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Book Review: Off to Class: Incredible and Unusual Schools Around the World by Susan Hughes

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Although the United Nations classifies education as a human right belonging to every child, around 100 million children around the world face barriers, sometimes seemingly insurmountable ones, that keep them from going to school. In her inspiring book, Off to Class: Incredible and Unusual Schools Around the World (Owlkids Books, 2011), Susan Hughes catalogues a number of creative and unconventional ways in which people have fought to ensure that our next generation has access to an education. Written for nine to13-year-olds, the tone is positive, the design is bright and engaging, and featured are first-person narratives from other kids. This peek into the lives of those around the world fighting for a chance to learn seems to be a valuable resource for American school-goers, who may grumble about the education they take for granted.

The 23 featured schools are divided into three broad categories. The first showcases institutions that in some way directly interact with the environment. This includes those whose buildings are designed specifically for their location (to stay cool in the heat of the desert or navigating the monsoon season, as examples) as well as schools that incorporate a green mentality in their curriculum. The second highlights schools that reach out to populations of students (such as girls, those in rural areas, or those of low castes) who face very specific barriers to entry. Finally, we are introduced to flexible systems, such as portable schools or unchooling, that defy brick-and-mortar notions of how and where education should take place.

Each school receives a two-page spread that includes a short summary of the situation and the unique solution employed to give kids the needed access to education. Fact boxes share informational tidbits, first-person narratives, and maps help provide context. The design is welcoming and effectively mirrors the excitement communicated by the text.

The most wonderful thing about these short profiles is the way in which they demonstrate the incredible success of grassroots action as initiated by individual communities. Many of these schools are in developing nations; as a resident of the global north it’s easy to believe that “help” lies in just exporting what has worked for us. What these stories show is that each situation and location carries its own unique set of challenges and only by treating them as such can we come up with solutions that are sensitive, useful, and sustainable. Not only is Off to Class a great way to introduce tweens to the way other kids around the world access learning, it is also a text to inspire them to look at their own communities and see what creative site-specific solutions they can come up with to address local problems.

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