Student Review: Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol (reviewed by Nabeel N)

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's SchoolsSavage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Inherently Unequal. These are the words Jonathan Kozol uses to describe the education system in the US in his book, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. This book talks about the discrepancies in the education system and how race, money, and opportunities play big roles in education. The book looks at the everyday struggles that many children with poor backgrounds face when receiving an education. Kozol was a teacher at an all-black school, and found the lack of opportunities for his students alarming. He decided to set himself a new goal, educate students about the unequal opportunities in education. This is an issue that our government claims to be improving. Kozol gets fired for teaching about the differences between richer, white students’ education, and his students’ education. He decides to go tour the US and look into several different school districts and systems. He talks with students, teachers, and superintendents and compares a city education and a suburban education. Kozol finds the differences shocking.

Kozol blames the lack of support from the society for the low levels of academic performance, high rates of dropping out of high school, classroom discipline problems in inner-city schools. He also uses this as an explanation for low levels of college attendance or completion. However, Kozol’s view on inner city school’s issues are not entirely complete. Kozol’s major concern is the lack of funding toward these schools and feels as though, with funding, every student would do better. Although more funding to schools would help, having parents offer support for academics at home is a major key to success for students. The funding would help the teachers and give them more tools to teach with, but the strong support from home would boost the children to do better. Kozol seemed to only talk to the students that had fared well in school.

This book is about the tough realities of our schools and how students in suburban schools, like Newton South, should be thankful and make the most of the opportunity they have. This book should be read by high school students and teachers of all levels. It is not okay that race gets to dictate the chances one has to do better and get farther. This book is worth reading if you are interested in the differences among education systems in different parts of the country. ~ Student: Nabeel N.

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Girl in the Blue Coat, by Monica Hesse

Girl in the Blue CoatGirl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is historical fiction set in World War II Amsterdam. Our protagonist is Hanneke, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed teenager who works as a receptionist for an undertaker – but is really part of the undertaker’s extensive black market smuggling operation. When one of Hanneke’s regular black market customers asks for Hanneke’s help finding a missing Jewish teen (the Girl in the Blue Coat), Hanneke uncovers a resistance group and begins to understand the war on a whole new level. I liked the characters in this book and always enjoy seeing historical fiction told from an unexpected perspective. Don’t miss the interesting author notes at the end of the book that touch on Ms. Hesse’s extensive research for this novel. ~ Ms. Steiger

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Student Review: Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol (reviewed by Robin M)

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's SchoolsSavage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

America’s public schools systems are fair, good systems that give children a good education—that is, when those children are white and above the poverty line. Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities: Children in American Schools, began his career in education as a fourth grade teacher in an all black school in the Boston public school system. Kozol lost his job because he gave his 35 students an assignment to read Harlem by Langston Hughes. Kozol got fired because, according to the principal, this poem was too advanced for his fourth grade students; they received reading test scores comparable to a second grade level. After this teaching job, Kozol taught in a school in the suburbs of Boston, and it was completely different— the teachers cared. This difference piqued his interest, so Kozol visited schools in 30 cities around America to make sure that the school systems were doing their part in providing a good educational foundation for the youth of America; however, he found that they were doing the opposite.

According to Kozol, the worst public school systems in America are in major cities and in districts that have high levels of poverty. In addition to the vast difference between the level of education being received by the different districts, the lack of diversity was also very shocking. It does make sense that the schools that perform worse would be in districts of poverty, with less money to fund the schools; however, the representation of white students was almost nonexistent. “Most of the urban schools [Kozol] visited were 95 to 99 percent nonwhite. In no school that [he] saw were nonwhite children in large numbers truly intermingle with white children.” (3). These shocking real life statistics used by Kozol do a good job of providing the reader with real life examples and evoke the feelings of mistreatment that the students feel everyday.

Kozol’s analyzation of these school systems portrays the student’s feelings of deprivation and proves that they are aware of the unfair treatment, ‘“why should I go to war and fight for opportunities I can’t enjoy—for things rich people value, for their freedom, but I don’t have that freedom and I can’t go to their schools?”’ (127). Kozol makes the children feel heard; he gives them a voice. These voices are screaming for help—most of them know their almost inevitable future, drugs, crime and poverty, and only want the chance to prove themselves. ~ Student: Robin M.

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Student Review: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (reviewed by Harir Z)

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a world where we depend on Facebook to connect us to our friends; Thesaurus to find us yet another synonym for “good”; Paypal to send money our families across the oceans; and just about anything in between, schools in the United States are also becoming increasingly dependent upon electronic devices for a different reason: to educate their students.

Through the use of personal anecdotes, in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, he discusses the ideas of the linear and scattering minds, explaining that the internet’s accessibility deteriorates our attention spans; in other words, we can no longer read long books, or even longer articles, without getting bored. Through use of historical and present-day examples, Carr is effective in getting his points across. The author also integrates his personal experiences and provides a subtle comedic tone to an almost purely scientific topic; because of this, the book is a much more pleasurable and relatable read than a boring, informative one. While aspects of technical neuroscience are necessary in understanding the author’s point, he does not overbear the reader with information that is too technical. For example, in explaining the complexity of the brain’s response to the effects of being online, Carr describes it as: “through what we do and how we do it — moment by moment, day by day, consciously or unconsciously — we alter the chemical flows in our synapses and change our brains” (49).

Indirectly, Carr’s points pick at a greater problem we are faced with today: computers and education. Many schools in the United States, particularly high schools, are becoming progressively reliant on smartphones, computers and the internet as a whole; often, schools even administer students with their own tablet or personal computer. While there are clear benefits to having books, exams and research materials in one place, there are also distinct disadvantages to their prevalence in the world of education. The purpose of education is to introduce students to new ideas by engaging them through reading and discussion; however, the presence of this plethora of information is disengaging for students in the classroom, as they tend to cut corners in doing work. It is rare to find a student that writes an entire synthesis paper within the boundaries of the books they have read, and this is assuming they have read the books. Often students immediately turn to the internet as a primary source for their writing. ~ Student: Harir Z.

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Student Review: Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol (reviewed by Alexander G)

Savage Inequalities: Children in America's SchoolsSavage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools by Jonathan Kozol
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What would you do if your kids went to overpopulated schools with insufficient teachers, books, and in some cases, classrooms to learn? In Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Kozol travels from New York City to San Antonio to investigate this travesty. His findings bring out the de facto racism that is ingrained in the United States and reveal that even after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954, American public schools are still separate, and unequal. Kozol does an excellent job of explaining how US public schools contribute to the wage gap, racism, and the unfair socioeconomic divide in American society.

The massive wage gap that exists in the US starts with public schools. Kids believe that school doesn’t matter because of the sparse amount of teachers and resources in these schools. Without school, it is much harder for children to succeed, which leads them to drop out and work at a low paying job or go to prison. While visiting a kindergarten classroom in Chicago, Kozol makes the statement that “by junior year of high school… 14 of these 23 boys and girls will have dropped out of high school… four of these kids will go to college… one of those four may graduate from college”(55). These children are not given any opportunities from the beginning of their education. Lack of achievement contributes to the expanding wage gap in the United States because it creates a cycle for children from lower income families to stay below the poverty line. Without an education, these inner city children have no way to make it out of their low-income neighborhood.

Systematic racism results from underachieving public schools. Most of these schools Kozol visits are almost all Black and Latino. Many of these kids and their families struggle to pay bills and put food on the table. The parents are busy with jobs and other worries; children are given no attention and are left on their own, which can lead to bad decisions. According to the New York City Department of Corrections, “90 percent of the male inmates of the city’s prisons are former dropouts of the city’s public schools”(144). Many African Americans are stereotyped as negative roles in society because of a lack of opportunities, such as a poor education. In the early to mid-1900s, many minority groups were put into impoverished neighborhoods with high crime rates and bad schools. Because these school systems have been notorious for their dropout rates, these people are given no way out, which has led to generations of failure for some families. Kozol does a great job of connecting these social injustices and the education system, which can change opinions and preconceptions of some people, and educate the public about the origins of these oppressing stereotypes.

Kozol also points out that most white people are given a free pass in education since they tend to live in more suburban communities. While this does not hold true for all white people, the majority of high achieving schools contain a predominately white student population. They are sheltered from the hardships that other people in inner city schools have to face, and this only contributes to helping white people succeed instead diversifying the field of success. Predominately white schools succeed while predominately black and Latino schools fail “offers symbolism that protects the white society against the charges of racism”(236). These schools are majority white, which shelters the kids from systematic racism because they aren’t exposed to other socioeconomic backgrounds nor a diverse group of races.This takes away the opportunities that could be given to underprivileged children that would help them get out of their unfortunate circumstances. With a “divided and unequal education system that is still in place nearly, four decades after Brown”(236) schools remain separate from each other, and with many left with different classrooms, teachers, and dropout rates. The differences between majority white and majority black schools are devastating and give affluent whites advantages they don’t deserve. Kozol explains the huge gap between the two types of public schools, and to reach equality, the public education problem must be addressed. Kozol suggests that there should be more integration in suburban schools and that major cities, such as New York, should prioritize funding their public education system. He also notes that charter schools (which were brand new at the time) can also give children in low-income neighborhoods a much better education.
American public schools are great where the wealthy live, but give those in poverty and poorer communities no opportunities and no resources to make them successful. The divide in the public school system has contributed to racism and must be fixed to improve low-income communities. Kozol does a fantastic job of explaining this issue and giving reasoning of why schools must be set, which is why Savage Inequalities is a great read if you want to learn more about social injustice and the problems with education in the United States. ~ Student: Alexander G.

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The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon

The Sun Is Also a StarThe Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. Natasha and Daniel meet in New York City on what might just be the most important day of each of their lives. Natasha, an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica, is on her way to a meeting that might just be able to avert the deportation of her family that night. Daniel, the son of Korean immigrants, is on the way to his interview for Yale, what his parent’s call the second best university (Daniel’s older brother goes to #1 university – Harvard). The book chronicles the day they spend together as Daniel tries to use a scientific method published in The New York Times to get Natasha to fall in love with him. Since I listened to this in audio via the Axis 360 app, it almost felt like Natasha and Daniel’s twelve hours together were unfurling in real time. ~ Ms. Steiger

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The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

The MothersThe Mothers by Brit Bennett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(This is a review of an ARC from NetGalley.)

This book tells the story of Nadia, her high school boyfriend, Luke, and best friend Aubrey. They are growing up in a poor Southern California town and are members of the same black church. Luke, the pastor’s son, had his college football career ended by an injury. Nadia’s mother has recently committed suicide. Aubrey has fled from home to live with her sister to escape an abusive stepfather. Nadia and Luke’s relationship ends badly but the smoldering embers of it will go on to impact all three for years to come. The Mothers in the title are the older ladies in the church whose meddling impacts them all.

I felt that this story seemed almost timeless. It was about coming to grips with tragedies and failures and simply finding your way in the world. The many references to the church community made it seem a little old fashioned to me. Occasionally there would be a reference to email or cell phone and I would remember that it had a contemporary setting. ~ Ms. Steiger

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Spontaneous, by Aaron Starmer

SpontaneousSpontaneous by Aaron Starmer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

(This is a review of an ARC from Edelweiss)

You think your senior year was stressful? Trust me, it’s got nothing on what’s going on at Covington High. The seniors there are so tense they’re ready to explode. Literally.

When a case of spontaneous combustion breaks out among the senior class – and begins spreading – Mara Carlyle takes it the way any cliche-ridden teenager would: cracking jokes, doing drugs, and hooking up with a new boy. Luckily her best friend Tess is there to talk her down, and the new boy, Dylan is mysterious and surrounded by rumors (burned down a store? fathered triplets? maybe!) Throw in government agent who implies there’s more to what’s going on than it seems, and you have what could be a great, dark-humored read.

I really wanted to like this. But oy, it just didn’t work for me. The premise was there, if not entirely new (Heathers? Buffy?) but Starmer just couldn’t seem to pull it over the goal-line. The ending peters out and you just never get any answers or resolution for the characters, which irritated me. Even if I don’t like a character, I want to know what happens to them!

And I didn’t like the characters. The main problem is Mara – she’s just an incredibly unpleasant character – and that was before the kids started exploding. Yes, she’s far too cool for school, and for this book even. I had no interest in what she was thinking or doing, and couldn’t figure out why any of the other characters were so interested in talking to her either.  – Ms. Schoen

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The Movie Version by Emma Wunsch

The Movie VersionThe Movie Version by Emma Wunsch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a review of an ARC from NetGalley. Spoilers ahoy!

Amelia’s life could be a standard sit-com set-up: white, middle-class family in upstate New York, parents run a restaurant, two cute fighting twin younger brothers, and a handsome, popular, adored older brother. But when Amelia comes home form a summer baby-sitting gig, something is off. Her older brother Toby has changed dramatically, and spends all day locked in his room getting high, or scribbling furiously in a notebook.

It becomes clear fairly quickly that Toby’s problem is more than just drugs, and that there’s something seriously wrong. Amelia tries to cover for her brother – partially out of sibling loyalty, and partially because she is too wrapped up in her own life (new boyfriend, learning to drive) to worry about her brother. But after Toby has a psychotic break, no one can ignore it anymore. The book centers around how Amelia and her family cope with the situation. Amelia’s main response is to think about how all of this will affect her. Is that the perfect behavior? No. Is it normal for a 16-year-old (or really, for a human being)? yes.

I’ve seen some complaints that the book treats mental illness as a plot device, and that the characters don’t treat mental illness appropriately. But I think the main issue is that the blurb makes it seem like it’s going to be a fun light romance, and it’s definitely not. This is a serious book about a teenage girl coping with a sick brother. She doesn’t handle everything perfectly, or even particularly well. But to me that felt honest.

One issue I did have was the sex scenes. I have no problem with them being there, but the writing was – awkward, and felt a bit gratuitous. They could easily have been toned down or taken out and not hurt the plot or character development. – Ms Schoen

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Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

Let the Great World SpinLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this at once a challenging and affecting book. Set predominantly in the violent, gritty New York City of the 1970s, this story brilliantly weaves together a slew of disparate lives: an Irish monk and his beloved brother, a mother-daughter pair of prostitutes, a hippy artist, two grieving mothers; one an aristocrat and the other a black woman living in public housing; and the tight rope walker who stunned the world with his audacious walk between the twin towers. The setting and tone are dark and depressing, but the characters’ feelings and motivations are so vividly drawn that I developed a deep empathy for them all. McCann does a masterful job of thrusting the reader deep into psyche of each of his highly distinct characters. Others have described this as a social novel, an apt but perhaps oversimplified description. Read this for a glimpse at pre 9/11 New York City, and a window onto a world vastly different from your own. ~ Ms Dimmick

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