“School of Dreams”?

One of the great things about the MIT program is that I have a lot more time on my hands than I have had in the past several years. Part of this time is spent adjusting to life off-campus: shopping, cooking, cleaning and generally attending to domestic tasks. But even with all of that, I still have some extra time to read.

How did that happen? Well, a number of reasons. First of all, the summer MIT term is not nearly as rigorous as my undergrad coursework was. Having class from 8:00am – 4:30pm every day is honestly the toughest part for me. But the focus of the term is not on learning content to teach; instead, it is on beginning to build our teaching “toolbox” and preparing us to go into the public schools this fall. Our next term will build upon the foundational work we’re doing now.

Also, I loved my undergrad career at Whitworth, but I really ran myself ragged during my junior and senior years. In addition to nearly double-majoring, I had two jobs on campus (RA and music director at KWRS). I spent a lot of time running around campus for one of my four major time commitments, and tried to spend as much time building relationships with friends as I could afford while maintaining a decent GPA.

I love reading, but I was so busy that I couldn’t even read everything I was assigned in college – much less anything for pleasure. So when the summer began in May, I started reading. I’m planning to read several of “the classics,” and I will probably be spending August catching up on some of the literature that I will be teaching at Mead next year. But throughout it all, I’ve had the chance to pick up some great books about education. Whenever I finish one, I’ll post a review up here.

I recently finished reading Edward Humes‘ 2004 book “School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School.” Humes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who spent the 2001-2002 school year at Whitney High School in Cerritos, California.School of Dreams

“School of Dreams” follows Humes as he teaches a writing workshop class, interviews teachers, students and administrators, and even takes classes at Whitney. But the book is not at all about Humes’ experience; it is unabashedly the Whitney High School story. In addition to telling the story of the 2001-2002 school year at Whitney, Humes covers the school’s history from its opening in 1976 to the present day.

Whitney is no ordinary school. As the top-ranked public school in California, something unusual is happening there. People move to Cerritos from all over the world to send their kids to Whitney, and they have been for years. School administrators run ads in foreign newspapers, some as far away as India (indeed, that’s about as far as you can get). Nearly 75% of the students are Asian-American, and white students make up just 7.3% of the 1,020 students at Whitney. The school services 7th-12th graders, and all sixth-graders must pass an entrance exam in order to attend.

Expectations are high for students at Whitney, and they largely deliver. Each Whitney student spends four years striving to get into colleges across the country. But not just any schools – Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Stanford, etc. Going to a school below the Ivy League’s caliber is just not acceptable for these students, or frighteningly enough, for their parents. Some of the Whitney parents are so gung-ho about their student’s academic success that it seems like high school is more about college for them than about their child.

Because of these high expectations, the joke circulates that four is the magic number at Whitney: Four hours of sleep, four cafe lattes a day, 4.0 GPA. It’s not much of an exaggeration. The students are absolutely overworked, and it’s all in the name of looking good to the big-name colleges.

When I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of the “culture of busyness” at Whitworth. As previously stated, I spent at least two years being way too busy. My experience was far from an anomaly – I tend to work well under pressure, but my undergraduate peers were busting their tails too. Some of them even worked harder than I did. In one extreme case, a friend of mine was working three jobs and taking 24 credits! Ugh.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with being busy and involved in your school. Personally, I love it. It’s how I got through high school and college, and I look forward to helping students enjoy their high school years from the other side. But there has to be a balance in life; a balance that I’m starting to find now. It’s kind of scary to watch how some of the Whitney students described in this book suppress their true passions in order to get higher grades and get into a college they don’t really want to go to. The question that hardly any of them seem to be asking themselves is, “is this lifestyle really worth it?”

The secrets of educating middle and high school students are not easily unlocked, and it seems that achieving academically unfortunately sometimes comes at odds with living healthily and happily. Whether they should or not, the students at Whitney struggle with this dichotomy every day (four is the magic number), and Humes’ account of their way of life is fascinating and well-written. I heartily recommend this book to any teachers, people who want to be teachers, or anyone who has any sort of interest in our school system.

You can read an excerpt from “School of Dreams” here.

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4 Responses to ““School of Dreams”?”

  1. Dr. Sanford Aranoff Says:

    I tell my students to get plenty of sleep. They will be happier, which is important for learning, and get better grades. See the new book on amazon.com: “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better”.

  2. The Carnival of Education, #180 Says:

    […] at Onward and Upward, there is an excellent discussion about the “culture of busyness,” and a concern about […]

  3. student Says:

    This is so exaggerated. I go to Whitney and Whitney is nothing like what the book said. It only shows the bad aspects of Whitney.

    • CK Says:

      Really? I thought the book did a good job of explaining the pros and cons of Whitney.

      If you think it only shows the “bad aspects,” then straighten me out! What are some of the great things about Whitney that the book doesn’t explain?


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