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Up the Down Staircase Paperback – Bargain Price, July 3, 1991
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About the Author
Bel Kaufman grew up in Russia, learned English at age twelve, and went on to a distinguished literary, academic, and teaching career. She has won many awards for her writing and public speaking, addressing educators and students here and abroad. She is the granddaughter of the celebrated Yiddish humorist Sholom Aleichem.
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The book is told through notes and directives and letters and memos between teachers and teachers, students and teachers, administration and teachers, and occasionally teachers and parents. Miss Barrett, fresh out of college, is hired to teach English to a variety of low performing students, and teaches a full schedule in addition to managing a homeroom period. She is totally overwhelmed by the crushing burden of administrative responsibilities, including attendance sheets, hall passes, performance profiles and a cacophony of bells that signal different things at different times. Many of her inner city students are at risk of dropping out, have haphazard home lives, and little parental support, yet she soon learns that most are just crying out for someone to notice them, to care about them. She writes that we "have keys but no locks, blackboards but no chalk, students but no seats, teachers but no time to teach". She balks at the drudgery and the waste and often feels frustrated and defeated. She has such a crushing workload of essays and papers to grade from her 204 students, that she has no personal life at all.
In spite of the overwhelming obstacles she does teach some Shakespeare and poetry and essay writing, and she wins over a few of her students, some of whom idolize her. Many remain distant and critical of her, however she maintains her idealism and hope that she can reach even more. All she wants to do is make a difference in Room 304.
Although the unconventional structure of the book (told entirely through notes and letters) conveys to a certain extent the chaotic, dysfunctional nature of the school and many of the students and staff, at some point in the book I just wished for some real dialogue and articulate, flowing prose. The notes and memos became a bit tiresome and left too many plot questions unresolved. It was still a very entertaining and enlightening novel, though no doubt some of the same battles are still being fought in the public schools to this day.