Side by side, over the past fifteen years we have shaped separate careers as English teachers in communities that rarely interact or intersect — Tim in low-income public schools, teaching primarily students of color, Christiane teaching in private and exclusive majority white institutions. In rural, urban, and suburban communities — from Omaha and Iowa City, to New York City and New Jersey, to Baltimore, Upstate New York, and Washington, DC — the buildings we taught in, the resources we were given, and the ways we were asked to teach students how to read could not have been further apart. As the years passed teaching elementary, middle, high-school, and college students, as well as international refugees learning survival English, we have experienced firsthand America’s separate and unequal school systems, something most people never get to see because most people exist in one world or the other, not as we do, in both of them.
We follow in the tradition of Jonathan Kozol’s Death At An Early Age and Savage Inequalities, but our story is told in parallel narratives of our teaching experiences. By combining paired anecdotes of our experiences teaching in communities of privilege and poverty with education research, we reveal the staggering levels of inequality in schools today, and a disgraceful lack of investment in American children of color that is perpetuating historical inequities in new and dangerous ways. We are both white people raised in the 80s and 90s in predominantly white, conservative neighborhoods, and at the start of our careers in our early twenties, we did not realize we would discover such a gulf between our school communities. Our education had taught us simply that after the 1960s struggle for Civil Rights, everyone now had equal opportunity, but as we became teachers we began to uncover layers of injustice in our school communities. How the Other Half Reads is the story of two teachers’ coming-of-age in a divided nation as we travel the country searching for a school where students from diverse backgrounds can read together in the classroom and design a more equitable future.
During the first fifteen years of our teaching careers, inequality in the American school system has risen rapidly, and we explore how this has affected both our students’ experience and our own as teachers. Unlike other books about American inequality in schools, ours focuses specifically on the experience of teaching English, a subject which brings us directly into the battleground of America’s culture wars. On the same day in the same city, Christiane would be teaching Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Chimamanda Adichie, while Tim would be reading from a Bridges to Literature textbook full of stories about people in poverty. Christiane would be listening to a class discussion led by a small group of students, helping them develop their critical thinking and speaking skills, while Tim was forced to guide his crowded classrooms through test-prep worksheets that left them little room to think independently. By interweaving scenes of our contrasting experiences as educators, we show the ways in which private schools and public schools in wealthy districts use English classes to develop students’ critical thinking skills and sense of authority, while under-resourced schools sentence low-income students of color to a state of voicelessness.
Due to growing segregation in our schools, a misguided fixation on standardized testing, and an educational vision that neglects the humanity of children, many American schools today are not provided the resources needed to teach students how to be citizens of a diverse democracy. We argue that privileged students are being prepared for positions of power in society, while disenfranchised students just a few miles away in the same city are subjected to authoritarian pedagogies that train them how to be compliant rather than how to stand up and speak truth to power.
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