“The Undefeated” – Book Review

The Undefeated. By Kwame Alexander; Illustrated by Kadir Nelson. 2019. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. – Maya Angelou

Photo of Don Owen reading The Undefeated.

The Undefeated (2019), is a powerful poem that samples words, ideas, and imagery from across American History. The poem is inspiring and lyrical, powerful and profound. It relates a history that has been ignored, forgotten, or diminished in the curriculum of American schools. The history of people, ideas, and movements that have shaped and continue to shape this country. This is an outstanding book to generate questions, because the featured historical figures are not described or discussed directly in the poem, but rather presented in the powerful artwork of Kadir Nelson. Dozens of people, from Phillis Wheatley to Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland are featured heroes who represent the fighters and martyrs of justice in this country. At the back of the book, there are very short bios/explanations for the people and events featured in the illustrations and poem; however, each bio only sets the stage for more investigation.

Kadir Nelson’s artwork is as powerful and direct as Alexander’s poem. His paintings and drawings are recognizable to anyone who is a fan of Caldecott Medal books. The images in The Undefeated, demonstrate the strength of heroic images of individuals with the symbolism of monarch butterflies and great white egrets (both symbols of perseverance, strength, and rebirth) flying across the pages, barely noticeable, while at the same time, carrying the poem forward on their wings.

As, Kwame Alexander, writes in his Afterword, this book transcends the stories represented by the people in the book, but it serves as a reminder “to never give up. An outstanding picture book for readers of all ages.

Revisiting a Subversive Book

Thirty years ago, one of my closest college friends, I will call him “Steve,” presented me with a small, pre-read, paperback book to commemorate my graduation from college and my future as a history teacher.  Steve may not have realized how impactful this gift was then and is now. I devoured Teaching as a Subversive Activity (Postman and Weingartner, 1969), while I was student teaching at Minneapolis South High School.  I will admit that over the years, the book faded from my memory, and I recently picked up a copy and reread it.  I finished re-reading the book on the campus of New York University, where Neil Postman taught, learned, thought, and wrote.  

The cover of Postman and Weingartner’s classic work states boldly, “A no-holds-barred assault on outdated teaching methods — with dramatic and practical proposal on how education be made relevant to today’s world.”  Little did they know! They were writing at a time of great social upheaval and critique. The “today’s world” that they were referring to was the “nuclear age,” and, not surprisingly, the “outdated teaching methods” have not changed.  As a historian, and an individual who was not yet in school when Postman and Weingartner published this book, it is fascinating, frustrating, and inspiring to read the three large movements which inspired their call to action. The first is a communications revolution, the second is change revolution, and the third is the expanding bureaucracy.  Keep in mind, that they saw those as obstacles to educational reform in 1969. They state early on that one of the largest obstacles to reform is that systems and bureaucracies are increasingly resistant to change.

“The enthusiasm that community leaders display for an educational innovation is in inverse proportion to its significant to the learning process” (p. 57).

Postman and Weingartner (P&W) call for a new education based on inquiry, language, and student directed learning.  Most educators would read that sentence and say, “Of course! We have made great strides in all of those areas.” However, if we examine the policy and practices of public education over the last 50 years, we have done little more than increase bureaucracy, reduce inquiry, and ignore student voice.  A few quick examples, which I hope you will research and reflect about: The “standards” and “new standards” movement are the antithesis of P&W’s recommendations. Reform movements, standardized testing, and legislative mandates over the last three decades have placed more and more pressure on teachers to “teach to the text/test/standard.”  P&W would have been huge proponents of the often heard slogan, “teach students, not subjects.” In fact, their recommendations include throwing away textbooks, dismantling content-based subjects, and removing grading and punitive disciplinary systems from schools. These should not be revolutionary ideas; however, systems, especially educational systems that are designed to segregate students and maintain inequitable outcomes will always subvert revolutionary ideas into technical programs that have little lasting change for the lived experiences of students.  

The authors method is fairly basic, but their conclusions are a little more radical, because they ask the reader to answer some basic questions honestly.  What is the purpose of schooling? Why are you a teacher? What is essential to learn? How do we build relationships with students rather than imparting content?  Some of their recommendations are amusing, which probably is why no one has tried to implement them; however, if we want to actually change outcomes for students, we must not continue practices, policies, and procedures that have created and reinforced inequitable outcomes.  

Despite the fact that P&W’s book remains an accurate and “no-holds-barred assault” on everything wrong with public education, re-reading it at this point in my career and at this point in history has reignited my idealism, optimism, and energy for pushing for revolutionary change in the education of our students, teachers, leaders, and society.  

Postman, N., and Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a subversive activity.  New York: Delta Books

What is my purpose?*

Why write a blog?  Why write anything? My purpose for publishing this blog is to communicate information, share ideas, and begin dialogues.  The thoughts and ideas expressed in the blog are my own. I may, from time to time write about policy issues, but in doing so, I am expressing my own personal views, and not those of an employer. For the most part, I plan to share information that I believe promotes educational excellence, equity, and learning, because those are issues that have always been at the core of my beliefs as a teacher.

I write and share, because writing helps formalize and foment ideas.  I have advocated writing for years because putting pen to paper or type to screen is one of the strongest ways to engage with learning.  I have been a Project CRISS trainer for over a decade, and one of the key principles of creating independent learners is to teach students to transform information. Writing, and in this instance blogging, is a powerful way to transform information.  

I also write to be a role model.  If I ask students to write, I should be demonstrating and modeling how to write. If I ask teachers or principals to write, I need to be modeling content and process.  If I believe writing is a powerful tool for learning. If I want to model life-long learning, then I should be writing as much if not more than my students.  

This blog, like most things, will always be a work in progress.  My publication schedule will depend on my free time, and my other writings may take precedence over this blog. My hope is that this blog will help me expand my own writing and learning in a variety of ways.  

*This post is a slightly modified version of the first post of my original blog, posted in January of 2013. – DDO

A New Chapter!

I am an educator and educational leader who is passionate about public education, equity, and excellence. This blog represents my thoughts on a variety of issues.

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Urbana High School, January 2019
Constructed 1914, Architect – Joseph Royer