Author Interview With Roxanna Elden: 'Adequate Yearly Progress'
Roxanna Elden agreed to answer a few questions about her new novel, Adequate Yearly Progress.
Roxanna Elden combines eleven years of experience as a public school teacher with a decade of speaking to audiences around the country about education issues. Her first book, See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, is a staple in school districts and educator training programs, and her work has been featured on NPR as well as in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, Education Week, and many other outlets. You can learn more about her work at www.roxannaelden.com.
LF: How would you concisely describe your book in a short paragraph - sort of like an "elevator pitch"?
"Like the TV show The Office, but set in an urban high school." That's my most frequent answer when someone asks what the book is about. The more official description is that Adequate Yearly Progress is a workplace novel that captures teaching with insight, humor, and heart. It switches points of view among a diverse group of educators as their professional and personal lives intersect. When a celebrity superintendent shows up determined to leave his own mark on the school, the fallout will shake up the teachers' lives both inside and outside the classroom.
LF: Why did you choose to turn to fiction to write about schools? Were you inspired by any other fictional accounts?
My own favorite novels have been by authors like Zadie Smith, Tom Wolfe, and Alicia Valdes-Rodriguez. These authors capture their worlds using multiple points of view, a satirical eye, and a believable cast of colliding characters. Yet I had never seen stories like these set in a school. Just the opposite, in fact. Teaching stories tend to follow one dedicated hero battling the odds to save her students - usually in spite of all the less heroic adults around her. Or, for humor purposes, they used the inverse of this: an irresponsible train wreck who says inappropriate things to students and has a bottle of tequila in her desk drawer. These portrayals never felt real to me. The teachers I know - myself included - are not so easily typecast. With all this in mind, I set out to write the type of novel I loved to read about teaching as I had experienced it. In the process, I hoped to show educators as they are: A diverse group of sometimes-heroic, often-flawed, and occasionally-hilarious humans doing a complex job no one has quite figured out yet.
LF: Your book was obviously written by a teacher with a great deal of classroom experience! It not only covers bigger policy issues, but also details that only someone who had been "in the trenches" would now (even the periodic teacher blog posts and comments you sprinkled throughout the book were spot-on).
So, teachers will certainly see themselves in it. What do you hope that they will take away from reading it? And what do you hope non-teachers will get out of it?
My goal was to write a page-turning story that anyone would enjoy, but it was important to me that all the details rang true to teachers. I'm the type of person who will talk out loud to the TV during classroom scenes in movies and say things like, "I don't think a student would RAISE HIS HAND to say that line!" Or, "Really? Everyone did the assignment? Everyone?" So, yes. I hope the book offers a few extra laughs for readers who spend their days in classrooms. I'd also love for this to be a book that teachers can give to their well-meaning relatives after they spend Thanksgiving dinner explaining education issues in vain. Better yet - give them the book before Thanksgiving.
LF: Speaking of teacher experience, what percentage of the book reflects your own direct experiences in the classroom? And what was easy - and hard - about writing about those experiences in fictional form as opposed to a nonfiction context?
None of the book falls into the "real events with names changed" category, and there is no character who is secretly me. A lot of it, however, was sparked by ideas I had during the course of the school day - the type of small observations that can only come from sitting through a test-prep pep rally, or overhearing a conversation in the hallway, or wondering how an interaction with a student might have turned out differently. I would write these on sticky notes, or email them to myself during lunch. Then, when I sat down to work on the book, I would think about whether those notes might fit into an existing scene, or maybe even pointed to a larger issue that should get its own scene.
LF: What advice would you offer to educators who would like to try their hand at fiction - whether it's writing about schools or about something else?
This project started while participating in National Novel Writing Month with my students. Participants commit to writing the first words of a novel on the first day of November and finishing a 50,000-word first draft by midnight, November 30. 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 each fall, 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?" I can't imagine a better way to get started writing fiction.
LF: Thanks, Roxanna!