Using Mentor Texts to Analyze How Kids See Schools and Teachers

33 Passages from Middle-Grade and Young Adult Books to Spark Discussions About Schools and Teachers

how kids see school

It might be an interesting experiment to pose some of these questions to your students this fall:

“How do you see your teachers?”

“What do you like or dislike about school?”

“What would you change about how school is setup?”

I bet we would get a ton of answers that would spark debate and some good-natured arguments. Another interesting take on these questions is to look at how school and teachers are represented in popular middle-grade and young adult texts. I originally started working on this post as a way to access narrative writing by looking at how authors portray kids’ thinking about schools and teachers. However, then I got to thinking about the bigger discussion we as teachers need to be having with our students. I am going to use this in my classroom as a way for students to talk about their feelings toward school and teachers, and then connect how they feel to what they want in their own experiences in education moving forward.  I want to keep in mind that these middle-grade and young adult texts are written by adults for young people, but some of their descriptions about school and teachers are surprisingly accurate. It would be interesting to cut up and put some of these passages in front of students to hear what they have to say.

I have broken these passages up into three different areas: the physical attributes of teachers, the character of teachers, and the descriptions of the physical space of school or a classroom. While many of these passages could exist as character or setting snapshots, I thought it was also interesting how many passage came up with the content matter of the teacher’s character. Often scenarios would cause the teacher to act out a response in the scene, and then the reader learns something about the teacher or the how the student views school overall. Mentor texts are access points into how stories or told and how people feel. I can’t wait to use these mentor text passages as a way to connect with my students’ observations, interpretations, and experiences when it comes to their time spent in classrooms.

PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES OF TEACHERS

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee

“Mr. Levy has been teaching science at Emerson Junior High for centuries, and he looks like a mad scientist. For real. He has wild, frizzy gray hair and even wears a lab coat every day” (1).

Blended by Sharon Draper

“Mr. Kazilly, who teaches us both English and history, is a certified crazy man, at least in our opinion. He wears UGGs every day-even in the summer. I bet his feet totally stink at the end of the day!

His clothes are, well, let me describe them. He wears stuff like maroon capes and turquoise slacks, or stiff-collared button-down shirts with pinstripes. He’s got huge muscles, and he boasts about how he works out at the gym after school. He’s one of those people who might be noticed by a fashion magazine, maybe under the category of “Distinctive Teacher Style” or in an athletic magazine under the heading “Teachers with Six-Packs.” he likes colors-he calls them “hues”-so he might wear lavender and chartreuse together, partly for fashion, but I swear he dresses funky so we can have new vocabulary words” (30-31).

Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

“Ms. Galiano

Is not what I expected. 

Everyone talks about her

Like she’s super strict

And always assigning

The toughest homework.

So I expected someone older, 

A buttoned-up, floppy-haired, 

Suit-wearing teacher, 

With glasses sliding down her nose. 

Ms. Galiano is young, has on bright colors, 

And wears her hair naturally curly. 

She’s also little-like, for real petite-

But carries herself big, know what I mean?

Like she’s used to shouldering her way 

Through any assumptions made about her” (37).

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

“She’s short, not much bigger than me. Her hair is curly black, her lips bright red, and she wears high heels. They click-clack as she comes into the room, smiling, looking like a Barbie doll. At my old school, Mrs. Baker wore tennis shoes, sat, always complaining about how her feet hurt “teaching, running after you kids.” I never saw her run once. 

Miss Garcia claps her hands-one, two, three-amazing, kids quiet and sit in their seats, hands folded on their desk. No way...Miss Garcia seems a bubbly type, but not so bubbly today. She also seems like a bubbly type who didn’t quit teaching. At my old school, teachers were either really old with wrinkles and graying hair or else young with ponytails and, sometimes, pimples. Miss Garcia’s skin is clear; her hair, loose. On her finger is a diamond ring” (10-12).

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

“My math teacher, Mr. Benjamin, reminds me of Albert Einstein, like, a Hollywood character of a math teacher. He hands me an assessment and rattles something about it being standard. “First, answer the questions you know, and then go back and answer the rest as best you can. The grade won’t count against you.”

An assessment on the very first day? He can’t be serious. I mean, I’ve taken assessments before, but never on the first day. What kind of teacher puts a new student through a traumatic experience like this? Mr. Benjamin, that’s who. It must be a mistake. Any teacher with hair as while as his has to be kind of screwy. “Mr. Benjamin? Am I supposed to be taking this now?” (57).

No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen

“Dylan and I found seats in the middle of the classroom. It felt like a safe place to start. I counted twenty-eight kids, and even split of boys and girls. There was none of the normal first-day chatter, most of us had come from different schools for the program, so we were all new, which was, frankly, a relief. 

A man walked into the room. He looked like he was maybe twenty-five, and he had big, thick arms and a broad chest. He sported a black beard and a carefully manicured handlebar mustache. And he had tattoos. Lots and lots of tattoos. “Bonjour, je m’appelle Monsieur Thibault. Hello, I’m Mister Thibault” (50).

CHARACTER OF TEACHERS (HOW THEY MAKE STUDENTS FEEL)

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

“It was only September, so no one knew if this experience would work. But our teacher, Ms. Laverne, was tall and soft-spoken and patient. We loved her immediately” (6).

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

“We walked down the hall behind Ms. Laverne, her heels softly clicking. I thought about how maybe one day I’d grow up to wear black shoes with small heels that clicked as I walked down the hall. And have students following behind who were a little bit in love with me” (14).

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee

“Mr. Levy comes over and sets some new slides next to our microscope. He doesn’t even ask Bernard if he’s okay” (4).

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee

“Having English after PE is awful because Ms. Jacobs is tough and hates tardies. So I have to change real quick back into my regular clothes, and I don’t even have a second to check a mirror to make sure I’m not looking a mess before flying to room 218. I’ve only been late once, and Ms. Jacobs gave me a big frown and said not to let it happen again. You bet I haven’t” (20).

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee

“When I was in first grade, our teacher would have us play the Silent Game. We had to see how long we could go without saying a word. Now that I’m older, I know she was just trying to have a few moments of peace” (210).

A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramee

“Mr. Powell tells me to wait after class, and I’m nervous all over again that he’s going to tell me this is what he warned me about and I better stop messing up. 

“Shayla, I just wanted to let you know I’m proud of you. It takes courage to stand up for what’s right”

He smiles at me, but this is smile slips. “You know there are times when people want me to feel bad about who I am,” he says, and sighs. “But I am who I am. I’m not about to apologize for it. I wear bright scarves even though I know some people make fun of them.”

I wish I could argue with him, but it’s true. Some people do make rude comments. 

Mr. Powell’s smile returns, and he straightens up tall. “But hey, I like them. It’s a small thing, but I hope some students may realize it’s okay to be different” (329).

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden

“Let’s get crackin’!” Ms. Rochambeau calls out. “I want to see nothing on your desk except your debate packet. I’ll be coming around to check.”

Around me everyone moves in a flurry, clearing off their desks to leave only their beautiful, filled-out, remembered packets...Ms. Rochambeau raises her eyebrows when she gets to me. Not in a “how clever to ball up like a bag of chips” way, but in that “you have disappointed me with your being” way that teachers are so good at. She shakes her head as she writes my zero in her gradebook. “Sometime, Zoey, I hope you surprise me” (37-38). 

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

“Miss Garcia is beautiful. Not like a model beautiful, but her hair is shiny, her skin is bright, and from inside her you can feel she wants to help. Like she believes teaching is helping, not babysitting. Like who I am matters. I’m only used to Ma believing in me like that” (36-37).

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

“Nada? Everybody knows the police are like teachers. They don’t call your family about misunderstandings or to say what a great job you’re doing” (20).

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

“I’m so thankful not to have Mr. Dixon’s third-hour math class. He’s not much for fun and holidays, which he says “impede student concentration and force him into the role of a babysitter.” I feel bad for his students” (215).

One the Come Up by Angie Thomas

“I end up in Principal Rhodes’s office. 

My arms are tied behind me. [Officer] Long dragged me in here and made me sit down a few minutes ago. He’s in Dr. Rhodes’s office now. She told her secretary, Ms. Clark, to call my mom and keep an eye on me, like I’m the one who needs to be watched. 

Ms. Clark looks through my files on her computer for Jay’s work number. Surprised she doesn’t know it by heart by now. 

I stare straight ahead. The office has inspirational posters on every wall. One is a complete lie: “You cant control what other people do. You can only control the way you react.”

No, you can’t. Now when your arm is jerked behind you, or you’re lying on the floor with a knee in your back” (61). 

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

“When class is over, Mrs. Hill stops me. “Now, I know it’s your first day. And you may be a bit nervous, but I’d like to find your key. Do you sing much?”

“A little...in my room.” For some reason, I share this secret with her. 

“That’s the best place, isn’t it? Come over here, this’ll only take a few minutes.” Mrs. Hill goes to the piano and sits. “Stand right there, perfect.” She presses one key at a time and hums. Then she has me repeated after her. Every time I do, she says, “That’s good, real good.” About ten keys later she closes the piano and declares, “You’re an alto. I want you to learn the words, sing what you remember, but don’t worry about the musical notes unless you read music.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Then I add, “I can’t read music.”

“That’s fine.” Mrs. Hill escorts me to the door. “And Genesis,” she says, taking my hand, “when you practice, I don’t want you to just sing it. I want you to embrace it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I feel a smile creeping on my face, the first one all day” (68-69). 

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

“I can’t think of anything worse than having to describe myself. I’d rather write about something more positive. Like throwing up at your own birthday party. 

“It’s important,” she says. “It’s so your new teacher can get to know you.”

I know that, and it’s exactly why I don’t want to do it. Teachers are like the machines that take quarters for bouncy balls. You know what you’re going to get. Yet, you don’t know, too” (2).

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

“The first day with Mr. Daniels starts out okay because we have math in the morning and Mr. Daniels does this thing he calls the bus driver. He says, “You’re the bus driver.” And then he tells us how many people get on and off and we have to add and subtract the numbers in our head. No paper. No pencils. Just math” (39). 

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

“He takes a breath. “Here’s the thing, Ally. I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve talked with both Mrs. Hall and Mrs. Silver. I know that you have spent a lot of time in the office in the past. You’re good at getting sent to the office, but you know, you can be too good at the wrong things.”

Uh-oh.

“I just want you to know that I’m going to try really hard not to send you to the office. If we have something to deal with, you and I will deal with it together” (41-42).

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

“When I say that Ms. Blinny knows a lot about me, I mean she knows because I tell her. She says I talk a blue streak. She thinks I have a story...More like the whole about about me. My story. She talks about that like it’s something I’m sitting on” (12).

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

“The SWOOF [Social Work Office] is busy. Lots of kids stop in here. Some have appointments. But others just want to come. That’s because Ms. Blinny. She has a way. She cares about everyone” (54).

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

“Mr. Anderson passes out a packet of papers

That explain what we will be studying this year. 

He goes over the rules of his class, 

His expectations, 

How much homework he will assign. 

The whole class groans at the mention of

Homework. 

It is a communal moment I do not participate in

Because once I’ve figured out what

Mr. Anderson means by “homework,”

He’s already talking about something else. 

Now that I’ve gotten that

Housekeeping out of the way, 

Let’s do some practice problems 

And see what you guys already know. 

As he grabs a piece of chalk

And writes problems on the board, 

I think about the word

Housekeeping:

The upkeep of the home, 

The management of household affairs. 

Does Mr. Anderson mean that

Our classroom is like a house?

His house?

Our house?” (106-107). 

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

“Mrs. Ravenwood is younger 

Than any teacher I have ever had. 

She wears a skirt with red polka dots on it

And has a smile like a cup of milky warm tea;

It welcomes and comforts you all at the same time” (109). 

Songs for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

“I’ve come to the conclusion that sending me to the office was Ms. Conn’s only joy in life. That made me responsible for her happiness, in a way, but I tried to slip into class without her noticing. I was only a minute late this time, and I had a really good reason. She pointed toward the front office before I could drop into my chair” (5). 

DESCRIBING PHYSICAL SPACE

The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden

“Elementary school goes through sixth grade here, so this is our first year in middle school, and even though we’re already halfway through the school year, I still haven’t figured out the point of homeroom. Yeah, Mr. Bontaff takes attendance, but they take attendance during classes, too. And there’s the morning announcements over the loud speaker about all the activities the good kids do like drama and jazz band, but that still leaves eight and a half minutes of awkwardness. There aren’t assigned seats, so I usually just try to find a seat in the back where no one will bother me” (34). 

Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

“My high school is one of those old-school structures

From the Great Depression days, or something. 

Kids come from all five boroughs, and most of us bus or train, 

Although since it’s my zone school, I can walk to it on a nice day. 

Chisholm H.S. sits wide and squat, taking up half of a block, 

Redbrick and fenced-in courtyard with ball hoops and benches. 

It’s not like Twin’s fancy genius school: glass, and futuristic. 

This is the typical hood school, and not too long ago

It was considered one of the worst in the city:

Gang fights in the morning and drug deals in the classroom. 

It’s not like that anymore, but one thing I know for sure

Is that reputations last longer than the time it takes to make them. 

So I walk through metal detectors, and turn my pockets out, 

And greet security guards by name, and am one of hundreds

Who every day are sifted like flour through the doors. 

And I keep my head down, and I cause no waves” (35).

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

“The walls of Dale Elementary School were pink and green. On the pink-and-green walls there hung a big Welcome Back banner, and all around me, kids were scurrying off the bus and into the classrooms. Principal Evans said I was to go to room 12. As I pushed open the pale green door to my new classroom, a roomful of kids turned to look at me. 

A tall woman with red hair and big earrings spun around and waved. 

“You must be Mia!” the teacher said. 

I nodded. 

“Welcome! I’m Mrs. Douglas,” she said. “Please take a seat!”

I looked around the room. The seats in the back were already taken, and I didn’t want to sit in the front. The other kids peered curiously at me. They were mostly white, but there were also a few black kids and Hispanic kids. No Asians. 

I took a seat in the middle of the room, next to an empty desk and a poster on the wall that said Wanted: Children Who Love Reading” (38).

Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

“The classroom is bright and fancy. Streamers decorate the walls, and pictures of books are thumbtacked on bulletin boards. There’s even a bookcase with new books and two red beanbag chairs. A huge calendar with a picture of blue-green water hangs on the wall. An ocean? Brooklyn doesn’t do oceans, just sidewalks, buildings, and boring rivers” (8).

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

“Seaward Pines Academy, established MCMLVII, has always reminded me of a cemetery, even though it’s a fancy private school. It was the first thing I noticed about the place when I started here last year in the fifth grade. Seaward has a big stone entrance and all those perfectly planted begonias like the ones at Our Lady Queen of Peace on Southern Boulevard. And there’s always that big vase with fresh flowers in the front office, too, with a smell that gives me the creeps. It’s just like the scent of Dona Rosa’s funeral, where it was wall-to-wall with stinky carnation wreaths all over the place” (25).

Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

“The hall’s crazy with kids. I’ve never seen so many white faces all in one place in my entire life. I search the crowd. It seems like forty kids shuffle pass before I finally find some kids who look like me. I smile. They look at me weird. 

So much for solidarity. 

I force myself into the current. Under a TOGETHER WE STOMP OUT BULLYING sign, an old man stands waving, warning us to stop running, slow down, and have a good day. No one pays him any attention” (52).

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo

“Ms. Fuentes has been my advisor since my first day at Schomburg Charter, and her classroom has never changed. Lady still has the same motivational sign above her door: You’re the Author of Your Own Life Story. That sign was stared at us twenty advisory students from the time we walked in as little-bitty freshman. And even though it doesn’t make me roll my eyes anymore, I still think it’s corny” (17-18). 

Writing Mindset Reflection: How do you discuss perceptions of school and teachers with students? How would you use these passages in your classroom?