29 pages 58 minutes read

Esmé Raji Codell

Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide


Esme Raji Codell, author of Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year, uses her memoir to recount lessons imparted and lessons learned during her year teaching fifth grade at an inner-city Chicago public school. Codell, who prefers to go by the self-applied moniker Madame Esme, is both challenged and challenging in this setting. Her irreverent humor, passion for teaching, and commitment to her values, regardless of the outcome, make the memoir a lively and heartfelt read.

The thirty-one students in her charge lead lives full of insecurity and danger. Abusive homes and neglectful caregivers add to the challenge of teaching. Esme quickly finds herself enmeshed in the complications that her students face outside of the classroom. Language and cultural barriers make some students reluctant to participate at first, while other students cope with stress via theft, violence or binge eating.

Esme offers learning—and literature, especially—as an antidote to the troubles these students face. Together, they read novel after novel, stage plays, take field trips, and make costumes. Students discover their own leadership capabilities as they direct or act in skits, lead book discussion, and moderate peer mediation.

The problems do not disappear, however. Students bring guns to school. They steal from teachers and one another. Some of them turn to Esme for comfort, while others turn away. Esme comes to see that she cannot be a savior. She can, however, be a sounding board at times, and if not that, then she can be a witness.

Despite regular arguments with the administration, along with troubling parent teacher conferences, Esme manages to instill a love of learning and books in her students. Test scores reveal real progress for the class as a whole and some of the struggling students make remarkable progress. Though they don’t leave her care as perfect students leading safe lives, they end the year feeling both well-educated and well-loved.