Thursday, September 4, 2014

Q&A with author Garret Keizer

Garret Keizer is the author most recently of Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher, which recounts his experiences returning as a teacher to the Vermont high school where he had taught many years earlier. His seven other books include Privacy and The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want. He is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.

Q: Why did you decide to write about your experiences returning to teach high school after many years?

A: I’ve often kept a journal during periods of intense experience in my life. I followed this practice during the year of teaching recounted in my book. When the year was over, I decided to use the journal as the basis for an essay that appeared in Harper’s Magazine. Responses from readers persuaded me that the essay might become the nucleus for a book. It did.

That’s the progression—though it doesn’t really address the “why” of your question. I believe that one of the best reasons for writing is to give people courage. The writers I cherish most have helped me to be a little braver than I’d have been without them. So, I wrote my book in part to give courage to others—not only to teachers, parents, and students, but also to anyone who faces the challenges of a hard job in the midst of social conditions that make it harder than it has to be.

I also wrote my book in defense of public education and in open antagonism to the specious notion that we can use “school reform” as a cheap substitute for the achievement of greater social and economic justice.

Q: What were some of the most significant changes at Lake Region Union High School, and what did you find that had remained more or less the same?

A: The major changes I noted were in the areas of positive morale, digital instruction, and one-to-one tutorial support for students.  There was more of all three. There was also a greater emphasis on teamwork among teachers and on staff-wide collaboration on behalf of individual students in academic or personal jeopardy. Finally, I found more evidence of “writing across the curriculum”; I had physical education teachers proudly sharing their students’ writing with me.   

I believe I encountered a greater resistance to reading than I had met in the past, though one teacher’s anecdotal comparisons should never be taken as norms. I also observed evidence of addiction to digital devices. “Smoking in the boys’ room” had become texting in the boys’ room—and just about everywhere else.

Among the factors that remained constant: the overall decency of the student population, the capacity of young people to be inspired by great literature, the devastating effects of family dysfunction, and the educational disadvantages that come of gross economic inequality.

Q: You write about a high school in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. What about your experiences is unique to that setting, and what is common to most high schools around the country?

A: I suspect my experience was unique to my setting mainly in the sense that every human experience is unique to the particulars of a given personality and a concrete location. The experience of a Somali housekeeper in room 213 of the Comfort Inn in Bangor, Maine, is unique to her, and if she happens to write a memoir about her work, that memoir will be one of a kind. Of course, the agrarian and ethnic characteristics of the community in which I taught imparted a specific flavoring to my experience that distinguishes it from the experiences of teachers in other settings. Few of my students, for example, were victims of racism, because most of them were white.

That said, there are a host of factors tipping my experience toward the general as opposed to the unique. The influences of global capitalism, technological fundamentalism, popular culture, celebrity fixation, consumerism, and educational standardization tend to erase many of the regional distinctions that formerly made teaching in one place vastly different from teaching in another. The most critical difference remains the one formulated by Billie Holiday between “them that’s got” and “them that’s not,” with a goodly number of my students falling on the latter side of the divide. 

Q: Did you leave your year of teaching feeling discouraged or encouraged?

A: Both. I was greatly encouraged by the dedication of the people with whom I’d worked and by the potential I saw in so many students. That kind of encouragement has political as well as emotional ramifications. If the raw material for building a better society is utterly deficient, then where is our hope—or even a reason—for trying to achieve one? I found an abundance of raw material in the school where I taught. 

At the same time, I was discouraged to recognize some of the ways in which our public schools are being used in the service of a cynical agenda. Poor kids are expected to perform at “acceptable levels” on standardized tests. This amounts to a very sweet deal for the privileged characters who devise and promote the tests. If the poor kids fail to perform, we can write off their schools. If they do perform, we can write off their poverty. After all, poverty must not be such a big deal if children can still master their math facts on an empty stomach! I forget the name of the Supreme Court justice who said he wasn’t sure how to define obscenity but he knew it when he saw it. I’m not sure the key players in our so-called education debate have that same ability.   

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Fiction and nonfiction, all of it set in New Jersey, where I was born and grew up.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Actually, I believe “we” already know it. The problem is finding the will and the wherewithal to act on it. My hope is that Getting Schooled will make some small contribution to bringing that action about in a meaningful way.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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