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It’s a book. Read it.

July 26, 2014 pm31 2:02 pm

José Vilson wrote a book. That you should read. And, maybe get others to read. He called it “This is Not a Test

I don’t do book reviews. But this is different. It’s José.

Vilson is a blogger, and a poet, and a teacher. The author part wouldn’t matter if he wasn’t a teacher. He wrote a book about teaching. Some about his teachers. And some more about him, the teacher. All here in New York City. Manhattan.

So look. I’m not doing a long write up of what I liked about the book. He tells a good story. Some of the anecdotes are like a slap in the face, others as sweet as a first kiss. He’s got his influences, his growing up on the Lower East Side. He’s got the time his answer was wrong, until it was repeated by a white kid. He’s got rejection, cockiness, becoming a teacher, screwing up, and getting stuff right.

I liked the first part, about him growing up. And the second part, about him being a teacher. But I didn’t really get the third, shorter part. Felt like an add-on.

I mean, other people, smarter, more important, have written glowing reviews. Diane Ravitch big enough for you? They describe his style and his voice and his getting-it-ness better than I can. Even better, Karen Lewis – that Karen Lewis – wrote the forward. With all those big shots, why should I bother? Because it’s Jose, I need to do this.

There are other books about teaching in NYC. They are probably fine books, written by people who really taught. And they may contain interesting stories and insights. But some taught briefly. Others were in awe of NYC, not having grown up here. Others – poor word choice, I know – can’t get past their first experience working with so many people who weren’t white. These books can be interesting, but they are not the same thing. And then there are the books about teaching by people who’ve never taught, and don’t know anything about how schools or teaching work. Those books are not interesting.

“This is Not a Test” is a real book, about a real NYC kid, both Haitian and Dominican, but not really either. He’s smart. He teaches math, but he uses words – blogger, poet, author. He can write. He became a teacher recently enough that he remembers how bad starting sucks, but he’s been doing it long enough, and well enough, that he gets a chunk of the big picture. And he has stories. And trust me. You should read this.

Look what I did with my extra copy:



I think I’m supposed to mention that the publisher is Haymarket Books, and that they are cool and you should check them out.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2014 pm31 11:22 pm 11:22 pm

    i’ll check it out. thanks!

  2. July 28, 2014 am31 11:49 am 11:49 am

    Thanks for this. I will try to find and read this book.

    Tangentially, there are a few things (opinions) that came to mind. These can be summarized as follows:

    When a patient is suffering from a renal blockage caused by kidney stones, treating her mainly for her apparent acne — or berating her, beating her severely and throwing her out of the hospital — is unlikely to relieve her suffering or cure her condition. Indeed, the patient’s demise is the far more likely outcome.

    (1) The role of the teacher (and “teaching” as it has been increasingly projected) has long been, in my opinion, over-dramatized, even as teachers (and students) have not been given the basic respect and the working conditions under which the average sincere teacher and student can do their respective jobs. These jobs were never easy, but they have been made very difficult, if not impossible, by the utter nonsense that has pervaded K-12 education in this country (and perhaps elsewhere) for many decades now.

    It should be possible, without being a “rocket scientist”, for an average teacher and student to teach and learn their subjects — and more. Unusual cleverness should not be a prerequisite — neither in the schools, for teachers and their students, nor in the home, for parents and their children. The hype needs to be taken out of teaching — and parenting.

    (2) The social context, including both the potential it provides for both formal and informal education, and the problems it poses, needs to be paid attention to.

    Teachers are well aware of the problems that have their origin in our society — with social, economic and historical roots. These can be overwhelming, and they seem to increase without end, with layer upon layer added over time. These are not only the problems typically attributed to poverty, but also those more properly attributed to affluence — and to all the isolation, alienation, and marketing hucksterism that marks our socio-economic system.

    Most parents are, I believe, also keenly aware of this. But the discussion of these problems, their causes and their treatment has long been only private — one cannot bring this up in public, for a number of reasons, although it is the main reason that schools cannot function properly. This is also a primary reason why schools get (improperly) closed down or (improperly) restructured.

    In most left-of-center or leftist media, little mind has traditionally been given to these problems, except, at times, to attribute them solely to poverty — nor has any discussion been allowed.

    This is also typical of most “education” textbooks, courses and “professional development”. The elephant in the classroom and hallways — and in what is left, too often, of our communities and families — is ignored for what are basically clever or not-so-clever diversions.

    In right-of-center or rightist media, attention was given to these problems, but perhaps for the wrong reasons, without a true understanding, and with only the most authoritarian or social-Darwinian perspectives and quick-fix solutions endorsed.

    The “ed reform” movement that has accelerated over the last twelve years has further shut down discussion of these problems — as any raising of them is seen as an attempt to make excuses for what is projected as a problem arising from the public schools and their teachers not doing their jobs. This alleged malfunction is attributed to a combination of incompetence and malfeasance.

    The solutions that are proposed include punitive measures as well as monetary incentives — stick and carrot, bully and bribe… And then there is the “professional development” crowd, which includes, in perhaps a separate category, the Gates contingent and the information technology troops, approaching this from their own point of view.

    If business could be restructured by us geeks, why not K-12 education? Let’s build better schools and also build better teachers for the new age, just as we built computers and communication hardware and software infrastructures… The last approach, by the way, is singularly lacking in basic humanity, especially as it is not just technology, but the market forces, that are seen as the main drivers.

    Of course, there are agendas and powerful interests at work behind this projection that the problems of K-12 education have arisen from the incompetence and malfeasance of teachers — including what is left of their unions.

    But the propaganda has been successful in convincing parts of the public and many of the powerful politicians that “ed reform”, as it has been structured, is a “good thing” for all.

    Implicit in this is the acceptance of the demonstrably false hypothesis that the public schools and their teachers are the source of the problems in K-12 education — and so need to be “fixed”. Although the public schools (and undoubtedly the teachers) have their weaknesses and faults, this approach, which neglects the core issues, has led, predictably, to even more chaos and malfunction.

    There has also been insufficient attention paid to the potential provided for both informal and formal education by the social context. The potential of the Internet and information technology has long been hailed — perhaps too eagerly as yet one more panacea. But there are also far less high-tech resources that are available. These remain largely untapped — or even unrecognized.

    The heavy inflow of immigrants, from all sorts of cultural and economic backgrounds, especially evident in urban areas such as New York City, and the opportunities this provides for learning, provides one example of this. To what extent are the backgrounds of immigrant students and teachers taken into account as human resources? The same may be said of long-standing native communities, be they of European, African, Latino, Native American or other descent.

    Most teachers are aware that their own backgrounds and strengths might remain largely unknown and untapped through a long teaching career.

    Imagine if tensions were lowered, time was provided, and much of our “P.D.” was replaced by teachers, students and parents getting together to present what they know, how they view things, etc. Imagine the energizing effect this might have on students, teachers and parents. School is indeed not just about testing or about applying the latest (or recycled) theories of education. They should, perhaps, be much more be about the transmission of human culture.

    (3) The basic structuring of the schools (here in NY city for example) and the problems and potential this has, has also rarely been addressed. This would be a long discussion, so I will postpone it for later. But it is just as crucial as the social context.

    (4) What is least crucial, as far as learning and teaching are concerned, are the very things that “ed reform” has increasingly focused on — high stakes testing and (even for the Farina wing) “professional development”. These are, in my opinion, costly diversions from the task at hand, which is difficult enough.

    While standardized tests and teacher training do have their roles, to make these the focus, while ignoring the trumpeting elephant (the social context, with its problems and potential) and the braying donkey (the structural problems and potentials of the schools) seems to be a stupid and criminal endeavor. The elephants and donkeys in Albany and Washington should take heed. ;-)

  3. July 29, 2014 am31 3:42 am 3:42 am

    ahem. on th’ vilson tip…
    prob’bly i 1st heard about
    ‘im right here. anyhow, by
    (2010) i’d noticed this outstanding blogger.
    it’s like he somehow just *knows* how to
    talk about sensitive matters in a writerly
    “voice” that feels so *real* that it’s impossible
    to take offense: we’re in the presence of,
    not only a living *person*, but, what is still
    more rare, a *caring* one. how he… or you…
    can go on year by year in suchlike environments
    as you and your cohort do? well.
    better you than me. thanks.

    PS donkeys & elephants? should?
    dumb beasts *only* heed humans
    when *beaten into submission*.
    let *humans* take heed. or…
    as usual… not.

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