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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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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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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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The Memory Book, by Lara Avery

The Memory BookThe Memory Book by Lara Avery
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to this book on the Axis 360 app. The book originally came to my attention from a book review I read last spring. But when I was ready for a new book, I wasn’t exactly sure I wanted another book about a sick teenager. Yes, 18-year old Sammie was recently diagnosed with a genetic brain disease that will cause dementia and eventually death. Normally kids with this disease don’t even make it to high school. This has thrown quite a wrench into Sammie’s plans, which were big since she is a national-level debater and had already been accepted to NYU.

Despite my initial reservations, I was glad to have read this book, even if I ended up weeping in the parking lot as the book drew to a close. The author has structured the narrative in the form of a book that Sammie is writing to her future self to help her remember her life as the dementia sets in. She is sarcastic and funny, and not a little bit hard on herself at times. ~ Ms. Steiger

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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 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 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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Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the EndBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such an important book, for anyone with aging parents, or a terminally ill loved one, or anyone who expects to be fortunate enough to age and die some day themselves. I wish it offered more solutions to the many challenges of our nascent assisted living and hospice systems, but nonetheless this book is more about hope than hopelessness. Gawande is a compassionate soul who writes intelligently about the things no one wants to talk about, and why that’s a real problem. He delivers a critically important message for all of us, and most especially the medical community. Thank you Dr. Gawande, for your compassion and your honesty. ~ Ms Dimmick

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Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman

Challenger DeepChallenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Challenger Deep is a perfect example of why reading fiction is so valuable. Studies show that reading fiction builds empathy, and in this case a reader’s empathy is developed by inhabiting the troubled mind of Caden, a promising teenaged boy who is descending into severe mental illness. No matter how much nonfiction I read about schizophrenia and related psychotic diseases, I would never grow to appreciate the terrorizing experience of losing touch with reality, increasing paranoia and compelling hallucinations the way that I did by reading this book. The author’s son helped to illustrate the book, and provided the insight necessary to bring it to life, based on his personal experience as a teen with mental illness. This was at times difficult to read, not only due to the nature of the topic, but also because of the way in which the narrative switched sporadically between Caden’s real life and his hallucinated one. The latter was disturbing and filled with symbolic connections to reality that kept me guessing and hoping for a pathway back to normalcy. This is an important book, and I’m grateful that the author and his son had the strength to write it. ~ Ms Dimmick

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