Thursday, April 05, 2018

Redress of Grievances: Class Action by Steven B. Frank

Sam is just finishing his worksheet on the Code of Hammurabi when his teacher calls for attention.

"I know you're all excited about the Columbus Day weekend. But," Mr. Powell says, "you'll be taking a practice CAASPP test next week, so I'm sending home a review packet." Mr. Powell goes around the room dropping these mega-packets on everyone's desk. THWACK. THWACK. THWACK.

I think about my dad sitting in his sixth-grade classroom. Back then kids hardly ever had homework. Soon as the bell rang they were free to have fun with their friends. Free to build treehouses with their dads. A tiny word forms in my mouth. Two letters. One syllable.

NO," I say.

Sam finds himself standing on his desk hold up a sign: HW, surrounded by a class of kids doing the same thing--on strike against excess homework.

Sam is suspended for three days and has to make up all the work he misses, but when his mom finds him brewing a pot of coffee at 2 a.m. with his older sister, also awake and doing homework in the wee hours, his parents get on board with his protest. Can a bunch of sixth graders possibly fight the Homework Establishment?

And when Sam thoughtfully picks up a newspaper mis-thrown in front of the house of the neighborhood curmudgeon, Mr. Kalman, he finds an unlikely advocate. Before he became a grouchy widower, Avi Kalman was actually a famous lawyer, who had even tried cases before the Supreme Court, and he surprisingly agrees to help Sam file a class action suit in the local courts to have the homework load lightened.

With his brilliant big sister, Sadie, her computer nerd boyfriend Sean, and an assortment of diversely-talented classmates, Sam finds himself and his team gaining popular support from parents and schoolkids all over the country, working their way through the U.S. federal court system, with a case called Warren v. Board of Education.

Ironically, Sam and his friends find themselves working harder than ever, digging out relevant cases and accumulating supportive precedents, and their appeal is accepted by the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco. As the anti-homework movement inspires nation-wide Mothers' Marches, the kids become close friends with the Bill of Rights, writs of certiorari, In Re Gault, Goss v. Lopez, Brown v. Board of Education, and the PocketJustice app.

They lose in the Ninth Circuit case, but the Supreme Court agrees to hear their case. At last the appellants are in place in the SCOTUS chamber. But their lawyer is missing.

"Oyez, Oyez, Oyez." says the marshal. "God save the United States and this Honorable Court!"

Chief Justice Reynolds looks at Sam. "Are you prepared to begin arguments in this case?"

"No, Sir," Sam says. "But my sister is."

An appeal to the Supreme Court is better than a packet of assignments on the Judicial Branch of the United States, and Steven B. Frank's just published Class Action (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) is a both a humorous middle school novel and a lively lesson in civil liberties, jurisprudence, and what happens when a sixth-grader exercises his First Amendment right to petition for redress of grievances. Real-life teacher Frank knows middle-school kids and how to bring social studies to life without worksheets but with plenty of insight into the way things work.

Not even Andrew Clements' terrific novels about school law--The Landry News, Lunch Money, Rise and Shine) and No Talking--have a character who has taken his case to the Supreme Court--with a little help from his friends, a marching mob of mothers, and country full of homework resisters ready to protest--all with a lot of fun and incidental learning along the way. Author of the acclaimed Armstrong and Charlie (read review here), Steven Frank has himself a humorous page-turning tale of civil disobedience and civil order that teaches more than a bunch of handouts on that third branch of the government.

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