Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
March 10th, 2005


Extra help

Sylvan is now advertising that teachers commonly recommend that their students attend Sylvan for help with school. What’s wrong with this picture?

For years, many teachers have complained that the main thing that hinders learning in their schools is the poor environment. It turns out that Sylvan and its competitors have provided the teachers with the perfect alternative:

I can’t teach you at this school [where I earn a low wage], so if you want to learn, you’ll have to start spending two afternoons a week at a nice, air-conditioned, [expensive] facility called Sylvan, where I can teach you more effectively [and earn higher pay].

For those who’ve never enrolled in a place like that, note that all its employees work at their respective schools, and then come to Sylvan afterwards to teach there and earn some extra money. At least that’s the way it worked when I went to the Landen location a few years ago.

Read on for my experiences, and why those higher grades they promise aren’t necessarily going to happen…

Studying: One. Word. At. A. Time.

I spent my first year there under a program called Study Skills, which for me was modified to instead teach me how to read faster while comprehending it better. On paper, I was there for “academic enrichment,” but the real reason was that my reading grade was suffering at the time.

Their main tool was an MS-DOS program that would take a short story written for first-graders and display it for you to read – one word at a time. The rate at which words appeared would increase as you got better at it, but I was always stuck at 150 wpm or so, since my comprehension level was usually aroung 50%.

In reality, I was able to read longer passages at a rate upwards of 300 wpm, with a very high comprehension level – the Iowa tests and SAT told me that.

The real reason I had difficuly with reading class was that I absolutely refused to wear glasses, which meant that I couldn’t read the reading quiz questions written (lightly) on the chalkboard. (To make matters worse, my assigned seat was always in the back of the classroom, since I wasn’t a real troublemaker. No, seriously.) I had to start wearing glasses in the 7th Grade, which is when Sylvan took me off the Study Skills program and put me into Pre-Algebra.

♫ Do you believe in magic? ♫

When I didn’t make the cut into the 8th-Grade Algebra class at St. Columban, my parents pushed Sylvan to switch me into the Pre-Algebra program there.

I had the same teacher under that program: for the most part, all the teachers taught all the easy subjects. So my hour each Tuesday went like this: we would go through the whole business of signing in, and checking to make sure that I was maintaining a monthly calendar of assignments, in addition to my assignment book – this was a requirement for all of us. Then we would open the textbook and read the chapter once, after which the teacher would try to explain it to me, and I’d try some example problems.

At the end of the hour, I’d get the chance to either deposit the 10 or so tokens – which I had earned by being there – in my account, or invest it in some toys on the shelf that were meant for little kids anyways.

The teacher that I usually had – the instructor, as we were supposed to call them – did his best to explain the subject matter, but you could tell either that he wasn’t used to teaching math, or that he taught a lower grade at his dayjob.

One time, a substitute instructor was explaining how to simplify algebraic expressions. My mother had taught me that instead of always worrying about adding or subtracting on both sides, you should just carry the term from one side of the equation to the other, and switch operations (from plus to minus; from times to divide).

To this, the substitute scoffed and replied:

I always teach my students to do Algebra the long, hard way. I don’t want anyone to believe that math is some kind of magic; I don’t want it to be mysterious like that. They need to know why a trick like that works.

(I’m paraphrasing, of course; there’s no way I could remember exactly how he worded it.)

Finally: Real help

After several months of going nowhere with my usual instructor, I was one day “transferred” to a high school teacher named Carol Botzner. As it turns out, she taught Algebra and Calculus at Lakota West (she still does). I later learned that she was one of only three teachers at that location who was willing to teach Algebra and other hard subjects like that.

Because she actually knew what she was teaching about, she got me to understand Algebra for once. Maybe it was just that she was willing to spend more time on me, to make sure I knew what I was doing.

I will always be grateful to Carol for two things. (At Sylvan, everyone was on a first name basis.) The first: that she taught me synthetic division, something that Mr. Beluan finally taught us sophomore year and never mentioned again. (For those not in the know, synthetic division is a ridiculously easy way to do polynomial long division quickly. It also saves you a lot of space on your sheet of paper. Ask your teacher about it.)

The second thing that I’ll be grateful for is that she helped me get into St. X, opening up a boatload of opportunities to me. When St. X asked for a teacher recommendation from a math teacher, my parents were worried that my math teacher at St. Columban, Mr. Hassler, would give me a not-so-stellar recommendation since I was in his lower-level class. So they had Carol fill out a copy of the recommendation form to give to Mr. Hassler, so that he’d know how much I’d really learned.

I suppose it worked, although I’ll never know for sure, because the whole process was supposed to go under confidentiality, and because Mr. Hassler went into retirement for the second time a couple years back. But I do know that Mr. Hassler finally got to know why I had been doing so well in his class: I… benefited from the right environment. :^)

It was kind of amusing to note that, from the time I started going to Sylvan to the time I left, the number of St. Columban students who attended that location increased from a measly one (just me) to a whopping ten! (That’s only counting the students that attending the same )

But… getting to the point

My time at Sylvan was only worth the while because I was lucky enough to get paired with a teacher who was actually qualified for that particular subject. The only significant things that I learned in those years were things that I learned under the guidance of Carol Botzner. But each instructor can teach a maximum of three students at a time. So clearly not everyone is so lucky.

When I think about it, Sylvan did also teach me how to save: remember those tokens that I got at the end of each hour, simply by being there? I never once withdrew any tokens from my account to buy toys. As a result, I had accrued some 1,500 tokens or more by the time I left – at the time, these tokens were redeemable for a gift certificate at Tri-County Mall, valued based on the number of tokens. So I got maybe around $80 worth for my more than two years there. My father used the better part of that gift certificate to invest in some new shoes for himself.

I take a small amount of pleasure in thinking that I may have started that location down the path to closure: when I returned the next summer for a couple weeks of math refreshing, I still found Carol there. I also found out that the gift certificate program was discontinued shortly after I cashed in, and that very few students and instructors remained.

That Landen location is now closed, and the operations have shifted to the larger West Chester location. A small café stands where Sylvan used to.