Teaching the Taboo

A Book That Will Push Any Educator, February 5, 2011

By Tessa Strauss

This review is from: Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom

I have to admit, I might be a little biased towards this book. Rick Ayers was my own high school teacher and I saw him create change in our large urban public school, along with inspiring students, teachers, and community members alike, and mentoring them through the process of creating change themselves. Rick’s personal standpoint on education and politics has always inspired and motivated me; in fact, it was in part because of his ability and persistence in pushing students to question the norm that motivated me to become a teacher too.

As a first year teacher in an urban public school, I am faced every day (every moment even) with ethical, political, social, and personal dilemmas that could paralyze me if I had nowhere else to turn. I know why so many teachers leave the education system after only a year or two in the classroom. This is hard work! There are pressures from every angle to be the best teacher, to have your students succeed academically, to pull students up from the bottom single-handedly, to do the impossible and be a superhero. Teachers play a lot of roles in their classrooms; I am prepared daily to be a friend, surrogate mother, listener, conflict manager, food giver, trash picker upper, Academic English speaker, expert speller, math skills driller, disciplinarian, copy machine repairer, nurse, punching bag, and story reader. This can get a little tiring and overwhelming to say the least. This is where books like “Teaching the Taboo” are critical to keeping teachers alive and inspired, pushing us to ask questions in our classrooms and to remember why we became teachers in the first place. We need to believe in our students.

In this age of reporting and ranking teachers according to students’ test scores, I know teachers are doing anything to raise these scores to keep their jobs stable. It’s a scary world out there for teachers these days, but it’s a really scary world for students! I am asked by my school district to teach in a drill & kill style, to give my 8-year old “urban at-risk youth” a standardized, scripted, teacher-centered education so that they can have the same skills as other youth coming from wealthier and more educated communities. But are they really receiving the same education? In just one example, my students are not supposed to use math manipulatives and therefore have a much less conceptual understanding of how math fits in with their daily lives, as opposed to the many other schools that have a hands-on policy for teaching math. As a first year teacher, I struggle with deciding which of these “requirements” are really required and which are suggested; I struggle with the decisions I have to make daily about which students this system is working for and who it is not working for and why, and how I can adapt it or completely throw the curricula out the window in place of something that may work better for my particular students. Of course I believe that all of my students need basic academic skills, and I will go to the end of the earth and back to teach them these skills. I also deeply believe that in order to have any chance of “succeeding” in our society today, my students need to be able to think for themselves, to problem-solve, to apply their math and language skills to their daily lived experience, and to think critically about the world they are in. Rick and Bill Ayers are pushing educators to think deeply about their practice and to question their assumptions about teaching. They ask us to loosen our hold on “control” and to give some of the power and decision-making abilities to our students. They ask us to be flexible, to re-imagine a world where our students (even the most “challenging”) are who education is really for.

My teacher education program stresses the ideas of “teacher as researcher” and the teacher as a political being and someone who is constantly evolving and reflecting about their own roles in the classroom and world. “Teaching the Taboo” is a great reminder to me of how I imagined myself as a classroom teacher; creating a culture of community, creativity, and imagination, where my students are learning and teaching.

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