By Esmé Raji Codell (Algonquin Books, 2001)
For teachers and the general public alike, Esmé Raji Codell’s Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year, which chronicles Codell’s first year of teaching in an inner-city Chicago charter school, is a refreshing antidote to the fantasy of the inner-city schoolteacher as a dedicated, creative, inspirational miracle worker in the mold of Hilary Swank’s character in Freedom Writers or Edward James Olmos’s in Stand and Deliver. The primary reason for this is that Codell is a dedicated, creative, and inspirational teacher, yet her first year of teaching does not end with a slow clap leading to a standing ovation, students standing on their desks in salute, or state-high marks on standardized exams. Even the goofy craziness, selfless investment of time outside the school day, instructional skill, and personal charisma Esmé brings to her work is sadly, as she discovers, not enough to prevent children from falling through the cracks in the public-education and social-services support networks, to dissolve the blockheadedness of well-meaning but narrow-minded administrators, or to ensure that every student performs at the legally mandated grade level on a standardized test.
As an inner-city teacher who is less creative and wacky, and possibly less instinctively skilled, than Codell, I found her book to be both inspirational and reassuring. It was instructive--and funny, and heartwarming--to see her incorporate elements of physical and imaginative play into her lessons. It was also a relief to see her lose her temper in front of her students; I was reassured to know that this happens to even the most gifted teachers. But anyone who draws pleasure from reading engaging, conversational prose will enjoy Codell’s account of her careen through her first year of teaching. Readers will also experience a firsthand account of the obstacles faced by teachers of disadvantaged children--and by the children themselves.
Codell does not fail as a teacher. It is clear that she uses her creativity successfully to engage struggling children in their schoolwork, as when she constructs a time machine for students to sit in while reading historical fiction, teaches her students the distributive property of multiplication using cha-cha steps, or insists (to her principal’s chagrin) on being called Madame Esmé rather than Ms. Codell. Still, her efforts are not enough to solve the problems at her school, or save every single one of her students.
Nathan Day is a high school English teacher at César Chávez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, Parkside Campus in Washington, DC. An outrigger canoe enthusiast, he has been teaching for six years.