Monthly Archives: July 2011

Let’s make school Facebook worthy

Last year my favorite course was my hardest to teach. I felt very strongly about the material, thinking almost constantly about it and how we could spend our time experiencing it. And yet, most days I felt class was stale and that the students felt and thought little during the experience. No matter what I tried, class wasn’t consistently satisfying. Fatal flaw: Class was too much about me, and not about them.

Some of what we did was spectacular – analyzing structure together, sharing and presenting creative insights. I’m also certain there is a terrific course in my approach that year, but most days I did most of the talking, to what felt like crickets. I was driving content. The students saw me speak passionately about the math, but the feeling wasn’t mirrored.

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As the year ended we spent some time working with geofix, building polyhedra and tessellations. This went rather well, with almost everyone enjoying their work and talking a lot about their projects. Later that night, I got a pleasant surprise in my news feed. One of my quieter students, who was nonplussed all year, had posted Facebook pictures of his work in class that day, not on my wall, but out to the world of his friends. Though I didn’t say something at the time, I thought this was extremely cool. He posted again on both of the next two days. By the end he had posted eight pictures of three different projects, and I was thrilled.

In short, because people use Facebook to post things they care about. They post things they’re proud of, like new recordings and videos, clever thoughts, and their favorites from around the web. By posting, Facebook users are sharing themselves with their friends. I was so pleased to know he took that work personally. At least for those three days, class was about him, and his classwork was a part of his identity.

“And yet”, I thought, “this never happens.” Kids post about school all the time, but how often do they post their actual work? Is school too often not about them? I believe students need a personal relationship with their school careers. School should be a place to strengthen and develop who you are and want to become, but how can this occur if your courses and class schedule are largely out of your control, both daily and over time.

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Isn’t it completely obvious that Facebook is important to young people? (and a lot of the rest of us too.) Social media is an incredible way to share ourselves and our ideas. Is school a part of that? I think it should be. Otherwise, we retain a disturbing chasm between student personal identity and their work for school.

If I told you students spent hours there a day, openly and passionately expressing themselves to their friends, often giving articulate thoughts and opinions, would I be talking about Facebook or school? I’m going to spend a lot of time in August thinking about what kinds of math activities my students can take personally. I want school to be like that.


“Why is school like this?” – Sir Ken Robinson

Ken Robinson makes me excited to be a part of education’s future. If you haven’t seen his 2010 TED talk, then this video is a must watch. He gives a witty and eye-opening twelve minute talk about the history and traditions of public education, exposing the ways school has alienated young people.

Robinson makes plain how the education system in place is fashioned in the image of factory lines. Linearly, with separate facilities and departments, each year releasing batches of graduates. Standardized is the very heart of mass production.

Students should be individuals, allowed to live and learn naturally, using and developing their innate talents.

I love this video so much, because it reinforces so strongly some of my own tightly held beliefs. Firstly that school communities should be sustained by “aesthetic experiences,” in which the senses are operating at their peak. “We should be waking them up to what they have inside of themselves.” Instead school too often intentionally dulls the senses for the sake of production.

Robinson also talks about “Divergent Thinking,” which he calls an essential capacity for creativity. It’s the ability to see many answers and interpretations. “How many uses can you think of for a paper clip?” Kindergartners are incredibly good at this, but by the time they’re ten, or worse fifteen, these abilities have atrophied and diminished. It’s been schooled out of them.

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As I said before, standardization is crucial to factory lines, but aesthetic experiences and divergent thinking are the heart of mathematics. They’re particularly important for the actual doing of mathematics and other arts. Divergent thinking required for creativity, and creative analysis is mathematics.

How can I make my classroom and the school I’m a part of better places for young people to learn? I’ve had lots of ideas, some good, others weak. In order to answer these questions Saint Ann’s School encourages me to follow my conscience, free from standard. And so, I think constantly about my work and learn everyday.

I want every school to do this for its students.

“Doing work”

I see children as instinctively creative and analytic, innately mathematical. School done wrong, particularly math class done wrong, has a way of putting out this light inside of young people. This is a story about seeing it happen.

I teach at Saint Ann’s School, where grades are not allowed and creativity holds perhaps the highest value. When you strip away grades as the source for authority and remove standard course content, “the leadership of the teachers arises from their intellect and accomplishment,” quoting the mission. “There is no other source of status.” Remove those things, and classes can spend their time learning from each other, driven by passionate personal interest.

In sharp contrast, I am spending part of my summer teaching math to incoming fifth and sixth graders at a small private summer session. The demands on me are simple. Get the kids a head start on next year. Do what’s in the book. Have them do every page in six weeks. This means we have to do about seven pages a day. Homework is given letter grades each day. Incomplete work must be made up, and poor work must be corrected. Ignoring the fact that these homemade books are full of misguided activities and tons of typos and mistakes, the primary focuses are arithmetic, terminology, and standard tricks for deciphering “what they’re asking.” Much of it could be classified as mathematical busy work. A lot of the content and techniques are new to students, but they have to move quickly to “just doing it” in order to get through the work load.

What keeps me there is the thought that in my time with the kids, I can get them through the busy work, narrating along the way, and then stoke their mathematical fires by challenging them with really compelling and inviting math problems. I felt great about last year, but one of my current students has really shaken me up, today especially.

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He really struggles to complete his homework, always saying how distracted he gets. Doing so many problems each day, he struggles to work “at pace.” And yet, this guy gets on a roll whenever he relies on his intuitive number sense. He wants “his strategy.” “I’m just trying to find a strategy,” he says, finishing too few problems again. He analyzes what he’s doing to the point that he slows down to think until he’s figured out exactly how it works. In short, this kid can’t do all of the work, because he’s thinking too much about it!

Having seen the change in his face when his strategy clicks, and he starts nailing it, today was particularly hard. Long dividing two decimals was tricky for him, and kicking himself for being slow again, his face lit up. “I think I figured something out,” he said, “math is like just doing work.”

I was gutted, but I knew exactly where he was coming from. The demands are simple: do the work until it’s done. The program doesn’t care how he thinks. Get the work done. Despite my backing, the head teacher pushed to bring him down to fourth grade. He was embarrassed enough for her to change her mind, but the trouble was clear. This student is in a learning environment too rigid to give him thinking time.

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He possesses a unique knack for numerical reasoning. He has so much to celebrate and enjoy developing, but he’s being rushed through tons of material and busy work for the sake of “high standards.” The book asks almost nothing of his own naturally creative math insight, so he does little thinking for homework. Class time tells him he’s too distracted and too slow, so his only regular time with mathematics is negative. And so, he slowly writes off his positive experiences with problem-solving.

Mathematics requires time to think and create. Asking students to blow through grunt work with handed down shortcuts is foolish. Students need time to make up their own strategy. In fact, making up the strategy is the part that’s mathematics. Take that away and you’re just doing work.