So there I was, a few nights ago, in the 8th Grade classrooms of the Human Tape Recorder. It’s “Back to School” time, that annual opportunity for parents to relive their most horrifying nightmares of middle school directly, instead of through the usual vicarious viciousness we absorb from our unfortunate offspring. SOBUMD went to this one last year, so it was my turn. This was particularly
excruciating horrifying poignant for me, since the HTR is attending the same secondary school from which I escaped matriculated in 1987 a long damn time ago.
First up, Spanish. First time back in a classroom in this benighted school since 1987, and I’m late. (Who’s surprised? Not this dad.) OK, so, Spanish. At least I’m not having flashbacks; I speak about as much Spanish as the man in the moon, assuming the man in the moon can order a beer and ask about the bathroom in Spanish. Since el SOBUMD can habla Espanol pretty well and the HTR is learning, I think I’m going to need to learn to habla as well. Hey, not like I had anything else to work on, right? The teacher is, shall we say, not what I expected. And by not what I expected, let’s just say I was looking for Sofia Vergara and found Paula Dean. But hey, I guess she’s a good teacher. De nada, right?
The other thing I noticed was the extent to which this and most of the rest of the classes are less focused on cramming everything into the classroom and more on guiding and shaping what is becoming a self-guided study session off-line. Welcome to the electronic classroom, and god help you if you don’t have a computer and a decent Internet connection at home.
Next up, Theater! There are certain advantages to living in this area that the local schools take full advantage of. The HTR’s Shakespeare class – and it’s listed as theater, somewhat generically, but it’s a full-on Shakespeare course - is going to have a field trip to the Folger Shakespeare theater. And by “field trip,” they mean “you will perform on stage at the Folger” for a local Shakespeare competition. The class has picked A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which while often overdone is still probably a better choice for 8th Grade than, say, Titus Andronicus, which is what I would have picked. They’ll also be learning Sonnet 65, breathing their hot summer’s honey breath, while studying blocking and yoga.
Whoops, your 12 minutes are up – time for Health and Gym! The gym teacher seems like a nice guy - now drop and give me 20. What do they study in gym these days? Ping pong, Ultimate frisbee, and something called Alcohol Ball – this is not your father’s gym class, if they’re busying learning why Daddy shouldn’t drive after that 3rd Scotch.
A bright note in this story: Switching between classes, I got a cheery hello and a hug from an old friend who was the prettiest girl in the school when I was in 11th Grade. Since I no longer even really remember 11th Grade, this is definitely better.
But enough reminiscing, it’s time for math! There’s a big sign at the top of this room: ”Fractions are your friends.” It’s not quite “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” but it’s close. This is applied algebra through geometry. The description of the big project left me a little shaken – they need to build a full multi-dimensional tesseract for an A. Trust me that if you have to derive the area of the convex hull of the vertex-first parallel-projection, this is not your father’s math class.
Next up, Civics! I don’t know about you, but my high school civics teacher didn’t sport undergrad degrees in Economics and PoliSci from Yale and a Masters in Business from Wharton. This woman is hard core smart, but comes across as highly accessible as well – she seems passionate about getting these kids ready for not just high school but life, making them resourceful. I was impressed.
Now back off, man, we’re going to do Science! This poor woman’s name is Divya, and while she’s really probably not a Diva, I’m sure she hears that all the time. This is the standard Matter, Energy, and Motion class that will introduce kids to physics, chemistry, and how to blow stuff up that we all remember. What’s new is that as part of the grade, these kids will have to enter a national science contest; it’s a yearlong exercise in choosing a partner, choosing a topic, and beating every other 8th grader in the country for an A. But hey, after winning the Tony award in your Theater class and building a functioning matrix for Time And Relative Dimension In Space through all of space and time in Math, just winning an International Science contest should be a piece of cake.
Finally, it’s time for English! This former Peace Corps ESOL teacher is teaching the kids to think through literary analysis. While she’s focusing more heavily on non-fiction, she assured us that research and poetry are embedded throughout all the lessons. Mind you, these lessons are embedded throughout the students’ wikis and blogs – once again, this is not your father’s English course. At least they don’t need to win this year’s Pulitzer for an A in the class.
I left school with a sense that technology is creeping ever more quickly into the classroom, a sense that the classroom is creeping ever more quickly into the real world, and a sense that I’d forgotten my assignment notebook and left my gym shorts at home again. I’m sure it will be a great year for the Human Tape Recorder, but I wouldn’t go back to 8th Grade for all the cardboard cafeteria pizzas in the world. Not even if my Spanish teach looked like Sofia Vergara.