Review by: Matt Kubacki
St. Joseph’s College
Liza Jessie Peterson’s memoir All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island, is a book that tells a common story, but from an uncommon location. The common story is that of a dedicated teacher, planning critical and creative lessons, and one who sees her students as individuals with individual needs, experiences, and skill levels. The uncommon story is that Peterson is teaching at Island Academy, the high school for incarcerated male youths in Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex.
Shortly after reading Peterson’s memoir, New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio supported a plan to close Rikers Island. A New York Times op-ed described conditions at the jail as “inhumane and violent” (Lippmann & Mark-Viverito, 2017), and a Times article reported that Rikers has failed minimum security standards and has been deemed unable to admit inmate transfers from out of state (Schwirtz & Rashbaum, 2017). Within this context, teaching at Island Academy feels as if it were a heroic quest, and Peterson tells her own journey of a year on this quest with energy, compassion, and heart.
Peterson’s dedication is never clearer than in how she refers to trying to remedy her students’ past deficits, “A little attention and compassion go a long way with a kid who’s been ignored throughout his years in school and probably even at home. All kids want to be seen, heard, and encouraged, even the most thuggish of thug.” In the same way, she writes of how to reach her students when classroom lessons need to go far beyond addressing academics: “I won’t allow their wound to become their identity. I look for their strengths, I recognize their gifts, I remind them of resilience, and I find the good and praise it. It’s a balance indeed.” Peterson finds that balance so well in the classroom and in her telling.
Peterson’s work with this particular student population shows just how deep and varied the definition of “teaching” can be, going far beyond the cognitive. This concept is perhaps close to the heart of the mission of academic advising offices as well. Academic advisors are positioned to understand their students beyond each one’s cognitive development (Mattern & Shaw, 2010). Efforts to encourage and empower students could lead to students’ increased academic self-belief, which in turn could lead to greater academic success. This is a lesson Peterson and her readers can find heartening, as All Day can provide us with so many reasons to redouble our efforts on these fronts of educational support.
Peterson’s story may differ considerably from others’ in its location, yet her words show that no matter what the context is relative to student or school, an environment of compassion, presence, and encouragement can empower those who need it most.
Lippman, J., & Mark-Viverito, M. (2017, March 31). Closing Rikers Island is a moral imperative. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/31/opinion/closing-rikers-island-is-a-moral-imperative.html
Mattern, K. D., & Shaw, E. J. (2010). A look beyond cognitive predictors of academic success: Understanding the relationship between academic self-beliefs and outcomes. Journal of College Student Development, 51(6).
Schwirtz, M., & Rashbaum, W. K. (2017, May 5). Rikers deemed too dangerous for transferred inmates. Lippman, J., & Mark-Viverito, M. (2017, March 31). Closing Rikers Island is a moral imperative. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/05/nyregion/rikers-island-transferred-inmates.html
All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island. (2017). Book by Liza Jessie Peterson, New York: Center Street Books. Review by Matt Kubacki. 237pp. $27.00. ISBN #978-1-4555-7091-1, https://www.hachettebookgroup.biz/titles/liza-jessie-peterson/all-day/9781455570911/.