Straight Up Conversation: Roxanna Elden on Her New Book Adequate Yearly Progress
Roxanna Elden, veteran educator, teacher advice guru, and author of See Me After Class—as well as a hugely popular RHSU guest blogger—is out with her first novel. The book, Adequate Yearly Progress: A Novel, is a perspective-hopping debut that follows teachers at an urban high school as their professional lives impact their personal lives and vice versa. A public school teacher for eleven years, Roxanna has previously published non-fiction pieces in many outlets. Her work has been featured in such places as NPR, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic.
Rick Hess: So, you've got this new novel out, Adequate Yearly Progress. What's the story?
Roxanna Elden: Adequate Yearly Progress is a workplace novel that captures teaching with insight, humor, and heart—kind of like the TV show The Office, but set in an urban high school. It switches points of view among a diverse group of educators as their professional lives and personal lives impact one another.
RH: Without giving the whole plot away, can you say a bit about what happens?
RE: The book is set in a struggling high school in one of Texas's bigger cities. Each year brings new challenges to the school, but the teachers face plenty of challenges of their own. English teacher Lena Wright, a spoken-word poet with a deep love for her roots, can never seem to satisfy her students that she's for real. Hernan D. Hernandez is confident in front of his biology classes, yet tongue-tied around the woman he most wants to impress: namely, Lena. Down the hall, the school's math teacher focuses on the numbers to block out life's messier problems, and the football coach finds it's a lot easier to win on the football field than in other areas of his life. Recording it all is an idealistic history teacher whose blog gains popularity as it drifts farther from her in-class reality. Early in the book, the district's new superintendent has a public showdown with the principal of the school. The fallout is different for each character, but shakes up the teachers' lives both inside and outside the classroom.
RH: It's a funny book, with humor that ranges from the droll to the over-the-top. For what it's worth, I couldn't help chuckling at chapter titles like "The Curriculum Standard of the Day Achievement Initiative" and "The Cross-Disciplinary Compare-and-Contrast Holiday Review Packet." Is this what motivated you to write the book—exasperation?
RE: My goal was to write a page-turning story that anyone would enjoy, but it was also important that the details rang true to teachers. The Hollywood version of the teacher story, where one self-sacrificing hero battles her terrible colleagues to save the kids, is too easy. Of course we're rooting for the teacher who "cares"—and also happens to be played by Michelle Pfeiffer or Hilary Swank. Real-life teaching raises much more complex questions: What happens when that culturally relevant lesson plan goes off the rails? What happens when a student says something that pushes the same emotional buttons as a teacher's recent breakup? And what's already going on in the classroom when that voice comes on the PA to announce the "Curriculum Standard of the Day" initiative?
RH: And on that note: How much of the novel draws on things that you experienced as a teacher, or that you heard from friends and colleagues, and how much is just your imagination at work?
RE: Many of the initial sparks of ideas came from experiences during the school day. There are some observations that can only come from sitting through a test-prep pep rally, or seeing how students react when a giant cockroach crawls through the classroom. There were also many stories other teachers shared over the years. Teachers tend to know a lot of other teachers and spend a lot of time—sometimes even too much time—talking about teaching. We compare how different administrators handle disciplinary issues, and we also share some of those "darndest things" that children say and do. Over the years, I would jot down thoughts on sticky notes or email them to myself during lunch. Then, on the weekends, when I sat down to work on the book, I'd think about how those new ingredients might fit into the recipe. On a related note, one of my favorite responses to the book came just a few weeks ago. A former colleague sent me a picture of something she found while moving file boxes to set up for the school year: a piece of half-eaten candy, stuck to a piece of chewed gum, covered on both sides with human hair. Underneath she wrote, "This lends massive credibility to your narrative."
RH: Hah! Love that. Speaking of which, in your mind, how much is this book intended as a commentary on larger issues of educational policy and practice?
RE: My favorite novelists have always been those like Tom Wolfe and Zadie Smith, who tell stories from multiple perspectives and leave readers with a panoramic view of the world where the story takes place. In this case, I hoped to do the same thing with the public school ecosystem. Every workplace has conflicting personalities and competing agendas. In schools, there's an additional layer because there are so many different ideas about how to do education right. I hoped to show all these competing forces at play in one school.
RH: And that school is Brae Hill Valley High, in which readers encounter a pretty colorful bunch of teachers. Did you discover anything new about teachers when you were writing this book?
RE: An unexpected detail I learned while writing the book was that teachers' experiences in the same school can be very different depending on the subjects they teach. It took lots of conversations and sitting in on classes to notice details outside of my experience in the English department. Science teachers, for example, have to worry about lab safety—and they're more likely to have plants or animals in the classroom. Touchy cultural subjects are more likely to come up in a history class than a math class. And athletic coaches spend a ton of extra time on the job.
RH: In the acknowledgments, you mention a number of authors and works that informed the world of Adequate Yearly Progress. Are there one or two authors or works that you'd particularly recommend to readers?
RE: Two books that were especially helpful in understanding the history of the teaching profession were The Teacher Wars, by Dana Goldstein, and your book, The Same Thing Over and Over. These books complemented one another because they touched on some of the same parts of education history. They also showed, each in their own way, that there is a cycle to competing ideas about how to fix education. The newest big idea is often a reaction to the last big idea. And every idea has potential to be oversold or done badly.
RH: Ugh, well that wound up being a bit self-promotional...But thank you, I appreciate it. In any event, you've got a track record publishing nonfiction and commentaries in outlets like NPR and the Washington Post. Your first book, the remarkably successful See Me After Class, was nonfiction. So what prompted you to try your hand at fiction?
RE: This project started during National Novel Writing Month. It's a challenge where participants write the first words of a novel on the first day of November and try to complete a 50,000-word first draft by midnight on November 30th. To finish, you have to write so fast you can't possibly second-guess yourself. For years, I'd managed to bribe a handful of high schoolers to participate, promising them extra credit and pizza parties. Then, one year, one of them said, "How about you, Ms. Elden? Are you going to write a novel?" Many drafts later, here we are.
RH: How different did you find writing fiction from writing nonfiction? What did you find most difficult?
RE: Building a story with a beginning, middle, and end is a skill—and not one that's particularly necessary for a teacher advice book. Early on, someone recommended watching how TV shows keep their forward momentum—specifically to watch the first and last episodes of each TV series and see how they fit together. This became an excuse to spend lots of time watching Netflix as "research." But it definitely helped.
RH: Over the years, I've talked to plenty of teachers who've said they'd like to pen a novel about schools. Any words of advice to share with those you've inspired to give it a go?
RE: You can learn to reverse-engineer many of the things you love about other people's writing. English teachers often use sample texts with students for this purpose. Once I started working on my own books, I took this a step further and began categorizing books on Goodreads based on what I admired about them: good sense of setting, memorable minor characters, power-packed language at the sentence level, and so on. My advice to any aspiring author would be to get the initial thoughts down on paper. Then, during your many, many revisions, try to emulate what other authors do well.