I’m really excited to be sharing today’s guest post with you by Sarah Zaslow.  I’m always impressed with the people who are able to put aside the extreme ambition associated with the “American Dream” in order to help people–children in particular–who come from less fortunate circumstances find their own dreams. Sarah spent two years working for Teach for America and shares one of her own stories while discussing Pat Conroy’s The Water is Wide.


fsdfdfEach year, Teach for America sends thousands of recent college graduates to teach in low-income, minority areas of the country. In 2008, I joined up. My two-year commitment ended in May. I miss my students awfully, so I overflowed with nostalgia while reading Pat Conroy’s The Water Is Wide.

Long before Teach for America, Pat Conroy had his own TFA experience. An idealistic young teacher, he worked on a coastal island in the South, an alien place with an isolated, poor African-American population and a two-room schoolhouse where the students didn’t learn much. The Water Is Wide is an unusually clear-eyed teaching memoir. Conroy admits to naivete, arrogance, and idiosyncratic methods, as well as a detailed, affectionate portrait of South Carolina in 1969-1970. And Conroy’s tale soars when he writes about his classroom.

At one point, he teaches his mostly illiterate students to identify famous pieces of classical music and their composers, then challenges white visitors to the classroom to classical music trivia contests–which his students win. He easily evokes the swelling, stick-it-to-the-man pride that teachers feel when their students accomplish something people said they couldn’t do.

In my classroom, the seemingly insurmountable challenge was vocabulary. My students were low-income second language learners. One of the biggest gaps between middle-income and low-income students is vocabulary. It is perhaps the hardest gap to close, it affects everything: what books students can access, how well they can express their thoughts on paper, how intelligent they sound during a class discussion. My dream for my students was that they would not only make it to college, but would be on equal linguistic footing with their peers when they arrived. So I taught my ninth graders, who averaged a fifth-grade reading level, reams of SAT words.

After we’d studied each word, it went up on the wall, color-coded by part of speech. Verbs were green, adjectives pink, nouns blue; the infrequent adverbs were neon orange. Every word we learned went up on the wall, save one. The students tried to get me to post the word ejaculate after reading it in an Edgar Allan Poe story. I explained that it meant exclaim but I think some of the more precocious boys knew it had a different meaning in modern usage. They would ask in angelic, helpful tones if they could put ejaculate on the Word Wall.

When I read Conroy’s description of  “one of those rare moments generated by chance, planned by no one, spontaneous and joyful, transcending the need for a teacher or a classroom, and making me once more think of education as something alive and helpful,” I knew exactly what he was talking about. That was the day of the first “vocabulary war” in my classroom.

To reinforce the words, I incentivized their use. Every time a student used a word out loud correctly and in context, he or she received a smooth glass pebble like you’d put in a flower vase or fish tank. The student with the most pebbles at the end of the week was awarded extra credit. At first, many students were shy about using the “fancy words;” others refrained because they didn’t want to sound white. Some, I assumed, just hadn’t learned the words. Until one day…

“You’re really irking me,” J. growled, slapping D.’s hand away from the flashcards they were sharing. My head snapped up. I darted over to present a pebble. M., a consummate grade grubber, gazed at the pebble with a fearsome intensity.

“It’s because he’s irksome,” M. interjected, looking from me to the Word Wall and back. “D. doesn’t have any dignity and he can’t quell his impulses.” I grudgingly dealt out four pebbles. The whole class observed quietly. Then all hell broke loose.

“I can’t ascertain why everyone but me is getting pebbles!” yelled one student.

“You’re inferior,” someone else shouted in reply.

“I’m not trying to be cordial!”

“I had a revelation! Ms. Zaslow is malevolent!” another charmer chimed in.

I dashed back and forth across the classroom, skating across the linoleum in my flat teacher shoes, dealing out prize pebbles at a furious pace. The students volleyed insults and comments at each other, admitted to being contentious and impulsive as well as malevolent and asinine, and accused me of prejudicial behavior when I forgot to give the devils their pebbles. Finally, panting and sweating, I paused at the front of the room. The vocabulary war quieted as the students counted their spoils.

A girl at the front of the room twisted in her seat to look at her classmates. “This is an aberration from how we usually act,” said prim little A., my best student. “It’s unfathomable.” Then she extended her hand.

Even after I ended the pebble system, the wars continued unabated; the students reveled in using precise, erudite words that only our class knew. My students’ vocabulary was a secret language within our impoverished school.

Despite the exuberance of Conroy’s writing and my own experience, both of us are haunted with the deep and terrible knowledge that the educational inequity in our country is nothing short of criminal. In the fiery climax of his book, Conroy explains, “The building was not bad, the materials were not bad, the food in the cafeteria was not bad, it was the single fact that the kids did not have a chance and no one seemed to care.” Conroy and the thousands of young, idealistic teachers who came after him, whether from traditional teacher preparation programs or from Teach for America, have had an impact. But I know firsthand that many of the tragedies Conroy witnessed in the ’69-70 school year persist in 2010.


Pat Conroy is the New York Times bestselling author of two memoirs and seven novels, including The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline. Born the eldest of seven children in a rigidly disciplined military household, he attended the Citadel, the military college of South Carolina. He briefly became a schoolteacher, which he chronicled in his memoir The Water Is Wide. His first novel, The Boo, will be available on November 16 wherever ebooks are sold.


*The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. ~William Arthur Ward

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A Taste of Decadence

by Christina on November 3, 2010

Still in recovery mode, I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. When you’ve been ill it’s best to give yourself some down time and weekends that don’t involve much more than lounging, bubble baths, and early bedtimes. I’ve read a lot (A LOT!!) of trashy romance novels. Those and kitschy mysteries will provide ample entertainment for the bedridden (even should the disinclination to get out from under the sheets be self-imposed).

I did manage to work up a trip to the library the other day where I rented delightful movies like Singing in the Rain and also picked up a copy of Chocolatthe story of a woman and her daughter settling in a small, conservative, French village and opening a chocolate shop much to the consternation of the local priest. If you have seen the movie, then yes, you will picture Johnny Depp each time Roux is being discussed.

Anyway, there’s nothing like a book about morality and good and evil that happens to feature chocolate to make you work up an appetite. An appetite for chocolate. I debated creating a shopping guide of my favorite chocolatiers in New York, but then I realized I’d rather keep those a secret for myself.

So, I found an even better adventure for you! Grab a box of Ziploc bags, you’re going to need them! On November 11-14th (that’s a week and half away!) New York will be home to the infamous and delicious CHOCOLATE SHOW!!

What will you find there? Cooking demonstrations, amazing displays (exhibitors include some of the best chocolate makers from around the globe)…and even a chocolate fashion show. Seriously. Chocolate Fashion. You can just eat those models right up. Okay, don’t. You might get slapped with a restraining order. These are sinful temptations that would drive Reynaud mad–more so than Vianne’s shop and Easter chocolate festival do in the book.

The entire show is held at the Metropolitan Pavillion (125 West 18th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues). General admission will set you back a mere $28 per day (in advance, $30 at the door) although the fashion show will run you a separate $150 (10 pm Nov. 11).

So why the Ziploc bags? There are free samples upon free samples. If you gorge yourself tasting all the wonderful confections available you will quickly find yourself unable to eat another bite. Last time I went, I found carrying a few bags in my purse meant I could sample the wares at my leisure (and have wonderful desserts for the following week!).*


flickr photo by minato

*(Mind you, I am NOT condoning dumping handfuls of the free samples into your purse.)


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