Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men

HAWK TALK – School

This would usually be a skip week, but the world is still being a jerk, so we made you a bonus, entirely unedited, and almost entirely off-topic episode. This time, we talked about school.


  1. Okay guys, so you run an uber-geeky comics podcast and you think “being picked last for sports” is going to make an impression on us? A bold choice but, I suspect, a misplaced one for anything other than an “Oh, me too” reaction… or… maybe that IS just me.

    Non-posh UK schools have houses nominally for just creating smaller, more manageable groups within a large intake. Basically an expansion of the US concept of “Homeroom” I think.

    We had four houses in my secondary school (and yes Miles, they were colour coded), five in a BIG year, and they basically meant that we had a short registration class together once a day, and created teams for intra school events to add a sense of competition, beyond that, not really a thing. Nothing as exotic as defined by personality trait, that’s for sure.

    The posher schools, yes absolutely use it to foster toxic social behaviour, but they hardly NEED the House system for that, it just allows it to be better catered.

    My assessment of Hogwart’s is perhaps best sumamrised by the Mitchell and Webb radio show sketch you can hear here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9n9wswKMec

    If it’s any consolation no one outside the US is quite sure what half of the US school system is on about. Three different levels of school prior to further/higher education? (I think most other places have two: Primary (for 5 to 12) and Secondary (13 to 18-ish).

    I have no idea what a “Magnet school” is. Is that a good gap in my knowledge, or a bad one?

    Oh, and I’m still envying Jay his first trip through Diana Wynne-Jones bibliography. I’ve just started a friend on reading them, and am looking forward to their reaction too.

    1. Yes, we also had essentially irrelevant houses in my secondary school. Maybe twice in the entire six years there were general-knowledge quizzes and you would find out that you were in a house that was competing against other houses. That was literally the only function that houses had, as far as I can remember.

      We had a lot of sports, of course. (It was a rugby school for the boys, and a hockey school for the girls,* being terribly upper-middle class — no Gaelic games for us.) But those were not organized by house.

      *The girls were much better, which was a bit of a problem for the headmaster, because we were a historic rugby school that was supposed to be good at it. We kept having these horribly sexist assemblies at which he would tell us about how humiliatingly we had lost at rugby to other schools, and then would add at the end something like, “…and oh yes, the girls just won the Leinster Cup.”

    2. Thinking about it, my English curriculum didn’t include much grammar and vocabulary at all (Beyond nouns, verbs, adverbs and the like), which I suspect I’d have found very dry, but would probably have been useful to me in later life. I still have to look up what a gerund is (and am still constantly surprised it’s not a type of bird, because it sounds like it should be)

      We also didn’t get anything specific about HOW to write, which in retrospect seems odd. We wrote essays on set topics, and creative writing where we had pretty much free reign, but I don’t remember getting much in the way of guidance

      As such, I’m told my writing style is very similar to my conversational style because that’s how I usually communicate information.

      1. Having some transatlantic experience, I’ll stick up for the British* way of teaching writing, to which the Irish way is unsurprisingly very similar.

        Americans might shudder at the whole practice of giving teenagers essay prompts with little guidance and having them learn by doing it over, and over, and over again until they figure it out.

        And it does inculcate some completely useless skills. I was, or at any rate used to be, very good at assessing quickly how many points I could develop in writing effectively in a given time, something that one never has to do outside the context of a timed essay exam.

        Also, it’s a great way to train a nation of people who are good at sounding very confident about things about which they actually don’t know that much. That one is admittedly a useful life skill, especially if you are a politician or an opinion journalist, but a morally corrupting one.

        But I hear about how writing is taught in American schools, and it seems horribly arid, and, cynically, designed around being easy to grade objectively and quickly by box-checking. That might be unfair, but I can’t say that I regret never having heard of the notion of a set number of paragraphs per essay before I moved to this country.

        *I know, you’re Scottish, you have your own system, you did Highers and not A-levels, let’s take that as read.

        1. I’d certainly never heard of a “set number of paragraphs essay” idea until listening to this episode.

          It’s a strange one I agree, but I can also see it being a useful means of teaching you brevity. To sift through, choose and focus on what matters to you most, so you can convey that in what little space you have.

          In the same way a drabble (in the old sense of a fic which is exactly 100 words long) requires you to pare everything down to the bare minimum and still tell a story. It’s not my favourite form of fic, mostly because it IS so challenging, but done well, it’s amazing.

          1. I will say, I have a lot of thoughts on the 5 paragraph essay and the “MLA paragraph.” It’s generally horrible (the idea being that it’s rigid, doesn’t encourage building on points or breaking them down, and really harms any attempt at flow – aka, your three points can be ABC, but easily you can arrange them as BAC, or CBA with no change to your essay). HOWEVER, I understand it as an early means of teaching essay writing since creating something from nothing IS hard when teaching writing (I find it a lot easier when working with younger students to teach them mastery of a form with the knowledge that they will eventually break it, versus having them free form from the beginning). The problem mainly seems to be that it is used FAR longer than it should in classrooms. But again, part of that is indeed the ease of grading, which comes down to teachers having to do too much.

            I also forgot to mention my nemesis: citations. I’m fine with expecting uniform citations. That shows a degree of “I give a fuck.” What I hate is teachers who request certain citation styles…esepcially when those styles seem to change every year for no other reason than to sell new style guides. I literally have a PhD in English AND have tutored writing for nearly two decades, so the fact that I still have to look up Chicago style or whatever to see if what the student is doing is correct (and it rarely is), is ludicrous.

  2. Whoof! Talk about uncomfortable topics!

    The school system had a hard time with me since I was intelligent enough to skip the second grade but I didn’t “socialize” properly (or at all). They decided I wasn’t mature enough to make that leap, leading to years of boredom and waiting for my peers to catch up.

    My take away from the schools I attended lead me to realize that we have a problem with the way they teach. Sure, they teach us how to do these things but there’s none of the passion. I never had a math teacher who didn’t sound somewhat like Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As a result, I tuned out.

    It’s very interesting to hear about little Jay and Miles.

  3. My two big thoughts around topics on this episode:

    1. Yeah, gym class is a mess. One thing I keep thinking about is how resistant I was – as a teen and early 20 something – to the idea of “athletic intelligence.” Over time, I’ve begun to realize probably one reason I was so against it was that gym class did not approach athletic intelligence as even the most questionable of traditional US pedagogy approached other types of intelligence: there was no distinguishing skill level or comfort with it and no conscious attempt by any teachers to improve those who struggled. Gym class was almost entirely competitive team sports (So. Much. Volleyball.), which would be the equivalent of classes being nothing but exams. We had a “fitness day” once a week at most.

    Also, what the hell was the shuttle run. The fact that a major indicator of fitness according to the physical fitness tests was if you could do a SUPER specialized skill. It’s like the equivalent of testing fluency on if you can write a good sestina in twenty minutes.

    Yeah…I may still be bitter about gym class, but my state also required it for the full year, every day, for every year. It was a lot of gym. (And even doing a sport go you no exemption! Three years of cross country and track and I still found myself dreading a volleyball coming my way)

    2. As someone who has taught writing courses in college and now does a lot of private tutoring, I agree that high school writing is…not the best. I do wonder how much of the problem also just stems from a person-power/bandwidth/funding issue. Every time I think about how I got my students to improve, it’s a lot of VERY detailed paper comments and 1-on-1 meetings and discussions throughout he drafting of their papers. That could be done in high school, for sure, but the humane answer would almost certainly ahve to be hiring a lot more teachers (and actually properly funding education)…since the alternative would be making teachers with intense loads bear even more of it.

    1. There was a lot of competitive sports played in PE. The one that weirds me out was (in Placer County, CA. anyway) square dancing. I’m not sure what the point of that was, aside from making young people going through puberty feel very awkward because there was a lot of hand holding. It was especially tough if you happened to have a crush on one of the people you were dancing with.

      1. Oh “Social Dancing”! One of the classes the Harry Potter movies actually seemed to get right.

        We got that every year, for most of the term running up to Christmas (just in time for the Christmas disco, the only dance our school actually held. None of this “Prom” malarkey back then), except is was Scottish Country Dancing with us, and it was the only co-ed gym class we had.

        Much like what I’ve seen of Square Dancing, Scottish Country Dancing is closer to hand-to-hand combat than anything else (Imagine a very erratic form of capoeira, with bagpipe music), which wasn’t easy with a bunch of teenagers many of whom, who along with general puberty related awkwardness, were going through growth spurts which meant that they were barely co-ordinated when walking, never mind having to perform fairly precise steps and moves AND avoid accidentally tripping/punching the person you were dancing with/in front of/behind.

        Even more weirdly, it (sort of) worked as, come the School disco, you had the inevitable “Girls down one wall, Boys down another” on opposite sides of the gymnasium, with a lot of awkward glances, and very few people actually dancing because that was embarassing and close dancing looks silly if you’re the only one doing it.

        EXCEPT for the Scottish Country Dance breaks which at least everyone now knew (approximately) how to do them, we were innured to the social contact required and, since it was a shared embarassment, it made it easier to get more people on the dancefloor for the Gay Gordons (no jokes please, we made them ALL), the Dashing White Sergeant or… shudder… the Eightsome Reel (If Social Dancing was a martial art, the Eightsome Reel would be Mortal Kombat) than it did for any other music style.

        1. My gay ass wishes we had done dancing in school. It would be potentially mildly useful, everyone would be too focused on their own embarrassment/lack of skill to notice mine, and as most of my best friends in middle school were girls, I would’ve avoided that aspect of puberty awkwardness. And, again, not gym volleyball.

          1. Our PE was always co-ed. This opened my eyes to a lot of things as an adolescent. For one, during softball, one of the girls snatched a ball out of the air with her bare hands. Something I couldn’t have done with a glove. I was terrible at all sports, except for maybe soccer (or football depending on which side of the pond you’re on). So at thirteen I lost any illusions that boys were inherently better at sports then girls.

            Dancing in the UK sounds terrifying. And a bit exciting.

            1. For the first few years it was definitely split by gender and season: Rugby/football for autumn, Dancing in the weeks up to Christmas, cross country running or gymnastics in the winter months (I leave it to your imagination which happened during which weather condition) and athletics in the lead up to summer and the Annual Sports day at the end of the school year.

              And yes, even the bulkiest rugby player lived in righteous fear of the hockey girls becuse once you’ve seen someone use a hockey stick in anger, you can never look at them the same way again.

              In later years they introduced a new format for the older students when PE was no longer a mandatory subject if you were beyond minimum school leaving age: Four week blocks of specific sports taught co-ed, with sign up sheets.

              By then I had a well earned reputation for being a walking disaster area for sports, being a dangerous combination of wanting to try new things in case I found somethng I WAS good at, but retaining a level of hand/eye co-ordination that would make a sea slug look limber. Luckily, neither the PE staff nor I had any illusions, so there was no ill will, just a slight sense of dread on the part of whoever ended up with me for that block.

              1. I must say, my 13 year-old self would have been terrified by the thought of that style of dance. Were the Eightsome Reels during your youth as energetic as that?

                When we weren’t dancing, we played softball, flag footb, basketball, all and, because school curriculums are drafted in the pits of hell, dodgeball. I was coordinated enough to be a decent runner but my coordination seemed to stop at my waist. I couldn’t catch, throw, or hit a ball to save my life. As a result? I got hit by a lot of balls.

                1. Indeed they were, with an added element of what might be described as “a dangerous enthusiasm/skill ratio”.

                  And I was a fairly decent runner too, since it required neither team-work, hand-eye coordination, and was baiscally “one foot in front of the other… repeatedly”.

  4. I just want to say that I loved hearing you guys talk about WWC. I graduated in ’09 and lived every summer in that dorm

  5. Being old, I was prematurely Rowling critical. I respected her ability to write a successful climax to her books, not flawless, but exciting, but could not stand her take on class. I found it staggering that Rudyard Kipling in his Stalky & Co had a more nuanced view of class than JKR. This in a book of humourous school stories about how the experience of public school (very posh English school) should shape and prepare boys to defend and manage the British Empire. The issue being he thought this Was A Good Thing.

    1. I wonder if at least some of that might be down to Kipling seeing the class system from the top, looking down, and Rowling saw it from the bottom, looking up?

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