The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School, by Ed Boland (Feb. 2016, Grand Central Publishing), $26, ISBN: 978-1455560615
Recommended for ages 16+
I normally review books for children here at MomReadIt, but I felt like this was an important book to review here for parents, educators, and anyone else trying to wrap their heads around education these days. Education is a hot-button topic everywhere – it’s always been, because it concerns our kids, and our future, but it’s never hotter than it is during an election year, and that’s exactly where we’re heading.
We know the education system needs help. We know that underserved communities in our country are falling through the system’s cracks. The Battle for Room 314 tells the story of one man who tried to make a difference in both arenas. Ed Boland left a high-profile career at a non-profit to teach in a New York City public high school. He was ready to make a difference in the lives of young people, having seen the fantastic results of his non-profile organization, which sends exemplary children from low-income neighborhoods to the best schools, giving them an advantage in life they wouldn’t otherwise have. He’s ready to cut out the middleman and help these kids himself.
What a rude awakening. What Mr. Boland learns in his year of teaching is that politics enters the classroom at all levels. That the problems aren’t only in the classroom, they’re in the homes that these children come from. That teachers are burned out, overworked, and when they try to propose changes that will benefit the students and make things easier on themselves, they get stymied by their own union. He can’t make these kids turn on to learning, not when the issues they’re facing in their individual lives seem almost insurmountable. He met young girls who were prostituting themselves at middle grade age; children homeschooled on the subway by their homeless parents; kids who were running drug rings for their incarcerated family members. Their realities are so far away from anything Boland could comprehend – and myself, reading this book – that it seems like the ultimate Sisyphean task.
This isn’t going to be a fairy tale ending: the title alone is your heads-up to that. It’s not meant to be. It’s an indictment of so-called education reform and a plea for the powers that be to understand that changes need to be made at ALL levels, by multiple organizations. More standardized testing isn’t going to make these children succeed. Common Core isn’t going to help these kids.
I loved this book. Boland has a sense of humor and a sincerity in his belief that makes it hard to read this book at times. I hurt for him, and I hurt for the kids in the classroom just as much as I wanted to scream at them for Boland. I’m a public librarian in an area that serves a lot of underprivileged kids, and I only see a fragment of what Boland witnessed in his classroom every day. There are some days where I just knock my head against a wall and wonder if I’m ever going to get through to “my kids”. Some days, the answer is “maybe”. Some days, I even feel like it’s a “yes”. Boland’s book spurs me on, to keep doing what I’m doing, but I’m in a completely different area, doing a completely different job. I see where I can make change, and go for it. And that’s what Mr. Boland’s book reminded me to keep in mind.
Parents, read this book and understand what our educators are up against. Educators, read this book and know that you’re not alone. People get it, and more people will continue to get it. All we have to do is keep pushing for the right changes to be identified. And it has nothing to do with a new state test.