41 pages 1 hour read

Tracy Kidder

Among School Children

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1989

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Summary and Study Guide


Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder describes one academic year in a 5th grade class at Kelly School in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Chris Zajac, the class teacher, is the focus of the story, and the author describes her actions and approach to teaching throughout the year. The author, a literary journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, uses a narrative style that makes a work of non-fiction feel like a fiction novel. He intersperses historical information and data about being a teacher in the United States and the culture of the time. With this additional information, he places what happens in this specific classroom in the larger context of American education and culture.

The author wrote the book by following Mrs. Zajac for one year and catalogues daily lessons, working with the principals, parents, and discipline. The book does not go into depth into how to become a teacher or how to discipline students, but it describes as comprehensively as possible the very real situations teachers face. It describes how Mrs. Zajac sets boundaries with her own life, understands what she can realistically accomplish in one school year, and how she troubleshoots for everything from math lessons to field trips. Everything is described from Mrs. Zajac’s perspective, but the additional history and information about being a teacher in the United States helps place her perspective in the broader context and helps the reader understand the role of the parents, principals, and of course, students.

Even though Mrs. Zajac is the primary character in the book, the students take on such a central role that it often seems as though they are the primary characters. Specific students, those who are particularly gifted and those who cause the most problems, feature heavily throughout the book. They shape how Mrs. Zajac approaches lessons and discipline, and they take up most of her thoughts and planning time. Mrs. Zajac clearly feels that all students can do well in school and behave appropriately, even if they have not shown any inclination to do so before. Her unfailing optimism helps her avoid being prejudiced against any students.

One student that features prominently includes Clarence, a student who often causes disruptions in class, lashing out violently at other students when Mrs. Zajac punishes him. Against Mrs. Zajac’s better judgement, the school administration sends Clarence to an Alpha classroom, which is a specialty classroom for students who have trouble in a mainstream classroom. While Mrs. Zajac wants Clarence to excel, she knows that students entering these kinds of classrooms rarely make it back to the mainstream classes, and the administrators may be sending Clarence on a downward trajectory. Still, after Clarence is gone, Mrs. Zajac notes that she has more time to focus on her other students.

At the end of the quarter, Mrs. Zajac is particularly sad to part with one Puerto Rican student, Judith, whose intelligence and maturity defy the community’s racist stereotypes. Mrs. Zajac is aware of the socioeconomic differences among her students and attempts to grade them based on effort rather than outcome. This attempt is most evident when she points out that, at the Science Fair, children from wealthier backgrounds tend to have better projects, while Robert, whose mother is not involved in his schoolwork, puts forth great effort with little to show for it. Conversely, children from a lower socioeconomic background with involved parents find more success.

The realism in the book, with both successes and failures, real moments of joy and anger, and a realistic outlook on the challenges many of Mrs. Zajac’s students face, give this book its lively and novel-like feel. The book addresses many themes related to teaching, including race and nationality, social class, methods of learning, parenting, and perspective. The book is written sequentially, starting with the first days of class and ending with the last day of class.