An education blog recently published an open letter to new TFA corps members that is causing quite a stir. Here’s how Katie Osgood begins her message:
Dear New TFA Recruits,
It is summertime, which for those of you newly accepted into Teach for America, means you are enduring the long hard days of Institute. I congratulate you on being accepted into this prestigious program. You clearly have demonstrated intelligence, passion, and leadership in order to make it this far.
And now I am asking you to quit.
Ms. Osgood’s letter goes on to outline her reasons why TFA corps members should quit, which include the claim that TFA makes educational inequalities worse, not better; TFA is backed by naughty/suspect donors; and TFA is in bed with conservative charter movements. Now, some of these claims are a bit extreme, and Ms. Osgood’s position on the value of traditional training could use a little leavening; that is to say, whatever the limitations of TFA training, we can hardly pretend that our schools of ed are turning out teachers who are all perfectly prepared to take on the challenges and needs of students--much less students in areas of even greater need.
Now, it’s been almost 10 years since I joined TFA (Houston ’04) and started what has been a serious engagement with the issues facing low-income youth in education. My experiences were transformative, as have been those of most of my fellow corps members, and it’s easy (and inspiring!) to focus on the success stories, which are many.
But maybe all the focus on individual successes is causing us to overlook systemic problems. Ms. Osgood’s letter provides an opportunity to correct that and ask: Regardless of how successful individual TFA teachers are/become, regardless that many TFA teachers stay in teaching, regardless of their continued contributions in other sectors, is TFA hurting the children it seeks to serve by creating greater instability in schools that most need a stable and capable teaching staff?
I’m not ready to accept this post’s claims, but I have found myself mildly alarmed by the proud announcements of ever-expanding numbers of TFA CMs and placement sites. What, I’ve begun to wonder, is TFA’s exit strategy? TFA has always stressed the quest for long-term solutions in education as much as it has touted the effectiveness of its teachers in spite of their relatively short-term mandatory commitment to teaching. But is the mission of the organization strong enough to envision its own obsolescence? What is the long-term plan for TFA, and are its ties with the charter-school movement becoming problematic?
TFA teachers and alums should consider their work carefully in the context of the national education “crisis” (one that has been going on for more than half a century), seek as mentors all kinds of teachers, and do what every teacher ought to do each day: seek to build bridges between where students are and where they need to be in their learning.
There's work to do on all sides. This open letter is transparently polemical, but I still appreciate the opportunity to take a closer look at TFA's current practices and partnership, something that I believe other TFA CMs and alums should care about as well. TFA's weaknesses (and its strengths) need to be considered in the context of a highly problematic, fractured system. We want TFA to be part of a long-term solution, not a source of deeper problems.
It appears I have a new authorly addiction: Skyping with students. In the last month or so, I've been lucky enough to have a Skype author visit with students almost every Friday. Forget chicken soup for the writer's soul--these chats are RED BULL for this writer's soul!
A month ago, I talked with students at Yes! Prep Gulfton (in Houston) which is in the same neighborhood as Chavez High School, where I taught six years ago. In the past two weeks, I've made new friends through chats with book clubs in Georgia and Kentucky, both of which were reading What Can't Wait because it was one of the recommended books on their state's reading lists. (Yay for the awesome librarians who made this happen!)
I do charge for the Skype chats (we have to pay for Liam's daycare somehow), but I am pretty sure I enjoy the experiences at least as much as the students do. They remind me that there are real students out there (some of whom rarely finish a book) who are benefiting from my labors. And their stories and questions send me back to my work revising novel #3 with a sense of urgency, excitement, and energy.
The only downside of Skype is that I haven't mastered the virtual hug. But otherwise--amazing.
(Note: this is part of my "If I were a librarian" fantasy in which I would always have ideas for the next great book to hand to a reader.)
I read Anne Frank's diary several times as a preteen, but Sharon Dogar offers something new here with a book that imagines what life in the annex--and after--might have been like for Peter van Pels. I loved how Dogar showed the evolution of their relationship, especially how she got inside what it might have been like to be forced together in a way, to know that this might be the only chance at love. Apparently there has been some fuss about Dogar sexualizing Anne Frank, but I think that objection has more to do with what people don't want to think about teens--and their own children--than to do with any inconsistencies between Dogar's portrayal and the Anne of the diaries. For more, please read my post, "Teens are (sexual) people, too."
Still, the most powerful part of Annexed for me comes in Part II, which imagines Peter's experience in the camps. The narration is choked with numb despair, but it is beautiful and gripping.
Finally, a word about shyness: I appreciated how Dogar captured Peter's personality and worldview, how she gave him a powerful, distinct voice in spite of his difficulty expressing himself to others. The narrative pulses with his will--and his right--to live.
A minor issue: The only gripe I had was with the chapter headings (e.g. "Peter Dreams of Lisa," "Peter Is in Love with Anne"). They seemed unnecessary and intrusive, but perhaps that wouldn't be the case in a paper book rather than in audio; the reader's eyes might fly right past these markers. Speaking of: I listened to Annexed on audiobook, and it's wonderfully produced with a large cast. Usually I don't like "performed" audiobooks, but here it works.
Why ANNEXED is a good pairing for NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which I reviewed here: NO CRYSTAL STAIR also draws on real-life documents to tell a story of struggle, although it's a quieter, less dramatic narrative (the life story of influential Harlem bookseller Lewis Michaux). Readers who are fascinated by fiction inspired by real events will love NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which draws on and weaves in actual documents from Michaux's life. This weaving of fact and fiction is more subtle in Annexed, but the dynamic is similar.