Tuesday, September 4, 2007

School Daze. . .

Ah, the first day back at school. Doesn't it make you want to go out and buy some pencil crayons and a binder? If you are feeling nostalgic for compulsory afternoon naptimes, getting your first high school locker, or sitting under a tree on a beautiful campus with a great book, then the Deweys empathize. Here's a list of our favourite books set in schools.
Eleanor: Kindness is Cooler, Mrs Ruler by Margery Cuyler. I just love this picture book as it takes a typical class situation- classroom management issues – of course! where the kids could be jumping off the walls, or, better yet, put that energy to good use with a surprising great result fostered by a creative teacher!! This is ideal for any day at school – first , 100th, or last! And if you are a teacher , check out SimonSaysTEACH.com for downloadable classroom activities! Another great book for a slightly older crowd would be No Talking by Andrew Clements. This is vintage Clements – reminiscent of Frindle. This book also reflects kindness as a theme but in a grade 5 class, with girls pitted against the boys, to see which team can say the fewest words. I won’t reveal the twist at the end! It's also a great book to listen to as well as read.

Lahring: Mean Boy by Lynn Coady is a darkly funny, pitch-perfect dissection of a dysfunctional university English department (if that’s not redundant), exposing the politics, oversized egos, shifting allegiances and gradual disillusionment of previously starry-eyed undergraduates. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli captures the essence of high school and the fluidity of who and what are in and out and how the mainstream deals with eccentricity without resorting to Mean Girls superficialities. And How to Get Suspended and Influence People by Adam Selzer contains a creative, smart-mouthed kid (more fun to read about than parent) who takes on the school system by producing La Dolce Pubert, a sex education film in the manner of Fellini. Entertaining rather than edifying.

Maylin: When I was a kid, I devoured Enid Blyton's books and in particular, I loved her school series' (Malory Towers and St. Clare) where in each book her characters would move up a grade (or form), a narrative progression that I think is one of the factors in the success of Harry Potter. But my favourite was the Naughtiest Girl in the School series. It made me really want to go to an all-girls boarding school. And then I did (though I didn't board) and there was another illusion shattered. For a great high school read, one of my favourite books is Tobias Wolff's Old School. This is set in a boy's prep school in 1960, where the students compete through essay writing, to meet and spend time with their literary heroes. Robert Frost and Ayn Rand both visit the school, but it's the anticipation of Ernest Hemingway that pushes one boy too far. The writing is beautiful, and how refreshing to read about teenage boys who are passionate about literature. I could blog endlessly (and may well do so) about all the humourous campus novels in which professors endlessly bonk their graduate students, but I'm recommending Stoner by John Williams precisely because it breaks that comic mold. Instead this is a portrait of a quiet, studious man who teaches English Literature in an agarian university and falls prey to faculty politics and an unhappy home life. Okay, he too gets involved with a graduate student, but the love affair is poignant and tragic. This is a terrific novel that really explores the solitude of the academic life.

Susan: my recommendation is Teacher Man by Frank McCourt. My sister is a teacher and I gave her a copy for a birthday present a couple of years ago. She really loved it. It’s a memoir which reflects on McCourt’s teaching experiences in New York high schools and colleges.

Anne: When you feel that crispness in the air and see the subtle change in the colour of the leaves, that going back to school feeling returns once more. Who can forget the smell of pink pearl erasers and new pencils? School also reminds me of a simpler time. When I say simpler, it does not mean that people had easier lives. In some ways they were very hard indeed. I am thinking of the values and the attitudes; my favourite books about school reflect that as well as the fact that I have lived in the Canadian prairies a good portion of my life.
Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy is the story of a young teacher, just eighteen years old, who was sent to a small, poor town on the prairies to teach. The time is the 1930’s and many of the families were struggling immigrants trying to cope with a new country and the strange ways of the community around them. In this rather lonely setting, the passionate, impressionable teacher finds the challenges and attitudes frustrating and she becomes strangely attracted to one of her older male students. It is a wonderfully written book that reflects Roy’s own memories of living on the prairies as a young woman.
Why Shoot the Teacher by Max Braithwaite is also set in an isolated country school in Saskatchewan, during the Depression. The poverty is everywhere and this young teacher has to rely on the charity of the community for his food, heat and lodgings. The kids he taught were rough and tumble and the townsfolk tough and hardened. Because Max is writing from his own experiences, the story he tells is humourous, eye-opening and very entertaining. I felt I was in that drafty classroom smelling the wet wool and chalk.
I used to think the Miss Read books about teaching and living in the fictitious towns of Thrush Green and Fairacre in the Cotswold’s in England in the 40’s and 50’s were for little old ladies. A friend introduced me to these wonderful, warm stories of village life and the single woman, who as the head teacher, was at the center of village activity in these small farming communities. I have read all the 55 plus books that she has written and in fact own them all. They are wonderful books that you can pick up in moments when you just want a quiet read. The action is set around daily living and the personalities of the community and the children in the school house. You feel like they are neighbours once you get hooked. The muddy boots in the cloakroom, school lunches, the first snow flakes, Christmas parties and jumble sales. Treat yourself.

Maureen: Bilgewater by Jane Gardam. I am a sucker for the coming of age novel. This stands out as one of my favourites. Bilgewater (Marigold-you decide which is worse) is a young girl growing up in a boy's private school, facing first love and relying on poor female role models. When I first met my husband-to-be, we traded titles back and forth of our personal best reads. Bilgewater is now on his list. A very sensible man. The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. I am still not sure which I like best, the book or the movie. Certainly, once seen in film, Maggie Smith becomes Jean Brodie for the reader. Maggie Smith inhabits the role so completely and perfectly. I find both the novel and the film rather uncomfortable. All of us have had teachers that have formed us in some way. Is Miss Brodie dangerous? Vulnerable? My discomfort is, as yet, undefined. Matilda by Roald Dahl. Dahl knew how to describe a child's reality. Mrs. Trunchbull is a particularly evil principal and her demise is delicious. Remember standing with your hands on top of your head through recess? Perhaps students aren't routinely whirled around a classroom by the roots of their hair. But to a persecuted child in limited control of their environment, that is WHAT SCHOOL FELT LIKE.

1 comment:

Shonna said...

I remember reading "Up the Down Staircase" by Bel Kaufman about a new female teacher in a difficult inner-city school as a teenager.
It opened my eyes to a whole other world of schools.