Monday, February 25, 2008

School Days, School Days

Many children are fantasy addicts. Good for them-there's plenty to choose from! However, some children remain immune to the fantasy bug (I was one of them when I was a child, so I can relate). "School stories" are popular with many of these children; here are three that should pique their interest:

Andrew Clements is one of my "go-to" author for young readers wanting realistic fiction; his stories combine genuine humor with keen insight into upper elementary school children's thoughts and problems. In The Landry News, we meet Cara Landry. Cara is an avid writer and publishes her own version of a school newspaper/gossip sheet, aptly titled The Landry News.

Cara is a student in Mr. Larson's class. What's the big deal about that? Plenty. Although Mr. Larson was the recipient of the "Teacher of the Year" award, it was many years ago. Nowadays, most parents besiege school administration when they learn that their child has been placed in Mr. Larson's class.

Mr. Larson employs, shall we say, unorthodox teaching methods. He doesn't give homework. He doesn't give assignments. Frankly, he doesn't seem to really "teach." His students (the ones that are stuck in his class because their parents either didn't know about Mr. Larson or didn't think it was worth the bother to switch their child) do learn; they read and explore the classroom, which is stuffed with a staggering variety of educational materials. Yet the parents and administration continue to complain.

When Cara publishes an editorial critical of Mr. Larson's teaching methods, his first reaction is anger. However, he reexamines his teaching methods and considers the fact that he may be burned out. The controversy over the Larson editorial and a subsequent story on divorce that prompts the principal to ban The Landry News ignites spirited discussions and assignments on journalism and free speech.

While The Landry News might sound like a story of a child "one upping" a teacher, it's also important to know that Cara learns valuable lessons in consideration of other's feelings and the power of the printed word. Not only is this another fun school story from Clements, but it's also a fine story on second chances and the First Amendment.

Admittedly, Sideways Stories From the Wayside School by Louis Sachar doesn't have that level of deeper meaning (if you're looking for that from Louis Sachar, try Holes). It's purely a wacky and hilarious collection of stories about a very unusual classroom in a very unusual school. The Wayside School isn't like any other school; instead of one floor with thirty classrooms, the school is sideways 30 floors, with one classroom on each floor (the architect *did* say he was sorry). From a teacher who turns students into apples to a classmate that turns out to be a dead rat, these silly stories will definitely have your lower elementary school students in a laughing tizzy.

If you're following the Battle of the Books list, The Year of Miss Agnes is another excellent "school story." Set in 1948 Alaska, The Year of Miss Agnes is an absorbing story of a dedicated English teacher sent to educate a hardy class of native Alaskans. Previous teachers never lasted very long in the village; however, Miss Agnes is bound and determined to make a difference in the children's lives. Through the eyes of ten year old Fred(erika), we see the joyous effect Miss Agnes has on the isolated village. There aren't many historical fiction books for children set in Alaska; The Year of Miss Agnes aptly fills a much needed gap.

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