CLASS DISMISSED: A Year in the Life of an American High School, a Glimpse Into the Heart of a Nation, by Meredith Maran. (St. Martin’s Press, 301 pages, $23.95.) Berkeley High School, the subject of this compelling if peculiar new book, may be unique among American schools. The only public high school in the famously radical city its denizens affectionately term “Berserkeley,” Berkeley High is to diversity what the Florida presidential election was to confusion. Its 3,200 students include homeless kids, offspring of Nobel laureates, drug addicts, and budding entrepreneurs, not to mention a multitude of racial and ethnic groups. Each spring, the University of California and Ivy League colleges snap up its top-rung seniors, while those on the bottom are lucky to graduate and find minimum wage jobs.
Sadly, the “top” kids are mainly white and affluent. They take advanced placement courses and hire pricey college counselors. The “bottom” students, on the other hand, are mostly poor Latinos and blacks. These kids take classes in the Computer Academy, the school’s low-track “ghetto.” Berkeley High may be the model of diversity, but, as Maran shows, it’s still an American high school, unofficially segregated by race and income.
Maran, a journalist and author whose own children graduated from Berkeley High, explores the school’s stratified social and academic culture by following three students during their senior year: Jordon, a white boy from a wealthy family who hopes to attend prestigious Bard College; Autumn, a gifted, hard-working African American girl who worries about how she is going to pay for college; and Keith, an African American football star who hopes to land an athletic scholarship despite his miserable grades.
While engaging, this journalistic technique of focusing on a handful of students is dangerous because each kid can come to represent a particular racial or socioeconomic stereotype. But Maran’s students are too interesting and complex to be pigeonholed in such a manner. Keith gets into scrapes with the law but comes off nonetheless as a warm and endearing personality. And Jordon, who seems bound for success, slips into a crippling depression following the death of his father and gets rejected by Bard.
Despite their differences, all three students share a senior year in which their high school comes apart at the seams. Arsonists set several fires and finally destroy the administrative offices. Scheduling and transcript snafus, combined with sinking faculty morale, create such a chaotic atmosphere that students stage a walkout. Meanwhile, the school’s accreditation is in jeopardy because of the wide achievement gap between white and minority students.
Reading Maran’s account, it’s hard not to wonder whether this gap isn’t exacerbated by a relentless focus in the low-track curriculum on “multiculturalism” rather than academics. Certainly, the diversity at Berkeley High is a wonderful thing, as Maran repeatedly asserts, but the need to constantly affirm it seems trivial, even recidivistic. “The theme of this class,” one teacher tells his students by way of introduction, “is social justice, building a multicultural society.” Students in such courses hear a lot about ethnic pride and often are presented with silly slogans intended to boost their self-esteem.
The kids in the upper tracks, on the other hand, are busy studying high-level mathematics and Shakespeare. Lessons on diversity, as AP teachers know, do not get students into the colleges of their choice.
While Maran effectively captures the bureaucratic ineptitude of a large public high school on the verge of collapse, she bizarrely concludes Class Dismissed by recommending the abolition of all private schools, mainly because they siphon off good kids from public schools. This kind of wacky idea must be the reason they call the place Berserkeley.
A FAMILY AFFAIR: When School Troubles Come Home, by Curt Dudley- Marling. (Heinemann, 164 pages, $21.) The author’s daughter began having trouble in school in the 1st grade. By the time she entered the 7th grade, poor work habits and organizational skills had destroyed her self-confidence. And the child wasn’t the only one suffering. As Dudley-Marling relates, his daughter’s school problems had strained his marriage, induced rancorous standoffs between parents and child, and caused him to hate homework. Things were so bad that he and his wife decided to move their daughter to a small independent school.
Suspecting that this anguish was more common among families than usually acknowledged, Dudley-Marling, an education professor at Boston College, decided to interview a diverse group of 30 parents whose children were also struggling in school to see how things were going at home. As he reports here, most were not faring well. Homework, he discovered, was the biggest obstacle to familial happiness, causing frequent tears and bickering. When it comes to homework, one mother told him, “There’s always tension in this house.”
Dudley-Marling argues that educators could make school far less stressful for children and their families by easing up on homework and forging better lines of communication with parents. But his wisest, albeit most difficult to implement, suggestion calls for schools to “resist educational reforms that fail to respect children.” He points to rigid testing systems as an example. By dividing youngsters into winners and losers, such tests, he writes, create a disillusionment among kids that can eventually wreak havoc with an otherwise healthy home life.
NOBODY LEFT TO HATE: Teaching Compassion After Columbine, by Elliot Aronson. (W.H. Freeman, 208 pages, $19.95.) Extreme acts of violence in school are anomalous. No one could have predicted the Columbine carnage or any of the other recent school massacres. Yet, as Aronson rightly points out, the behavior that led to them—bullying, taunting, and rejection—is ubiquitous in large American high schools. This behavior, he asserts, must be eliminated if we are to avoid future tragedies, and he takes it upon himself in this well-meaning book to map out a plan. More metal detectors and rigid sets of rules are not the answer. What’s needed, he argues, is more empathy and compassion, virtues he believes schools can teach kids.
A social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Aronson suggests specific ways to accomplish this instruction and points to a number of programs around the country that have had success, including some that focus on developing what he refers to as “emotional intelligence.” Most of all, though, he urges schools to adopt the “jigsaw classroom,” which is essentially a highly structured form of cooperative learning. In such classrooms, each member of a group is responsible for researching and presenting one aspect of a large topic of study. For example, one student in a group studying World War II might focus on the development of the atomic bomb while another examines Hitler’s rise to power. This process, Aronson writes, “encourages listening, engagement, and empathy by giving each member in the group an essential part to play in the academic activity.”
This is all well and good, but cooperative learning has been around for ages and was undoubtedly used in one form or another at Columbine. A new variation is unlikely to produce widespread change. If we really want to create more humane learning environments, then we need to finally acknowledge that nothing— certainly no pedagogical device—can substitute for smaller schools.