This is kind of a head-scratcher for me, as it turns out.
Stier's son was heading into the land of the SAT. She wanted him to do well enough to earn meThis is kind of a head-scratcher for me, as it turns out.
Stier's son was heading into the land of the SAT. She wanted him to do well enough to earn merit scholarships to college; he was not especially interested in the idea of the SAT...and less interested in studying. So Stier did what anyone in her position would do decided to take matters into her own hands: She'd take the SAT too, not once but seven times. She'd study for it, research it, and do her best to get that elusive perfect score.
It's an interesting project and an interesting enough book -- lots of interesting bits and pieces about the SAT and tips that might be useful for someone planning to take it. It's repetitive sometimes, but well put together (blog-to-book memoirs sometimes feel really obviously former-blog). I very much appreciated that Stier kept things like her son's SAT score out of the book -- I'm not a parent and am uninterested in judging her parenting style, but this could have gone in an unfortunate direction, and it didn't.
A lot of my reservations lie in the premise. When it comes down to it, the book is all about teaching to the test -- not only that, but embracing teaching to the test. Stier acknowledges that the SAT isn't much of a predictor of how one will do in college; she also mentions that she'd had a successful career in publishing without knowing basics like what a comma splice is. But then she shrugs, brushes her hands off, and gets on with it: she has scores to improve!
I'm struck by the example of Stacey, a woman who started doing SAT problems to keep her brain active while raising a small child. I don't have a problem with that -- but I do find it, if not problematic, odd that her focus shifts from learning to learning how to do well on the SAT. One of the do-over wishes she has is to study only what she needed to know. And that just...strikes me as kind of sad. Not that there's anything wrong with striving to improve at something, whatever the measure -- but I guess I just personally find this an arbitrary, and useless, measure.
So all in all I was interested enough to read it (obviously), but I wish Stier had delved more into the question of whether or not this is a test worth all this stress.
I received a free copy of this book via a Goodreads giveaway....more
If there was ever an argument for vetting a book on Goodreads rather than picking it up on a whim at the library...
Here's what the book description doIf there was ever an argument for vetting a book on Goodreads rather than picking it up on a whim at the library...
Here's what the book description doesn't tell you: The Hardings are part of the Quiverfull movement, devoted to having as many children as possible -- good Christian children who will go forth and spawn more good Christian children. They turned to homeschooling in part for 'religious reasons', which I suspect translates to 'the school didn't teach Creationism'.
Now, my point here is not to criticise their belief system. Considering that I'm a queer-unmarried-living-in-sin-non-Christian-liberal feminist, it kind of goes without saying that we're not on the same page. My point, rather, is that this is a fairly useless book if you are simply curious about homeschooling. I don't have strong feelings about homeschooling, one way or the other (it seems to have pros and cons, and to work better for some families/students than others), but...well, if I'm going to read an argument for it, I'd rather read something with actual research. Facts! Statistics! Not just anecdotes and Bible verses.
They seem happy with their methods and outcomes, and I won't quibble with that. I will point to a few things, though: first, the Hardings complain about some universities requiring higher ACT/SAT scores from homeschooled students. On one level, it makes sense that homeschooled students should be held to the same standards as traditionally schooled students. On another level, though, universities have fewer (quantitative) metrics for homeschoolers. Even if you can trust that those students earned their 4.0, that doesn't mean they're set for university learning. The Hardings' argument is that their children earn A grades because they stay on a given topic until they understand it completely -- and while that seems reasonable (and in many respects a good way to learn), it's also true that most university classes don't operate that way. You don't get infinite do-overs in college. Of course admissions offices want to have a reasonable assurance that incoming students can do college-level work at college pacing.
I don't have a great sense of the value of the educations these kids are getting, either in the home or out of it (though, frankly, I do think it devalues the older kids' accomplishments to name jobs, rather than aspirations, for the younger kids on the front cover). In terms of the value of the book, though...well, let's just say that any insightful nuggest are lost in a sea of poor structure and religious proselytising....more
In the first half or so of the book, Deresiewicz exhorts students to think, to eschew choices made for the sake of money andI started off loving this.
In the first half or so of the book, Deresiewicz exhorts students to think, to eschew choices made for the sake of money and convenience and propriety; he goes off on biting rants about parents and systems with very limited definitions of success. I flagged page after page for to use for future reference, when I'm arguing in favour of heading halfway across the globe to pursue passions that have nothing to do with practicality or career paths or top-tier schools.
But if I look at my copy of the book from the side, I see a big cluster of turned-down pages in the first 40 percent of the book. Then...nothing. Then three pages turned down where Deresiewicz references books I wanted to look up. Then more nothing. He lost me as the book went on and his focus, and audience, changed.
I'm on board with a lot of his points and ideas -- it boggles my mind to think how many Ivy League graduates go straight into consulting or banking (and frankly, I'd expect so-called 'best and brightest' students to try things that are a little more interesting), I'd much rather have students studying things they love than things they think they should study, and yes, the education system needs an overhaul. But I wonder whether there are just too many ideas for one book. By the end he seems to have come to the conclusion that to fix the (elite) higher education system (or at least that at research universities?) we need to change the structure of universities, change the way admissions are done, overhaul primary and secondary education, change taxation, slice the defense budget... Is he wrong? Not necessarily. But it's a lot more than can be covered in this volume.
Meanwhile, I'm stuck on an anecdote Deresiewicz tells, of a student whose friend applied for the Rhodes despite his GPA being below the cutoff. Deresiewicz takes offense at this; without a high enough GPA, he says, the friend doesn't deserve a Rhodes. He hasn't earned it. But when one of the points of the book is that grading systems are becoming less and less reliable as grade inflation continues, isn't that kind of beside the point?
On another topic entirely, I'm not sure how far outside the box Deresiewicz is advocating that students (or people in general go). He's sufficiently pragmatic to realise that Ivy-bound students aren't going to go to state universities instead, on the say-so of one book -- but if there's a call to action for students, it doesn't seem to go much further than the bounds of university. Study things that inspire them, yes. Don't be so hung up on grades that you forget to learn, yes. Don't rush into status-conscious jobs (but also don't do the low-paying things that are secretly status jobs). But...then what? Not to counter-snark or anything, but studying English at Columbia doesn't seem that far outside the status box to me.
Interesting in parts but not, to me, as a whole. I wish the second half had made me think as much as the first half.
I received a free copy of this book via a Goodreads giveaway....more
In the prologue, Kim writes, Thirty missionaries disguised as teachers and 270 male North Korean students and me, the sole writer disguised as a missiIn the prologue, Kim writes, Thirty missionaries disguised as teachers and 270 male North Korean students and me, the sole writer disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher. It's a somewhat surreal way to look at it, but it's accurate, and accurately surreal.
Kim had been to North Korea before, but now she was there for a longer stay, teaching English to privileged North Korean college students. The school was set up, run, and paid for by missionaries, with the agreement that they would keep their religion strictly to themselves; meanwhile, the teacher/missionaries were expected to follow a claustrophobic set of rules. And they did -- they could not afford to make any but the smallest deviations.
Kim, too, follows the rules, although she keeps her eyes and ears wide open. She also, unexpectedly, falls for her students, her children. She wants to open their eyes, too, to the world, to shepherd them into possibility. But -- in one of the book's great complexities -- she is not only unsure of how much she can trust them with that possibility (they are, after all, loyal to the regime), but she also knows that opening their eyes too much could be dangerous for them as well as for herself. So she is left to ask very cautious, casual questions, not step outside the bounds, and drop what limited nuggets of information she can.
After her first semester in North Korea, she is invited back for a second semester of teaching; when she returns, her students seem to have gained enough trust in her to let a few cracks show. But it is not enough, and it will never be enough -- she does not go back for a third semester (although it is not clear whether or not this is by choice), and even if she had planned to, Kim Jon-il's death on the eve of her departure made matters even more complicated.
The North Korea that Kim describes is incredibly restrictive -- as a westerner (born and raised in South Korea but having moved to the United States as a teenager) teaching in this school, she is afforded certain privileges unheard of (literally) by her students; she has, for example, Internet access. But she also knows that that Internet usage is likely to be closely monitored, as are her movements. Her students, while fortunate to be in school rather than doing labour -- they are at this school, in face, because it is the only one open while other students labour -- are also heavily limited in their movements. Their lives are choreographed.
Kim's movements, too, were choreographed; the only parts of North Korea outside the school's compound that she saw were as parts of approved field trips, and she could only talk to approved people. But the place she describes from what she did see reminds me of nothing so much as a dystopia, and in fact, I'd probably recommend this to fans of Never Let Me Go. Here is a world where people are taught to obey, unquestioningly, the society around them, even when it is impossibly cruel; here, also, in a world where the protagonists don't fight back. Doing so would be suicide, and anyway, they don't know that there's anything to fight against (or for)....more
Levitt was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in the early 60s, when the Peace Corps was still new and Communism was still the enemyLevitt was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in the early 60s, when the Peace Corps was still new and Communism was still the enemy. He landed in a place where the only white people the villagers had seen were colonialist farmers who couldn't fathom the possibility of Africans being their equals, where he had to rethink everything he knew every so often because he kept having his knowledge recalibrated.
He offers up very little about himself: I know from the back flap that he was born in New York and went to Dartmouth; after the Peace Corps, he went to Columbia to study journalism. Beyond that, about the only thing I learned about his pre-Tanganyika life was that he's Jewish. No exaggeration there -- he stays very in the moment, focusing on day-to-day life and the things he learned about life in Tanganyika.
And that's the wonderful thing about the book -- those clear moments when he sees something and thinks Oh -- oh, that's why X. He knows the school where he's teaching is kind of lousy, for example, and he knows the students' educational background is spotty, but he doesn't really comprehend why until he visits the home of one of his students and sees the way this boy has grown up. Fields, fields all around, with parents who are illiterate and have never known anything other than farming, who would never have been able to help their son with his lessons if he missed a day or didn't understand something. And although Levitt already understood that it's opportunity rather than intellect that has kept his students from leaping ahead in their studies, this really drives it home for him. He has a number of these aha moments, sometimes realising that a particular faux pas was bigger than he'd believed and sometimes just understanding, with sudden clarity, that the headmaster probably didn't have any better opportunities than the students he's now teaching. At one point it hits him that the teachers are skeptical of his college degree, and possibly his intellect, because with a college degree, why is he teaching in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, Tanganyika?
The book covers his first year with the Peace Corps, from the dusty ride to the village where he's been placed to the holiday he takes in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa at the end of the year. In southern Africa he encounters a much darker Africa than that which he's seen so far; in Tanganyika he portrays the resident whites as, well, racist but benign, but in Rhodesia and South Africa they are hostile to both the black people around them and to Levitt for sympathising with the Africans, for teaching them.
Two things I wished had come up: one, Levitt makes no mention of Jim Crow laws, which were still in effect when he was in Tanganyika; he doesn't draw the parallels in the book, and I'm not sure whether he recognised them at the time. Two, there are almost no women in the book -- he has an initial fascination with breasts, which are not taboo in the village in the way they are in the States (fortunately, his fascination abates somewhat as he acclimates), but as far as I can tell really doesn't get to know any of the women in the village. This may just be how it was -- it sounds like his interactions were primarily with the other teachers, who seem to have been all male. But even though he notes that the school is coed, female students play no role in the book.
It's also interesting to note his apprehension about Communists -- the Cold War was going strong at the time, and the Vietnam War was heating up; the Berlin Wall had only recently been built. It's not a major theme of the book, but it is, oh, a bit ironic to see him (metaphorically) shaking his head at anti-American statements and refuting the statements of some of the more racist whites he meets while also being so...nervous...about Communism.
The copy I read is decades old and still had the (I assume) original card, with only fifteen entries between the 60s and the 90s. Not sure when the system went digital, but it seems a pity that this hasn't maintained an audience over time....more
In a book group that I recently joined, somebody suggested a different religion-themed book -- one along the lines of "religion is ridiculous and theIn a book group that I recently joined, somebody suggested a different religion-themed book -- one along the lines of "religion is ridiculous and the religious are deluding themselves". Kevin Roose's book is, I must say, much more the kind of book that I would rather see discussed in a book club.
In a way, this reminds me of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities: although the circumstances are quite different, both authors entrenched themselves in organisations they were skeptical about in order to obtain a more nuanced view.
This does not come without its fair share of problems. In order to open his mind to other viewpoints, at times I think that Roose let a few too many things go. He notes, at one point, that his experience at Liberty would have been very different if he'd been a minority, or female, or gay, but beyond talking with the man who counsels gay students at Liberty, he more or less lets that go. There's so much potential there -- once he was back at Brown, why not set up interviews with select students (or former students), get more perspectives? I am in full agreement that he wouldn't have gotten the level of honesty he was looking for if he'd gone into his semester there with, well, total honesty on his own part, but once he was gone...well, I think it would have added some nuance. (I am thinking, in particular, of his friend at Liberty who convinced his non-Liberty girlfriend that she couldn't possibly be bi. Recognising that she wasn't actually a Liberty student, I think that could have made for a very interesting interview, assuming that she was willing to talk.) Actually, there's very little about women's perspectives at all. I have no idea what it's like to be a female Liberty student, but I'd guess that some of their experiences are very different from the male experiences that Roose focused on.
In any case, while I worry that Roose let things go when he couldn't reconcile them with his worldview, I very much appreciate that he did try to stay open-minded and present multiple sides of each issue. I'm less interested in books that do their best to prove that the other side (whatever the other side is) is entirely wrong than I am in books that look at grey area. This managed that....more
I've read more than my fair share of college-acceptance books like this one (especially considering that I've been out of college for a while now), anI've read more than my fair share of college-acceptance books like this one (especially considering that I've been out of college for a while now), and while they run the gamut from engrossing to tedious, I can't help but feel that this is a fundamentally flawed book.
The author says from the very beginning that she was only interested in following students who she believed had a real chance at getting into Harvard. That's all good and well, I suppose, but it makes for a less interesting -- and less useful -- book than if she had followed a more diverse group of students (her subjects are ethnically, geographically -- at least within the U.S. -- and socioeconomically diverse, but I would have liked to see a broader range of educational expectations).
The book might have held up better if the author hadn't been so eager to say nice things about (I am resisting applying the description "suck up to") her subjects. I have no doubt that they were/are intelligent, hard-working students with great potential, but oi did the unceasing praise and overblown descriptions get old. I'd probably recommend Alexandra Robbins or David Marcus over this author....more
On the one hand, I think that the author's vision and school are pretty cool. It sounds like the kind of school that a lot of kids would benSo... hmm.
On the one hand, I think that the author's vision and school are pretty cool. It sounds like the kind of school that a lot of kids would benefit from.
On the other hand, it was hard to know how much to take seriously. The author's - very frequent - swearing sometimes felt like he needed to prove that he was alternative/hip, and while I can see the value in developing the school on its own schedule, there was so little by way of pedagogy that it really was hard to figure out what those kids were learning. (I assume, of course, that it was much clearer to people who were actually involved.)
So. Interesting book, and probably an absolutely fascinating school. Definitely a writer with an off-the-charts ability to bs his way through whatever necessary. Glad I read it, but I doubt it'll stick with me....more
Certainly an intriguing concept - I almost wish more professors tried something like this. On the other hand, it's hard to view the author's methods aCertainly an intriguing concept - I almost wish more professors tried something like this. On the other hand, it's hard to view the author's methods as entirely sound, and some of her conclusions feel forced (or, at least, as though she didn't consider other possibilities). Still, there's something to be gained from such an experience, and from the resulting writing....more