Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Walking Trees by Ralph Fletcher

I discovered the author, Ralph Fletcher, three years ago. I decided to read the book, What a Writer Needs.

Loved it.

Then I picked up the paperback, Live Writing: Breathing Life into Your Words.

Loved it.

Next I read, Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices.

Loved it.

I read, The Sandman, to five grade 1 classes.

The students loved it.

It should be no surprise that I loved the latest Ralph Fletcher book I picked up, a memoir called Walking Trees: Portraits of Teachers and Children in the Culture of Schools. I can't think of a nonfiction book like this - it has tension, suspense, and characters who change throughout a school year and others who don't. The book is a patchwork quilt of characters that creates a complex blanket of humanity from Fletcher's year as a writing coach or teacher trainer in New York Citys' school districts. His characters range from the bell banging Fern Resager who needs a voice transplant to Myrna Rabincoff who looks her students in the eye and listens when they speak. "She cares about children." p. 62. Eleanor Bosch reminds me of a Roald Dahl character (maybe aunt Spiker?) and the childrens' writing examples are inspirational. The book picks up the quirks and characters that cross paths with Fletcher as he weaves through school districts like a bee in search of pollen. Along the way, he finds teachers blooming, wilting, or almost dead (there's a jungle in one principal's office). Some teachers take to his new ideas, some resist them, but what is obvious is that he touches the lives of students and they in return, touch him. His observations are funny, precise, and poignant. He describes his day like a reporter:

At PS 414, the secretary in the Main Office gives me the guest book to sign and directs me down to the cafeteria to find Marlon Hauser, the principal. Entering the immense room, I am assaulted by a tremendous din made by hundreds of kids eating, laughing, goofing yelling. Decibel City. At the near end of the room, three stout, heavily made-up women in dark jackets (we dubbed them "Renta-Mommies" when I was in school), all toting bullhorns, keep unsmiling watch over the kids. From time to time, one of these women raises her bullhorn to bark something ineffectual at them:

"Brian Young, get off that table! Mildred, do you want to stay after school today? 4-322, I cannot believe the way you're behaving today... You ought to be ashamed of yourselves." p 34.

While Fletcher doesn't give answers to the questions he raises, he shows what good teachers and principals do in their classrooms and schools. I like how he avoids being preachy or slipping into a doom and gloom tirade over the state of education. The message is not one of hopelessness but hope that there will be those who love what they do and "care about children." An entertaining and inspirational read.

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