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.

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