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By Janet Nicol, retired teacher, Vancouver

Secret Schools: True Stories of the Determination to Learn published by Owlkids Books, 2022

What if the secret you are keeping is that you go to school? This is the question Toronto-based author Heather Camlot poses in her inspiring non-fiction book aimed at middle grade readers. Fifteen well-researched accounts depict “underground” classrooms around the world at various times in history. Linocut prints by Vancouver artist Erin Taniguchi illustrate each true story with empathy and imagination. 

The first of five thematic chapters looks at the “subversive” teaching of government-banned languages experienced by Japanese migrant workers in Brazil from 1930 to 1945, Indigenous Peoples in Ecuador in the mid-1940s to 1963, and Lithuanians living under Russian rule from 1863 to 1904. According to the author, “all refused to let authorities stamp out their language.” Heroes emerged, including book smugglers, teachers, and community activists. Because these secret schools persisted, the government in all three countries eventually abolished the language ban.

“Hope and Dignity,” is a compelling chapter and begins with an account rooted in the 1600s, when hundreds of thousands of people from African countries were kidnapped, brought to the United States, and sold as forced, unpaid labour. Imparting literacy and knowledge to enslaved Black people over the ensuing generations was discouraged and even outlawed. However, learning frequently took place in secret, some schools run from the homes of freed Black people.

Under the Nazi regime in Germany (1933–1945) more than 1,000 segregated ghettos were imposed on Jewish people across occupied Eastern Europe. Educating Jewish children was forbidden, but hidden classrooms were established in defiance, some in soup kitchens, stables, and attics. Even within the horrific concentration camps, there were instances of Jewish prisoners conducting secret classes. 

Between 1961 and 1991, more than 3,000 political prisoners, including freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela, were sent to Robben Island in South Africa. The common bond among prisoners in the maximum security prison was their fight to end a racist apartheid regime imposed by white rulers. Teaching and learning went on covertly.

The chapter on “Girls’ Rights” highlights a few different periods through history when women and girls banded together to resist oppressive and sexist policies. Education for girls was banned when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Secret schools for girls sprung up during those five oppressive years, as the author describes, including under the guise of sewing circles. When Poland lost its independence in 1795, girls were forbidden to attend school but in 1882, an underground organization called Flying University was organized in Warsaw. And in 1907 when the Iranian government wouldn’t finance schooling for girls, a secret society in Tehran raised the necessary funds. 

A rogue chapter devoted to “Spy Schools,” describes top-secret, government-approved learning institutions, created for the purpose of serving the interests of the state. Here’s a critical question for readers to consider: Do spy schools control and subvert students rather than educate and uplift them? 

Also stretching the definition of secret schools is the final chapter titled “Radical Learning.” The first account describes university students in South Korea who set up illegal “study circles” in the 1980s, leading to organized protests and a push for democracy from military rule. A second account, better depicted as “under the public radar” rather than “top secret” describes American billionaire Elon Musk’s non-profit, experimental school, established in California in 2014 and focused on math and the sciences. As with the chapter on spy schools, it lends itself to critical discussion, especially about commercialization and privatization of schooling, and the value of also teaching the humanities along with math and the sciences. 

Most dramatic in this chapter on radical learning, is the secret school in Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta where children of suicide bombers “unlearn” the teaching of their parents, giving them a chance at a normal life.

Secret Schools offers many opportunities for instruction in the social studies classroom. Before students are exposed to the book’s content, the teacher could ask the class the following: Why would a secret school exist? List as many reasons as possible. Next, students in groups could be assigned a single chapter to read, summarize, and report-out to the class. A class discussion follows, based on two questions: What surprised you about these secret schools? What do you want to learn more about?  

In conclusion, students respond to the following question through a group discussion or written report: Have these stories changed your viewpoint about education? Explain. 

However educators choose to introduce this book into the classroom, it is certain readers will gain a new perspective about the world around them and their own role as students attending an “open” school.

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine