Posted in education, schools

My own educational experience, Part II (Junior year of high school onward)

I was really looking forward to my junior year of high school. After the disaster of sophomore year, I was determined to take much less challenging classes. I was also really excited because I’d be an upperclasswoman, which meant I could start taking electives instead of just required courses. Towards that end, I signed up for American history (not AP, as much as my boneheaded guidance counselor tried to persuade me!), Latin I, world literature, and either psychology or Africana studies (or both?), alongside Course III (trig) and Spanish III (my fifth year of Spanish). I don’t remember what I chose for science.

Sadly, my mother wouldn’t let me continue with art, despite my love for it. I’ve never pretended to be anywhere near the quality of a serious professional artist who draws and paints every single day, but that doesn’t mean I’m a talentless hack who can only draw stick figures or fling globs of paint at a canvas. My love of art and desire to create was badly hurt for many years on account of this. I’ve discovered my artistic calling and passion are for geometric and abstract art, and very colourful animals like tropical fish, tree frogs, and parrots.

Alas, my family made a disastrous mistake of a move back to Pennsylvania, a mistake which was obvious even before it happened. Those eleven months were among the darkest nights of my soul. I was enrolled in the same rural, smalltown high school my father attended, where I felt so profoundly unchallenged. Irina’s experience at her first high school in Dream Deferred is very strongly based on my year at that school, and her friend Rhonwen is based on one of the few people who was kind and welcoming to me.

I might as well have skipped eleventh grade or graduated early, since the academic standards were so far below what I was used to. Albany High wasn’t exactly Eton, but at least it had age-appropriate standards. I don’t think my new guidance counselor, or the school in general, knew what to do with me, since I came from such a radically different system.

Instead of reading classic world lit and Hamlet in English, I was forced into freaking research paper and public speaking classes (each running half the year). These kids were juniors and had never done research papers before! I’d been doing them since eighth grade! Why couldn’t they let me take an English class with seniors?

And instead of any history class, I had to take civics with sophomores. This teacher was an infamous nut, and apparently got even worse in the years afterwards. I kid you not, he had a unit on the political spectrum, and there was a test where we were supposed to assign one of the six classifications to people based on descriptions like “20-year-old waitress who smokes pot” and “Someone who says ‘You can’t trust a Russian as far as you can throw him.'”

I got to take Spanish IV with seniors, and another junior who started in a different school system. But it moved at a snail’s pace, and these kids were just learning things I’d already known since sophomore year. One time I politely asked the teacher if a verb tense shouldn’t be romparon (they broke), since it was in the preterite. She agreed, but said she didn’t want to confuse them with grammar they hadn’t learnt yet.

We never even read Don Quixote or any other classics of Spanish literature!

There was no Latin, so I had to take French I. At that time, I had a negative view of the French language on account of the Vichy French, and also considered it snobby and outdated. The only other languages they offered were German and Japanese, through distance learning by computer. Almost all of the other kids in my French class were ninth graders, and they didn’t exactly warm to this strange liberal Yankee in their midst.

The only classes that didn’t make me feel stupid, bored, and unchallenged were astronomy (taught by someone who got his Ph.D. at the end of the year) and psychology (which only ran for half the year). I was surrounded by hicks and hayseeds content to live in the same small rural town their entire lives, with only a few fellow cosmopolitan-minded nonconformists I knew of. They weren’t used to dealing with people from outside their little bubble, and that scared and threatened them.

Some of the boys in my “English” classes were particularly annoyed by how often I covered Russian history and culture, and even made audible noises of disgust and frustration when I started writing the Cyrillic alphabet on the blackboard. These same boys later gave a very homophobic, gay-bashing speech I’m shocked was permitted.

As much as I clashed with the school’s culture, I nevertheless decided to stay to finish the year after my parents and little brother moved to Massachusetts in April 1997. I figured I’d been screwed out of enough, and didn’t want the trauma of uprooting near the end of a school year. I even went through the motions of registering for senior year classes, including an integrated science seminar which consisted of lots of research papers.

My final high school was like night and day. I took AP English, Spanish V (which did include Don Quixote), Italian I (which I took to like lightning), physics, trig (the first math class I loved and excelled in since elementary school), U.S. history, and some kind of English-related elective that ran for the second half of the year.

I attended community college after graduating high school, and then transferred to UMass–Amherst. Though I wish I’d gone to UMass all four years, I had many excellent classes and professors in community college, and it saved a lot of money. No one should ever be made to feel ashamed of attending community college.

However, had I been set up for high academic achievement from a very young age like the A.T. kids and gradually transitioned into advanced courses instead of thrown in without a lifeboat, I think I would’ve applied myself a lot more rigourously and taken more than just two APs. Perhaps I could’ve attended a school like Smith, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, or the University of Michigan. UMass was a default school which had a transfer compact with the community college.

After I make aliyah, I plan to attend graduate school at the University of Haifa’s International School (i.e., English-Language instruction), either Holocaust Studies or Jewish Studies, and damned if I don’t take it much more seriously than any of my previous academic experiences. Unlike the A.T. kids, I never had anything handed to me on a silver platter.

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, education, schools

My own educational experience, Part I (K-10)

Many depictions of my characters’ schools are strongly drawn from my own life—the layout of my elementary school, funny things that happened in class, the hot and cold cafeteria in my junior high, a sex-segregated hot cafeteria, specific teachers and classmates, the rude reception I got in the cafeteria my first day of junior year and how I ate lunch in the bathroom almost every day until the late spring, et al.

Though I had some fun times and more than a few great teachers, I knew deep down that I didn’t go to the best schools. Hence, I live vicariously through my characters by creating much better schools for them to attend, the kinds of schools and tracks I wish I could’ve had access to. This extends to higher education as well.

I was more than smart enough to have started kindergarten in 1984 instead of 1985, and my birthday was a few weeks before New York State’s cutoff of 31 December. However, because of my then-mystery issues, I was kept out. When I did begin kindergarten, I was kicked out of multiple schools in quick succession. My parents finally found a school willing to take me, but as I discovered while snooping through their file cabinets at nineteen, they had to write a letter every year to get renewed permission for me to attend a school out of our neighborhood.

The woman who was principal when I began didn’t think I’d graduate elementary school because of how serious my issues were. She passed away the next year, little suspecting I’d go all the way to university. Needless to say, I’m very proud of the fact that I learnt to pass for neurotypical, albeit a bit quirky and introverted.

It wasn’t easy being “that weird kid,” esp. in an era before my condition had a name, for all intents and purposes. My fourth grade teacher was the first who didn’t wash her hands of me. My entire life long, I’ll be beyond-words grateful to her for her tough love that forced me to get over the worst of my issues. She recognized how intelligent I am and that I have a gift for writing, and nurtured that.

My elementary school had a track called A.T. (Advanced and Talented) for grades 4–6. I was more than smart enough to qualify, but because of my then-unexplained issues, the school wouldn’t allow me into it, and lied about not doing well on the spelling portion of the qualifying test. They would never get away with that today, nor with separating students into two tracks and feeding a superiority complex among the A.T. students. It was no secret that many A.T. kids were only there because their parents were PTA bigwigs or had other clout.

My fourth grade teacher had taught A.T. the year before, and made a point of telling us she was doing everything exactly the same. But once we hit junior high, it was obvious the A.T. kids had been set up for advanced studies and academic success.

For all its many faults, at least my junior high let me skip right into English 8H in seventh grade. My classmates in English were at the same grade level, just learning material a year ahead of us.

Then came eighth grade, and I was initially put in earth science, a high school level course. Almost from the jump, I performed terribly, failing a class for the first time in my life. I’d struggled with algebra in seventh grade math, but at least I never failed. Within a month or so, I was switched to physical science.

Many of the A.T. kids meanwhile were taking Course I, the New York State equivalent of ninth grade algebra. Needless to say, my seventh grade math grades hadn’t qualified me for that class!

In sixth grade, my best friend and I toured Academy of the Holy Names. Though neither of us are Catholic or from class privilege, our parents were keen to avoid sending us to the public junior highs. The worst of my issues had also resolved by this point, so there was no worry I’d be seen as “that weird kid” at a new school. Alas, the tuition was too high for my parents to justify, and to this day, my mother regrets not doing more to make it work. Had I gone to Holy Names like my best friend, I would’ve been spared all the trauma I went through at Hackett, and the academic environment would’ve been so much more nurturing.

I suffered through two years at the marginally better of Albany’s two junior highs and continued on to Albany High, which had an awful reputation even before they installed metal detectors.

My most challenging freshwoman courses were Course I and biology, but I managed to pass both. Then came sophomore year, and everything fell apart, thanks to the orchestrations of a boneheaded guidance counselor who was all about the freaking Regents diploma and taking as many APs as possible. He signed me up for AP European History and Regents chemistry and Course II (geometry).

Because I had no prior experience with such advanced coursework (college-level!) or taking three challenging classes at once, I began failing all three almost immediately. It might seem shocking that I’d fail a class in my favourite and strongest subject, history, but it was so far above my academic capabilities at that age, and it was combined with two classes in my weakest subjects. My joke of a guidance counselor refused to allow me to switch to grade-level or school-level classes in math and science or a regular Regents class in history.

I was thrown into freezing, choppy water without a lifeboat and forced to watch the former A.T. kids breezing through the same rigourous coursework. They were gradually transitioned into this level of academia from a young age instead of going from regular classes to challenging material overnight.

I passed Course II by the skin of my teeth, with an 84 on the Regents and an overall class average of 65. My final grade in chemistry was an F, with a 64 on the Regents. I had to repeat it in summer school, where I got an 84 on the Regents. Miraculously, I managed to pull up quite a bit in history, though I only got a 3 on the AP and had to repeat World Civ as a history major at uni.

To be continued.

Posted in education, Historical fiction, schools

Writing about higher education in historical fiction

If you’re writing a historical with collegiate characters, research and accuracy are of vital importance. There are so many things about higher education that have radically changed over time, and as I found out the hard way (luckily pre-publication), you can’t assume even a seemingly minor, basic detail was always the same.

Important things to keep in mind as you research and write:

1. Start and end dates of semesters. Because I assumed the autumn semester always started in early September or late August, I now have a bunch of annoying edits to look forward to in Dream Deferred. Even as recently as a few decades ago, it wasn’t uncommon for universities to begin in late September or early October. The spring semester likewise sometimes began in February.

2. Graduation dates. If you use actual dates in your books like I do, you need to know exactly when commencement was.

3. Commencement details. Beyond the date, it’s important to know, e.g., who the speaker was, what s/he spoke about, how many graduates there were, what the weather was like, if the ceremony had to be moved to an alternate location due to rain, noteworthy events in the program, school traditions, etc.

4. The dates and events of orientation for first-year students and transfers. Some schools had an entire week, while others only had a weekend or a few days in the middle of a week. Did the Dean speak at a luncheon? Were there dances? Sporting events? Campus tours? Singalongs?

5. Were your characters’ majors offered in those years? Many university websites have history sections on the pages for their departments. Some are more thorough than others. Columbia, Vassar, and the University of Minnesota at the Twin Cities are among the schools I’ve found with excellent information. If it’s not available there, try searching archives of the student newspapers, which often mention students’ majors. You don’t want to have, e.g. a fine arts student attending a school that only offered art history (if that), or an engineering student attending a school that was solely a teachers’ college or theological school.

6. Did the institution have a graduate school in those years? If so, what programs were offered? Bryn Mawr, for example, used to have a much more extensive graduate school, whereas today it only offers six master’s programs.

7. Cycling back to #5, many schools started out as training colleges for teachers or clergy. They weren’t all-purpose universities with departments in the liberal arts and STEM.

8. Co-education is fairly recent. Some schools admitted women to graduate programs but not undergraduate. Others were exclusively male, and often had women’s auxiliaries. If your story is set before the late 19th century, there’s a good chance women weren’t allowed to study there at all, or had to gain special permission through petitions, character references, and stellar scores on exams.

Bettisia Gozzadini (1209–1261), alumna of the University of Bologna and the first woman to teach at a university

9. Women’s schools only arose in the second half of the 19th century. Though they initially catered to daughters of privilege, their admission standards were very academically rigourous.

10. School officials acted in loco parentis until the late 1960s. This entailed things like strict curfews, having to meet members of the opposite sex in common areas and under a chaperone’s watchful eyes, women being expelled if they were caught alone with men, dress codes, and forbidding freedom of speech and association.

11. Tuition cost much less than it does today, even accounting for inflation. New York City’s public schools were also free for qualified students until the disastrous open admissions policy of the 1970s.

12. The location of some schools changed over time. Perhaps they needed a bigger campus as their student body expanded; a fire necessitated rebuilding; or they wanted to relocate to a more desirable part of town.

13. The average age of university entrance historically was fourteen. Some students were as young as twelve. This wasn’t because kids were so much smarter in the old days, but rather because education was structured much differently, and high school didn’t exist.

14. Pre-requisites included plane geometry, algebra, Latin, Ancient Greek, French, and German. Many students attended prep schools so they could pass all these entrance exams.

15. Majors didn’t exist until the 19th century. Prior, everyone had the same mandated general course of study. If they were lucky, they could take a few electives.

16. Length of study varied by program. E.g., many degrees in nursing, architecture, and veterinary medicine took five years, while other programs took only three.

17. The Ivies weren’t selective until the 1920s. Prior, any man from a well-connected, wealthy WASP family was admitted. Once non-WASPs from less privileged backgrounds began applying in large numbers, they developed a discriminating admissions policy, including questions about religion, parents’ birthplaces and jobs, and mother’s birth surname. Applicants also had to attach a photo and do an interview to further suss out “undesirables.”

18. Many private schools had a numerus clausus, a quota designed to severely limit Jews, Catholics, and African-Americans. Columbia created Seth Low Junior College for their “excess” Jewish applicants, Isaac Asimov among them.

Some sources I’ve used:

Columbia Spectator
Barnard Bulletin
Barnard Magazine
Barnard yearbooks
Essays and firsthand materials about Barnard’s history
The Minnesota Daily
Additional Minnesota Daily archives (some issues incomplete to date)
University of Minnesota Twin Cities Press Releases
University of Minnesota commencement programs
University of Toronto Archives
Bryn Mawr catalogues and calendars
Sarah Lawrence student newspaper archives
Swarthmore archives and history
Hunter commencement programs
The New School archives and special collections
New York Times archives
Newspapers.com (Fully searchable international archive dating from 1690; needs a subscription, but can also be accessed through some library websites)
Nineteenth century U.S. newspapers (needs a subscription, but can also be accessed through some library websites)
Index of links to U.S. student newspapers (including high schools)
Index of links to Canadian student newspapers
Grand index of historical world newspaper links by region and special interest

Posted in education, schools

Why are so many U.S. public schools so awful?

Once upon a time, many U.S. public schools were very good. Though they obviously lacked the rich resources available to private schools, they nevertheless employed solid teachers and taught everything they needed to. There were also many after school programs. Now the educational system is deep in the toilet, leading many parents to choose charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling.

What might be some of the problems which cropped up over the last few decades?

1. Funding, funding, funding. With less money coming in from taxes and donors, schools are unable to pay teachers more, improve the buildings, buy updated textbooks and technology, send teachers to conventions where they can learn new pedagogy and techniques, or hire more teachers.

2. Common Core. Who thought this was a good idea? It’s as pathetic as the Regents system in New York. I understand the importance of learning specific subjects and having basic standards, but education shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all paradigm, with no deviation allowed for struggling students or students who learn most optimally in different ways. And what’s with the jacked, non-intuitive, overly complicated math rules?

3. Speaking of Common Core, teaching for tests instead of tailored to each individual student and making the material enjoyable. I failed chemistry my sophomore year in part because my awful teacher only taught for the purpose of passing the almighty Regents final. When I repeated the course in summer school (with a teacher who was also a former pupil of hers), I pulled an 84 on the Regents, since the material was actually taught in an engaging way, and the teacher wasn’t going by a script she dared not deviate from.

4. Overcrowding. This makes everything even more difficult for teachers and students alike.

5. Outdated pedagogy. Just because something worked, or at least you were convinced it worked, forty years ago doesn’t mean it’s still effective and relevant today.

6. And speaking of, outdated textbooks. There’s no reason for kids to have to learn from books that haven’t had any major revisions since 1970. Math obviously doesn’t change, but science, history, literature, and language are constantly evolving, and people think differently about them in each generation.

7. Lack of options for gifted and advanced students. I was barred from entering kindergarten a year early, not allowed to skip any grades, and excluded from my elementary school’s Advanced and Talented track. I also attended a lot of sub-par schools. In a private school, my intelligence could’ve been nurtured so much more, and I would’ve been gradually eased into more intense coursework instead of tossed in without a lifeboat my sophomore year.

8. Again speaking of, kids of wildly disparate abilities are heaped together. This makes it harder for teachers to tailor lessons and assignments based on abilities, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. It also increases the risk of bullying and cliques, and smart kids feel stupid when the teacher caters to the lowest common denominator with snail-paced lessons and material they’ve already mastered.

9. No longer teaching basic skills like library research, cursive, and typing. Society has failed when modern students take pictures of a whiteboard with their phones instead of God forbid taking notes by hand, and when they only know how to text instead of touch-typing and handwriting. And since when are students allowed to do 100% of their research online instead of using actual print sources?

10. Teaching towards university attendance only. The entire world isn’t wealthy and bourgeois. Many students go directly from high school to a blue-collar job or working on a farm. They don’t have the luxury of attending college or university.

11. Being unable to fire a tenured teacher, no matter how demonstrably awful.

12. School days beginning too early, when science shows it’s unhealthy for young people to be deprived of sleep. A better model would be beginning at 9:00 and ending at 5:00. A longer school year would also be very helpful, as well as a longer lunch break and healthier food options.

13. Hearkening back to several other points, bad teachers. How can kids succeed when they have sub-par teachers?

14. Lack of after school programs, particularly for at-risk youth.

15. Outdated, ineffective discipline. Newsflash: Detention doesn’t teach any lessons but anger and annoyance, and it’s often doled out to students who didn’t do anything to deserve punishment. Like, why does being one day late with a paper merit an hour of sitting in a desk? And what if older students have part-time jobs they can’t miss? Parents like mine will also freak out if the kid doesn’t show up at the car or get home on the bus at the usual time. Don’t even get me started on how some schools, esp. in the South, still use corporal punishment.

16. The general strain of anti-intellectualism and dumbing-down of society.

17. Too much busywork.

18. Failure to diagnose and treat things like depression, anxiety, mental illness, abuse, and trauma, which all have a huge impact on academic performance and overall behaviour.

19. Lack of parental involvement.

20. In recent years, putting more emphasis on political and social issues than actual academia.

Posted in education, Languages, schools

Foreign language instruction in schools (and why it frequently falters)

Once upon a time, students were expected to come to university with at least reading fluency in French, German, Latin, and Ancient Greek. Now graduating seniors in the U.S. can barely be arsed to learn basic Spanish. What in the world happened over the last hundred years?

Since 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was published in both French and English instead of French only, English has overtaken French as the world’s lingua franca. Hence, many Anglophones feel there’s no need to learn another language, and foreign language is seen as just another class required for graduation, not a skill anyone will need or care about afterwards.

My parents decided for me that I’d learn Spanish in junior high, and wouldn’t let me take French like I wanted. They insisted French is outdated and irrelevant in the modern era, and that Spanish is more useful. The last laugh was on them, since it turned out French would’ve been much more useful to me on account of all the old books I’ve read with untranslated French and all the Francophone sources I’ve used while researching my historical fiction. I can read a lot of basic French for that very reason. In fact, I’ve used French far more than Spanish!

Over the last few decades, Spanish has completely replaced French in most areas of the U.S. as the de facto language to learn. I would never say I regret spending seven years studying Spanish, nor that I have any dislike towards the language, but I never developed a love for it like I feel for Russian, German, Estonian, or Italian.

No one should learn any language as a thoughtless default. You should have a genuine passion for it. Maybe show students samples of writing in all the languages offered at that school, and play clips of people speaking them. Tell students about some of the awesome novels and films in those languages. That way, they’ll have a concrete feel for what they might like and form a personal connection.

It’s just not realistic to interest someone in a language by talking about how useful it’ll be if their job sends them to a Francophone country in Africa, how French and German are the best languages to learn for grad school research in a field like history or political science, or how many people speak Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. You can’t predict what’s going to be relevant to their adult lives, and a lot of these selling points are meaningless to the poor and working-class.

I would’ve taken Latin my junior year if my family hadn’t moved back to Pennsylvania, where the small rural school only offered Spanish and French. The Spanish IV class I took was so far below my capabilities. E.g., I learnt preterite tense sophomore year, my fourth year of Spanish (and the second year for kids who only started it in high school), while these SENIORS were only just learning it! Once I even politely asked the teacher if a verb form shouldn’t be xyz because it was in the preterite. She agreed, but said she didn’t want to confuse the other students with grammar they hadn’t learnt yet.

I was able to read parts of Don Quixote my senior year (in a real Spanish class), yet I felt overwhelmed by the material in my seventh year of Spanish at community college. Suddenly I had to read a lot of stories, poems, and novel excerpts, and do a significant amount of writing in Spanish. My previous classes hadn’t prepared me for that level of proficiency and immersion.

The objective of learning a language shouldn’t be reading classics like The Aeneid, Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, Candide, or Doctor Faustus to pass the AP or regular final year test. It should be reading newspapers, watching films and TV shows, and communicating with native speakers. Endlessly memorizing vocabulary, conjugations, and declensions isn’t a winning strategy for developing full fluency.

Spanish students are also put in a disadvantage if they don’t learn vosotros (informal plural form of you used in Spain), under the presumption they’ll only encounter Latin American Spanish.

Though you can’t entirely escape having to memorize grammar and vocab at some point, language is acquired much easier and more naturally through immersion, particularly when it’s of personal interest. E.g., someone who loves makeup and hair could watch beauty vloggers. A film buff could watch films. Someone who already loves a few writers or poets in that language could read side-by-side editions. An aspiring chef or baker could watch culinary vloggers.

Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina is a groundbreaking classic that should’ve become the norm for all language instruction. The entire book, minus the credits page, is in Latin. From the very first line, you’re reading and understanding the language perfectly based on context, pictures, and definitions, declensions, and conjugations in the margins. It begins very simply and gradually becomes more advanced, constantly building on everything that came before. There are also exercises at the end of each chapter, filling in the blanks and answering questions.

Most U.S. schools also start way too late, in seventh or ninth grade. It’s much easier to achieve native-level fluency before age ten.

Learning a language shouldn’t be about knowing just enough to pass tests, watch films that have subtitles anyway, and muddle through simple conversations.