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Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Up the Down Staircase

Up the Down Staircase is a novel about a teacher stuck in what I'm convinced must be the ninth level of hell: teaching English to the "slow readers" in high school of the under-privileged in New York City. Written in the 60s, the novel describes an attempt to teach indifferent students from varying backgrounds and affectations that range from the would-be career politician to the cool dropout wanna be.

The novel is written in the form of intra-school memos, handed in notes (through a suggestion box), various forms and bureaucratic memos and circulars, and letters (written frantically) to friends for emotional and moral support. (It would be fun to think of a modern version of this book, with e-mail replacing memos, twitter messages replacing the suggestion box, and of course, Facebook likes instead of messages passed between students)

What does come through is the strength of the bureaucracy in preventing positive change, the dire lack of materials and facilities facing underfunded school systems, and of course, the crazy idea that one adult in a classroom of 40+ teenagers with raging hormones might be able to control the class long enough to teach. (Caveat: I've never been an American high school. I went to school in a much more regimented, polite, and well-behaved Asian school, where the most defiant posture struck by a student would be one of refusing to hand in homework --- Kaufman might actually have been able to teach under those conditions, but would have a field day with the public canings!)

In any case, the novel's a fun read, complete with the misspellings and grammatical errors provided by the students, and it's short and quick, so not a waste of time.

I picked this book up through the Kindle Unlimited program, and discovered that the black and white Kindle is not the ideal way to read the book: the blackboard facsimile pages are pretty much undecipherable, so pick up the paper copy if you can.


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