Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Up the Down Staircase

On my local library's giveaway shelf, I found a used hardcover of this book:

Bel Kaufman's Up the Down Staircase.  I have a paperback, but I'm glad to be able to replace it with a sturdier hardback.

First, I must mention one of the delights of used books. It contains this inscription on the flyleaf: "To Mrs. Deutsch from the Class of '67 as a remembrance of UM." I'll just let your imagination decide who Mrs. Deutsch was and what her relationship with the Class of '67 was like.

Up the Down Staircase came out in the mid-'60s, but it's incredibly relatable today. With just a few tweaks of the technology and a couple of the topical allusions, the story could be set today. It features Sylvia Barrett, an idealistic English major fresh out of grad school, in her first year teaching in the New York public school system. She writes, "Many of our kids--though physically mature--can't read beyond 4th or 5th grade level. ... They've been exposed to some ten years of schooling, yet they don't know what a sentence is. The books we are required to teach frequently have nothing to do with anything except the fact that they have always been taught, or that there is an oversupply of them, or that some committee or other was asked to come up with titles."

The teachers face a mountain of meaningless paperwork tied up with endless red tape. There is never any money in the budget to fix broken windows or order new books or even provide a desk and chair for every student. There is the administrator who values the letter of the law above all else. There are the students who can't sit still, who don't show up to class. There are the students whose problems are more than a single teacher can handle: not enough to eat; unplanned pregnancy; attempted suicide; family troubles. There are the kids who simply drop out of sight. Learning, when it happens, happens against all odds. It's rather amazing how little the problems of education have changed in the past fifty years. The only thing missing from the book that would be present in today's school experience is the addiction to standardized tests.

Yet the book is humorous throughout. The humor comes from the built-in absurdity found in many institutional settings where there's never enough time or money, and there's one set of rules for a diverse, one-size-does-not-fit-all population. The book is also written in an engaging format: letters, notes, doodles, scraps, notebooks, and so it is technically a multiple-narrator book.

Have you read it?

source of recommended read: one copy bought, one copy from library giveaway


  1. Jennifer, thanks reminding me about this book. When I was teaching, I used to re-read it every year to gear myself up. Very inspiring and not as dated as you'd think.

    1. LOL, they probably should make students at teachers' colleges read this, the way they used to make law students read Scott Turow's ONE-L!

  2. I haven't read it, but remember hearing vague things about it years ago. I'm putting it on my list.