CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 41 . . . . June 24, 2011
Each title in "The Women's Hall of Fame Series" focuses on a small group of diverse women united by their chosen vocation. This seventeenth installment recounts the lives of 11 teachers, or, as the back cover styles them, "educators, activists, and miracle workers." A teacher herself, author Helen Wolfe recognizes Onésime Dorval, Annie Sullivan Macy and Helen Keller, Maria Montessori, Raden Ayu Kartini, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, Marva Collins, Christa McAuliffe, Denise Fruchter, Erin Gruwell, and Malalai Joya for their contributions to the profession. Although not all of them acquired formal education degrees, Wolfe credits the various circumstances they were born into for schooling her subjects in the characteristics and qualifications necessary for them to become Terrific Women Teachers.
Designer Melissa Kaita once again selects visuals to complement the subjects, this time organized around a chalkboard motif. For example, the "Contents" page features a black background on which chapter headings and page numbers seem to be written in chalk because of the lighter and heavier lines of the font type. To continue the motif, all chapters begin with an image of a chalkboard (complete with a ledge on which a piece of chalk rests) to which appears taped a picture of that chapter's subject or subjects. Block letters display the women's names, along with descriptive captions beneath them, such as "A Fearless Heart" for Christa McAuliffe and "The Bravest Woman in Afghanistan" for Malalai Joya. Furthermore, black rectangles frame 23 sidebars that contain within them chalk-like white print that would win awards for penmanship were it actually handwritten. Page numbers, too, appear to have been manually produced since their lines vary in thickness. Kaita's motif resonates because, despite the advent of whiteboards and Smartboards, chalkboards still remain closely associated with teachers and classrooms.
According to the series' customary format, the biographical profiles are preceded by an introduction and followed by three sections of back matter entitled "Sources and Resources," "Acknowledgments," and "Photo Credits." Chapters vary in length from eight to 14 pages; generally, the more photographs a chapter contains, the greater the likelihood that it will exceed the mode average of 10 pages. As usual, "Sources and Resources" lists print and online reference materials for readers eager to learn more. Eschewing a glossary, Terrific Women Teachers, like approximately half of its sister titles, instead prefers to define terms and develop concepts--arranged marriage (p. 42), Nazi deportation (p. 52), and domestic violence (p. 93), for instance--within sidebars. Familiarity with "The Women's Hall of Fame Series" breeds not contempt, but admiration for its ability to consistently package diverse and detailed biographies into manageable portions.
The life stories contained in Terrific Women Teachers are inspiring, tragic, and hopeful by turns. Sometimes the women are studies in opposites, such as Onésime Dorval, a single, bilingual, Quebec-born Métis, Catholic missionary who took a motherly interest in her Prairie students, living to the age of 87, and Raden Ayu Kartini, an Indonesian woman who died in childbirth at 25 after an arranged marriage to a man twice her age, yet not before she established the "first primary school for Javanese girls" (p. 42). A comparison of Maria Montessori and Marva Collins yields a second example of individuals at opposites ends of a spectrum. The former, Italy's first female doctor and the founder of the schools that bear her surname, held a philosophy of teaching that incorporated an unconventional classroom set-up with tables and chairs replacing desks, as well as plenty of opportunities for students to interact and move about (pp. 31-32). In stark contrast is the approach of Collins, who favored a traditional classroom environment with rows of desks and cerebral pursuits for the Westside Preparatory School she opened in Chicago (pp. 66-67). Despite vast differences in their personalities and pedagogical preferences, however, all 11 women have found ways to impart knowledge and understanding to students with whom they have come in contact.
To a greater extent than other books in the series, Terrific Women Teachers tests boundaries. In other words, it seems a stretch to refer to Keller, Kartini, and Joya as teachers; they are perhaps more accurately called advocates for education. Wolfe makes no mention that Keller taught students, only that she "traveled and made speeches about the need for deaf-blind people to get a good education" (p. 26). Nor did Kartini train as a teacher, although she managed to formalize her ideas into a guide to assist her school's teachers in the instruction of "girls and women who had had little or no formal education before" (p. 42). Others who adopted her ideas developed more schools in her name (pp. 44-45). As for Malalai Joya, she and other like-minded people started a "secret school" along with health clinics in Taliban-dominated Afghanistan (p. 104-105), yet it was not long after that she embarked on her political career--still to advocate for women's rights to education and health care, of course. Perhaps because teaching has long been widely regarded as a socially acceptable profession for women to enter, Wolfe selects role models who are not comfortably contained by the conventional idea of "teacher."
The usual criticisms of the series apply to Terrific Women Teachers. Were it fiction, the sentence fragments (69 by my count), one- and two-sentence paragraphs, colloquial use of "kids," and little lapses in grammatical agreement (e.g., third sentence of excerpt above) would be more easily excused. However, nonfiction writing is ordinarily expected to display a higher level of formality.
In addition, there are three points in the book where more precision could have been introduced. For instance, the text in the initial chapter on Dorval asserts that "The Métis ancestors are a mix of two cultures: French and Aboriginal" (p. 6). Though true in Dorval's case, both the Métis National Council and The Canadian Encyclopedia websites define the Métis people as being of Aboriginal and European (not exclusively French) descent. A second example involves an inconsistency in the ordering of names. Whereas the "Contents" page lists the second chapter as "Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan Macy," the chapter's heading reverses their order (p. 13); the "Sources and Resources" section, however, reverts to the arrangement in the table of contents (p. 109). This fluctuation may be intentional, to give equal billing to two names so inextricably linked, but it is more likely a result of inattention to details. Finally, while one of the sidebars in the Sullivan Macy and Keller chapter mentions fingerspelling, it would have been informative for the book to acknowledge that the American Manual Alphabet used by Sullivan Macy and Keller (p. 18) is not the only method of fingerspelling (see http://www.rotarycheshirehomes.org/com_methods.htm). Minor quibbles, perhaps, but there they are.
Every book in "The Women's Hall of Fame Series" is a treat for readers--especially female readers--in the intended age group as well as for those who have left their tweens and teens behind them. Not only are the books pleasing to the eye, but they also have substance. Much of history has been, and still is, couched in terms of "his story"; Second Story Press corrects that androcentric imbalance with punchy, powerful "her stories."
Julie Chychota facilitates communication for hard of hearing students at the University of Ottawa, an activity which brings her into contact with many terrific teachers.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.