Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Review of Starr Sackstein's TEACHING MYTHOLOGY EXPOSED

As a career English teacher and literacy advocate who started junior high school and continued through high school not reading, I firmly believe in the adage that says non-readers are actually avid readers who just haven’t yet found the right books.  There are a lot of tells regarding when we’ve found a book that’s for us, ranging from not being able to put the book down to the amount of notes we may scribble in the margins and the connection we feel with the author during and after we’ve read the book.  Some titles have worked for me because of the time and circumstances in my life, while others have a perspective that either reinforces something I’m proud of or brings me to a new and positive place.   Within the volumes of books about contemporary education and teacher practice that I’ve seen, skimmed and read, Starr Sackstein’s Teaching Mythology Exposed stands on its own for both its fully honest and transparent content and it’s particularly unique style.  

Part practical field guide and part guiding compass for those philosophical, political, and self-deprecating moments in all professionals’ lives, Sackstein here takes on a role of advocate, mentor, struggling colleague, humble practitioner, brazen realist, and tireless optimist that can only come from years in a classroom, a generous spirit, and a sense of honesty that constantly reminds the rookies and veteran teachers who are smart enough to engage with her that: “We mustn’t get discouraged with our mistakes, but rather use them to push harder and become better.”  And who else would we like that message to come from, than a National Board Certified Teacher with a dozen-plus years in the classroom, deep chops hewn by both suburban and New York City public schools, and a career-changer’s objectivity that helps her thread much-needed lines through the gap between the truths perceived by many as they enter and acclimate into teaching and the reality they find in schools.  

Sackstein’s book is too professional to be called a mere self-help book, but it’s structure is too interactive, and her tone is too personal for it not to be a contender for any teacher’s proverbial back-pocket, something to be kept close by through any situation.  It is essentially guided by “myths” about teaching and being a teacher, what she defines as “...the assumptions about our chosen path [that] can often derail the most motivated and productive educators.” Her invitation to “...transcend these misconceptions of face being buried by them” should be attractive to all of us, hopefully before a new teacher becomes part of the statistics about leaving the profession early or a veteran becomes pointlessly and/or fruitlessly embattled in a political standoff or pedagogical quagmire.  This book is the truth that the best intentions, technology, lesson plans or program of studies offerings can fail in a public school if we are smart about our approach to implementation and preservation.  It’s a complex, social profession, after all.  Context and relationships will always drive our success.  

Because Sackstein’s a teacher and not a soothsayer or a politician, she avoids prescriptions and, instead, approaches this material with anecdotes, humble reflections, questions, and examples.  Myths including “Teachers can prepare for everything, all the time,” “Social media doesn’t belong in school” and “It’s possible to reach every kid, all the time” are fleshed out in their own chapters with sections that define the myth, give an illustrative story from her own career, offer and explain solutions and finally - the most effective piece, I believe - offer up reflection questions so that teachers, teacher teams and classes of any sort could use each section as a discussion guide.  It’s also clear that while the book could be read start to finish, it would be just as meaningful if people engaged with whatever myth was most applicable to their work at the time.  And this, truthfully, is where the power of her book shows up.  I’m sure there were cathartic motivations for her writing, but the book truly comes across as the manifestation of her belief that “...every teacher needs a friend, a colleague and an administrator on his/her side.”  Since not all schools have a supportive environment open to discourse and reflection, Sackstein is offering herself as both a potential catalyst to that collaboration and an outlet for reflection in those times when too many educators feel too professionally uncertain or isolated.  

It isn’t surprising to me to have found this all in Starr’s book.  She and I have, after all, met on Twitter, where she has been an honest and inspiring part of my PLN for almost a year and a half now.  In Twitter world, that means that she and I have been in countless conversations and resource-sharing chats, challenging and learning from one another.  Being who she is, she also has gone on to push herself and others by leading #jerdchat, #sunchat, and guest moderating other national discussions such as #tlap.  For her, education is obviously a calling that requires more than the assumed depth of content knowledge.  Success as a teacher hinges on “...knowing that the top of the mountain is always just out of reach” and that as tiring as it gets, “Master teachers look at failure as a growth opportunity.”  

I know that “Education is arguably the most challenging and rewarding career in which to become enveloped.” I’m obsessive about my work and have been chewed up by it on mutliple occasions.  I’ve happily - and successfully, I’d say - made it through fourteen years as an educator in a variety of districts and a number of roles, but I would’ve approached much of my formative time with just that much more sensibility, compassion, and idealism if I had had Ms. Sackstein’s book with me for the ride.  Find her book, Teaching Mythology Exposed, here and all of her other writings here.  

1 comment:

  1. Wow, David. What a review. I'm touched, humbled and speechless by your account about the book. As you suggested I wrote the book to put myself out there as what I know I would have loved. There were mentors in my life throughout my career that have inspired me and kept me on the path I'm on. Overall thought wanted to convey that there is always something more to learn and more possibilities for us to grow as professionals.

    I'm so grateful that we did meet on Twitter as you too have really inspired me in one of those mentor roles.