Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

I Can See Clearly Now: "Up the Down Staircase" Today

This article is going live on the first day of my last week of school for this school year. As you read this, if you're an early reader, I am packing up my colored chalk and putting away my homework charts for the summer.

While I'm doing this, I'll no doubt reflect on the year that was — the triumphs of classroom 344 (everything from actually getting my students to read a play, to the day I stopped a fight with just the sound of my [mighty loud] voice) and the disappointments, too. All over the country, teachers are doing, or have just done, the same thing. While some of us may spend our summers at least partially in the classroom, for many of us, summer is the big break of the year.

Although last summer I took a break from writing for the VT, this year I wanted to write a few particular columns. I thought it would be fun (granted, "Shannon Fun" which usually involves reading) to look at some of the books and movies about or by teachers that shape our culture's perception of who a teacher is and how she spends her days. In the midst of the school year, I wouldn't want to read such a book or see such a film (indeed, then I prefer my entertainment in the realm of vampires enmeshed in musical galactic battles), but the summer's a great time for reflecting on what we do. Instead of getting super serious about it, writing down journal entries in answer to questions like, "What does it mean... to teach?" (as if!), reading a book or watching a movie offers a way into reflection that feels more natural and reflexive.

To my mind, there is no more iconic book about teaching than Bel Kaufman's 1964 novel, Up the Down Staircase. I can remember my parents referring to it whenever something that caused consternation happened for me or my brother at school. (I should mention that, due to a fondness for the culture of their own young adulthood, my parents raised us on a diet of culture from the mid-60's; I know far more about the Kingston Trio and Mr. Ed than anyone who was a teenager when "Hungry Like a Wolf" came out should.) Long before Dangerous Minds, Kaufman's book was the classic look into a public high school classroom. I read it when I was a teenager and it left such a vivid impression on me that I swore never to become a teacher, and certainly not in the New York City DOE (heh). Some of you may know it from the play adaptation (Ben Zimmer, my editor here, played the principal in his high school production, doncha know). I've never encountered the play, but the book is pretty great, despite a few dated elements. Here's why.

Your Day is in Here

The era of the book definitely shows — there's a lot of talk about "dames" and students needing to "pipe down," and some of the humor has a definite Henny Youngman-esque, "Take my American Lit classroom — please!" quality to it. I kept expecting the strains of "West Side Story" to waft out of the book, it's just so New-York-in-the-late-1950's. But so much of what Kaufman writes will resonate with any teacher today. I first laughed out loud when I read this note from Bea, the mentor teacher to Miss Sylvia Barrett (the main character). She says that "Let it be a challenge to you" means "you're stuck with it." My principal said those very words to me when I protested a scheduling snafu this year!

Any teacher will also laugh at: the list of first-day homeroom expectations given to Sylvia (at the end of a 20-point list: "Appoint Room Decorations Monitor and begin decorating room"); the excuses from parents ("It's not my son Lee's fault he failed spelling, he comes from a broken home!"); and advice from veteran teachers ("Never turn your back to the class when writing on the board — learn the overhead backhand!") All of these make me think of something my best friend often says: "It's funny because it's true." Kaufman taught in the NYCDOE system, and she knew what she was writing about; Her observations lead to writing that is just slightly past realistic and into the absurd, but not so far away that we don't recognize their truth.

Trends come and go but, in America, at least, my job in teaching is not terribly different from what my grandmother did in the 1940s in a one-room school house, nor what Bel Kaufman did in a large public high school in New York. The essential relationships are all still there, as is the basic school calendar, pattern of the year and concerns of all who wander the hallway, be they petty or deeply important. By simply writing what she daily saw, Kaufman ended up writing what we see daily too. While I might despair that in so many ways things are exactly the same, I also have to say that I think that's pretty cool.

Plot, Schmlot.

When I first read this book, as a teenager, I skipped over a lot of the "intraschool communications." (Skipping large chunks of text was a bad habit of mine that led to, among other things, a complete misapprehension of what happens in Wuthering Heights. Take note: It does not end happily.). Kaufman wrote the book not in a standard novel form, but through school memos, students' papers, notes between Bea and Sylvia, and letters from Sylvia to a friend. All I can say now is, don't skip anything. The different types of communication are cleverly placed together to echo and reflect each other, as well as to move the book forward. It's genius!

Not a heck of a lot happens in this book in the standard plot sense, at least compared to, say, Wuthering Heights. While Sylvia does eventually face a dilemma (whether to stay at Calvin Coolidge HS or begin teaching at Willowdale Academy, a posh private school), it doesn't kick in until the last quarter of the book. As the book wraps up with the end of the fall semester, readers do not find out what happened to many of the characters (mostly students) we had come to care about through Sylvia's eyes. There is no narrator, no omniscience — we know only what Sylvia knows.

I find this a little frustrating. I know people say that books shouldn't have to wrap everything up, because in life, everything doesn't get wrapped up, but I feel the ability to wrap things up is one of the great advantages of books over life. Yet I can't deny that, as a teacher, I am often left to wonder what will happen to my students, as my role in their life story is a minor part. Just like I will not know what happened to the girl who abruptly moved to Pennsylvania, or the boy who went on Superintendent's Suspension for the rest of the year, we readers do not find out what happened to Sylvia's students. Nor do we find out much more about her relationship with Paul, a dashing fellow teacher, nor why she makes the choice she does at the end of that book.

Perhaps that was Kaufman's point: in life, and in school, we so often are left hanging. This makes us make meaning out of what we have shared together, instead of being overly invested in the outcome. Why, that's practically living one day at a time.

Exactly the Same + iPhones

One thing Kaufman gets exactly right is the student-teacher relationship. Whether it's Alice, a girl who makes a dramatic attempt to get Paul's attention, or the anonymous student who leaves a note in Sylvia's suggestion box, saying "Don't worry! We're behind you 85%!" (A statistic I'd be happy to reach, at times), Kaufman knew how teenagers wrote and spoke. My heart broke a little bit when reading one student's note: "I put this in the Suggestion Box for the record. Today is my birthday. Happy Birthday! — Me." Oh, I know that kid, don't you? I think I've had to remind myself not to ignore him for yet another class period as he sat quietly to one side, obediently doing whatever I asked.

Or how about this note: "To me the 'Odyssey' was just another Ethan Frome or Silas Marner [sic]." Great, right? I recognize that chutzpah/ignorance from my classroom too — or is it a brilliant interpretation that I'm just assuming is wrong?

Or this one, on why they read The Odyssey: "We read it because it's a classicle." Yes. Indeed.

In one section that particularly stayed with me, Sylvia observes Bea's outstanding senior English class and calls them "the cream." I love what Bea writes back, "Never mind the cream; it will always rise to the top. It's the skim milk that needs good teachers." At other points in the book, Kaufman's view of education gets a little heavy-handed, as Sylvia suddenly drops her overwhelmed exterior and pontificates about what students need. No thanks. I like Bea's no-nonsense view, wherein I'm reminded that all of my kids — the shy ones, the egomaniacs, and those who rhyme "classical" with "icicle" — deserve a quality education. Period.

Differentiation Was Right Around the Corner

In another section that popped out at me, Sylvia, in a letter to her friend Ellen, bemoans having to give grades to the kids, much in the same we beat our heads against walls over fair and accurate assessments today. Then she mentions that her colleague, Henrietta, is having the kids write "Great Poems Turned into Tabloid Headlines" (e.g., "Midnight Rider Warns of Foe"). This section is played for laughs, since Henrietta is a bit of a loon. But this actually sounds like something I would do in my classroom today.

That's an interesting thing about this book: you can see educational culture changing. The book is about a teacher-centered, teacher-driven classroom culture, with an emphasis on a canonical list of works to be read. Education today, though, has become more about Henrietta's style, which isn't laughable, anymore — student-focused, relevant in content, and making connections between home and the classroom.

It's not my job to issue a verdict on what we're getting right or wrong in the classroom today. I personally bemoan the fall of the ardent lecturer but also know that the best way to understand literature is to feel some connection to it. All I want to do here is to point out how Kaufman, perhaps inadvertently, captured a time when things were changing. It was 40 years ago, but we're still working our way through this seismic change today.

Out of the Classroom

My verdict is that Up the Down Staircase is worth a read this summer (and it certainly won't take long — I read the entire thing, closely, in 4 hours). While I am fairly sure that you'll find some part of it outdated or even silly, I really enjoyed the overall view of teaching presented here. Teachers are human, for sure, and not always operating at their best, she seems to say. But hey, they're trying and that's vitally important for who we are. Perhaps now that you're away from your classroom, you might find it helpful to see yourself the same way: human, imperfect, but trying. And remember what one student says to Sylvia: "You see the funny sides, which makes it easier." Oh, my, yes.

I'll be back next month with a look at My Posse Don't Do Homework (retitled Dangerous Minds for the movie) as well as The Freedom Writers Diary. I also plan to watch Half Nelson and The Class. Let me know if you have a favorite, more obscure book or movie about teachers and teaching that you think I should cover, drop me a note or a comment, and I'll check it out!

Until then, enjoy the summer! I'll see you at the beach, right after I file my portfolio-driven assessments...

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 22nd 2009, 6:04 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
Speaking of the country school teachers, there is no one better than Gabrielle Roy. She taught in rural Manitoba in the early days and later became a novelist. I love her book, Ces enfants de ma vie, translated into Children of My Heart.
Monday June 22nd 2009, 12:51 PM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
I never taught school, never read "Up the Down Staircase"' I plan to for this summer's next read. This to me is such a strong article about life.
This article is going to my school teacher daughter, I think she will find it strong as I do. She teaches art and her tales about relationships with her students are based in her personal view of each student.
Shannon, I like words and I really like the way you put them together.
Monday June 22nd 2009, 3:05 PM
Comment by: Margaret N.
An excellent movie "Pressure Cooker" was just released at your local neighborhood art film house. About a culinary arts teacher whose students win multiple scholarships each year, this movie demonstrates the importance of having caring teachers in inner city (Philadelphia) schools. 5 stars!!!
Monday June 22nd 2009, 7:11 PM
Comment by: Sara A. (Berkeley, CA)
Dear Shannon,

Loved the column; thanks. I'll re-read the book, thanks to you! One of my all time favorites is Teacher by Sylvia Ashton-Warner. It really got me excited about teaching--honoring kids' cultures, ways of learning, always looking for ways to make content relevant, etc.

Thanks again,

Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 2:41 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'd love to read it again. I was already teaching when it appeared, and more than being relavent to what I was doing, it brought back 'tender' memories of the day in my Allentown, Pennsylvania Catholic school, and a day when a freshmen had raced down the up staircase, bowling me over.

No excuse from the nurse for me -- a temperature of one degree of fever wa needed before anyone could even dream of getting past the school nurse and a permit to go home... inujuries from errant freshmen didn't count! I was never sent home from school sick. I am one of those who struggles to reach 98.6. My blood pressure remains constant... 90/60 or thereabouts, making all doctors extol my health -- I lack an immune system, but with low blood pressure and no fever record, I'm in great medical shape.

All that aside, as I pondered more of the book, many of the 'messages' remained the same. One of my principals favourite quotes was 'Let this be a challenge to you!:

Thanks for the memories.

And if anyone has a suggestion of how to get a fever so that I can rid myself of a persistent 'bug' that has lingered for months, do let me know. I long for a fever... Memories of sitting in the nurses' office with that thermometer, feeling wretched, and sent on to class...

Sigh! Especially with a bum knee from that terrorizing freshman!
Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 2:49 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Valerie, I've migrated from Pennsylavania to Manitoba now and am acquainted with the work of Gabrielle Roy. A friend specializes in keeping her 'alive'.

The regimented schools of the 50s should make those who are part of the liberated forms now either relieved or sighing for the comfort and the safety.

There were proper sides to walk through the corridors on, all monitored by hall monitors. You kept to the right.

There wasn't chaos...

But i began to learn to learn in university.

And now, as I go through my 7th decade, I do so with my classmates through our birthday club. We've found that as adults, we've done okay, and can be friends. And a comfort ot one another.
Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 2:51 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Good luck in your career!
Thursday June 25th 2009, 3:48 PM
Comment by: Rachel V. (Methuen, MA)
Hey Shannon. If you're doing the "inner-city classrooms during the 1950's thing" don't forget about Blackboard Jungle. But be sure to keep your slang dictionary close at hand...
Sunday June 28th 2009, 4:55 PM
Comment by: Daniela (Roldan Argentina)
Dear Shannon,

Thanks for the column, I find it deeply inspiring.I am a teacher of English from Argentina. I work in public and private schools from 7th grade-primary school-to 5th grade -secondary school.I haven't read the books"Up the Down Staircase" or "The Freedom Writers Diary" so I'll read them this winter holiday (in Argentina) after your veredict. I'll watch "Half Nelson" as well and will wait for your article on them.

I am always looking for books and movies that can help us gain a better insight into teacher- students relationships. I used the movie "Dangerous Minds" many times with different groups and it helped us to solve breakdowns of discipline among other things.

This weekend after reading your column, I rented "The Class". You are absolutely right with your plan for this summer. My veredict is that this movie is worth a watch to analyse, re-think and evaluate classroom practices as well as discipline matters. I'll take it to my school suggest it for our next teacher meeting. Following Herb B's words, I am also sure that they will find it strong as I do .

Thank you again.


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