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Diary of an Inner City Teacher 
by Tamam Tracy Moncur
Lumen-us Publications, 2008

A review by Jo Freeman

After two decades of teaching middle school in Newark, N.J. Tamam Moncur has captured her experience in a diary, covering one school year from September 3 to June 28. She doesn’t tell us the calendar years, and her diary may have been written over more than one. Rather the Diary is a meditation on what it is like to be an inner-city teacher in the time of No Child Left Behind

To write about her students, her colleagues and herself without violating their privacy, she gives them names reflecting a notable characteristic. Moncur of course, is Ms. Teacher. Some of her students are Got to Blurt OutMr. PlayfulAnger, Apathy, Missing Skills, The Intellect and A Really Nice Child. Teaching math to this varied group of sixth graders is, to say the least, challenging.

Their skill and knowledge levels are diverse; some kids talk back and act out; some bring electronic devices to class so they can play truant with their minds if not their bodies; some bring their problems from home and some use school to escape from those problems. In addition to three classes of math, she has to teach Social Studies to her home room and supervise her students’ participation in community service projects.

Despite all of these challenges, and the fact that "teachers get no respect in today’s society," Ms. Teacher loves her profession. She welcomes the "opportunity to light the way for our future generations." But she does believe that Newark is one of the harder school systems in which to teach. She says that there is "a direct correlation between social issues confronting communities and the learning readiness of the children that live in these areas." Newark has more than its share of social problems.

As I read her book I couldn’t help comparing her experiences with what my mother had to say about teaching middle school. There are a lot of differences between teaching in Newark today and in Los Angeles fifty years ago, but the importance of parents is still paramount. What happens in the home has an enormous effect on what happens in the classroom. If parents don’t care, or don’t know how to help their children make the most of their school years, not only do their children suffer, but so does every other child in the class.

I was impressed with how much less freedom and autonomy  Ms. Teacher  has to organize her classroom and her curriculum than my mother had. Moncur has to cope with all sorts of demands from the system which wants to tell her how to teach, how to run her classroom and how to measure success. Teachers’ tasks run the gamut from "decorat[ing] the bulletin boards ... and organiz[ing] learning centers" to making sure students eat their breakfast, provided by the state, in the classroom.

There’s a regular alphabet soup of programs to comply with:
* CMP, for Connected Math Program to develop understanding of important mathematical concepts, skills, procedures, and ways of thinking and reasoning;
* CMCD, Consistency Management & Cooperative Discipline, a research-based instructional discipline management system;
* NJASK, the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge, a comprehensive, multi-grade assessment program.

Then there’s NCLB — better known as No Child Left Behind — the 2001 law that requires school systems to set high standards and use standard tests to determine if those standards are being met. Moncur says the pressure on teachers to reach those goals is "horrendous." Not surprisingly, some try to do so, and some fudge. Even students think that the school year ends with the tests and that they no longer have to pay attention even though there may be many weeks of learning left in the school year.

Schools are monitored through CAPA — Collaborative Assessment and Planning for Achievement — which sends a team of experienced educators, district and school staff, representatives from higher education and DOE staff to review schools designated as low performing. They observe the classrooms and monitor the tests.

Moncur is at heart a poet — having self-published several booklets of poetry — so much of her language is poetical. There is a lot of dialog; some of this book could be performed as a play. Lovers of language will enjoy this book, as will those who simply want to know what it’s like to face a bunch of pre-teens in the classroom every day, while the State is looking over your shoulder.

©2009 Jo Freeman for

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