Sunday, March 17, 2013


As a teacher, I try to find books to read that will help me see my students in new lights, and interact with them more authentically. I have only read two of Alexandra Robbins' books, but I highly recommend them to anyone wanting to understand teens and the pressures we adult place on them.

My students and I judge how good a book is by the number of sticky-note flags I put into the book I tend to 'sticky' great writing, important point by the author -- anything I need to find quickly when discussing the book or the ideas IN the book. Let me tell you, GEEKS bristles with stickies. Robbins has added an important book to the literature of the sociology of secondary schools...I loved her book OVERACHIEVERS, and was eager to read this one too.

She takes six students and one young teacher through a school year, from the first day to graduation. She shows us who they are, what they value, with whom they interact. She must be a dynamite interviewer, because kids open their hearts to her and she treats that gift with respect.

The format is similar to she tells us about one of her characters, she links an issue he or she is dealing with to the research. These informational essays bring a new light and a context to her characters' concerns.

She introduces a term that is vital for her book: quirk theory: "Many differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that other will value, love, respect, or find compelling about that person in adulthood." In other words, wait, be patient. Trust yourself. Don't give up hope. High school is temporary -- and life is what's important.

As she returns to each character throughout the year, we learn more and more about those interactions that add burdens to their lives. I was horrified when she reveals one of her characters is a young teacher who deals with mean girl bullying from OTHER TEACHERS! The school must be incredibly toxic to allow teachers to bully each other, and talk about other teachers to the students. I was horrified.

Robbins challenges each character to change something about his or her interactions with others and the last half of the book reports their efforts to break out of the fringe they've relegated themselves to. Whitney, the mean-girl prep learns to reach out to others, but is then excluded by her original friends. Noah attempts to show his natural leadership, the leadership that was rejected by traditional elections in school. Danielle just tries to talk to others. Blue (oh how I love Blue) is dealing with a mother who ridicules and belittles him, personal depression, a secret about his sexuality, and 'friends' who take over his projects and leave him out in the cold. His challenge allows him to show everyone a whole new Blue.

I was thrilled to read about Sachse High School in TX, where they attribute an all-school 'drop everything and read' period every day to an improvement in their school. It 'really made a difference in the culture of our school.' How exciting to see a school have faith in the power of reading and fellowship to break down barriers. I want to learn more about this school.

I always DO have favorites as I read about these dynamic kids. Blue and Whitney will hold special places in my the others, theirs is not a Cinderella story with a fairy-tale ending, but there are quiet victories, lots of self-reflection, and genuine growth. My least favorite was probably the teacher who saw herself as the 'only' adult who cared about the kids. Her self-centeredness was sad...I felt some of the kids had a deeper understanding of life than she. But it was her story of victimization by colleagues that horrified me the most.

Quotes that I want to remember:

"Middle school...has been called the Bermuda triangle of education."
"Meanness can be divided into two categories" overt and alternative."
"Groups can trigger the brain's inclination to take shortcuts...the group's opinion trumps the individual's before he even becomes aware of it."
"Conformity is not an admirable trait. Conformity is a cop-out. It threatens self awareness."
"Like lady Ga Ga, the quirk theory assures marginalized young people that some day they will be welcomed for the same reasons that classmates relegate them to...'the land of the misfit toys.'"
"Students vastly overestimate their classmates' use of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes."
"Studies show that students perceive parents who have negative attitudes about alcohol and drugs to be more caring."
"The permissiveness of parents who want their kids to be popular can lead to tragic consequences."
"The overemphasis of standardized tests forces teachers to teach the same restricted, un-inventive curriculum."
"Conformity is a mask behind which students can hide their identity or the fact that they haven't figured out their identity yet."
"Better to be lonely and real than to hide behind a mask of self deception. The loneliness will pass."

If you're a teacher, a parent, an aunt or uncle of a teen I recommend it. If, in your work, you ever interact with teens, I recommend this book. If you were a teen, cafeteria fringe, or popular, I recommend this book.


  1. Just ordered this as a birthday present for a certain young man we both know.
    Vickie W.

  2. I wish I could afford to get a copy for every young person (and adult) who ever felt marginalized...Her quirk theory makes such sense!