Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fires in the Bathroom

Title: Fires in the Bathroom
Author: Kathleen Cushman and the students of What Kids Can Do, Inc.
Genre: Non-fiction, Education
Price: $12.89 (on Amazon)
ISBN: 1565849965

I haven't felt too much pressure to post about the books I've been asked to read for my practicum course this semester, considering the assignments are made mostly up of textbooks, but this book is quite different. The goal behind writing this book was to give teachers, current and future, an idea of what is going on in their students' minds when it comes to school. Kathleen Cushman, along with several students from various areas in the U.S. (mainly California, New York, and Southern New England) wrote the book, giving advice in several areas, such as earning respect from your students, teaching the whole class as well as individual students, and working with ELL (English language learners) students.

While books like this can sometimes seem disingenuous, the kids words shaped into something a little bit more digestible for adults to hear,  the students responses are kept raw and the book is entirely from their point of view. A majority of the texts are quotes from students, explaining their feelings about teachers and what works in the classroom and what doesn't. Some of the responses make sense, at least to me, someone who hasn't been out of high school too long: "If someone gives you a bad grade, they should tell you exactly why" (pg. 27).

Other times things that had never occurred to me appeared, making me consider situations I hadn't had to while I was in high school: "Learning hard things feels most overwhelming when students see the new material as a daunting mass of unfamiliar ideas" (pg. 124). If you've been a good student all your life and then become an enthusiastic learner, it's hard to look at new material in this way, but when you've been in the position where school is not a place where you feel intellectually safe (as is the case with many students), then yes, new material is daunting. I think many teachers or soon-to-be teachers have mostly been in the position where school has come easily to them, and it's something they've embraced. It is not always, and sometimes rarely, the case with their students. It does those students a disservice to not know this other side of the school coin. "Fires" helps reveal that side to those who are unfamiliar.

As touted before, this book is written almost entirely from the perspective of the students. While in most ways, this is absolutely a benefit (it's so important to hear straight from kids mouths how they think--what they say can't be reinterpreted incorrectly), but in others, it can be frustrating. These are high school students, and while they may say they want thing, the also may want the exact opposite. In the beginning of the book, students state they feel like they want their teachers to know them better, to have an invested interest in them and their lives and try to understand what's going on. But they don't want teachers to ask them any questions. They don't want teachers to get to personal. They want them to read their body language. I couldn't help but chuckle a bit as I read this part. They want us to know them, but not at all. And, by the way, it was the same students saying they wanted their teachers to get to know them as well as saying they didn't want to reveal to much of their personal lives to them. It's very typical teenager to give these mixed messages, or at least I know it was for me and my friends.

Though what the students had to say in this part gave me a little laugh, it also frustrated me. The book offered few solutions to this conundrum beyond providing a copy of a questionnaire teachers can use with their students on the first day of school, perhaps making outright questioning less abrasive. I wish a little more information on how to approach the situation had been given. However, on another note, regarding the questionnaire, the book provides several worksheet sort of things to use to work with students or to record information about them. Some of them appeared as though they could be helpful, others perhaps not. I think judgment over helpfulness is more or less subjective. You may read this book and find all or none of the worksheets to be helpful--it depends on how you run your classroom.

Comparable Reads: This book, in some sense, reminds me of The Freedom Writers, by Erin Gruwell, but much less emotionally powerful. However, as far as teaching strategies, this book is far more rich than the Gruwell book (she does have a teacher's companion, however, which I have not read, but I expect it has some strategies there). Also, as I was looking up the price for "Fires" on Amazon, I saw that there were a couple of other books by Cushman, Fires in Middle School Bathrooms, which was published last year and has a focus on middle schoolers, and What We Can't Tell You, which seems like it might be the parents version of "Fires", where teens talk about the things they feel they can't say to the adults in their lives.

Who this book is for: Secondary teachers of any subject ought to investigate this book. It's clear why it was required reading for my practicum class. The insight it gives you, even if it seems obvious or conflicting at times, is insight you need to keep at the forefront of your mind when you go into a classroom. I personally need the reminders from the book because I need to remember every student is not me and that everyone has a unique motivation for getting or not getting work done.

I also feel parents may benefit in reading this book. It will give you idea of how you child may think about school, and the topics discussed might lead to an interesting conversation with your child in how he or she thinks about school.

The book may also be an interesting read for high schoolers themselves. I think, at the very least, teachers could take excerpts from the book and discuss what the students in the book say and feel versus how the students in the classroom feel. It might be particularly helpful if the book covers an area where the class seems to be struggling.

Happy Reading!

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