Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students

by Kathleen Cushman and the Students of What Kids Can Do, Inc. (The New Press, 240 pages, $24.95)
reviewed by Jill Davidson

“Getting adolescents to talk honestly takes only genuine interest in what they have to say,” writes Kathleen Cushman in Fires in the Bathroom, a book of advice to teachers coauthored with forty high school students from New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Providence, Rhode Island. By talking and writing with these students, Cushman??”Horace’s former editor??”elicited insightful commentary on the pivotal interactions that either create or destroy strong relationships between teachers and students. While the book contains criticism??”and some horror stories of bad teaching??”many students praise teachers for the support and guidance they’ve been given.

Much of the advice focuses on building relationships of mutual understanding and respect. The authors tell us that though teachers may view them narrowly??”as a sophomore, as a good history student, as a new immigrant??”students have full, vivid, and complex lives. Such artifacts as a schedule of one girl’s day from waking to bedtime in the “Knowing Kids Well” chapter and lists of what various kids read when they can choose freely in “Motivation and Boredom” reveal crucial information that teachers do not always know how to uncover.

Cushman invites us in to her coauthors’ thoughts??”presented extensively throughout the book in their own words??”by organizing them into concerns and challenges including: classroom behavior, teaching and learning difficult material, teaching English language learners, dealing with setbacks, and more. Students’ thoughts about what teachers can do to help them in each area vary and sometimes contradict each other -for what works for one person may well not work for another. Each chapter includes supplementary material: a questionnaire for teachers to get to know students better, a reflective exercise to help teachers determine if they play favorites, a chart that suggests what students may be feeling when they exhibit specific classroom behaviors and how teachers can help, a list of dos and don’ts for making homework matter, and more. These exercises enable teachers to explore their reactions and connect their experiences to the authors’ suggestions and perceptions.

Though primarily aimed at teachers, Fires in the Bathroom is useful for students, too. Because Cushman takes her coauthors’ experiences seriously, kids who may not have the confidence or conditions to voice their thoughts will realize that their insight into themselves as learners really does matter. For anyone who aims to understand high school kids more deeply, this book is a great place to start.