Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A Review of Steven Singer's New Book: Gadfly on the Wall

In his new book, Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform, education blogger Steven Singer has collected some of the most informative and provocative essays from his popular blog, Gadfly on the Wall. Singer's voice is one of the most necessary in the entire education reform blogosphere, because Singer is a practicing teacher, whose writing is both passionate and informed. If he sometimes sounds indignant, that indignation is rooted in the wisdom that comes from being on the front lines of the debate as a practicing educator, as a parent, and as an advocate for children and public education.

While the topics he tackles are very serious indeed, his writing style carries the reader along on a wave of short declarative statements that pull no punches and take no prisoners. If you find your passion for the good fight against the corporate education reformers flagging, this book is sure to buck up your spirits and get you ready to carry on with the battle.

The book is divided into four sections. Three of the sections cover topics you would expect to find in a book like this: school choice, standardized testing, teaching in the age of the Common Core. Each of these sections provide thoughtful critiques from the perspective of a teacher, father and public school advocate. It is in the least expected section, however, which leads off the book, that Singer makes a singular contribution to the literature on education reform. The section is titled, Racism and Prejudice, and this section alone is not only worth the price of the book, but should be required reading for every current and prospective teacher in the country.

Singer, a white teacher teaching in a classroom full of mostly black students, takes a serious and knowing look at racism and its impact on his students, and by extension, all students of color, and our society as a whole. First of all, Singer owns up to his own racism and invites us to see our own racism and to reflect how this impacts our education system and our entire culture. Singer defines racism as "hate plus power." In other words, racism goes beyond prejudice, anyone of any race can be prejudiced, but racism requires the power that only whites have in our society, so racism in America is a problem that only whites can fix and they can only fix it, Singer suggests, by first admitting it.

And, Singer says, this is white America's problem to fix. With the power white's wield in our society, we must fix ourselves or the issue will never be fixed. So after recognition comes action. Singer suggests many ways teachers can work to fix the problem in a series of essays. The solutions he offers are as seemingly simple as respecting  African American naming practices, "White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names", to the complexities of classroom discussions about police brutality, "A Moment of Silence for Michael Brown," to the challenges of overcoming deeply ingrained attitudes about wealth and poverty, "Prejudice and Poverty - Why Americans Hate the Poor and Worship the Rich."

Ultimately, Singer is arguing that we must combat racism by "treating black folks fairly, equitably, and with an open heart." It is that open heart that we may find to be the greatest challenge, because as Singer skillfully shows in this section of the book, our history and our culture has not only closed our eyes to our inherent biases, but, as recent political events indicate, may have done great damage to our heart as well.

One man whose heart has escaped undamaged from being raised white in America is Steven Singer. In these pages he opens his heart to the reader, and for this reader at least, my heart is a bit more open and a bit richer for having read his words.

Singer, Steven. (2017). Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform. NY: Garn Press.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Least of Russ on Reading 2017

Welcome to the 4th annual list of The Least of Russ on Reading. Each year newspapers, magazines, and television shows use the end of the year as an opportunity to publish "Best of,,," lists. I choose to use this year-end recap to revisit a few of my posts over the past year that, for one reason or another, did not attract a lot of attention.

I have been writing this blog for almost five years now and I have yet to figure out what precisely makes one blog post go viral, while another is greeted with internet indifference. At any rate I think these few are worth another look. I hope you agree. Here they are: The Least of Russ on Reading for 2017.

Comprehending Non Fiction: Setting Kids Up for Success

When kids struggle to comprehend the non-fiction texts we give them, we need to ask ourselves, "What can I do to ensure they can read this successfully?"

Building Bridges Beats Building Walls

As I sat pondering the impending inauguration of one Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, some songs and poems reminded me that "something there is that doesn't love a wall."

Building a Better Robot Teacher

What a surprise! Research shows that technology can't replace human beings as teachers. Here I talk about the proper role of technology in the classroom and the still critical role of the classroom teacher.

What Kind of Knowledge Does a Teacher Need

One of my personal favorites of the year. While so many around us seem to think that anyone can teach, I argue here for the very specialized kind of knowledge that a teacher must have and how that knowledge is unique to those who choose teaching as a profession and not a sideline.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Holiday Gift of Poetry 2017

As this blog enters its fifth year of existence it is a pleasure to continue a tradition begun in the first year - an offering of seasonal poetry as a gift to loyal readers of Russ on Reading. Over the years one of the real pleasures of sharing poems with you has been the opportunity to find new poems I had not read before and to revisit older poems I had read many times before. This year I offer something old (Winter Trees) something new ( Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing) and something old, but newly discovered (Speakin O' Christmas). In an increasingly fraught world poetry has always offered me solace and food for thought. I hope you find something here that brings a smile of recognition or a nod of remembrance to brighten your holiday season. Thanks for reading. Enjoy your holidays.

Winter Trees
by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold

Speakin’ O’ Christmas by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Breezes blowin’ middlin’ brisk,
Snow-flakes thro’ the air a-whisk,
Fallin’ kind o’ soft an’ light,
Not enough to make things white,
But jest sorter siftin’ down
So ’s to cover up the brown
Of the dark world’s rugged ways
’N’ make things look like holidays.
Not smoothed over, but jest specked,
Sorter strainin’ fur effect,
An’ not quite a-gittin’ through
What it started in to do.
Mercy sakes! it does seem queer
Christmas day is ’most nigh here.
Somehow it don’t seem to me
Christmas like it used to be,—
Christmas with its ice an’ snow,
Christmas of the long ago.
You could feel its stir an’ hum
Weeks an’ weeks before it come;
Somethin’ in the atmosphere
Told you when the day was near,
Did n’t need no almanacs;
That was one o’ Nature’s fac’s.
Every cottage decked out gay—
Cedar wreaths an’ holly spray—
An’ the stores, how they were drest,
Tinsel tell you could n’t rest;
Every winder fixed up pat,
Candy canes, an’ things like that;
Noah’s arks, an’ guns, an’ dolls,
An’ all kinds o’ fol-de-rols.
Then with frosty bells a-chime,
Slidin’ down the hills o’ time,
Right amidst the fun an’ din
Christmas come a-bustlin’ in,
Raised his cheery voice to call
Out a welcome to us all;
Hale and hearty, strong an’ bluff,
That was Christmas, sure enough.
Snow knee-deep an’ coastin’ fine,
Frozen mill-ponds all ashine,
Seemin’ jest to lay in wait,
Beggin’ you to come an’ skate.
An’ you’d git your gal an’ go
Stumpin’ cheerily thro’ the snow,
Feelin’ pleased an’ skeert an’ warm
’Cause she had a-holt yore arm.
Why, when Christmas come in, we
Spent the whole glad day in glee,
Havin’ fun an’ feastin’ high
An’ some courtin’ on the sly.
Burstin’ in some neighbor’s door
An’ then suddenly, before
He could give his voice a lift,
Yellin’ at him, “Christmas gift.”
Now sich things are never heard,
“Merry Christmas” is the word.
But it’s only change o’ name,
An’ means givin’ jest the same.
There’s too many new-styled ways
Now about the holidays.
I’d jest like once more to see
Christmas like it used to be!
Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing
by Toi Derricotte
My mother was not impressed with her beauty;
once a year she put it on like a costume,
plaited her black hair, slick as cornsilk, down past her hips,
in one rope-thick braid, turned it, carefully, hand over hand,
and fixed it at the nape of her neck, stiff and elegant as a crown,
with tortoise pins, like huge insects,
some belonging to her dead mother,
some to my living grandmother.
Sitting on the stool at the mirror,
she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her,
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us
unless it was weighted and bound in its mask.
Vaseline shined her eyebrows,
mascara blackened her lashes until they swept down like feathers;
her eyes deepened until they shone from far away.
Now I remember her hands, her poor hands, which, even
then were old from scrubbing, whiter on the inside than they should have been,
and hard, the first joints of her fingers, little fattened pads,
the nails filed to sharp points like old-fashioned ink pens, painted a jolly color.
Her hands stood next to her face and wanted to be put away, prayed
for the scrub bucket and brush to make them useful.
And, as I write, I forget the years I watched her
pull hairs like a witch from her chin, magnify
every blotch—as if acid were thrown from the inside. 
But once a year my mother
rose in her white silk slip,
not the slave of the house, the woman,
took the ironed dress from the hanger—
allowing me to stand on the bed, so that
my face looked directly into her face,
and hold the garment away from her
as she pulled it down.
From Captivity. Copyright © 1989 by Toi Derricotte. Published by University of Pittsburgh Press.