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Jonathan Kozol’s letters to a first-year teacher



'Dear Francesca,’

Ex-teacher Jonathan Kozol has written a new book, Letters to a Young Teacher, that qualifies for one of his own favorite adjectives: “incandescent.” It’s intended especially for new teachers and is based on letters he wrote to a first-year teacher he got to know in Boston.

The letters move from daily life in elementary school—“the small…world of colored crayons, chalk erasers, pencil sharpeners, and tiny quarrels, sometimes tears and sometimes uncontrollably contagious jubilation,” to great national education battles, and back again.

Also featured: Kozol’s own harrowing days as a first-year teacher, his memories of Mr. Rogers, and a recipe for green slime.

When I visited your class the first time, there was a child who gave you so much trouble that you had to put him at a table in the corner where he could not constantly distract the other children. I knew that you felt bad about this. You said, “I kind of love him for his style, his defiance, but he has no common sense and absolutely no politeness.”

One of the other kids told me, “He is mean!”…

The next time I was there, you had moved him to a desk beside the blackboard where you had a better chance to keep an eye on him and where you could try to bring him in from time to time to join some of the class activities…

In academic terms, the first sign of a breakthrough I would sense was when he started filling up his spiral pad with bits of narrative that opened up some of those angry memories and fears he’d been reluctant to reveal to you before.

The letter that he gave you a few days ago will, I bet, soon earn a place up on your wall. “Dear Lady Marmalade,” he wrote—he had asked you what you liked for breakfast and you said that you loved orange marmalade and butter on your toast—“I think you wunder full, plus also cheesy, plus also good and wunder full. Love, Captin Black.” I liked especially what he squeezed in down at the bottom of the page: “P.S. And you beter tell me Thank You for this leter be kuz I worrkt hard on it!”

The last time I visited your class, I saw a timeline posted on the wall above the reading rug. I know that timelines are a commonplace device that first-grade teachers use to introduce their students to a recognition of progressions from one day or month or season to the next. But this was no commonplace variety of timeline.

It was called a “Tooth Line.” Very convincing-looking teeth, which you had cut out of cardboard, had been placed in little slots along the left side. All the children could find their own teeth in one of those slots. I saw “Shaniqua’s tooth,” “Arturo’s tooth,” Dobie’s tooth,” et cetera.

At the top of the chart you had created “tooth-status” columns.

As children reported on the status of a tooth, their cardboard tooth would be advanced across the chart to “Wiggly Teeth,” then “Wobbly Teeth,” then “Out!”

When I asked one of the children which one was her tooth, she went right up and pointed to it. “This one is my tooth,” she said, then stuck her fingers in her mouth to show me which one of her teeth it was. On the chart, it said that it was “wiggly” but after she had moved it around awhile with her forefinger and thumb, she took the cardboard tooth out of its slot and slipped it into “wobbly.”

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20-May-08

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