|In the passion of the civil rights campaigns of 1964 and 1965, Kozol moved from Harvard Square into a poor black neighborhood of Boston and became a fourth grade teacher in the Boston Public Schools. He has devoted the subsequent four decades to issues of education and social justice in America.
Death at an Early Age, a description of his first year as a teacher, received the 1968 National Book Award in Science, Philosophy, and Religion. Now regarded as a classic by educators, it has sold more than two million copies in the United States and Europe. Among the other highly honored books that he has written since are Rachel and Her Children, a study of homeless mothers and their children, and Savage Inequalities.
His 1995 best-seller, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, described his visits to the South Bronx of New York, the poorest congressional district of America. Featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and praised by scholars, children’s advocates and theologians all over the nation.
In his 2005 book, The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan returned to the battle with his strongest, most disturbing work to date; a powerful expose of conditions he had found in visiting and revisiting nearly 60 public schools in 30 different districts in 11 states. Virtually everywhere, he found that inner-city children were more isolated racially than at any time since federal courts began dismantling the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. “They live an apartheid existence and attend apartheid schools. Few of them know white children any longer.”
The Shame of the Nation, joined Amazing Grace, Savage Inequalities, and Death at an Early Age as required reading at most universities and as part of the curriculum for future teachers and for professional development in dozens of our major urban systems.
Now, in his most recent work, Letters to a Young Teacher (August 2007), Jonathan draws upon four decades of experience to guide the newest generation of our nation’s teachers into the ethically complicated challenges but, also, “the sheer joy and passionate rewards” of what he calls “a beautiful profession.” In a series of affectionate letters to Francesca, a first grade teacher at an inner-city school in Boston, Jonathan describes the tender chemistry of love and trust she rapidly develops with her students while, under Francesca’s likeably irreverent questioning, he also reveals his own most personal stories of the years that he has spent in public schools.
Letters to a Young Teacher reignites a number of controversial issues Jonathan has powerfully addressed in recent years: the mania of high-stakes testing that turns many classrooms into test-prep factories where spontaneity and critical intelligence are no longer valued, the invasion of our public schools by predatory private corporations, and the persistent inequalities of urban education.
When he is not with teachers in their classrooms, or at universities and colleges speaking to our future teachers, Jonathan is likely to be found in Washington, where he devotes considerable time to what he calls “my lifelong efforts at remediation” of the members of the U.S. House and Senate. He has spent much of the present year attempting to convince his friends within the Senate leadership to radically revise the punitive aspects of No child Left Behind.
Jonathan received a summa cum laude degree in English literature from Harvard in 1958, after which he was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. He has been called by The Chicago Sun-Times “today’s most eloquent spokesman for America’s disenfranchised.” But he believes that teachers and their students speak most eloquently for themselves; and in his newest book, so full of the vitality of youth, we hear testimony.
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