Monday, January 24, 2011

Educating Esme Absolutely Knocks My Socks Off -- A Must Read for Teachers, Future Teachers, & Anyone Who's Ever Been Taught

I started listening to Frank McCourt's Teacher Man -- a memoir-like account of his years teaching in New York -- several weeks ago. The audiobook version was read by the author himself, usually a good sign it will be enjoyable. I couldn't finish it, though. Perhaps because he had retired from a career decades-old, perhaps because he had enjoyed an enormous amount of success in the literary world since his retirement, or perhaps it was plain old simple misreading on my part, but I felt he was a bit too cynical. I may return to his teaching memoir at another time; I just didn't need that cynicism in my life as I returned to teaching this year.

Educating Esme is a book I found at McKay's Used Books several months ago. I had thumbed through it, read a page or two, and put it to the side shortly after I purchased it. Over the weekend, I picked up the short read and finished it in its entirety. The full title is Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year, and that pretty much sums it up: it's an account of the classroom from someone who has just entered education. Not a veteran, Esme Raji Codell -- known to her students as Madame Esme -- enters her classroom with all the ideals instilled in her by her education classes.

Over the course of her first year, she:
  • creates a classroom time machine (refrigerator box covered with foil)
  • fights with her principal over having her students call her "madame" (he tells her it is only a term used in houses of prostitution)
  • creates a storytelling festival run by students (and funded by grant money she requests & receives)
  • forces a difficult student to act as teacher for a day (taking on his jeering, disrespectful persona herself)
  • teaches with the two-year-old brother of one of her students attached to her hip (no adult was at home when the older child needed to leave for school, so the student brought the baby with her)
  • is asked by her vice principal to move furniture at the vice principal's home
  • is called every name in the book by her students (and several by her unprofessional principal)
  • raises her students' test scores by at least one grade level each -- many students' by more than that
Madame Esme experiences all the highs and lows that exist in the classroom for teachers, but she is unique in her ability to conquer the lows. As Jim Trelease (author of The Read Aloud Handbook, which I swear by) says in the afterword, "[Esme] confesses to moving within minutes from being a loving den mother to a child-devouring dragon. Yet even as a dragon, Esme devours uniquely. She consumes her pupils with wit, threats, music, poetry, pouts, compliments, and -- always, daily -- literature" (201). 

Esme has her detractors; even on Amazon, where her book published almost fifteen years ago is still in the top 10,000 books, she has her fair share of naysayers. Most reviewers seem to dislike what they refer to as her "self-serving" attitude. I agree that her high opinion of herself -- and her disdain for others -- is sometimes off-putting. However, I think that overall the book's positives far outweigh its negatives. She may have some false confidence, but then again -- maybe she earned it. After all, she fought "the system" and won, in more ways than one. Her students were challenged, yet rose to the goals she set for them. Her ideas were mostly good rather than mostly bad.

Although Esme left the bullet-hole-ridden, minority-in-majority, inner-city school after two years, she remained in the Chicago public school system as a librarian and reading specialist. She is now an author and a blogger.


  1. i love McKay...and this sounds like a great read!

  2. It is really good, Brittany. Easy to read (& short), but inspiring to a teacher!



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