Thursday, August 27, 2009

Q and A with Esme

Q- "Educating Esmé", your diary of your first year of teaching in a Chicago public school, has been called the “gold standard” for the “foxhole memoir” by the New York Times and has sold over 200,000 copies. With this recent reissue of the book, what’s new?

Esme- The diary itself is exactly the same, but there’s a new foreword by Katherine Paterson, author of "Bridge to Teribithia", and a meaty guide that’s been added called “Hit the Ground Running,” which I created to help new teachers do just that. The most common question I’m asked is, “Do you have any advice for new teachers?” Now readers will find over twenty-five really specific and hopefully pragmatic pieces of advice and also a comprehensive shopping list for the first-year teacher.

Q- Your book left readers wondering if you continued your education career. What have you been up to?

Esme- By the time "Educating Esmé" was published I’d already been teaching in the Chicago public schools for a number of years. Eventually I resigned from my school position to work on other projects and to realize other dreams, including national advocacy for literature-based learning and read-aloud; home-schooling my son through a crucial year; writing several novels for preteen readers; running a children’s literature review website; and starting the PlanetEsmé Bookroom, an independent venture in Chicago for which I opened a storefront salon and resource collection of about 12,000 children’s books and offered free programming to my community. Connecting great children with great children’s books has been the underlying thread of all my work. I imagine returning to the public schools again at some point.

Q-You ultimately chose to work in the school library instead of the classroom. Why?

Esme- Because the school librarian has the best job in the building, that’s why! You see all of the children in the school, and you certainly can forge at least as many meaningful connections as you would as a classroom teacher. You work with children’s books all day, immersing yourself in the best practice of read-aloud and helping to instill a lifelong love of reading in kids. You work with cutting-edge technology (if your building is lucky enough to have computers) and still kick it old-school. Best of all, you don’t have to be caught up in the same sort of perfunctory standardized assessments that bludgeon the joys of learning to death. For me, the
library was an autonomous, creative place, a place that best reflected what I had to share, a place where I could do my best teaching. I never felt like less of a teacher in the school library; I felt more like the teacher I wanted to be.

Q- Do you think the profession has changed since you wrote this diary?

Esme- The extreme to which educators “teach to the test” feels different today. Teachers seem to be held to a new level of stringency in terms of content, and the climate is more fearful due to the punitive responses when schools don’t perform up to standards. Who wants to work in a setting where the children and the teacher feel they can’t make mistakes or where they can’t use their imaginations?

Contrary to the belief of many third graders and public figures, most people don’t become teachers because they want to give tests. When the No Child Left Behind Act and all of the ensuing mania over high-stakes standardized testing came along, I sincerely tried to ignore it, to shut my door on it, but it has really intruded on the culture of education. If I were just starting out now, with things the way they are . . . well, I think I might have been discouraged from the career path altogether. It saddens me to see teachers I knew to be joyous and effective worn down like the nub of a number two pencil.

One blogger offhandedly referred to our national policy alternately as “No Teacher Left Teaching.” Even with our new president, there’s a lot of holdover in that attitude. I, for one, am happy to be accountable the day we decide accountability is not a synonym for success on standardized tests. Accountability means “that which can be explained.” In my own mind, then, accountability is a synonym for documentation. In other professions, like science, people are allowed to make mistakes, to have outcomes they don’t expect, to be creative in finding solutions. . . they just have to describe what happened, try to learn from it, and try to improve. Without this kind of leeway, the teacher corps will attract a very different kind of educator and our students will suffer. I also think it’s worthwhile to remember that most remarkable individuals in American history never
took a standardized test, and there have been and will be many people who contribute positively who aren’t that good at filling in blanks. Instead they color outside the lines. But I am hopeful, because necessity is the mother of invention.
More teachers are starting to say, “Hey, you’re trying to make me work in a way that’s not allowing me to be effective with children.” And people are listening. I believe we’ll hit a tipping point, and something positive will come of all this.

Q-What was one of your most embarrassing teaching moments? Your most rewarding?

Esme- As a student teacher, I was reprimanding the class about something, I don’t remember what. I backed into a wastebasket, lost my balance, and fell in. The children laughed and laughed. I figured the universe was trying to tell me something, so I decided to stop raising my voice and just laugh along. Then there was another time I had something in my nose, in front of the seventh graders . . . but that’s just too painful to recount, it gives me post-traumatic stress just thinking about it.

Work in support of novice teachers has been some of the most professionally satisfying of my career. If I had to pick a rewarding classroom moment with a child, though, it actually was one I had as a parent. I went into my son’s second-grade class to read aloud, but I wasn’t feeling well and was having trouble pulling off an effective reading. My son crept up next to me and said, “Let me take over.” It was
an overcrowded city classroom, a potential management challenge even for a seasoned teacher. But he read aloud "Abe Lincoln: The Boy Who Loved Books" by Kay Winters, holding up the pictures, putting on different accents, making them laugh, the whole nine yards. When you teach a child to read, that’s thrilling. It’s a relief because you know they have something that will help them survive. But when you see a
child share a book, then you know something really special has happened. I love that “aha” moment when the light bulb goes on, but it’s even more rewarding to me when kids work by that light that’s been created, when kids want to share their new skills with others. And when they learn to tell their own story, that’s what makes teaching so exciting.

Q-In "Educating Esmé", the children refer to you as Madame Esmé instead of Ms. Codell. Do kids still call you Madame?

Esme- Everybody calls me Madame. It’s my nickname. I received a lot of criticism about hanging on to the moniker Madame that first year. That’s one thing I don’t regret in the least. I think names are powerful and personal and part of the
American idea of reinventing yourself.

Q- "Educating Esmé" is widely used both in university programs and also for pleasure reading. To what do you attribute the book’s continuing success?

Esme- I think readers appreciate that it’s an authentic diary. For some people it’s eye opening; for others it’s all too familiar. People can come at it from wherever they are, whether they are teachers or teachers-to-be or maybe were students once upon a time. Since it’s from my limited point of view, it’s fun to consider, “Would I have made the same choices or mistakes?” “Would I have done things differently, or
better, or the same?” “Would I have fired her, or quit?” The reason I published my diary was to create a dialogue around teaching in urban schools—what works, what doesn’t, and what it looks like from a teacher’s perspective. And that conversation is still relevant.

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