Children’s author Swope (The Krazees, 1997, etc.) chronicles his three years conducting writing workshops with a group of elementary-school students in Queens.
Although this is a throwback to those teaching memoirs that proliferated in the 1960s and ’70s by John Holt, Herbert Kohl, et al., the author seems unaware of these ancestors in his generally blithe and often self-flattering report from the front lines of American urban education. After falling in love with the third-graders in what was supposed to be a ten-day workshop and continuing to work with them through fifth grade, Swope does his best to battle the organizational demons that rule his new world: bureaucracy, burnt-out or incompetent teachers, parents who seem to have no aspirations for their children, and youngsters who cannot make themselves behave in ways beneficial to them. Following his first year with a classroom teacher he really admired, he found himself working with colleagues he did not completely respect; the kids’ fourth-grade teacher in particular comes off as dim and dysfunctional. (The author has changed all the students’ and teachers’ names.) Swope had great advantages denied to classroom teachers: he met privately with individuals and small groups; he worked with a principal who supported his efforts to take students on frequent field trips; he was free to create nontraditional projects that caught the youngsters’ attention and earned their affection. (Two long-term activities on islands and trees were especially engaging.) The novice instructor became deeply involved in his students’ lives. He interviewed and visited their parents, helped the kids apply to magnet middle schools, talked with them on the phone, discussed with them the intimacies of their lives. Some produced good writing; others managed only drivel. Swope’s tale is occasionally vitiated by his need to tell us how wonderful he is when a simple recounting of his deeds would have sufficed.
A dedicated teacher sends a valentine to some charming students—and to himself.