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Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students
     

Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students

4.3 3
by Kathleen Cushman, Lisa D. Delpit (Introduction)
 

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Since its initial publication in hardcover in 2003, Fires in the Bathroom has been through multiple printings and received the attention of teachers across the country. Now in paperback, Kathleen Cushman’s groundbreaking book offers original insights into teaching teenagers in today’s hard-pressed urban high schools from the point of view of the

Overview


Since its initial publication in hardcover in 2003, Fires in the Bathroom has been through multiple printings and received the attention of teachers across the country. Now in paperback, Kathleen Cushman’s groundbreaking book offers original insights into teaching teenagers in today’s hard-pressed urban high schools from the point of view of the students themselves. It speaks to both new and established teachers, giving them firsthand information about who their students are and what they need to succeed.

Students from across the country contributed perceptive and pragmatic answers to questions of how teachers can transcend the barriers of adolescent identity and culture to reach the diverse student body in today’s urban schools. With the fresh and often surprising perspectives of youth, they tackle tough issues such as increasing engagement and motivation, teaching difficult academic material, reaching English-language learners, and creating a classroom culture where respect and success go hand in hand.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"In Fires in the Bathroom. . . students turn the tables on adults, and tell them how to do their jobs."
New York Times

"An important book . . . a powerful critique of American teaching . . . Fires in the Bathroom should find a place in any professional development library. . . The student voices give its advice . . . an authenticity and a sincerity that advice books for teachers often lack . . . A powerful and compelling document . . . A major contribution."
Teachers College Record

"Fires in the Bathroom doles out practical advice . . . [in] an unusual . . . effort to tap the opinions of American high school students . . . Students get a rare opportunity to voice their opinions about what works and what doesn’t.”
Los Angeles Times

"This book turns the student-teacher relationship upside down . . . Suggests ways to deepen the unspoken bond between students and teachers.”
Chicago Tribune, Editor’s Choice

"This chance to hear the authentic voice of students . . . should not be overlooked by anyone involved in teen education."
Publishers Weekly

"Thoughtful and articulate . . . offer[s] insights about a range of school-related subjects, including classroom behavior, student motivation, and learning style."
Teacher Magazine

"Fires in the Bathroom is a must for everyone concerned about our children and our schools . . . A wealth of information that can be put to immediate use . . . Treat yourself to this powerful new tool!"
Connections Magazine

Publishers Weekly
Teenagers dictating to teachers sounds dubious, but educators will want to take note of the message from this volume: students do want to learn. Cushman, an education journalist working in conjunction with the nonprofit organization What Kids Can Do, extensively interviewed high school students in several urban areas about every aspect of school, producing this compendium of their advice here. At its best, it gives teachers solid insights from students like Vance, 18: "You really affect kids when you just do your job day in and day out, do it well." The book covers a range of subjects, including how to get to know students, how to earn their trust, how to judge their behavior and what to do when things go wrong. However, the students' demands can sometimes seem unrealistic, especially for teachers in overcrowded public schools-for extra tutoring sessions, for the use of primary source material instead of just textbooks-and the author does not aid her student co-authors by keeping their comments relatively short and by presenting them out of context. For struggling teachers, Cushman's self-questionnaires are the reason to buy. Although best for new teachers, this chance to hear the authentic voices of students should not be overlooked by anyone involved in teen education. B&w illus. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781565849969
Publisher:
New Press, The
Publication date:
09/01/2005
Pages:
204
Sales rank:
281,178
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 7.80(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt


Preface

“AND THEN THEY SET FIRES IN THE BATHROOM, WHILE SHE WAS TRYING TO BE SO FRIENDLY."

It’s a safe bet that in random high schools all over the United States, some
kid has just set the bathroom wastebasket on fire. And deep down, all of us
know why.

Anyone who has made it out of their teens most likely remembers the feelings
of anonymity and captivity that even the best high schools can convey.
Whether in huge urban warehouses, sprawling suburban campuses, or newly
consolidated rural schools, teachers with more than 125 students a day can’t
help but focus the majority of their attention on only the most urgent cases.
In such settings, order trumps most other institutional aims. To keep the
place running smoothly, students’ behavior becomes more important than their
understanding, acquiescence more valued than inquiry. In pursuit of order,
school and classroom rules routinely supplant the disarray of kids’ questions,
objections, suggestions, and problems. High school becomes something done to
kids, not by kids. This is the way it works; this is the way it has always worked.

Against this backdrop, the voices of the students who helped write this book
took on even more importance to What Kids Can Do, Inc. (WKCD), the new
nonprofit organization that asked me to gather teenagers’ advice for an audience
of teachers and the public. Based in Providence, Rhode Island, WKCD
researches and makes public the work and learning of adolescents around the
United States via its website and also through networks of others who care
about or work with youth. For this book project, WKCD won support from
MetLife Foundation, whose Supporting New Teachers Initiative recognizes how
much new teachers could learn from students—if only given the chance.

With two million new teachers needed over the next decade and 60 percent
of beginning teachers quitting the profession within their first five years,
advice from the classroom could not be more important. Research shows that too many schools across the country suffer from a persistent divide, one pitting
teachers and students against each other. In a 2001 national survey, 65 percent
of students agreed with the statement, “My teachers don’t understand me,” and
33 percent of the teachers reported inadequate preparation to reach students
with backgrounds different from their own.

In this climate, I set out to collect what would become sheaves of interviews
and writing from forty students in New York City, Providence, and the San
Francisco Bay Area. Through school connections made during years of education
writing, I found ordinary students who reflected the faces and backgrounds
of their diverse student populations. Some had moved from typical big-city
schools into small schools; others had dropped out altogether before returning
to class. Several performed well academically, but many struggled. Twenty were
recent immigrants, English-language learners in a special class at a large California high school. Another half dozen spoke no English at home but took regular classes at school. Whenever I found students who agreed to participate, I asked whether they could interest a friend in coming, too.

Except for the class of English-language learners, we met in small groups of
three to five students, usually on weekends and during school vacations. Each
group worked for at least three sessions of three to five hours, and we paid students for their time at an hourly rate comparable to that of undergraduate
research assistants.

From their short biographies (pages 197 to 199) and their words throughout
this book, a vivid mosaic emerges of the individual narratives these students brought to our discussions, debate, and analysis. As diverse a group in ethnicity and
academic record as their schoolmates in the cities where they live, these young
messengers realize well that most of their teachers do not share their background.
Their advice also recognizes the differences among themselves: Every high school
student is unique, making the teacher’s job even harder.

Yet strikingly, their daily encounters with teachers ring true across the
board—not just for students of color and language minorities like themselves,
but equally for their more privileged peers. As they trade wisdom on how to
navigate high school, they invariably strike the same chords kids everywhere
sound when they let down their guard to recount their school experiences.

“Socially, kids hate you if you succeed too much,” observes Mika, whose
strict Jamaican parents demand the highest achievement from her. “It’s like:
‘Shut up! Why do you have to rub it in my face that you know and I don’t!’ I didn’
t learn that until it was too late, and then I completely shut up in class.” Alexis, who
has shuttled through three New York City high schools, elaborates: “Intimidation is
the key. Teenagers care about what other people think of them, and so they feel
intimidated.”

They speak of their need to be known well but to maintain boundaries and
privacy. They crave respect from adults, feeling retaliatory rage when humiliated or ignored. “Kids want to learn,” in one Harlem student’s words, and they hunger for the power to shape their own futures. They know their lives are in flux, and when things go wrong, they want someone to help without shaming them. As Alexis points out, “Teachers need to make allowance for the fact that we change from year to year
and even from week to week.”

Throughout their work on this book, students showed enormous appreciation
for the teachers who helped them learn. Though they offer plenty of criticism
and advice, they testify time after time to a teacher’s power to change their minds
and their lives. They respond with real attachment and respect when a teacher believes
in them, offering support through difficulties. Maribel’s favorite teacher at her large
Providence high school “is always willing to talk and can get you interested by asking questions.” Alexis describes her math teacher: “He won’t let you give up.” And they observe that sometimes a good teacher helps them learn just by treating them with warmth and understanding. “She would find times outside of the classroom to ask me
how I was doing, and to let me know that I could go to her if I needed anything at all,”
says Tiffany about a teacher who recognized the difficulty of being a black student in a largely white school. Veronica, a fifteen-year-old from Oakland, says of her biology teacher: “He has changed our lives forever.”

As originally conceived, this book would have devoted a chapter to each of
the key academic areas, offering students’ insights on how to teach them most
effectively. But as the torrent of student voices mounted with each work session, we realized the mistake of that assumption. Our groups offered surprisingly little critique of curriculum and assessment. They focused more on the relationships that made learning possible.

Might listening carefully to these students change high schools enough so
kids would no longer set fires in the bathroom? We know instinctively that
teachers, as with physicians and attorneys, perform best when they not only
know their material well but notice and respond sensitively to the people they
serve. But faced with the ever-shifting needs and opinions of adolescents, a
teacher might easily despair of ever hitting the delicate balance these student
co-authors say they want: adult authority and guidance mixed with a healthy
measure of flexibility.

Without genuine dialogue, such an aim remains elusive. In organizing students’
words into the following chapters, I tried to focus their diverse perspectives, with the goal of fostering better communication. In the narrative voice,
“we” indicates student consensus on their advice, and I revert to the third person when
summarizing or interpreting their responses. Kids’ observations, at
times blunt and irreverent, appear here unedited, with an occasional translation
for those of us not cool enough to understand. For the sake of authenticity, I
chose not to exclude suggestions that seasoned teachers would agree are
impractical.

Above all, this book aims to foster a teacher’s habit of paying close attention
to what students say, whether they speak through words or actions. As Lauraliz,
a quiet and careful seventeen-year-old from the Bronx, reminds us: “I been looking
for a teacher I can talk to, and I think I found that teacher. I don’t really know how to
approach him yet, but when I need to talk about something, I’ll find a way.”

One day, after a long and animated work session, I asked the students around our
table, “Has anyone ever asked you questions like these before?” They paused to think,
then every head shook no.

This book, I hope, will help to right that silence.

Kathleen Cushman
Harvard, Massachusetts
September 2002

Meet the Author


Kathleen Cushman is the author of Fires in the Middle School Bathroom(The New Press). As a writer for What Kids Can Do, Inc., a national nonprofit organization, she works to bring forward the voices of student writers around the nation.She lives in New York City.

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Fires in the Bathroom 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Ima_Teech More than 1 year ago
The greatest piece of advice I¿ve ever been given goes all the way back to my student teaching days (a long time ago!). My cooperating teacher told me to ¿always listen to the students¿. Sage advice indeed that is exemplified in this wonderful book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book really gives insight to the thoughts of high school students in a diverse setting. Students speak freely about many issues. These are things many of our students are too afraid to tell us. My high school principal reccomended this book to me and I am glad I read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago