Why so much time? Powerful newspaper pieces, after all, are composed in months, or weeks, or days, or hours. But for what I wanted to accomplish, I needed to paint pictures that could only be created through the kind of direct, rote observation that allowed every tiny piece to be put into perspective, and I needed to see enough to be convinced of my own judgments. To know anything, I have always thought, I must see everything—the same approach I took when I spent the year with five children for my first book, which explored the lives of middle schoolers. I had to watch kindergartners take a certain literacy test thirty times before I felt comfortable drawing conclusions about the assessment and before picking one scene that both represented the students’ experiences and illustrated my concerns. I sat through dozens of practice sessions for the state exam the students would face in March; I attended nearly every staff meeting; I ate lunch with children or teachers every day—in all, the kind of attention that can only be paid when you are truly focusing on nothing else. (My husband can attest to that.)
You can express your opinion, flat-out. It’s better to show than to tell, yes, but sometimes the strongest thing you can do is both. Instead of using the reporting trick of finding someone to give a quote that expresses what the writer really wants to say, the book author gets to just say it. So I state that it is inane to make teachers write the day’s objectives on the board, especially in the jargon that is encouraged; that educators should not blame No Child Left Behind for their own stupid policy decisions; that it is educationally unsound to expect every child in a grade to reach the same level of achievement in the same amount of time; that the basic readers assigned to kindergartners make Dick and Jane look plot-thick; that it is bad science to pay teachers based on their children’s test scores; that Tyler Heights students should learn more facts; that the math curriculum seemed to have been designed by someone with attention deficit disorder; that it is crazy that the same people who call the principal a hero for getting test scores up don’t seem to want her input on developing the curriculum.
And so on.
You benefit from a loosening of attribution. My work is by all means informed by data and the research of experts, but I don’t have to be as explicit about showing it, or I can tuck it away in footnotes. You can also get away with not attributing to anyone, basing your authority instead on your own accumulated expertise and a decade of immersion. You are allowed to say, “It’s hard to get parents to school in a poor community,” rather than, “Experts say it’s hard to get parents to school in a poor community.” With myself as the expert, I get to make some broad statements: that parents at Back to School night in low-income schools often speak mainly with each other, while at middle-class schools, parents interact with teachers; that those things most middle-class parents do as a rule to make sure their children learn often went neglected at Tyler Heights; that disadvantaged children need more than anyone to learn problem-solving and interpretation skills in their classrooms but are most often deprived of such instruction (while receiving the most test prep).
I make my own analyses, of how limited the Maryland state test is, of what I call the “imagination gap” between well-off students and poor ones and how that impacts their ability to learn; of how middle-class students have an exposure to the world that fuels motivation. I don’t know if there is a sociologist somewhere who explains that more convincingly and more scientifically than I do, but I’m glad I got to say it without having to find him.