NPR's Backseat Book Club
3:35 pm
Thu December 12, 2013

'Mr. Terupt' Shows What A Difference One Teacher Can Make

Originally published on Thu December 12, 2013 6:41 pm

Not to judge a book by its cover, but just take one look at the jacket of Because of Mr. Terupt and you'll see it is the perfect book for December. It shows two mittened hands holding a snowball — a snowball responsible for a life-altering accident.

Mr. Terupt is a popular fifth-grade teacher at Snow Hill elementary school. And for seven students in particular, he is the center of their universe — a sage who gives them advice and confidence and helps them overcome obstacles and rivalries.

Author Rob Buyea spent six years teaching in an elementary classroom, where he had a front-row seat on student life. His ear for schoolyard patter is spot on. In the classroom Mr. Terupt's compassion shines through without turning sappy. But make no mistake — Mr. Terupt is tough. He keeps the students and his readers on their toes with a steady stream of math puzzles and wordplay.

Buyea said the idea for a story with seven swirling voices came to him one day while he was working outside. "I was in my mother's garden," he tells NPR's Michele Norris. "I'm not a gardener. I think this was maybe a day when I was being a good son and helping my mom. ... I was thinking about the school year, my students, the projects we had done, the things that had happened along the way. All of a sudden, I had these characters come to me. ... All seven showed up, telling me about the first day of school."


Interview Highlights

On "the dollar word challenge"

The dollar word challenge is, you simply give a monetary value to each letter of the alphabet — so, A is one cent, B is two cents, C is three cents, D four and so on, making the letter Z 26 cents. And so you spell a word — Wednesday, for example . You write that word down, and then you add up all the letter values and see if you can find a word that equals one dollar exactly. So, I had that challenge going on every year while I was teaching.

There was a year when I had a student, Ryan, who went home and shared the dollar word challenge with his father. I guess his father was a computer programming man, or certainly involved with computers, and sat down and did this thing with his computer one night. So, my student Ryan came back into school the next day with this piece of paper, double-sided, with all of the dollar words from the dictionary, listed in alphabetical order. He sort of entered the classroom waving this piece of paper back and forth. "Hey, Mr. Buyea, here's your dollar words!" And I saw that and [said] "Oh my gosh, Ryan! That's not what you were supposed to do for the assignment. Let me see that."

And so I took that piece of paper and I kept it. I kept it, and I had it in my writing folder. And as I was working on the story, whenever it felt like it was time for a dollar word, I would pull out that cheat sheet that I ended up with thanks to Ryan and his father. I would scan that cheat sheet, and sure enough, I would find the perfect word that worked. ... I had lots of fun with that part of the story.

On his most rewarding classroom project

Every project that Mr. Terupt tries is a project that I did at one point or another. ... [I had] my students visit a classroom that we had in our school — a classroom for children with special needs. Of all the things that I did with my teaching, that project was maybe the most rewarding. And so I was excited to have that as part of the story. ... I guess that's one message in the book, is to really try to take time and understand how much children in a classroom like that have to offer and how much love they give to the world and to the people that are a part of their life.

On how he became a writer

I charged myself with the challenge that if I was to help [my students] become lifelong, passionate readers and passionate writers, then I had to be a passionate reader and writer first. So, I began reading books wildly, just as many as I could get my hands on. And shortly after that, I began working as a writer. I dedicate this book, Because of Mr. Terupt, to my former third- and fourth-grade students, because it's because of them that I began writing.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. It's time now for NPR's Back Seat Book Club. That's the special nook we've made for our younger listeners to read a story along with us and send in their questions for the book's author.

EMMA: This is Emma. My question is, what was the message you were trying to send to your readers in "Because of Mr. Terupt"?

CORNISH: That's this month's selection, "Because of Mr. Terupt" and NPR's Michele Norris takes it from there.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: All you have to do is take one look at the cover and it's clear that "Because of Mr. Terupt" is a perfect book for December. The front jacket features two mittened hands holding a snowball, a snowball responsible for a life altering accident. Even the school where the story takes place is in keeping with a winter theme.

The lead character, Mr. Terupt, is a fifth grade teacher at Snow Hill elementary school. He's a popular teacher and for a constellation of seven particular students in his class, he is like the center of their universe, a sage who gives them advice and confidence and helps them overcome obstacles and rivalries.

Here's author Rob Buyea.

ROB BUYEA: These seven students will take turns telling you about the school year, sharing the good times, the bad times, the excitement, the mischief, the projects. Ultimately, there is an accident that takes place that will forever change these seven kids and bring them together because of Mr. Terupt.

NORRIS: Because author Rob Buyea spent six years teaching in an elementary classroom, he had a front-row seat on student life. His ear for grammar school patter is spot on. Whether the title character Mr. Terupt is dealing with this own students, or the kids in the special needs classroom, his compassion shines through without turning sappy.

Make no mistake, Mr. Terupt is also tough. He keeps the students and the readers on their toes with steady stream of math puzzles and wordplay. Rob Buyea said the idea for a story with seven swirling voices came to him one day when he was working outside.

BUYEA: I remember I was in my mother's garden. I'm not a gardener. I think maybe this was a day when I was being a good son and helping my mom. And late spring, early summer, end of the school year, I was thinking about the school year, my students, the projects we had done, the things that had happened along the way.

And all of a sudden, I had these characters come to me. Peter, Luke, Jeffrey, Jessica, all seven. All seven showed up, telling me about the first day of school.

NORRIS: We have lots of questions from our Back Seat Book Club readers and lets listen to one from Ridgewood, New Jersey.

JASON: This is Jason from Ridgewood, New Jersey. My question is how did you come up with the dollar word idea? How did you find all the dollar words and fit them in throughout the story?

NORRIS: I guess as you explain to us, to the listeners who have not read your book, what exactly is a dollar word.

BUYEA: You simply give a monetary value to each letter of the alphabet so, A is one cent, B is two cents, C is three cents, D four and so on, making the letter Z worth 26 cents. And so you spell a word, Wednesday, for example. You write that word down, and then you add up all the letter values and see if you can find a word that equals one dollar exactly. So I had that challenge going on every year while I was teaching.

And then, there was a year when I had a student, Ryan, who went home and shared the dollar word challenge with his father. And I guess his father was a computer programming man, or certainly involved with computers, and sat down and did this thing with his computer one night. And so, my student Ryan came back into school the next day with this piece of paper, double-sided, with all of the dollar words from the dictionary, listed in alphabetical order.

He sort of entered the classroom waving this piece of paper back and forth. Hey, Mr. Buyea, here's your dollar words. And I saw that and, oh my gosh, Ryan. That's not what you were supposed to do for the assignment. Let me see that. And so I took that piece of paper and I kept it. I kept it, and I had it in my writing folder.

And as I was working on the story, whenever it felt like it was time for a dollar word, I would pull out that cheat-sheet that I ended up with, thanks to Ryan and his father. I would scan that cheat-sheet, and sure enough, I would find the perfect word that worked. That was how. I had lots of fun with that part of the story.

NORRIS: Author Rob Buyea turned to his teaching experience for another idea in "Because of Mr. Terupt." The fifth graders in the story start spending more and more time with the class of special needs kids. It's called the collaborative classroom and it caught the interest of our Back Seat readers.

DEVON: This is Devon from Ridgewood, New Jersey, and my question is, why did you choose to put the collaborative classroom in your book?

BUYEA: I'm always excited when I'm asked about that. That's one of the parts in the story that is certainly very important to me. Every project that Mr. Terupt tries is a project that I did at one point or another. And that's true also for reading "Summer of the Swans" and having my students visit a classroom that we had in our school, a classroom that was for children with special needs.

Of all the things that I did with my teaching, that project was maybe the most rewarding. And so I was excited to have that as part of the story. As far as a message in the book, if I were asked about that, I guess that's one message in the book, is to really try to take time and understand how much children in a classroom like that have to offer and how much love they give to the world and to the people that are a part of their life.

NORRIS: Rob Buyea is now a full-time writer, a source of delight and surprise for him. He loves hearing from kids who love his books because he, himself, was a kid who didn't love reading. That changed when he began teaching.

BUYEA: Once I started studying to become a teacher and definitely once I arrived in the classroom as the teacher, I charged myself with the challenge that if I was to help them become lifelong, passionate readers and passionate writers, then I had to be a passionate reader and writer first. So, I began. I began reading books wildly, just as many as I could get my hands on.

And shortly after that, I began working as a writer. I dedicate this book, "Because of Mr. Terupt," to my former third and fourth grade students, because it's because of them that I began writing.

NORRIS: And write, he did thanks to those kids. The book is "Because of Mr. Terupt." The author is Rob Buyea. Big thanks to Ashley Burke's fifth grade class at Travell Elementary School in Ridgewood, New Jersey and thanks also to librarian Cheryl Gifford's(ph) Rocking Readers book club from Lithgow Library in Augusta, Maine. Happy reading and happy holidays. Michele Norris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.