150 Years Of The Atlantic November 2006

Education

This is the tenth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Jonathan Kozol, the National Book Award-winning author of several books on public education.
Death at an Early Age
September 1967
By Jonathan Kozol

Not long after graduating from Harvard, Jonathan Kozol became a fourth-grade teacher in an inner-city Boston public school. In 1967 Kozol described his efforts to make a difference in the lives of children who clearly had been given up on by many others.

Consider what it is like to go into a new classroom and to see before you suddenly, and in a way you cannot avoid recognizing, the dreadful consequences of a year’s wastage of so many lives. You walk into a narrow and old wood-smelling classroom and see thirty-five curious, cautious, and untrusting children, aged nine to thirteen, of whom about two thirds are Negro …

You check around the classroom. Of forty desks five have tops with no hinges. You lift a desktop to fetch a paper, and you find the top has fallen off. There are three windows: one can’t be opened. A sign on it written in the messy scribble of some custodial person warns: “Do Not Unlock This Window It Is Broken.” The general look of the room is that of a bleak-light photograph of a mental hospital. Above the one poor blackboard, gray rather than really black, and hard to write on, hangs from one tack, lopsided, a motto attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Well begun is half done.” So much within this classroom seems to be a mockery of itself.

Into this grim scenario, drawing on your own pleasures and memories, you do what you can to bring some kind of life. You bring in some cheerful and colorful paintings by Joan Miró and Paul Klee …

For poetry, instead of the materials recommended by the course of study, you decide to introduce a poem of William Butler Yeats …

The children are offered something new and lively. They respond to it energetically and their attention doesn’t waver. For the first time in a long while, perhaps, there is actually some real excitement and some growing and some thinking going on within that room …

A … measure of the impact of these changes came to light when I started testing the class on the intensive work we had been doing in math and English. In less than a month, the math average went up to a median well above grade level. Test score averages over the course of three weeks began at 36, rose to 60, and leveled off at 79.

There was no unusual expertise at work within the classroom. There was, in fact, total professional naiveté as well as considerable technical incompetence. One thing was present, however, and this was the personal motivation of the children. It was there, unused and wholly unawakened, but very much in evidence as soon as it was looked for and believed in.

Volume 220, No. 3, pp. 49–55

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