From Publishers Weekly
Motivated by a suspicion that schools fail to teach what "matters," Simon, director of research at the Coalition of Essential Schools in California, spent months observing literature, history and biology classes at a public, a Catholic and a Jewish high school. What "matters" to Simon is the integration of moral and existential inquiry into the classroom; she argues that not only are moral and existential questions at the heart of the major disciplines, they are also extremely compelling to students. But too much of what goes on in schools, she contends, is "the forming of uninformed opinions" and "decontextualized fact acquisition." Although she shows how even good teachers sometimes deflect or shut down important discussions, Simon places the blame squarely on the education system that works "against teachers being able to incorporate discussions of substantive issues into their classrooms." As in many recent books, the villain is the standardized test, and the stakes, for both students and teachers, attached to it. Simon writes fluently, integrating transcripts of classroom discussions smoothly into her narrative and engagingly conveying her idealist's passion for reform. To reconsider education's entire enterprise is a very tall order, however, and Simon acknowledges the enormous obstacles her project faces. Readers will agree that students shouldn't continue to feel disengaged in school because they're denied the chance to ask and answer essential questions, but they may be skeptical of Simon's starry-eyed recipe for change.
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This is a particularly timely book, given the moral and ethical discussions taking place in classrooms since the terrorist attacks on the U.S., starting with revenge versus justice. Using interviews with teachers and students in public, Catholic, and Jewish schools and her experience as a high-school teacher, Simon examines how teachers explore moral and existential issues in the course of teaching standard school curricula. Simon advocates that teachers encourage exploration of moral issues to develop students' moral as well as intellectual skills--and because research, most notably by Robert Coles, has shown that young people are interested in such issues. She briefly and broadly defines what might be moral or existential issues, cautions against usurping the work of church and family or distracting schools from teaching the basics, and offers practical strategies for structuring discussions. Parents and educators of middle- and high-school students will find this a helpful resource. Vanessa Bush
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