39 pages • 1 hour readKirkpatrick Hill
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The Year of Miss Agnes, a work of historical fiction by Kirkpatrick Hill, tells how the lives of young children in a remote Alaskan village shift irreversibly when Miss Agnes, a progressive and unconventional young teacher, arrives to teach in their one-room schoolhouse. As a teacher in rural Alaska, Hill brings a unique perspective to the subject. This 2000 book (2002 edition) depicts Miss Agnes’s first year of teaching in this school. The Year of Miss Agnes won the "Once Upon a World Children's Book Award" in 2001.
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The story takes place in 1948, in an Athabascan Indian Village in a remote corner of Alaska. The children and their parents are survivalists, used to selling animal furs and setting traps. Miss Agnes, one of few teachers who doesn’t balk at the challenges of teaching in this rural community, changes the lives of the entire village with her teaching and inspiration.
Told from the perspective of Frederika (Fred), a 10-year-old Alaskan native, the story begins as she watches the previous teacher leave. Unable to understand the customs of the villagers, this teacher gets a ride out of town with the local pilot. In the past, the village’s teachers have often had a hard time adjusting to local life, and Fred wonders what will happen to their school now that the teacher has left. She doesn’t have to wonder long; Miss Agnes soon arrives from a nearby town. While Miss Agnes knows some of the villagers’ friends and family from her village, she is unexpected in numerous ways.
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A progressive educator, Miss Agnes challenges the traditional schooling the children have received. She wears pants, shows them maps, encourages their creativity, and inspires them to take charge of their own educations by playing to their interests and talents. In turn, she sees the best in the children, pointing out their skills and abilities and encouraging their development. This is particularly true for Fred’s sister, Bokko. At 12, Bokko has never been to school because she has a hearing impairment, making traditional learning environments challenging for her. Miss Agnes fights for Bokko to attend school, even when this angers Fred’s mother, who wants Bokko's help around the house. Eventually, Miss Agnes wins, and Bokko and the other students start learning sign language.
From the beginning, the students know that Miss Agnes can only stay a year. She has had plans to return to her native England for a long time, though World War II thwarted these plans. The children, including Fred, worry extensively about what will happen to them when she leaves. They fear having another teacher like those that came before Miss Agnes.
At the end of the school year, Fred and the other children leave for “fish camp,” where they and their families trap salmon on the local river. Fred is heartbroken, knowing that Miss Agnes will be gone when they get back. After a summer outdoors, Fred grudgingly returns to the village, ready for another lackluster teacher, only to find that Miss Agnes has come back to teach them again.
By showing the impact Miss Agnes has, not only on the children, but also on the villagers, Hill demonstrates the lasting importance of good teachers. Through Miss Agnes, Hill further elaborates on the qualities of good teaching, from inclusion to cultural understanding. Fred's journey illustrates the transformative effects that a sensitive and talented teacher have on a young student just learning about her own abilities and place in the world, as well.