"One of our great blind spots in schooling is that when we walk into classrooms we forget that we are still human beings," writes Ken Macrorie in the conclusion to "Twenty Teachers." Throughout the book Macrorie and the teachers whose profiles constitute this collection emphasize the humanity of both teachers and students, the need for teachers to be caring and understanding people who can enable their students to make knowledge their own.
As a parent reading Macrorie's interviews with teachers like Randy Varner, a physical education instructor in Kalamazoo, or with Bill Barker, a math teacher at Bowdoin College, my response was, "I want people like that teaching my kids." As a teacher, I found Warner, Barker and several others in the book inspiring and challenging, reminders that teaching is an art that is never fully mastered.
Take English teacher Steven Urkowitz of the Maritime College in New York. To Urkowitz literature is an art form, and like all art forms it must be experienced and felt if it is to be understood at all. Says Urkowitz: "I fight for the integrity of the experience of encountering the work of art rather than the meanings of the work or the general ideal class of the work. When I find passages that make me cry, that send chills up my spine -- those are the ones I bring to class and read out . . . I'm searching basically for experience . . . I push hard to get from students connections and responses as vivid and honest as the works we're reading. I feel very unwilling to be bored in class."
Put simply, Urkowitz is saying that he knocks himself out to help students "get into" the literature he teaches. Too many of us teaching English shy away from Urkowitz's ideals. We focus on the safe -- the author's life, the history surrounding the work, or the technical aspects like character development, figures of speech. That may help students understand a work, but it's all meaningless if they don't experience it, if they are not moved by it, if they say, "That was boring," after they finish a great novel, poem or play. Urkowitz puts his finger on our problem.
"I think that a lot of teachers are too scared," he says. "When they're up in front of a class, they're too busy defending their authority. They don't want to show their vulnerability to artistic or intellectual challenges. They don't want to say 'I get excited about this' . . . Instead they don't let people know. Rather than being responsive members of the culture, they stand up there as abstracted agents of it. That's the trap. It's built into our schools and the classroom structure."
And yet, as much as I agree with a great deal of Macrorie's philosophy, and as enlightening as many of his profiles are, "Twenty Teachers" is seriously flawed. It is too long and often tedious. Many of the chapters are apparently stream-of-consciousness ramblings by teachers about what they do in class. They often go on for 10 pages when one would have made the point clearly. Some of the profiles don't do justice to what seem to be superb professionals. For instance, I wanted to know a great deal about Jimmy Britton, a writing teacher from England, but instead got a nine-page spiel by one of his former pupils talking off the top of her head, more about herself than Britton.
One also wonders just how much of what some of the teachers have to say is true. Macrorie has observed few of them in the classroom. He often relied on the opinion of a friend as to a teacher's ability, and in a few cases interviewed the teacher only once. I'm sure if Macrorie called the five worst teachers I know and said, "I've been told that you're a wonderful teacher; I'm writing a book and I'd like to interview you about what works in your classes," most of them would be able to make themselves sound pretty good.
Another major difficulty with the book is its limited view of the classroom. It gives the impression that all students from kindergarten to graduate school are eager to soak up knowledge and that all they need to be lovers of wisdom is one of Macrorie's 20 "enablers" (his word for teacher). The teachers here never seem to face the struggle, disappointment and defeat that even the best teachers I know experience.
Ultimately, Macrorie and too many of his 20 seem naive. They seem to feel that grades and tests and other old-fashioned motivators -- which I have often seen bring out the best in students -- will destroy the purity of the intellectual experience. The writing teachers interviewed are caught up in having students write about their personal feelings; they talk little of the discipline, concentration and just simple pain that students must go through if they are ever to become good writers. In short Macrorie and many of his teachers appear caught in a '60s time warp. I'd love to interview some of the students of these benevolent instructors. I'm sure a lot of them "got away with murder" in their classes and got cheated out of an education in the process.