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School Remembrances
by Gary S. Stager

"Social" Studies
A junior high tale of citizenship

Ancient History
My early years of computing

A School Story
A high school jazz education

Walking Among Giants
An elegy for great teachers

Drop Everything and Read!
The finest of childhood literature

"Social" Studies
© 2000 Gary S. Stager

From Curriculum Administrator Magazine — June 2000

Amidst the sadism, angst and mediocrity of middle school, two social studies teachers had an important impact on my development. Bob Prail has taught social studies for decades and has touched the lives of countless children at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey. His class was concerned more with the intellectual, moral and emotional development of each student than the bunch ‘o facts curriculum commonplace in similar classes. Mr. Prail’s class was rigorous despite the pabulum prescribed by the mediocre textbook, which remained in virginal condition. He excited us about American history and our nation’s uneasy quest for justice. Before multicultural education and interdisciplinary teaching were hot, Mr. Prail had each seventh grader read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and each eighth grader read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Decades before student-created multimedia was the rage, our class produced a film of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I was Harry the imp. Being home sick for a week created interesting cinematic challenges when my understudy, an Asian classmate, replaced me. Few middle school students read, let alone dramatize the controversial lessons of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Mr. Prail’s classes were filled with lively discussions and our content knowledge was tested by using an electronic game show set built by the teacher. His classroom was a safe environment for shaping an opinion or arguing one already formed. I’ll never forget how much grief Mr. Prail faced for teaching us how to relax and meditate during class time. There were absurd accusations of religious proselytizing and sorcery swirling around the school while any rational person familiar with middle school kids understands the need for relaxation and reflection. While I hardly remember the content of the class, Mr. Prail taught me a much more important lesson by his example. He treated everyone with dignity and respect even when little respect was accorded him by the school administration. I am convinced that my personal sense of political activism and willingness to fight for those people and issues worthy of support may be traced back to an intuitive sense that at twelve years old we might need to stage a protest to ensure Mr. Prail’s job security. Bob Prail’s lifelong commitment to doing the right thing on behalf of kids, regardless of what the adults around him might think is a testament to the courage and power of great teachers.

My eighth grade social studies teacher, Harold "Hack" Miller, inspired me in many other extra-curricular ways. Mr. Miller introduced partisanship, parody, humor and controversy to the study of history and importance of politics. These are noble traits required by a strong democracy. I’ll never forget the bulletin board decoration in Mr. Miller’s classroom. On it hung a front-page tabloid photo of President Ford receiving his swine flu shot and underneath it Mr. Miller wrote the caption, "No Brain… No Pain." Mr. Miller traded "boring" subjects from the curriculum for more engaging ones like the influence of the arts on American culture. Best of all, he let us in on his subversion. He knew what his students needed and taught expertly what he knew best. Mr. Miller cultivated my love of history and passion for politics in both eighth and eleventh grade.

In high school, Mr. Miller was a behind-the-scenes instigator in our effort to rid the school of the sappy sexist expensive pre-Title IX annual student dance competition. He encouraged a camouflage-wearing school legend named Duke to seek the presidency of this august student organization while a slate of my male pals ran to be captains of a dance team. When informal polling indicated that the head cheerleaders were about to lose their most cherished position to a bunch of… well, boys all hell broke loose. While we were not particularly serious about leading the dance contest into the next millennium we were fighting for important principles of gender equity and against entrenched patterns of discrimination. Our mucking up of the works may have been silly, but it was also in the great tradition of the Boston Tea Party and the anti-Viet Nam war protests.

Mr. Prail and Mr. Miller taught without the script or straightjacket imposed by the textbook. They taught from a wealth of knowledge, a love of the subject matter and a commitment to children. I am most grateful for the role they played in the development of active citizens. They make me proud to be a teacher and an American.

Ancient History — My Early Years of Computing
© 2000 Gary S. Stager

An excerpt from a soon-to-be-published book on laptop computers in education, Transforming Learning

The first children I ever saw program a computer were in a third grade classroom next to mine. This wasn’t a classroom I was teaching in, but rather the third grade class I attended in 1971. Children in Mrs. Petersen’s third grade class spent a few weeks each year sharing their classroom with a timeshare teletype connected to a mainframe computer far out of sight. I later learned that the use of the computer had been an annual ritual in Mrs. Petersen’s class for years before I discovered it.

I don’t remember the site of this amazing machine exciting me too much, it was just part of someone else’s classroom and besides, I thought Mrs. Petersen was scary. My teacher threw weekly parties complete with dance contests and prizes, the other kids only had a computer. No biggie.

I don’t think that I heard computers discussed, let alone saw one again until the mid-to-late seventies when my family and I paid a great sum of money to have a digital portrait made of us at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. A Computer the size of Tasmania turned our family into a series of typewriter characters in a Stager version of the snoopy picture we were all forced to pound through in our middle school typing class’ annual carpal tunnel festival.

In 1976 or 1977 I finally got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. I only had the course once since I was in the band. Kids less prone to creative and intellectual pursuits got to take double the number of courses in those areas — ah school! More than a quarter century ago, the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey thought it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. Computer programming was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas given equal status as industrial arts, music appreciation, art and oral communications.

Mr. Jones, the computer programming teacher, was scary in a much more Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. Rumors abounded about him talking to his computer and kissing it goodnight before he went home at the end of the day. This guy could make computers do things! His class consisted of mini-tutorials, programming problems on worksheets to kill time while we waited to use the one or two teletypes sitting in the front and back of the room. We could sign-up to do more programming or play a computer game after-school. Text-based versions of boxing, tennis, football and Star Trek were favorites. Mr. Jones knew how the games worked and would show us the code if we were interested. Mr. Jones did sort of love his computer. Once I knew the odds for each football play the computer never beat me again. I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful. The scarcity of computers made this activity highly social since we were often leaning over each other’s shoulders to get in on the action.

A year later I entered high school where the band room and small computer room (still no mention of computer labs) were a sanctuary from the cruelty and torture of secondary education. Few classes actually used the three of four teletypes available in the computer room. Getting to school early earned you a chance to sign-up to use a terminal during lunch, afterschool or during a study hall. Now you could have personal access to a computer for up to 40 minutes per day. (It is unlikely that kids have that level of uninterrupted access in most American public schools nearly twenty-five years later.) The high school computer room was unsupervised and was adjacent to the math/science teacher’s lounge. The proximity to adults working and socializing gave the computer room a sense of professionalism. The unguarded ditto machine sharing the room with the computers gave us a vehicle for publishing underground documents in the primitive era between Gutenberg and home photo-quality color printers.

The computer room was a place where a strong community of practice emerged. We learned from each other, challenged one another and played with each other’s programs. We altered timeshare games, added ways to cheat and programmed cheap tricks designed to shock classmates. I remember when hitting a control-key would cause the computer to say, "Hello, Gary. How are you today?" One of the non-programmers nearly fainted when he thought that the computer knew me. I ran afterschool classes in BASIC for kids interested in learning to program. There were several levels of classes so I developed a placement exam as well. I was the President and Vice President of the Computer Club in successive years, probably a first in the recorded history of electoral democracy. Programming the computer was all consuming. I even got busted taking the bathroom pass from biology class and running down the hall to debug a program whose solution had come to me during the discussion of trilobites. This was but one of many humiliating high school experiences.

We never saw a manual for a piece of software although we treasured every issue of Creative Computing — working hard to meticulously enter hundreds of lines of computer code only to have every single program be buggy. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. We took Fortran manuals out of the public library for no other reason than to hold a connection to a larger world of computing — a world we were inventing for ourselves.

During my first year of high school, ninth grade, I was invited to journey to a far corner of our high school to Dr. Petersen’s office. This office was a secret to most of the school and like in the Wizard of Oz the Wizard was behind the curtain. In this case, the Wizard was the Hewlett Packard 2000C/2000F mainframe computer. Dr. Henry Petersen, the husband of Mrs. Petersen, was the district’s math supervisor who in the early 1960s convinced the school district that computing was a serious intellectual pursuit to be engaged in by children. He paid for his folly by selling timeshare services to other skeptical school districts.

In his cluttered, air conditioned office/storage closet Dr. Petersen deputized us as systems operators. This meant that we were responsible for changing the magnetic tape each morning, backing up the system’s storage (I still don’t understand octal code) and running the console. The console was a large foreboding teletype that looked like a prop from the Wild Wild West TV show. The console would give us complete control over the timeshare network. We could create accounts, delete users and perhaps even create mayhem. We never did.

Dr. Petersen’s office gave us an even better place to hide from the pressures of high school and his secretary would take messages for us. Can you imaging anything cooler than being a ninth grader with a secretary? Since Dr. Petersen’s office was off-limits to mere mortals, we could stay in it much later than the computer room that closed at 4PM. I remember many an evening when Dr. P said, have fun, see what you can learn, lock up when you’re done.

Once, in 1977, I programmed a primitive chat system that allowed me and a kid in another school thirty miles away to exchange messages in real-time. I felt like Alexander Graham Bell. Another time I wrote a hack that told users that they did not login correctly so that they would re-enter their passwords. When they did so my program would capture them invisibly in a file. I don’t remember why the file was invisible, but I know that the only way to decipher the password was to print the file onto papertape and then manually "read" the wholes on the tape. This tedious process was much more interesting than looking up the password in the notebook kept on our console.

This ingenious hack (I later read that a KGB spy was unsuccessful trying the same strategy in The Cuckoo’s Egg) did get me into a bit of trouble. A 12th grader concerned more by competition than computer crime dragged me to Dr. Petersen to rat on me. After hearing about the horrible program I had written, Dr. Petersen said to the snitch, "at least HE’S thinking." That may have been one of the seminal moments in my life as a learner.

High school had one or two portable teletypes we could take home over weekends and connect to the school computer via an acoustic coupler that never seemed to work. In actuality, it was not much bigger than a laptop. It did however require being connected to a TV, although it had no graphics. This was my introduction to telecommunications, although I never thought of it as communicating. It was simply a way to use the school computer from home. In eleventh or twelfth grade the computer club got a TRS-80 Model 1 complete with tape drive and monitor. It too could be taken home on select weekends and I had it in my garage at least one entire summer. This allowed me my first real opportunity to spend dozens of hours programming and waiting for the programs on tape to load. The end of the school year required being picked up by station wagon since I often had the school’s personal computer, vibraphone, electric piano, bongos and euphonium checked-out to me for the summer.

Computers were to be used to make things at my high school, not as a subject of study although I did earn a grade of D in a course entitled, "Algebra 2 with Computers." The computer part was cool. I still don’t understand a thing about algebra 2. There was very little discussion about computing as a career because it was obvious that a kid with a D in algebra couldn’t possibly study computer science. There was never a mention of computer literacy and owning a computer was unthinkable. The school computers were a place to lose ourselves in powerful ideas.

I went off to study music at Berklee College of Music and gave no thought whatsoever to using a computer again until at age 18 1/2 I was hired by a well-established day camp to create one of the nation’s first computer camp programs for children. Before I was old enough to buy liquor, I had my own staff, budget and was running a computer center for kids. I never realized this before, but nineteen years ago Deerkill Day Camp in Suffern, New York was my very own startup. I was hired for my expertise and energy, rather than my résumé.

My slightly older peers, Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak were involved in similar little ventures at the time. In fact, many of the computing visionaries who changed the world had similar early experiences with computers. I remember the explosion of thinking and creativity I experienced and try to recreate the spirit of that computer-rich learning culture in every school I visit.

I won’t bore you with the details of my tenure running a computing program out of a camp-owned horse trailer adjacent to the 6-inch deep boating pond and really mean goat except to say that the kids in my care always used computers to make things and write their own programs. Boys and girls participated equally and fell in love with the magic of computing.

A School Story
©1999 Gary S. Stager

From Curriculum Administrator Magazine — June 1999

The challenge of telling one school story is a formidable one. I have so many to share. My colleagues urged me to tell the stories of the felonious teachers who taught from lawn chairs, led ethnic relay races and committed other hideous crimes against children. I could also tell the story of learning to love computing in the 70s because of imaginative trusting educators. Hopefully, I will have such opportunities in the future. This is the tale of music teachers who brought beauty, humor and a sense of place to my life.

Back in the 1970s, the Wayne, NJ Public Schools offered me the opportunity to fall in love with music and pursue it with abandon under the tutelage of spectacular teachers, Bob Simpson, Rocco Patierno, Ted Anderson, George Hicswa and Dick Lukas. Our fluid relationships flowed

from teacher-student, teacher-teacher, friend-friend to fellow artists creating together. My high school supported my desire to take four years of music theory and four years of performance classes (nine in all) without missing a single "important" academic course.

Midway through high school, George Hicswa, a professional jazz musician, achieved his goal of offering a daily Jazz Improvisation course. The class would be concerned with jazz theory, history and performance. Few universities at the time offered such a class. This was the perfect venue for a man of Mr Hicswa’s considerable idiosyncrasies, humor and talent as a musician. This class was quite comparable to the Brazilian Samba School Seymour Papert describes in Mindstorms, as an optimal environment for productive learning.

The thing that strikes me today is how the course was so learner-centered. I remember the excitement of calling classmates on Sunday night to plan which records we should bring in to analyze on Monday and Tuesday. At the time we joked that Mr. Hicswa was lazy and that we were teaching his class. I now understand that a great teacher connects his/her wisdom and experience with the interests of students. We always felt that there was great gravity to the work we were doing in this class. After all, we were studying an American art form not taught in American schools. This was a music of the blues - of the struggle for civil rights, being performed reverently by white kids from the suburbs.

The course epitomized an interdisciplinary curriculum making connections between history, musical performance and the mathematics used to learn improvisation. It was a multi-age class you could take for credit year after year. How could that be possible? Because there was always something to learn and new ways to grow. A strong community of practice existed in which we could learn by "playing" together.

I remember the shock on the faces of judges as we took the stage for a jazz competition (one of those obscene oxymorons invented by schools). We would follow paramilitary "stage bands" wearing white platform suits and zoot suits as they faithfully recreated "In the Mood." The stage band is a musical amalgamation with no analog outside of school.

Our small jazz combo would be garbed in dashikis, kimonos and "bebop helmets." I once performed on gong. Our repertoire consisted of works by Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, John Coltrane and student composers. We honored ourselves and our musical heroes by sharing our individuality through collective improvisation.

It was never clear if Mr. Hicswa liked teaching or even liked children. What he loved were musicians - even people trying to become musicians. He created an environment in which personal growth was possible. For that I will always be grateful.

Walking Among Giants
©1998 Gary S. Stager

From Logo Exchange — Fall 1998

Welcome back! As we begin another school year it’s only fitting that we take a moment to remember and celebrate our teacher heroes. Recent weeks spent teaching Logo in several Australian schools renewed my admiration for teachers (even ones who don’t use Logo). Besides all of traits we know teachers possess - poise, courage, wisdom, patience, kindness, creativity... - I was reminded that teachers also require the stamina of triathletes. Teaching MicroWorlds to 120 laptop-toting seventh graders (at once) was quite an ordeal.

I started thinking about the greatness embodied by teachers recently when the world lost two giants of the profession. Jazz singer, Betty Carter, passed away in September. She was one of the greatest vocal improvisers and teachers who ever lived. Betty Carter felt a personable responsibility for keeping the music she loved alive and ensured just that by working with young musicians throughout her stellar career. She was committed to filling the world with music of the highest caliber.

I don’t know if "Ms. BC" knew of Logo or even owned a computer. What I do know is that every Betty Carter performance was a samba school. She collaborated with her young musicians and made them better through improvisation, humor, praise, gestures, a whisper in the ear and her example. Betty Carter was respected for the teaching she did via countless clinics in public schools and an annual intensive week she led for aspiring musicians.

In the best sense possible, every performance by her ensemble was the embodiment of mutual growth, creativity, expression and swing. I last saw the Betty Carter Quartet live in New York this past April. During the introduction of the band members, Ms. Carter said, "remember the faces of these young men because in a few years you will hear them again somewhere and think to yourself, ‘my how they have improved’." At the end of the last set of the week she invited one young musician after another to come up from the audience and sit in with her band. Her scat-based battle with these musical hopefuls made them dig deep within themselves and perform beyond their expectations. When the number of aspiring students began to snake around the nightclub, Betty Carter passed the torch to the next generation. She turned to the young sweating drummer and said, "It’s yours baby. Let’s see how you get out of it." Betty Carter sat down in the audience and laughed out loud, visibly proud of her students.

While I was never good enough to play with Betty Carter, I was good enough to play with Richard Lukas. In fact, thousands of junior high school students in Wayne, New Jersey had the opportunity to perform with him over three decades. Mr. Lukas was my junior high school band director. He taught me to play the trumpet, to swing a tennis racquet and he became one of my oldest friends - despite his early advice to my parents that they make my trumpet into a lamp. Tragically, Dick Lukas died of a heart attack in September of this year at only 54 years of age.

Mr. Lukas’ stage and tiny office were hothouses where less conventional students were cultivated. He was underappreciated by his superiors, misunderstood by his peers and disparaged by parents who didn’t want their children to become musicians, but perform familiar ditties at two concerts per year. His ensembles always played music thought to be above the heads of students, but we were constantly rewarded by triumphing over challenging compositions. I remember the senseless controversy caused when Mr. Lukas decided to dedicate some of band time to the learning of music theory and history. He rightly believed that the school band served many purposes, among them was us to learn all about music, learn through music about ourselves and become well-rounded citizens.

I studied privately with Dick Lukas on and off through college and enjoyed the rare privilege of becoming my teacher’s teacher when he enrolled in a series of my LogoWriter courses. My teacher/student became an avid computer enthusiast who at one point had an Apple IIgs with thousands of dollars worth of RAM, drives and interface cards. We used to joke that his IIgs supercomputer could run a small country. Over the past couple of years he asked me about the net and I sought his advice regarding instruments for my junior high school children. We had come full circle. Everytime my son asks me about his mouthpiece, I will think of Mr. Lukas. I am grateful for his wisdom, humor, friendship and guidance. He too filled my life with beautiful music.

In honor of my great teachers I thank you for your dedication to improving the lives of children. Your daily heroics deserve much respect and appreciation. While schools become more reactionary and regressive, you dare to challenge your students and the system with Logo. Your students will remember you fondly.

Drop Everything and Read!
© 2001 Gary S. Stager

To be published in the June, 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

There are but a few reading memories I have from my childhood. I loved McCloskey’s Homer Price, The MAD Adventures of Captain Klutz, Woody Allen’s Without Feathers, D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths and was rather fond of the Uncle Remus stories. There was a big brightly illustrated picture book series by J.C. Caldwell called, Let’s Visit Australia, Let’s Visit Stamford… that made me dream of travel to faraway lands. I also remember using Battle for the Planet of the Apes (the novelization) when my 12th grade English teacher required oral interpretation of a novel.

Fourth grade was a year of revelations for me. I realized that if I painted everything black I could get the child study team to come in and evaluate me on a regular basis. Rorschach Tests were MUCH more interesting than copying lists of spelling words. I also continued my crusade to become a G-Man just like my boyhood hero, J. Edgar Hoover. If forced, I might have chosen to grow-up as Evil Knievel, although there were more jobs for crime-fighters than daredevils.

There was a series of books in the school library that captured the imaginations of my boyhood friends and me. I remember what the books looked like. Most had red covers with black and white photos consuming the bottom half. The author was C.B. Colby. Thanks to the World Wide Web’s ability to archive bizarre ideas and products I’ve been able to track down a few of the actual titles of these literary masterpieces.

  • FBI: The G-Mens’ Weapons and Tactics For Combat
  • Six-shooter: Pistols, Revolvers, And Automatics, Past And Present
  • Two centuries of weapons, 1776-1976
  • Jets of the World: New Fighters, Bombers and Transports
  • Fighter Parade: Headliners in Fighter Plane History
  • First Rifle How to Shoot It Straight and Use It Safe
  • Musket to M-14 Pistols, Rifles and Machine Guns
  • Leatherneck : The Training, Weapons and Equipment of the United States Marine Corp

And my personal favorite… Art and Science of Taking to the Woods

I checked these books out of the library by the armload although I’m not sure I actually read them. The photos contributed to my world of fantasy play. Being seen with the texts of Mssr. Colby was as important to gender identity as were water pistols, cap guns, plastic guns that fired rubber pellets and the Boy Scouts – all military artifacts which I enjoyed as a child.

One can imagine the smell of C.B. Colby books being incinerated by schools in the post-Columbine era. I don’t own a gun, despise the stain on American history left by J. Edgar Hoover, am a champion of civil rights for all and have shot very few people despite having read the violent manifestos of C.B. Colby. I must have turned out alright because Marilyn Manson and the web didn’t exist when I was a child. Or perhaps it was because I had adults around who I could talk to?

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