Thoughts on Writing a Book

When I was teaching high school history in Cleveland, Ohio, I wrote my first book. Called The Negro in America, it was published in 1964 (in tune with the times, the 1971 edition was called The Black Man in America). Next month, Teaching History Here and Now: A Story about Stability and Change in Schools appears. Yes, I have been writing books for over a half-century as a teacher, administrator, professor, and now in “retirement.”

In doing all of this writing, I have been lucky. I do not mean “lucky” in the sense that I found a publisher each time I started writing. Nor do I mean “lucky” that I earned much money in writing books. For some of my books, the annual royalty I received could be spent safely buying a Happy Meal at McDonalds. No, by “lucky” I mean I could write books to  answer questions that puzzled me. I have found that to be immensely satisfying regardless of how many copies were sold or whatever book reviewers had to say.

One example of a puzzle emerged when I was a district superintendent in Arlington (VA) during the 1970s and early 1980s. Each year of the seven I served as superintendent, I visited hundreds of classrooms. Time and again,  after writing each teacher a note about what I saw I kept asking myself: why do so many lessons I see, classrooms I sit in, and schools I walk through remind me so vividly of my elementary and secondary school experiences in the 1940s. Sure, there were obvious differences that were apparent, but the underlying routines, teacher-student interactions, and classroom layout seemed so familiar to me. How come?

That question bugged me. Upon leaving the superintendency, I applied for and secured a federal grant to answer the question historically. I spent a year looking at 19th and 20th century efforts to reform how teachers taught. I went to school archives in Denver, New York City, Washington, D.C.  I re-examined all of the notes I took when visiting Arlington  classrooms. How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1880-1980 (1984, 1993) came directly out of the historical research I did and my personal experiences, first as a student for over a decade in Pittsburgh schools, second as a teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C., and visiting classrooms as a superintendent. For me, that book gave me an answer to the puzzling question.

Another book that scratched an itch was about teachers using technology. As a professor in the mid-1980s, I continued to visit schools and classrooms across the country but especially in the Bay area. Desktop computers were just appearing in classrooms. As I listened to lessons unfold and, later, teachers talk to me about their hopes and fears about the “new” technology, I began thinking of teachers (including myself) using earlier technologies such as films, radio, and instructional television. How did teachers since the 1920s use those “new” technologies in their classrooms? That is the historical question that tugged at me for a few years. As a professor, I had the precious time to do historical research and find out about teacher use of film, radio, and TV. I then asked myself were there similarities and differences between those earlier technologies and the arrival of computers in classrooms. Answers to my questions appeared in The Teacher and the Machine: The Classroom Use of Technology in 1986. This question of why “new” technologies spill over schools and how teachers use them has continued to puzzle me. Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2001) was another stab at answering the how and why questions surrounding use of school computers.

Other questions produced other books. Repeated federal, state, and local district efforts to reform the practice of teaching and the conduct of schooling produced ” why” questions in my mind. David Tyack, another historian of education, and I had team-taught a course in the history of school reform for over a decade. The questions we asked about the goals of reform, the context in which reforms occurred, and the outcomes of those reforms drove the course. We saw historical patterns of both change and stability emerging across time in public schooling; we saw the importance of context–the particular times and ethos that shaped society and schools. What we saw led to our decision to write Tinkering toward Utopia in 1995. That answered some, but not all, of the  questions we asked.

And what was the question that I sought to answer in writing Teaching History Then and Now? As a historian and former high school teacher, I asked myself what had changed and what had remained stable in the high schools I taught in during the 1950s and 1960s and those very same high schools a half-century later. While I had some guesses, I really didn’t know. So I reconstructed how I taught then (e.g., my journals, archives from the schools, and student artifacts) and traveled to my former high schools to see how teachers taught history in 2013-2014. Because historians look at both change and continuity and the contexts within both occur, I had a chance to to draw comparisons and contrasts.  This journey into the past and connecting it to the present was most satisfying. I have, indeed, been lucky.

4 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

4 responses to “Thoughts on Writing a Book

  1. Thanks for always inspiring us aspiring writers. It’s way more than luck! XO

  2. Wilson Lambert

    Hi Larry

    Yes, you have been lucky living through all these years being able to draw comparisons/contrast with how instruction was delivered in the past. And unfortunately nothing has changed much at all except new reforms and technology rewrapped in new gift paper yielding the same, and in many cases less results. It is ironic however, that you are posting this post at the same time I am writing a book/articles “Dishonest Discourse in Pennsylvania Public Schools” and find much resistance from educational periodicals, or even acknowledgment of the topic as it centers around the destructive, anti-social, and often times outright violent behavior displayed by most African American students and males in particular in urban public high schools in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
    Larry you stated “Each year of the seven I served as superintendent, I visited hundreds of classrooms. Time and again, after writing each teacher a note about what I saw I kept asking myself: why do so many lessons I see, classrooms I sit in, and schools I walk through remind me so vividly of my elementary and secondary school experiences in the 1940s.” I concur that I am also reminded of my own experiences with same. However, let me point out what you clearly did not see in most of your earlier experiences. Take a stroll in urban school hallways, corridor, or classroom and on any school morning or afternoon the behavior of African American male students amidst a sea of colorful underwear and under garments some faded, sprouting from pants barely held on by a belt hanging on to the top of the groin as the pants clearly hang down in the back at mid-buttocks while adorned with hoods, hats, using foul obscene language, smart phones, and cell phones. And the “N” word is used with impunity no matter nurse’s office, main office, math class, cafeteria, or science lab and most often this happens in earshot of adults who for various reasons either pretend they do not hear it, nor show not even the slightest emotional disapproval of a sacred violation of a learning organizations values and assumptions. This destructive behavior is also due to various different factors including low socio-economic factors, culture of poverty, depressed and disorganized communities, and trauma/post-traumatic stress resulting from outright chaos in family unit or family dysfunction. This behavior is whispered about in faculty lunchrooms, communities both African American and Caucasian, but is openly viewed by mass audiences on social media. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of students miss-behave. No race of student is exempt from that fact no matter African American, Caucasian, Latino, or otherwise. Latino students are miss-behaving as well as Mexican students. Caucasian students are miss-behaving also and a reason their numbers may not be disproportionate is because of the lens of same race which may view behavior as “just acting their age, or just cutting up a little” but miss-behavior still. But whether one agrees or not the majority of Caucasian students have been taught the value and importance of education along with the self-responsibility and discipline that is required for said, and this decorum is reflected in most aspects of the academic schooling experience. And regardless if one agrees or not when one examines the behavior of African American students in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania public schools the data reveals more acts of violence, destructive, and anti-social behavior than all other groups affected by the achievement gap that further fuel the argument or concept of the school to prison pipeline.
    Larry, each year you served as superintendent you visited hundreds of classrooms, and that is the missing piece today. Where are the principals and school superintendents in these urban schools and why aren’t they in these public school classrooms modeling instruction for teachers with this at risk population? Observing principals and other well trained school administrators teaching a class of at-risk students and watching them stumble (because they are going to stumble) delivering instruction in a classroom reflecting the reality of these students lives within the domain of American public education today will only lead to professional “trust” probably the most needed ingredient to close this achievement gap. If public schools in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania cannot on their own decide to utilize principals and school administrators in classrooms formally other than at teacher evaluation time, then Pennsylvania taxpayers should demand that the Pennsylvania Department of Education as the leading advocates for these students request that Commonwealth of Pennsylvania state legislators enact laws in the Pennsylvania Public School Code to ensure that it happens for Pennsylvania school children. No matter the outcome, it is quite satisfying being able to answer the question and provide viable working solutions to fix educational problems that work for marginalized populations. Maybe the next step I will take is too apply for and secure a federal grant to answer the question historically in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania public schools.

    • larrycuban

      I am at a loss to comment on your comment, Wilson. It doesn’t take much interpretive skill to sense the anger behind your difficulty in getting your views published and what you see as the source of so much difficulty in broken urban high schools. That you focus entirely on the behavior of African American males and use race as an explanation for misbehavior is evident to me. I do not see it that way. I have been in many high schools, many as you describe, and some that are 180 degrees different–both sets of schools enrolling mostly African Americans and Hispanics. So ascribing the problem to race, culture of poverty, depressed communities, etc. ignores the variation in students’ behavior that exists beyond the categories you offer. Nonetheless, I wish you well in answering historically an important policy question about urban schools.

      • Wilson Lambert

        Hi, Larry

        Maybe I have not been clear enough. I am not blaming race as a factor, but the evidence of race is in the “data” when examining these concerns connected with the achievement gap. If there seems to be a focus on African American males that is primarily because they are one of the largest groups most affected by the achievement gap. Yes you are right, that there are high schools that are 180 degrees different that enroll African Americans and Hispanics. But these schools are not the norm, nor do they reflect the reality in the statistics of wide-spread incarceration among young African American young adult males.I think that people discuss the achievement gap in limited ways. Often the gaps represent gaps between views of self and inferred undervaluing suggested by outside sources. Please do not feel that I am angry, I am only writing reflecting truths, and the truth is often inflammatory. Most people say things, and write about things to keep themselves safe. In writing about African American students it would be unethical to write anything less than being candid concerning their lived experiences, and I have a responsibility to provide voice to this marginalized group that is not invited to the table. And the ultimate aim is to give a scientific contribution to help address the problem..sincerely

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