cover image Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids

Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids

Nicholson Baker. Blue Rider, $30 (736p) ISBN 978-0-399-16098-1

Baker (Traveling Sprinkler) returns to nonfiction with this extensive day-to-day account of his experience working as a substitute teacher in Maine. Baker worked a total of 28 days, in multiple roles ranging from kindergarten to high school as well as serving as an “ed tech.” He faithfully recounts the minutiae of his activities, each day unfolding over the course of 40 to 50 pages. There are plenty of worksheets to hand out, discipline schemes to remember, and a constant, drumbeating reminder for the students to be “totally quiet!” Also ubiquitous are iPads, (“the bane of education,” according to one teacher), which do more to distract than instruct. Baker soon discovers that even iPad cases become fearsome weapons in the hands of schoolchildren. Many students ignore his meager attempts to teach, or don’t even bother to try anything that might be considered learning. The funny, loud, struggling, blithe kids interest him much more than any of the lessons he tries to teach. Although Baker truly admires the kids around him, by day nine, he is defeated and ready to give up. Though much of the text recounts conversations among students, and Baker’s signature wordplay and inventive voice shine through elsewhere in the narrative. The book can be tedious when read in long stretches, but ultimately Baker forges a gripping and indispensable time-capsule of teaching and learning in the 21st century. (Sept.)