Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mr. Steven Holtzman ob"m

My plan was to continue my thoughts about Boys and Gemara learning. However, I found out last night that my high school English teacher (9th and 10th grade), Mr. Steven Holtzman, passed away last week and I felt that his memory deserves a few words.

My all-boys high school had Judaic Studies all morning, and thus a number of our General Studies teachers came to us after teaching a full day in the public school system. Mr. Holtzman was one of those teachers, coming in for a couple of periods of Yeshiva high school boys after what I am sure was an exhausting day at Bloomfield High School. At times he would come in late, and the fact that he had health issues meant that on not-so-rare occasion he would be absent. On top of that, we only had General Studies classes four days a week. And, since we were trying to learn literature and grammar and vocabulary and some SAT preparation, there was rarely a sense of continuity to our learning.

And yet... I probably got more from Mr. Holtzman than I did from most of the teachers that I have had at any level of education (I spent 30 years as a student so there have been many, many teachers). If you only count teachers through high school (since after that you can pick your favorites), I would say that he is probably top-10, if not top-5. How can this be so, given what I wrote in the previous paragraph?

As I reflect on Mr. Holtzman now, over twenty years later and now with a decade and a half of my own teaching under my belt, I think that what was most notable about Mr. Holtzman was that he was most interested in having us learn. He was not concerned with his teaching per se, was not concerned with covering material - although both of those were undoubtedly important to him. But paramount in his mind was that we walked out of his class enriched in our knowledge and appreciation of English and, more importantly, enriched as young men and future citizens of the world.

Mr. Holtzman had a unique grading system when it came to essays and papers. We would receive two grades written one on top of the other. The letter grade on top was our grade for content. Below that would be a number grade that reflected our grammar, and which could run way into negative territory. Different infractions carried different point values, and if you ever "broke unity" - i.e. digressed mid-essay - that was 50 points right there. Do it twice in one paper, and you were already at zero before he got to your misspellings and punctuation. I distinctly remember receiving an A+ over negative 255.

But what made this system great was the logic behind it. Only the letter grade counted, because that was the reward for clear and organized thinking, originality of thought, and general hard work. However, the number grade was there to shake us up. Mr. Holtzman knew that even if that grade did not count - even if we knew that it did not count - it would nevertheless give us pause and force us to concentrate more on perfecting our grammar for the next time.

It was in Mr. Holtzman's class that I did my first real analytical paper. To conclude our unit on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, we were charged with writing a paper comparing Shakespeare's analysis of power in this play with the effects of power as borne out in the Watergate affair. It was a brilliant assignment - I distinctly recall reading through several books on Watergate, after which I had to distill both the play and the history into several overarching thematic points (such as abuse of power), and then provide support for each argument. Not bad for a 9th grade assignment - I believe that every level of Bloom's taxonomy was covered in that one.

And, of course, for all of his seemingly gruff demeanor, Mr. Holtzman cared about us. Whether it was spending time predicting our future careers (he felt that I would be a political speechwriter - eerily prescient in terms of my likes, although I have no real stomach for hardcore politics), doing the New York Times crossword puzzle together with him coaxing the answers out of us, relating the origin of his nickname ("Hoagie"), or pizza parties with his ever-present and beloved falafel (I recall a fondness for lots of techina), I would venture a guess that most of his students have many fond memories, and more importantly can point to several key life lessons that were learned in his class.

Two final quotes that we had hanging in the classroom:

"If you aim for the clouds, you will land in the treetops" - encouraging us to aim high, for even if we fail we will be further along than if we had never tried

"If life were fair, I'd have hair" - this one has becoming more and more meaningful to me over the years :)

He will be missed.


Josh said...

Very nice, Aaron. You articulated my memories of him perfectly. Thanks.

Moshe R said...

Very well said. I am still amazed at how much I still have memorized from his class... The Raven, Casey at the Bat, the list of linking verbs, Shakespeare soliloquies...

Zev said...

Thanks for posting this.
I am one of those many students who has fond memories of a wonderful teacher - learning to write a three by five, being lambasted for writing the phrase “lacked the fact” in an essay, being taught that two half falafels are better than one whole, memorizing linking verbs, being charged with providing a daily synopsis of the previous day’s class….

Of course, Mr. Holtzman gave us those key life lessons – how to think, how to write, and how to be critical of oneself - while at the same time being confident, and proud, and ambitious…..

He will be missed, and remembered by his students, as they continue “aiming for the clouds” - inspired by lessons taught 20 years ago.

Jeff K. said...

Well written. He was probably the first general studies teacher that I had who taught us how to think as opposed to just memorizing and repeating facts.

I recall everyone being somewhat frightened of him at the beginning but susequently realizing that he was the rare teacher who took an interest in each student and was interested in preparing students for life and not just for the next test.