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November 20, 2005


Phoenix? Good lord.

As I was reading your post, I was thinking about religion in the classroom. I found that I had a tremendous advantage in my literature classes in college because of the fact that I had in fact studied the bible in high school.

In Phoenix.

At Brophy, actually.

I found that being in a liberal-arts environment, it was startling how few of the students had even heard fundamental bible stories (say, the prodigal son or Jacob wreslting with the angel), let alone the stylistic differences between John and Mark.

Phoenix. Sheesh. That brings me back.


wait a second.

if you're in hell's kitchen.

when were you in phoenix?

I get around a lot. Lived in Phoenix, then Northern Virginia near Washigton DC, and now in Hell's Kitchen in New York City.

"As I suspected, McCourt was far too bright to be a high school teacher."
I guess I shouldn't be surprised at this comment coming from a Stuyvesant graduate.

"Teacher Man" revisited: I don't think you fully appreciate Frank McCourt. I just finished reading "Teacher Man" and read his two previous books. I enjoy watching him interviewed on TV and would go to a place where he lectured. I even went to Limerick to see the places he wrote about in Angela's Ashes. I have my gripes with him, too, but I feel that he is a real success story and not the kind of "loser" you paint in your descripions. My biggest gripe is that he blasts his childhood, his church and his nationality, yet he is what he is today because of those negative experiences. He is living proof of the what Hegel wrote: "That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger" -- his "doggedness", which he writes about, is the result of his youthful struggles, as I see it. When we look at a man's life, we should look at the whole thing -- and where he is now, in his mid 70's -- even though it took him a long time to get there -- is at the top of his game. And contrary to what you said in your blog, guys like this make great high school teachers. You demean the teaching profession when you say he was too smart to teach High School. By the way, I found your blog because after reading his three books, I was hoping I'd find something written about him by a former student, and also, knowing where Stuyvesant is located, I was hoping to find someone talk about the experience there on 9/11 -- and I found such a thing by going to Google to find an essay about 9-11 at Stuyvesant on the day of the terrorist attack by a Stuyvesant journalism student. I hope Frank McCourt has another book in him! Thanks for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts. I'm a former High School teacher. I only taught high school for 7 years (the same time McCourt was teaching on Staten Island). However, I moved on to become a college professor, albeit at a Community College in New Jersey. However, my happiest memories are my days of teaching High School in Pittsburgh.

"I don't think you fully appreciate Frank McCourt."

I do appreciate him. I was a fan before he was even famous.

But just because he is a talented entertainer who writes a good memoir doesn't mean he is without the negative attributes I mentioned above.

I think it would be wise to NOT suggest that high school teachers need not be 'intelligent'; or that certain people are 'too intelligent' to be high school teachers. Perhaps one of the biggest failings in public education is that the teachers are not experts in their fields. People that are 'intelligent' in their fields are specifically the ones that SHOULD be teaching in high schools! Frank McCourt obviously had intelligence, initiative, and most of all creativity. It is, I belive, more appropriate to say that the PhD professors at universities across the land may very well be intelligent enough to teach high school, but one wonders if they are creative enough to do an effective job. Fortunately for all of us there are many Frank McCourts out there... may we all be lucky enough to have one like him as a teacher!

Russ, this would be a huge waste of society's resources to have very intelligent people teaching average high school students.

The only exception might be mating the most intelligent teachers with the most intelligent students, but providing better teaching for gifted students is not something the educational system is currently concerned with, unfortunately.

I am truly puzzled by your statement that brilliant people are wasting their time educating average students. It is clear from your previous comments that elitism was the primary lesson taught at Stuyvesant and you leaned those lessons well despite your humble past.

Did you miss McCourt’s examples use of creativity and intelligence to reach “average” children? I don’t think McCourt wasted a minute of his time in public schools. In fact, it seems to me he was at his best…he just spent too much time listing to the voices in society that denigrate teaching as a profession and started to believe those comments himself.

Regarding Mimi Sheraton's restaurant reviews, it might have escaped you that he picked her because she was a good creative writer, not because she reviewed exclusive restaurants. Besides, I think it's a teacher's job to expose students to a wider world than they are used to, including the fact that there is bad food, average food, good food, excellent food, and superb food.

As for McCourt making fun of the Bible, I think that is too bad, especially for those who believed and were enbarrassed to contradict him or stop him. But the fact that anything at all was taught about the Bible is a minor miracle. To understand the western world and culture one needs to have at least literary knowledge of the Bible, as well as of Greek mythology and Roman society. When someone refers to our planet Earth as an ark, I would think it would be important to know what is meant by an "ark". When someone talks about "the life of Job" it would be awfully convenient to know who Job was. When someone uses the word "narcissistic" I would think it would be equally important to know about Narcissus, the youth who fell in love with his own beauty in Greek mythology; and when someone refers to the "senate" I would think it would be helpful to know how the original Roman senate worked. All that can be taught with respect, without making fun of it, and without teaching dogma. I don't think it was particularly fair of McCourt to use his own religious resentments and his own "odd" religious upbringing on his students by making fun of the Bible.

I am presently reading Teacher Man with a group of people at Senior Net.com We have had some lively discussions on our feelings about Frank McCourt as a teacher. I am excited with reading your personal experiences as a student under him. I must say, you have affirmed every belief and thought I have gotten of him since reading his book. The one thing that bothered me the most in Teacher Man, was how he dealt with Hector, Boom Boom Brandt, Andrew and his thoughts of how he wanted to deal with other students. I struggle with seeing him laying his hands on a student only because he did not open his magazine, or for tilting a chair or for not having a written absence excuse. I agree with what he said, I feel he used the storytelling to avoid teaching the material all those years. As a teacher myself for fifteen years, I see him as a failure in teaching English. Thank you for your personal blogs, they gave me much insight into the man from someone who knew him. I like to see him as he quoted Ben Johnson, "Language reveals the man. Speak that I may see." I see him clearly through his book Teacher Man, and can say I am not sure I like the man I see. As a writer I agree he is entertanining and I am sure much of this is embellished.

You're far kinder than I would be with those memories. He sounds like a pretentious lech -- typical of the breed, except for his later publishing luck. I think pop culture needs to cut way back on the lionization of hip male English teachers. Did "Dead Poet's Society" start it? It sets up guys who are often unsuccessful, unattractive, dysfunctional, and insecure as undeserving demigods to underaged girls and boys.

How come you never hear about a hip *math* teacher? The "Stand and Deliver" guy doesn't really count. No wonder there's such a liberal arts imbalance in colleges.

"He sounds like a pretentious lech"

No, he was really cool. Most enjoyable teacher I ever had at any level of education.

But that was so sad, his ridicule of your little Noah's Ark musical. I was vicariously insulted. Not to mention the breast remarks.

I had a hip male English teacher too, who got fired after hitting on a number of female students (guess how I know), then moving in with one (not me). Took me many years afterward to realize he was a manipulative creep, despite his hipsterness and (to us) sophistication. At the time he was pretty entertaining, despite occasional abusiveness.

I'm truly disappointed with your observation that McCourt was too intelligent to be a high school teacher, and with your later comment that intelligent teachers in high schools are wasted unless they're with highly intelligent students. Of course bright kids need bright - and educated - teachers; so do average and low-ability students. When you're a teacher in an AP English class and your kids do well, they should: you are, after all, making silk purses out of silk. But when you light an intellectual fire in a student who doesn't give a damn about school, or about books, or about his own life, you make a real change in the world. And the making of just that sort of change is what American public schools are supposed to be about.

You can never be 'too intelligent' to be a teacher. The teaching profession needs to attract inspired, creative, intelligent individuals. However, attitudes such as yours help to reinforce the idea that teaching is`a second class profession- one to be treated with contempt rather than respect. Frank Mccourt was only too aware of this common perception of teaching which is why he attempted to find a way out of the High School System. You are extremely lucky to have been taught by Mr Mccourt. P.S. I find it hard to believe that you were unaware of social divisions and inequalities until you took Mccourts creative writing class in senior year.

The most important job in the world is to facilitate children's learning, from in-utero to adulthood. Teachers are especially important in this role. Frank McCourt tapped into his students' strengths and interests (like the Reggio Emilia approach in Italy, which has been proven to be successful). As an early childhood educator, I feel warmly encouraged by Frank McCourt. I believe he is a great role model for teachers. You cannot be too intelligent to inspire young people.

You, Mr. Half Sigma blogger, are the luckiest duck to have sat in Frank McCourt's class, so stop with the "oh poor me!"
I've been a failure of a teacher for 14 years, Frank McCourt's Teacher Man is the closest book you'll find on the subject of what teachers endure. As for McCourt not being any good at actually teaching English - you do it. I've taught English from 8th graders to 60 year olds - any time there's any learning in my classroom was when we strayed from the curriculum and made real life connections. Hooray for Frank McCourt!

I enjoyed reading your comments. Thanks. I was especially interested in the comment about class or background. I went to a pretty mixed school in Glasgow, Scotland, where this was a very big issue and teachers would have been in no doubt that their reference material was designed to hit one audience or another.

Unfortunately for me, I was usually part of the other.

So I really hear what you are saying.

I eventually went to Art School and was surrounded by rich kids who were slumming it for a while and most of the working class guys who could paint realised that they were painting for a middle class audience, even though they started out as being pretty gutsy and wanting to change the whole rotten system.

Frank seems like a really nice guy. He's only human and he knows it, which is a real salvation. He's also very talented and was probably punching way below his weight for years and could maybe allow his rapier wit to savage the unsuspecting on a Monday morning.

But what you say is very relevant: You must never forget your roots and you must remember what team you are playing for, otherwise it is easy to become a court jester...something that John Lennon felt he had become for the upper class in England.

Finally, great writers don't always make great teachers. You were just lucky to see one face to face, like a commet that comes along once in a lifetime. It's a good thing.

All the best

Joe :-)

P.S. keep the faith

Oh no! I've just typed comet with two 'm's and Frank's going to get me and tell me that I couldn't even write a menu for some greasy spoon where they serve fried bread!

Thank you for your comments on Frank McCourt. This is my 33rd year of teaching as a Special Educator. One thing McCourt captures well is the sense of how little we know as teachers. However Mr McCourt appears to be a pretty good observer - and that is a key ingredient in making teaching real for the learner. That he had flaws was pretty clear in your comments and from reading the book - which I just finished. For my two cents, I would say that the hardest thing about teaching is always keeping the perspective that all teaching happens from heart to heart. The mind can help you appear clever and can even be the star attraction but when you teach from the heart you allow the student to shine. Then students say "Look what we learned ourselves!" - Jalil Buechel, Estacada Oregon

I am looking for an email address or snail-mail address for Frank McCourt.
Thanking you,

Mattie Lennon.
[email protected]

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