When I was teaching English grammar and composition at a New Jersey prison, one of my students told me about a visit he had received from his grandmother. “She told me she got the first letter from me that wasn’t all one sentence! That’s your fault, Mr. Paolino!” It was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me.

Tony Danza as Tony Banta in “Taxi

I have never been a full-time teacher, but I have taught many college classes over the past 40 years or so, and in some cases the students really weren’t prepared for college. In recent years, I taught a lot of remedial English courses; the number of kids who need remedial English after graduation from high school is quite a scandal.

My experiences gave me a little extra appreciation of this book — I Want to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had — written by the actor Tony Danza after he spent a year teaching an English class at Northeast High School in Philadelphia.

Danza, who first became a nationally known figure for his portrayal of cabbie and boxer Tony Banta in the TV series Taxi, writes that he had always harbored an ambition to be a teacher. When his most recent TV show was cancelled, he decided to fulfill that ambition. According to him, he loathes reality TV and did not intend for his experiment to become a television series, but it happened anyway.


The A&E network set out to create a series based on Danza’s stint in the classroom, but Danza writes that it was an uneasy relationship because the network wanted drama and was willing to stage it if it didn’t occur naturally, and Danza writes that he wanted the camera to record only what happened in the normal course of events.

Danza taught a double class … two 45-minute periods with the same students. But he had to show up in the morning at the same time as the other teachers and take on all the obligations they had outside the classroom: truancy duty, coaching sports, chaperoning dances, and attending planning meetings and in-service programs.

Not everyone in the school was happy to have him there, and there were several instances in which he got into trouble for violating procedures. For example, he took his students on a field trip to Washington, D.C., but he didn’t tell their other teachers that the kids would be absent from school that day.

Danza was feeling his way in teaching an English course for the first time, but it sounds as if he became a pretty creative instructor, particularly in the way he presented literature and prompted the students to see its relevance to everyday life. In that urban setting, Danza writes, he came face to face with the problems that   many kids lug around with them every day, kids with dysfunctional families, kids who live in an atmosphere of violence, kids with no self esteem. And, of course, he came face to face with the impact such problems have on teachers.

Danza, who writes that he was a problem student at a Long Island high school, rode an emotional roller coaster at Northeast, sometimes parenting troubled kids, sometimes losing his temper — not an unusual experience for him — and sometimes succumbing in tears.

Danza came away from Northeast with some strong feelings about public education being underfunded, and about teachers and administrators being under appreciated, under compensated, and stymied by bureaucratic interference.

Of course, I didn’t accompany Danza to Northeast High School, so I can’t vouch for everything he writes about his time there. What I especially like about this book, though, is that it seems to be written in his voice. Anyone who is familiar with Danza as an actor can hear him speaking these words, and that makes them seem all the more credible.

Drawing by Mark Hicks

Drawing by Mark Hicks

Garrison Keillor mused in one of his monologues about the days when life wasn’t so complicated — for instance, when there was no entrance exam for kindergarten.

Things are almost that bad, according to Patti Hartigan, writing in the Boston Globe. Experienced educators are troubled, Hartigan writes, by the atmosphere once dominated by wooden blocks and graham crackers: “(I)ncreasingly in schools across Massachusetts and the United States, little children are being asked to perform academic tasks, including test taking, that early childhood researchers agree are developmentally inappropriate, even potentially damaging. If children don’t meet certain requirements, they are deemed ‘not proficient.’ Frequently, children are screened for ‘kindergarten readiness’ even before school begins, and some are labeled inadequate before they walk through the door.”

building-girl-colorI remember all of my elementary school teachers, but the class I recall most vividly is kindergarten. Our teacher was Miss Botbyl, who had been at the school for decades. In a corner of the room she had an upright piano that had been painted lime green with a high-gloss enamel. I don’t know if that’s normally good for a piano, but the way Miss Botbyl attacked those keys, the piano would have responded out of pure fright. That’s not to say that Miss Botbyl was mean to us kids; she was in command at every moment of the day — she admonished us collectively as “people” — but she was likeable. It was the kind of relationship many kids of my era had with their grandparents.

EDITcontent_kindergartencenter_clip_image002_0000I can visualize the interior of that room, including a series of cartoons that were posted above the blackboards illustrating unacceptable types of behavior. My favorite, which was labelled “Me First,” recommended against pushing ahead in line. I’m 66 years old, and I still don’t push ahead in line.

Maybe Jenna Bush Hager, in her new role as an education reporter on “Today,” will examine the question of academics in kindergarten. My uninformed opinion is that the Botbyl model should be restored, but the overall academic experience should be expanded, whether that means one or two more years of school before college or career, or the same number of years with more hours or days of instruction. Considering how the body of human knowledge has expanded since Miss Botbyl banged on that piano, why do we think we can teach it — learn it — in the same framework that served us 60 years ago? Forcing academics on five-year-old kids who are not ready doesn’t seem like the answer.

You can read Patti Hartigan’s report at this link:


Where our mouth is

July 15, 2009

education_clip_art_3President Barack Obama proposes to spend $12 billion on American community colleges over the next 10 years.

I’ve lost count of how much money this administration plans to spend, and while my instincts have been saying “Ahem!” for months, I endorse this idea in concept — as far as it goes. After listening to a discussion of deficit spending the other night on the Charlie Rose show, I’m convinced that I am the last person to ask whether we should turn off the presses at the mint or put them into overdrive. From what I can tell, those are both good ideas, or — to put it another way — no one knows.

Anyway, the administration argues that this money would not add to the deficit, because it would be offset byending subsidies to private student-loan companies and banks. What impact the end of subsidies would have on the borrowing and banking public, I am not aware. Whenever government says that a spending initiative isn’t going to cost anything, I reach back to check for my wallet.

Deficit or not, Obama proposes to allocate this money for construction, on-line education, and competitive grants. As long as money is no object, those are worthy causes. There is also a provision for performance-based scholarships and for resources to help colleges to better plan schedules around students’ work demands.

extended_home_01I have taught on and off at community colleges for years, and I have been teaching at one since the newspaper industry  noticed my obsolesence. Every class I teach introduces me to more men and women who are operating under punishing stress because of their inability to pay tuition and fees, support themselves or their families, and devote the time and energy necessary for a real learning experience. I have had students, sometimes on the verge of tears, tell me that they cannot afford to buy a textbook — and don’t get me started on the price of books and the shell-game of “second editions” — or that they cannot afford to buy a PC or laptop computer to use at home, or even commonly used word-processing software for the ones they have. Frequently, these are the very laid-off or undertrained folks that the President says must be prepared for the future demands of business and industry. If they’re really the point of this program — and as long as we’re going to rob Peter to pay Paul — let’s think first about how that money can fill the basic needs of these eager, talented, strung-out students.