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  • Writer's pictureKatja

Katja's Declassified School Survival Guide

The gulf of mexico and the beach
The view from our balcony!

Hello everyone!! I hope y'all are doing well and having a great time! I'm finalizing this blog from a beach in Florida and let me tell you, the Gulf of Mexico is gorgeous! 10/10, highly recommend. This has been a much needed reset vacation for me!

I'm probably going to have to change the title for copywrite infringement, but this is a topic I have been dying to blog about. I have over 15 years experience as a teacher and let me tell you, the schools, classrooms, teachers, and students you read about in YA are riddled with weirdness.

It's not so much that it's not accurate, as it's just...weird. Don't get me wrong, I totally understand the purpose of the narrative and that the focus is on usually on character growth, so school-based accuracy goes out the window. Also, city schools are as different from rural schools as east coast schools are from west coast schools. So obviously, your mileage might vary on this. My experience, both as a teen and as teacher, has been at rural public schools that require bussing and serve a wide range of students spread out over miles and miles and miles.

Much like my Pony 101 blogs, I'm going to break this down in to a few more digestible sessions. Today, I'm going to highlight some basic structural things!

Busses vs. Cars: I have yet to read a book where the kids ride the bus. I'm not saying they aren't out there, just I haven't read one yet. In narratives where the protagonist doesn't have a car, they either live in a city & take public transportation or their bestie has a car and generously drives them everywhere. Yes, having a car or biking or walking to school is a symbol of independence and it solves the plot problem of how does your character get from point A to point B and gives them a way to complete the adventurous shenanigans they need to for plot reasons. But when you look at the numbers, most kids don't have cars. I'd love to see more narratives about kids who have to take the bus to and from school. Especially in rural areas where the students can be up to 15 or 20 miles from the school. When I was in school, I had an almost hour long bus ride. I was the first one on every morning and the last one off at night. It sucked.

Time: School starts ridiculously early (ours runs 7:45am-2:45pm)--usually an accurate part of most narratives. What I see as weird is the passing time between classes. This varies WILDLY between schools and campuses depending on how spread out they are. But at my school, our students have 3 minutes. That's it. A lot of schools have minimal passing time to discourage loitering and in-between-class shenanigans. But generally, there isn't much time given to students and teachers will be aggressive with detentions. We aren't trying to ruin student lives, but thanks to the lovely world we live in, if Sally is supposed to be in my class, but instead she's filming a tiktok in the stairwell and trips and breaks an ankle, an industrious parent will sue the school for not properly supervising their child and allowing them to get hurt. (Trust me, it's happened!) Basically, I, who am not even allowed to leave my room to use the restroom because I can't leave students unsupervised, am responsible for Sally once the period starts, even if she's not in my room. I'm somehow magically supposed to use my jedi level teacher-force skills to find her and get her safely to class. Students think we're being horrible to them, but really, we just don't want to get blamed for yet another thing that is not our fault (teachers really do put up with so much). The take away here is that students tend to have VERY little time between classes. Similarly, when a student asks for a pass to use the loo or go to the nurse, most schools have a time limit--I expect my students to be be back within 3-5 minutes. If they're gone longer than that, I start asking questions and checking stories.

Lockers! Most schools still offer students lockers to keep their items in. Some provide a combination lock, some make students bring their own. Lockers are approximately 15" wide and 60-70 inches tall. Some places have top and bottom row lockers. However, as small as they are, kids can fit A LOT in there. Can a human fit in a locker? Yes--but they have to be small and they will still be squished. Once kids hit 8th grade, fitting in a locker is going to be difficult. At the end of the year, during locker cleanout, the kids find stuff like you would not believe. A locker becomes a trashcan for them and will be filled with coffee cups, the pbj sandwich they forgot to eat back in September, and every single paper they have ever been given. Also, my 8th and 9th graders struggle to open their lockers--I'm not sure why, but they really have trouble mastering that combo. Once they reach 10th grade it's smooth sailing though.

Gif from 21 Jump street of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum discussing whether to one strap or two strap their backpacks

Backpacks: Many schools no longer allow backpacks. This is for *safety* reasons. Students are allowed to wear a backpack into school, but are not permitted to carry it through the day. Purses are allowed--and some students carry bags that they claim are their purses and some of the more industrious boys do the same (I love when the boys carry purses because it makes our admin cringe). In general, more boys are carrying purses around school. (And obviously, anyone can tote a purse around regardless of gender). As for one strapping versus two strapping--that's ultimately a decision for your character to make! I do strongly believe that decision is based in what kind of personality you have. In my mind, one strap equals cool and casual, two straps offers more of a straight-edged, nose to the grindstone personality. Some schools allow backpacks or bags only if they're clear so that students can't smuggle things in or hide things.

Class time. Schools either have single or double periods, or, like us, a MIX. Our class periods are 44 minutes a day with classes that require a lab (science or math) sometimes having a double period every other day (yes, it's as confusing as it sounds). So block periods are going to run about an hour and 25 minutes vs single periods running 44 mins. In a 44 min class, you typically have 10-20 minutes of instruction/lecture and then rest is going to be worktime. Or you might have a full 44 minutes of lecture. It really depends on the lesson/topic/subject/teacher. With block periods, there is dedicated lecture time and LOTS of work time--you cannot lecture/teach to kids for a full hour and twenty five minutes. (I mean you can, but you would be a bad teacher).

Usagi from Sailor Moon being shown her bad test score by her teacher

Class levels! This is the thing that burns my bacon most of all when I read YA contemporary. EVERY. SINGLE. CHARACTER. IS. IN. ALL. AP. CLASSES. (okay, I can think of ONE where the protag is in school and not in AP classes...but like come on!) Look, yes, these kids exist, and they are typically stressed over it, but they do not make up the majority of the student population. Most teens are trying to do the bare minimum to get through high school. (clarification: I don't mean this as an insult. High school is a weird beast where adults try to tell kids HOW INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT IT IS AND THAT IT WILL MAKE OR BREAK THEM and look, kiddos, it will not make or break you. You're learning a lot of social skills, you're getting a broad basic knowledge of a lot of subjects, but like, in the end, you're allowed to do only what is needed to jump through the hoops. So I applaud kids who get what needs done, done, and go on to focus on the things that bring them joy). Which brings me back to my gripe. The bulk of the student body does NOT take AP and honestly, I just want more books that feature them and their lives. So this is a personal request from me, can you write for all the kids NOT in AP? it's absolutely possible for those academic kids to be just as brilliant, just as dedicated and hard working and just as successful. And better yet, give me the kid who is struggling to fit into that rigid school system, but excels in trade school or gets an apprenticeship. Kids can be excellent and amazing without being motivated by academics and I'd love to see more narratives validating those experiences. I want more average student representation! I want more kids picking out trade schools or apprenticeships rather than trying to get in THE BIGGEST COLLEGE. Or just a kid struggling to get into the local community college, because those kids exist and deserve to have stories written about them! Having characters in books who are academically stressed and determined to make it into an ivy league school is fine, but this also just continues the narrative that the only way to find success is by being aggressively academic, and I hate to break it to you, but that's just not accurate, there are many many different paths to success! Give me more Usagis!! More C & B average students!!

gif of a principal locking their office door and lisa simpson opening it anyway

Everything is locked! In years past, you could come and go from almost any door at a school, meaning you could sneak outside and back in without anyone in authority knowing. Today though, for safety reasons, all the doors are locked from the outside and there are strict rules against propping doors open for any reason. Staff will stand at the doors in the am when students arrive to ensure no one strange sneaks in and most schools streamline that process to just one or two doors. At my school, the doors don't open until 7:30 and they close promptly at 7:45, which only allows student to meander and loiter in the halls for 15 minutes max since homeroom starts at 7:45. After those two entrances are closed, the only other way into the building is through the main office, where visitors have to buzz the office, identify themselves over the comm system, then come into the office, sign in, get a visitor pass and then unless they're a regular, they'll be escorted to their destination. Parents are not allowed to go past the office unless they have a specific meeting with a teacher. And pretty much every other room not in immediate use, is locked. I read so many stories about students who hang out in empty classrooms or storage closets and I know it happens, but it's uncommon--so if you're going to make your fictional students pull this off, just keep in mind that in reality, this is very very very very unlikely to actually happen. Also remember that if a student exits through a door, they cannot get back in unless they go to the main office and get buzzed back in! Also, each room has it's own key. The key I have to my classroom will not open up any of my fellow teacher's classrooms. Principals and maitenance staff have universal keys--so if your character needs to steal keys, make sure they steal from the right person!

That's it! To be clear, I never expect a book or movie or tv show to be 100% accurate. There is always a suspension of belief no matter what the subject of the media is. But I love seeing nods to accuracy and, on a personal note, I'd love to see portrayals of teachers and actual classrooms move away from negative stereotypical beliefs. Look at the novel, Speak, that book leans heavy into stereotypes (a very very wise choice by the author given the intent of the novel). But not all English teachers are Hairwoman. Not all Social Studies teachers are Mr. Neck who moonlight by coaching a blood sport. Teachers contain multitudes (honestly, my students believe I live under my desk, like a troll. If I talk about doing anything mundane like grocery shopping or going to the movies, they're like YOU LEAVE THE SCHOOL??? You exist in the real world?)

If you're writing a contemporary and have specific school questions, please drop them below. I'm definitely going to do a blog on school discipline and definitely one on teacher POV--because again, I get that YA books are centering the teens, but as a teacher, I'd love to see better teacher rep instead of just making all of us horrible people who are trying to ruin the lives of every child that darkens our doorstep.

Happy writing my lovelies!

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