As Bad As They Say?

The Book of the Week is “As Bad As They Say? Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx” by Janet Grossbach Mayer, published in 2011. This is the career memoir of a New York City teacher.

Grossbach started teaching in January 1960 to a class of fifty(!) middle schoolers, with no books. All by herself. The principal visited her the first week. Thereafter, neither he nor any other administrators visited again. In the almost sixty intervening years since then, not much has changed in terms of education quality (or lack thereof) for New York City public school students. As an aside, her older brother attended Queens College in New York City in the 1950’s, when there was free tuition.

“Whomever you blame, do not blame Bronx students, because, despite all the obstacles we have put in their way, these amazing young people are definitely not as bad as they say.”

In the mid-1980’s, the author worked at a horrible school in the Bronx. She lists only several of the countless flaws in the building’s infrastructure and culture; among them, the elevator was often out of order; the school nurse wasn’t licensed, and had to care for 1,600-1,800 kids and staff; the author stomped when she entered her classrooms (several different ones in the course of each day) in order to scare away the roaches, rats and mice; her classrooms was on the coal-heated side of the building, so it was always freezing and the other side was boiling; there were no student lockers in the entire school– just cubbies with no locks, so they went unused…

Sadly, politicians promote misguided education policies, like voting against financially aiding a majority of students in poverty-stricken school districts because it would be potential political suicide to take from the rich and give to the poor. The last chapter is a justified complaint-fest on the education policies of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg  (doing damage from 2002 to 2013), with a little of former president George W. Bush’s scandalous “No Child Left Behind” bill thrown in. To sum up Bloomberg’s reign: “Having business leaders run the public schools can be compared to having surgeons working in operating rooms without having gone to medical school.” The author cited a study that said by their fourth year of teaching, 85% of Teach For America (neophyte teachers-in-training who completed a rushed summer course and were then allowed to teach) had left New York City.

After she retired, Mayer mentored students in Bloomberg’s “small schools.” In her first year, she found five nonfunctioning small high schools, whose personnel were all inexperienced. There were various situations of flagrant violations of the law, like special education classes whose teachers were unlicensed. The public address system was broken the whole school year. If there had been an emergency, people could have died. There were “…expensive new math books torn up and thrown all over the floor by students in classes with new teachers…” who could not control their classrooms. “The new principal, with no science background, had written a new science curriculum…” ordering the teaching of physics in ninth rather than twelfth grade to special education students. “The math teacher wasn’t licensed in special education, never mind physics.” There was no librarian to open the cartons of brand new books for the entire school year. Needless to say, there were numerous “…distraught teachers, administrators, parents and students.”

The above abominations were not isolated incidents. Third-world countries were getting smarter assistance with governance to improve education conditions than the New York City schools. Read the book to learn how the author coped.

The Strange Case of the Mad Professor

The Book of the Week is “The Strange Case of the Mad Professor” by Peter Kobel, published in 2013. This ebook recounts the sordid story of a petty, vengeful university professor who was passionate about his field of study, lemurs.

Professor John Buettner-Janusch (aka “B-J”), of German and Austrian descent, was born in 1924. He grew up in the United States, but went to jail for evading the draft during WWII. “His desire for attention was enormous, and he never seemed to care much whether that notice was admiration, disdain, or loathing.”

B-J eventually rose through the ranks of higher education while collecting a menagerie of lemurs that were subjected to primate research. People either loved him or hated him. He was like a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It became apparent that he was also a sociopath.

Starting in the late 1970’s, he was charged with serious crimes. “…But much of B-J’s pretrial testimony formed a farrago of lies and half-truths, of the incredible or incomprehensible.”

Read the book to learn what became of this colorful character.

Outwitting History

The Book of the Week is “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books” by Aaron Lansky, published in 2005. The author of this ebook, passionate about the Yiddish language and the culture and history behind it, made a career of preserving books in Yiddish by physically transporting them to an eventual library he and a few others started.

Lansky attended a Northeastern free-spirited college, Hampshire, where he was afforded the opportunity to become fluent in Yiddish. Teaching of the language between generations has been uneven because different factions of Jews have different opinions of it so that its popularity has risen and fallen through the centuries. Lansky felt a sense of immediacy about saving Yiddish literature because he was told that scholars “…estimated that there were seventy thousand Yiddish volumes extant and recoverable in North America” and he was finding out that books were being destroyed for diverse reasons in various ways.

Funding and fundraising have always been a challenge for the author through the decades. To pick up hundreds of Yiddish volumes at once, say, from the home of an intellectual Jew who had passed away, he needed to pay for: renting a truck, gas, insurance, travel expenses, storage, etc. Lecturing has also been a source of money for his endeavors.

Read the book to learn how the National Yiddish Book Center was formed, how he recruited other people to help him with collecting books, the social and cultural organizations to which he traveled to collect them, the food he was pressured to eat while meeting a lot of volunteers of the older generation who shared his love of, and desire to keep Yiddish alive, and how his organization is harnessing modern technology to attain its aims.

Bonus Post

The short ebook “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future” by Michael J. Fox, published in 2010 is an inspiring commencement speech.  The author answers the question, “What constitutes an education?”

As a teenager, Fox himself sacrificed his formal education for his career. It was an alternate route that was not necessarily inferior to his staying in school. He had found his passion early in life and circumstances allowed him to pursue it. He does not necessarily recommend the method he fell into, but tells the reader to be on the lookout for and respect mentors, opportunities and lessons in life. Read the book to learn the details of the education Fox did receive.

Outliers

The Book of the Week is “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, published in 2008. This short, repetitive yet fascinating ebook is a hodgepodge of commentaries on human nature.

The author argues that extremely successful people in specific areas of expertise, such as professional sports, computer programming, music, science and lawyering “…are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies…” that give them a helping hand with regard to pursuing their passions. He also touches on a few peripheral topics, such as cultures of honor, plane crashes, rice paddies, education and slavery, all of which involve complex systems of teamwork and communication.

Outliers take advantage of the chances they get over the course of about a decade, or 10,000 hours, in which they hone their abilities in one area that, at the time, happens to become valued by society.  An outlier is what some business commentators refer to as a “hedgehog” rather than a “fox.” The former becomes an expert in one or two areas–  the outlier mystique; the latter gains some experience in many areas– useful in times of crisis, but never conducive to outlier status.

Gladwell names real-life examples of various celebrities, mostly Americans, explaining why their incredible achievements were attained with assistance from fate. He writes that stories about outliers are often exaggerated, failing to mention the set of lucky circumstances that led to success.

For example, the nurturing of talent of young Canadian ice hockey players is based on a biased selection process. Players are grouped in leagues by their playing abilities within age ranges determined by their birthdates. The ones who are older, even by a few months, have a statistically significant advantage in terms of size and strength. Thus, it so happens that a large percentage of players are born in January, February or March. These lucky ones are provided with a superior experience, whose success feeds on itself, called “accumulative advantage.”

The maximally successful achiever is one who is both book-smart and street-smart, as was J. Robert Oppenheimer, project manager of the atomic bomb. According to Gladwell, street-smart consists of attitudes and skills instilled by one’s family. If one happens to be born into a wealthy, nurturing family, one is much more likely to become an outlier.

Read the book to learn: 1) which countries’ students are best at math and why; 2) the reason there is an achievement gap between high-income and low-income American elementary schoolers; and 3) other interesting findings.

Open

The Book of the Week is “Open” by Andre Agassi published in 2009. This engaging ebook tells the life story (up until his mid-thirties) of a famous American tennis player.

The author’s traumatic childhood invites the reader’s sympathy and the entertaining writing keeps the reader enthralled. Although this is a first-person account and the book is all about him, he does not come off as narcissistic. He has bragging rights as a world-class tennis player, and has done some serious introspection– he shares with the reader his emotional states while recounting his life lessons.

Agassi’s childhood was tennis-obsessed, as his father ordained that he was going to grow up to be a professional tennis player. As a powerless child, he could not argue. Besides, he told himself that he loved his father, wanted his approval, didn’t want to make him mad. His father became even more tyrannical than usual when angry. So his tennis career became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fortunately, during his journey to the top, Agassi met friends, mentors, lovers and even opponents, who helped him to become a better athlete and a better person. When he got his first taste of celebrity, Agassi writes, “Wimbledon has legitimized me, broadened and deepened my appeal, at least according to the agents and managers and marketing experts with whom I now regularly meet.”

Grateful for his fame and fortune, the author decided to give back. He wanted to create “… something to play for that’s larger than myself and yet still closely connected to me… but isn’t about me.” He co-founded a charter school called Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, located in Nevada.

Agassi proudly describes the school; a few aspects with which this blogger takes issue. He claims that pouring money into the school would make it a better school. He says Nevada is a state that spends less money per student on education than most other states. At least one study has shown that spending is not a factor in improving education quality.

Agassi also supplied the 26,000 square foot education complex with “everything the kids could want”– the very best entertainment and computer centers, athletic facilities, etc. On any given day, a famous politician, athlete or musician might drop by to teach the kids.

The author boasts, “Our educators are the best, plain and simple.” Yet, he goes on to write, because the school “… has a longer school day and a longer school year than other schools, our staff might earn less per hour than staffs elsewhere. But they have more resources at their fingertips and so they enjoy greater freedom to excel and make a difference in children’s lives.”

In other words, Agassi’s take on education is misguided in various ways. It seems he thinks kids will get a better education with quantity over quality when it comes to money and time. True, passionate teachers do not work solely for the money, but they value student enlightenment and recognition more than sparkling new classrooms. Admittedly, the author is a man of contradictions. Read the book to learn more about them.

I’d Like to Apologize

The Book of the Week is “I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had” by Tony Danza (yes, the famous actor), published in 2012. This ebook is a personal account of Danza’s bout with trying out the profession of teaching. He taught one tenth grade English class at an inner-city Philadelphia school that allowed his trial by fire to be recorded for a reality show on the Arts and Entertainment cable channel.

This was during the 2009-2010 academic year. Danza experienced the range of extreme emotions and encountered the range of difficult issues common to modern American teachers. He does a good job impressing upon the reader how hard it is to be a high school teacher. These days, teachers have numerous pressures thrust upon them. One quote sums up the current situation: “Teachers and administrators are always worried about being fired. One complaint from a child or parent can be the end of a career.”

Danza felt he had to make learning fun because students are growing up in a society immersed in entertainment. He felt he had to go easy on disciplining students. Many of the ones he taught live in single-parent households, are the victims of abuse, abandonment, poor parenting, etc. If he did not choose his battles wisely, they might fail to see the connection between education and success in life and quit school altogether.

In addition, if teachers take students to task for minor infractions, such as wearing hoodies, using electronic devices, and even cheating– rather than fighting– “The only recourse is to… involve the dean’s office… lose precious class time…” In other words, going through all the trouble to punish problem students cheats the other students out of an education.

He saw that the teaching profession has changed for the worse significantly since he was in grade school. He noted that some parents fail to take an interest in their kids’ education, or else blame the teacher when their kids fail to do schoolwork, or are a discipline problem. One of Danza’s lessons involved a discussion of celebrities– numerous Americans are poorly educated, but are rich and famous anyway; one reason many teenagers do not see the value of education.

At every opportunity, Danza tried to teach life lessons about morals, the golden rule and empathy. The kids were less than thrilled when the school principal decided to go with them on a class field trip. Danza told the class “Make the best of a baaaaad situation.”

Danza encountered some conflicts with the reality-show crew because he was truly dedicated to teaching his kids. The producer wanted to entertain the show’s viewers.

Read the book to learn more about the above and other issues, plus standardized testing, the fate of the reality show, and whether Danza decided to return to teach the following year.