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Part II: Recommendation Letters From Swampscott High

Swampscott High School teacher Tom Reid shares some of the recommendation letters he wrote for college-bound seniors. The letters reflect on each student's personality and each student's growth over their years with Mr. Reid.

Recommendation Letters Part II

Here is the second installment of selected recommendations written for Swampscott High School seniors.

Tom Reid

TV Production and Media Literacy Teacher

Swampscott High School

reid@swampscott.k12.ma.us

 

Written for Ben Smith, Jan. 20, 2011  

To Whom It May Concern:

For over twenty years, I’ve been teaching a variety of subjects, from English to TV Production to Media Literacy.  I’ve worked with students aiming for careers in politics, film, television, advertising, teaching, computers and so many other fields.   But until I met Ben Smith, I had never met a student who, at age 17, would tell me with a straight face that his career goal was to be a philosopher.

The thing is, I believe him – and I believe in him.   I am happy to give him the highest possible recommendation to you.   I say this not simply because he’s the only student I’ve ever met who wants to be a philosopher.  It’s not even that he is the brightest student I have ever had, although he may come fairly close.  It’s mostly that he is one of the most intellectually curious and deeply reflective students I have ever encountered. 

By deeply reflective, I mean that his love of learning extends far beyond most students’ enjoyment of the acquisition of knowledge.  He does love the gaining of factual information, but even more than that, he is fascinated by epistemology, by the concept of how we know what we know.   This kind of “meta” analysis – thinking about thinking – is far beyond what most high school teachers have time or inclination to promote in this era of genuflection to standardized tests, but Ben’s pure and eager love for challenging intellectual adventures is reflected in something remarkable he has done in the past year.  Rather than wait for his guidance counselors (or parents) to tell him what courses to take next, as too many students do, he has sought out and enrolled in as many courses as possible from those teachers who, for whatever reasons of curricular flexibility and/or inclination, inspire this specific kind of intellectual focus at Swampscott High School.  As he said to me last spring about Media Literacy, “This course is about the closest I can find to an actual course in Philosophy.”

In other words, despite Ben’s relatively laid-back demeanor, he has been admirably relentless in his pursuit of intellectual mentors who can stimulate him. And once he finds them, he enthusiastically takes advantage of what he clearly sees as true opportunities for growth.   In Media Literacy class, he was an avid, open-minded and engaged audience for challenging films by directors like Truffaut, Godard and Kubrick.   In Health and Media class, he and a friend gave the best of the numerous student presentations, filling two one and a half hour periods with video clips and probing questions about atheism, facilitating one of the most lively and intellectually rich student-led class discussions I’ve ever seen.

Like everyone, Ben has weaknesses.  I believe they are minor compared to his brilliant mind and potential, but I am trying to be objective and not portray Ben as the second coming.   Therefore, I will say that he does procrastinate at times, especially when it comes to written work.   Also, even though his contributions to discussion are extremely thoughtful and certainly more frequent than average, his quiet nature (and his habit of thinking before he speaks) result in his not quite contributing to class discussions as often as I wish he did.  In a good high school class discussion, the ideas and opinions fly at high speed, and Ben sometimes sits back and lets other students do most of the talking, at least until the topic really moves him.   

But when he does get excited, he’s wonderful to see and hear.   He’s an articulate and smart young man, but he’s also a young man with a lot of deep feelings, and since I’m not sure you’ll necessarily see them in his essay or even in his interview, I want to stress this.  He’s not just a good student and a deep thinker.  True, his focus may be on a scientific, rather than a spiritual, explanation of the cosmos.  He may have a somewhat subdued manner.  He may even still believe, as he said last year, that he’s not really interested in sex and love - or did he only say that about sex and not about love?    Either way, it struck me as a unique opinion for a 17-year old boy, albeit one I suspect has to do mostly with the fact that for now he has all he can handle dealing with his complex, busy mind.  I would guess that he will make room for love at some point in his busy life as he matures.

In fact, I know he will, because, as I’m saying, he has too much passion not to.  Right now his passion is for ideas, for ratiocination, for debate.  I suspect those passions will grow, but so will many more.   I’ve seen how deeply he feels in his response to profound ideas and silly moments of comedy.  I’ve seen his open, eager response to great ideas and great art.  Last year, as I presented great classic films to his class, from Buster Keaton’s poetic silent films to “Casablanca” to film noir to “On the Waterfront” to the French New Wave to Kubrick and more, it was almost comical, but also quite telling, to hear him say, after almost every time, “Mr. Reid, now that’s my new favorite film . . . Now I think THIS one is my new favorite . . .  “Now I can’t decide between these three . . .” and so on.  I really appreciated his sheer delight as he saw that movies, which he had considered mere entertainment, could contain and express the depth he seeks in life.

At the end of the course, in his self-evaluation, he wrote very appreciatively of the chance to see, discuss and come to know great films, and the opportunity to discuss and debate modern media.  He surprised me by saying something like “I think the decision to sign up for Media Literacy will probably turn out to be one of the most important decisions of my life.”

I enjoy a compliment as much as the next teacher, but I take it not so much as proof of how profound an experience my course was for Ben, but as a demonstration of how much he treasures new intellectual (and, beneath the surface, emotional) experiences.  I have confidence that Ben will encounter, with the same sense of discovery, dozens of mentors showing him exciting new tools of analysis over the course of his life, because he’s so motivated to find them.

Here’s another way Ben stands out.  One thing I’ve noticed over the years of teaching is that many students are oddly conservative – not politically, but temperamentally.  Perhaps because adolescence is a time of so many great changes in students’ lives – puberty, leaving home, finding their way in the adult world - a lot of them express an almost forlorn desire for things to stay the same.   Ben, however, embraces change, especially new ideas but also new ways of finding himself as a person.   He doesn’t define himself narrowly.  The same young man who made that comment dismissing the importance of sex is a devoted member of the Gay Straight Alliance, because it’s the ethically correct position.

To summarize, Ben isn’t going to be confined to one way of reacting to life.   He has too flexible, nimble and complex a mind, and loves exploring it too much (as well as a capacity for feeling that I suspect he will also begin exploring in greater depth before too long).    If he does become a philosopher, he probably won’t turn out to be the richest of my former students in financial terms, but whatever he does, he will bring a rich appreciation of ideas and of life to it.  I can promise you that he would be an active, positive, challenging and appreciative contributor to any college campus and any classroom, and I thank you for considering helping him in the next stage of his growth.   If I can be of any further assistance as you evaluate his candidacy, please don't hesitate to contact me.

 

For Marco Bauder, Oct. 12, 2010

To Whom It May Concern:

For the last three years, I have been Marco Bauder’s TV Production teacher.

He is intelligent, good-natured, philosophical, detail-oriented and mature, an active, positive young man as well as a true lover of ideas.  I am happy to give him an extremely high recommendation.

Right from the start, in his first TV Production course, his intellectual curiosity and quickness impressed me tremendously.   He always listened carefully and asked great questions.   He invariably scored in the high 90s on his tests and was clearly mastering the basics of video production.

Even more importantly, he was also showing real leadership qualities.   As students began to work on group projects, I observed that other students really listened to him and liked working with him.   As they planned their videos, they often ended up deferring to and agreeing with Marco’s vision, not because he was the loudest or the quickest to offer suggestions, but because he had thought his ideas and expressed them with creativity and imagination.    After he completed his first course, I happily offered him Independent Study status (also known as TV III), meaning he became one of the students entrusted with the privilege and responsibility of being able to come and go in the TV studio whenever they had free periods or before or after school.   

Since then, Marco has really come into his own as one of the leaders of the TV studio.  He not only makes his own videos but functions almost as a teaching assistant, helping newer students without even being asked.  He continues to strengthen his production skills and has emerged in our Mac-based studio as a knowledgeable Final Cut Pro editor as well.   Less experienced students seek him out to help them solve particularly tricky problems, and he is always patient and helpful in doing so.

Yet even while he makes himself accessible and approachable for anyone who needs help, he also works hard and enthusiastically with a small group of his best friends in the TV Production program.   Not surprisingly, they are three or four of the most intelligent and creative members of the senior class.  While some less motivated students need prodding to find jobs or projects to work on, Marco and his gang of young artists seem to produce more videos than I can even keep track of.   Their creative productions include clever music videos such as “Reverse Project,” in which the events unspool completely backwards and longer-length mock epics such as “Sasquatch,” in which Marco plays the straight man taking the viewer on a search for the legendary monster.

In addition, Marco and his friends are the students I turn to when I need to make sure that a talent show, a concert or a play will be well filmed and well edited.   And when it’s time for our biggest live event of the year, our four-night annual auction fundraiser, I know I can count on them to play key roles in the massive production.  Marco functioned last spring in many roles, including floor director (responsible for keeping a set full of dozens on items and almost as many people organized) and on-camera host, succeeding brilliantly thanks to his preparation, his ability to improvise, his charm and his skills in elocution, honed, it should be noted, on multiple continents (well, at least two, and I must add that we will be sorry, of course, to lose him, but he seems quite serious and motivated in terms of his decision to return to your side of the pond for his higher education).

I should close by mentioning two more qualities which I won’t try to capture on paper but which I trust your interview with Marco will reveal.  First of all, he is a genuinely nice guy, well liked by both students and faculty, and, secondly, he has a subtle dry wit beyond his years.

So, to sum up, here we have a bright, ethical, articulate young man who loves both learning and laughter.  What more could you hope for in a future student, especially an American?

Thank you for considering my thoughts and please let me know if I can be of any additional assistance as you evaluate Marco’s candidacy.

 

 For Ian Antrim,  Oct. 28, 2010

To Whom It May Concern:

I have been Ian Antrim’s TV Production teacher for the last three and a half years. He is intelligent, good-natured and mature, an active and positive young man who thinks carefully before he speaks or acts.   I am happy to give him an extremely high recommendation.

Right from the start, in his first TV Production course, his intellectual curiosity and positive attitude impressed me.   He always listened carefully and asked great questions.   He invariably scored in the high 90s on his tests and was clearly mastering the basics of video production.

Even more importantly, he was also showing real leadership qualities.   As students began to work on group projects, I observed that other students really listened to him and liked working with him.   After he completed his first course, I happily offered him Independent Study status (also known as TV III), meaning he became one of the students entrusted with the privilege and responsibility of being able to work under limited supervision in the TV studio whenever they have free periods or before or after school.     

As a TV III student, Ian also serves as a kind of co-teacher, making himself available for anyone who needs help.  The same qualities of patience, good will and responsibility that have made him an effective peer mentor in the school at large have also made him a trustworthy guide for students learning their way in the TV studio, both in technical terms and in terms of transmitting the culture, the way students help each other and share equipment and ideas.   

In addition to serving as a role model for less experienced TV students, Ian works hard and enthusiastically with a small group of his best friends in the TV Production program.   He and his friends are some of the most intelligent and creative members of the senior class, in demand for all sorts of academic and extracurricular activities, so I am pleased that they find time to work on videos together, both during and after school.  While some less motivated students need prodding to find jobs or projects to work on, Ian and his gang of young artists seem to produce more videos than I can even keep track of.   Their creative productions include clever music videos such as “Reverse Project,” in which the events unspool completely backwards, and longer-length mock epics such as “Sasquatch,” in which Ian played the legendary monster. 

Another way to describe Ian’s level of maturity is that he takes ownership, without prompting, of things that need to be done.   For example, last year I forgot to assign anyone to tape the Junior Show.  Often this means it just doesn’t get done, but in this case, a week after the show, while I was still completely oblivious to my error, Ian came up to me and said something like “Last Friday was the Junior Show and Marco and I realized you hadn’t assigned anyone to tape it, so we did it. We’re just about done with the editing.  I hope that’s all right.”  Of course it was - I wish all my students would show that much initiative!

And when it’s time for our biggest live event of the year, our four-night annual auction fundraiser, I know I can count on Ian to play a key role in the massive production.   Last spring, for example, he functioned in several roles, including floor director (responsible for keeping a set full of dozens of items and people organized), on-camera host (despite being a relatively quiet student much of the time, he’s quite natural and winning on camera) and several hours serving as a very dependable audio operator.

As you can see, I find Ian a bright, friendly, hard-working, unusually mature young man.   I know you would find him fully involved and engaged in the classroom and as part of student life on your campus, and I thank you for considering helping him in the next stage of his growth.   If I can be of any further assistance as you evaluate his candidacy, please don't hesitate to contact me. 

 

For Dimitri Christoforidis, Dec. 30, 2010

To Whom It May Concern:

I have been Dimitri Christoforidis’s teacher for the last three and a half years, in at least one course per semester and often more, since he has taken every course I offer in both TV Production and Media Literacy, plus one that I sometimes co-teach called Health and Media.  He has become a real leader among the TV Production students.   His accomplishments over the years, as well as his thoughtful, serious, appreciative approach to life, lead me to recommend him very highly to you as a student who will take college seriously and be an excellent addition to your student body.

In his freshmen year, Dimitri did extremely well in his first TV Production class, avidly learning the basics and working hard to apply them in assigned projects.  In addition, he went beyond merely using what I had taught him and began experimenting with additional technical challenges.  For example, he became the first of my students to truly master the sophisticated new light board which was installed his freshman year – in fact, he became pretty much the recognized lighting expert within the studio, even though he was still in his first semester of TV Production class.

After his completion of that class, I happily offered him Independent Study status (also known as TV III).   This meant that he became one of the students entrusted with the privilege and responsibility of being able to come and go in the TV studio whenever they had free periods or before or after school.   He quickly became one of the students I would be most likely to find working in the studio after school, always a sign of real motivation and interest.

He often would work alone, and this, plus Dimitri’s quiet nature, led me to wonder whether he would be an appropriate choice for a responsibility I assign to certain TV III students – to serve as mentors and advisers for small groups of new TV I students when they tackle their first assigned projects, usually the production of music videos.  I needn’t have worried.  

Dimitri, who had already impressed me with the quiet, competent work he had done primarily on his own, really surprised me when he rose to the challenge of being a group leader in a way that few sophomores do.    I saw then that Dimitri, in his own gentle way, had the makings of a Marine Corps Sergeant!   He just didn’t take no for an answer and got the students in his group to work as a team, with no slackers.  Through a combination of energy, knowledge, enthusiasm and humor mixed with a kind of no-nonsense approach, he got more work – and a better music video – out of his assigned group than any other TV III student did that year.

And in the past two years, he has continued to grow into one of the three or four acknowledged leaders in the TV studio, the ones I call on to help the other students or to edit the most complex videos that we produce.  Last year, for example, I chose him to go back over several years worth of student creative videos and make a highlight compilation, which he did really well, impressing me with his organizational and editing skills.

And this fall, I chose Dimitri to be the editor of one of the most complex videos we create each year: the video of the graduation ceremonies, complete with multiple interviews with class members, for the class that had graduated this past spring (since the ceremony happens just before summer break, we edit the video in the fall).  He spent quite a few weeks viewing, capturing, organizing and then patiently and creatively editing together all the footage we had shot with four camera angles in June.  Throughout the process, I was impressed with his persistence as well as with the balance he showed in making most decisions himself but running a few of the most complex ones past me.

But perhaps the most impressive thing he did in relation to this video came after he finished it.   As soon as he gave me the finished DVD, I promptly programmed it to play that night (and for a week to follow) on our local cable TV channel, as I do all major school videos.   The next day, Dimitri, completely on his own, came to me and said “Mr. Reid, I watched the broadcast of the graduation at home on TV last night, and I realized that there was a section where the audio levels were uneven, a little too low at a couple points.  Is it o.k. if I stay after school today and fix it and give you a new DVD to use as the master?”

That’s the kind of extra effort and pride in his work that make Dimitri stand out.

In the Media Literacy classes he has taken with me, he also stands out, albeit in a more subtle way.  He doesn’t talk as much as some students who react more viscerally and instantly, but he forms and expresses his opinions so carefully and thoughtfully that he becomes a leader in class, even when he is expressing a minority opinion and/or respectfully disagreeing with the teacher or other students.    He is equally willing and able to discuss the technical aspects of a film or to debate the philosophical issues it raises.  Students sense that he forms and acts upon his own values, independent of any kind of peer (or teacher) pressure, and respect him for this. 

As you can see, I find Dimitri a bright, likeable, mature, serious yet warm young man.   He has real potential in terms of film and video, or anything else he should decide to do, and I know you would find him fully involved and engaged in student life on your campus as well as in his own learning.   I thank you for considering helping him in the next stage of his growth. 

If I can be of any further assistance as you evaluate his candidacy, please don't hesitate to contact me. 

 

 For Marina Shtyrkov, Dec. 13, 2010

To Whom It May Concern: 

In the Media Literacy classes I teach at Swampscott High School, classes with lots of discussions about media, politics and life, Marina Shtyrkov listens intently. She also expresses herself as passionately and as thoughtfully as any student I have ever taught.   She often disagrees with me and/or with other students on ideological grounds (about which more later), but she always does so with respect, intellectual curiosity and a real love of learning, language and ideas.   I am happy to give her the highest possible recommendation to you.

I have taught Marina in two media-related courses and am currently supervising her in a semester-long independent study on foreign films and global media.  This independent study is a first for me – she and her best friend, another very bright young Russian girl, are using it to prepare to co-teach a Media Literacy II course with me next semester.   My offering her this opportunity, in which she will often be helping to lead class discussions, shows the high regard I have for Marina, in terms of not just her intellectual abilities but also her sense of tact and fairness in dealing with points of view other than her own.

Actually, last fall, in the first class in which I taught Marina, her leadership skills weren’t immediately apparent.   Like most students, she was used to limiting the degree to which she challenged the teacher.   However, as soon as she understood that I truly welcomed all points of view, she began metaphorically rising to her feet to challenge my ideas, respectfully and enthusiastically, not only about films but about the philosophical, psychological and ideological points of view they express.

One of the first times she did this was last year, in Health and Media class, when we watched “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s film comparing the U.S. health care system to the systems in other countries.  In discussions of controversial films like these, I like to playing devil’s advocate, expressing opinions on either side of the political spectrum to challenge the students to respond with their own viewpoints.  So I expanded on Moore’s thesis that a free market economy is actually no freer than socialism, because you merely substitute class dominance and corporate power for the mandates of the welfare state.  Marina immediately offered a spirited and detailed defense of the free market’s ability to unleash the productivity and creativity of every individual in a way that the grey sameness of socialism never could.

Soon, in class and outside of class, we were discussing whether her Russian heritage and her personal awareness of the Soviet Union’s history of corruption and tyranny had helped give her a special appreciation of the advantages of capitalism or whether it had blinded her to its dangers (or perhaps both).   My goal as a teacher in these and other such discussions was not to change her opinions but to help her feel increasingly confident and excited by the challenge of expressing them at a deeper and deeper level, a level that involved not only formulating opinions but also analyzing ways in which her own experiences and emotions played as large a role in her beliefs as facts or logical arguments.

Mostly, I was telling her, not directly but through our student-teacher relationship and our many discussions (verbally and in my extensive comments on her lengthy papers), that I thought she had a wonderful intellect and that she should be expressing and challenging it in every way possible.   I knew she was taking me up on this late last year when she showed me a paper she had written for another class in which she had argued, persuasively, that education should be more than smartly studying the material and regurgitating it on the next test, that it should involve examining and expressing your own values and who you are as a person.

This also led to a process that I know still continues for her, that of beginning to decide between two potential career paths, both of which interest her.  On the one hand, she believes deeply in capitalism, not just intellectually but also in terms of the excitement of entrepreneurship.   The first time she expressed a career goal to me, it was to become the CEO of a major corporation.  She still is pulled towards that idea, and, despite enjoying the life of the mind, is honest about how much she would like to live a good, affluent, exciting life, to reap the rewards of success in corporate America. 

On the other hand, Marina has also come to understand that her other potential career path, that of becoming a Professor of Literature, might lead to a life of less material wealth but more intellectual richness.   I recently asked her where she would expect to find livelier, wittier, more challenging conversations – in the faculty rooms of a major university or in the boardrooms of a corporation.  We both knew it was a loaded question, but she seemed to appreciate the way I had framed it and said something about appreciating the implicit compliment and the openness with which I expressed my hope that she follow a path towards an intellectual, thoughtful life.

In fact, one of the things I have enjoyed about the dialogue she and I have been having for the past year and a half is precisely how much she appreciates it, and, when not busy debating me, how thoughtfully she has told me, in conversation and in writing, what it has meant to her.  I don’t teach in the hopes or expectations that my students will effusively tell me how much I am influencing them, but when a young person like Marina has enough self-awareness and social grace to analyze what she has learned from me and to express her thanks, it’s quite rewarding for me – and speaks well of her. 

I’m sure I’m not the only teacher writing a reference letter for Marina telling you how smart she is, but I could be the only one discussing this side of her, so I offer the following excerpt from the letter she wrote to me recently in asking me to write this recommendation (I asked her permission to include it).  It should give you a sense of how appreciative she is not just of my influence but also of learning and growing in general:

“Mr. Reid,

I truly appreciate your taking the time to write me a recommendation.  More than that, I appreciate that I can always be entirely honest with you.  I’ve changed a lot since you met me back in those early Health and Media class days, and, in part, that’s a result of your helping me to discover the power of expression, of opinion, and of earnest discussion.  I am beginning to formulate my values and beliefs, my perspective; I am beginning to piece together what I had only intrinsically sensed before.  There’s such beauty in the confidence of knowing what you stand for and what you won’t accept – what you believe in and what you don’t.  If growing up means gaining a greater sense of such self-identity, then there’s a lot to look forward to.

I couldn’t be where I am right now – which isn’t all that far in any direction, but I’m content, which is good I suppose – without those intensely interesting and momentarily infuriating argument/discussions with you!  I know that you enjoy challenging students to look deeper into what they think and feel, to approach their reactions to media as a reflection of themselves, and although I may loudly warn you of getting a tad carried away with the whole “challenging” stuff, I do get it . . . and it works.  We need to be challenged.”

I believe the self-awareness, awareness of others and enthusiasm for intellectual and personal growth shown in this passage will help Marina rise to the top of her chosen field as much as will her intellect.  In addition, I think this excerpt also demonstrates her spirit and a bit of her humor.  I love that, even in a heartfelt thank-you letter telling me how much I’ve influenced her, she still wanted to joust a little (in terms of our ongoing dialogue and debates), to remind us both that she still gets to have a different point of view from mine by pointing out (correctly, I’m sure) that at times I can get carried away with my particular approach to education.

I hope I have helped you see what an unusual young woman Marina is and what potential she has to contribute to the culture at your school and to benefit from the high level of academic challenge which you would provide her.   I thank you for considering helping her in the next stage of her growth.   If I can be of additional assistance as you evaluate her candidacy, please don't hesitate to contact me. 

Tom Reid

TV Production and Media Literacy Teacher

Swampscott High School

reid@swampscott.k12.ma.us

 

Marianne Hartmann June 08, 2011 at 02:29 AM
Tom-what a wonderful idea and tribute to all these students. I am sure these letters mean much more to the students and their parents than they do to the stranger reading them. I am so glad you shared and maybe have inspired some others to follow suit. Thank you for truly caring about all your students.

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