Scenes from St. George’s, Part VI: Teacher Quality/ Senior Year I

Don’t get sued.

My Readers

Author’s Note: This is Part VI of Scenes From St. George’s. You can find the earlier parts here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V. I want to make just a few comments here about the direction of this series. I had originally planned to do only five of these pieces, and this is already number six. This is mostly because of the positive reception the pieces have gotten, which has been great, and I have been prompted by the many pieces of feedback I have gotten from readers to expand the scope of the series slightly. Nonetheless, the narrative arc of this series is nearing a close, and I don’t expect to write more than two more of these.

Inevitably, before the series ends, I will need to touch to some degree on the events surrounding my own family leaving the school. I want to say a few things about this. First, it was not my intention to undertake this series of recollections in order to re-litigate a situation that has already been litigated, in multiple senses. Second, these events took place several years after I graduated from St. George’s and I was already living in Japan at the time. As a result, what ended up happening didn’t impact me personally all that greatly, and also my own understanding of these events is partial, incomplete. Additionally, it is not my intention to open old wounds or to see anyone feel hurt from what I might write as it is my impression that even after all these years feelings from and about this time period (the very early 2000s) are still raw to some degree. Nonetheless, the theme of this series has been the loose, free range nature of SGS during my tenure there, and this cultural aspect of the school very much played, as I understand it, into the events that occurred. So, fair warning I guess that I will write about it.

That said, I admit I am kind of stalling just a bit as I organize my own thoughts and also get some input from others who know more, or know different things than I, about the events of 2000 and 2001 at SGS. Still, I feel the piece below fits into the overall theme and trajectory of the series and I hope you enjoy it.

High School Chinese History Class, High School Computer Class

In this series I have already talked a bit about teacher quality at St. George’s, as well as suggesting that student quality, for lack of a better term, is also related to the perception of teacher effectiveness. For example, I wrote that E.T. was a “mediocre” science teacher, however he was in fact a good science teacher for students who wanted to learn Physics. He just wasn’t the best at controlling a large science lab where only 20% or so of the class had an interest in learning on a given day. In contrast, I wrote that C.F. was a good teacher for 5th graders despite being somewhat lazy. I’m not sure the lazy part of this is fair or not actually–all in all he managed to control what I’m sure was a pretty unruly classroom and left me with some memorable learning points, so maybe he was actually a good teacher until he peaced out. In any case, teacher quality is often pretty subjective. However I think I can state unequivocally that Betty Barber was a good teacher, and that this guy called J.G. was a bad one. Both Betty and J.G. taught me in high school; Betty taught Chinese History as a senior elective and J.G. taught English mainly I think, but I had him for computer class. Overall, Betty’s Chinese History class was the most important I ever took and was central to establishing my life course, and J.G.’s computer class was an unmitigated disaster.

Let’s start with the bad. J.G. was a pretty young guy, bearded, who had a serious hippie vibe. He came to school as part of a “teaching couple” with a woman called V., however I don’t believe that arrangement lasted very long. A lot of schools like to hire teaching couples; my own experience leads me to suggest giving them a miss, by and large. J.G. told us he had walked through Japan on foot with next to no money staying with people he met all along the way, and overall he seemed like an alright dude. However, his computer class was terrible.

What I recall was, we had basically one assignment all term which was to make a white ball that was sitting at the bottom of the screen move and bounce off the other sides of the screen. It was like we were re-making the game Pong or something. In order to make the ball move, we were supposed to do some coding, I guess. And this might have been possible, however J.G. gave us no instructions, no hints, no information or data of any kind about how to move the freaking ball. This was around 1990, so it wasn’t like we could cruise over to You Tube and figure it out. So we would ask J.G. “hey there J.G. dude, could you give us some pointers on where to start with this here ball movement?” And J.G. would answer “no. That’s the whole idea of learning something. You have to figure it out for yourself.”

Now I don’t know a lot about learning theory, but I know a little bit, and I don’t think this is really right. The learning theory that makes the most general sense to me is called “The Zone of Proximal Development.” If you are in education, or even if you are not, you might be familiar with the Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD for short. In this theory, there is stuff the learner can already do, stuff they can do with help (that’s the zone of proximal development itself), and stuff they currently are not going to be able to do (stuff that is developmentally non-proximal so to speak). So in computer class in 1990 stuff we students could already do might include: turn on the computer and open an application, or whatever passed for an application in 1990; play a video game; and probably compose an essay or report on a writing program. For me, in any case, stuff I could handle most certainly did not include coding a white ball to bounce around. I had literally no idea where to start, not even the hint of a “coding language” or anything from J.G. there.

So, if a student such as myself is bouncing-white-ball-challenged, ZPD theory says they need to be shown the way toward acquiring the new skill through scaffolding. Scaffolding is just what it sounds like; it is giving the student sufficient steps to be able to get to a point where they can expand their ZPD like a balloon and incorporate the new skill in their repertoire. For the bouncing white ball, in my estimation, this would at an absolute minimum have required showing us how to access the coding section of the computer or program or whatever we were supposed to be doing, giving us some information about what kind of code we needed to write, and giving us some of the elements of the coding language. At a minimum. I mean as a freshman in university I took Latin, and my first semester Latin teacher had us reading Cicero by October, which was ambitious, but at least he gave us six weeks of verbs first. I can’t speak for others, but I needed six weeks, or at least six days, of coding language to begin to move the ball. But we didn’t get it, so after about 30 minutes of messing around with the computer the boys started to do other things such as compose dirty limericks and make jokes about other people’s mothers. The girls, I am sure, were more productive. I mean, what else were we supposed to do in the face of such incompetent instruction? Here is one little ditty I composed at the time–I apologize in advance, but it does contain some American History knowledge:

A pious reformer named Mather

Was frequently known to blather

About the great judgement hour

But the word from the shower

Was that Mather knew his way around lather

This should not be in print. In any case, eventually, some student figured out how to move the ball and told everyone else, and J.G. just sat there and watched, and we all passed the assignment. Was this the point? Was this all some elaborate exercise in collaboration? Here are the possibilities as I see them, from most generous to least generous to J.G.:

i) J.G. was giving us a lesson in working together when faced with a hard problem and the class went just like he intended.

ii) J.G. actually gave us a little more information than I am recalling, and it was enough for the better computer students to work things out and we all learned by osmosis. Sort of a ib) actually.

iii) J.G. believed in the learning method he stated–namely that the point of learning is to do everything yourself. Although I believe this to be an ineffective learning theory most of the time, it is at least a theory.

iv) J.G. had no idea how to code the ball to move either and was just hoping a student could solve it. In the meantime, he knew the challenge would take a while, and was killing class time so he didn’t have to teach any more computer.

v) J.G. resented having to teach computer class, which, as a penniless hippie, he knew nothing about, and intentionally sabotaged the class.

All and all I’m guessing a combination of iii) and iv) that was in play here, with maybe just a bit of ii). But I legit do not remember him teaching us a single thing or me learning a single thing in a whole term of class. So I’d have to say, he was a pretty bad teacher.

Betty Barber, on the other hand, was a great Chinese History teacher. Prior to taking this as a senior elective as I mentioned, I had taken World History from Betty as a sophomore or junior. I did pretty well in this class, but my maturity level was still only slightly higher than that of Mason Anderson, so Mason and I would take turns trying to steal each other’s wallets from the pocket of our letter jackets for much of the class. Pick-pocketing, I am sure, is one of the world’s oldest professions, and I’m sure my skills in this arena exceeded my computer skills, but still I didn’t exactly distinguish myself. In Chinese History, things were different. Betty had taken student groups to China in the very early 1980’s, just after the country opened up for tourists after the death of Mao and the Gang of Four era, and had a deep knowledge of the topic. Most of our high school teachers, I would say, were competent enough in their subject, with the notable exception of J.G., however Betty was really an expert in Chinese History, and I don’t use that term lightly.

Part of what made her a good Chinese History teacher for me and the class a good class was undoubtedly that it was an elective. In other words, I was there by choice. The second thing was, she knew the subject in great detail and relished sharing it with us. And third, as I mentioned above, she had been to China at an absolutely critical time in history in the early Deng Xiaoping era and had a view of events informed by real life knowledge and experience. She told us that she expected us to take the class seriously. We read a range of challenging texts, delved deeply into pre and post-WWII Chinese politics, and I personally was finally mature enough by this time to grasp and respect the depth of Betty’s knowledge and passion. As a result, and for the first time in my life, I worked my ass off. I wrote a super long, properly researched, if rose-colored glasses influenced, paper on The Long March, and developed a desire to visit China and Tibet (I eventually made it to China, though have yet to get to Tibet, which is just a little more challenging even though I have ample Yeti theory all ready to go). When it came time to chose classes at university, although I was an English Literature major, I gravitated to classes in Asian Art, Asian History, and Asian Politics, and ended up with the much coveted (or at least somewhat unusual) Asian Studies minor. And within ten months of graduating university I was living in Asia. There is no way any of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for senior year Chinese History.

So Betty was a good teacher because she just was, but also because I was a good student. Was J.G. a good teacher to someone who just happened to crush the Pong reboot? If you dear reader are that student, please do get in touch. But I seriously doubt it. I think J.G. sucked. (Don’t get sued Matty baby.) One way to look at the matter is, how would the respective teaching strategies hold up today? Well, the white ball issue would be solved in 10 minutes on someone’s phone, while Betty could teach the exact same class and it would still be excellent.

I could say a lot more about teachers, good bad and in-between, however I have probably commented more than enough on the professional skills, or lack thereof, of people who may be in my extended Facebook audience, so I will desist. And Betty if you happen to see this, thank you dude. You rock.

The School Credit System and My Senior Year Part I:

One odd feature of SGS in the early 90’s was its very generous credit system. Private schools generally have less oversight on their credit system, less oversight in general much of the time, and either no administrator there chose to focus on the credit system or something had just slipped through the cracks, because my senior year classes, in their totality, included: English Class, Chinese History, Knowledge Bowl. That was it. I also took statistics at night a few times a week with K.R. and J.S. at a local college for college credit.

(K.R. and J.S. and I had been in the advanced Math class since 7th grade with one other student, and we had had John Nord as our teacher from 8th grade through junior year of high school. How I was placed into advanced math, I have no idea because although I could hack the algebra alright, I was a poor geometry student and an even worse calculus student. I passed junior year calculus only because K.R. gave me her, beautiful, notes (thanks K.R.), and I just faked it on the basis of these notes. Anyway, I got a 1 on the Calculus A.P.–the worst score–yet this was still good enough for Mr. Nord to vote for me for student of the year, based on the fact that I read Catch 22 in my spare time. As much as I appreciated the confidence, Joseph Heller didn’t help me a whit with derivatives.)

The odd thing is, I think my senior year class load was only slightly lighter than my classmates, as some of them still had in-school math to complete. As a result, we had tons of time to mess around, play street hockey, skip school because of trick knees, regional basketball games, or any other excuse, etc. The credit system was really bizarre, and I wonder why.

I’ll tell one story here that probably happened senior year because my friends all had drivers’ licenses already, and which I incorporated in my essay on good and great talkers. When I was in high school my friend Kelly Rudd and I were both big fans of Larry King’s radio show. For those who don’t remember, King had a late night radio show for years before, and briefly concurrent with, his TV show on CNN. I liked Larry’s CNN show, however the radio show was way better. There were a couple of features of the show that I especially liked. The first was that King famously did no preparation for his guests. He knew a huge amount about the world of course, however he never read the guests’ book ahead of time or anything like that.

Now, this might sound lazy, but King explained that it was because he wanted to come in totally open. He’d say “if my guest is a firefighter, my first question will be ‘so what’s it like to be a firefighter?’” This was his style—open-ended and non-directive. King was perhaps a “lazy” interviewer, but in the best possible sense. By making the guest do almost all the work, King got himself out of the way, and as a result guests might go in any direction and the show became “eventful.” Another thing I loved was, after the main guest left King would take questions on absolutely anything. Most of the time he would give full, generous answers to his listeners, however sometimes a caller would be really weird or inappropriate. In these cases, King would fall back on a singular phrase. He’d cut off the conversation by saying “cold compress ma’am” or “cold compress sir.” Basically, he was telling them to lie down and ice their head. Which is hysterical.

Anyway, Kelly and I loved Larry, and Kelly even lent me Larry’s books, which were, predictably, about talking. King’s show was broadcast in Spokane from around 9 PM Pacific time and then re-run immediately after, and I would listen to him before falling asleep only to wake up in the middle of the night with the re-run playing. (Like many male teenagers, I had trouble sleeping, and still do). And then, all of the sudden, King’s show was dropped from the AM radio station in town. Now, you might think this was something we had no ability to do anything about, however Kelly didn’t see it that way. He proposed we drive down to the radio station and stage a protest. This seemed to me just bizarre enough to be exciting, so I said sure, let’s go. So Kelly and me and another friend piled into Kelly’s car, skipping out of school mid-morning, and drove the 45 minutes or so to the station. We had no appointment, and were just three high school kids with no leverage of any kind. When we got to the front door it was locked and there was a kind of intercom. Kelly, naturally, nominated himself to do the talking, and started to explain over the intercom why we had come.

“Do you have an appointment?” they asked?

“No.”

“Who are you?”

“We are high school students and we are Larry King fans. We think it’s outrageous that your station recently cancelled his show and we want to talk to someone about it.”

Kelly’s approach was pretty brazen, and at first it didn’t get the job done. We remained shut out of the station. However he kept going, and going, and sooner or later the person on the other end caved. “OK,” she said, “we’ll send someone down.” Sure enough, the station manager himself came down and let us into the hallway. Kelly pleaded his case, and I backed him up to the best of my ability. The station manager, to his great credit, heard us out. “I understand you guys were big fans, and I’m sorry about the cancellation. We love Larry too, and we’d like to bring him back.” And so on. The station manager was BSing us, of course, and we knew it, however it was nice to get a hearing. We left after a while, knowing we hadn’t changed policy but that we had, at least, given it our best shot. Then we drove back to school.

By the time we got back to school it was after lunch and we were late for English class. The teacher eyed us as we walked and said something like “there’d better be a story.” And Kelly said, “why yes there is,” and proceeded to recount the whole incident in his patented comic manner. This was obviously more than enough for the teacher who laughed and folded us into the class. King never came back on the Spokane airwaves, and his radio show gave way to TV pretty soon after in any case, however I learned from Kelly that day. What I learned was, social “rules” are often pretty fungible with the right amount of conversational lubricant. As I understood it, Kelly was essentially creating his own reality by “re-framing” the Larry King situation. We kids had no standing to protest the show’s cancellation, however his insistence that we were passionate fans and therefore deserved a hearing carried the day. Likewise, although we were late for class, Kelly delivered a funny story that won over the teacher and gave us a little grace.

The Larry King incident was just one in a senior year full of off-the-clock shenanigans and foolishness. I would drive out with friends to the dog tracks in Idaho, possibly during school time, with the idea that I could use my hard-won statistics knowledge to “beat the track.” Yeah right. Dog track odds are stacked against you, just in case you hadn’t guessed. But I never would have figured that out if the school hadn’t given me so much time to undertake an independent study in dog racing, so I guess I owe SGS a thank you there. Thanks dude. You rock. Ish.

to be continued…