This is the second newspaper review of Chain Gang Elementary in as many days. What makes this one significant is that: A) It’s from my home state of Missouri; and B) It’s written by an education writer. So here it is (and if you want to buy the book, click here for options):
When fact and fiction tell the whole story…
By Jack L. Kennedy
(former president, Education Writers Association)
Try wrapping teaching, testing, tutoring, sex, attempted murder, egos, child abuse and discrimination into one book. At times, Chain Gang Elementary (Thornbriar Press) does read like an improbable, overdone soap opera. But it is not often that a born newspaperman turns out a fiction piece that becomes a searing commentary on education’s strengths and failings, while throwing in an extramarital affair and other inducements. Chain Gang is a well-crafted depiction of hero Richard’s attempt to keep the local school going and its parent organization alive while combatting bad teaching, obtuse administration, racism and other issues that might have been torn from the headlines today.
Author Jonathan Grant has his roots usually in non-fiction newspapering. He served as a school parent association president, and with his dad, wrote the acclaimed book The Way it Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia. Coincidence? Others have called Chain Gang autobiographical; Grant claims it is not.
The human condition often takes a beating in the book. Good teachers and administrators seem scarce as the book’s protagonist and father, Richard, agrees to become head of the Malliford Elementary parent organization. It is not officially a national parent/teacher association unit. The national group dropped it when a previous treasurer ran off with the treasury and other hanky-panky took place.
Richard’s efforts to tutor non-Caucasian students new to the school, start teacher in-service training or replace an art teacher sound like current themes chronicled in Education Week or some other pedagogical publication. Through all of the hassles and hurdles, however, some good teachers remain, like Mrs. Little, who cares for kids in and out of her class. Yes, skeptics, such souls do exist.
Mrs. Little, Richard and others fight for fairness, an end to intolerance and obscurity whether for the person who is the white son of the parent organization president or talented Antonio from “those apartments” just redistricted into Malliford Elementary. There is hope in the book for a rebirth of common sense and better communication in many ways—not bad goals for anyone any time.
The book flows well, with often sharp word choices, crisp scene-setting, rhythm and humor. Although at times a bit overdone for dramatic effect (after all, it is fiction), Chain Gang does repeatedly emphasize the importance of individual responsibility and caring and parents working with, not just against, educators. It criticizes education rendered through policy, prescription and one-size-fits-all mentality.
Revealing the ending or even specific plot twists would spoil the reader’s fun. Those who have written education columns for newspapers, survivors of parent/teacher organizations as well as many others will find that Grant has done an exceptional job of weaving educational fact and enticing fiction together. For that, he deserves an “A.”
For more information about the author go to his blog here.