Embracing Inventiveness and Perseverance in Ethan Marcus Stands Up by Michele Weber Hurwitz
Often, all it takes is a crumb – a little morsel of a moment – to spark an idea for a book. One that may not even seem like a moment at the time.
My high-energy son was in eighth-grade, studying for a science test. Let’s just say science did not come easy to this sports-loving, numbers-oriented kid. This particular test was on the botany unit, including parts of a leaf and their functions – the stoma, chlorophyll, spongy mesophyll, and other mildly confusing terms.
I was helping him review at the kitchen table but he was clearly reaching coma status. Suddenly, he leaped from the chair and said, “My brain works better when I’m moving.” He grabbed a ball and started walking around the kitchen. Each time I tossed out a definition, he’d repeat it aloud then throw the ball into the air and catch it.
My son didn’t need a study or research to confirm what he already knew. Physical activity wakes up the brain.
He knew it as a student and I know it as a writer. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been sitting at my desk, trying to write but having a mind block. As soon as I get up, go outside and take a walk – poof – crisis solved.
After the studying session with my son, I began to notice how the workplace was adapting to incorporate movement by adding standing desks and walking meetings, but when I went on author visits to schools, it seemed that many kids, especially as they got older, were in the same old desks and chairs and often sat for long hours through the day. I started reading how prolonged sitting is detrimental to our health, plus I was intrigued by the growing popularity of the maker movement, and the idea for Ethan Marcus Stands Up was born.
What would happen, I thought, if a fidgety, high-energy kid tried to modify his classroom environment, allowing kids to stand instead of sit at their desks? And what if he tried to make his own standing desk apparatus even though he wasn’t great at making things, and even if he needed to go outside of his comfort zone to do it?
Ethan Marcus Stands Up is about a laid-back seventh-grader who often gets scomas (school comas) in class and suffers from what his dad calls ESD (Ethan Squiggle Disease). One day, he literally takes a stand, jumping out of his chair and announcing that he’s protesting sitting. Needless to say, his strict, rule-oriented teacher is not pleased with Ethan’s approach. It takes a kind-hearted, science-loving teacher to suggest to Ethan that he can solve his problem through inventing his own solution. She steers him toward the school’s Invention Day event as a way to channel his energy. All well and good, except Ethan’s not a science guy – that’s his perfectionist sister Erin’s department. But he’s determined and passionate about an idea he comes up with – the desk-evator – recruiting his equally science-challenged best friend Brian Kowalski. Erin is taking her invention much more seriously so this creates tension galore between the siblings.
The book has five narrators who all give their version of the unfolding events stemming from Ethan’s protest – an eye-opening way to relay the story to young readers since we tend to see the world from our own lenses and can interpret a situation so differently than someone else.
With all of the worrisome problems confronting us today, it may not seem like sitting is important. But I think it’s one of those big-little things that’s hugely important because it relates to learning.
Last year, Illinois teacher Jenna Bolen had an energetic fourth-grade class and said many students struggled to contain themselves in their desks. Mid-year, she decided to try flexible seating, asking for donations of different types of seating options. Students were able to choose their seats – which included exercise balls, a bungee chair, a standing table, pillows, a sleeping bag, blankets, carpet squares, a low table, a bean bag, a blow-up chair, and a crate chairs with a cushion top – all with parent and principal permission.
“I saw an incredible change in behavior and engagement,” Bolen said. “Since students were able to choose their seats and create a comfortable learning environment suitable for them, they took ownership of their learning.”
Bolen was the “seat master” and part of the classroom flexible seating rules was that she had the authority to move students’ seats or change them if they weren’t behaving or engaging in the lesson. “My class looked a bit crazy but it was so worth it because every student was much more engaged and well-behaved. Learning was truly taking place in a big way.” After seeing the results, other teachers started implementing flexible seating in their classrooms as well.
This year Bolen is teaching seventh-grade in Arizona and is continuing to use flexible seating. “I let my seventh-graders choose their seats with the same expectations I had for my fourth-graders: best learning environment and knowledge that I will move them if necessary.”
Ethan would love being a part of Bolen’s class. But his journey through the book grows to encompass more than just sitting or standing. Ethan reexamines his role as the perennial laid-back guy as he stumbles while trying to create his envisioned invention, failing several times. His sister Erin feels he has no place alongside the more serious kids participating in Invention Day since she views Ethan’s attempts as sloppy and disorganized. But their friction and opposite personalities is part of what pushes Ethan to believe he can succeed and see it through, albeit in his own style. In the process, they both learn the importance of understanding and supporting someone who thinks and acts differently.
By the way, in case you’re wondering about my son and the science test…he pulled off a respectable C plus. Better than that – he’s now a middle school teacher. And in his classroom? Hokki stools. He loves them and so do his students.
Michele Weber Hurwitz’s previous middle grade novels, Calli Be Gold and The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days, have been nominated for several state reading awards. A sequel to Ethan Marcus Stands Up will be published in 2018 – Ethan Marcus Makes His Mark. Find Michele on Twitter @MicheleWHurwitz and at micheleweberhurwitz.com. She lives in the Chicago area with her family.