In Praise of Rebellious Teachers

My family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut not too long after Paul Newman called it “the armpit of New England.” We had always lived about ten miles away in neighboring Fairfield, which in the 1970s had its share of wealthy families but was still largely populated with white middle- and working-class people like my parents. It even still had a few farms. It was very different from the ritzy little bedroom community of Manhattan that it is now.

One thing has stayed the same: the Fairfield school system has always been above average. Moving to Bridgeport in the 1970s meant leaving a highly-regarded school system and entering fifth grade in a city largely considered to have one of the worst school systems in the northeast.

Yet it was there, in the century-old brick buildings of Maplewood Elementary School in Bridgeport, that I was part of an extraordinary experiment in learning that proves how important it is to let teachers — not politicians or parents with their own agendas — control their own curriculum. When I started fifth grade, two of my teachers subversively ditched the city-mandated Reading textbooks and applied their own hard-won knowledge and teaching techniques. As a result, our class’s standardized test scores soared, previously struggling students blossomed, and student engagement grew to nearly 100%.

Maxine Zimmerman, my fifth-grade teacher, and her colleague Judith Gross, who taught sixth grade, were unlikely rebels. Petite, blonde and stoop-shouldered, Mrs. Zimmerman spoke sharply but was the kind of teacher who would always laugh at your terrible knock-knock jokes. She could corral even the worst-behaved kid with a few simple words because they knew she cared about them. Mrs. Gross was her complete opposite: Tall, lean and dark-haired, with a Dorothy Hamill haircut, she was quiet and brooked no nonsense. You toed the line in her classroom; she was so officious it seemed impossible that she would ever break a rule herself. They were battle-scarred classroom veterans, the kind of teachers that every educator has known and respected.

At age ten, that’s how they seemed to me. As an educator myself now, I know how well teachers can hide their true selves to students. But one thing they did not hide was their disdain for and frustration with the city-mandated, decades-old curriculum, especially the Reading textbooks left over from the fifties, with their all-white cast of Dick and Jane characters. They were hardcover textbooks, with the chart in the back of the book where students wrote their name and the year, and they had boring and vague titles, such as “Images” or “Sunburst” or “Kaleidoscope.”

The stories in these texts were rote exercises in vocabulary, with unmemorable characters and superficial narratives. Mrs. Zimmerman and Mrs. Gross hated those books more than the students did, largely because they had been forced to watch for years as students who might have become engaged readers were turned off by their terribly monotonous stories, which were irrelevant to the lives of inner-city kids.

They got so fed up that one day they boxed up those despised Reading texts, put them in storage, and created their own unique reading program. They completely rejected the mandated curriculum because it did not work. When I first arrived in Mrs. Zimmerman’s classroom, instead of receiving a grimy, ripped, and outdated textbook, I found an enormous library in one corner of the classroom. It was an old, huge classroom, with what seemed like 15-foot ceilings — the kind that in the late nineteenth century would have been crammed with hard benches bolted to the floor. Our desks were so old they still had inkwells.

But that huge room meant there was plenty of space for hundreds of books of every kind, for readers at every level, which these teachers had culled from yard sales and thrift stores. The newly popular young adult fiction genre, classics, picture books, how-to books, books on science, history, sports — you name it, it was there. The books were shelved on bookcases, makeshift racks, salvaged comic book stands — anything they could find for book storage, they used.

Instead of working every week on chapters in those dreadful Reading textbooks, every student was now required to read one book a week. We then prepared a presentation about it. Every Friday morning, from 9:00 a.m. to lunchtime, our two classes met in Mrs. Zimmerman’s room and listened to each student present their book of the week. We had complete freedom over the way we wanted to present our books, so we students brought in homemade dioramas, posters, and drawings, all with the requisite glitter and rainbow stickers so popular in the 1970s. You could just give an oral report, too, so once I borrowed a photograph of Adolph Hitler from the Bridgeport Public Library’s photo archive, brought it to class, and explained who Anne Frank was, what her diary was about, and why it was important. Forty years later, that’s what I do for a living as a history professor, though I now use technology far more advanced than still photographs.

Such meaty material was presented side by side with presentations about far less complex picture books from those students who were just learning English or who had not yet developed into strong readers. No matter what book a student signed out of that library, our teachers were enthusiastic and interested. They created an environment in which we all respected the work of our fellow students and were open-minded about all the different topics and skill levels they exhibited. Mrs. Zimmerman and Mrs. Gross would not have tolerated any ridicule of any student, so neither did we. I do remember Mrs. Zimmerman gently making suggestions if a student chose a book that might be too easy or too difficult, though, because her goal was to guide us as growing readers, to challenge us or prevent frustration with the books we chose — not kill our interest and enthusiasm for reading with those dreadful old textbooks.

This experience was a revelation to me. The previous year in Fairfield, the school librarian had refused to let me check out a library book that I had read throughout the library class period. It was a biography of the actress Katherine Cornell, once described by theatre critic Alexander Woollcott as “The First Lady of the Theatre.” At the time, I was infatuated with the world of show business, and obsessively re-read my own collection of books about the Golden Age of Hollywood. That day, I devoured about 40 pages of the Cornell biography during our class’s thirty-minute library period and wanted to finish it at home. I was astounded when the librarian said it was a book meant only for fifth and sixth grade students, not fourth grade students like me. I knew I was a better reader than any other student in the school, and there was nothing we would today consider “adult material” in the book, so I just did not understand the problem.

Neither did my mother. In the only instance I can remember of my mother disagreeing with a teacher or school authority instead of reinforcing the house rule that all teachers were to be unquestionably obeyed, she was in the principal’s office first thing the next morning, demanding to know why the school had censored my reading choices. I was, she explained to the principal, a student whose very first book report in the first grade was on a 200-page book. She did not censor my reading material and would be damned if she was going to let the school do it. She didn’t win that battle, but I have never forgotten that the one time she rejected a teacher’s authority was to defend my intellectual choices.

Arrival in Mrs. Zimmerman’s class in Bridgeport meant that I could now read whatever I wanted — and so could every other student. Mrs. Zimmerman would never have refused to let a student try and read a book in her library.

This teacher-designed reading program reaped rewards that are the dream of every teacher, administrator and parent: kids who had never shown an interest in school soon began to enjoy reading. We shared books, telling each other which ones were good and passing them on to each other when we were done reading them. I even organized a book swap in which we could trade our own books with each other. As a class, we became obsessed with reading.

I can’t remember a single story in the Reading textbooks I had been assigned up until fifth grade, but I have many memories of the books I read in Mrs. Zimmerman’s class, because they were books I chose myself. In addition to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” I read the “All of a Kind Family” series about Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the twentieth century; I read a notorious Scholastic Books paperback called “The Last Czar” which famously included a picture of a severed finger purported to belong to Alexandra, the executed last empress of Russia; I read the Anne of Green Gables series, Nancy Drew, Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, and “Striped Ice Cream,” a story about a poor Black girl in the city whose only wish for her birthday was to have Neapolitan ice cream and something called “chicken spaghetti.”

In fact, I loved that book so much that my mother began to make spaghetti with chicken simmered in tomato sauce, just as described in the book. I discovered my love for biography when I read a book about Marie Curie that made me want to become a physicist for about a month (until I was elected the first female president of the United States, of course). I soon grew out of the books meant for elementary school kids and my mother suppressed her terror of “stranger danger” long enough to let me take the city bus to the big public library, where I checked out 400-page adult biographies of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

The students in my class were largely African American or immigrants; my best friends were Lucy from Portugal, Dorothy from Poland, and Sherah, whose family had at some point migrated north, away from the murderous racial violence of the south. Most of the students in my class had only recently learned English and spoke only their native languages at home. The freedom we were given to choose our own reading materials meant that those students could actually enjoy learning to read in English. By the end of the year, the scores on my class’s achievement tests were among the highest in the city, and I started running into other students from my class down at the big public library — and not just in the children’s room, either. I found fellow students perusing titles in the non-fiction room, in the Classics section, in the trashy adult paperback section, and in the Research room, as we looked up information to help us with our presentations.

We could not stop reading. We didn’t want to stop reading. I remember many of us trying to secretly read books we held under our desks or on our laps while we were supposed to be working on other things, or during the much-despised, outdated science filmstrips.

What Mrs. Zimmerman and Mrs. Gross had decided, based on their long experience as teachers, was that it didn’t matter what kids read, as long as they read. Today educators are obsessed with increasing student engagement, but forty years ago these two educators knew that allowing students to choose their own reading material meant that students were engaged from the very moment they opened a book.

Also, I don’t remember any of us giving up on a book if it was difficult. We just continued to read, learning varied vocabulary and encountering different literary styles along the way. By the end of fifth grade, most of us could read anything. No one was surprised when some of us skipped sixth grade Reading altogether and were sent to English classes with the seventh graders across the street.

Two years later my family moved back to Fairfield, and after a while I lost touch with my Maplewood friends. But I did learn that the students in my fifth-grade class had a higher high school graduation rate than students in other classes across the city, showing that the foundation Mrs. Zimmerman and Mrs. Gross gave us worked.

Sadly, the city discovered the rebellion of Mrs. Zimmerman and Mrs. Gross, and forced them to use those wretched Reading textbooks again. On one level, I understand their concern: ensuring educational equality means that every student should have access to the same lessons and the same materials. It also makes it easier to measure progress across a school district.

But I think we lose something important when we focus on equality of materials and process over equality of opportunity and result. Mrs. Zimmerman and Mrs. Gross gave every one of us the same opportunity to pursue our own interests, and that lit a fire inside us that, for me at least, has never died.

They created a generation of readers, all equipped with the means to manage and succeed in different academic circumstances — and probably helped us with our life circumstances as well. When we gave those presentations on Friday mornings, we were proud — we had completed a book and a project in one week! That was worth much more than getting a gold star on a textbook-based worksheet.

Maxine Zimmerman and Judith Gross knew that — and rebelliously subverted stale government-mandated curriculum and replaced it with solutions based on their own practical classroom experience. And our school’s principal, the legendary Jettie Tisdale (for whom a school in Bridgeport is now named) trusted her faculty enough to know that they would stop the experiment if it didn’t work. Test scores and graduation rates showed that it did work.

That should be a lesson for today’s educators, parents, and politicians everywhere. Teachers are professionals, and their training and experience should be trusted and leveraged to help every student succeed.

Making History, Law, and Political Theory relevant.

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