Although I love to write about books, I am a teacher, not a writer. My favorite writers create worlds out of their imaginations; what I try to create, every August, is a new community of children, one I hope will be strong enough to make it through the school year. Secretly, I have another hope: I hope the children will remember second grade as one of their best years. I hope they will remember me the way I remember my teachers — those from my childhood and those who come alive in the books I love.
Each year, right before school starts, I organize my classroom library, pulling out the chapter books I like to read to the class during the year and finding the picture books I use during the crucial first weeks when my students and I are settling in. What kinds of books am I drawn to? My favorites are books about school. You would think I would be sick of them, especially since some are schlocky and idealistic — impossible to live up to — but you would be wrong. Books about school give me some common ground with my class to talk about my expectations for the year. Though fictional, the teachers in these books inform my teaching every day.
Most books about kids are books about school. That makes sense. Unless they’re homeschooled, most children spend a significant chunk of their waking hours in school. They wait in line, master the vocabulary of lockers and cubbies and boys’ rooms and girls’ rooms, and learn to live in a world where paid adults are in charge. These paid adults become very important — a bad teacher means a bad year, and a beloved teacher can make school a warm second home.
I fall in love with the good teachers in books (and, really, there are few bad teachers in books for young elementary students), especially when I share their stories aloud with my students. From wise Miss Mason in The Hundred Dresses to Gloria Houston’s unattainably sweet role model in My Great-Aunt Arizona to the three marvelous preschool teachers in Rebecca Caudill’s Did You Carry the Flag Today, Charley?, they are all teachers I wish I could be. I often ask myself (thinking of Esmé Raji Codell’s Sahara Special), “What would Miss Pointy do?”
Kirkpatrick Hill’s Miss Agnes poured me a cup of tea and captured my imagination eight years ago. In The Year of Miss Agnes, set in post-WWII rural Alaska, Miss Agnes teaches a group of kids in a one-room schoolhouse. The children have run off a long line of inexperienced and culturally insensitive teachers and are in danger of losing their school forever when she arrives. Miss Agnes might have a British accent and she might wear pants, but she loves children and is up to the challenge of this little school on the brink. Dumping the out-of-date readers and textbooks, she cleans out the classroom with a firm and no-nonsense hand and gets down to the business of teaching. Every year, I steal ideas from this teacher who only exists on paper. This year, I created personal spelling dictionaries for each student, imagining Miss Agnes giving me the nod. I have added historical timelines to my classroom, and I always have a map or globe handy, just as she does. Urban Nashville is far from rural Alaska, but my new readers love it when I write personal stories to them (as Miss Agnes does when she creates little books for her students). And whenever I get discouraged, I think of Miss Agnes, staying past her contracted time to be with the students who love her. I envy Miss Agnes. Her one-room schoolhouse students don’t have to move on to a new teacher at the end of the year. I like to imagine her teaching that same group — and then their children — for years to come.
This year, a new teacher joined the pantheon of beloved teachers who populate my own personal Mount Olympus: Miss D., from Andrea Cheng’s Where the Steps Were. She teaches in an old inner-city school that is about to be shut down. She listens to her children, who face a variety of struggles, while the clock keeps ticking closer to the end of the year and the end of their community. Though Miss D. reveals some of her personal struggles to her students, the students are the center of her school life, and they know it. Miss D. loves poetry and stories and introduces her children to literature, from Stone Soup and A Chair for My Mother to Langston Hughes’s “Dreams” and “Merry-Go-Round” and Eloise Greenfield’s “Harriet Tubman.” Ding! I rededicate myself to morning poetry reading when I see my own students seek out and react to the poems Miss D. references. Like Miss Agnes’s children, Miss D.’s third graders form a bond with one another that will endure well past the demolition of their school, and my students bonded with them, too. They wanted to count change, make scratch paintings, and cook school soup the way those kids did. And, at the end of the year, they wanted me to read those poems, one more time.
Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine is another new character on the scene. She is undoubtedly the star of her series, but I am weirdly drawn to her teacher Mr. D’Matz and principal Mrs. Rice, who spend their days with this active, impulsive third grader. Mr. D’Matz respects Clementine’s need for space without allowing her to fall through the cracks. In the latest series entry, Clementine’s Letter, he has ingeniously worked out secret signals with Clementine so he doesn’t need to embarrass her in front of the whole class. (I think I will adopt his tugging-on-an-ear gesture that means “Time to Be Listening.”) Clementine is the kind of student some teachers would dread, but when Clementine sees herself through Mr. D’Matz’s eyes, she likes what she sees and wants to make him proud. I like that image a lot.
The only problem with school stories is that there are just so darn many of them. The ones I remember best are the ones I share with my students. But there are so many more — Andrew Clements’s Frindle, The Jacket, The School Story, The Janitor’s Boy, and The Landry News, plus his Jake Drake books; Susie Morgenstern’s hilarious and moving A Book of Coupons and It Happened at School (not to mention her older, wonderful Secret Letters from 0 to 10). I allow my eye to wander over to my current stack of books to read. Half are about school. I wonder which ones will sneak into my brain the way that Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, Pat Conroy’s The Water Is Wide, and Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s Teacher did so many years ago, back when I was trying to decide what I would do with my life.