CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 3 . . . .September 28, 2007
4 Kids in 5E and 1 Crazy Year.
Virginia Frances Schwartz.
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2007.
244 pp., pbk., $7.99.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Myra Junyk.
"Because 5E stands for excellence," she tells us. "you will all be excellent students in this room. September is a fresh start. You are like poems still unwritten."
E stands for "error" is what I'm thinking. Maybe my teacher, Mrs. Kumar, gave her the wrong card. Needs improvement was written all over my report cards, along with Needs to focus. I drift way back to the memory of Grade One when my mom got that letter in the mail the one that threatened summer school if my marks didn't improve. After that, I had to do my homework with my teenage cousin every night. I never liked school much anymore. It was the enemy. It was no poem.
keep your pencil moving," I hear Ms Hill say. "Don't erase. Don't worry about spelling in your first draft. Jot the date down first."
"What is she talking about?" I elbow Mohammed, who's next to me.
"Writing." He mouths it behind his hands like it's a bad word.
There is a problem in Grade 5 at Utopia Central at the beginning of September. There are too many students in each class because more students have moved into the area this year. In order to solve the problem, several students are chosen from each of the four classes to create the new class of 5E with Ms. Hill as their teacher. What follows is an account of a "crazy year" in the words of four of the students of this new class Max (studious but troubled), Giovanni (struggling with reading), Willie (loves to write but has family issues), and Destiny (the class gossip). Each of the students has a unique story to tell about their school experience in 5E.
Ms. Hill is an innovative teacher who wants to get her students writing. She encourages them to brainstorm their ideas, get them down on paper, and talk about their work with others. This kind of discussion process is totally new to the students in 5E. They have never been asked to talk about their own work or the work of their peers!
At first, the members of the class have a difficult time adapting to the new classroom structure. Ms. Hill is constantly asking her students to write about themselves. Max, whose abusive father has left, has great difficulty writing about his feelings of abandonment. "Teachers take one look at me and make up their minds I'm trouble." (p. 29) He depends on Giovanni, his only friend, to help him adapt to the new classroom. Meanwhile, Giovanni is struggling to "get" the whole idea of reading and writing. He has had special help for years from Mrs. VanBeek just like his brother Mario did before him. "Once you were in Mrs. VanBeek's class, you were branded, like cattle, my brother said." (p. 62) With the help and encouragement of Ms. Hill and Max, Giovanni starts to read entire books and write about his thoughts and feelings. He even joins the library. "The Queensborough Public Library, it says. It's plastic, with code numbers drilled on it like a credit card. When I sign my name on the back, I feel rich. Suddenly, I am somebody who reads." (p. 113) His writing still needs a lot of editing, but at least he is getting his ideas down on paper and thinking about his reading.
Meanwhile, Willie is struggling with his fears about his grandmother in Jamaica who has had a heart attack. He also has his own health issues with recurring asthma. His emotions make it difficult to concentrate on his schoolwork. Once Destiny finds out about Wllie's grandmother, she encourages the class to write his grandmother a get well card. Willie is truly touched by this gesture. Destiny has proven to be a good friend, even though she is still a gossip.
Near the end of the school year, Grade 5's compete in a writing contest. The entire school is shocked that both winners are from 5E. All of a sudden, Ms Hill's methods of teaching are being copied by the other teachers. All of those "rejects" from the other classes are now surprising people!
4 kids in 5E and 1 Crazy Year is a well written novel about the writing process. It follows in the tradition of other books which discuss a writer's struggles to put words to paper such as: Philip Pulman's I Was a Rat!, Sharon Creech's Love That Dog, Gordon Korman's No More Dead Dogs, and Esme Raji Codell's Sahara Special. All of these books share that belief that writing is something we can all do if we look deep into our souls.
Schwartz has once again created a very lively and interesting novel. Her characters vary in educational skill, but they are well crafted and realistic portrayals. Max and Willie both struggle with being abandoned by their fathers even though they come from very different ethnic backgrounds. Giovanni struggles with his language skills despite a very raucous and supportive family. Destiny just cannot resist getting involved in everyone's business no matter how many times she is warned by the teacher to stop gossiping and passing notes! In her other novels, Schwarz has dealt with very different subjects, such as Native culture and the Underground Railway, but all the novels share a strong belief in the goodness of mankind.
Schwartz has left us with a powerful message about the power of education to transform individuals. Giovanni explains this process to us: "Reading isn't just words on a page like I thought. It's the things that begin to happen in your head." (p. 215) This book should be required reading for all teachers of young children! However, at the same time, it is also a marvelous read for students!
Myra Junyk is the former Program Co-ordinator of Language Arts and Library Services at the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Currently, she is working as a literacy advocate and author.
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