The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching

The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching


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The best writing from a lifetime in the trenches and at the typewriter, from the renowned and much-beloved National Book Award–winning educator.
In more than forty books on subjects ranging from social justice to mathematics, morality to parenthood, Herb Kohl has earned a place as one of our foremost “educators who write.” With Marian Wright Edelman, Mike Rose, Lisa Delpit, and Vivian Paley among his fans, Kohl is “a singular figure in education,” as William Ayers says in his foreword, “it’s clear that Herb Kohl’s influence has resonated, echoed, and multiplied.” Now, for the first time, readers can find collected in one place key essays and excerpts spanning the whole of Kohl’s career, including practical as well as theoretical writings.
Selections come from Kohl’s classic 36 Children, his National Book Awardwinning The View from the Oak (co-authored with his wife Judy), and all his best-known and beloved books. The Herb Kohl Reader is destined to become a major new resource for old fans and a new generation of teachers and parents.
“Kohl has created his own brand of teaching . . . [He is] a remarkable teacher who discovered in his first teaching assignment that in education he could keep playing with toys, didn’t have to stop learning, and could use what he knew in the service of others.” —Lisa Delpit, The New York Times
“An infinitely vulnerable and honest human being who has made it his vocation to peddle hope.” —Jonathan Kozol

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595584205
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 04/07/2009
Edition description: Original
Pages: 310
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

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From "I Won't Learn from You": And Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment

It was in November or December of 1949, in the early afternoon, about one-thirty or two, just when the grey Bronx dusk of early winter reminded me that asthma was only a few hours away. My afternoons those days were overpowered by fear of an attack, the same fear that brought on the attacks. Seventh-graders had to go to the library for a lesson on the Dewey decimal system. We all followed along, paying no attention to Mr. Robertson, who was probably drunk as usual. He wasn't in a rush either — going to the library meant one less teaching period for him.

The librarian went on about numbers and indexes, and talked about how wonderful reading was, or something. I was lost studying the nuances of my anxiety, wondering why it was worse this time of year, so bad sometimes that I almost cried on the way home from school. Those days anxiety and asthma settled around me like river fog, and I had no language or concepts to understand them.

Our assignment was to find a book, any book, return to our places at one of the tables, and fill out the Dewey decimal number, title, author, and some other information. Another walk-through assignment. I went to a shelf in the farthest corner of the room and picked a book at random: The Tattooed Man by Howard Pease, an intriguing title stolen from my dreams and an author whose name was foreign and mysterious, not Jewish or Irish or Italian, but what? Where do people get such names? Pease and the tattooed man were equally intriguing. I knew tattooed men and masked men and invisible people. I read the subtitle, A Tale of Strange Adventures Befalling Tod Moran, Mess Boy of the Tramp Steamer "Araby," Upon His First Voyage from San Francisco to Genoa, via the Panama Canal, thinking of my own fantasies and dreams, my personal twists on the heroes and heroines that I followed on radio and in comic books.

My attention wandered back to the table, to Dewey decimal numbers, only instead of filling out the work sheet I wrote down the book's dedication "For Guard C. Darrah: This memory of rain-swept decks off Panama and the marching roads of France," feeling the rain, thinking how sweet it must be to be wandering, wondering about marching roads and rain-swept decks. I never finished the assignment and to this day have resisted learning how the Dewey decimal system works.

There have only been a few times in my life when I was certain that a book was positioned in a library or bookstore for the sole purpose of my discovering it. This was one. I never begged a librarian to borrow a book before that day, but succeeded in getting The Tattooed Man loaned to me for two weeks though students were not allowed to check out books and take them home. That was barely enough time, for I've never been able to read a book that I loved quickly. My style is to linger over the words, question the text, stop reading when my mind is full or when I want time to understand the ideas, guess the writer's next trick, or anticipate the characters' next responses.

That night after homework I picked up the book and joined Tod Moran in San Francisco, where "sea fog hazed like spindrift along the San Francisco waterfront." I couldn't figure out what spindrift was from the context, and only recently looked up its meaning. The word feels right to me when I think of Tod Moran and remember that night when I was drawn into his world and traveled with him to a city smothered in mist, listening with him to "the distant clang of cable cars, the hoar crys of newsboys, the dull rumble of trucks and drays passing in the gloom like ghosts." That sentence stopped me. I read it over, then over again, and spoke it out loud, quietly so my parents and brother couldn't hear. It conjured up a picture in my mind that was more intense than most of my dreams. Howard Pease's words created a world; they were magic and set me on fire with a burning desire to become a writer.

Since that night the necessity of writing has never left me. I still can't explain how or why it happened and often wonder whether the need to write was always in me waiting for some — any — beautiful words to activate it or whether, if my junior high school librarian had not decided to acquire a copy of The Tattooed Man, I would still be waiting to be inspired.

I was twelve, San Francisco was a dot on the map of the United States, and drays and cable cars were unreal vehicles contiguous with the horses and submarines of my dream adventures. Only Tod Moran was not like my dream companions. He had a real brother who had mysteriously disappeared at sea. On a ship called the Araby he met a tattooed man who knew of his brother. And Tod knew that he, the younger brother, had to find and redeem his older brother. This was not the stuff of comic book dreams. It was reality, the reality of literature, more dimensional, deeper, and more moving than anything I had encountered in comic books.

Tod Moran went to sea and he wasn't even seventeen. That meant only five years for me to wait. When, on page 20, I learned that Tod got a job as mess boy on the Araby, I stopped reading for five days and thought about my future, which had suddenly become real to me and not merely composed of heroic fantasies and halfhearted plots to run away from home. I began to think of the actual world as bigger, more variable, and more accessible than I had imagined and realized that I too could change my life and live in different ways and in different places. My imaginings didn't have to be confined to unreal and unrealizable domains.

From the time I was about eight until I was twelve, I often put myself to sleep with guided fantasies of romance and adventure. These fantasies never intruded upon my daytime existence and were called forth by a specific ritual. First tuck under the bedcovers; next turn on my back and look up at the ceiling for the reflection of the Lexington Avenue elevated subway.

On Jerome Avenue the subway was elevated several stories above ground. The apparent contradiction between being elevated and underground was resolved for me every weekend when on my trip to Manhattan I stood at the window of the front car of the train and experienced its plunge underground at the station past Yankee Stadium. At that moment the lights went out, and the dark interior of the train became one with the darkness of the tunnel. I imagined, and I know my friends also imagined, demons and dybbuks and spirits unleashed on the train for that forty-five seconds that the whole world was dark. When I was about thirteen, I thought of writing a science fiction story about a train from the Bronx to Manhattan that became suspended in time the moment it went underground.

The el was part of my thinking as well as part of my nighttime ritual. It was a metaphor of passage, from the Bronx to Manhattan, and from daytime into my nighttime adventures and fantasies. Once I was in the right position to see the el's reflection on my bedroom wall, I had to wait. The third part of my ritual couldn't begin until I heard the train leave the 176th Street station and saw the lights reflected by each of the train windows pass over my bed, sometimes outlined so distinctly that I could make out the silhouettes of the people sitting at each window. After the magic lights had passed, I closed my eyes and called forth my fantasy companion and teacher, the Masked Rider. Sometimes he immediately appeared in dream time and I was already there with him. Other times he was waiting and it seemed as if I walked into the dream and joined him.

I have tried to reconstruct some of the feelings of that experience, and remember that the Masked Rider was faceless and rode a dark horse. He was friendly, very skillful with weapons, but nonviolent, and had many adventures during the three or four years he was willing to come when I summoned him. I was his companion, and on particularly good nights I experienced myself stepping into my dream or fantasy and asking him where we were going that night. Most of our adventures involved a sweet, accepting young woman who could like you without controlling you. I'm not sure that I was aware that my dreams were experiments with love outside the family, but in retrospect they were preparing me for leaving home spiritually as well as physically.

I remember somehow knowing about the Masked Rider's past, though he never explicitly talked about it. He was found as a child wandering across a vast plain wearing a dark mask. No one was bold enough to unmask him and he never showed his face to anyone. He had never even seen his own face. He lived on a dark edge of the world, alone with a bundle of sacred objects, a sword, and a rope. He had stones that resembled faces, a root that was a clenched fist, four beautiful steel knives, a few empty jars, and a vial of black sand. The most sacred object was a small clay head worn featureless by time, a faceless relic the Masked Rider found when he was a child. He sometimes rode a black, featureless horse. At those times they were one, horse-and-rider, all in black.

During the day I listened to Captain Midnight on the radio. I also listened to The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, and The Thin Man. The Masked Rider was my personal reconstruction of the freedom and power these programs represented for me. My encounters with the Masked Rider were not like other dreams over which I had no control. I was both in a fantasy world and semi-awake outside of that world, aware of what was going on. I could at times experience the adventures we had together and at other times witness my own adventures. I could even give advice to the me in the dream, and somehow in dream logic it made sense for me to exist on both planes simultaneously, within and outside the fantasy. My double and I lived through all of those adventures together.

During our adventures the Masked Rider rescued the young, nurtured them for their own sake, and left them to grow strong. And he showed me how to be caring and tough at the same time. There are times when I've wondered whether the dream of being a teacher of young children, which I've nurtured since I was twelve or thirteen, isn't intimately connected with my admiration for the Masked Rider and my desire to be as nurturing to others as he was to me.

I never told anyone about the Masked Rider, for two reasons. First, I was afraid he would disappear; and second, I was afraid people would think I was crazy.

With both The Tattooed Man and the Masked Rider, I was learning to move through and beyond the world as I knew it and imagine other, more congenial and exciting possibilities. Over the years, I've also encouraged my students to learn how to dream beyond the world they lived in and imagine ways in which life can be made fuller and more compassionate. The ability to see the world as other than it is plays a major role in sustaining hope. It keeps part of one's mind free of the burden of everyday misery and can become a corner of sanity as one struggles to undo the horrors of an unkind and mad world.

Nurturing children's abilities to imagine ways in which the world might be different is a gift we owe all children. This can be done in many ways. Telling children stories, for example, allows them to enter worlds where the constraints of ordinary life are transcended. The phrase "enter into" is not merely a metaphor: children step into good stories, just as I stepped into the world of the Masked Rider, and listen as if in a trance. Phrases like "Once upon a time" or "Long ago in a land far away" are ritualistic ways of informing children that reality is being suspended and fantasy taking over. When I've taught kindergarten, story time was sacred. If someone came in and interrupted an absorbing story, the children would look up as if awakened from a dream and would often chase intruders away. It seemed as if a violation of their inner space had occurred, some involuntary awakening from another world.

Those times I've taught high school, poetry has been my vehicle for honoring the imagination. The legitimate breaking of the bonds of factuality offered by poetry has helped me overcome adolescent cynicism about the power of fairy tales and myths.

I remember making up stories and telling them to my three children when they were young. The stories I had heard from my grandparents at their ages didn't seem right for my children. The stories I wanted to tell involved the children themselves or at least surrogate characters who represented them. The stories revolved around four characters. Three — Mimi, Tutu, and Jha — were modeled on the children: Mimi on Erica, who was six at the time; Tutu on Tonia, who was seven; and Jha on Joshua, who was four. The fourth character was called Overall. He lived underground in a worldwide network of sewers that went under oceans, deserts, and mountains as well as cities. He appeared as steam and spoke with a Yiddish accent. He was, for me, a representation of all the humor, bitterness, rage, gentleness, roughness, and intelligence of the Yiddish world of my grandparents and of the Bronx I knew as a child. He may also have been an embodiment of the asthmatic fog that was both suffocating and nurturing during my Bronx childhood.

Overall was my way of trying to share with my children, in a story setting, the flavor and spirit of a part of their inheritance they could never directly experience. Overall had one peculiar power that figured in all of the stories I made up over the three or four years that the stories continued: whenever and wherever there was real trouble for the three young adventurers, a manhole cover appeared on the ground and Overall steamed up through the holes in the cover, coming to the rescue.

Overall also presented each of the children with a present: detached eyeballs that they could carry around and use to see things they wished to see. They could look into the eyeballs and see distant places, could plant the eyeballs in places where they wanted to spy on what was going on, and could even see into the past and sometimes the future. In the case of the future, however, the eyeballs became teary and the images were cloudy and indefinite so that future vision was unreliable.

The eyeballs were only part of the powers I, as storyteller, granted Mimi, Tutu, and Jha. Erica is a Capricorn, so she, Mimi, got the power to climb the steepest hills and to butt through the hardest materials, and the ability to solve riddles. Tonia is a Cancer, so Tutu had the power of moving sideways as quickly as forward or backward, of grabbing on to things and not letting go until she got what she wanted, and of having immense patience and the ability to think through complex problems and come up with interesting solutions. Joshua is a Scorpio, so Jha had the power of sudden stinging attack, the ability to make caves and tunnels underground, and a sharp intellect that let him understand other people's thoughts and feelings.

Each story began as a simple voyage on a ship in mid-ocean or in the middle of a forest or the depths of a city like New York. I would set the scene and then ask the children where they wanted to go. They helped me spin out the story and teased out of me all kinds of enemies and friends, characters to people the story world. I always kept Overall for particularly difficult times and always gave him a story or two to tell, one that was directly set in the Bronx where I grew up and obliquely related to the situation. They had to be patient, to learn his ways of teaching by storytelling. As the tales grew in complexity and the children demanded I remember details and take up a telling at exactly the point it was dropped, I realized the importance of our half hour or hour together. I could introduce them to what I remembered and loved about my growing up through the character of Overall. They could frame adventures out of their fears and anxieties. We could embark on adventures and voyages together, and our imaginations played with the possible. As long as none of the characters was killed, we could go on indefinitely imagining worlds and testing powers. I was drawn into the tales even on days when I felt no stories in me. The children provided the energy for the telling and remembered all of the little details that made the world come alive. At times when my imagination failed, they also took up the telling and contributed to the making of that alternate world.

Even now, more than thirty-five years later, with the details of all of the stories forgotten, Overall is alive for all of the children, as are Mimi, Tutu, and Jha. The circle within which the tales were created was magical in a way. The children could experiment with being strong; I could memorialize my grandparents and pass on something of their world. In addition, the four of us could enter a world of the possible and keep alive the idea that the world did not have to be the way it was and that we could exercise powers that could lead to its transformation.


Excerpted from "The Herb Kohl Reader"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Herbert Kohl.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword: "Herb Kohl: Poet Laureate of Teaching" by William Ayers,
Part I: Becoming a Teacher,
"The Tattooed Man: Confessions of a Hopemonger" from "I Won't Learn from You": And Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment,
"Beginning to Teach" from Growing Minds: On Becoming a Teacher,
Excerpt from 36 Children,
"Fresh Waters Are Ever Flowing" from The Discipline of Hope: Learning from a Lifetime of Teaching,
Part II: Teaching and Learning,
"Six Basic Skills" from Basic Skills: A Plan for Your Child, a Program for All Children,
"Why Teach?" from On Teaching,
Excerpt from Reading, How To,
"The Craft of Teaching" from Growing Minds: On Becoming a Teacher,
"Games and Maths" from Writing, Maths, and Games in the Open Classroom,
Part III: Being a Parent,
Excerpt from Growing with Your Children,
Excerpt from "On Being a Father",
Excerpt from Painting Chinese,
Part IV: Speculations on Education, Learning, and Politics,
"Creative Maladjustment and the Struggle for Public Education" from "I Won't Learn from You": And Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment,
"Stupidity and Tears" from Stupidity and Tears: Teaching and Learning in Troubled Times,
"Topsy-Turvies: Teacher Talk and Student Talk" from Stupidity and Tears: Teaching and Learning in Troubled Times,

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