Ask Not...by Katie Rolnick
Donna Foote, Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America (Knopf, 2008)
Maria Shriver, Just Who Will You Be? (Hyperion, 2008)
It’s about that time again. High school and college students across the country will don silly looking caps and gowns, march across school auditorium stages, get their diplomas (shake with the right, grab with the left), and head out into the real world. Some high school graduates face challenges of character. They must forge into adulthood in a society that values appearances, wealth, and appearances of wealth. Though they may have the potential for greatness, they need some coaxing in the right direction. These students might have someone like Maria Shriver speaking at their graduation, giving them well-worn advice about how they can discover their true calling. In her new book, Just Who Will You Be?, Shriver does just that.
Most of Just Who Will You Be? is a transcript of a speech Shriver gave to her nephew/godson’s high school graduating class. Following in the tradition of mediocre orations given to teenagers who are barely listening, the piece is written like a Dr. Seuss poem with Shriver rhyming in rhythm a list of tips from “follow your gut,” to “Remember it’s OK/To just change your mind.” Shriver tells this group (and any graduate who receives her book) that they must dig deep within themselves to find who they want to be, not what they want to be. But her main concern is that they will seek fame rather than fulfillment—and who better to speak about that than Mrs. Kennedy-Shriver-Schwarzenegger? Indulging in her own fears about trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations, Shiver aims her book at those students, both young and old, who push so hard they lose sight of their own needs and desires. True as her words of wisdom may be, they are hackneyed and uninspired.
Following the speech Shriver includes a section about the lessons she learned from the experience. On the final pages she has a list of ten things she pledged to herself, and the following pages have blank space for the graduate to do the same. Number six on Shriver’s personal list is, “I pledge to serve my community at least once a year in a way that will benefit other people.” Once a year? True, she says, “at least,” but as the First Lady of California it seems ludicrous that Shriver musters such a paltry commitment to service. I don’t want to set unattainable expectations for Ms. Shriver, but I think she can do better than this.
Some young people, however, are up to a greater challenge. These young adults, who only a few years ago were listening to a high school graduation speaker spout banalities, have done more than follow their gut. They’ve taken a huge risk by agreeing to teach in underserved, rural, or low-income schools across America, including Shriver’s home state of California.
Teach For America, the newest activist institution of choice for recent college graduates with a social conscience and a solid GPA, places teachers in schools right under Shriver’s nose. Founded in 1990 by Wendy Kopp, the program finds stellar co-eds willing to commit two years of their lives to teaching kids who have more to worry about than the trappings of fame. In her new book, Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America, author Donna Foote gives the first up-close look at the program, its history, and the college graduates who, almost overnight, become teachers.
At Los Angeles’ barely functioning Locke High School the student population is predominately Hispanic and African-American. Located directly in the middle of gang territory, these students worry more about whether they’re wearing a color that could get them shot, than whether they will fall prey to celebrity’s sharp claws. Like Shriver’s nephew, they face challenges of character, but of a mountainous scale. They must navigate through the fog of violence and focus on their education, their way out. Luckily, some have Teach For America teachers guiding their path with action rather than stale advice.
Teach For America—or TFA to those in the know—began as Wendy Kopp’s thesis while she was an undergraduate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Her goal was straightforward, but hardly simple: to close the achievement gap between low-income and high-income American students. To do this, Kopp recruited recent college graduates who were, as Foote describes, “hard-driving, high-achieving twenty-somethings who, when contemplating their futures, were filled with a mix of idealism and indecision, in equal measure.” Blinded by her own faith in the project, Kopp never doubted her ability to succeed. And succeed she did. What began in 1990 as a grassroots organization of 500 corps members now has an alumni base of over 20,000 and an annual operating budget of about $40 million. As Foote explains, TFA is, “a twenty-first-century hybrid—and organization with the soul of a nonprofit and the brains of a Fortune 500.”
That soul is the collective of teachers who, after only five weeks of training, enter schools across the country hoping to fulfill TFA’s goals of making significant gains in student achievement. Foote follows four first-year corps members (teachers) placed at Locke High School. They struggle to corral unruly students, find supplies in a district without sufficient funding, and negotiate with the school administration. All the while, Teach For America is breathing down the teachers’ necks, pushing them to do more, better, faster. But the real challenge for all the TFA corps members at Locke is trying to teach students who read at elementary school levels—if at all. Foote documents their struggles to find alternative teaching methods, while being honest about the flaws of both the educational system and TFA.
Writing from within the experience, Foote uses the language of both TFA and Locke’s students. She gives a complete picture of the TFA structure as well as the organization’s jargon; from corps members (CMs) to recruitment directors (RDs), the book is littered with acronyms. We see new teachers go through “institute”—the summer training period before they begin teaching—and Foote sits in on development meetings with TFA staff. And as the book progresses, Foote also adopts the vernacular of Locke’s students. When corps member Taylor Rifkin gets an unexpected visit from a superior, Foote uses student lingo to describe Rifkin’s worries. As Foote writes, “…even as she was lecturing, she knew he’d be tripping out about it.” Later in the book, Foote talks about the pull of gangs, describing how, “Kids were getting jumped in at younger and younger ages.” By using the language of Locke’s young teachers and students, Foote acts as a medium for their experience, rather than a filter. Before you know it, the acronyms and slang seem familiar rather than foreign.
TFA has many supporters (among them the Gates Foundation and Oprah), but there are also skeptics, those who wonder whether it’s a good idea to take privileged college graduates and put them to work in some of the toughest school districts, only to have most of them leave after fulfilling their two-year commitment.
Also looming over the program is the need to document actual educational growth. During the 2005-2006 academic year, while Foote was reporting, TFA used a system to monitor student improvement based on teacher assessments. But those assessments were created by each individual corps member and therefore lacked consistency across disciplines and schools. Since then, TFA has revamped their tracking of student progress, but it remains an imperfect science. Kopp and her team use market analysis to hire people who have the same traits as previously successful TFA teachers. But how can you really measure who will be a good teacher?
If you’re lucky, you had a teacher that made an impact on you, changed the way you thought about learning, or helped you better understand yourself. But for each of us, that teacher is different. Some of our teenage selves needed a good, hard kick-in-the-ass. Others responded more to a caring, nurturing approach. What Foote shows in Relentless Pursuit is that while the TFA corps members might not change the course of every student’s life, they can change the course of one or two or ten. They have a commitment and stamina uncommon among older faculty and the TFA mission motivates them when they can’t find the drive within. Maybe this won’t change everything, but it’s definitely a good start.
Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer and co-editor of the Brooklyn Rail Books section.