finally – because of medical issues – had to move out. The family gathers to discuss what to do with the house and new vocabulary enters their lives — short-sell, foreclosure, etc.. There is a lot of discussion. The problem is that there are at least 2 plans. Some of the 13 children have remained in Detroit; others have scattered. The house has a history, particularly for Cha-Cha (Charles), the eldest. Something happened there when he was a child, something that needs a reckoning. Flournoy wisely lifts just a few of the siblings out of the crowd (the ones who remain), and she makes them so vivid that I think I’d know them if I saw them on the street. Naturally, the action centers around the house, the house they are all drawn back to – the one their mother knows she will never inhabit again.

Flournoy also takes us back in time to explain how the Turner family came to end up in Detroit, and the back-story is just as compelling as the contemporary one. Things are revealed, when they need to be, and Cha-Cha’s reckoning is both gripping and true.

Despite some occasional struggles with didactic dialogue, Flournoy’s writing is sublime. She glides between the specific and the general, between the present and the past, between the South and the North, and between the natural and the supernatural in a way that reminds me of Toni Morrison.

I cannot wait to see what she does next.

In a Different Key: The Story of Autism (Donvan & Zucker)

First, all credit should go to the co-authors. They really do make this a story which, for those of us who are not too science-minded, is much appreciated. If they occasionally rely a bit too much on the chapter-ending cliffhanger, that’s forgivable.

Science stories or stories of science (in my limited experience) are stories of ignorance to knowledge. But this story of autism offers no such straight line. Much delayed by the post-Holocaust aversion to genetic testing, the story of autism is one of fits and starts, collaboration and competition and, astonishingly, one huge backward step (the anti-vaccine movement). I knew that it has always been difficult to define autism, so it has long been difficult to count how many people are autistic. I knew that there are some who question the validity of Aspberger’s Syndrome, though I did not know of Mr. Asperger’s (historically necessary? overzealous?) connections with the Nazi party.

I knew of Andrew Wakefield’s article and that it had been refuted, but the web of his lies, manipulations, and, in my mind, criminal acts was staggering. Does anyone know his current status? I know he was struck off the register in the UK. Can he practice medicine anywhere?

I know and admire Temple Grandin’s work ( and should see that movie. The two organizations that most impressed me are the Simons Foundation ( and ASAN (

What should be the goal: a cure or learning how to best help those in need?

If anyone in  your life spends any time with anyone with autism, this is required reading.

Book of Hours (Young)

Young’s poems, both gentle and devastating, give one the feeling of tearing off a scab . . . slowly. These are poems about big things (life, death) in small moments and, at times, small poems. In “Obsequies,” Young suggests how the death of his father has turned altered his sense of perspective:

At night I count

not the stars

but the dark.

Young is less concerned with death than forgetting. In “Near Miss,” he writes that “it is forgetting, not watery / memory, that scares me.” ‘Watery’ seems to me the perfect adjective for memory. Have you ever tried to hold either one in your hand?

Young does remember though. He reports in “Easter” that “[l]ove / is strange & almost // always too late — his stubborn / grace I miss. For once that Easter // I told him. / Luck / is one word for it.”

There are a lot of memorable pieces here. Look for example at the last line of the last poem in the collection ( — “Why not sing.” Note that there’s no question mark. Like everything else in this collection, this poem leaves you with the sense of language that caresses, but on closer examination, can bite.



Building A+ Better Teacher (Green)

Looking back, I’m not sure what prompted me to pick this one up. Now, even the title disturbs me. Building?

I get the impulse. We need teachers. A lot of them. But there is such a wide variety of quality – from state-to-state, even within a building. We lack, Green argues persuasively, a coherent infrastructure for national education. And when we get into words like infrastructure, we get into the world of business – people who look at education as a problem to be solved, as a place for future workers, and as a place for profit. Not only that, once we have an idea – even a successful one – we try, in the true American spirit, to replicate it. Enter the likes for Doug Lemov who wants us to know how to Teach Like a Champion so we can manage behavior. There’s another one of those economic words – “manage.”

Green spends much of her time on alternatives to public schools. I’d be the last to claim that there are no problems with public schools, but they are one of our last remaining remnants of democracy. And even now, they under assault from those who would proft from them, and under attack, from those – for no real reason (attention, Mr. Gates) – think they can do better. Still others use them as an excuse to try to break down unions.

Whose responsibility is public education? Our founders left it to the states. And the states need money, so they try to leave no child behind as they race to the top. Certainly, we all want to know what ‘works,’ but we can’t even seem to agree what that means. There are some interesting possibilities here, particularly when it comes to the work done at Michigan State and on math.

Though Green does seem aware of moves made by other countries, she focuses on Singapore and Japan. What about the work being done in Finland? Why are there so many education schools? Why is it so easy to get admitted? Why do teachers get paid so poorly? How do we shift a system that has been entrenched, sometimes in corruption and certainly in mismanagement, for so long (without sacrificing still more children)? How do we work both at the federal and local level? Do we need a Department of Education? And can’t we do better than all of this testing? How do we establish and maintain meaningful mentorship arrangements? How do we give teachers the time to get better?

If you want to know your priorities, someone once said, look at your checkbook. To that, I would add (for schools), look at your schedule. What are schools spending their time and money on? I recently had the opportunity to visit some schools in New York City. They were not allowed to open until they had some provision (staffing, a partnership) for wraparound services. That’s establishing priorities.

So there’s much to consider here. But after 200 or so pages, Green’s bias shows through. And mine probably shows through in this piece (less a review than a rant). Teaching will always be hard. There are ways we can prepare people to teach and help them get better. There is help that those outside education can give (and there’s also interference). But with human beings at the center and so much history to contend with, there will always be challenges. I agree with the argument for coherency. Let us start it, though, with one school at a time and go, slowly, from there.

The Story of the Lost Child (Ferrante)

I held off as long as I could. What a marvelous, layered conclusion to a quartet of great novels. With its absolutely pitch-perfect title, Ferrante continues her story of friendship and of growing up (the friends, the neighbors, the neighborhood, the city, the country). Along the way, she gives us two of the most powerful, nuanced, insightful and interesting female characters I’ve encountered in literature. I am sorry to see them go.

Now that I know how it ends, I can’t wait to go back to the beginning. I also can’t wait to see what Ferrante does next.

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Yoshino)

Yoshino offers a description of three stages of the assault on civil rights – conversion, passing, and covering. Though he focuses on the challenges faced by gays (including himself), Michelle Obama’s graduation speech at Tuskegee came to mind:

Back when my husband first started campaigning for President, folks had all sorts of questions of me:  What kind of First Lady would I be?  What kinds of issues would I take on?  Would I be more like Laura Bush, or Hillary Clinton, or Nancy Reagan?  And the truth is, those same questions would have been posed to any candidate’s spouse.  That’s just the way the process works.  But, as potentially the first African American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others.  Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating?  (Applause.) Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?

In what way(s) do we – as a society, as employers, as people in power, as people in the dominant group – putting explicit and implicit pressure on any group? Are we saying, “You can be gay, but not too gay.”

Yoshino does particularly well when he questions the distinction made between being and doing. Consider, for example, dreadlocks. Are they being or doing?

A clear, thought-provoking discussion. I imagine that Yoshino is a great teacher. I know I learned a lot and want to learn more.