The Great Expectations School
A rookie year in the new blackboard jungle
Dan Brown

Arcade Publishing, Inc.
Hardcover/267 pages
ISBN: 1-55970-835-2
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"[Brown] is likely to become a key player in the push for educational policy changes."

Dan Brown’s first book, a memoir, The Great Expectations School, offers a glimpse of elementary school students trapped in an “invisible net in the Bronx,” woven from the “dangerous by-products of poverty (teenage pregnancy, sexual abuse, violence, drug use, crime, family crisis, learned helplessness, nihilism…)”

Fresh out of film school and unemployed, Brown signs up for New York City’s Teaching Fellows, a program developed to attract teachers. After limited training, he is assigned a fourth grade classroom in Bronx Public School 84. His year-long stint reads like a tedious personal journal; nevertheless, the book reveals an honest account of the disturbing problems in what Brown calls the “racial ghetto.” No white kids attended the school.

The violence in their homes and the streets permeates the classroom. Those students who suffer emotional problems—psychological and learning—disabilities are rarely tested, and therefore are not enrolled in special education programs. At one point, Brown writes, “I thought I was losing my mind.” He lifts a desk over his head and smashes it to the ground.

But in spite of the conditions and government mandates, Brown searches for ways to “break the cycle of misbehavior.” He initiates a Visual Arts Club that allows kids to take cameras home and shoot images. When the cameras are stolen, Brown is devastated. When he recovers them, he is pleased with the results.

The main text of the book focuses on the emotional drama of his tenure, but in the epilogue Brown shifts gears and begins to opine. The “No Child left Behind Law,” he says, is a Frankenstein that requires standardized testing—a big barrier for children who can’t read or understand basic math.

The bottom line, he says, is that kids are kids. All need to be taught precisely the value of education, something policymakers need to address. Kids should be learning before they even begin school, he says, suggesting a “free literacy-based parenting classes with attendance incentives, like Huggies and a book.”

Still in his twenties, Brown, teaching in a New York City private school where undoubtedly he sees vividly the inequality of education, is likely to become a key player in the push for educational policy changes.

Reviewer: Kate Padilla