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Frank McCourt, Teacher and Unionist

The United Federation of Teachers mourns the passing of one of our own, Frank McCourt.

Before Frank became famous as the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Angela’s Ashes, Tis and Teacher Man, he was a teacher of English in New York City public high schools. For nearly thirty years, he taught writing in the classrooms of Staten Island’s McKee Vocational High School and Stuyvesant High School. He was an elected member of the UFT’s Delegate Assembly, and the 2006 winner of the union’s highest honor, the John Dewey Award. He served as the chairman of New Yorkers for Smaller Classes.

McCourt was always outspoken in his defense of New York City’s public school teachers and their union. He wrote to the New York Teacher,

[E]very half-assed politician in America is an expert on education. Put Moskowitz and Klein and Bloomberg in a room with a pile of high school essays and evaluate their performance. Why not state the case in clear, simple English? The politicians and their bureaucratic ilk don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

McCourt was a teacher’s teacher. One of the more glorious pieces of writing on teaching is his description of a truly inspired strategy for teaching creative writing:

I was having an epiphany. I always wondered what an epiphany would be like and now I knew. I wondered also why I’d never had this particular epiphany before.

Isn’t it remarkable, I thought, how they resist any kind of writing assignment in class or at home. They whine and say they’re busy and it’s hard putting two hundred words together on any subject. But when they forge these excuse notes they’re brilliant. Why? I have a drawer full of excuse notes that could be turned into an anthology of Great American Excuses or Great American Lies.

The drawer was filled samples of American talent never mentioned in song, story or scholarly study. How could I have ignored this treasure trove, these gems of fiction, fantasy, creativity, crawthumping, self-pity, family problems, boilers exploding, ceilings collapsing, fires sweeping whole blocks, babies and pets pissing on homework, unexpected births, heart attacks, strokes, miscarriages, robberies? Here was American high school writing at its best — raw, real, urgent, lucid, brief, lying…

[Inspired, McCourt tells his class] I want you to understand that this is the first class in the world ever to study the art of the excuse note, the first class, ever, to practice writing them. You are so lucky to have a teacher like me who has taken your best writing, the excuse note, and turned it into a subject worthy of study…

You’ll be making excuses for the rest of your life and you’ll want them to be believable and original. You might even wind up writing excuses for your own children when they’re late or absent or up to some devilment. Try it now…

They said, More, more. Could we do more?

I was taken aback. How do I handle this enthusiasm?

There was another epiphany or flash of inspiration or illumination or something. I went to the board and wrote: “For Homework Tonight.”

That was a mistake. The word homework carries negative connotations. I erased it and they said, Yeah, yeah.

I told them, You can start it here in class and continue at home or on the other side of the moon. What I’d like you to write is…

I wrote it on the board: “An Excuse Note from Adam to God” or “An Excuse Note from Eve to God.”

Heads went down. Pens raced across papers.

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5 Comments:

  • 1 John Powers
    · Jul 20, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    McCourt’s epiphany and student centered, instructional response would probably be deemed unsatisfactory today by any one of the many young, inexperienced,”wanna be corporate execs” who pose as administrators in our public schools.

    What a shame!

    Rest in Peace Mr. McCourt.

  • 2 Remainders: Everyone stakes a claim to McCourt’s legacy | GothamSchools
    · Jul 20, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    […] McCourt wrote that Klein, Bloomberg and Moskowitz don’t know “what the hell they’re talking about.” […]

  • 3 Phyllis C. Murray
    · Jul 20, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Our regional accents or dialects are often reflected as we speak. This is the language we must capture as we write. It is our voice. Our students must learn to use their language to their advantage as they create their unique voice. And like Frank McCourt and Sandra Cisneros, our students will be able to write stories like no other individual will be able to write. These are the new stories which will empower them as writers.

  • 4 John Powers
    · Jul 21, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Dear Phyllis,

    You are absolutely correct.

    I would add that their language is rooted in their unique experiences in life. Their ability to use language and reflect on it will not only “empower them as writers” but as human beings better equipped to negotiate the complexities of the world.

    This, in part, makes a strong case against the data frenzy tsunami of high stakes testing and regimentation of learning. We need to move toward a constructivist approach to teaching where best practices are learned and shared and used to better our educational system. In other words, our standards should evolve from our development of practices.

    This is almost impossible to implement under the corporate hijacking of K-12 education, whose mission it is to stifle creativity and ingenuity in order to help mold a a submissive populace that will find it difficult to fight against the contraction of our economy and the increasing erosion of our country’s democratic principles.

    Fraternally,
    John

    P.S. I know of no other profession where the “experts” have no prior field experience. I for one plan to keep Mr. McCourt’s life as a teacher, writer and unionist in mind as my union brothers and sisters and I struggle to do what’s right for our students and our union.

  • 5 Phyllis C. Murray
    · Aug 3, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Thank you, John for your timely response. It was right on target.
    Dr. King who reminded us that” we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Collaboration is the key in all successful negotiations. But that collaboration must embody mutual trust and mutual respect. And I hope the day will come when the contributions of educators are welcomed, when a respect for educators is heralded, and when total mayoral control of the NYCDOE is ended.

    Phyllis C. Murray