Discovering Andrew Clements

A teacher educator finds a cache of social action novels for young people

By Katy Swalwell

Climbing over toys, rearranging bags, and adjusting the crumb-filled minivan seats seemed only the beginning of the chaos I expected on a family road trip until my aunt slipped in a book on tape and a calm voice began to read the pages of a children’s novel, lulling my young cousins into thoughtful silence. I hardly expected to find professional inspiration on the way to Des Moines that Spring day crammed between Legos and fast food wrappers, but there it was — a resource that could help bring teaching for social action and democratic classrooms alive to students and teachers.

The book was Room One: A Mystery or Two by Andrew Clements. It is a story about Ted, a mystery-loving young boy who discovers a family living in an abandoned farmhouse outside of a struggling Nebraska town. As he learns more about their plight, Ted admits that it “wasn’t like figuring out a mystery novel. It was like figuring out… life. Real life. And Ted was smart enough to see that there had to be a real-life solution. Something that would help these people. Permanently.”

With compassionate resourcefulness and the help of his teacher and mother, Ted gets food and supplies to the family. The entire community comes together because of Ted’s efforts and unexpectedly saves the town.

At least that is the story that my cousins heard. As a teacher educator, I heard something different. I heard a story that richly portrayed the social context of this 6th grader’s life including rural decline, the war in Iraq, school funding, civic duty, and homelessness. I heard the perspective of a teacher who nurtured her student’s interest in local issues and helped him get other students, the community, and the media involved. I heard a story about a student who had an idea that “grabbed hold of his imagination — first his mind, and then his heart” and changed his community for the better. I heard a story about teaching for social action.

I could hardly believe it. My aunt had randomly chosen this book from an upper-middle-class public library in the suburbs of Chicago — not exactly a burning hotbed of radical educators. Who was this Andrew Clements? After doing a bit of research, I was embarrassed to never have heard of an award-winning author with over 60 books translated into several languages. Though he makes no claims to be espousing critical pedagogic values, Clements was an educator for years before publishing his work. Curious, I visited my local library and checked out his other novels, all published by Simon & Schuster: Frindle (1996), The Landry News (1999), The Janitor’s Boy (2000), The Jacket (2002), A Week in the Woods (2002), The Report Card (2004), The Last Holiday Concert (2004), and Lunch Money (2005).

The books follow a formula that could be a powerful pedagogical tool for teachers learning how to facilitate democratic, socially active classrooms: an upper-elementary-level, spunky kid is critical of the educational status quo, gets an idea, enlists the help of others, attracts media attention, and makes a change in the “real world.” In Frindle, the kid is Nick, a class clown who questions where words come from, invents a new word for “pen” and gets the others to join him in a demonstration of collective power. By the end, his community and the English language are impacted by Nick’s creativity and action.

In The Landry News, Cara, a quiet observer who has a passion for journalism, publishes a scathing article about her lazy teacher, Mr. Larson. Instead of getting angry, Larson is inspired to return to his constructivist roots and facilitates a thriving class newspaper whose staff organizes to save him from getting fired.

In The Report Card, hidden genius Nora concocts a plan to sabotage the testing process at her school. With the help of her best friend and the school librarian, she organizes a revolt that shakes the faculty into action and forces them to take a critical look at how they use test scores to label kids.

Finally, in The Last Holiday Concert, Mr. Meinart, a chorus teacher soon to be let go because of budget cuts, relinquishes control of the class after Hart, a charismatic 6th grader, hits him with a rubber band. Though they flounder at first, the class soon elects Hart to be their leader, and a story of a student-centered, productively chaotic classroom emerges.

In all of the books, current educational issues are frankly and insightfully integrated into the story from both a student’s and teacher’s perspective: curriculum and pedagogy debates, the effects of labeling and sorting, school bureaucracy, building maintenance, high stakes testing, social promotion, school funding, budget cuts in the arts, teacher burnout, tenure, private versus public schools, critical media literacy, segregation, free speech, and corporate marketing in the schools. Any of these ideas could generate great conversation about educational “hot topics” if read by teacher educators or current classroom teachers.

Most importantly, the books showcase students identifying problems in their lives, creatively brainstorming solutions, and collaborating with others to make a positive change with a student-centered, democratic classroom environment. These are tangible stories that illustrate the power and possibility of student social action and the teacher’s role in such movements.

One of the most common complaints among my preservice student teachers is that teaching for social action and democratic classrooms “sound good,” yet few of their mentor teachers practice such pedagogy themselves. Though fictional, these books provide specific and convincing examples of how common situations can be facilitated to become extraordinary experiences by teachers who value student-centered, democratic schooling as a tool for facilitating social action.

While they contain the potential to be powerful resources and inspiration, these books must be analyzed with a critical lens. Only three of the books, for instance, explicitly touch upon issues of class.

In The Janitor’s Boy, the janitor’s son, Jack, is assigned clean-up duty after getting caught vandalizing school property. As a result, he discovers not only how essential janitors are to the success of a school, but how important his dad is in the lives of many troubled community members. No media attention is attracted and no other students get involved, but Jack’s relationship with his father undergoes substantive change. The tone is not pedantic, yet the message is clear: the school’s service workers are important people worthy of respect — at least from their own children (perhaps the principal and other students will learn this important lesson in a sequel).

Economic status is also the focus of Lunch Money, whose main character is a “wheeler-dealer” on the fast track to becoming a millionaire. Greg begins creating and selling comic books until he is undercut by Maura, a competitive classmate who becomes his business partner and co-founder of a school store. Throughout most of its pages, Lunch Money reads like a whole-hearted endorsement of capitalism embedded within a math lesson. It is not until the end of the book that their teacher begins to question commercialism in schools and Greg starts to see philanthropy as an integral part of his entrepreneurial spirit. The “radical” action taken by the school is to curb corporate commercialism in favor of homegrown, student-crafted products. Capitalism itself is never questioned. The story’s end moral is clear, though its means are debatable: an important role of school is to prepare students to be savvy, responsible consumers and producers in a market economy.

Lastly, A Week in the Woods tells the story of Mark, a wealthy boy finishing 5th grade at a public school after being shipped to his busy parents’ “New Hampshire place,” and of Mr. Maxwell, his environmentally conscious and snob-averse new science teacher. A misunderstanding and accident bring the two together and, by the end of the tale, both realize that their initial judgments of each other were wrong. Mark’s condescension toward public schools and Mr. Maxwell’s assumption that he was a spoiled slacker are reconciled as both support Mark’s decision to continue attending the local school as part of the gifted program.

In each of these books, the issue of class differences, attitudes towards public and private schools, and beliefs about who is “gifted” are not unpacked or challenged in any deep way. Even so, they remain starting points for further conversation among readers about these important topics.

While most of Clements’ characters reside firmly and uncritically in the middle class, all of them are presumably white (a notion reinforced by cover illustrations). For my mostly white, middle-class university students, this may make the books comfortable and familiar, but it may also serve to reinforce uncritical notions of race and class. One important exception is The Jacket. This book is an admitted deviance from Clements’ normal work. The back jacket explains that he “wanted to write a story about that moment when unconscious prejudices rise to the surface, a story that would both explore differences and emphasize our common humanity.”

In the book, Phil, a white boy, accuses Daniel, a black student, of stealing a jacket from his younger brother. After discovering that his mother gave the jacket to her housekeeper, Daniel’s grandmother, Phil engages in uncomfortable questioning about the role that race plays in his life. A critical consciousness begins to emerge within Phil despite silencing from his mother and racist indoctrination by his father. Though it is unfortunate that these issues are relegated to a distinct story and told only from Phil’s perspective, Clements’ work powerfully raises tough questions without giving any trite answers. More than any of his other work, The Jacket pays attention to difficult issues, offering an exceptional opportunity to broach topics that are often silenced — especially among white, middle-class students and teachers.

If read critically with issues such as class and race in mind, Andrew Clements’ novels are well-written, funny, heartfelt, hopeful, and believable reads that leave a lasting impression. They can be a great resource for initiating conversations among in- and preservice teachers about educational issues, providing examples of student-centered democratic classrooms and sparking social action projects of our own with students.

As Ted from Room One reminds us: “The hard part wasn’t the doing after all. The hard part had been figuring out what the doing ought to be.” The actual “doing” of teaching for social action can certainly be hard, but introducing the idea using Andrew Clements’ books may make that process a little bit easier.

Katy Swalwell is a graduate student in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former high school social studies teacher in St.Charles, Minn.

Katy Swalwell is a graduate student in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former high school social studies teacher in St. Charles, Minn.