August 04, 2016

(+++) IF ONLY…..

I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids. By Kyle Schwartz. Da Capo. $19.99.

     This is a kind of Kids Say the Darndest Things for a much, much darker time. Far from being cute and “aww”-inducing like the comments children made in Art Linkletter’s day, the things kids say in Kyle Schwartz’s book are deeply troubling and often cringe-worthy. It all started when third-grade teacher Schwartz asked the students in her class to fill in the blank after the phrase “I wish my teacher knew ______________.” Although some results were amusing, most were anything but: kids wished their teachers knew about pain and hunger, grief and anger, broken families and lives on the verge of ruin. This being the Internet age, Schwartz was soon sharing the students’ comments online, and soon enough other teachers and other students were contributing, and the eventual result was this book.

     If this were primarily a collection of what young children wish they could tell their teachers, perhaps with brief connective commentary on where the students attended school or what circumstances lay beneath their remarks, this would be a deeply insightful book that would enable adults, whether parents or not, to have a better understanding of the personal and societal traumas through which kids today are trying to live and learn. Schwartz, though, refuses to let the children’s worlds speak for themselves or even almost for themselves: much of the book involves her interpreting the remarks and setting out her context and her feelings about the world, schools, education and children’s lives. She is certainly entitled to handle the material this way – this is her book, after all – but a great deal more of the children and a great deal less of Schwartz’s distinctly adult viewpoint would have resulted in a great deal more insight.

     For instance, one child writes, “I wish my teacher knew that my mom got divorce [sic] 3 times.” Another writes, “I wish my teacher knew that I got kicked out of the house because of my mom’s girlfriend, and now I don’t have a relationship with my mom because of it.” A chapter filled with comments like these would provide tremendous insight into contemporary family structures and the way kids respond to them. But in fact there are only these two examples and two others in the chapter called “All Families Count.” The rest of the words are from Schwartz, who tells readers that “we owe it to our students to allow the realities of their lives to be represented in their learning. Like the American family itself, our thinking can evolve. It is worth the effort to include families because all students, all families, can be powerful forces in a child’s education when they feel they are accepted and included.” There is nothing really wrong with this formulation, although it is rather pat and smacks of a “PC” mentality. But the words are far less emotionally gripping and therefore far less meaningful than what the children themselves have to say.

     The whole book is like this. A chapter on grief and grieving includes, “I wish my teacher knew my dad died this year, and I feel more alone & disconnected from my peers than ever before,” and “I wish my teacher knew that my mom might get diagnosed with cancer this week and I’ve been without a home 3 different times this year alone.” Beside forthright and deeply troubling words like these, those of Schwartz herself come across as pabulum: “These are difficult conversations [about grief], but resist the urge to avoid them.” “When a child experiences a loss, their [sic] emotional and physical stability can be disrupted, but as they [sic] ask questions and get honest answers, they [sic] are able to process and understand a tragic event.” “Teachers do not necessarily need to provide private grief rituals for students, but we should accommodate them.”

     A big part of the issue with I Wish My Teacher Knew is that it is unclear to whom Schwartz is writing. Is it in fact to other teachers? To parents who are seeking to understand the world in which their children live? To policymakers, whose decisions can have significant impact on what goes on in classrooms but who may understand very little about what goes on in the minds of the students in those classrooms? Schwartz veers from audience to audience, seeming sometimes to address one, sometimes another. As a result, there is no consistent tone to her book beyond a personal one: readers will certainly understand how she feels about a variety of matters, but that may not help them understand how they can better handle the extreme difficulties faced by so many students today. Certainly Schwartz tries hard to accept the darkness of the modern world: chapters focus not only on nontraditional families and grief but also on fear, trauma, the difficulty of developing ethical/moral standards, the importance of “building gritty students,” and more. What a bleak world Schwartz describes and, apparently, lives in! She tries continually to project optimism and to show ways she and other teachers (whose experiences she often presents as counterparts to her own) have helped students manage the tremendous difficulties of their everyday lives, both in and out of school. She is resolutely optimistic – a characteristic without which it is hard to imagine anyone continuing to teach young children – yet again and again, even when presenting matters in an upbeat form, she writes things such as, “Our nation’s schools face a brutal reality. More than half of the children in our nation’s schools are living in poverty. Our schools are more segregated by race and socioeconomic status than they were before the Civil Rights Movement.” There are no citations for these statements, which are, on their face, difficult to believe (more than half of all schoolchildren in the United States live in poverty?). But, accurate or not, they represent the way Schwartz sees the world and the background against which I Wish My Teacher Knew must in turn be seen. There is wisdom as well as pain in the fill-in-the-blank responses that Schwartz shares with readers – often more wisdom, and perhaps more pain as well, than her adult perceptions and analyses present. The insights here come more from the students than from those hired to instruct them; the solutions, while unexceptionable, have far less motivational power than the children’s own presentations of the issues that caring teachers and families alike need to find ways to address.

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