Thursday, February 28, 2019

BOOKS! (Open Your Hand)

Today is the last day of Black History Month, also known as February. While this book doesn't have a whole lot to do with Black history (though I am binge listening to the podcast "Black on Black Cinema" as I write this review!), I was really looking forward to writing about it before February ended. It may be the eleventh hour, but I'm still meeting that goal. This memoir is written by a former professor of mine whose writing class I took in my first semester of college. Said professor affirmed me and my writing abilities in so many ways during that time, so I was incredibly excited when she announced on LinkedIn that this book would be coming out in the fall of 2018. Due to other reading priorities I didn't end up finishing her book until the beginning of this month, and now here I am finally writing about it at the end of this month.

Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American by Ilana Blumberg

In Open Your Hand, Professor Blumberg not only shares relevant insight about her personal life, but also delineates her educational background and teaching philosophy. As such, the book spans from her own education in Jewish private schools and well-respected universities in the States, to her nearly 30 years of experience teaching across varying classrooms, institutions, and countries (she currently teaches at a university in Israel). She mainly draws from three notable phases in her career: teaching reading and writing to pre-school students at a New York City day school called Beit Rabban (1992-1994), teaching writing to political science/public policy freshmen in James Madison College at Michigan State University (Fall 2011), and volunteer teaching poetry to students at "Smith" Middle School, which I presume to have been in Detroit (2012, more on my presumption later).

I've known for years that Professor Blumberg is a dynamic professor who determinedly guides her students to read and write well, but reading this book truly cemented for me how undeniably fortunate I was to have her as an educator, even for a relatively brief period of time. It's made clear on numerous occasions that she views the methods and goals of teaching as an extension of her belief that we are obligated to help and care for others, especially children.This belief is informed by her own inclinations and professional acumen, as well as by her Jewish faith. In fact, the title Open Your Hand references a Hebrew verse that implores believers to help their fellows in need. I still can't decide whether I am more impressed by her genuine care for people or how profound and intuitive of a writer's mind she has. Especially when reading about her Beit Rabban and MSU days, there were a few passages where her approach to teaching students almost made me cry. She is a writer at heart, and she prioritizes humanity in the academic process. What a gift! 

Speaking of MSU, I gasped when I came across the first of the book's multiple "Michigan State University, East Lansing, Fall 2011" sections. That was my first semester in college, the same semester that I took Professor Blumberg's class! She wrote about us!? Maybe even mentioned me!? Silly, I know. But alas, the group of students she focuses on is actually a different freshman writing class, in my same college, which she must have taught during that same semester. And honestly, now I'm grateful that my class wasn't the one highlighted, because apparently this particular class caused her to have a personal crisis. A certain group discussion unveiled the callousness that many of her students harbored toward people who didn't have the same access to educational opportunities that they'd had; they displayed neither empathy for, nor sense of connection to (nor an accurate knowledge of) failing American schools and the students attending them. Professor Blumberg was understandably shocked by this discovery at a point where the students had seemed to be making so much progress, and she couldn't help but reconsider the efficacy of her work as an educator aiming to shape her students into aware, active, and empathetic citizens.

Now back to "Smith" Middle School in Detroit. Of the three learning institutions she writes most about, this is the only one whose name is anonymized and whose city is not specified. (Although, if you're familiar enough with the Metro Detroit area and its school systems, judging from the limited details that Professor Blumberg gives about "Smith" and the time it takes for her to travel to the school from Ann Arbor, it's fairly easy to deduce that it's in Detroit. It could just as well be in Pontiac, but it's probably too far north given the context.) But maybe the less-than-specific characterization of the school is exactly the point, besides the obvious liability precautions. After retelling the painful wake-up call that her MSU students gave her,  she then spends two chapters writing about one such school, and that school was "Smith". An underfunded school the likes of which exist throughout the States, and through which the poor, Black, Brown, and otherwise under-served are funneled year after year.

I must say that I also appreciate how, especially when discussing her volunteer activities at "Smith" and her family's relocation to Israel, Professor Blumberg is transparent about the privileges she's been afforded. She went to private Jewish schools her whole life until she attended universities which were also private. While teaching in Michigan, she and her husband owned a house in Ann Arbor. Similar to her own parents, she has the freedom and access to choose which state or country to live in, which learning institutions to teach at, which schools to send her children to. And sure, there are moments recounted in the "Smith" chapters where she obviously wasn't familiar with the culture of the school and its community, didn't always know what to do, was sometimes out of her depth (she was a visitor, after all, even if a regular one). But for me, what comes through consistently is that she endeavors to approach each classroom and student with respect, mindful of her own position but also seeking to do what she can to educate in a meaningful way.

Of course I'm biased because I think well of Professor Blumberg and parts of Open Your Hand recall some of my own experiences, but still I have no apprehension in saying that this is a thoughtful, worthwhile, and very readable combination of memoir, personal teaching philosophy, and educational theory. If you are an educator, are deciding what school to place a child in, care about public education, went to MSU (James Madison College especially) and/or are from Michigan, are an avid/aspiring writer or reader, are interested in Judaism across continents, or remember a teacher who significantly impacted your life, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I could tell from the way this classroom anticipated children―from the way it hosted them, and respected them, and did not condescend to them―that it held the beginning of a life of learning" (24).

"Together, we encountered the fundamental drama of memoir: there was a time I knew less and now I know more, and I would like to dramatize how I came to know more and share the knowledge acquired, so that the reader too may benefit from it, minus the labor, and often the pain, of living my particular circumstances" (33).

"my teacher and mentor, the writer Mary Gordon, had said many times to us that the thing most young writers needed to learn was simply to slow down. Not to rush on or rush past moments that needed slower, more sensitive, and often loving attention. I have come to feel that this sort of slowness is love. Love for your subject, for the act of writing, for your reader. Slowing down." (47-48).

"sometimes the gift our teachers give us is the way they see us, or even simply that they see us. My eyes lift to see my teacher because my teacher is capable of seeing me" (168).