Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What if Mr. Conrad taught English instead of Math?

I have been playing over in my head bits about high school.  For example, I've been wondering how long the school day was.  I'm pretty sure that we had 5 minutes between classes to get to the next class.  But I can't remember whether each class was 40 minutes or 45 minutes.  We started with homeroom, which was perhaps 15 minutes, though again I'm not really sure.  In ninth grade, if the school day started at 8:00 AM, which I seem to recall, then we either got out at 2:15 PM or 2:55 PM.  I don't remember which, though I do recall that a bell would ring at the end of each period and again at the start of the next period.

In ninth grade I had 5 academic classes - English, Social Studies, Earth Science, French, and Math.  Math was with Mr. Conrad.  More about him in a bit.  The other three periods were Band, Gym, and Lunch.  It's funny, I have little visualizations of each of these classes in my head except for lunch.  Part of that must be remembering the teachers.  But there is also a sense of the classroom - what floor it was on, what direction the room faced.  With the lunchroom, I have no visualization of it in my head.

In tenth and eleventh grades the pattern of classes was different for me.  I took 6 academic classes, two science classes each year, both Biology and Chemistry in tenth grade, Physics and AP Chem in eleventh grade, and then I also took two math classes in eleventh grade, both the required analytic geometry and trigonometry class as well as an elective class called math team workshop.  To accommodate this into the day something else had to be dropped.  I stopped doing band after ninth grade, even though I liked it.  After tenth grade I stopped with French, which was kind of a relief at the time, though perhaps short sighted of me then. I would have preferred to drop gym.  A lot of kids probably felt the same way.  In the fall semester of twelfth grade, I wrote an opinion piece for the student newspaper, The Verdict, (the school was Benjamin N. Cardozo High School, named after the former Supreme Court Justice) that argued gym should be optional.  I remember that my English teacher at the time had read it and found it interesting.   My mother saved a copy of the paper and I found it while cleaning out the house before my parents sold it, roughly 20 years later.  So I read the piece again then.  I thought it mediocre, both the argument and the writing.

Twelfth grade was different schedule-wise and unlike how things are done now.  I started with two AP classes, math and biology, but after the fall I dropped the bio course.  I don't think the school had AP physics or AP English at the time, though maybe it had the latter and I simply wasn't interested in it.  For social studies, in the fall I had economics, which until then was the only academic class I took that wasn't an honors class and it wasn't particularly good.  At least it didn't scar me for taking economics later.  I took no science class that spring.  I did take a number theory class, but it only went that one semester.  The upshot is that in the spring I only went to school for 5 periods and was done before noon.  For many students, senior year was kind of a blow off time.

* * * * *

I had Mr. Conrad for four classes - the ninth grade required algebra class, the eleventh grade analytic geometry and trig class, the first term of the math team workshop (Mr. Rosenthal, the former chair of the Math Department, taught the second term), and the number theory class.  Plus, Mr. Conrad was the coach of the math team.  And he ran an activity called The Problem of the Week, which was for interested students to challenge their math problem solving skills.  So I had contact with Mr. Conrad throughout my time in high school, maybe more so than most other students, even those on the math team.  (Jimmy K and Michael S may have also had this much interaction with Mr. Conrad.  The kids who went to 67 for Junior High School, somewhere between one third and one half of my cohort - the kids who were in Arista - only started at Cardozo in tenth grade.)

The math department did more tracking in its classes than the other departments.  There weren't just honors classes.  There was also extra honors classes.  (Maybe the science classes were also tracked this way, with extra honors classes, but the English and Social Studies classes were not.  They had honors but not extra honors.)  I'd be hard pressed to explain why this was, other than a view that students should find their own ceiling to their learning and shouldn't be constrained by the pace being too slow for them and not compelling enough, then tuning out as a consequence.  But it also requires flexibility in the teachers to match what they teach with  where the students are.  Mr Conrad had that.  Even still, Mr. Conrad got Michael S and me to do an independent study for a while during the 11th grade required course, (we met in his space within the Program Office) so we could get a more sophisticated view of what we were studying.  We were too immature to follow through on that, however, so after bombing the exam on interpolation and extrapolation, we ended that little experiment.  But I still have the textbook we were given, Elementary Functions, by Hallberg and Devlin.

Mr. Conrad had particular aptitude teaching bright kids and engaging them so the learning was fun.  Perhaps the Problem of the Week is the best illustration of this.  The problem would be posted on the bulletin board outside the Math Department Office.  It posed a challenge as the answer to any of these problems was not immediate, far from it.  Yet they required insight far more than advanced technique. There was no course credit for solving one of these, nor even some note of it as an extracurricular activity.  You worked on the problem of the week because of the challenge it posed and the joy in discovery if you could meet the challenge. I wrote about this some years ago in a post called Math as a gateway to creativity.

The idea that the same teacher stays in contact with a student throughout high school and provides nurture for the student's intellectual growth by challenging the kid in a way that suits where the kid currently is in his thinking is what I'm asking about in the title to this post.  Where would I be now if I had such a teacher for English?

* * * * *

Math, of course, is intensely logical and systematic.  In that, it is much easier than real life, which is complex and confounding, and where sometimes the logic of the situation entirely eludes most people's sensibilities.  English, reading how others have looked at their own situations that are perhaps comparable to our own, also writing in a way to develop our own perspective on things, seems to me the subject closest to understand real life at a personal level. 

I have written elsewhere, many times actually, that college is where you ask the meaning of life questions.  But the truth is that those questions emerge earlier, during adolescence.  Tying English to those meaning of life questions would have been helpful for me and probably would have gotten me to write a lot earlier than I actually did.

Those questions begin, I believe, with the onset of puberty, especially as how the time of that compares with the times for others in the kid's cohort.  For me, it started quite early, when I was nine.  I was kicked out of choir in fourth grade because my voice broke then, much like the kid in Almost Angels.   There was one other kid, Jay S, who was in the same boat.  We were separated from the rest of the class, when it was in choir practice.  I understood this separation wasn't punitive.  But it reinforced a feeling of being different from others.  (Being one of the biggest was what generated that sense of being different.  So I already had some of this feeling since nursery school.)  The first meaning of life question, then, was how to regard this difference and not feel shame about it, which I surely did feel at the time.  I have since confronted this feeling of being different in several other areas.  I probably wasn't ready in fourth grade to consider it a theme that might focus reading and writing.  But by high school I was.  However, I had nobody like Mr. Conrad to intrude on my thinking and direct it in this area.

The next meaning of life question was more intellectual in nature.  Kids maintain certain myths that make sense in childhood but that cease to be true thereafter.  The biggest of these is that adults always have the right answer and that parents and teachers both always have the kid's best interest at heart.  When this myth shatters it is very disillusioning.  The question thereafter is: what should replace it?  How should the kid act in the presence of authority?  In this regard, the time I was in high school may have been a healthier period than now.  I wrote about this in a post called, I was not a sheep. Were you?  This was in response to the book Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz.   

When one belief system has to be discarded, it probably is useful to try out alternatives on an experimental basis before fully embracing any one of them.  At the time I was in high school, authority in general was being challenged, primarily because of the War in Vietnam, and the expression generation gap took on a good deal of currency.  The issues hit very hard for me in tenth grade.  I went from being a near ideal child, before that, to my mother and I being in almost constant battle, during the remaining years of high school.  I know we read Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, and Demian around then.  Perhaps if I had more coaching on this score, I would have been better able to tie these works to my own situation.  Alternatively, somebody might have suggested to me to read other things that would have been more transparent to me this way and develop a better understanding of how to relate to adults.

The last life question I'll consider here is fear and nervousness and what to do about those feelings when in novel situations that are not readily navigated, for lack of practice.  A few weeks ago I watched a video of Dustin Hoffman talking about his experience filming The Graduate.  He spoke at length about how he and Katherine Ross were extremely nervous while doing the screen test, as was the director, Mike Nichols.  I would have benefited enormously in high school if I was told this story then.  I was quite aware of my own extreme nervousness at times, which often rendered me incompetent.  But it seemed most other people were competent.  So I inferred, incorrectly, that they weren't nervous.  I therefore became ashamed of my fears and tried to hide them.  This, I take it, is the big issue growing up.  Had I been able to read and write directly on this subject, I'm sure I would have come to a more mature view on the matter and much earlier than I did.

* * * * *

I do math explicitly now only on occasion, mostly in conjunction to the homework I design for my class in Excel.  Otherwise, it perhaps indirectly informs the writing of pieces like this one.  The structure of the piece and the pace at which ideas are presented may be influenced by my math orientation.  I want to make a convincing argument. The math taught the need for that.

But I wonder whether my intuitions about writing are missing some key elements, because I am almost entirely self-taught that way.  I don't mean grammar.  I mean rhetorical style.  When I first started this blog, the writing was influenced by watching The West Wing.  Those stories had multiple threads which had some interplay.  I tried for something similar in the writing.  I've moved away from that approach since.  It takes me a while to compose these posts now and making that gestation period longer is not attractive to me.  Yet I haven't abandoned writing longish meandering posts.   It reflects how I think on the matters I write about.  I am aware, however that it misses entirely any sense of the reader as different from me in inclination.

As a practical matter, my posts are getting very few readers now.  So there is question whether the writing should change to attract more of an audience.  I don't know how to answer that on my own.

In science fiction we can replay our lives in an alternate universe, where there are many parallels to our actual experience but a few key differences.  Having an English teacher in high school who touched me as Mr. Conrad did with math is one of those I'd like to explore.  Oh, to be thirteen again and starting the ninth grade.  Where might that end up? 

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