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).