Tall and taciturn, Leo Bickelhaupt moseys among the tables in his classroom at St Paul’s Open School, tossing questions at his students.
“What did you think of the ghost?” “Yeah, why did the director do that?”
The 10th, 11th, and 12th graders of Leo’s Advanced English class had just finished a class period comparing different film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a way to understand how the script turns into a production.
“Leo’s class is unbeatable for English,” Daniel, an 11th grader, proclaimed excitedly to me as he left the classroom at St Paul’s Open School.
John, another of Leo’s 11th grade students, tells me he’s had Leo for English every year since 7th grade. “We love Leo’s classes because we can really discuss the books we read.” (Students are on a first-name basis with all staff and faculty at Open.)
Megan Hall, a bubbly science teacher at Open School (and Leo’s wife), told me stories of students in his different English classes trading books with each other that they’ve already read. In an email, she described students “sneaking a read in Leo’s assigned reading books during my classes, in the hallways, during lunch, at the bus stop…”
Because classes at Open School are multi-age, most students will have Leo for four years, and he makes sure every year is different. Over the 13 years he has taught at Open, he has crafted a rotating curriculum based on a wide spectrum of literature exploring a series of themes: heroes, survival, dystopias, madmen, pop culture, urban/suburban myth, and the intersections of race and culture in America.
Leo has a book problem, though. This year, his high school-aged students tripled, and he needs to come up with $6,672.10 for new books to meet the district’s minimum standard of two novels per class, despite the lack of money across the entire St Paul Public School district.
“It’s not like I want to fly in authors, or anything,” Leo told me before I sat in on his class. “I just want the books!”
According to Todd Bartholomay, Open’s principal, textbooks are usually bought by the district, at the request of individual teachers. According to Leo, the system is “opaque,” unreliable, and there’s a chance that a teacher will get none of the texts they requested. He prefers to buy through local bookstores like the Red Balloon in St Paul, which offers a teacher discount.
“There was a time this summer that I was literally losing sleep over this,” Leo told me in an interview. “In early August, Todd [Bartholomay] confirmed our fears that there wasn’t any money available in the budget to help us. I was almost ready to give up [on my curriculum for this year] and use whatever district anthologies they have lying around.”
Then in early September, Megan sent out an email to friends, family, and a few parents of former students describing “Leo’s Little Book Crisis.” Donations poured in, Leo said, and by the end of October, they had raised around $3,000.
In late October, Leo and Todd discovered extra money in the budget for Advanced Placement (AP) classes – enough to cover the six sets of books Leo needed for his AP English classes. Now, Leo said, they only need between $1,000 and $2,000 dollars to fully fund the books for the rest of Leo’s classes.
“Most of the donations will go to fund Leo’s newest class,” Megan wrote in an email, “in which his very diverse students (future mechanics, future lawyers, future self-employed artisans) will read great literature about the experiences of Native Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, Indian Americans, and Latino Americans. Our hope is to actually close the achievement gap a little bit, not by making kids take more tests, but by offering them books that make them want to read. Books that make them put down the PlayStation to finish one more chapter.”
James Sanna is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.