The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary by Laura Shovan, Reviewed by Donalyn Miller
Another school year winds down and we look forward to the slower pace of summer. We can breathe. We spend time outdoors. We take vacations. We hang out around the house. We sleep later. We read more books.
As a teacher and parent, the end of the school is a bittersweet time. I do not like change. I love and worry about my students. When a school year ends, I never see some of them again. Kids move up to another grade or families move away. Colleagues change schools or retire (or leave teaching). Summer marks the end of our time together. We move on.
At the end of the school year, Sarah, our younger daughter will be a high school senior. When she graduates, Don and I will pass into a life stage we’ve never known. For the first time in twenty years, we will not have a child enrolled in public school. Sarah is beyond ready. Don and I are warming to the idea. We will get there.
I have changed teaching positions several times. I have taught at three different schools in two school districts. I have taught on two-teacher and seven-teacher teams. I have taught language arts and social studies. I worked for eleven administrators. If I felt myself getting bored or distracted in unproductive ways, I changed jobs or asked my principal for a project.
I don’t like change, but I fear complacency more.
We’ve all felt it. The families and educators who form a school community feel this tension year after year. Wanting to stay. Wanting to go.
Laura Shovan’s novel in verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, captures the conflicting emotions of eighteen 5th graders as they pass through their final year of elementary school. Sydney wants to leave Emerson and reinvent herself into a different girl than the one her classmates have known for six years. George doesn’t like change and struggles with his parents’ recent divorce. Rennie worries about her little sister, Phoenix. The girls will attend different schools when Rennie moves to middle school next year.
To complicate matters, their beloved school is closing. Emerson Elementary is a dilapidated wreck and needs major renovations. Enrollment is declining and test scores are low. The neighborhood surrounding the school sits in a food desert without any affordable places for families to buy nutritious food. The school district has sold the land to a new supermarket project. At the end of the year, Emerson Elementary will be bulldozed.
For the students in Ms. Hill’s fifth grade class, the school closing hits hard when their remarkable teacher announces she will retire when Emerson closes. She’s been teaching there so long she doesn’t think she can start over at a new school. She assigns a yearlong poetry project. As the last graduating class of Emerson Elementary, students will write poems about their fifth grade experiences. Ms. Hill hopes to put these poems in a Time Capsule that will be opened in twenty-five years.
Discovering their teacher’s past life as a peaceful protestor, Ms. Hill’s students decide to petition the Board of Education to keep Emerson open. Students learn about the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, informing their Save Our School plan.
Through each poem, Laura Shovan introduces us to Ms. Hill’s students—revealing their thoughts about Emerson’s closing, their opinions about school, their relationships with classmates, and the challenges they face at home. Rachel shares her sadness about Emerson’s demolition, “it’s going to be/ like we were never here.” Norah prefers to speak poetry in Arabic because, “the words sound like a river/ flowing over rocks, jagged and smooth.” She feels, “English isn’t good enough for telling poems./ It sounds like knives and forks clanking in a drawer.” Hannah, who seems spoiled and self-centered, worries about her mom, “If I always got my way/ my mother wouldn’t be/ deploying.” Edgar, who drafted the class’s protest petition, visits his sick grandfather in the hospital and writes, “I wish I could write a petition/ to the doctors, or to God,/ to make him better.”
Poem by poem, we travel through the school year with Ms. Hill’s incredible class—from Picture Day to the school production of Beauty and the Beast, to the emotional Moving Up ceremony. As the children leave for summer, they remember their special class and dream about what comes next. As Jason Chen writes in his funny, poignant Moving Up speech,
As we walk across this stage tonight,
fifth grade and Emerson
we shall have and hold
as long as we shall live.
That means forever,
and that’s a mighty long time,
Maybe we will miss our time together and maybe we won’t. Reconcile your desire to stay and your need to go. Embrace your accomplishments and celebrate good relationships. When we put another school year in the books, we won’t walk this way again.
I feel blessed by the years I have spent with my school families, and the schools who invite me into their families for a while. Readers are blessed that Laura Shovan and one amazing class have invited us into their school family at Emerson Elementary for one glorious year. These characters and their story will live in your hearts forever, and that’s a mighty long time.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp) and the Best Practices Roots (#bproots) chat with Teri Lesesne. Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.