a list of…five books honoring teachers

It’s the beginning of a new school year.  In honor of all those teachers who give children in a myriad  circumstances the opportunity to learn…this blog is for you! 

Armando and the Blue Tarp School, by Edith Hope Fine and Judith Pinkerton Josephson, illustrated by Hernán Sosa 

Armando is a young Mexican boy whose family lives in a neighborhood near the city dump.  They make their living as pepenadores, trash pickers, sorting through stinking mounds of garbage each day to find bottles and cans to sell.  One day Armando spies a pick-up truck rolling into town.  It’s Señor David!  He has come back again!  Señor David pulls out a large blue tarp and spreads it on the ground.  He sets up a chalkboard and papers and paints.  Children gather on the blue tarp, and Señor David begins to teach, for the blue tarp is actually their school. 

Armando’s parents don’t believe they can spare him from the daily work, so Armando sadly watches other children attend the blue tarp school.  Finally he is allowed to attend half days.  He is such a happy boy… until one day a fire sweeps through the neighborhood, consuming many homes.  In a strange twist, however, when a newspaper sends reporters out to cover the story, a wave of generosity among its readers enables Señor David and the local families to rebuild their homes, and a school building…complete with a beautiful blue rug. 

This story is based on the work of David Lynch, a special education teacher from New York who began working in the Tijuana, Mexico neighborhoods in 1980, using a blue tarp spread on the ground as his first school.  A lengthy author’s note describes and documents with photos Mr. Lynch’s ever-expanding work, for which he has received UNICEF’s World of Children Humanitarian Award.  Great story.

Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg and Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and Susan L. Roth, with collages by Susan L. Roth 

Have you read Three Cups of Tea, the story of Greg Mortenson’s work in the mountains of Pakistan, building schools for children in these remote regions?  I read it a few years ago and really enjoyed it.  This is a picture book version of his story. 

It is told by the children of Korphe, the little village where Mortenson’s work began.  They tell how this stranger stumbled into their village, a mountaineer lost, sick, and in need of food.  After the villagers nursed him back to health, this stranger wanted to do something to help them in return.  And that something turned out to be building a school.  The process of hauling all of the building materials and school supplies into this tiny village perched among mountain crags, the construction of the school, the celebratory parade, and the enchantment of learning, are all narrated by the children. 

The book is illustrated with gorgeous collages made of artifacts and bits of colorful cloth gathered from the region and painstakingly assembled.  A “Korphe Scrapbook” at the end of the book has about a dozen color photos of the children, the town of Korphe, the spectacular region, school, and key individuals.  Great story about a country much in the news just now.

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter 

This book, written in 2009, tells the story of a system of secret schools for girls operating during the reign of the Taliban from 1996-2001.  As you know, under the Taliban’s rule girls in Afghanistan were not allowed to attend school — just one of their many oppressive decrees.  

In a simply told story, of not so many words, echoing the quiet secrecy with which these schools operated, Nasreen’s grandmother tells us of their life in Herat, Afghanistan.  She tells of the fearful raids by Taliban soldiers, who stole away Nasreen’s father, and she tells of her courage in finding a school so Nasreen can learn the way she did in earlier days.  The school is behind an anonymous green gate.  With a little tapping, the door is opened a crack and Nasreen can quickly slip inside to a hidden room in a hidden house where Nasreen not only learns to read and write, but finds friendship and solace among other girls there. 

The illustrations for this book are each drawn in a framed square in the middle of a white page.  They are like a series of snapshots or paintings, documenting the story, drawn with a folk art style.  The pretty colors and patterns of the girls’ clothing and scarves contrast with the grim, menacing soldiers.  The beauty of the land before the Taliban contrasts with the dark clouded landscapes of their regime.  Again, a very timely book for our children.

The Year of Miss Agnes, by Kirkpatrick Hill 

It is 1948.  Fred, short for Frederika, is a 10-year-old native Alaskan living in a tiny community in the Alaskan bush.  Fred’s world is one of rustic living, ptarmigan stew, running traplines, watching her mother and grandmother make otter-skin mittens and caribou-leg boots.  Her school is a one-room, wood-stove heated affair, and to Fred’s sorrow, the teachers that fly in to her village rarely stay for long.  For one thing, they can’t stand the smell of the students, who eat dried fish eggs or oily salmon strips for lunch and help with the fishing after hours.  Fred has figured out that the nicest teachers who smile a lot last the shortest.  

But one day, Miss Agnes flies into the village.  And Miss Agnes seems to do everything a bit differently.  She speaks with an English accent and serves tea in little cups and saucers.  She washes the school windows until the room sparkles with sunlight and hangs artwork on the walls.  She pitches the dusty old textbooks and hands out gorgeous paints and colored pencils and crayons with names like magenta and periwinkle.  She has a record player and plays Italian operas while they draw, and reads stories about people named Robin Hood and Ebeneezer Scrooge.  She even teaches deaf Bokko and the rest of the class sign language so Bokko can learn, too.  

The transformation of heart and mind and life that Miss Agnes brings to Fred and the other children is like the blooming of the desert after a rain.  So lovely.  Such a joy to watch.  The question remains, though:  will Miss Agnes last more than one year?  Or will she fly away like all the other teachers? 

This is a short chapter-book, and one that I love dearly.  Makes a great read-aloud for children ages 5 and up.

Junkyard Wonders , story and pictures by Patricia Polacco 

Tricia has just learned to read, although all her friends have mastered that a long time ago.  Jody has a disease that makes him grow too fast.  Gibbie has Tourette’s.  Stuart…diabetes.  Thom has very poor eyesight.  And Ravanne will not speak.  Together, these children’s classroom is mockingly called The Junkyard by the other students in their school. 

However.  Their teacher, Mrs. Peterson, thinks they are all geniuses!  And she runs a most remarkable classroom.  A room where the kids sort themselves into groups by the scent of a little drop of oil she rubs on each wrist.  A room where she reads aloud wonderful stories called David Copperfield and Great Expectations.  A room where the kids learn to really care for one another.   One day Mrs. Peterson even takes them to a real junkyard, challenging them to pick out some bits of junk and

patricia polacco

then build something truly wonderful with them.  

This is the story of that group of kids, their joys and sorrows, the fantastic junkyard competition which meets with crushing opposition from the school principal, some intrepid parents, and a soaring surprise.  It is a semi-autobiographical account of author Patricia Polacco’s experiences with dyslexia and a wonderful teacher named Mrs. Peterson who changed her life.