• A lot is at stake in school
    September 05,2013

    It’s the first week of school, and I see my math teacher colleague walking away. She’s leaving, pushing a cart of materials down the hall, leaving her classroom behind, leaving the school. In the end, she didn’t go far — just to the adjacent building, site of the Randolph Technical and Career Center.

    At first I couldn’t remember why she was leaving, and then I recalled the plan made last spring. Typically the math course for students of the center is taught on our side, at the high school, not at the tech center. But this year we will be teaching math where the relevance to the students is more palpable, where their program instructors can more easily walk in, and where connections to the students’ programs can most easily be made. It’s a step — literally and figuratively — in the right direction.

    I was reminded of this on Sunday, as I read the Times Argus feature on Vermont’s 19th-century schools and textbooks (“‘Old school’ came with a cost,” Steven Pappas). Pappas discusses an 1841 arithmetic book, a “completely utilitarian” text for Vermont’s youth, with lessons on farming, brickwork and other daily occupations.

    The book’s author is quoted as saying that he has omitted topics and tasks that “modern progress has rendered useless or antiquated.” Pappas concludes, “It makes one wonder what was in the pre-1840 edition.” Indeed — and it makes me wonder about the 1940 equivalents, and the not-far-away 2040 editions, and the ones we’re using now.

    I don’t know much about schooling before 1840. I did once read that “the three R’s” was a term coined in the 1700s by an Englishman — who actually spoke of three pairs of R’s: reading and writing, reckoning and figuring, and wroughting and wrighting, by which he meant shaping and making things, fixing and tuning, learning a craft or trade.

    Thank goodness Vermont still devotes important resources to those last two R’s, especially in our technical and career centers. In New York City, where I used to work as a school principal before returning to Vermont, they recently decided to close the High School for Cooperative and Technical Education, opening the site for luxury housing — as if the students in NYC can’t benefit from the industry certifications and the pathways to college and a living wage that this kind of schooling can provide. Vermont families should count our blessings that we have these high-quality educational opportunities in every region — and Vermont taxpayers can count on many solid returns on this wise investment in our future workforce.

    Speaking of counting, let’s get back to ’rithmetic.

    If the 1841 math textbook was “utilitarian,” how should we describe today’s texts? Are they useful, and how? Is the instruction in our math classrooms — in every classroom — meaningful to students? Is our school curriculum relevant?

    And by relevant, I don’t mean just of interest to the individual learner. I mean relevant to society. Does our curriculum give students real practice at being problem-solving citizens in a democracy?

    I support a utilitarian curriculum, the more practical the better. Which doesn’t mean we do without art, abstraction, literature or philosophy. It just means that an essential part of their schooling is that students start solving Vermont’s problems — now.

    There’s no shortage of challenges: the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee; the next debate about our energy future; our homeless veterans; how to do universal pre-kindergarten right; immigration; engineering for the next flood; preparing for the next recession. Students need practice — now — doing what we want them to do later, making Vermont and our world a better place.

    Math, as much as any subject area, must be part of the equation. It’s a language. So, yes, it has an abstract grammar and logic — every language does. But more essentially it is a tool for communication, description and construction. Students should feel powerful using math to describe and shape their world.

    All of which leads me to a book recommendation for the 2013-14 school year: “Rethinking Mathematics.” Teachers, tutors, home-schooling families, it’s not too late to integrate a chapter into this year’s curriculum. And if you go online to research it, I also recommend visiting a website, radicalmath.org, with resources for connecting math to social issues. I especially recommend these resources to English and social studies teachers, for the topics are inherently interdisciplinary.

    Both “Rethinking Mathematics” and radicalmath.org are left-leaning, but any good teacher can balance one political perspective with opposing viewpoints and let the students draw evidence-based conclusions.

    Some educators may hesitate, because when we pursue this kind of teaching, controversy can surface. But teachers and administrators should welcome the chance to defend a good curriculum that couples provocative social content with critical thinking and problem solving.

    I told a first-year math teacher last year that I would be glad to get calls of concern from families about an ethical issue or identity question raised in math class. First, it’s a sign kids are talking about math at the dinner table — which is great — and second, it’s a sign that we’re challenging students to think about serious issues.

    If we’re not posing rich identity questions and provoking political and ethical thinking, it’s not really teaching.

    It’s something else: like baby-sitting, entertainment or anesthesia. That may sound extreme, but there is a lot at stake when it comes to public schooling in a democracy.

    John Dewey, a revered old-school Vermonter, once said that democracy “cannot go forward unless the intelligence of the mass of people is educated to understand the social realities of their own time.”

    Our teaching should reflect this imperative. All of us with a foot in schools these days should also have one foot out the door, stepping down the hall, taking our work out into the community, into the social realities of our time.

    T. Elijah Hawkes is co-principal at Randolph Union High School.

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