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Teachers Eternal
By Jabari Asim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 1999
"A teacher affects eternity," Henry Adams once observed. "He can never tell where his influence stops." Each of the following books touches upon ways in which educators have an impact on students' lives.

A young white female teacher and an inner-city classroom filled with black, Latino and Asian fifth-graders sounds like a modern-day take on "To Sir With Love." Instead, Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year (Algonquin, $17.95) grants readers a mind's-eye view of Esme Raji Codell's adventures and misadventures at an unnamed Chicago public school. Codell is untested but tough, a young nonconformist determined not to let conventional wisdom curb her considerable enthusiasm.

She lets us know right away that we aren't in for a standard today-I-touched-a-child's-soul chronicle. Reporting for her assignment, she notes that her building "didn't smell like a school, which is usually a kind of combination of kitchen cleanser and fish sandwiches. I love smells, and that smell in particular is one of my favorites."

She soon discovers that getting used to the smell of "sawdust and drippy pipes" is just one of many challenges. "School is different now," she writes, "it's not like you can come in and teach that Columbus sailed in 1492 and 2 + 2 = 4." In addition to clueless colleagues, a "prefabricated curriculum" and school board mandates that seem designed to cover up mediocrity, Codell must somehow get through to the 31 youngsters in her care, many of whom shoulder substantial burdens of their own. Sassy, irrepressible and happily eccentric, Codell is the type of person who gears up for a trying day by listening to Tina Turner's "Funkier Than a Mosquita's Tweeter." She's understandably less cheerful when describing confrontations with a creepy principal and encounters with parents who show their concern by beating their children in the hallways. Although her supervisor frowns at her methods, they work: At the end of the year Codell's fifth-graders have the highest math and reading test scores in the school.

Codell's mentor once told her that the difference between a beginning teacher and an experienced one is that the beginning teacher asks, "How am I doing?" and the experienced one asks, "How are the children doing?" Howard Gardner has devoted his storied career to the pursuit of the latter question. A noted educational psychologist at Harvard University, Gardner has his mind on the future in his latest book, The Disciplined Mind (Simon & Schuster, $24, forthcoming in May).

As Gardner sees it, reading, writing and arithmetic are just the beginning where learning is concerned. The two major goals of education, he argues, are the modeling of adult roles and the transmission of cultural values-ways of behaving and thinking. He believes that both objectives will be challenged in the future by rapid changes in technology, politics, economics and the manner in which new knowledge is distributed (e.g., scholarly papers can now be placed on the Internet as soon as they're completed, bypassing traditional methods of review and publication). How can education systems around the world meet these challenges? By teaching their students about what really matters: truth, beauty and morality.

Gardner disavows a "book of virtues" style of education; he acknowledges that ideas about such virtues may vary among cultures. But the importance of investigating such matters is universal. "It's not because I know for certain what the true and the beautiful and the good are that I call for their study," he writes. "I organize my presentation around these topics because they motivate individuals to learn about and understand their world."

Journalist Cristina Rathbone set out to understand the world of urban teenagers in On the Outside Looking In: A Year in an Inner-City High School (new in paperback from Atlantic Monthly Press, $14). "More interested in the lives of students than in the methods used to educate those lives," Rathbone spent a year-long sojourn at West Side High, a New York school largely composed of students that even the worst schools rejected. As Rathbone portrays it, West Side was underfunded and underappreciated by its own school system, and to call its students poor and troubled fails to do justice to the conditions in which they lived and struggled to learn. "As I started, piece by piece, to fit together the jigsaw puzzle that made up the contours of some students' lives-lives that ran parallel to but separately from my own-all I really learned was to grow ever more respectful of the complexity of things," Rathbone writes.

Led by a remarkable principal named Ed Reynolds, the tiny, committed West Side faculty labors to reach and nurture its charges, often finding that what students want and need-even more than education-is a sympathetic ear and a comforting presence. Rathbone's year left her convinced that West Side's students could succeed if granted what they were frequently denied: "plausible, verifiable access to a place where wanting to change the world-or even just yourself-is rewarded with praise rather than arrest."

Jabari Asim is a senior editor of Book World.


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