Review: Fires in the Bathroom

Originally published in Meaningful Student Involvement Research Guide by Adam Fletcher (2004) Olympia, WA: SoundOut.

Review of Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students. By K. Cushman. Published in 2003 by The New Press in New York.

Fires in the Bathroom challenges readers to listen to the voices of those most affected by education reform: students.

Throughout the book Cushman introduces us to the opinions, experiences, ideas and knowledge of forty students who are from groups often seen as the “hardest to reach” students: immigrants, students of color, and low income students.

The students tackle a variety of problems. Among other issues, they address:

  • Teaching styles
  • Classroom behavior
  • How to help students with learning challenges
  • Student attitudes
  • Teaching English language learners
  • Visual and audio approaches to learning

Fires in the Bathroom advocates that students become informants and advocates to teachers on what works and does not work in their classes. It offers practical advice to educators from forty high schools students across the nation.

The author unveils a pragmatic outline of advice from high school students to teachers, covering a variety of topics and themes. There are detailed accounts, summary lists and worksheets spread throughout the book that are designed to help teachers actually listen to their students, and to change their methods to best support students.

All educators should listen to their students like this, according to Cushman. She offers the following steps for teachers as they engage students in discussions about school:

  1. Come up with questions you really care about
  2. Gather a group of students willing to express their thoughts
  3. Write everything down
  4. Ask for evidence
  5. Analyze the material together, and
  6. Value the difference in opinions.

Throughout the book students provide a great deal of valuable information for educators. Speaking about academic work, a student remarks,

“I think one of the only ways people learn something alien is to relate it to their own experience. If a teacher can connect geometry and angles to my interest in art or to being an actor, that works. Even though I know I didn’t grow up with math, I know enough because he relates it to me” (p13).

Another student, talking about teacher readiness, says,

“It feels like we’re being punished when the teacher doesn’t know the subject well enough to help students. The student has to move on the next year to a higher level, and they’ll be stumped in the next year. It’s kind of not fair” (p24).

Fires in the Bathroom illustrates the gamete of hopes students have for schools, and provides vital details for educators to meet the diverse visions students share. Instead of wanting total control, students want fairness and respect in schools, between educators and students and among students themselves.

By listening to students through constructive, meaningful dialogues that result in change, educators can take valuable steps towards creating transparent, interdependent relationships in their classrooms and schools.

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