Student Review: Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto (reviewed by Phoebe B.)

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory SchoolingDumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One would think that someone who has been teaching in the public school system for 30 years would have minimal complaints about their job. John Taylor Gatto, however, has a nearly endless list of criticisms about America’s public school system in Dumbing Us Down. In this book, which is a collection of his own essays and speeches, he brings up many radical, uncommon ways to fix problems that he believes are catastrophic to students, teachers, and entire communities. Gatto is successful in opening the reader’s eyes and bringing up thought-provoking ideas, all with the aim of showing that the public education system is teaching students to function like machines. On the other hand, some of his ideas aren’t strongly backed up with quality evidence, as there are few legitimate statistics.

One example of an idea that Gatto strongly persuades readers to consider is that school is hindering the amount of family time students have. In his own words, he claims that “[Schools] separate parents and children from vital interaction with each other and from true curiosity about each other’s lives” (65). He blames the long days of school as the main reason for this, as it limits the time students spend with their families. This concept is relatable to all readers of Dumbing us Down, as it is in everyone’s interest to spend more quality time with their family, making this a successful point.

However, some of Gatto’s ideas leave the reader scratching their head. When talking about the benefits of being homeschooled, and that “…you don’t need officially certified teachers in officially certified schools to get a good education” (48), he doesn’t bring up a single statistic, whether it be about a difference in scores, social abilities, or overall satisfaction. Rather, he demolishes the idea of networks and how they “do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that they can manage human social and psychological needs” (51). Also, he fails to mention the massive number of job losses that would occur if legitimate school systems didn’t exist, whether it be teachers, janitors, or parents who now have to educate their children full-time. A major lack of direct evidence to support some of his ideas makes this collection a less reliable source, as there are often not facts, but weakly supported opinions.

Waiting for Superman is an excellent example of the benefits of facts. The film appears to be reliable, as strong facts are thrown left and right, leaving the viewer with more confidence in agreeing with the points made. Yes, the film is like Dumbing Us Down, created based on an opinion, but the abundance of facts in Waiting for Superman provides exactly what Gatto is missing: evidence-based arguments.

Overall, Dumbing Us Down brings up many ideas on the issues of public schools, including many that are unconventional and interesting. Gatto pulls the reader in successfully with a book that immediately starts with bashing the public school system, showing what he is expected to do as a teacher and how it is harming students. Nevertheless, the arguments in his book have an aggressive tone, and his immense use of strident, unconventional opinions hang in the air, unsupported by facts or statistics, making his argument weaker. ~ Student: Phoebe B.

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Student Review: Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto (reviewed by Henry W.)

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory SchoolingDumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Writer, teacher, and strong advocate of taking education and learning back from the government, John Taylor Gatto provides us with a well articulated treatise that leaves readers questioning our current school system. Gatto gives us a great review of how compulsory government schooling is just teaching the kids of America to follow orders like robots, rather than actually learn what is being taught in the school system.

Gatto describes that children are learning subjects “like they learn the catechism or memorize the Thirty-nine Articles of Anglicanism”(pg.3), sharing his view that children are learning everything the wrong way. Gatto’s solution to navigating the “tricks and traps” (pg. 104) of the school system is to get the parents of the children in these schools to teach them the things schools can’t such as being a leader, thinking critically and being able to act independently. However, bad school systems often times lead kids to fail and it’s not the kids fault but rather the schools fault. In the movie Waiting for Superman, a film about the state of public education in America, these schools are called “dropout factories”. These schools are given this nickname for the obvious reason that most of the kids who attend it end up dropping out. Like in the film, Gatto describes these compulsory school systems to be failing the kids by teaching them through the “hidden curriculum”. This destructive hidden curriculum is given by Gatto as the seven different lessons that he teaches. These lessons are confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem and one can’t hide. One of these lessons that really stands out is indifference. As shown in Waiting for Superman, classes can oftentimes be a huge waste of time where teachers can babble on for an hour and the students wouldn’t learn a thing, or classes can be run where the teacher feels no need to really teach anything because it simply doesn’t matter. This indifference of the importance of each individual lesson leads to students going from class not caring too much about anything. This basically means that when you switch between classes during the day, you stop caring/learning about what was in that class, and now you just learn about xyz in the next class.

Gatto also gives readers two excellent “official” ways to look at the state of education in the United States as well as how many people think we need to solve the education systems problems. Like in Waiting for Superman, Gatto correctly explains how many are blaming the failing schooling system on “bad teachers, poor textbooks, incompetent administrators, evil politicians”(pg. 85) etc, and all we need to do to fix this problem is just fire the bad teachers! Get rid of the evil politicians! However, reality is not so kind as to make it that simple. The evidence of this is clear if we all look at the large number of “industries that claim power to cure mass education of its frictions or of its demons in exchange for treasure” (pg. 85). This idea of being able to just fire a bad teacher to fix the problems of a school is shown in Waiting for Superman. One superintendent tried to do this in order to try and give his students a better education, but he was unsuccessful due to tenure. As Gatto explains, there is no “quick fix” to all of the major problems in our school system, and any change will take time and careful thought. ~ Student: Henry W.

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LaRose by Louise Erdrich

LaRoseLaRose by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a big Louise Erdrich fan and this novel did not disappoint. Set on the outskirts of a Native American reservation the story begins with tragedy: a neighbor accidentally shoots and kill’s his neighbor’s 6 year-old son while hunting in their adjacent woods. In an effort to provide solace and justice to the suffering family, he and his wife, who is a half-sister to the child’s mother, “give” their youngest son LaRose to the family. The rest of the story is dedicated to the collective grief the two families suffer and the family histories that led them to this point. The story is gripping at times with lots of foreboding and beautiful metaphors. The characters are complex and well-wrought and the history of mistreatment and exploitation of Native Americans is palpable throughout. A highly recommended read. ~ Ms Dimmick

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Turtles All the Way DownTurtles All the Way Down by John Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed revisiting John Green’s smart, snappy, snarky, funny prose after a long break. I also appreciated his insight into the mind of an obsessive, compulsive teen, something he portrayed with empathy and realism. The plot, a “mystery,” definitely felt like a device for him to explore the characters and their relationships, which didn’t bother me much because that part was done well, but a mystery reader would be seriously disappointed by the predictability and anticlimactic nature of the ending. Read it if you’re a John Green fan or if you suffer from or want to learn more about obsessive compulsive disorder. ~ Ms Dimmick

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The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

The MothersThe Mothers by Brit Bennett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Mothers was an enjoyable read with a disappointing ending. The lack of a complete narrative arc left me wondering what the point of the story was, and in fact I wondered whether it was written as a cautionary tale for those considering abortion. Though the message was not actively anti-abortion, the teenaged abortion in this story seems to have left an indelible mark on the prospective mother, father, grandparents, friends and an entire church for years to come. Then again, the protagonist’s mother, who was apparently depressed over her fate which was decided at a young age due to an unplanned pregnancy, committed suicide. Maybe the message is just not to risk an unplanned pregnancy because you’re damned either way. The story was well-written, but felt unfinished. ~ Ms Dimmick

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A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline

A Piece of the WorldA Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, a wonderful work of well-researched historical fiction. I’m a sucker for anything set in Maine, and when you add in a fictionalized but realistic account of the backstory of one of my favorite works of American art, Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, I’m a goner. The characters are fully developed and the alternately bleak and beautiful setting in mid-coast Maine is so vivid I can feel the fog on my face and the dried field grass prickling my feet. As is the case with all good historical fiction, I found myself learning about what life was like during a bygone era while being fully transported by the story. Be warned, however, this is not an uplifting book. Life was hard and disappointing, and you will suffer with Christina as you read it, but it will be worth it. ~Ms Dimmick

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Royals by Rachel Hawkins

RoyalsRoyals by Rachel Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a review of an advance reader copy, the book is scheduled to be published May 2018.

Daisy Winters is not exactly your typical Florida teenager – sure she’s got a job at the local convenience store, boy troubles and all the standard teen drama, but she’s also got an mermaid princess hair, an ex-British rock star for a father, and oh yeah, a sister who just got engaged to the future King of Scotland.

Hawkins was clearly *thrilled* with the announcement of Meghan Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry – the timing could not have been better for her YA romance. The story follows Daisy as she heads to Scotland for the summer to meet her royal soon to be in-laws, dodging paparazzi and drunken minor royals. There were a few too many barely sketched out characters – if even Daisy can’t keep the group of friends around the prince’s younger brother straight, how is the reader supposed to? – and the main “villain,” the current Queen of Scotland, is a bit one-note. The romance ends up exactly where you think it will, but that’s perfectly fine for this sort of book. Something nice and fun to read while waiting for the real royal wedding.

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Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary GraceOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beautifully written with achingly wrought characters, it’s hard to conceive of this novel as a murder mystery because at its heart is is a coming of age story for two unremarkable midwestern boys in the summer of 1961. Drawn more than told by 13 year-old Frank, or rather 50 year-old Frank reflecting on the disastrous events of the summer he reckoned with racial prejudice, class, bullying, sex, passion, grief, murder, miracles, and faith and was thrust into adulthood. Krueger’s descriptions of summer in Minnesota in the 1960s are so evocative you can hear the chirping of the crickets and taste the Kool-Aid on your tongue, all the while turning pages swiftly to discover the next foreshadowed disaster to befall this charming small town. Echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird are felt here, with the strong sense of place, the flawless moral bearing of Frank’s father, Pastor Nathan Drum, and the loss of innocence that comes from eavesdropping on adult conversations that are not meant for children’s ears. This one will stick with me for a long time to come. ~ Ms Dimmick

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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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