Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: And Still We Rise by Miles Corwin

And Still We Rise:  The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City Students--Miles Corwin
April 2000 by William Morrow
418 pages--Goodreads

Bestselling author of The Killing Season and veteran Los Angeles Times reporter Miles Corwin spent a school year with twelve high school seniors -- South-Central kids who qualified for a gifted program because of their exceptional IQs and test scores. Sitting alongside them in classrooms where bullets were known to rip through windows, Corwin chronicled their amazing odyssey as they faced the greatest challenges of their academic lives. And Still We Rise is an unforgettable story of transcending obstacles that would dash the hopes of any but the most exceptional spirits.

Many books and movies about education are meant to be warm fuzzy feel good stories.  And Still We Rise is not one of those stories.  Corwin doesn't sugar coat anything.  He is realistic.  Some of these students don't make it.  The teachers are not saviors.  I actually really disliked the main teacher.  Granted, she's teaching in a harsh environment, but she lets her own issues with the administration and parents bleed out into her classroom at the expense of her teaching.  The book covers the course of an entire school year, focusing on one student at a time.  Each student is distinct and their story engaging.  We get involved with their stories and it kills us when one of them doesn't make it. 

This book gave me a lot of things to think about as a teacher:  expansion of the canon, ways to teach, understanding where my students are coming from, not making assumptions based on a student's appearance, keeping my personal life personal, and continuing on even after making mistakes.

I appreciate that Corwin explores the complexity of the affirmative action.  He is in no way unbiased, but he does back up his position with a lot of evidence.  Is it fair and will it serve America as a whole if we exclude a chunk of the population from college because they didn't have the opportunity for a top-notch K-12 education, or because they had to work 40+ hours a week to make ends meet in addition to going to school so they never had time to study for the SAT when going to college could give them the chance to pull themselves and their families out of poverty?  At the same time, the kid with a better SAT score legitimately knows more, and has better skills, (I'll ignore for now the issue of how accurate SAT is at measuring college readiness).  Should we punish that kid for being dealt a better hand?  Affirmative action is a imperfect solution to a very unbalanced set of starting circumstances.  I don't have an answer, but I appreciate the exploration.

The narrative is occasionally scattered, as if Corwin couldn't remember what he had already said and so went back and repeated himself.  This may have been done to clarify, but as the same wordage is used again and again, it just feels repetitive.  There is also some strong language.  I feel like it is authentic to the inner city kids Corwin writes about, but it will bother some readers.

And Still We Rise is not a boring read, though it is at times a downer.  It presents complicated issues that don't have any clear, much less easy solutions while keeping readers engaged with the human side of those issues.

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