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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Back to School with Alexandra Robbins

Yesterday was my son's first day back at school. He's entering third grade which means it is the start of his sixth year at the Montessori school. It's a school that I've been thrilled with for many reasons--one of which is their de-emphasis on academics and their sharp focus on helping children to be well-rounded members of their community.

I've been especially thrilled with the lack of standardized testing done at the school. Even the ones that they are mandated to take are given with minimal fuss. They don't devote class periods to test preparation and they don't talk about the scores afterward. The testing requirement is fulfilled and then the children get back to the business of learning.

So it is with this philosophy that I began reading Alexandra Robbins' The Overachievers: The Secret Life of Driven Kids. Released this month, Robbins explores the overachievement culture that has been fueled by college admissions frenzy. But this is not some dry text filled with academic analysis of one statistic after another. Robbins begins by following nine students (whom we later learn is only eight) through three semesters of school. They range in age from juniors in high school to a freshman at Harvard.

These are all highly articulate, interesting students who are very open with their experiences. In between anecdotes about their lives, Robbins explores various issues affecting kids across our society. It's a riveting story that weaves together many strands that have been in the news to show a tapestry with a rather alarming picture on it.

I was a fairly active high school student. I took college prep courses, got good grades, scored well on standardized tests, and was involved in a wealth of extracurricular activities through school, the community, and my church. I worked up to four jobs at any one time and tested out of a year of college. The kids in this book make me look like I was a slacker. They carry incredibly heavy loads of activities and classwork. The one student took 19 AP courses and never earned less than an unweighted 4.0. There are star athletes and students who devote a large amount of time to charity work. Their SAT scores are extremely high and when they're not, they retake them. Despite all this, one is told that she shouldn't even bother applying to Stanford and others find themselves waitlisted for the schools of their choice.

The Overachievers was a book that I couldn't get enough of. I found myself constantly reading passages aloud to my husband and other friends. I wanted everyone I knew who had a child or was involved in education to read it because there was simply too much stuff in it to be able to summarize in a single conversation--or even several.

It's a book that I'll be giving as gifts to several people I know, including the administrator at my son's school. Thankfully for my family, though, she isn't someone who "needs" the book. She already runs her school in a way that avoids many of the dangers found in this book. I think she'll find herself cheering Robbins on chapter after chapter. But I'm going to give it to her anyway because I think she meets lots of people for whom this book will be an eye-opener and perhaps even life-changing. I want her to be able to recommend it as well.

My interview with Alexandra Robbins was posted on Book Help Web yesterday. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did and that if you are a parent or an educator, that I might inspire you to take a look at this book.

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