Book Review: Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary



I first heard about Mike Rose’s book “Lives on the Boundary” when teaching first-year composition in graduate school. The program excerpted “I Just Wanna Be Average” in its first-year writing anthology so many of us taught it and discussed it with our college writers. Somehow I never came back to the book (so much other reading to do) until I stumbled on it at a used bookstore when in graduate school for my teaching license. But I still didn’t read it (still too much assigned teaching reading) until now, when I’m subbing and have no work to take home every night. The first time I picked it up I got bogged down towards the end of Rose’s history of his own education, which was unfortunate, because after he enters graduate school for English he eventually drops out of academic and entering the Teacher Corps. This is where he enters the real world of how people learn and makes his best observations about the educational system has done to underprepared students.

After working with the “slowest” elementary kids for a year in inner-city L.A., Rose gives us this reflection, which I love: “Teaching, I was coming to understand, is a romance. You didn’t just work with words or a chronicle of dates or facts about the suspension of protein in milk. You wooed kids with these things, invited a relationship of sorts, the terms of connection being the narrative, the historical event, the balance of casein and water. Maybe nothing was ‘intrinsically interesting.’  Knowledge gained its meaning, at least initially, through a touch on the shoulder, through a conversation of the kind Jack MacFarland and Frank Carothers and the others used to have with their students. My first enthusiasm about writing came because I wanted a teacher to like me” (102). Some of Rose’s first observations are that the kids he’s told to work with are very literate in their own ways, love to write, and come up with some wonderful reflections and descriptions once they’re given the opportunity to write for the sake of writing and not get bogged down in grammatical correctness. Later, when working with returning Vietnam vets in college, Rose reflects that academia uses a language and requires skills that go way beyond what many literate high school educated-students bring with them to the university. And research institutions are not in the slightest interested in introducing these under-prepared students into the language and conversation of academia, and in fact do not want to reflect on their undergraduate teaching at all. (This is still very much true, even though this book is almost 20 years old.)

Some other great points:

  • When pushed towards higher level skills, such as analysis or even more sophisticated diction, many writers will create more errors while dealing with these new skills, which often get taken as a sign of their inability. We should expect increased errors in writing while students are trying on these new voices, which may be very new to them.
  • Teachers should look for the causes behind poor performance in terms of cultural assumptions, resistance to certain ideas or skills, or misunderstanding of key concepts. One writer introduced fragments into her writing while trying to avoid the repetition of using the same subject “she.” She was trying to move towards more sophisticated writing but in doing so was creating another type of mistake.
  • Never discount the literacy a child has obtained in his native language, the beauty of his ideas despite grammatical errors, her ability to think deeply and reflect even if her writing
  • Kids in remedial college writing often are forced to write only at the sentence level to correct errors, giving them basically no practice actually writing, even though they are most in need of it.

Education Books to Read

  • A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, by Ronald Takaki
  • Having of Wonderful Ideas: and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning by Eleanor Duckworth
  • Homework: A New Direction, by Neila Connors
  • Silent Language, by E.T. Hall
  • Teacher as Cultural Workers, by Pablo Freire
  • Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Postman and Weingartner (1971)
  • The Battle Over Homework, by Cooper Harris

Books for the Classroom

Stinky Cheese Man, by John Sheska and Lane Smith

Squids Will Be Squids

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (teaching perspective, POV)

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Patride, by Mem Fox

Two Bad Ants (for teaching perspective)

The View from Saturday, by E.L. Konigsburg

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Franerfile, by E.L. Konigsburg