Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Secret School - Avi

Title: The Secret School
Author: Avi
Publisher: Harcourt, 2010 (Hardcover) (Originally published in 2001)
Length: 153 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: January 8, 2011
Finished: January 8, 2011

From the inside cover:
More than anything, fourteen-year-old Ida Bidson wants to become a teacher. That's not going to be easy, especially for a girl living in the remote Colorado mountains in 1925. Still, Ida knows she can do it. She just needs to finish eighth grade so she can go on to high school.

But then her town's one-room school unexpectedly closes, and for the first time Ida's dream seems unattainable. Her only hope is to keep the school open without anyone finding out. Yet even a secret school needs a teacher. Ida can't be it...or can she?

In the spirit of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, two-time Newbery Honor recipient Avi once again has created a compelling story featuring a headstrong and memorable heroine who is determined to take control of her destiny.

The local newspaper here participates in a program called Breakfast Serials, where they take children's novels and publish one or two chapters a week in the newspaper. I've used the program as a teacher and it works great for junior and intermediate grades: the kids cut out the chapter of the week from the paper (which gets delivered to the school in class sets), you can do it as a read-aloud, they do the questions sent in the supplementary teacher materials, you discuss as a class, it makes for a wonderful addition to the Language program. I started reading the list of stories serialized in the past, and discovered that Avi, one of my favourite children's book authors, has quite a few of his stories in the program (I think it's because he started the program, but his stories are quite good either way), and The Secret School is one I hadn't read yet.

It's April 1925 in the rural Colorado mountain town of Elk Valley. Ida Bidson and her classmates are shocked to learn that their school must close early when their teacher abruptly leaves. What's worse, that means Ida and fellow eighth grader Tom Kohl, won't be able to take their exit exams and move on to high school in September. Knowing that her family's ability to send her to board in town to attend high school isn't guaranteed next year, she is determined to find a way to finish the eighth grade now rather than repeating it. So the kids all concoct a plan to keep attending school with Ida as the teacher, and they arrange to take their final exams. Of course the secret leaks out eventually, but by then the school officials are so impressed with the kids essentially educating themselves for two months that they agree to allow the kids to take their exams, except they have a condition that all the kids have to write exams, not just Ida and Tom. So Ida has to juggle being a teacher, her own schoolwork, chores on her family's farm, and her sanity, not to mention the pressure of wanting everyone to succeed.

This is a really cute little story about determination and working to achieve something you really want. Ida wants to become a teacher, and knows she has to go to high school to do so, which means she has to graduate from the eighth grade. Her friend Tom wants to work with machines and needs to go on to high school too. Even with all the pressures of juggling everything, Ida is still set on her goal, even though the head of the school board doesn't think girls should concern themselves with a high school education (it's 1925 keep in mind).

There's a lot of really nice details on schooling itself in the 20s: the readers, the subjects and the type of information kids were expected to learn back then, the one-room schoolhouse environment etc. Makes for a great discussion on how things have changed in education since then.

This is also a good story to show kids to value their education and not take it for granted. I recently read a story to a group of grade 2s about an elderly man learning to read. The kids asked why he didn't know how to read and I explained to them that it wasn't so long ago that not everyone got a chance to go to school, that even today their are people (kids and adults) that aren't able to go to school for various reasons, and that they were very lucky that they were able to go to school every day. So many kids don't realize that their futures depend on the schooling they get (in whatever capacity or length), and this book actually has kids of varying ages really taking their education seriously.

A great little piece of historical fiction with a focus on education in the rural 1920s.

Thoughts on the cover:
Much better than the old cover. This one really makes it obvious that it's historical fiction: the one room-schoolhouse, the kids in old the sepia tones makes it look aged too. I also like how there's exactly 8 kids sitting on the log outside the school in the picture, the exact number of kids that attend the school in the story.

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