Teach Me! Kids Will Learn When Oppression Is the Lesson.

Murray Levin. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998. 152 pp. $23.00

(Expanded paperback edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. 176 pp. $18.95)

Reviewed by Joe Auciello

 

On the closing page of this book, author Murray Levin asserts an overriding truth about the public school system that educators generally prefer not to acknowledge. He identifies the social reality that defines and limits teachers’ optimism and best work in many urban schools as follows:

[T]he school and the cruel ghettoes of Boston move at cross-purposes. The political economy of Boston and this country creates the poverty and indolence of the ghettoes, which in turn produce our students. Misguided educators believe that schools can change the lives of millions of black and Latino kids. They have reversed the natural order. When the economy begins to serve true human needs, the schools will produce responsible and engaged human beings. (150)

Yet, it is clear from the book that Levin took this reality not as the conclusion but as the starting point for his work with a group of severely disadvantaged students at Greater Egelston Community High School, an end-of-the-line alternative school for black and Latino students in one of Boston’s worst and most entrenched ghettoes.

True, the social odds—poverty, racism, disrupted families, drugs, child abuse, and unemployment—dictate that many, if not most, of Egelston’s students will not succeed. But some of Levin’s students did become sufficiently engaged with their education to take advantage of opportunities that exist beyond the ghetto. The book’s “Epilogue” lists some of those who beat the odds.

Teach Me! is one teacher’s account of his struggle towards the successful pedagogy that will empower students to think, learn, and create a better life. Be warned, though. This book is not Mr. Levin’s Opus, and there are no swelling chords to signal a triumphant conclusion. Levin is forced to note that his course both

succeeded and failed. I could not involve some of the students. They missed at least a third of our classes. One of them was high on occasion . . . . None of them seemed to believe that Egelston could prepare them for a reasonable future. They were bored. They were polite. They were silent. (107)

Still, while academic and personal failure in this inner city school is not unexpected, neither is it the whole story. Through painful and persistent effort, Levin arrived at a curriculum and a pedagogy able to spark fire in the minds of many of his students. In this discovery lies the book’s value.

Levin brought an unusual mix of experience and naivete to Egelston High. A seventy-year-old retired professor of political science, he had never taught high school students or worked in a ghetto before. Beginning in 1993, he placed himself, as he puts it, “in a foreign country,” teaching a seminar one day a week for three years.

At first, it seemed unlikely that he would last three weeks. He began by assigning chapters from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, assuming that his students would take to a work that is sympathetic to the poor and exploited. Not so. The students could not or would not complete the assigned readings, and they did not care about the book’s contents. As one put it:

Why do we need to know all these details? There was a black holocaust and still is. You don’t need three hundred pages to tell us this. (59)

Levin soon realized that his forty years of experience in academia did not apply to students in this urban high school. Reading a text, then analyzing and discussing it, would not cut it. Instead, Levin improvised a curriculum based on two intertwined ideas. First, his assignments would require students “to think and solve problems rather than accumulate knowledge,” though students would learn some factual material in the process. Second, classwork would build on the knowledge students had already acquired through their struggle to stay alive in the ghetto.

Levin chose significant topics from contemporary world history and political science, such as the role of advertising in political campaigns, the causes of war in the modern world, and the Cold War and Cuban missile crisis. These topics did not patronize or talk down to the students, nor were they simply more uplifting stories of black and Latino heroes or role models. As he viewed it, success for these students needed to come not from reading about someone else’s achievements, but from making their own.

Levin intuited that his students would connect, for example, with the conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States because they would recognize

a dialectic of life and death between the two most powerful gangs in the world. The missile crisis was a metaphor for life in the ghetto with its conflagrations and outbursts of violence . . . . Our work was about Kennedy and Khrushchev’s dilemma and our own. It was about thinking clearly, thinking about life and death, thinking about what brought the world to this point. (63)

After weeks of careful study, students were learning to think critically, to understand cause and effect, and to consider options—asking “why” about events and digging further into subjects. Eventually, they understood that thinking was a weapon that would enable them to comprehend not only the problems of the past, but also the politics and economy of the ghetto. That knowledge, and the confidence that grows from real accomplishment, ultimately gave at least some of them the means to acquire a better life.

A strong feature of this book is the numerous extended quotations from students, whom Levin recorded after obtaining their permission. These comments, along with the student poems that he cites, show readers how life and school may appear from the perspective of inner city black and Latino adolescents. It can make for painful but illuminating reading:

What do we know? How to deal. Where to buy crack cocaine. … Where to steal, what cops to pay off and avoid. We know how to steal cars and where to get guns. We in the high school of the streets, man, not where you went to school. (59)

I hated it, that’s why I left. The classes were too big. The teacher never knew who I was. A number surrounded by other numbers. Who cares about the story of young white boys or girls? It has nothing to do with me. The teachers wanted to get out as fast as possible. I didn’t learn nothing. I’m Hispanic, not American. (68)

They didn’t teach us because they don’t want us to know. They want us to be ignorant so they can control us—not knowing is one of the best ways they can do this. There are two sets of teachers, one for white kids, and they learn, and one for us. (83)

What do we do when we finish here? Slap hamburgers at McDonald’s or Burger King? … We’re at the bottom of the pyramid so we do this. And for them to stay at the top, we got to stay at the bottom . . . . They tell you in school that everything’s pretty good and people elect the government and other lies. That’s why kids don’t go to school . . . . It’s too bad. Shit, man, teach me. Teach me! (28)

This student’s demand—the demand of young people in Egelstons all across America—was a cry for help sparked by a moment of hope. That plea is more than legitimate, and that hope deserves to be sustained. Thanks to Murray Levin’s book, teachers may better understand how to create classrooms that provide at least some students with the education they sorely need and want.

Joe Auciello has taught history, and currently teaches English, at Wayland High School in Wayland, Massachusetts.