Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Yearby Esmé Raji Codell, Esmi Raji Codell, Esme Raji Codel
Esme Raji Codell has come to teach. And she's not going to let incompetent administrators, abusive parents, gang members, weary teachers, angry children, dim-witted principals, or her own insecurities get in the way of delivering the education her fifth-grade students deserve. Fresh-mouthed and mini-skirted, Esme can be both pig-headed and generous, churlish and… See more details below
Esme Raji Codell has come to teach. And she's not going to let incompetent administrators, abusive parents, gang members, weary teachers, angry children, dim-witted principals, or her own insecurities get in the way of delivering the education her fifth-grade students deserve. Fresh-mouthed and mini-skirted, Esme can be both pig-headed and generous, churlish and charming. As she embarks on her first year teaching in an inner-city public school, she quickly becomes a thorn in her principal's side. A twenty-four-year-old teacher with the enthusiasm of a ten year old, Esme is too willful to play bureaucratic politics, too dedicated to give up - and too young to know better. In Educating Esme, the uncensored diary of her first year, we find this irrepressible teacher wearing costumes in the classroom, dancing with the kids during rallies in the auditorium, rollerskating down the hallways, and putting on rousing performances with students in the library. Not just for educators and parents, this poignant and often hilarious chronicle gives voice to anyone who has ever had an irritating boss, struggled to be an individual in a bureaucratic abyss, given 105 percent without getting thanked, and yet cared so much.
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.
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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- Product dimensions:
- 6.92(w) x 4.96(h) x 0.58(d)
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.
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