Educating Esme Summary

Esme Raji Codell

Educating Esme

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Educating Esme Summary

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Educating Esmé: Diary of a First Year Teacher (1999) by librarian and literacy specialist Esmé Raji Codell follows the first-year teaching experience of a young woman in Chicago’s public school system. Codell first read her experiences on the local radio before being offered a book deal. The book reproduces the diary entries that Codell kept as a young teacher. Educating Esmé also functions as an advice manual. The work has been lauded for its compassion, humor, and useful advice for teachers, parents, and students.

At twenty-four years old, Esmé Codell was hired to teach elementary students at a newly opened public school in a low-income neighborhood. The book opens with her less than strenuous interview with Mr. Turner, a principal she will grow to hate for his discriminatory ideas and apathy toward student learning.

Before school starts, Codell proposes several ideas to ensure that her class is interesting and that kids actually learn something. This includes a Fairy Tale Festival, which is quickly shut down by various bureaucrats as being impractical. Codell helps Mr. Turner get the school up and running. He even calls her around midnight for advice on what he should talk about during his meeting with other administrators. Esmé quickly grows exhausted with Mr. Turner’s habit of taking and never giving back.

A fellow fifth-grade teacher, Ismene Siteles, is assigned to be her mentor. Siteles shares some basic teaching advice with Codell: soft voices are more effective than aggressive ones; a lack of confidence is unfair to students; give children plenty of times to answer a question.

On the first day, Esmé jokes that she previously taught football players and Martians so she thinks she can handle fifth graders, and besides, she needs the money. That she is entrusted with the welfare of thirty students feels like a privileged, even holy, moment for her.

As Codell learns more about her students, she is sad to see that many of them are not at the reading level they need to be at. She feels that she has to go back to kindergarten and first-grade activities to teach them phonetics, which is what she does. To make them learn without feeling shame, she teaches them sign language.

Esmé starts a library in the class for her students. She counts the books in front of the class every day to ensure no one stole one; this proves to be a great way of encouraging students to monitor each other for good behavior. Codell nicknames subjects that express their potential fun. Math is called “Puzzling” and history is “Time Travel and World Exploring,” or “T.T.W.E.”

As a teacher, Esmé quickly shows herself to have strong opinions and not to be one to keep them to herself. To liven up the drab school, she roller-skates down the hallway and does a cha-cha dance while teaching multiplication. She is a true original, who not only cares about each student, but also wants them to learn to their greatest capability. She makes sure to say good morning to each student and waits for them to say good morning back.

Codell describes using role-reversal skits to build empathy with her at-risk students, and group craft projects to encourage them to realize that they could depend on each other. She describes how she handled conflicts between students, and between students and their parents. All of her fifth graders keep a journal. If they do not want her to read it, they write the letter E with an X through it. She reads each entry anyway and learns hilarious things about her students, such as one who thinks the teacher was the victim of an alien abduction because she wore pants today and in the past, she never once wore pants.

One day, Codell gets into a disagreement with Mr. Turner. The principal has sent her a memo requesting that she stop allowing the students to call her “Madame Esmé.” Codell reveals her backstory; she grew up in a poor working-class neighborhood in Chicago that stressed the importance of education as a way of uplifting oneself from poverty. Madame was a term of endearment her family used toward the bookish Codell because her pretensions seemed fancy and French. Codell does not admit this sentiment to Mr. Turner. She says that the freedom to call herself Madam is an issue she will not budge on, and she is willing to contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to maintain the right to introduce herself as whoever she so pleases. Mr. Turner, being his usual daft self, confuses the ACLU with a teachers’ union; he begs her not to contact the teachers’ union. Codell considers quitting before the second year but is persuaded otherwise by a fellow teacher.

As Codell becomes more involved with the school, she learns that Mr. Turner and his Vice Principal, Ms. Coil, never had much belief that the low-income students, many of whom came from recently immigrated families, would ever achieve much. They frequently critique her efforts to improve learning without ever offering ideas of their own.

Despite the administration’s apathy, Codell does bring the famous African-American writer Connie Porter to her classroom. For the Christmas assembly, she produces a “Cajun Christmas” that celebrates many of her students’ cultural heritage.

In the second semester, Codell experiences more challenges: one student eats too much at lunch and vomits; another brings her two-year-old brother to class; another threatens others with violence. Yet, she and her students have cause to celebrate by the end of the school year: they have scored some high marks on several standardized tests.

In the epilogue, Codell watches some of her students graduate from middle school. She now works as a literacy specialist, rather than a teacher. She commends the teaching profession and says that there is still a lot of work to be done.