“The popular notion of what it’s like to teach in urban America is dominated by two extremes,” writes author and teacher Gregory Michie:
On one hand are the horror stories, fueled by media reports that portray schools in chaos: incompetent administrators, hallways that are more dangerous than alleyways, students who lack even the most basic skills, parents who are uneducated and unconcerned. On the other hand is the occasional account of the miracle worker, that amazing super-teacher/savior who takes a ragtag group of city kids and turns their lives around overnight. Somewhere in between these two, between the miracles and the metal detectors, is where I teach. (p. xxi)
In Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students
, Gregory Michie succeeds admirably in rendering his teaching experiences in the complicated reality between these extremes. His portrayal deftly avoids the simplification either extreme would demand. The first book in the Teaching for Social Justice series (edited by William Ayers and Therese Quinn), Holler If You Hear Me contains vivid stories of Michie’s first seven years as a teacher in public elementary schools on Chicago’s South Side. Each chapter begins with a story told by Michie, followed by the reflections of his former students who figured prominently in the story. For example, in chapter two, Michie’s perceptions of Hector, a 12-year-old boy with a tough bravado, are transformed when, after an argument with another student at camp, a sobbing Hector reveals that he is frightened because his little sister became sick earlier in the day and he did not know if she was okay. In the second half of the chapter, Michie visits a 17-year-old Hector at his home and finds him angry and having problems with his mother due to his gang involvement, violence at home, and unwillingness to go to school. Hector, who dropped out of school during seventh grade and has been in and out of various programs since, reveals his feeling that teachers “looked at me and saw a dumb gangbanger. A kid that needed to be put away forever” (p. 38). His desperate desire for a more restful existence are expressed in his wishes “to go far away. Real, real far away . . . away from this environment for a long, long time. Someplace different. Someplace where I can go and fish for the rest of my life” (p. 39). Michie realizes how, “as a sixth grader, Hector had seemed so grown up to me much of the time. Now, as a 17-year-old, he seems unprepared to give way to adulthood” (p. 37).
Michie’s purpose in this alternating format is to “shed light on the education of a teacher” and “to allow space for my students to speak their minds, tell their stories, raise their voices” (p. xxi). These first-person reflections make Michie’s students come alive for the reader as even the author’s insightful and caring descriptions cannot. Because Holler If You Hear Me
does not follow one classroom or group of students throughout, the student reflections serve to deepen the reader’s understanding of particular students but also to encourage the reader to wonder about the future lives of each student that Michie mentions.
Holler If You Hear Me
touches on a variety of the fundamental challenges of teaching — classroom discipline, teacher frustration, relationships with students, relationships with other teachers, racial and ethnic differences, student apathy, and navigation of restrictive school policies, among many others. Throughout the book, Michie balances his tales of struggle with moments of joyous success. Not surprisingly, the successes are often related to the development of deeper connections between teacher and student. Michie presents his successes with a genuine modesty that comes from the experience of other, less effective teaching moments. Michie’s reported mistakes and difficulties are some of the most instructive parts of the book. At times, though, the reader may want to hear even more introspection from the author about the reasoning behind his actions or why he thinks a particular moment worked well or did not work at all.
Michie’s concern for and commitment to his students shines in Holler If You Hear Me
, and his questioning, wonderment, frustration, passion, and humor pull the reader along this journey of embodied education. While many of the issues raised are familiar, Holler If You Hear Me is a book of ordinary inspiration that will appeal to both teachers and students.