Teaching, Learning, and Other Miracles
reviewed by Kay Johnston - August 29, 2007
In the foreword to Teaching, Learning and Other Miracles, Bill Ayers says that Grace Feuerverger has written a book that asks us to build good environments for kids and to meet the challenge of inclusion. This book does, indeed, ask the reader to think hard about inclusion and what it means to teach. Feuerverger uses the power of narrative to discuss her own experience of finding safety in school and to describe how she interprets others stories in the context of her own.
As I read this book I recalled a book that I was assigned to read in my undergraduate courses in education. That book, When Teachers Face Themselves by Arthur T. Jersild, made a powerful impression on me. He wrote, This book is one of a series of writings carrying the theme that education should help children and adults to know themselves and to develop healthy attitudes of self-acceptance (p. 2). The premise of his book was that a teacher must understand herself in order to help students know themselves; in order for a teacher to develop this understanding, she must understand her own feelings of anxiety, loneliness, hostility, and what it means to search for meaning. In addition, she must understand these feelings in the context of how she understands teaching.
I found myself recalling this book as I read and reread Feuerverger because I think that she is attempting to understand some of the feelings listed above in her writing. She is also, as she says, paying tribute to the gift of a good public education (p. 1). Feuerverger describes how school and especially books offered her a way to survive. She is the child of Holocaust survivors and her parents were not able to provide for all of their daughters emotional needs. In one excerpt, Feuerverger describes how she was chosen to perform in a play and how very important this performance was to her. Her mother watched the play; however, after the play her mother was unable to make Grace feel that Graces performance was important to her. The reader feels the little girls deep disappointment and pain. School provided the space for this child to escape that kind of emotional pain and to learn of a world of language, culture, and ideas that were an invitation to another world. She writes this book as a story of how language, culture and school serendipitously came together in my childhood to offer me a way to survive (p. 1). She wants this book to inspire teachers to find a more compassionate way of understanding teaching and learning in the world (p. 1) because more compassionate teaching will ease the pain of children in school.
So, then, how does Feuerverger succeed in telling her story and inspiring teachers? I had a mixed response in my answer to that question, as indeed, I had a mixed response to this book. I was moved by her passionate defense of the importance of understanding other cultures. She makes it absolutely clear that the ability to cross cultural borders can provide a way not only to understand others, but also to get beyond oneself. She also demonstrates through her own story of her childhood how not being like others can make life in school very frightening and very lonely. She reminded me of Vivian Paleys (1981) comment that each child in school is essentially lonely. Her stories also demonstrate that one teacher can make a world of difference for a student. Her descriptions of her conversations with children who have suffered from war are examples of how listening carefully and talking with another can provide a feeling of safety and belonging. In these ways she does inspire the reader.
I appreciate the way she uses stories to make sense of cultural identities. I also appreciate the importance of developing community this is articulated throughout this book, but most powerfully in Chapter 6, University Teaching, and Chapter 7, Reclaiming ESL Voices. Having used narrative in my own work with students, I am compelled by its importance and found many of Feuervergers stories resonated with my own views and with those of others currently writing in education who question how we can teach our students to search for real meaning in their education and to work toward developing real community.
Given that I agree with so much of Feuervergers books, I wonder why I felt unsatisfied by parts of this book. As I read it, I recalled a particularly difficult discussion that was held after a presentation at a conference years ago. I dont remember who gave the talk, but those of us in attendance discussed the difficulty in trying to find a balance between making classrooms a safe haven for students and allowing the world outside to enter into that classroom. In other words, what is our responsibility to make the classroom a place for potentially uncomfortable discussions about and critiques of that outside world or a place to protect students from that outside world. Most teachers I know go back and forth about the answer to that question. Feuerverger describes how she had real dialogues with children and with her own university students. They talked about what made them feel like an outsider, yet she doesnt discuss the tension described above. Did those discussions make students feel less safe? Her focus is clearly on providing students with the safe place that school was for her and for the dialogue she seeks. I wondered if that dialogue ever came into conflict with the safe space that Feuerverger calls for.
She writes that she will always be a border dweller (p. 109). Previously in the book she wrote about how speaking English always felt powerful to her. Again, I wanted her to discuss the tensions that being both a person with power and a border dweller might produce. Perhaps I am too eager to have stories that tell how many of us feel conflicting things simultaneously. As Virginia Woolf put it, nothing is ever one thing. I would welcome knowing if this is something Feuerverger feels.
I am always hesitant to review a book. I understand that I read the book in a different place from that of the author. Responding to a book is crossing cultures. I would actually welcome a conversation about a book, rather than a review of it. In that spirit, I mention that I looked for more complexity not in the form of a judgment, but rather in the spirit of dialogue.
I do wish the book had been more consistently edited. In some chapters there are page references to quotes; in other chapters, there are not. In some chapters, British punctuation is followed; in others, it is not. That sometimes got in the way of reading it. That quibble aside, this is a book which will help teachers and pre-service teachers understand how crucial it is to look into the heart of the pain of your pupils (p. 16). Doing that can help a teacher teach more compassionately which is what this book calls for. Teaching more compassionately should be a goal for all of us in education.
Jersild, A. T. (1955). When Teachers Face Themselves. New York: Teachers College Press.
Paley, V. (1981). Wallys Stories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press