Harvard Educational Review
  1. Teaching by Heart

    The Foxfire Interviews

    By Sara Day Hatton

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2005. 145 pp. $38.00 (cloth), $15.95 (paper).

    Teaching by Heart: The Foxfire Interviews both presents and weaves together a series of interviews with prominent progressive educators that were conducted between 1996 and 2000. All of the interviews first appeared in The Active Learner: A Foxfire Journal for Teachers, which, before it ceased publication, was the teacher practice journal of the renowned place-based education group Foxfire. Sara Hatton, who conducted most of the interviews, was the editor of The Active Learner for five years. For this volume she provides both an introduction and a concluding chapter of reflections. She highlights vital teaching themes, such as “connecting theory and practice” and retaining an “optimism for the future,” that run across the interviewees’ descriptions of their learning and teaching lives.

    For newer teachers who may come to the profession with little exposure to progressive education, this text serves as an introduction to a range of educational luminaries — including Maxine Greene, Nel Noddings and Grant Wiggins, and many others — who have shaped significant alternative pedagogical frameworks and strategies for working with children and their communities. Rather than focusing on standards or testing, these educators describe the profound lessons that can be learned through watching and talking with students, enacting creative and mindful teaching that pushes beyond everyday standardized curriculum, and engaging in dynamic teacher activism that is steeped in the strength and traditions of socially just democracy. For readers who are already familiar with many of the participants, being reminded of their care, passion, and insights provides a reconnection with beloved personalities and their ideas. In the current era of neoliberal hegemony, voices that celebrate local contexts and the careful work of teachers in individual classrooms and across activist networks bring to the fore possibilities that are too often disregarded in the contemporary educational dialogue.

    Among the most interesting aspects of the book is the flavor it provides, not only of the interviewees’ personalities, but also of the Foxfire organization itself. Much like the work Foxfire does gathering the stories of wise elders in local communities, this volume can connect teachers to the essential pedagogical insights and inspirational personal stories of extraordinary mature teachers who are reflecting on their growth processes. Each of the interviews follows a similar protocol, which allows the reader to easily detect themes across subjects. However, this limited range of questions also leaves one wishing at times that the interviews were more open so that follow-up questions could be asked.

    The short interviews included in this volume are collected into six sections. In the first section, among the most interesting subjects is Grant Wiggins, who helps the reader understand the need both children and adults have to feel competent and to know that what they do is valued. Wiggins, like Eleanor Duckworth, who is also included, puts much emphasis on the need for teachers to explore and verify the understanding they believe they have engendered and to make sure that students are always understood as people with complex lives both in and beyond school.

    In the second section, Robert Coles tells of early school experiences that led him to conclude that the best teaching has a moral urgency that “demands our response.” Coles also reminds us of the courage displayed by children who struggle to get an education, even when adults fail to do their part to help. He notes that “moral and emotional development,” which are not measured by tests, are as vital to a successful life as are the kinds of learning that schools generally trade in. Vivian Paley, who closes out the section, describes her adventures listening to children with great care, using a tape recorder and writing to solidify her reflections. Paley advises teachers to share what they write with others because, she notes, many voices are needed in the attempt to figure out the complex learning needs of children.

    In the interview that opens the third section, Maxine Greene speaks of both the hope for democracy that teaching and learning represents and the responsibility teachers have to create learning situations that can foster the ability of learners to open themselves, find agency, and mindfully move beyond what is numbly predictable. Nel Noddings, who also appears in this section, speaks of the importance of relationships, which she notes are created in all parts of a school. She also speaks at some length of her struggle with grading and describes the dangers she found grades can pose to the learning process. Noddings reminds teachers to consider not just what learners “should” learn, but also what they “want” to learn, if they are to be true partners in learning.

    Alfie Kohn appears in the fifth and final section, where he describes the centrality of real choices for students as they come to take responsibility for their own learning and participate in democratic classrooms. He also advises teachers to embrace the discomfiting possibility that the ways they are teaching may not be the best and to seek allies as they open themselves to alternatives. Like Kohn, Ira Shor acknowledges in his interview that finding allies in change is vital. Shor quotes Paulo Freire saying, “We can’t confront the lion alone.” Shor describes his youth and his teaching life, which have led him to value student power but also to be aware that students must be brought to power with care, as they have frequently known nothing but “mass education that is teacher-centered, test-oriented, and textbook–dominated.” Shor advises educators to think of themselves as “citizen professionals” who teach and live critical democracy for equity and social justice.

    The final chapter is an attempt to summarize and draw together common themes that run through the interviews. With some success, Hatton puts the interviews into dialogue with one another and connects authors across themes like “the great value of reflection” and “teachers as activists and agents for change.” Hatton shows us that despite their unique contexts and experiences, each of the subjects is involved in a common celebratory “endless process of becoming a teacher.”

    Looking at the wonderful educators drawn together in this volume, one cannot help but be struck by the absence of prominent educators of color. Hatton makes reference to this in the short introductory section titled “What’s missing,” but her explanation, which suggests that this is a result of the “disturbing reality of power systems in the United States,” does not seem to justify the choices that were originally made and leaves one pondering the responsibility that progressives have to make the diversity they so value a basic aspect of all of their projects. Despite this profound omission, the vicarious encounters this book provides are rare and important opportunities to learn from some of the finest teachers of our time.

    N. A. R.
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    Abstracts

    Sexuality Education and Desire
    Still Missing after All These Years
    Michelle Fine and Sara McClelland
    What Community Participation in Schooling Means
    Insights from Southern Ethiopia
    Jennifer Swift-Morgan
    The Aspira Consent Decree
    A Thirtieth-Anniversary Retrospective of Bilingual Education in New York City
    Luis O. Reyes
    Implementing Small Theme High Schools in New York City
    Great Intentions and Great Tensions
    Jacqueline Ancess and David Allen

    Book Notes

    Teaching by Heart
    By Sara Day Hatton

    Raising Biracial Children
    By Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy

    Critical Perspectives
    Edited by Caron Atlas and Pam Korza

    Three Magic Letters
    By Michael T. Nettles and Catherine M. Millett