Cooked, but still hot stuff

9th January 2004 at 00:00
EDUCATING ESME: Diary of a teacher's first year. By Esme Raji Codell. Workman pound;7.99

One Chicago teacher ended her first year 'as fried as an egg', but her raw, funny account remains an inspiration. Hilary Wilce reads it

Esme Raji Codell stares out of the front covers of her books like someone you want to slap. It's something about the Pre-Raphaelite hair and the irritating smirk. And one suspects that some of the teachers she worked alongside may have shared the urge. This girl is not a team player. She is young, sassy, loud-mouthed, confident and confrontational. She demands to be known as "Madame Esme" and arrives at her first teaching job determined to "kick pedagogical ass".

Yet she is also passionate, energetic, imaginative and compassionate. You only have to read a page or two of Educating Esme to realise this is a special teacher - one you would pay good money to sit your own children in front of. Luckily then, as well as writing this short memoir, she has also poured her passion for reading into a big, beefy manual of activities, ideas and inspiration for exploring everything in the world through books.

But first things first. Madame Esme spent a year teaching 10-year-olds in a poor school in Chicago, and her diary of that year has won several awards and become a bestseller in the United States.

It is not a pretty or sentimental book. Things are awful at this school.

This new teacher has a dysfunctional head who stares at her breasts and rings her at home in the evenings. She has assorted weary and inadequate colleagues. And she has children whose lives are so mired in poverty and violence that the best parenting they can hope for is a regular beating.

Every morning, as she greets her class, she collects their "troubles" in a "troubles basket" so they can unburden themselves of home concerns and concentrate on school. Sometimes they unload so many troubles that she has to pantomime staggering under the weight.

In her classroom, she does things her way. "We don't use the reading textbook. What for? Grown-ups don't read textbooks unless they're forced."

One day she turns the class over to the charge of troublesome Billy Williams - he makes a surprisingly good teacher - while she becomes Billy and acts up like he does for her. She takes two children home to stay while their mother gets a restraining order for her partner, who once shot her in the arm. "'I could ruin my whole career by doing this,' I thought. But then I thought, 'How can I not do it? What if something happens to them tonight?'" And when a pupil comes to school with her infant brother in tow, she spends the day teaching with the baby on her arm rather than alert the school administrators and bring down trouble on the girl's head.

At the same time, her teacher's imagination runs riot. "We are studying inventors. When the kids were at gym I dressed up in an outfit with all sorts of weird stuff sticking out - rubber bands, gum, chocolate chip cookies, light bulbs - with a tag attached to each item saying who invented it. I wore roller skates, too. The kids loved it when I came rolling down the hall to pick them up."

She makes a "time travel machine" for the children to shut themselves inside and read. She dances with a rap band on stage in assembly until Zykrecia shouts: "Miss Esme got the moves. She got it going on!" She introduces conflict resolution into the classroom, and insists on the highest standards of work and behaviour "'What'll you get? What'll you get?' I roared. 'You'll get an education, that's what you'll get! You aren't getting stickers, you aren't getting browniesI you're getting work."

Oh yes, and she gets her pupils' reading and maths scores up higher than any other teacher in the school - so high that some jump up three years while in her classroom - and wins a city-wide award for "best new teacher".

But the price is high. At the end of the year, she writes: "I am as fried as an egg. My personal relationships have suffered. I now see why so many of the older teachers are divorced. I am tired and lonely, but the children have enjoyed a measure of success. It can go on their permanent records.

For what it's worth." Esme has truly been educated, and it's not all good.

This raw and funny memoir, though set in the very different universe of a US school, will strike chords with any teacher. The cultural gulf of the Atlantic is more of an issue in How to Get Your Child To Love Reading, her guide for parents and teachers. Many of the books mentioned are unknown in the UK, and the cultural context of children's reading seems different, too, although it's hard to pin down exactly how. Even so, it's a treasure-trove of ideas, and bursts with enthusiasm for what books can offer children - or, indeed, anyone. Codell's expertise comes not only from teaching, but also working in a children's book store and running a successful children's literature website, She believes children "hate reading" only when they haven't found the right books to connect with, and longs to see books wherever children are - shelves of them at the laundromat, and the-book-of-the-film packaged with the video at the video store.

For parents there are great tips on reading aloud - "love the book yourself before you introduce it to the children" - and for teachers on running children's book clubs, cajoling reluctant readers, and getting the most out of an author visit to your school.

There are sections on, among a million others, maths books, cook books, books "for budding capitalists", dragon books, poetry and pets. There are books "for city slickers", books to read after Harry Potter, agony aunt queries (How do I get my pre-pubescent, phone-hogging daughter to read?), historical vignettes, and lists of prize-winning novels. This is a book to buy, dip into, and be lit up by, even if you can't always use all the suggestions. Or if sometimes you find, again, that you want to slap the relentlessly sassy and enthusiastic Madame Esme.

How To Get Your Child To Love Reading: for ravenous and reluctant readers alike - activities, ideas, inspiration and suggestions for exploring everything in the world through books by Esme Raji Codell, published by Workman, pound;13.99

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