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Burns Day, Parents’ Day, Bloombergsday: Three Cheers for Real Life

Friday night being Burns Night in Scotland, I told my 12th-graders about it during Friday’s lesson[1]. It was a good example of Kenneth Koch’s dictum that interest precedes understanding: I chose a Youtube clip of a recitation in very broad Scots of “To a Mouse.” The amusement was palpable, for my students could barely understand a word. As I hoped would happen, a few of them whipped out their pads & raised the poem so they could follow along, though the poem is written in somewhat broad Scots too. To one student’s question whether Burns wrote songs, I answered that many of his poems have been set to music, including most famously “Auld Lang Syne.”

It turned out that that student knew more about Burns than I had realized. Over the weekend I had an email from him directing me to some Youtube clips of “A Red, Red Rose.” His favorite, and his classmates’, is of the school’s combined choirs singing it at last year’s Homecoming Concert, accompanied by three soloists from the combined orchestra. The reason it is the favorite is that it was the last school concert conducted by the very popular music director and dean of culture before he became headmaster. My student is in the choir, though he has other accomplishments, too: he is the captain of the cross-country team, and next year he will be enrolling in the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) program in Oxford.

(I was at that concert, memorable not just for Burns but also because it ended early to allow people to get home before a typhoon made landfall on Hong Kong.)

Yesterday was Parents’ Day at the school, when parents confer with teachers. As is the Chinese practice, the parents, the student, and the teacher meet together. Though the dynamics can vary, the usual approach is for the parents and teacher to come to an understanding with each other and with the student about how things are going and what if anything needs to be done. The parents tend to be supportive of the teacher’s aims, and will often reinforce what the teacher says. (Sometimes the teacher supports the parent’s aims, as I did with one mother, to whose plea that her son be neater and tidier I added my bit. The student took it without sullenness.) It is an excellent way to see how the family dynamic works, which in turn allows the teacher to understand why Junior is the way he is. And it often allows me to find out helpful things. I had been worried that a particular student of mine had some kind of problem with his fine motor coordination affecting his handwriting. Mom & Dad were able to confirm that it had been diagnosed by a doctor, which will make matters simpler if we decide to ask the IB Organization to allow the student to type his exams instead of handwrite them.

And today The New York Times published an article about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s generosity to Johns Hopkins, where he went to college. An undistinguished student in high school, Bloomberg received his fat envelope on the promise of things to come rather than on quantitative measures of value addition. He reports his escape from the “crushing boredom” of high school to an undergraduate program where he felt as if he’d “died and gone to heaven,” a reaction I sympathized with: I sometimes tell my students when I think they are receptive that my own undergraduate career was like being born a second time. Now, Bloomberg’s successes at Johns Hopkins, while they included “a smattering of As,” had more to do with his political and social success as a class leader: president of his class and his fraternity.

What these three days have in common is their location in real life and real interactions among people. It is hard to see how our soon-to-be-Oxonian could have achieved his fondness for Burns from a “functioning learning module.” How could I know as much about my students as I learn from them and their parents while meeting with them? Where would Mayor Bloomberg’s fondness for his alma mater be if instead of a BMOC he had been a BMOLCD?



[1] It always involves reciting and singing Burns, usually after a dinner of haggis, neeps & taddies, and lubricant toasts of whisky.

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