Student Review: Among Schoolchildren, by Tracy Kidder (reviewed by Brianna W.)

Among SchoolchildrenAmong Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Imagine being a child’s doctor, lawyer, psychologist, and teacher all before 7:30 AM. Chris Zajac does this every day. In Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder, Kidder sits in a classroom and observes Chris Zajac’s fifth grade class for an entire school year. Mrs. Zajac teaches in Holyoke Massachusetts, which at the time of the book is struggling with poverty. This book explores what it is like to teach and learn in a neighborhood where most people are living below the poverty line. These challenges are something most people have never experienced, and it opens the reader’s eyes to what it is like to teach and learn in this environment. Mrs. Zajac is an upbeat, caring teacher who does all she can for her students. While this book tackles the problem of teaching in poverty, the book can be repetitive and too detailed. Among Schoolchildren has many connections to Waiting for Superman because it is clear that Mrs. Zajac needs a saving figure to help many of these children.

Holyoke is an impoverished old mill city. Growing up in Newton, I have never experienced this type of poverty, especially not in school. However, after reading this book, I realize that perhaps there are kids like Mrs. Zajacs’, and I just don’t know about them. This situation is very similar to Waiting for Superman because many kids in the movie could not afford private school; therefore, they need to suffer in their old public schools. While the book does not talk about kids wanting to leave, the situations they are facing are similar. Kidder presents in great detail the many different children in the class and their extreme challenges, such as disobedience, disrespect, fighting, and learning disabilities. The reader feels as if he or she is actually in the classroom setting.

Showing what it is like to learn and teach in a poor area is the best aspect of the book. Kidder does an excellent job revealing how students respond to Mrs. Zajac’s positive teaching style. In describing one student’s positive reaction, Kidder writes, “He’d make a drawing for her, or write an anonymous love note, and for a while tiptoe around her, saying his pleases and thank-yous…He liked her too and he needed her” (159). Mrs. Zajac helps students overcome their tough home lives and balance this with successful schoolwork. Many students have rough home lives in both the book and the movie; many students “looked shabby and dejected” at first, but after Mrs. Zajac helped them and taught them many looked “neat and pert” (77). This is the biggest difference between Among Schoolchildren and Waiting for Superman because Mrs. Zajac is an incredible teacher who truly cares about her students. Waiting for Superman talks more about what teachers need to do in order to improve, rather than focusing on the amazing teachers.

While Among Schoolchildren opened my eyes to what school would be like in a poor environment, it is overly repetitive when talking about each child. Chapter two of the “Homework” section (72-107) is spent explaining what each child got on a test and why Mrs. Zajac believes they received their scores. While it is important to explain grades and expectations, it does not need to take up this much space.

Mrs. Zajac has a difficult time getting a student named Clarence to put in effort to learn. She spends many hours after class working with him and many hours on the weekend worrying about him. Kidder shows the reader how much teachers care about their students and how they will do all they can to help them improve. Much of the “Sent Away” section of the book is spent talking about how to help Clarence and what would be the best way to help him learn. It is eventually decided that Clarence will leave Mrs. Zajac’s class and go to a class called “Alpha.” Mrs. Zajac sends Clarence “into a notorious group of troublemakers” (185). Here Kidder shows that even the best of teachers can feel like they fail their students. Mrs. Zajac “thought about Robert. ‘He’s my failure, I guess. Him and Clarence.’” Clarence is just one example of the difficult students in Mrs. Zajac’s classroom. By giving detailed descriptions of the back and forth between Mrs. Zajac and her difficult students, Kidder reveals the hard truth of teaching.

Among Schoolchildren shows the reader the difficult side of schooling in a poor city. Kidder’s detailed descriptions reveal the positives and negatives of teaching and learning in this environment. Most importantly, the book portrays how teachers truly care about their students and try to do everything they can for them. ~ Student: Brianna W.

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Student Review: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, by Monique Morris (reviewed by Susannah K.)

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in SchoolsPushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique Morris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not many nonfiction books start out with a playful rhyme and the story of how an eleven-year-old began to call herself a “ho.” Monique W. Morris begins her book Pushout this way and makes it work. It draws the reader in, and invests them in the story of eleven-year-old Danisha with her “baby face.” She is already a prostitute at such a young age. Morris explains to the reader what lead to this happening. She then uses this, and many other interviews to drive home her point: black girls are being criminalized all too often in schools. She has interviews from black girls in all different schools and situations who give examples of how they have been treated unfairly-sometimes even violently-just for being black and a woman. Pushout helps people to understand just how serious the problem of black girls being treated unfairly is and to sympathize with them more than they ever have before.

Although Pushout is extremely detailed and great for getting an inside look into black girls in schools, the language can be heavy and difficult to unpack. For some, it might discourage them from reading a book on such an important and relevant topic. The interviews, since they were done of children and teens, were simpler and more understandable. However, Morris’s explanations of these interviews could be hard for some to thoroughly interpret because of the complex language. This book is important for people of all ages, races, genders, etc. to read because of how it shines a light on a topic that seems to be shoved under the rug. It would be even better if the language was slightly simpler, so more people who should read it are able to.

Another major topic that was important for Morris to talk about is the school to prison pipeline. When black girls, or others in general, are criminalized in schools, that leads to them getting in trouble with the law outside of school as well. If a girl is constantly berated for dress code violations, being too loud, and other small offenses, they are not going to want to go to school. Not going to school generally leads to getting in trouble with the law, or just being in the wrong crowds of people. Pushout emphasizes the importance of stopping this with the interviews that are used throughout the entire book.

Yet another great addition to Pushout was all the resources and extra facts in the back. After completing this book, the reader might be wondering “What now?” Having a whole slew of additional questions, facts, resources, etc. allows the reader to answer this question and see what else they can do. This is a very helpful idea, and if more nonfiction books included something similar, more people might actually be active in helping others.

Overall, Pushout is an incredible book that definitely deserves more popularity than it has now. How black girls are treated in schools, specifically how they are criminalized, is something that everyone should be aware of. If people are aware of it, they can also start learning how to spot it and actively end it. Adults reading it can inspire others in their community, and teens can help out their black female peers to receive the best education they possibly can. ~ Student Review: Susannah K.

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Student Review: The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner (reviewed by Daniel H.)

The Global Achievement Gap: Why Our Kids Don't Have the Skills They Need for College, Careers, and Citizenship—and What We Can Do About ItThe Global Achievement Gap: Why Our Kids Don’t Have the Skills They Need for College, Careers, and Citizenship—and What We Can Do About It by Tony Wagner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many American students would expect the United States to be a leading country in healthcare and education but in fact the United States is ranked 17th in educational performance in the world.

The education system is faulty at its core since it is stuck in a trance teaching to the methods that were developed for the past. Nowadays employers are expecting students who know and can fluidly use the seven survival skills. These skills are proven to be necessary in the book by Tony Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap. This book looks at how the schools are using multiple choice tests designed by the state to see where their students are on their literacy and mathematical skills. The problem with many of these test as Wagner puts it is “these tests do not indicate whether a student is ready for college even if they achieved a passing score” As I was reading this book I agreed with many of Wagner’s points. As a high school student I often feel that that the class is just teaching for the final test. It is not just Wagner who believes that the schools are not preparing their students adequately for high education. In the documentary Waiting for Superman the film mentioned the unreliability of state tests since they are incredibly skewed and often solely prepared for during the year.

As mentioned earlier the new skills needed for the future aren’t test taking but the seven survival skills. These skills are in high demand by employers because students with these skills know how to work with a team, problem solve, communicate with others and are curious to learn. Wagner spends a chapter interviewing successful business leaders on what they look for in their employees, and each one responded with the seven skills. In a study of elementary schools funded by the National Health Institute researchers concluded their research with this “In a course of 20 minutes the majority is spent watching the teacher do problems or working on a worksheet alone with minimal feedback. Few opportunities were provided to work in small groups and work on analytical skills.” This form of teaching which is very linear and focused on math and English is due to the “No Child Left Behind” Law. Due to this law schools are tested every year on these skills and many receive the needs improvement standard. This is why Wagner says the state tests can be questioned for their effectiveness. The school’s focus all their time and money on the two subjects tested while cutting out the classes and skills that prepare students for post education.

The documentary Waiting for Superman blames the failing schools as the fault of the teachers. Although it may seem logical to blame the teachers who have proven failures, it is not justified to blame all teachers for the failing students. It can’t be the fault of the teachers themselves since their training is mainly consisted of the core classes such as English, history and math. When Wagner interviewed dozens of teachers they all said “With very few courses that teach how to be effective teachers and none on how to be a change -leader or even to supervise teachers effectively.” Without the proper skills teachers can’t be expected to do their job effectively. Wagner explains a major reason why schools fail is due to the faculty’s lack of understanding for the current challenges in schools and classrooms. This book provides extensive proof for the need to change the current way our education system is run. It should be important for everyone to understand that passing the test is not enough. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to do more for their education.
~ Student Review: Daniel H.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book covers a lot of ground and it does it very well. Starr is a 16-year old African American girl living in a poor inner-city neighborhood while attending a private school for mostly white students about 45 minutes from her home. That alone could be a book as Starr describes the balancing act of straddling all her worlds — home, with her close-knit family (dad owns a grocery in the hood and mom is a RN, uncle is a cop); school, with her mostly white friends (who are sometimes inadvertently racist and often clueless), and in the neighborhood, where she tries to maintain relationships with her two oldest friends, Khalil and Kenya. Starr’s parents had enrolled her in private school after her best friend was gunned down in a drive-by shooting when they were ten. But that won’t be Starr’s only brush with violence. The bulk of the novel covers the aftermath of Khalil’s death, which Starr also witnesses. Angie Thomas has written a very balanced and well crafted story that should move to the top of your “To Read” pile. – Ms. Steiger

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The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am struggling to write this review in the same way I struggled to read the book. I am torn between tremendous admiration for the author’s creativity and thorough research and my grudging admission that the novel failed to truly transport me the way a five-star novel should. Whitehead’s unflinching portrayal of the savage inhumanity of American slavery is an important if not entertaining read. He manages to pack it all in, from slave ships, to depraved plantation owners, to medical experimentation and sterilization, to sadistic slave catchers. His overlay of magical realism by employing an actual, physical underground railroad to transport slaves from the deep south to the free north is brilliant. The writing is well-crafted and the pace is swift. Despite all of this, I had to push my way through this book, and my hesitation wasn’t solely attributable to the harsh and violent realities it portrayed. I agree with other reviewers who felt they were kept at a remove from characters, either because they were underdeveloped or because the story was told in the third person. I felt the nonfiction objective of this book overpowered the fictional structure it was built upon. It was as though Whitehead wanted construct a complete litany of the abuses associated with this nation’s heritage of slavery more than he wanted to tell a compelling story. The story was a vehicle for the litany. A well crafted vehicle, for sure, but not really a five-star novel. ~ Ms Dimmick

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One of Us Is Lying, by Karen McManus

One of Us Is LyingOne of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a review of an ARC from NetGalley.

Five students walk into detention. Four walk out – and one leaves in a body bag.

The Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars  (with a little Gossip Girl thrown in) in this YA thriller. Everyone in detention that day had a reason to hate Simon, the creator of Bayview High’s gossip app. Was it the golden boy star pitcher? The drug-dealer? The popular girl? The brain? (see what I mean about The Breakfast Club?) The case soon gains the attention of the national media and the kids find them selves forming an uneasy friendship as they try to prove their innocence while wondering if one of them is lying. Things get even more uneasy when someone starts sending anonymous emails across the school claiming to have planned the murder and framed the group for it.

This one is definitely more the Agatha Christie puzzle mystery than a dark Swedish thriller. The twists and turns were in some cases predictable, especially when it came to the romance, but it was a fun ride to follow along with. The book drags a bit in the middle while you’re waiting for more clues to show up, but the end was a satisfying solution that tied up the loose ends nicely. Mystery lovers and fans of the movies and series mentioned above should enjoy it. — Ms Schoen

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Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia

Enter Title HereEnter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having recently watched my own kids navigate the college admissions process and hearing about it every day in my high school library, I was really interested in reading this book. Reshma is a high school senior, the expected valedictorian of her class and desperate to get into Stanford. Her grades are good, but her SATs are weak by Stanford standards — Reshma needs a hook to pull her into Stanford.  Reshma decides that her hook will be this book she’s writing (and you are reading), which will chronicle her senior year and her fight to retain her position as valedictorian — by any means necessary.

I didn’t love this book, but Ms. Schoen really did — so if it appeals to you, don’t be put off by my 3-star rating. ~ Ms. Steiger

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Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Do I really need to say any more? Set in Texas, Ari and Dante are two Mexican-American teens who strike up a friendship at the town pool over the summer. This was a great audio book, and probably just as great to read if you are a fan of YA realistic fiction. I listened to it on the Axis 360 App if you want the audio book. ~ Ms. Steiger

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A Good Idea by Cristina Moracho

A Good IdeaA Good Idea by Cristina Moracho
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Finley and Betty were friends for years before Finley’s parents split up and she moved to NYC with her mom. They remained close because Finley returned to their small town in Maine every summer to live with her dad. But the fall of their senior year, when they were both supposed to be applying to NYU, Betty died under mysterious circumstances. Finley is convinced that Betty was killed by her boyfriend and sets out to prove it when she returns for the summer following graduation. This is a gritty mystery with lots of twists and turns. ~ Ms. Steiger

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Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

Highly Illogical BehaviorHighly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I listened to this book on the Axis 360 app available through the NSHS Library. Solomon is agoraphobic and hasn’t been seen by his peers since middle school. Lisa, a high school junior, decides she is going to “fix” Solomon in order to use him as fodder for her college application essay. This idea may seem far-fetched in some places, but I’ve heard crazier “getting into college schemes” in our area. Somehow Lisa’s boyfriend Clark gets pulled into the scheme — I don’t quite remember how. The three become fast friends until they’re not… This a quick, funny read that also speaks to more serious issues such as mental health. It is a great pick for fans of realistic fiction by John Green and Robyn Schneider. ~ Ms. Steiger

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