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A Conversation with Dr. Lee Jones

Just a glimpse into Dr. Jones’s 10th floor classroom reveals the ardor his 33 years at BWL has brought to the discipline of history and to the young minds he shapes. There, amid the walls of historical propaganda posters and blown-up gum cards, students’ hands go limp from scribbling notes, and Dr. Jones holds court. For the past six years, Dr. Jones’s U.S. History students have earned perfect “5” scores on their AP exams at the rate of 71 percent, compared to the national average of 10 percent. Over the past two years, 25 of his 29 students scored 5’s.
For a closer look at the man behind this math, BWL website writer Tim Donahue sat down for a conversation on Election Day.

 TD: What led you to become a history teacher?

 LJ: After graduating from Middlebury, my first job was teaching English and history at the Grace Church School. I found history more fun because there were always background facts you could explore to make it more interesting, so it was like a quest. I’m still doing that. It’s a subject where I feel there are always treasures to find, there’s always a potential freshness to it. I can enhance my knowledge. There’s just so much one doesn’t know. For instance, reading biographies of historical figures, you get wonderful background information that you wouldn’t get with a standard history approach. I love the research. I also find kids love stories that aren’t in the textbook, like about how Isaac Newton overcame school bullying, or about Napoleon's unromantic first words upon meeting his new princess-bride, Marie Louise.

 TD: When you were a student, was it clear you were going to be a teacher?

 LJ: No, this happened during the Vietnam War. Teaching was a deferment from the draft. I didn’t believe in the war. When I think about war, I think the only war I would have fought in would be WWII.

 TD: Did you have profound teachers or models?

 LJ: I wasn’t a history major; I was an American Literature major. I came to history, really, on the job. It wasn’t particularly my favorite subject. I found high school and college history really kind of dry. One of my missions was to not teach the way my high school teacher taught – just a monotone, very dry, very little dialogue. And I didn’t pay attention … But after my Masters at NYU, I went for my Ph.D. at the Graduate Center at CUNY. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was there and he was my advisor – the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and member of the Kennedy administration. It was exciting. He was the best teacher I ever had.

 TD: The rub against history class is that it’s really just a chore of memorizing dates and trivia. How do you respond that notion?

 LJ: I do think that can be true and one of the reasons I choose the textbooks I do is that they don’t have too much detail. I do think there’s a danger of being overwhelmed. On the other hand, history is a detail course. I say to my AP students, you may not be a good writer, but the most important thing is to know the material. If you’re a good writer and you don’t know the material, it’s not going to do you any good. I recognize the importance of overloading on details, but I realize there is a manageable amount and a non-manageable amount. One of my goals is to make history fun and interesting. I think if I can succeed somewhat in that, student work ethic will come along. If you can’t make the material interesting, they’re not going to work. When I met with my department, I said, “There are really two things to be concerned about: Don’t be boring, and hold the students accountable. If you do that, things will be fine.”

 TD: It might be hard for you, then, to teach U.S. History for 33 years running. Yes, we have made discoveries in that time, but essentially, it’s the same history. How do you keep it interesting for you?

 LJ: I try to bring in fresh angles, or new facts, new stories. Almost every night, I’ll read a new book. If we’re doing the Jeffersonian presidency, I will try to read a book I haven’t read about him before.

 TD: You have worked at our school since 1980. How have you seen it change in that time?  

 LJ: When I began here, the school was tiny. It was a charming building, just off 5th on 71st, but the classrooms were tiny. My guess is we had about 200 students. Each grade had in the low twenties. I think there is much more a sense of stability and identity here now. The kids are much more studious. I think the character of the students has changed. They’re nice kids who want to work.

TD: Let’s talk about your AP class. Maybe I could start with just getting some stats about AP scores, for as long as you can remember.

 LJ: Well, the last two years, we had 25 out of 29 5’s. I think in the last 6 years, I figured out that 71 percent got 5’s. The national average is about 9-10 percent, something like that.

TD: How does it happen? What do you do?

 LJ: Ah … you want the formula? Well, for the writing part, we really work a lot on making a good paragraph. Introductions probably get 60-70% of the time. I find one good thing about paragraph writing is I can go over it very carefully and correct it. Just in terms of them learning writing, I think it’s easier for me to deal with a paragraph that has everything, and I really give it a lot of careful commentary. I want to do something I can really, really manage. I feel good about it, and I think they learn from it.

 TD: Beyond the knowledge it brings, what do you see is the value of studying for and succeeding on the AP exam, in terms of general student welfare?

 LJ: One thing about the AP program – I think the materials are great, I think the questions are great. I think it’s a great curriculum that can guide you. I had one student who said that getting a 5 on that AP test made him feel that he could handle college. It really was a confidence booster to him in approaching difficult college work.

 TD: You have really intimate knowledge of many eras of our history. This time we have now – post-Sandy, pre-election, waning faith in government – how do you cast it in terms its moment in U.S. history? Are we overplaying the challenges of our time?

 LJ: I think things go in cycles. I don’t think it’s a unique time, though I think we are at kind of a low point. Certainly, the Vietnam era and the Watergate was another low point. I think we’re very, very divided, that the parties don’t seem to want to cooperate at all with each other, but that’s not unique either. In the Great Depression, the Democrats didn’t want to help the Republicans with the Depression. But I do think it’s not a healthy atmosphere.

TD: What would be your counsel to remedy?

 LJ: I think democracy requires patience and working together. I think sometimes the political party system subverts that. Somehow, we need a series of politicians who are willing to put the country first, rather than their political benefit. But I don’t know how much wishful thinking that is because the reality is they want to get into power.

 TD: Against this future they will inherit, do you think that teaching kids sincerely has an impact?

 LJ: Well, we’re just a little part of it, but I think we are teaching them values when we cover something like history, and I think it’s valuable to look at bad decisions and how they came about, ignorant decisions. I do feel good if one of my students becomes a history major and wants to go into government work.

TD: And what about your own particular interests in history? What are your real passion areas?

 LJ: I love WWII and also the 50s, since I lived through that time. But I really have a special feeling for the 40s, WWII, for the drama and excitement. It was such an amazing time to have lived though, I would imagine, because so much was at stake. I find it fascinating to read about life at home during that time. And I love the propaganda. I love artifacts of history that were geared for children, like old textbooks and old gum cards, because really you see how people were wrongly taught, or how someone was attempting to shape their minds in interesting ways. I’m really interested in the history of children’s education.

TD: Do you see yourself perhaps writing about this history of children’s education?

 LJ: If I get the time, I would like to write articles analyzing gum cards produced during wartime and how the authorities were trying to manipulate the minds of children. I think it’s something that’s never been studied. I think it’s fresh ground. 


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