Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students
reviewed by Peter Gow - 2004
Title: Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students
Author(s): Kathleen Cushman and the Students of What Kids Can Do
Publisher: New Press, New York
ISBN: 1565848020, Pages: 240, Year: 2003
Search for book at Amazon.com
Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Studentsmay be an important book; it was cited in the New York Times Education Life supplement weeks before it was even published. Like Theodore and Nancy Faust Sizer’s The Students Are Watching (1999) and the extraordinary Letter to a Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1971), Fires in the Bathroom uses a student point of view to provoke reflection and change. (The title, incidentally, refers to trashcan fires set by students in schools. “[D]eep down,” the author states in the Preface, “all of us know why.”) The student voices here are those of an extremely diverse body of high school collaborators from New York City, Providence, and the San Francisco area who provided the raw material out of which Kathleen Cushman has fashioned this book. Half polemic and half manual, Fires in the Bathroom offers both a powerful but familiar critique of American teaching at its worst and an exhaustive list of ways for teachers to reach their students more effectively.
Not surprisingly, the students quoted throughout Fires in the Bathroom are wise, insightful, frustrated, angry, dogmatic, and occasionally contradictory. They have little patience with poor or unskilled teachers, and they are bitterly dismissive of teachers who show no interest in their students’ success. Repeatedly, the students ask for respect, ask teachers to understand that the cultural exchange in school requires that teachers appreciate and respect the world of their students. The overall message is that, in order to be truly effective, teachers must actively enter this world and acknowledge its importance—all the while demonstrating and maintaining the standards of the world of adult purpose, guiding students into its intricacies, and never yielding in their efforts to make certain that each student meets success against those standards. As one student notes,
To a certain extent you have to have a personality that students respond to. But that doesn’t mean you have to be our best friend, because that will cause our education to suffer. I hate to admit it, but respect and authority are part of the job. Kids expect adults to give us directions and boundaries, but it’s a balance.
A project of What Kids Can Do, a nonprofit organization focused on the improvement of teaching and learning, Fires in the Bathroom features plenty of practical advice, including a number of templates for use by teachers in establishing protocols for getting to know individual students better and for examining their own attitudes and policies. Particularly useful are short sections on using film effectively in class and on making homework meaningful. Several tables catalogue student behaviors and the ways in which teacher actions either elicit them or can change them, although some sound unsettlingly like ultimata: “When we feel [this way]… We act like [this]… [Here’s ]How a teacher could change that feeling”—as if all responsibility for student behavior lies with the teacher “getting it right.” In one passage, a student states that “If a teachers comes in and is not prepared, you have no other choice but to start talking to your neighbor.” While perhaps reasonable within the social contract of a student-centered classroom, such a comment invites more analysis than it receives here. The very reality of the student quotes in Fires in the Bathroom, their occasional self-righteousness and adolescent self-centeredness, comes close at times to making a vice out of the book’s greatest virtue.
The book’s organization can at times swamp the reader. Grouped thematically into ten chapters, the student quotations are expanded on and turned by editor/author Cushman into lists of bold-faced and bullet-pointed mandates. I counted a total of 163 positive exhortations (“Give us alternative methods to present our knowledge”) and 36 prohibitions (“Don’t call on people just to make them pay attention”), many of these repeated in chapter-end summary lists. With the best will in the world, a teacher wanting to use these lists to guide his or her own practice would soon fall into despair; it’s a matter of overload. Whereas in The Students Are Watching the Sizers present the reader with big ideas (“Grappling,” “Modeling”) to mull over, Cushman’s editorial/authorial technique of breaking concepts into a myriad of do’s and don’ts is, in the end, overwhelming, and I found myself able to digest the book only in small doses. By the same token, the Barbiana Letter, while somewhat disjointed in style, uses its fragmentary anecdotes and observations to address fundamental political and social issues in education. Fires in the Bathroom confines its advice to matters of classroom culture—including one especially powerful and useful chapter relating directly to instruction in specific disciplines and another about the needs of students with limited English proficiency—and individual student relationships.
Fires in the Bathroom should find a place in any professional development library. The student voices give its advice, even when it threatens to be too much or too shrill, an authenticity and a sincerity that advice books for teachers often lack, and, even with a surfeit of specific suggestions, Kathleen Cushman and her school-age collaborators have packaged student contributions and adult interpretation into a powerful and compelling document. If Fires in the Bathroom is not easy to read in one sitting, it makes a major contribution to the surprisingly small list of serious books in which students speak directly to teachers.
Schoolboys of Barbiana. (1971). Letter to A Teacher. New York: Random House.
Sizer, Theodore and Sizer, Nancy Faust. (1999). The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract. New York: Beacon Press.