Educating é is the autobiographical diary of a gutsy fifth-grade teacher, Esmé Raji Codell, who is so full of a lust for teaching and a love of children that no crumbling public school system or stagnant bureaucracy can get in her way. Her inner-city Chicago students face intimidating odds -- poverty, violence, gangs, miseducation, and a long line of adults who don't believe "these children" can ever amount to anything. Madame Esmé, however, is undaunted. Her diary reveals a woman with boundless zeal determined to be herself and to educate her children with every last drop of energy in her body. From a Zydeco Christmas pageant and a Multiplication Cha Cha to a Fairy Tale Festival complete with Frog Prince cupcakes and an Emperor's New Clothes Fashion Show, Madame Esmé creates an endless stream of whimsical (and educational) projects for her students to enjoy.
While one may not agree with her every teaching decision, it's impossible not to get a kick out of her verve and sassy attitude in the face of trouble. When her incompetent principal persists in calling her late at night, Madame Esmé handles the situation by returning his call at three o'clock in the morning, saying, "Oooh, did I wake you up? I'm so sorry. It's just that you called me so late. I knew you wouldn't call me so late if it wasn't terribly important" -- and has no further trouble with late calls. When another incompetent administrator moves a poster in Esmé's classroom, she responds in kind by marching into the woman's office and rearranging a plant. This woman, too, leaves her alone.
But Madamee Esmé is not just flip. When one of her boys and his mother need a place to stay because of a domestic violence problem, Esmé opens her own home to them. Another day, a student brings her two-year-old sister to school, so Esmé carries the child in her arms all day as she teaches, saying "What else could anyone do?" When a student is ashamed of the saris her mother wears, Madame Esmé dons one herself, and soon the girl and all her friends are wearing beautiful, silky saris to school. Yet no one ever seems to acknowledge her work, let alone thank her, and she is not even granted the graciousness of being left alone in her choice of names -- the principal persists in insisting she be called "Ms." Esmé. Despite the lack of support she receives, Madame Esmé devotes her entire life to her students, to the point where she has no time off and even her relationship with her boyfriend suffers.
Anyone who has been underappreciated or downright encumbered by a boss or bureaucracy will empathize with the story of Madame Esmé and be inspired by her ability to stick up for herself and her students with confidence. At the beginning of the school year, when some teachers tell her that her room is overstimulating, Madame Esmé responds to herself, "They are totally jealous because I have the most insanely beautiful classroom ever, of all time.... I feel sorry for any kid who's not in this room." She will not be put off, and she will not be toned down.
Teaching is hard work. In the public school system, teachers are cruelly overburdened. Dedication is overlooked. Innovation is scorned. Teachers like Esmé who take on the job with enthusiasm and love are precious to our society and our children. They deserve to be celebrated. In telling her own story, Esmé is honoring all teachers like her.
It's refreshing and inspiring to listen to this, the diary of Codell's first year as an ele6rhood. The 24 year old Codell is the teacher we all want for our children. She creative, intelligent, enthusiastic, and warm, with a ready sense of humor and a firm sense of discipline. Her bright, cheery, and productive classroom is the envy of all. Codell's voice is lively, youthful, and impish, and you almost see the twinkle in her eye as she relates her anecdotes.
Codell prettifies nothing...the imagination and irreverent wit...make this bristling journal well worth reading.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Portions of Codell's diary of her experiences as a first-year teacher in a Chicago inner-city elementary school were first aired on WBEZ radio, in that city, as part of its Life Stories series. Subsequently rounded out into a book, the material still comes across like it's meant to be read aloud. Codell's voice carries the enthusiasm that--as a 24-year-old hardcore idealist--she brought to her difficult job. Hired for a brand-new school, she tells how she let her "na vet " work to her own advantage. She invented ways to engage her troubled, sometimes hostile students, relying on jerry-rigged visual aids, group craft projects, role-reversing skits and the like. Villains appear as well, such as her evil principal, Mr. Turner, a "homophobic, backward idiot." Codell throws herself into the reading, imitating her kids' voices, sounding truly exasperated at each obstacle she faces. Based on the 1999 Algonquin hardcover. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature - Gisela Jernigan
Esme, a young, award-winning 5th grade teacher, in an inner-city, Chicago school, is described by Jim Trelease in the Afterword as being, "young, rash, exuberant, alternately innocent and street-wise, always child-wise, and sometimes irrational. But she is never irrelevant." Since this is the uncensored diary of Esme's first year of teaching, we experience unreasonable administrators, overburdened parents and unforgettable students, all brought to life by her vivid, often frank language. Although, not promoted as a how-to book for beginning teachers, it is truly inspirational to witness Esme's caring, challenging relationships with her students, and her enthusiastic, creative use of children's literature in all aspects of her teaching. Descriptions of how her room is decorated and her many imaginative activities, such as, a visiting author event and a homemade Time Machine to link history with children's literature, are especially fascinating. Throughout a year of frustrations and dangers, despair and triumphs, Esme's love for her students and for teaching always shines through.
Children's Literature - Jan Lieberman
Don't miss Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year. You will love this flamboyant, brilliant, caring, sometimes annoying but determined young woman whose ideas will knock your socks off. Her combative attitude towards her principal causes him despair. Her students come first, but don't call her Miss, Mrs. or Ms. At school, she is Madame Esme! Her fifth grade students live in inner-city Chicago facing the daily challenges of drugs, violence, abusive parents and poverty. Esme brightens their lives with the resolve that they are capable and can succeed if they're willing to work hard and follow basic rules. The time machine she makes from a refrigerator box for "travel through books" is a humdinger. Inside are books, a flashlight, a comfy pillow and one child. Anything is possible if you believe!
School Library Journal
YA-With the freshness, brashness, and know-it-all zeal of a first-time teacher, Madame Esm , as she asked her students to call her, jumped in with both feet for a remarkable year with her fifth-grade class. Her journal is at times bubbling with enthusiasm or bristling with anger. Codell is by turns tough and gentle. She witnessed two of her students being beaten by their parents after she discussed their classroom behavior. She feared that one student might shoot her. These youngsters' lives were incredibly grim, yet they read and wrote, sometimes advancing as much as two grade levels. Their teacher's success did not go unnoticed: she won the Dr. Peggy Williams Award, given by the Chicago Area Reading Association for outstanding teacher in the field of language arts. Readers are privy to the author's outbursts of anger toward the children and her moments of pride, but the intimacy of a diarist's self-examination/self-revelation is absent and the writing has a self-conscious tone. Madame Esm sometimes seems a little too cold-blooded or a little too keen on her own brilliance, but then there are moments when her generosity and love and empathy toward her students shine and make up for the arrogance. In the end, readers find a teacher who cares.-Theo Heras, Toronto Public Library Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
A spirited account of a gifted teacher's first year in an inner-city fifth-grade classroom.
Codell seems to be that exceptional teacher who tirelessly devises new ways of engaging with her 31 students-she's determined to educate them and enrich their lives. At 24, Codell shows the bravado of youth, along with the savoir-faire of a far more experienced teacher. Hired after a perfunctory interview with a sexist, parochial, ineffectual principal of a Chicago elementary school, she has to throw too much of her energy into defending her modus operandi, which should evoke praise, not criticism. Particularly perturbing to her principal is her insistence that her students address her as Ms. Esmé. "It's against board policy," he constantly reminds her, with threats to cite her for insubordination. Able to ignore most of the bureaucratic pettiness that permeates the daily doings, Esmé organizes a schoolwide Fairy Tale Festival (replete with a Fairy Tale Fashion Show, carnival games, and bake sale); sets up a classroom library with sets of books that she herself purchases; publishes a lively class newsletter; and gains the respect of just about all the students and their parents. There seem to be no boundaries to Codell's innovative measures. To teach her students how to multiply double digits, she puts on "Mu-Cha-Cha" from Bells Are Ringing and dances along with her class, making her feet do the math. When a particularly obstreperous child makes her days exceedingly difficult, she changes places with him, inviting him to play the teacher and herself to play the confrontational student. (He never again presents a problem.) When a student is endangered by domestic violence, MadameEsmé opens her home to him and his sister for the night, without, of course, notifying the administration.
Educating Esmé is that exceptional education book about an even more exceptional teacher. It deserves to be read by anyone who cares about children.
Read an Excerpt
After lunch each day I ready aloud to them. We push the desks out of the way, pull down the shades, and turn off all the lights, except for an antique Victorian desk lamp I have. It is a very cozy time.
I was reading them The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, about a Polish immigrant girl who is so poor that she wears the same dress to school every day but insists that she had a hundred dresses lined up in her closet. The girls tease her mercilessly until she moves away. Her antagonists discover that she really did have a hundred dresses...a hundred beautiful drawings of dresses. Oh, God, it took everything not to cry when I closed the book! I especially like that the story is told from the teaser's point of view.
Well, everything was quiet at the end, but then Ashworth asked if he could whisper something in my ear. He whispered, "I have to tell the class something," and discreetly showed me that he was missing half of a finger. It was a very macabre moment, but I didn't flinch.
I faced him toward the class and put my hands on his shoulders. He was trembling terribly. "Ashworth has something personal to share with you. I hope you will keep in mind The Hundred Dresses when he tells you."
"I...I only have nine and a half fingers," he choked. "Please don't tease me about it." He held up his hands.
The class hummed, impressed, then was silent as Ashworth shifted on his feet. Finally, Billy called out, "I'll kick the ass of anyone who makes fun of you!"
"Yeah, me too!" said Kirk.
"Yeah, Ash! You just tell us if anyone from another class messes with you, we'll beat their ass up and down!"
Yeah, yeah, yeah! The class became united in the spirit of ass-kicking. Ashworth sighed and smiled at me. The power of literature!
New girl, Esther, from Haiti. Dark, eyes darting, frightened. "She's got a record of fighting from her other school," Ms. Coil explained. Who asked her?
"Salut, mon amie!" I welcomed her. Her shoulders dropped, relaxed. Her smile is beautiful and full of mischief.
The Kids like something new I made: the Thinking Cap. It's an oversized hat made of prismatic gold paper, with a long prismatic paper tree coming out about two feet off the top. It says THINKING CAP in black press-on letters across the front. The kids have become very thoughtful since it's been introduced.
Shira is Filipino and speaks mostly Tagalog. Sometimes she goes into fetal position under her desk. She has four brothers, named Vincent I, Vincent II, Vincent III, Vincent IV.
Today Shira was crying because she felt Twanette took her pen. Twanette said no, it was her pen, she got it for 10 cents at Walgreen's. The pen looked more expensive than that, so I didn't really believe it. Plus, I know those kind are sold in sets. And finally, Shira had work in her notebook in that pink ink.
After school, Shira's stepfather came in and told me that Shira complained that Twanette took Shira's menstrual pad our of the garbage in the bathroom and showed it to the other girls.
Twanette also chews big wads of gum and took neon green glue she was not supposed to use and gooped up a whole table, almost ruining some expensive books.
So when I saw Twanette's mom had come to pick her up after school, I asked to talk with her. I started by telling her that Twanette has really been improving in completing her work and that I was proud of her efforts. Then I told her the rest, explaining that I hadn't actually seen the menstrual pad thing but that the father complained and we had to be extra sensitive because Shira had been only in the country only a couple of months and had trouble speaking up for herself.
Right about then, the mom started wonking Twanette over the head with a rolled-up magazine she was holding. She assured me that she would whip Twanette with a belt at home, adding apologetically that she usually whips Twanette every six months, but she's been behind schedule.
When I suggested that perhaps a belt would not be effective in changing Twanette's attitude, the mom assured me, "Twanette's attitude's gone change after this, believe you me, you won't have no more problems with this girl!"
Twanette was hysterical and denying everything. Mom called her a "big dork" and other things. It was very depressing, and I felt responsible. I acted very calm, but when they left I dry-heaved into the wastebasket. I felt like hell.
I hope Twanette doesn't shoot me tomorrow for telling on her.
Twanette didn't shoot me today. She wrote me a thank you not for saying something good about her to her mom. We also had the alphabet museum. Three kindergarten classes came through. It was a big success.
The kids keep journals. They can write in them during Free Reading if they choose. If they don't want me to read something, they put an E with a circle and a line through it at the top of the page, a symbol for "No Esmes allowed." I read them anyway, but I don't tell. I find out interesting things. For instance, Ashworth was upset all day because I wore pants, and I never wear pants. He thought his real teacher must have been abducted by aliens.
October 5, my birthday
Terrible thing. Somebody stole the Columbus comic book. I said, "Whoever did it, just put it back," but nobody did. So after school I took the whole library down and shoved it in the closet and locked it. The kids noticed right away the next morning.
"I told you if you stole from me, I'd take it all back. I'm not a liar."
"That's not fair," one girl complained. "We didn't all steal the book!"
"No, I'll tell you what's not fair. My working Saturdays so that you can read real literature and then having the books stolen from under my nose. That's really not fair. I only share with friends. I'm not going to leave my personal possessions out when I can't trust the people I'm with. Would you?"
Nobody answered. I passed out the reading textbooks. The children complained noisily. "You're getting what the rest of the school gets," I reminded them. "I don't see what's the problem."
The mood was grim for the rest of the day. I thought, They have good taste. They know this is boring.
But I'm worried. What if they never get the book back? Am I going to have to teach reading like this all year? I have to be consistent with my threat, or they will never believe me again. I'll have no discipline. I won't be able to teach anything.
God, Kid! Give me back the stupid book and let me teach you the best way I know how!
I'm so disappointed. It was a struggle not to cry in front of them.
Excerpted from Educating Esmé: Diary of a teacher's first year. Copyright (c) 1999. Reprinted with permission by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.