Book of the Month

Back to May 2014 Ed Reporter

Book of the Month

Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations, Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky, Hyperion, 2013, $24.99

After the death of a New Jersey music teacher, whose instructional formula involved “discipline, repetition, and hollering,” 100 of his former students came from all over the nation to play in an orchestral performance at his memorial. They expressed gratitude and admiration for the man who demanded more of them than they thought they could offer. But Mr. Jerry Kupchynsky would likely not be allowed to teach today; parents and school administrators would find him too demanding, harsh, and likely insist his techniques were detrimental to the psyche of students.

Strings Attached author Joanne Lipman describes changes that have taken place in education as: “progressive politics fed into a new paradigm of teaching that emphasized building up children’s self-esteem and that replaced discipline with praise. The teacher-led model of the classroom morphed into a student-centric model.”

Does coddling and over-praising help children? Recent psychological and physiological research indicates limited expectations harm children and that they are the first to spot false praise. Praise should be saved for actual accomplishments achieved through diligent work.

Co-author and daughter of “Mr. K,” Melanie writes that one of the first lessons she learned from her father was: “Work hard, but don’t whine if you lose. And if you do lose, pick yourself up and try harder next time.” A central tenet of Mr. K’s philosophy was that hard work leads to happiness, but he didn’t need to say it; he pushed students to find it out for themselves.

Mr. K’s music students auditioned for regional orchestras and were successful; although they experienced pressure, stage fright, and even Mr. K’s yelling, the challenges they faced made them capable of handling what life sent their way as adults.

Mr. K survived the Nazi and Soviet occupations of the Ukraine. Once he came to America he suffered more hardships, but remained undaunted.

The authors are childhood friends who had Mr. K as their teacher; his daughter is today a violinist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Lipman is a former Wall Street Journal editor.

Lipman states that Mr. K’s classroom attitude was: “You are going to fix this problem. . . . It is just a matter of trying and trying and trying some more. He yelled not because we’d never learn, but because he was absolutely certain that we would.” She writes: “there was something intoxicating about a teacher who had such absolute confidence — faith really — in my ability to do better.”