Teachers In Children’s Literature

THE EARLIEST TEACHERS IN STORIES

The teacher archetype is related to the traditional ‘wise old man’ and ‘wise old woman’ archetype seen in many older stories. The teacher is the modern equivalent of these people, dishing out advice to help the protagonist get through the story. Teachers can be mentors, opponents, fake opponents, or very much background characters. In YA, teachers can also be love opponents. Continue reading “Teachers In Children’s Literature”

Freaks and Geeks Storytelling Tips

Freaks and Geeks is a coming-of-age drama made in the late 1990s, set in 1980. Though it was cancelled after one season, that’s not because it wasn’t good. Perhaps the audience assumed  this was yet another high school drama done badly. This show did a lot of stuff you’ll have seen before, but did it extraordinarily well.

Genre Blend Of Freaks And Geeks

Freaks and Geeks is a:

  • coming-of-age
  • comedy
  • drama

This category of story is about the eternal adolescent quest to find out which version of yourself is the “true” one.

How This Show Is Different From Other High School Dramas

It doesn’t fall into the category of ‘cringe comedy’ even though teenagehood inevitably includes embarrassing scenes.

Lindsay's sceptical look
Lindsay’s teenage sceptical look

The creators were determined not to end each show with a typical “happy ending”. One notable exception is the pilot episode, which the creators purposely wrote as a self-contained story, in case the show was never picked up for production. This is also why you see a fully fleshed story in the pilot episode and why I’ve chosen to break it down as a story unto itself.

There is plenty of crossover between quite vastly different social arenas, with a main character weaving between all of them. (Though all the families are white.) Most high school dramas have set-in-stone cliques before the audience meets the characters, and the main character is usually an underdog, or a newcomer trying to work out which group to fit into (e.g. Mean Girls). Lindsay is more interesting than that, because although she’s not new to the school but she’s trying to actively switch groups.

Storyworld of Freaks and Geeks

Detroit

  • Fictional William McKinley High School during the 1980–1981 school year in the town of Chippewa, Michigan, a fictional suburb of Detroit
  • A middle-class suburban home near the school
  • The surrounding neighbourhood, including some rougher parts of town
  • The bleachers are a good place to hide under, to do things teachers can’t see.
  • The corridors can be either a walk of shame or a place to parade down. Lockers lining corridors also provide opportunity for characters who hate each other to get together, since lockers are assigned from above.
  • The guidance counsellor’s room is a place for moral questions to be posed and discussed.
  • Upper middle class (Neal) middle class (Lindsay and Sam) meets working class (Bill) meets military class (Nick) meets houseos (Kim).
  • The high school is a miniature battle field, where the mottos are about conquer or lose and men must be men. The school cafeteria is a good venue for enemies to be thrown together by force, as everyone has to eat lunch. Classrooms are good venues for characters to be bullied and victimised in front of a small audience.
  • The suburbs are cosy at first glance, with their manicured lawns and a 1980s apparent utopia, but dangers lurk around the corner, where you could meet your high school adversary at any time.
dining room table
This cosy scene feels stifling to Lindsay.
Freaks and geeks sam cafeteria
Cafeterias and corridors are particularly hazardous.
a walk down the school corridor is like running the gauntlet
a walk down the school corridor is like running the gauntlet
Lindsay is being asked to make big decisions about her life and has no clue. In 1980 there was a strong professional/working class divide.
Lindsay is being asked to make big decisions about her life and has no clue. In 1980 there was a strong professional/working class divide.

Continue reading “Freaks and Geeks Storytelling Tips”

Writing Activity: Describe A Classroom

Describe a classroom is the perfect writing activity for schools. Maybe you’re in a classroom right now. If so, you can write about that. If not, you can imagine any sort of classroom you like. It may be one classroom in particular, or it may be an amalgamation of several, or of all the classrooms you’ve ever set foot in. Or you might make it up completely.

Jonathan Pobre

Continue reading “Writing Activity: Describe A Classroom”

How Teaching School Is Different From The Movies

An English teacher I had at school couldn’t stand that Robin Williams movie, Dead Poet’s Society. The ideal of the enthusiastic teacher jumping about on all the desks, monologuing center stage gave him the shits, I was surprised to learn.

Then, when I was at teachers’ college myself, I remember the tutor saying a few times, “Now you may have seen [X] happen on the movies, but don’t ever do that.” If you overthink it, it’s bizarre that teachers’ college students need to be told this, because we’d all spent 13 years in the school system ourselves, so you’d think we’d have known the difference between movies and real life. But no, a few things still needed saying. Especially since university lectures are different again, and in just four years you tend to forget.

Then there are simple details which you see all the time in school stories without really thinking (perhaps until the fridge moment), that doesn’t really happen in schools.

Take for example The History Boys (film or play), written by Alan Bennett.

COMPULSORY PHYSICAL EDUCATION

Bennett went to school a long time before the 1980s, which is when this play is set. He writes in his 2004 diaries of some issues faced when depicting a modern(ish) school.

First he had to take out a gymnasium scene, because by the 1980s sixth formers wouldn’t have been enrolled in physical education.

LOCKERS

As part of his research, Bennett visited the London Nautical School to avoid outdated clangers.

My main impression is how burdened the boys are, humping all their possessions with them wherever they go so that they’re slung round with coats, togs, books and bags, none of them seemingly having their own locker or desk.

This is true in my experience too (both as student and teacher). Students (at least outside America? don’t tend to have allocated lockers anymore. This was to do with theft and vandalism, and no doubt also to do with the tendency for students to leave uneaten food in their lockers, to rot the wood and attract rodents.

The students at our local high school can rent a locker, which costs ten bucks per term. I wondered who paid that (parents, I guess) and according to the local high school girl I know, they’re popular for storing jackets in. It is terribly uncool to wear a jacket around here, but some parents make kids take them anyway. Once at school, the jackets/coats are shoved into the lockers and that’s where they stay.

If you’re wondering how the local youth keep warm, short answer they don’t, but the slightly longer answer is that they wear two jumpers instead.

I wonder how many schools still have lockers, compared to how many fictional students still have lockers. In American school dramas we always see scenes involving lockers. The lockers themselves are often used as a plot device, with plantings of drugs and offensive graffiti emblazoned across them, and love notes pushed through the cracks, and timid boys being locked inside… In fact, everything I know about lockers comes from fiction:

Now, it is possible to slip a note into a locked locker through the vents. Even, with some pushing, a pencil. Once, Tiny Cooper slipped a Happy Bunny book into my locker. But I find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine how Jane, who, after all, is not the world’s strongest individual, managed to stuff an entire winter coat through the tiny slits in my locker.

– from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.

But I have no idea how many North American schools still provide lockers for their students. (Perhaps one of you will enlighten me.) In New Zealand, as in England (like Bennett observed), most students lump around a bag full of textbooks all day. This can’t be good for the back. I think at some schools parents are starting to complain about this, and lockers may be making a comeback.

SARCASM

Bennett writes:

Nicholas Hytner has shown the script of The History Boys to one of his former teachers at Manchester Grammar School, who says that teaching these days is so circumscribed that many traditional tools of the trade are now impermissible. Sarcasm, for instance, is out, pupils are never touched and there are often viewing panels in the doors.

Each of these observations is very true, and it does frustrate me when I see sarcastic dialogue from teachers in modern fictional schools. We were taught firmly at teachers’ college that sarcasm is a no-no — and the objection doesn’t just come from above; today’s students detect sarcasm in a second, and will pull you up on it. I remember filling in for another teacher, turning up to anarchy and saying, ‘Some quiet would be nice.’

One of the students was listening, at least. She turned to me and said, ‘Watch the sarcasm, Miss.’

And if I hadn’t been so busy with the humdrum, time-consuming and dreary job of calling a class of unknown students to attention, I might have delivered a lesson on what ‘sarcasm’ actually means, and how it compares to ‘understatement’ but this was a maths lesson. (I also remember later in the hour being asked how to do quadratic equations, and I was of no help whatsoever with that.)

Yet authors of fictional teachers are still making heavy use of sarcasm in lessons, and this lacks authenticity to me… Which is problematic if authenticity is what they are going for.

PHYSICAL CONTACT

Regarding the touchy issue of touching, in every school you’ll probably find at one point in staff history:

  • a teacher who gets away with quite a bit of physical contact because they have a wonderful rapport with all of their students, and it never gets them into trouble
  • at least one teacher who crosses the line, and who seems to get a certain titillation out of mildly through wildly inappropriate touching of students. This is my own experience of schools.

But most teachers never, ever touch students, not even in kindness. So when I see a teacher in a fictional drama touching a student, even on the shoulder, even to gain attention, I notice.

I also notice when a teacher keeps a student behind after class for a talking to. Even if this is innocent — like ‘Where’s your homework?’ — I always think how unlikely it is, that a teacher would keep a student behind after class. Teachers know to keep their classroom doors open, and when speaking to an individual student, keep their friends along too, or just outside the door, within earshot. Isn’t every modern teacher ever-aware of fictional claims of sexual abuse and harassment? Even fictional characters? I get the impression that authors of fictional teachers underestimate this unfortunate and lingering anxiety.

BEFORE THE BELL

So often in American dramas the bell rings; students snap their books shut, stand up, walk out.

I have never seen this scenario (except with one teacher who, it was widely acknowledged, had major problems controlling her classes).

What usually happens is this:

1. The teacher is keeping an eye on the clock about every five minutes. (You don’t see this much in dramatised classrooms either.) The teacher is often more cognizant of the end of class than the students, and it is the teacher who orchestrates the wind-up of a lesson.

2. About ten minutes before the end, a good teacher will ask the class to contribute to a recap of the day’s learning material. There’s usually some boring admin stuff, like homework, but I can forgive a scriptwriter for leaving that stuff out.

3. A tidy teacher will ask students to pick up any litter on the floor, and if it’s the last lesson of the day, the chairs will go up onto the desks. (Can you think of a single time you’ve seen this on the screen?)

4. If students start packing up before they are requested, any teacher with middling management skills still knows to put the kybosh on that, or else students soon learn that they can pack up a good 20 mins before the end of each class and battle for position near the exit, ready to burst out the door with the first tinkle of the bell. Any teacher who lets this happen is not on top of things.

So why, in fiction, do students pack up and leave taking their cue from the bell, not their teachers, with ‘good’ teachers shouting over top of the ruckus in order to finish their sentence?

STUDENT CENTERED LESSONS

In modern classrooms, students have far more to say than in the classrooms of yesteryear. The teacher is no longer a lecturer; rather a facilitator. Students are frequently divided into groups, set to work on a task (often on a computer), then present to their peers.

What I see in fictional classrooms: The teacher yaks. Students listen. This is a particularly vexing scenario when the class is supposed to be ‘difficult’.

I can tell you for a fact, modern students have little tolerance for lengthy lectures. There are still lessons during which teachers do a goodly proportion of the talking, but they are not met with the bright and alert faces which are seen so often on TV and movies. What you definitely get during a high school lecture lesson is a teacher who is telling Amy to stop talking, Corey to refrain from tapping the desk with his pencil, Riley to quit rustling with whatever is in that plastic bag yadda yadda yadda.

The most realistic depiction of a fictional classroom that I have seen is Summer Heights High (Australia), closely followed by Seven Periods With Mr Gormsby (New Zealand). Matt Lucas as Vicky Pollard and Catherine Tate’s ‘am I bovvered’ are also scarily accurate. That, of course, is exactly why they’re funny. These are all parodies, yet they achieve a realism that serious drama can’t seem to match.

These depictions get a bit closer to what really happens in a modern high school lesson, at least in Australia, NZ and England. The Catherine Tate sketch is scarily accurate… A VERY similar thing happened when I went to teach English to the English with a New Zealand accent. I almost think Catherine Tate was a fly on the wall that day, especially since my main sparring partner was called Lauren.

Related Links:

High School Hierarchy in YA Fiction

The Most Realistic TV Shows About High School, like, ever, from Flavorwire.

The American School System: A guide for those from Down Under

Down Under, we grow up reading American books and watching American TV, so the following words are familiar even if we don’t use them ourselves. That said, our language and culture is borrowing more and more from North America. High schools often have faculties now instead of departments, and I’ve heard teenagers start to say ‘math class’ instead of ‘maths class’. New high schools are calling themselves colleges.

The following terms refer to Americans in  high school AND in university.

year 1: Freshman
year 2: Sophomore
year 3: Junior
year 4: Senior

We call Freshmen ‘first years’. At university in New Zealand, a ‘freshman’ is often required to do an ‘intermediate year’, which is the first year of a university course. It’s relatively easy to get into university there, in fact you don’t even have to pass a thing at high school – you can simply wait until you turn 25. But if you want to do a rigorous course such as medicine, you’ll have to do an intermediate year of health science, from which only the top students are accepted for further study.

In New Zealand they are called second years (university), or year tens (high school).

Sometimes Americans might say “I’m a junior” and will have to clarify if that’s high school (age 17) or college (age 21ish).

PAYING FOR UNIVERSITY IN AMERICA

  • Prices vary between states but it looks to be around $10,000 tuition per year. Plus you need $10,000 (give or take) per year for room, board, fees, books.
  • An out of state school public could be $20,000 a year and up.
  • There is no free option at this time unless you apply for and receive a scholarship or grant.
  • Also, there are government sponsored loans that are easy to get for young first time college students to help offset the costs. They have to be paid back monthly for many years after you graduate, which is the same in New Zealand and in Australia. In NZ it’s called the student loan scheme, and in Australia it is shortened to HECS.
  • All American students can fill out the FAFSA https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FAFSA which helps the govt decide how much money kids can get for college.
  • Low income Americans can get  the expensive application fees waived for colleges but that’s about $100 each and doesn’t cover much in the scheme of things.
  • There are also waivers available for the tests to get into college (SATs and ACTs). There are also waivers for low income high school students down under, so they can sit their tests even if their parent(s) can’t pay for it.
  • You’ve probably heard Americans talk quite a lot about SATs. Here’s a confusing thing for us: elementary school SATs are different.
  • You can actually sit for your SATs in many places around the world — they’re held six times per year.
  • SAT stands for Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is administered by the College Board in the USA, and is a measure of the critical thinking skills needed for academic success. The SAT assesses how well you analyse and solve problems. (Some would argue that it tests how well you have already been educated, and how savvy you are at taking tests.)
  • It is made up of three parts: Critical reading/Math/Writing
  • Here’s a site that tells American college graduates where they might get into college based on their SATs and ACT scores.
  • What’s a good SAT score? If you want to get into one of the best schools it seems you need about 1500 or above.
  • But you also need to show that you’re a well-rounded person, and you should be into sports/arts/charity work.

OTHER AMERICAN TERMINOLOGY

BLEACHERS – For the longest time I thought this was something you’d find in a janitor’s closet. Then I read about some kids kissing behind the bleachers, and I realised the handle of a mop would hardly provide cover, so I took the time to look it up. Turns out they refer to those tiered seats you get on playing fields and lining gymnasiums. I have no idea what we call them, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘bleachers’. Perhaps we call them ‘forms’. They’re not standard equipment, in any case.

pic by Garrett Coyte

JANITOR – But we don’t say ‘janitor’ either. That would sound distinctively American. We just say ‘cleaner’.

GRADUATE – In New Zealand you don’t ‘graduate’ high school. You just get your qualifications (or not) and finish up. You graduate from university.

CAFETERIA – New Zealand and Australian schools don’t tend to have those huge dining hall set-ups. We had to eat a packed lunch outside. If the weather was terrible we were (reluctantly) allowed to eat inside our home classroom, but in year ten, several drop-ins broke windows, so we were all locked out no matter the weather. I have memories of sitting inside a cleaner’s closet with two friends because it was snowing outside. (There were no bleachers in there.)

If students want to buy lunch (which is usually a meat pie because salad rolls are for pansies) they go to the ‘canteen’ or the ‘tuck shop’, but there’s no place to sit down and eat lunch at a civilised table, unless you go to an expensive private school. Even then, such privileges are often reserved for seniors.

‘SIGNING UP’ FOR CLASSES – This sounds more like something you’d do as a university student, but American books tell me that high school students ‘sign up’ for their classes at the start of an academic year. Senior high school students here do have a day in which you have to go in at the beginning of the year and show the timetabling teacher the marks you got, to prove you indeed still want to do the same subjects you’d picked before summer.

Down Under, there is a core of compulsory classes (English, maths, science) and even in senior high school, you have to select your subjects the year before, in the hope you’ll pass your end of year exams and get into them. Therefore, ‘signing up’ for a class is more a matter of visiting your subject teachers on the first day back and letting them know haven’t changed your mind about your subject choices over the summer holidays – or if you haven’t passed your NCEA courses, you’ll be having a sit down with a careers teacher to discuss your options. ‘Signing up’ sounds like there’s way more freedom than there actually is, because even with elective subjects, you’ve still got to choose something. (Maybe that’s the deception.)

CHEERLEADERS – I don’t know of any local high schools with a cheerleading team, and while I appreciate the strength and agility required, to me it is on a par with pole dancing. That said, there is a local gymnastics teacher who offers classes in cheerleading to little girls. (I suppose little boys could join in too, though I doubt it’s full of male participants.) Since pole dancing seems to have taken off lately, it wouldn’t surprise me if cheerleading took off in high schools here in the next generation. We do have cheerleading teams for regional and national rugby games, so the concept is here.

pic by arbron

HOMECOMING QUEEN – I’m so glad we don’t have this tradition. Really. It sounds just awful. We do have end of school celebrations.

PROM –  Some of our schools call them ‘balls’. Others call them ‘formals’. But I’ve not heard proms. What is it short for? There is usually an ‘after party’, which is shut down if the teachers get wind of it, then it moves somewhere else. Traditional high schools still teach their students ballroom dancing beforehand, and retain the ‘invite a partner’ thing, but more and more liberal high schools are deconstructing the idea of ‘partners’, and instead encourage their students to just turn up and have a good time when they get there. This is to avert the need for major stress for students who can’t find a partner, and avoids discrimination of non-heterosexual students, who are still banned from bringing their partners to the school ball at some schools, both state and religious.

In Australia, there is ‘schoolies’ week – an huge week-long party which started at Broadbeach. But not everyone is interested in attending that. It receives a lot of media attention every year because bad things happen there too. A lot of Australians have very fond memories of schoolies. In New Zealand, there isn’t a huge organised thing like that, but lots of students get together with friends and stay for a week in someone’s family bach (holiday home) or take a car trip around New Zealand before spending the rest of summer stacking shelves at a supermarket.

pic by Capt Piper

DRIVER ED – Are not usually run through a school in the way they are in America. Until recently, we got taught by our dads. But licences have gotten a little harder to pass, and have now turned into a formal industry. It’s hard to pass the tests unless you get taught by a qualified instructor. So more and more high schools now are taking the American model, and hiring driving instructors through the school. Unlike what I saw in Mr Holland’s Opus, these instructors are not their regular teachers, but contractors who specialise in driving instruction. In a film such as Mr Holland’s Opus we see that some high school teachers earn money over summer by teaching driving lessons. This is because America doesn’t pay their teachers well enough to sustain them over the entire year. Down here, driving instruction is a separate industry, though recently a lot of high schools are providing a driving program through the schools. Some even have their own designated car.

YEAR BOOKS – Most high schools seem to produce year books here, which are either put together by a teacher or by a group of students. Either way, I’ve not ever seen a ‘Student most likely to…’ situation. That sounds rather unkind to me. That’s not to say year books are not unkind, especially if the students collating photos have malevolent intention. Mind you, this is no worse than what goes on online, where ‘friends’ can tag you in the most heinous positions, and then share those photos with the world. I wonder if year books are on their way out everywhere. An online forum would be a less expensive way to share photos and memories of school. Mind you, its very fluidity is also its downfall.

 

School And Children’s Literature

storybook school

School itself must be so different these days than it was when you were in school. Certainly, having kids helps, but is that ever an issue for you when you’re writing?

I was reading about this phenomenon in television and film writing, which is that the references to school are always at least 20 to 30 years old, because writers are really writing about their own experiences, so these movies are hopelessly outdated. What I’ve been surprised with is that school seems a lot safer and more benign than it was when I was in junior high. You know, for me, junior high was like the Wild West. There must have been one teacher for 35 kids, and we were completely unprotected from the bullies, so the experiences I’m writing about in my book are actually very watered-down from real life experiences.

Jeff Kinney at Mental Floss

Dead_poets_society

My high school English teacher hated Dead Poet’s Society. He never said why, and we never asked. Then I became an English teacher myself.

Stories set in schools haven’t been the same for me since my teachers’ college year. Dead Poet’s Society ceased to be a story about an inspirational, enthusiastic English teacher and more a demonstration of an egotistical lover of attention who would have served his students better if he had tried a bit of group work. (Jumping around on desks is also considered uncouth in a country where even sitting on desks is a no-no. This was New Zealand.)

As and aside, Dead Poet’s Society hasn’t aged well, either. There is a sexual assault scene which is not treated as such. For more on that I’d recommend listening to this episode of the Story Grid Podcast rather than watching the entire movie again.

Dead Poet’s Society is just one example of an unrealistic, annoying but romantically idealised teacher. While teaching high school myself, I had zero patience for stories in which fictional teachers keep individual students behind after class to speak to them about various misdemeanours — mostly, these teachers were young men in fake horn-rims who, had they been of truly innocent intent, as we were meant to believe as the audience, would have made sure never, ever to be in a room alone with any student. Don’t keep students behind after class. If you do, keep them back in a small group. Keep the door open. Teaching 101.

It was the large classes of eerily silent student, in which the actor posing as teacher makes zero use of body language, has no slightly embarrassing strategies for gaining everyone’s attention.

In fictional classrooms, the teacher walks around the classroom and everyone watches in rapt attention, even though the students at the front of the classroom can no longer see, nor hear. The teacher with magical magnetism approaches a single student’s desk to engage more closely with them when, in reality, as soon as the teacher moves from the front of the room, the class is likely to break out into little groups chattering. “Don’t do what actors always do on TV,” our teachers’ college lecturer warned us. “Stay at the front of the classroom until you’ve finished talking to the entire class.” The ‘rules’ of body language, standing position and classroom management are not something that has been picked up by film-makers, who are in love with the ‘camera moves around the classroom’ technique.

Also: “Don’t confiscate passed notes and read them aloud to the class. Crumple them up and throw them into the bin without looking at them” Anything else is a shaming technique, which went out of vogue decades back.

In sum, teachers’ college is a year in which naiive student-teachers’ hopes and dreams about what the Role of Teacher might be like are moulded into something more closely aligned to reality. Still, it amazes me how, even though all of us have known a lot of teachers over our 13-odd years of schooling, we nevertheless accept quite a chasm between the reality of teaching and the fictional portrayals. We accept these fictional teachers partly because narrative has its own rules; likewise, police officers are not usually damaged alcoholics who can’t maintain a healthy family life and eat nothing but donuts, but we see this character all the time in the crime genre.

On movies, the bell rings and everyone gets up to leave. No fictional teacher says, ever, what I said weekly: “The bell is a signal for me, not for you.”

 

Continue reading “School And Children’s Literature”