Child & Adolescent Development: Overview

Review of "Another Planet"

By Elinor Burkett
HarperCollins, 2001
Review by Liz Bass on Jul 8th 2002
Another Planet

What in the world is going on in our nations high schools? That question was on all of our minds after the Columbine shooters swept away our illusions about how life in our secondary education system works. Murder? Mayhem? How this could have happened?

Author Burkett decided to find out. A professional writer with four books to her credit, she arranged to be a guest on the campus of a suburban high school in Minnesota for the school year beginning in September, 1999 and ending in June, 2000. She attended classes, hung out with students, sat in on teacher gripe sessions, and participated in school activities. At the end of the year, she was a speaker at the graduation ceremony.

Unfortunately, her research unearthed no conditions of high school life that would cause a person to say, "Yes, I see now why kids could bring weapons to school and create so much havoc." Instead, Burkett found a conventional model of school life. The students are still a captive audience who by and large would rather be anywhere but in a classroom. There are still notable exceptions -- the kids who thrive in those confined environments -- but they remain a minority. The teachers are often more adolescent in outlook than the students, and the administrators like to play good-cop-bad-cop. Some teachers handle discipline problems well while others are devastated by them. As to villains in the piece, the school people think they are the parents of the students. Sometimes, however, they blame the government for their troubles. They think it attempts to arbitrate the standards by which schools operate -- including curricular standards -- while maintaining a safe distance from the real action.

Burkett has great powers of observation, and I found her right on the mark in her description of high school life, particularly the whining that goes on in all phases of it. But her writing loses momentum when she switches in and out of the thought processes of what she calls her "cast of characters." This switching around makes the book read like fiction and so you wonder what ground you are standing on. It is a stylistic problem that costs the author first the attention and then the good will of the reader.

Another Planet sheds no light on the Columbine episode, and thats a pity. It makes its case by staying close to the specifics of Burketts Minnesota school experience. The best writing comes at the end of the book when the author assumes the first person voice. With it, she gives an excellent summary of how her return-to-school adventure impacted her thinking about education in general and American schools in particular.

This book deserves an "A" effort, an "A" for concept, but a "C" for delivery.

 

© 2002 Liz Bass

 

Liz Bass is a retired teacher and principal who lives in Northern California.

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