Things I Learned In School, Pt. II

More thoughts on things I learned about teaching and learning…from teachers.

High School:

As a student in a public high school in Sudbury, Massachusetts, I had some friends who were officially my teachers; we talked about life, learning, politics, culture…and if they had to give me a C or a D in class, I really didn’t care. It was obviously a game we all had to play for the benefit of…who?

There was one history teacher, Mr. M_______, who taught a single course: a comprehensive year-long survey of Russian history. A classroom virtuoso, his teaching was part lecture, part dance, part abstract painting (his hyperkinetic scribbling on the chalkboard served as an outlet for an incessant need to move), part arts and crafts. He conceived Russian History not as a body-of-material-to-be-mastered, but as a medium through which students found out about the world and about themselves. At the time I took his course, which was open only to juniors and seniors, he was employing a very unusual grading method:

“In this class,” he said on the first day, “you are granted the symbol A. Depending on your contributions and participation, you will either receive a Large A, for ‘amazing,’ or a small a, for ‘awful.’ In either case you will have the symbol A. I do not want any of you doing work in the class because you crave a symbol. I want you doing the work because you genuinely want to do the work.”

It was a wonderful course. And what I took away from it was a general gestalt understanding of the sweep of Russian history…and a huge practical insight about what effective teaching could and should be. It didn’t matter that in the first semester I got an A and in the second an a. That, if anything, served to reinforce my growing awareness that the grades I got had nothing at all to do with what I learned.

Lesson: The System may require grades, but there are many ways to skin a cat.

From my freshman year in high school, I knew that I wanted to be on the school newspaper. I joined the staff and began writing and participating in the marathon layout sessions. It was my ambition to be the editor of the paper in my senior year; I felt this strongly enough that when my parents got one-year faculty appointments in Toronto for the duration of my junior year, I argued that I had to stay behind, or I would lose my place in the queue. I lived with my grandmother that year, and I kept my place (as “Associate Editor”); when my senior year began, I was the Editor, and I did a hell of a job, if I do say so myself. The paper had a Faculty Adviser, who stayed out of our way and signed forms as required. He was responsible for giving us all grades; everyone got an A. The grade was required by the system, but it was irrelevant to my motivation, which was purely that I wanted to edit the newspaper.

Lesson: You can get a good grade for doing a good job, and it still doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

A Few Lessons In Learning From Forty Years Ago

Elementary School:

Even when I was a kid, it was apparent to me that the grades I got in school didn’t really say much about what I was learning. It was also apparent that the grades kids got were irrelevant to who they were as people. My mother told me that when I got my first report card, she admired my grades and asked about how I stood in comparison with the other kids — whereupon I responded, more or less, “Why should I care about them?”

Lesson: Sometimes people use grades to compare your work to a standard metric; sometimes people use grades to compare your work to that of your peers.

Junior High School (aka Middle School): Two lessons from a bad teacher; one lesson from a good teacher.

6th grade English class. Free reading. I take out my copy of Martin Gardner’s “Annotated Alice” (loaded with footnotes explaining the math problems Dodgson/Carrol was referencing, the political humor embedded in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and the chess game that continues throughout the entire “Looking Glass,” among other things). Mrs. P___ comes around, asks, “What are you reading?” I hold up my book. She looks astonished, and says, “That’s for little kids!”

Lesson: Just because they’re teachers doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.

8th grade English class; it’s Mrs. P___ again. I loathe her. My grades are slipping, because I cannot bring myself to do any work for that woman. My mother very wisely hears my complaints, and then says, “If Mrs. P___ is so stupid, why should you let her make you stupid, too?” I start doing all the classwork very assiduously, and begin getting good grades again. Every A on every paper is the result of me angrily refusing to let my teacher make me stupid; every completed assignment is a secret “f**k you, Mrs. P___.”

Lesson: Good grades don’t mean what other people may think they mean.

8th grade Music. An elective class, it’s billed as “Music Listening.” The teacher is the new, young, long-haired & bearded Mr. M___. The first day of class, he tells us that we’ll be listening to different kinds of classical music and learning what makes it tick. The students protest that they don’t want to listen to classical music (I don’t say anything; I’m sitting in the back row). Mr. M___ asks, “What do you want to listen to?” The answer comes back, “We want to listen to rock!” Mr. M___ says, “Okay.”

That moment is etched in my memory. It was the first time I ever saw a teacher voluntarily and enthusiastically transform an entire curriculum plan on the spur of the moment, in response to the needs of the students.

It turned out that Mr. M___ knew the history and development of rock and popular music backwards and forwards: over the semester we did an exhaustive cultural and historical survey of American music, with recordings of blues, rockabilly and all the precursors of the rock music we were hearing every day….and, of course, the rock music we were hearing every day.

It was that class that introduced me to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, changing my life forever (I vividly remember sitting in class listening to “Who Are The Brain Police?” and being utterly amazed that music like this was possible. “Freak Out” was one of the first three LPs I bought with the money I earned doing chores. I still have it, by the way.). I have no idea what grade I got at the end, because it really didn’t matter in the least. It was an incredible class, and it made me absolutely certain that whatever I did in my life, I wanted to do it in music. And the most important part of it was that it was obviously designed on the spur of the moment, in response to the stated needs of the students.

Lesson: Good teachers listen to their students. Good teachers are prepared for change, and welcome it. Good teachers know their subject(s). If a learning experience is genuine, the grade received is largely irrelevant.