Thursday, June 29, 2017

Academically Dead Poetry Students' Society

I wish Robin Williams were still here.

I never actually studied until December of my freshman year of high school. up to that point i had been with students who were essentially my own age. It wasn't difficult to keep pace with or, for that matter, to stay ahead of most of my age-level peers. Even when Matthew and I were moved to eighth grade halfway through our seventh-grade year, it wasn't much of a strain.  I  don't recall ever failing to finish regular homework assignments. Homework in elementary and middle school usually involved an assigned thirty minutes of reading, which had to be done at home. My parents required that we do homework or read for ninety nightly minutes Monday through Thursday anyway, but I've always loved to read, so it wasn't a chore. The only real homework I had up to that point was the two or so times per year that special projects were assigned. 

When i was in ninth grade or a freshman, my English teacher assigned George Orwell's Animal Farm as the second required novel. The previous assigned novel had been Sleep, Two, Three, Four by John Neufeld.  My mom was concerned because one of these books we had read when just before were in second grade, and the other was even less cerebral. (Animal Farm is a great work and can be approached on many different levels, but the level at which it was being approached in our English literature class wasn't suitable for a college preparatory course.) 

My mother made an appointment with our guidance counselor to discuss what she felt was inadequate curriculum. When the guidance counselor didn't see anything wrong with the reading selections, my mother had the two of us switched to another guidance counselor's case load, then made an appointment to meet with our new guidance counselor. The new counselor sympathized with my mom's concerns, but didn't see any clear alternative. She initially said that we would have to stick it out and to supplement our reading with more erudite works, but after looking at even Matthew's test scores, concluded that we didn't necessarily have to remain enrolled in freshman English.

The only remotely suitable English class in fourth period, which was the class period that we had English, was Honors English IV.  It didn't seem wise to disrupt our total schedules, as we would be switching instructors in core subject courses, who taught sub-topics in different sequences. We would inevitably miss some topics and repeat others. The easiest solution, as unpopular as it would make us in the class, was to enroll us in the honors English IV section in fourth period. This change was to be made in early October of the school year, which would have found us not yet thirteen years of age; nearly all of our classmates would have been seventeen at the time. Matthew and I had some experience in being in classrooms with upperclassmen, as enrollment in specific math and science courses was contingent upon what courses a student had successfully completed. I had finished Algebra II in eighth grade. Matthew had completed geometry. It was the norm for such to be the case with regard to math and science, however. English classes, unless they were remedial -- and few were at our school, though our English class was, in some ways, being taught as a remedial course -- were expected to be grouped according to grade level, with the only exceptions being students who had completed grade-level English courses in summer school.

We lived in a small university city with a relatively educated population. Part of our faculty each year included either students attending the local university in doctoral programs, or post-doctoral students who had secured adjunct faculty status at the university; they hoped that by sticking around as part-timers with the university, they would eventually be offered full-time professor positions. Meanwhile, they needed to eat, so they taught at one or the other of the local high schools. An act of violence I suffered two years later at school notwithstanding, the student population at our school was largely civilized.  We were not surrounded by thugs. The girls especially, while they may have been less than thrilled with my presence in the class and were less than welcoming, were no physical threat to me.  Matthew was probably not in any serious danger from the boys in the class, either, but he kept his mouth shut just to be safe. The girls in the class thought Matthew was the most adorable little boy on whom they had never lain eyes. Older women nearly always feel that way about Matthew.

Matthew and I transferred into the class in the first week of October. The instructor was just starting her English (as in from England, or British, not as in in the English language; American literature, including poetry, was part of English III curriculum) poetry unit, which would continue through November and December, with the culminating examination taking place on the next-to-last day prior to winter break.  The last day before break would be a minimum student attendance day, allowing teachers time to mark exams and issue final semester grades. The poetry bored Matthew to an even more senseless state than the one in which he typically wandered about. He would have been more than willing to switch right back to English I and Animal Farm had the option been offered to him. Many of our classmates apparently shared his feelings. They were bored with poetry, they were mildly insulted that a couple of freshmen were thrown into their class, and they seemed to be plagued with worse than average cases of senioritis, which describes a state of complacency and apathy sometimes experienced by high school seniors.

Class attendance began to drop noticeably. On any given day, only roughly half the seniors made appearances.  Those who came were most often not attentive, usually reading other material or completing work from other classes.  Soon we began to discern a pattern: the students who attended one day would not be present on the next day. Those who had been absent that day would  show up the next day. Then on the following day, those who had been absent on the previous day would be in attendance and those who attended wouldn't be present. The only students who attended every day were Matthew, I, and a girl who was a junior, who was, if anything, even more of an outcast then Matthew and I were. Our teacher was clearly puzzled but didn't think it was her problem to do anything other than to take attendance and to report her attendance. She did start giving quizzes once a week to encourage student attendance, but the quizzes seemed not to encourage anything other than maintenance of the status quo.  The attendance office should have and presumably did notify the seniors' parents of their absences through the district's automated absence notification telephone system. Sometimes, if those messages went to home phones, kids erased them before their parents listened to them. I believe the messages now go to parents' cell phones via text messages, but back then, not all parents knew how to send or receive text messages.

Matthew, I, and the girl who was a junior continued to attend class each day and to take notes, along with the one person who appeared to be the designated note-taker for the seniors. The others attended every other day. Class discussions were nonexistent. The teacher asked a question every now and then. I usually answered if no one else did just because the silence was deafening and so very awkward.

The last regular class session preceding the exam was largely a review for the exam. All the students were present that day. They asked questions about the test and took notes regarding the test format and what would be covered. They were all greatly relieved to hear that the test would be open book and open access to notes. The test would not take place until two days later, as our final exam schedule for the semester allowed double-length for each class so that teachers could give more in-depth exams and students' test experiences could more fully prepare them for the intensity of university final exams. 

Even though I had not studied before that semester, I understood that the course was for university credit (with a satisfactory score on the AP exam), which made the stakes higher than they had been in courses I had previously taken. Additionally, there was a bit of parental pressure to perform so that my mother would not appear retroactively as a fool for having insisted that Animal Farm wasn't suitable as reading material for her precocious children.  While it would seem that the three of us who attended class daily were ahead of the game by simple virtue of having shown up for class, each night I painstakingly transcribed and organized my notes from English class. The two nights before the test, after completing what I needed to study for the finals for my other courses, I recopied all of my notes from the entire unit, putting their content on three-inch-by-five-inch note cards according to poet so that they could be indexed, alphabetized, and the material easily located as needed during the exam. It took until the wee hours of Thursday morning to complete this task, and I hid in my bathroom while finishing so that I wouldn't be forced back into bed by whichever parent might have found me. 

When fourth period on the Thursday before vacation had found us all (except for the probably one or two students who were sick, as someone was always sick) in the English classroom, the teacher was dismayed to see all of the seniors in the class with identical photocopies of notes.  As she distributed copies of the test, she announced that it would be, as stated earlier, an open-book test, but that the use of notes would be disallowed. Matthew, the junior, and I groaned. The collective sound from the seniors in the class was more of a unison cry of protest. The teacher told them that at the completion of the test, they were free to complain to counselors or administrators as long as the counselors and administrators cared to listen to them, but the test would proceed in the manner she dictated.  As a way of compensating for the time and trouble a few of us had taken with our notes, she offered twenty-five points extra exam credit for any complete set of notes that were not xerox copies of anyone else's notes. The three of us who actually had notes that were not xeroxed copies of someone else's hurried to locate ours, scrawled our names on them, and handed them to her. Twenty-five points of extra credit on a one-hundred-point test was too good an opportunity on which to pass even if it would make us pariahs to the seniors while adding nails to their respective academic coffins they had effectively constructed around themselves. One of the seniors complained about my note cards and said they weren't class notes. I could have argued with him, but instead, I took out the compilation of both my original notes and the nightly transcriptions of them, put my name on the top sheet, and handed that to the teacher. "Oh, my God!" one of the girls snarled, rolling her eyes as my teacher smiled down at my voluminous notes.

As I began looking over the test, I wasn't especially confident. I had counted on using my notes and didn't commit to memory things that I otherwise might have. Consoling myself with the thought that the gift of twenty-five points on the test could probably dig me out of any hole in which my lack of access to my notes placed me, I began to focus upon the three sections of the test.
The first part consisted of ten poetry passages -- mostly couplets -- to be matched to fifteen listed poets. Silently cursing those who showed up with the photo-copied notes which would have allowed me to easily match, I read more closely. A smile came to my lips as I recognized lines from what I had laboriously hand-written the night before.  Lines from William Blake, Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, William Wordsworth. Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Donne, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and I cannot remember who else [it's been a long time] stood prominently before my eyes. 

The second portion of the test was multiple choice concerning basics of poetry. It included such particulars as what meter most of Shakespeare's sonnets were written in, what was the configuration of an Italian sonnet, examples of alliteration, assonance, and everyone's favorite, onomatopoeia.  It was so very basic that most of the seniors probably answered most of the questions in this section correctly.

I eased through the matching questions, filled in the blanks more easily still, then went on to the twelve short essay questions. We were asked to respond to just ten of the twelve. A closer look revealed that the test questions had been questions the teacher asked in class during lectures. I could recall having written the questions in my notes, and I could recall answers I had written to the questions. The first question asked for comparison and contrast of "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men," both by T.S. Eliot. I hurriedly regurgitated what I had written the night before on the note card, adding a brief original thought just so that the teacher would know that I was capable of original thought.  The next essay  question required an explanation  for the irony found on the statue inscription in "Ozymandius."  This, too, could be answered verbatim from the notes. Though I didn't have the notes upon which to rely, something had magically transpired in the copying of the notes, solidifying the information in my brain. I completed that short essay, again adding my own original thought to the teacher's lecture content. Another question referenced Rudyard Kipling's "Recessional," asking the student whether Kipling's writings likely indicated racism on his part or, rather, a mocking and derisive commentary on pervasive British attitudes toward race at the time. The essay questions that followed were equally straightforward and from lecture notes. I answered questions consecutively until I had completed the first ten. Because I still had twenty minutes remaining, I answered all twelve because I had nothing better to do with the time on the outside chance that the teacher might offer additional extra credit for answering all twelve essay questions. (She didn't.)

The teacher graded our class's papers that night and handed them back to us the following day. It didn't take her long, she said, because many students had not even attempted half of the short essay questions. I ended up with 100% on the test itself; adding the extra credit from the notes gave me a grand total of 125% Matthew and the junior both had scores higher than 100% after adding the 25% extra credit.  Attending only half the class sessions and being inattentive to lectures took its tool on the seniors. Three student managed to eke out scores between seventy and seventy-five per cent, but most of them barely passed or didn't pass. (Some hadn't even bothered to read the notes.) 

My mother was pleased with Matthew's and with my performance.  We hadn't made her look like a moron in front of two guidance counselors. She worked in the district office of the same school district in which we were enrolled, and she really didn't want the guidance counselors, who were technically her job inferiors at the time, spreading rumors of her incompetence. We had dinner Friday night at a restaurant to celebrate. 

It was gratifying to know that I could hold my own with older students in the class. What was most important for me, however, was the understanding I gained of how it was that I most effectively reviewed material and how I best learned. Taking notes, i realized, wasn't of such importance for me personally because I needed to review them. It was the actual act of writing out the notes, then writing them again as I transcribed them, that allowed me to internalize the content of the material. Some people learn by hearing (though not many; we've become a decidedly un-auditory society). Some learn by seeing things. Some learn by repeating things aloud.  We all have our particular learning modalities. The key here is for each individual to discover how he or she best learns and to use that knowledge.

I now use that knowledge almost daily when I'm in school. I keep the note cards that I write out, partly because we go through such an incredible volume of material -- and remembering some of it will morph into life or death scenarios for our future patients --  that I cannot expect to recall it with the ease that I remembered the particulars of the brief overview of English poetry. I now have a practical need for the note cards. Still, the writing of the information is what locks it into my brain in a way that nothing else does for me personally.  


  1. Animal Farm... I always liked that book. Had more trouble getting into 1984.

    1. "Animal Farm" is really cool. We read it with my parents the summer between first and second grades. Usually we spent a big part of summers on trips, but We were home almost all summer that year because my mom was just through leukemia treatments. I remember my parents arguing over how the song "Beasts of England, Beasts of Ireland" should be sung. My mom used the tune of "Clementine" with the rhythm of "La Cucaracha." My dad used the tune of "Reuben and Rachel." My mother was probably closer to correct, because the book said it was halfway between those two tunes, but I liked my dad's version better. The song came up in our ninth-grade class before we were transferred, and the instructor sang it with the straight "Clementine" tune. Matthew and I were quick to point out that he was singing it all wrong, and sang it to him in the manner that we thought was correct (my mom's way). My Uncle Steve was a pediatrician, but he taught microbiology course there during his lunch break each day. That night he called us to find out what we had said or done in English class that day, because he had overheard our English teacher saying to whatever other teachers were seated round the staff lounge table that "Those Rousseau twins are a little hard to take." That's how my mom learned "Animal Farm" was being read.

    2. I don't find 1984 so compelling, either. We read it later that same year.

  2. It's good that you learned how you learn when you were still relatively young. It took me much longer to figure it out, but it worked incredibly well once I did. It is basically the same as what you do.

    1. I sort of stumbled upon the strategy. It seems to work for a whole lot of people. I don't get the same degree of retention through typing, though typing notes over is certainly more effective than not copying them at all. For me personally, it even matters if I use cursive versus if I print, with cursive being the better. That's unfortunate for me, as printing is so much neater. I compromise: if I'm creating note cards that are to be used repeatedly over a long interval, I print or even type, but not before first transcribing my notes by hand with cursive. Sometimes I even take the notes on laptop now, but I still go through the motions of copying them in long-hand afterward. I'm through the bulk of my note-taking days, but there still are lectures we must attend.