06/18/2018 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Reading with Patrick

Summer reading recs Stay connected with CS&A

Every year brings us a new crop of education-related books deserving attention. This year is no different. However, if we could only recommend one book for summer reading — indeed, if we could assign one book for educators to read — it would be Michelle Kuo’s “Reading with Patrick.” The hardcover was released in 2017. This year, Random House has issued a paperback version that includes a readers’ guide — although we suspect no one really needs suggested discussion questions to engage in deep conversation about the book. This is not a how-to-teach book. It does not concern itself much with curriculum. It does not particularly care what we teach, and is only partly about life in the classroom. “Reading with Patrick” deserves our attention because it’s one of those rare books that gets to the heart of teaching at all levels in all schools — examining what it means to care deeply about an individual student in need — while exposing the painful shortcomings of a system and culture that so easily discards the poor.

As a freshly-hatched Harvard University graduate motivated to engage in some sort of civil-rights activity, Michelle Kuo signs up for a Teach for America position in the Mississippi Delta region. She is assigned to an alternative high school in Helena, AK — a more or less last-chance school for kids who are on the verge of dropping out or being kicked out. This is also another American community wrecked by poverty, desperation, and governmental indifference. Kuo, like other TFA teachers, brings all of her skills, knowledge, and idealism to bear on the job. She goes the extra mile for her students — and many of them respond positively, including an African-American teenager named Patrick Browning.

Given Patrick’s engagement and obvious intelligence, Kuo is at first puzzled by Patrick’s earlier absence from school. Why is he in this school at all? She also notices that Patrick, with his gentle nature, has a positive effect on the other students, all of who are struggling with hard-edged lives and who have learned to distrust adults and schools and the idea that there is any possible future for them. But the more she digs into Patrick’s life, the clearer it becomes that he, too, is walking a precarious cultural knife’s edge.

Along with portraying her students as struggling individuals, Kuo exposes the town, state, and region’s racially biased and violent past that has shaped the town’s and region’s current woes — mostly in the form of poverty and lack of opportunity — that, in turn, shape the broken lives of the students and their families.

Kuo is an effective teacher. She gets her students to engage in reading and writing — and to find the inner spark to come to school, to try once more. But when her two years are up, she, like so many other TFA teachers, moves on in the direction of her real career elsewhere. Kuo returns to Harvard, enrolls in law school, telling herself that she can be more effective civil rights advocate at the macro level.

But leaving the Mississippi Delta and her students gnaws at her. In time, she learns that the school where she taught has closed. Her students are sent to the regional high school where, predictably, most fail or drop out. Many of the girls end up pregnant. Patrick Browning, the one student Kuo thought she had reached, the one whom she thought she had helped to engage in the kind of learning that would take hold and lead to a better life, not only drops out of school but also ends up in prison for accidentally killing another young man in a fight.

Kuo finds herself facing the question of the impact of a teacher on her students. What did she really accomplish? By teaching for two years in this poverty-stricken community, did she help anyone or did she just make herself feel better? Did she serve any form of social justice? Can one even affect the lives of students who live in such poverty and desperation? While lured by law firms and nonprofit organizations in need of young attorneys with her talent and Harvard pedigree, Kuo does what few of her classmates, or any of us, would do. She puts on the career brakes and returns to Helena to take care of what she considers “unfinished business.” She teaches part-time in the public school and starts visiting Patrick in jail as often as she can to engage him in a way only an English teacher can — focusing on reading and writing, and on the ways in which both can help one see the painful context of one’s life in a nation with deep racist roots. She has refused to give up on this one young man.

Kuo is not asking us to pat her on the back for her self-sacrifice. She is simply following her heart and instincts to offer a young man a lifeline. This is not a Hollywood story in which the young man in question turns his life around and escapes crushing poverty. Patrick spends sixteen months in jail waiting for trial and then spends nearly another two years in federal prison, having pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The only plot twist is that he is released early for good behavior. But after prison, life for Patrick is still stunningly hard and precarious, especially given that his felony record severely limits his options.

What matters here is the time the Patrick and Kuo spend together in what amounts to a one-on-one class in literature and writing. We get to see a broken life start to mend, to open up, to blossom slowly, to grow. We get to see a young man make greater sense of the forces that have shaped and ravaged his life. We see him learn to write about it all with increasing clarity, insight, and sophistication. The reading level increases in difficulty over time, too — moving from a slow reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to the poetry of Derek Walcott, Anna Akhmatova and W.S. Merwin, to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. It’s the latter work that engages Patrick most deeply. “This is real, Ms. Kuo,” he tells her. “Really, it just makes me feel better about, you know, being black.”

We can say this is a story about what it means to be a dedicated teacher — what it means to care deeply about the fate and life of another human being. On this level, Reading with Patrick reinforces all the research on the value of the student and teacher relationship. We can also say this is a story of the ways in which America falls so woefully short of its stated ideals — especially through the injustices embedded in our systems of education, housing, criminal justice, and employment.

But we also see Reading with Patrick as a remarkable testament to the power of language and books — of how literacy, supported by a deeply caring teacher, can light and sustain one’s humanity and spirit even in the most difficult of situations.

Additional Reading

If you finish your reading assignment for the summer and are looking for other recently published education books worth reading this summer, here are four more we recommend:

“Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why,” by Paul Tough

Paul Tough, a journalist who has turned his attention to education, examines the ways in which poverty affects a child’s mental and physical development. He then explores the central question of what adults can do to improve the chances for a positive future. Tough, who has written on the connection between grit and learning in the past, now asks educators and parents to focus on creating the kinds of environments at home and at school in which all children are most likely to flourish. Mining the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, he also provides insights and strategies for a new approach to help more children succeed.

“Transformative Teachers: Teacher Leadership and Learning in a Connected World,” by Kira J. Baker Doyle

Harvard Education Press releases a number of important books on education each year. Among the recent releases, Kira J. Baker Doyle’s “Transformative Teachers” caught our attention because it highlights one of the most important movements in education these days — the efforts to give both teachers and students greater agency. “Transformative Teachers” highlights a dozen public and private school teachers who are not only doing this work well but who have found success through vibrant teacher learning communities. As the subtitle makes clear, much of the focus here is on what motivated, supported educators can do to help students construct knowledge for life in an interconnected, multicultural world.

“The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys,” by Eddie Moore, Jr., Ali Michael, Marguerite W. Penick-Parks

A number of the contributors to this thought-provoking anthology of articles, personal testimonies, and classroom strategies have years of experience in education and are regular speakers at independent school conferences. Here they identify a clear problem: too many black male students are either academically behind their white and Asian-American counterparts in school or have dropped out all together. Because white women educators predominate in school, they need to play a central role in turning around the experiences and outcomes of black boys in school. The authors closely examine the racialized, historical, and political context of the white women/black boys power dynamic while highlighting the range of experiences and identities black boys bring to school. This is an excellent collection of reflections about race and high-quality equitable teaching in schools.

“Design Thinking for School Leaders,” by Alyssa Gallagher and Kami Thordarson

“Design thinking” sometimes feels like one of those fads in business and education that will disappear from conversation in time. But we hope not. Essential, “design thinking” is thinking systemically about rendering intent. In schools, it’s about being very clear about what a school hopes to achieve, and then sets out through the design-thinking process (borrowed from innovation practices in the business world) to make it true. We all know of schools that have brilliant missions but often fall short of those missions through faulty practices. “Design Thinking for School Leaders” can help all school leaders ignite positive change and address challenges. In particular, the authors detail five specific roles to help leaders identify opportunities for positively impacting students, teachers, districts, parents, and the community.

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