Harvard Educational Review
  1. Taught by America

    A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton

    Sarah Sentilles

    Boston: Beacon Press, 2005. 224 pp. $23.95

    Sarah Sentilles’s book Taught by America makes a profound emotional impact and delivers an important message about the schooling of urban children who live in poverty. Constructed of poignant fragments of experience, it swings between the heart-wrenching tragedies that urban children and their teachers often experience and the quirky, hopeful joy of young children engaged in discovery and learning. Centered around two years of teaching that Sentilles did in Compton, California, through Teach For America, the book creates an authentic picture of teaching in an urban school system in crisis. Taught by America is an effort to educate about the “real” experiences and lives of urban children living in poverty — a critical task, given that many Americans understand “urban kids” and places like Compton only through media stereotypes that portray them as completely immersed in violence and devoid of love, hope, or caring. For readers who know urban schools, Taught by America prompts reflection on the costs of participating in school systems that perpetuate the abuse of children and their teachers

    At times reminiscent of early teaching memoirs of the past, like Herb Kohl’s 36 Children, Taught by America carries us along as Sentilles discovers urban schools in Los Angeles, city kids, and herself. Carefully highlighting her social location, the book begins with Sentilles exposing her naive beginning, thinking of teaching through Teach For America as a break before graduate school. The book builds to the “shattering conversion” that pushed Sentilles away from teaching and toward working for social justice — and her children — via avenues outside the schools. Among the most revealing incidents is the starkly minimal training that Teach For America provides young teachers going into the most difficult of teaching jobs. Sentilles, like many young teachers, has to learn almost alone, not just to be a teacher but also to live as an adult. While she remains an outsider throughout her teaching experience, Sentilles struggles hard to understand her students and their families.

    Sentilles’s artful descriptions of encounters with various Compton children help build an emotional connection to her and, more significantly, to her students and their families. Through her stories we develop a sense of indignation at the hurt and lasting damage that are clearly being sustained by all involved. Many of Sentilles’s tales are so vivid that they stir feelings of visceral outrage and force the reader to contemplate the personal responsibility we all have for what goes on in some of the urban schools in this country.

    While struggling to manage the ordinary tasks of a teaching life — figuring out how to grade, how to structure lessons, how to provide models, or how to organize a project — Sentilles shows us that even though she is relatively untrained, she is able to offer her students some thoughtful and rich curricular experiences. She describes her efforts to provide the children with stability and her struggle to teach subjects such as reading, for which she had little training. Rather than receiving help from her colleagues, Sentilles is sustained by the love and care her students show her in return for her efforts to help them. We see this in multiple instances, from a student who gives her a Mother’s Day card, to children who surround her with hugs when they fear she has been fired, to a child who can’t contain himself and shouts, “I love you too much!” The respectful relationships Sentilles tries to build with parents, despite their significant distrust, demonstrates how much difference caring can make. In spite of her students’ affection and the hope she tries to rebuild in herself each day, we see the toll that the system takes on both her and the children.

    Like so many teachers of children living in poverty, Sentilles encountered a vast spectrum of nearly insurmountable problems. She describes being surrounded by child abuse that seems unstoppable; adversarial and festering interactions between the schools and parents; grandparents doing the work of absent parents; English-as-a-second-language learners whose needs are not being provided for; and most unsettling of all, absorbing the reality of students living in conditions she previously could not have imagined. Sentilles shows us school administrators who are active agents of hurt who seem to have lost whatever connection they may once have had with children. We see and feel institutional violence that hides under the radar, like vermin-infested classrooms with sealed windows, perpetually broken air conditioners, and even ceilings that collapse and expose children and teachers to both the elements and asbestos. “Scarcity” is a recurring theme in the book, with crazy rules about using copiers, computers, books, and supplies, all of which are restricted or hidden from teachers and students. Finally, the reality of gun violence surrounding and at times piercing the school grounds leaves a devastating impression.

    As she moved into her second year of teaching, Sentilles experienced a growing rage, reflecting her feeling of being “sick and tired of getting beaten up.” She notes, “It was easier to look at how the students failed than to look at how we failed our students.” The guilt and shame forced on children and teachers leaves them all tired, overwhelmed, and deeply depressed. Despite her determination, Sentilles eventually finds herself unable to continue in spite of the love the children give her.

    Taught by America leaves us without a simple answer. Sentilles has clearly come to the realization that acting as an educational “missionary” to schools and communities in crisis will not lead to the long-term changes that need to happen. She finds a partial solution in holding herself accountable to the children and in writing about the brutality of a system that insists meritocracy exists when extreme conditions of pervasive inequality persist and in some cases grow worse. Some teachers may be critical of Sentilles’s choice to leave the classroom and wonder why we should listen to her; however, this volume is clearly more about a journey than a destination — one that has much to say to educators everywhere. Sentilles sought answers for what she experienced, and we get a real sense that this book is the result of her contemplation and study. At the end of the book, Sentilles writes about visiting Compton seven years after she left it, having worked to heal herself in part through religion and theology. She finds students and families still struggling, exhausted, and often numb. Tragically, and not surprisingly, little has changed.

    The fact that Taught by America was written so recently tells us how vital it is that we make ourselves familiar with the conditions of inequality and pain this book describes and search with Sentilles for solutions. This engaging book calls on all of us to examine our participation in a system that perpetuates inequality and insists that each one of us act to reenvision our schools and our society.

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    Book Notes

    Taught by America
    Sarah Sentilles

    All American Yemeni Girls
    Loukia K. Sarroub

    The Renewal of Society through Education
    Nicholas C. Brown

    Keepin’ It Real
    Prudence Carter

    The Science of Reading
    edited by Margaret J. Snowling and Charles Hulme