Karen Berlin Ishii on Calculus and Ken Burns

Noodle Expert Karen Berlin Ishii discusses the indispensability of a good seam ripper, tutoring a global network of students, and the reasons why Ken and Ric Burns' documentaries are so good.

Whom would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

As someone who majored in history in college and has always been fascinated by connections to the past and their ramifications for the future, I am a longtime fan of Ken and Ric Burns and their documentaries on American history. Originally, I was pulled in by their massive Civil War opus — which was compelling (even though dubbed in German for me, as I was living in Switzerland when it first aired). When I moved back to New York City, I eagerly devoured Ric Burns' multi-part documentary "New York," enthralled by the stories and underlying connections between long ago events and changes — not just in this city, but in our culture as a whole. The Burns brothers' innovations in documentary storytelling, their brilliant use of visuals and music to weave their tales, and their exceptional choices of experts to help them tell the stories really resonate with me. I would love to learn how they work to shape their stories, selecting and integrating the scholarship of their experts to create indelible lessons for us all.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

When I was ten, I took a Singer sewing course, proudly constructing my own dress from a raw bolt of fabric. I learned a lot in that course that has served me well — many seams and years later — and not just in sewing. The first thing I was taught was the indispensability of a good seam ripper. Yes, you can rip by hand or use a scissor, but there is no substitute for the proper tool to do the job with excellence. I learned this after I had painstakingly sewn in a sleeve (which, if you've ever done it, you know is a major production) and when I lifted it up from the machine, realized in horror that I had sewn it inside out! There was nothing to do but to rip it out and do it right. The importance of using the right tool and accepting that to do something right, sometimes you have to redo it from the start, were very important lessons to learn.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

Every American student should visit Western Europe. There are so many cultures in that crowded continent and so much history that is the basis of our nation's story, culture and language, that it should be part of every American's education. Spending time in Europe as a young woman, talking to people and seeing into their lives, opened my mind tremendously to the insularity of American thought and values. I returned home forever changed, educated far more profoundly than I had been through books or lectures at college.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

Like many, my first academic failing was in college math. I had always been an ace student, accepted to an Ivy League university after only three years of high school. Pre-med, I registered for calculus and fully expected to glide through, as I always had in all my studies. So I was shocked to find the subject apparently impossible to understand. Adrift, I had no one to help me catch up in that massive lecture hall of 500 other pre-med freshmen, or in the useless weekly seminar taught by an indifferent grad student. It was a crushing failure. The following summer, I took the same course, using the same textbook, at my local community college. In a small classroom of twenty fellow calculus flunkees, I was lucky to have a patient and excellent teacher. I got an A, learned the subject and restored my self-esteem. There were quite a few lessons from this experience: Don't give up; if it's important enough to you, keep at it until you make it. Don't let one failure define you — but also don't expect to be perfect or define yourself based on perfection. And finally, just because the idea of being a doctor is a beautiful ideal and you'd look awesome in a Dr. Kildare jacket, medicine is not necessarily the right career path for you.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I became an academic and test prep tutor organically rather than by design. In Japan as an exchange student in the early 1980s, I was in high demand for my English skills. Soon, I was tutoring and teaching classes at language schools — and even by telephone in those pre-Internet days! After that, living abroad for many years raising my family, I found myself teaching not just English, but French, Japanese, and painting — skills which I had developed in my years since college (where my interests had also been eclectic: my dual major was in World History and Fine Art). When I returned to the US, I taught SAT for The Princeton Review and then became more involved with the world of test prep as my own children approached the college prep years, founding my own company and deepening my expertise.

I've found tutoring to be a surprisingly complete profession, not just a sidebar to classroom teaching. With half of my students living around the world, I love that I can teach them wherever I am, free of the constraints of a brick-and-mortar classroom. I've discovered I have a knack for making tricky questions clearer, and that even my calculus challenge has turned into a strength — now I can relate to students' difficulties with math and distill tough topics into manageable bits that lead to understanding.

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