October 01, 2003 5 min read
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Prep for Prep Graduates Share Their Stories

compiled and introduced by Gary Simons
(Algonquin, 374 pages, $12.95)

For several years in the 1970s, New York City public school teacher Gary Simons was able to get scholarships to a number of independent high schools in Manhattan for some of his brightest Bronx students. Too often, however, these students from disadvantaged backgrounds floundered and dropped out, unable to succeed at private schools on the other side of the academic and cultural divide. So in 1978, Simons devised a new program, dubbed “Prep for Prep,” to prime New York public school students for elite East Coast academies like Phillips Exeter and Hotchkiss.

Still thriving today, the program tests the mettle of participating students, teaching them everything from algebra to Shakespeare. As Simons explains in the introduction to this moving book, Prep students are expected over the course of 14 months to attend two intensive summer school sessions as well as Wednesday afternoon and Saturday classes from September to June—all on top of their regular school courses. To date, some 75 percent of the more than 2,800 students who have gone through the program have matriculated at independent schools, making Prep for Prep a model for other programs nationwide.

While Simons maps out the philosophical underpinnings of the program—a shared culture of purpose and accomplishment is at its heart—the book is mostly a showcase for some 35 dramatic, if simply told, stories contributed by Prep alumni, most of them now pursuing Ivy League graduate programs or professional careers. Some write of their immigrant roots, how they escaped political oppression in China, war in Africa, or homelessness in the Caribbean. Others tell of drug-addicted siblings, of being bullied for liking to read, of a heroic parent or relative who somehow saw them through it all.

Although the details of their stories differ, the alumni are remarkably similar in one key way: They have always had strong faith in their ability to succeed, even as children. “The truth is, I believed I could do anything,” says one African American alumna, who went on to graduate from Brown University. Another contributor describes how surprised he was to see fellow African American students at Harvard suffering feelings of worthlessness after the publication, in 1994, of The Bell Curve, which suggested that blacks are intellectually inferior. He and another Prep alum, he writes, “did not suffer a crisis of self-doubt. We recognized the polemical tract as simply a strategic assault on the value of people of color.”

Prep, Simons writes, teaches students that they—not their race—are the masters of their fates. He asserts that students who “define the world of ambition and professional success as ‘the white world’ have fallen victim to the worst ravages that racism has wreaked on our collective psyche.”

While Prep for Prep doesn’t necessarily instill confidence in its young recruits, it clearly helps prevent its corrosion. Many contributors write about the unhappy fates of equally bright friends in other schools who succumbed to the pressures of low expectations and other destructive behaviors. They attribute much of their own success to the positive peer pressure that Prep provided. As one Latino alum writes, “I learned that striving to do your best and reaching for your dreams didn’t have to be a lonely burden or existence.”

None of this is to suggest that a limited project like Prep for Prep can come close to solving our nation’s massive educational problems. Still, as this inspiring book makes clear, it is an undeniably powerful program that bolsters the skills and aspirations of disadvantaged youngsters who would have a slim chance at success without it.

What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us
About Our Kids

by Barbara Strauch
(Doubleday, 242 pages, $24.95)

Until recently, scientists thought that the human brain was fully wired in early childhood and that challenging teenage behavior was due primarily to hormonal and environmental influences. But Strauch, a health and medical editor for the New York Times, draws on new research to show that profound neural changes occur right through adolescence and have a strong influence on teenage behavior.

She points out, for example, that the frontal cortex, commonly known as the brain’s “policeman,” is among the latest areas to fully develop, which may explain why teenagers tend to act on impulse. Another part of the brain that doesn’t mature until the early 20s helps determine a person’s ability to recognize social cues. This, Strauch writes, may be the reason some teenagers are socially awkward and lack empathy.

Strauch’s book is entertaining as well as informative. It’s amusing, for example, to see leading neurologists expatiate on the adolescent brain and then admit that their own teenagers are driving them crazy. A mother of teenagers herself, Strauch offers wise counsel in light of the new research. She urges parents to stop trying to be friends with their children. What adolescents really need, she insists, is for adults to play the role of the fully developed frontal cortex. Parents and teachers should also take some comfort from the old maxim “They’ll grow out of it,” which, Strauch notes here, now has “a modern, scientific foundation.”

How Teaching Can Inspire Real Learning in the Classroom

by Sam M. Intrator
(Yale, 192 pages, $23)

Intrator, an assistant professor of education at Smith College, spent a year sitting in on the English classes of a suburban California public school teacher known for his ability to get his students “tuned in and fired up.” In writing about that year, Intrator makes a number of revealing observations about what makes the teacher—we know him only by the pseudonym “Mr. Quinn"—so successful. High on the list is that Mr. Quinn is constantly “tuned in and fired up” himself. His own passion for writing and literature is genuine and contagious.

As described by Intrator, Mr. Quinn also has the virtues of being profoundly human and a wonderful person. He unabashedly apologizes to students when he makes a mistake, leading one boy to say, “I’ve never had a teacher apologize for anything.” Although he teaches at a large (unnamed) school, with more than 30 students in each class, Mr. Quinn gets to know his young charges personally, not just as students but as people, and routinely checks in with them around campus.

In the classroom, he is a master at leading discussions that are “conversant,” Intrator writes, “rather than didactic.” Young teachers reading this book will learn many valuable things, but the most important message here is that good teaching is more a matter of passion and human connection than of practiced technique.

—David Ruenzel


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