Melanie McCabe is an English teacher at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Va., and the author of “His Other Life: Searching for My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams.”
Imagine a public high school science classroom where there are no textbooks, no tests, no assigned homework. The lab is filled with extraordinarily gifted students who are hard at work on self-directed research projects that seek to find cures or treatment strategies for diseases like Lyme, Ebola, Zika and cancer. They are aided in their research by top-flight scientific instruments seldom seen in a high school setting. Their teacher’s mission is not to grade them but to support them, both in their scientific endeavors and in their personal lives. And over the course of a year, they rack up a stunning number of wins across the science fair circuit.
This is the classroom depicted in Heather Won Tesoriero’s “The Class: A Life-Changing Teacher, His World-Changing Kids, and the Most Inventive Classroom in America.” And if this idyllic classroom sounds far outside the bounds of what most have come to expect in a public high school setting, this is precisely what makes this book both a captivating and somewhat frustrating reading experience.
Andy Bramante is the teacher, having come to Greenwich High School in Connecticut from a successful science career in corporate America, and his science research class is so popular that some families even move into this affluent district to give their children a crack at it. In some cases, this might even mean finding a rental property to live in because they can’t afford to purchase a home there. Prospective students apply for a coveted spot in the course by pitching research projects they would like to work on throughout the school year, with the goal of presenting their findings in regional and national science fairs and competitions.
The book primarily follows Bramante and six of his students over the course of the 2016-17 school year. In addition to being privy to their triumphs in the lab and on the science fair circuit, the reader also comes to know them as the teenagers they are, subject to many of the same banes of adolescent experience that afflict all of us.
Journalist Tesoriero left her job at CBS News to embed herself in Bramante’s classroom for the academic year, and she does this so successfully, a reader forgets she is even there. Her skill at drawing out not only Bramante but also the personal lives, hopes and concerns of these students is impressive. Clearly, she created a level of trust that enabled her to tell their stories so honestly and compellingly. And thus the reader learns that not only is Olivia Hallisey a teen celebrity for winning the 2015 Google Science Fair with her inexpensive and unusual Ebola test, but she is also a victim of online bullying so severe that it causes her to withdraw from a competition. Romano Orlando, who gave up football to pursue science, confides that he is being harassed by his ex-girlfriend’s posse after he breaks up with her. And William Yin, despite being the highest-achieving student at the school — having aced 20 AP exams, a quarter of which were in subjects he didn’t study in class — will struggle to attain the one thing he wants more than any other: admission to Harvard.
On one level, these students have typical teenage experiences, but the book never loses sight of the astonishing research they are conducting. They are the brightest of the bright and represent a level of intellect not typically seen in the science fairs most remember from high school. Yin, for instance, works to develop a new test for arterial plaque buildup that could predict Alzheimer’s disease. In a previous project, he constructed a tiny polymer vessel loaded with cancer drugs and metallic particles to be guided directly through the bloodstream to a tumor by a handheld magnet over the skin.
These are students who would probably be led to follow their exalted dreams without this class, without Bramante, but it is apparent that the nurturing environment he has created for them at Greenwich propels them forward at a pace they might otherwise not have known. When they need materials not available in the lab, “Mr. B,” as they call him, reaches out to friends in industry to help them find what they seek; when their intense academic schedules don’t allow them the time they need during the regular school day to work on their projects, he makes himself available into the evenings, on weekends and even during holidays.
Bramante’s time commitment is impressive, but it is worth noting that he is not saddled with the lecture-planning and piles of homework and tests that most science teachers wade through in their time off. The world of this class is remote from the one that most public school teachers live in. The average high school teacher cannot choose her students from an ambitious pool of the most gifted and talented; the average teacher must spend far more time than he likes on preparing students for state-mandated testing, often at the cost of time spent on research.
This divide between the public education most are familiar with and the somewhat rarefied world inhabited by Bramante and his students means that this book must be read less as an attainable model to strive for and more as an anomaly, a curiosity possible only when the everyday rules and realities are changed.
Early in the book, Tesoriero details Bramante’s schedule, which consists of three sections of the research class, totaling 48 gifted young scientists, and a completely separate chemistry class of second-language students. Only one page is devoted to this other class of students who are not prodigies, who present the additional challenge to Bramante of not being native English speakers. Learning more about his work with this group, one more typical of the students many public high school teachers face, would have provided a welcome balance to Bramante’s efforts with the highly gifted research class.
At one point, Tesoriero remarks that because Greenwich’s research students are so high-achieving and competitive, they often see themselves as inadequate when they are not absolutely brilliant at something. “It’s depressing,” she writes. “And it makes you wonder how kids in this town feel who actually aren’t the academic royalty.” One wishes she had pursued that question more fully, especially since Bramante was teaching this other class of students who might have provided the answer.
“The Class” instead homes in exclusively on its impressive and often astounding group of young science wunderkinds and takes readers through a year in their fast-paced, award-winning lives. It is a fascinating glimpse of a teaching environment that most public school teachers will never know.
By Heather Won Tesoriero
432 pp. $27