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.