Book Review: Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom by Bronwyn Harris

Book Overview

The systemic racial and socio-economic inequality in American education continues to leave vulnerable populations of children behind, but mere statistics cannot possibly tell the whole story. As a new teacher thrust into the classroom mid-year—in the part of Oakland, California that police call “the Killing Zone”—Bronwyn Harris learned to make her own way as she helped parents advocate for their children with school officials and law enforcement, all while enduring a revolving door of school administrators. 

As intelligent, hardworking, funny, and loyal as any schoolchildren their age, Harris’s students were also incredibly empathetic in the face of staggering trauma and instability. But she quickly realized that her teacher prep classes had not covered making reports of child abuse, teaching traumatized children, helping students cope with difficult emotions, or keeping a class calm during a lockdown.

Described by Anne Lamott as “lovely, important, heartbreaking, inspiring,” Literally Unbelievable chronicles the lives of Harris’s students and shows the difference a caring teacher and support from the greater community can make. 
“This book offers an accessible, sobering introduction to under-resourced public schools for those wishing to learn ‘what it’s really like.’ But it also conveys the profound richness and importance of the students that this system has left behind. This should be required reading for all prospective teachers, policy makers, and researchers.”

—Emily Penner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Education
UC Irvine

Book Review

I would like to begin this review with a recognition of
Bronwyn Harris and all that she endured and dealt with as a teacher in general. Being a teacher is often a thankless job.

Literally Unbelieveable was an interesting read for me, and I finished it in one sitting. I wasn’t particularlly “wow”ed by the segregation in the schools still in certain areas and the basic total abandonment of children with color.

For me, the shock came in the more affluent schools. All that money, and helicopter parents and the kids are still not getting the best education?! No Child Left Behind was the worst thing that ever happened to schools and while most of us know that so very little has been done to correct it!

Harris writes this book in an unassuming way. She’s very clear about her emotions, the toll this environment took on her mental and physical health and it shines through. Harris also clearly shows the world-view of someone raised in an entirely different world, where people you love die on a regular basis and that food is a luxury. Growing up in an environment akin to a war zone doesn’t set these people up to be successful. They’re in a vicious cycle and it’s intimidating to think that they have to fight so hard to not only stay a live but to even graduate high school.

This book should be read by any policy-makers, future and current teachers and all leadership within the educational area. Not only to know what they’re up against but also as a way to avoid such dark paths.

As an individual, this book made me want to home-school my kids and give them a real chance at being a successful and educated member of society.
That in itself should tell you something about the poorly designed school system and the fact that our teachers hands are tied.

I 100% encourage you to read this book and form your own opinion. It will help all of us have better conversations about the education our children receive and what we should change as immediately as possible.

Thank you Bronwyn Harris for all that you have done and all that you will do.

About the Author

Bronwyn Harris began her teaching career in East Oakland in January 2000, teaching first-graders who had already gone through one teacher and six substitutes during that school year. In the first five minutes of teaching, one student threw a book at her head and she realized she had no set curriculum with which to teach them. In addition, she was a “roving teacher,” meaning that she moved classrooms every three weeks.

Teaching at this school did not get easier as she transitioned into teaching third grade, but the students were incredible: creative, thoughtful, loving, angry, at-risk, misunderstood, valuable, and overlooked. After eight principals in less than eight years, Harris had to face the fact that she couldn’t keep working in such an environment and left the school district, but has stayed in touch with many of her students.

During her time teaching, Harris would tell many of her middle-class white friends about what was going on at her school, and found that many of them didn’t believe her, which is how the title of the book came to be. This also strengthened her resolve to write down the true stories so that people would know this side of life in the Bay Area.

Author Links

Website: www.bronwynharrisauthor.com
Amazon: Bronwyn Harris
Twitter: Bronwyn Harris


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