Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Class Apart - The Genius Problem - But too close for comfort...

I just received a complimentary copy of a new book, A Class Apart, by Alec Klein, an award-winning reporter from the Washington Post. I accepted this with the understanding that I was under no obligation to review or promote the book on this blog. However, I did read a few advance reviews and a blurb I found online. And now I've read the book. Not quite Harry Potter but this is an honest and well-written view of one of the highest-rated high schools in the country, Stuyvesant HS, with its long tradition of excellence and famous alumnae. Stuyvesant is a selective (based on an entrance exam) school for the gifted, particularly in math and science.

Coincidentally, this week's Time Magazines' feature story is entitled, The Genius Problem, focusing on the lack of attention being given to our most talented youth. Both the book and the article strike the same chord: "But often overlooked are gifted and talented students."

What particularly hits home for me is that I live less than 10 miles from Stuyvesant and less than 3 miles from a similar school in Bergen County, NJ, the Bergen Academy, which ironically is linked to Stuyvesant in the book. My links to both schools are also ironic, but I won't go into that here.

Mr. Klein has written a powerful story about 'Prodigies, Pressure and Passion.' I related to it on so many levels, both as a student and as an educator who recently stepped out of the classroom. The book evoked a flood of bittersweet memories. Just as Mr. Klein became emotionally involved (yet somehow able to remain objective) with the four or five students ( a small but representative sample of the student body) whom he followed about for one school year, I recalled one particular student I had in my first or second year of teaching in an affluent Bergen County, NJ, high school. John was a misfit in the school. He arrived in his junior or senior year, living with his grandmother. He was a hulking 6'4" whose clothes were not only out of style with his classmates but had holes and were ill-fitting. John sat quietly in my calculus class and one day presented me with a sheet of yellow paper on which he sketched his alternate theory of limits, a central concept in calculus but one he could not accept. I shared some of this with the class. I tried to comprehend what John was doing but really only grasped a small part. He attempted to explain it to me after class but I was too dense and communication was not his strongest suit. John did acceptably in the course although he struggled to show his methods, since he did most of the problem-solving mentally and resisted or had difficulty in explaining his reasoning. My memory dims at this point. I don't recall if he made it into college. I never heard from him or about him again but I will never forget him. He taught me to open my mind and my eyes and to appreciate the extraordinary uniqueness of each of my students. Perhaps John would have flourished at a school like Stuyvesant where he would not have been viewed as so different, where students might have looked beneath the veneer...

If you haven't already gathered this, I strongly endorse Mr. Klein's book. It is inspiring and presents a strong objective argument for demanding excellence and having the highest expectations for all our children. More than that, it reminds us that our nation cannot afford to overlook our best and brightest minds, who require challenge to reach their potential, not the cavalier attitude that they will succeed no matter what school they're in. It will be available August 25th and it is published by Simon and Schuster. You can read the publisher's notes here.

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