Instead of giving into the apprehension and anxiety of the upcoming school year, or counting down the days until everyone is back to classrooms and lesson plans, I thought I would celebrate the books that encouraged and reaffirmed my love of teaching, but also my love of books. In the next section, I’d like to highlight 5 “Old School” books (and I am dating myself) that I’ve never forgotten and never stopped re-reading. The books I’ve included in this list are at least 15 years old- one is actually 44 years old. They are not all award winning books, but they have all engaged me, stayed with me, and I’ve been drawn to re-read them regularly.
“Old School” YA
“Old School” YA predates cell phones, social media, and, in some cases, includes significantly outdated language that is no longer acceptable and continues to marginalize underrepresented communities. However, I tried to choose books that offer space for current teachers and librarians to prepare for the school year in a nostalgic way. These books highlight the significance of a student’s experience in school and the significance of the teacher (and librarian). I hope these books engage your love for teaching, learning, and books. The books I’ve included in this list are at least 15 years old- one is actually 44 years old. They are not all award winning books, but they have all engaged me, stayed with me, and I’ve been drawn to re-read them regularly.
Matilda (Roald Dahl):
Matilda Wormwood has abusive parents, a despotic principal, and fantastical powers. She also has Miss Honey who encourages her and recognizes Matilda’s intelligence. Matilda reminds us that we want the voracious readers who have an intellectual curiosity.
Nothing but the Truth (Avi):
This book may not be the most popular among all readers. I get it – it’s frustrating. But, I love this book and read it every year with my teacher candidates. It reminds me that there are also multiple perspectives to a situation, and that we need to be aware of personal accountability and hypocrisy in our educational system. This could be a wonderful way to begin discussions with your students about expectations and communication.
Ramona the Pest (Miss Binney) and Ramona the Brave (Mrs. Griggs) (Beverly Cleary):
I grew up with Ramona; she was the friend that was always there. I recognized her need to do things a little differently. In Ramona the Pest, she learned to write the “Q” in Quimby with a little cat tail, and Miss. Binney loved it. In Ramona the Brave, Mrs. Griggs called her a show-off. Ultimately, each teacher and Ramona found ways to communicate. It was apparent that Ramona enjoyed school.
Sideways Stories from Wayside School (Louis Sachar):
Didn’t we all wonder what a 30-story school would look like? And, wouldn’t it just be 29-stories if there was no 19th story? Mrs. Jewls’s innovative methods and the unusual way that disciplinary issues are presented provide a new approach to classroom management. I remember using a chapter (or “story) each Friday for a read aloud with my middle school students.
Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson):
Mr. Freeman provides a safe space for Melinda. It’s the only place in school where she feels comfortable and heard – without saying a word. Re-reading Speak always reminds me that there is so much that lies beneath the surface of our students, and providing a safe space is the key to a positive learning environment.
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes (Chris Crutcher):
Cynthia Ellen Lemry is the swim team coach and teacher of the controversial class Contemporary American Thought. The conversations in her class are not necessarily any different than the conversation today’s adolescents are having. Ms. Lemry is the one adult Eric turns to when he becomes concerned about Sarah Byrnes. Like Mr. Freeman, Ms. Lemry reminds me of the importance of trust in the classroom.
A View From Saturday (E.L . Konigsburg):
Ms. Olinski was the first disabled character I encountered that possessed power and self-confidence. Earlier YA books often presented disabilities as a way to lead to inevitable acceptance, rather than a celebrated identity. This book presents multiple puzzles within a larger puzzle, and reminds me constantly of how learning can occur everywhere.
In Your Classroom
The “Old School” books bring a specific group of readers into nostalgia and can be a comforting way to spend the tailend of summer. However, we need diverse books. “Old School” is “Old School” for a reason. Educators in today’s classroom need to make space for learners with a variety of backgrounds. Students need to see themselves not only represented, but thriving in educational spaces. In the interest of space and time, I’ve included 5 YA books that can be used in the classroom to initiate conversations about expectations for the upcoming school year. These are the first titles that come to mind for me when thinking about “Old School” YA. However, I know there are so, so many more. Please share your own suggestions in the comments.
For more contemporary reads to add to your list of classroom classics, consider:
Mrs. Bixby’s Last Day (John David Anderson):
As we see the 3 sixth-graders come together to give Mrs. Bixby the best last day possible, it’s impossible not to drive for not only Mrs. Bixby, but the 3 young men who are losing the one adult that understood them and championed them. The conversations in the classroom can include how three unlikely students become conspirators. Or, what Mrs. Bixby did to make them feel engaged. Or, why home is not always safer than school. This book lends itself to free writes and quick writes for students.
New Kid (Jerry Craft):
Jordan’s entry to Riverdale Academy Day (RAD) is not great. The black students -and faculty-are repeatedly misnamed, and he is subject to stereotypes and microaggressions. As he learns to navigate this new world, and begins to connect to the art teacher, Craft reminds us that each student experiences the school space differently. It helps to remind me that, as educators, we may not always be able to recognize the way in which we are marginalizing our students. Jordan is relatable to many students simply because he exhibits traits many middle school students possess. Students can relate to Jerry, Liam, and Alexandra. But, larger conversations and classroom connections can be made to engaging students’ artistic literacy with the graphic novel. Students can easily engage in critical thinking and writing skills with alternate endings through comic strips.
A Place at the Table (Saadia Faruqi & Laura Shovan):
Sara and Elizabeth are building a friendship in sixth grade. However, a closer examination reveals Sara’s experiences in school as a Pakistani-American whose mom teaches in a South Asian cooking class after school (and Sara is embarrassed by her mom’s accent and cultural attire). Elizabeth’s mom (mum) is British and battling depression. This is YA aimed at middle grade students, and the characters often navigate relationships (platonic and romantic). The shifting identities among the characters in this book are a way to remind us to consider all aspects of our students (and readers). This book can serve as a “get-to-know-you” activity with your students. They can explore their own identities and cultural traditions.
Property of a Rebel Librarian (Allison Varnes):
Written in 2018, this book is both timely and past due. Everything that’s popping up in the news recently, including outraged parents, censored libraries, and “going viral” is reflected in this book. However, so is the power of a good book and the importance of librarians and teachers. Property reminds me of how important it is to have access to read not only what you want, but about who you are. This title would be wonderful during Banned Books week (September 18-24). Teachers and Librarians can display banned books and engage students with the American Library Association’s (ALA) suggestions for advocacy.
Wonder (R.J. Palacio):
Auggie came into the YA world at a time where the issue of bullying was finally acknowledged. For a long time, bullying was just a part of school and many were told that it wouldn’t matter in a few years. (Or, at least I was). Wonder helps us consider not only the support of Auggie’s teacher, Mr. Browne, but the importance of kindness and empathy. There are multiple lesson ideas and activities for Wonder that have been circulated so I won’t delve into too many ideas. There are multiple themes within the book, and a crucial step is to examine and evaluate the different characters.
Teachers are not the only ones that are doing the Back to School countdown. Our students are counting down, as well. Instead of dreading the beginning of the school year, worrying about curriculum and standards, maybe we approach the countdown differently. Instead of panicking about the pressures surrounding education and the attacks on teachers and teacher agency, maybe we can think about the first days of school as an opportunity to engage in books.
Schools should be safe spaces for all members of the school community. Perhaps the first days of school are actually a celebration of a potential learning community. Wouldn’t it be great to spend this time engaging with books that include multiple voices, celebrate them, and become a part of the year-long learning journey?