Tuesday, July 03, 2007

those who can't do

for Library Journal

Kohl, Herbert. Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains the Wisdom of Youth. Aug. 2007. Bloomsbury USA. 176 p. bibliog. b/w illust. ISBN-13: 978-1-59691-052-2; ISBN-10: 1-59691-052-6. $19.95.

Wilder, Robert. Tales from the Teacher’s Lounge. Aug. 2007. Delacorte Press. 309 p. ISBN-13: 978-0-385-33927-8; ISBN-10: 0-385-33927-5. $23.00.

Robert Wilder, having left behind an advertising career to work as a teacher, presents classroom tales so tall that they function less as reliable memoir than dramatic parody of classroom-as-asylum, with much of the (laugh-out-loud) humor derived at the expense of young students’ attitudes, actions, and disabilities. Each of the four thematic parts (teacher training, student days, family and education, and a final selection loosely bound by the idea of a teaching community) depicts more stammering, twitching, swearing, and screaming than the average school could abide without being shut down. So while the essays in Tales from the Teacher’s Lounge exhibit the author’s knack for hyperbole and well-timed, outrageous hilarity, that entertainment value is boldly derived from disturbing classroom scenarios.

Worlds apart stylistically and thematically, Painting Chinese shows Herbert Kohl as he retires after forty-seven years as a professor and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice at University of San Francisco and takes up the art of calligraphy. Having inadvertently registered for a class in the company of five- to seven-year-old students, Kohl details the technique he learns along the way (the use of water and ink, ways of holding the brush, tiers of subject matter for the beginning student, and the importance of copying the masters), but more importantly peppers these basics with broader lessons from a lifelong student of the world. Kohl analyzes his own life with curiosity and candor. Drawing upon admirable readings and research, Kohl offers original, sensitive reflections, as when he considers the life of the Monkey King, the impact of Mao Zedong on the life of his mentor, the wisdom of Wang Wei, and the connections between Chinese painting and Taoism. Though sentimental at the odd interval, Kohl’s willingness to inquire within makes him a worthy role model for any student.