Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book Review: 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny

As a writer who often has to tap on the keys for hours and pages before I can find the most important thread of an essay, I have great admiration for authors like Phillip Done who can present a smart, witty and fulfilling treatment of a topic in just a few paragraphs and at the same time weave all the little pieces into a coherent broader narrative with a natural arc.

In his tight, fast-reading book, 32 Third Graders and One Class Bunny: Life Lessons from Teaching, Done shares the insights of 20 years of teaching experience using the vehicle of a walk through one particular school year. Each chapter is focused on one issue that comes up for teachers – like the reluctance to give your child the same name of someone you’ve had as a student, the importance of a day out of the classroom for mental health, and the never-ending search for (inexpensive) toys and materials for the classroom.

But this book is by no means just for teachers. It’s for anyone who has been a kid, had a kid or given any thought to how we develop from kids into something else. The stories address such universal issues as how different people inhabit (decorate, clutter, organize) their physical space and how the effort to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is really the best way to relate to a person (and to teach them).

As a mom of just one toddler but an aunt of 11 older children, I found myself reflecting on my own childhood, gaining insight into the lives of my nieces and nephews and fast-forwarding five years (is it only five or six years?!) to get a glimpse of life with a third-grader. The book reminded me of rituals I’d forgotten and of joys and frustrations I hadn’t considered in years.

As a former high school teacher, I greatly appreciated Done sharing his weaknesses and challenges with humility and humor. After seeing Done’s awards on the cover, I was a little worried that his book was going to make me feel inadequate about the six years I taught in public school, as though I could never have achieved the author’s greatness and it’s a good thing I “retired” when my son was born.

But insecure teachers (and parents), have no fear! Done is all about sharing the slip-ups and awkward moments in a way that teaches us something or makes us laugh – usually both. There’s no doubt that he’s a great teacher, but it’s refreshing to have such a light-hearted look into some of the things that make the job really challenging to return to year after year, especially when the reader is a parent who has no choice but to address challenges day after day.

Pick up the book for the favorite teacher on your list (makes a great New Years gift!), for your friend who could use a bunch of laughs broken up into bite-sized pieces or for yourself to sympathize with your children and the people who care for them in their classrooms.

The book’s 288 pages are small in size, and they go fast. There are five sections, each with between 15 and 18 short essays. My brother-in-law read several of them out loud while we were preparing Thanksgiving dinner, prompting much laughter and discussion among the group that included his elementary-school-teacher wife and their two middle-schooler kids. Everyone could relate on some level, and sharing the different perspectives was as fun as any board game. I've ordered copies for other people in my life. This hardcover book retails for around $15 on and yes, it qualifies for Free Super Saver shipping. So order a copy to read and share today!

This review is cross-posted on my other blog, Mama's Mouth.

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