Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom

Julie Searle (Martin Luther King Middle School, Berkeley, CA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 5 July 2011




Searle, J. (2011), "Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 49 No. 4, pp. 460-461. https://doi.org/10.1108/095782311



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom by Rick Ayers and William Ayers is a generous and downright thrilling resource for how to do what we know in our hearts to be the most powerful teaching, but have almost no encouragement to practice.

After almost ten years of teaching English and History in a Berkeley public middle school, I have been thinking about just what makes me continue to be excited about going to work in the morning, and what gives my students the sense that being in my classroom matters to them. Ayers and Ayers have created a manual for teaching that also feels like a multi‐layered, story‐rich letter to all of us who want to be our bravest selves in the precious time we have with our students.

Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom supports the idea that as a middle school teacher I need to navigate the wild era of pre‐adolescence not by being quiet, more predictable, and running an ever‐tighter ship, but by acknowledging and inviting the messy and complicated dynamic that is our shared world. The Ayers brothers recognize the importance of empathy and affection in the classroom, not as a shallow, make‐nice, passive acceptance, but as a radical assertion that everyone in the room is welcomed into meaningful conversations. There is the premise that we have loving regard for our students and their stories, but within that regard must be an urgent and engaged challenge to take intellectual risks, notice what we are noticing, and have dialogue that is dangerous in a good way.

On a practical level, the book is a reminder and guide to creating democracy in school as we consider everything from how students seats are chosen, to what shared literature we take on, to what questions we invite. More than any other book I have come across since I began teaching, this one brings up just the questions I want to ask myself throughout my teaching day: How can I be more honest? How can I convey to my young students that I take them seriously? What particular practices or uses of language best inspire us to laugh, argue, create, and listen to each other?

Best of all, this book inspires teachers to challenge themselves to make their own way, not to simply react to toxic policies or “make the lesson interesting”, but to do what organizer George Lakey calls “living and loving on your edge”. By making a commitment to teach the taboo, we reject stale and enervating days and welcome a teaching practice that is alive, honest and forever unfinished. If you are an education student, a new teacher, or a veteran, you need this book.

A About the reviewer

Julie Searle is an English and History teacher at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley (home of the Edible Schoolyard kitchen/organic garden program). Julie advocates for arts‐based education and often brings spoken word artists and visual art into the classroom. She is a contributor to Handbook of Social Justice in Education and Dear Maxine.

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