Tag Archives: learning

“Putting the work in” – running and math

My love for Steve Miranda is little secret at this point. He works at a highly progressive school with extremely student-centered practices and the grooviest of academic structures, so I was curious how they handled math. “A couple of the teachers are very into experiential stuff,” he said, “but strangely, the resistance comes many times from kids. They want to just do the work, finish the assignment, and feel like they’re making progress.” This is something they tend to grow out of by high school, but I definitely know that feeling.

With SAT’s, tracked courses, and state testing across the country, it’s easy for students and their families to worry about keeping up. Math has become this ladder of arithmetic, terminology, and notation to be climbed at pace if you want to be a successful student. Even at PSCS, where students have no requirements, they think “all my friends are doing problems from a workbook. I don’t want to get left behind.” Dear god, no. Let no child be left behind!

This kind of thinking worries me, but I guess that’s sort of how I feel about running.

* * *

I have never called myself a runner. I do run sometimes, because I feel like I really ought to, but I don’t much enjoy doing it. I probably like running the most when it’s over, (like a lot of people) because the hard part is out of the way, and I can feel good about having put in the time. The idea is that it might not seem like it, but it must be good for me. Even if it kind of sucks, I should put the work in, really.

This is pretty different from the relationship I have with things like music, juggling, and math. Whereas, for me, a run is something to complete – an act to feel good about finishing – I take real pleasure in the doing of these other things. This is a big part of why I call myself a musician, a juggler, and a mathematician, and it’s that kind of personal pleasure and attachment to subject matter that I think makes real breakthrough and expertise occur in school.

I think they get this at PSCS, where so many kids are passionate about the work they do every day. Their choices at school become a proud piece of their identity, but the relationship Steve described sounded all too typical of the disconnected, get-through-it approach many students have to school math.

* * *

Where’s the love for doing math? Where’s the much needed creativity? How do students become mathematicians this way? Leaving standard behind and directing content toward student interest is the best way I know to do this, but it’s pretty tough if you’re working through whatever’s next, just to keep up.

I’m not trying to put down “putting in the work.” Scales, speed work, and practice routines are kind of dull, certainly not the real deal as far as piano and juggling are concerned, but I do like to “put in the work” and improve. Plus, it does the trick. Hard work pays off!

But this contemporary view of mathematics as the prep department for science and a high stakes NCLB subject is backward. If we fail to show our students how personally appealling math can be, we fail to truly show them the subject.

Might be hard to change in a country full of “runners” like me.

What it takes to be a clown at McDonald’s

In a time when it was still acceptable to eat at McDonald’s, the seed of a very powerful idea was placed in my mind – one that has had a hugely positive impact on my life. It was “family night,” which meant they hired a clown to do magic tricks and juggle for the kids. I was probably nine and definitely fascinated by the tricks. (Aren’t we all at that age?) Luckily, this clown brought a bunch of plastic grocery bags from Schnuck’s and, using them as a poor man’s scarves, he taught me to juggle three.

In truth, he taught me how juggling worked. I would have to teach myself to actually do it. Nonetheless the damage had been done, the seed placed, because I knew for certain that I could teach myself juggling.

That night, and every day for a while, I practiced with the bags and found balls and fruit, probably irritating my parents a lot, until I bought a little juggling set. It came with a book about juggling tricks, so I taught myself how to do them. I made up my own tricks and mini-challenges to myself, to see what I was capable of, and I just kept on trying them until I got it.

I dropped juggling and picked it up from time to time, but by the end of high school, I could juggle clubs, rings, balls, knives, torches, and do all sorts of tricks and routines – the same kind that dropped my jaw in McDonald’s. In fact, my first math/ed conference was a free trip to Las Vegas to juggle with Bill Thayer.

I had become an expert juggler, and all this because I knew I could teach myself.

* * *

“How do people become experts?” I wonder this a lot, lately. My first thought is that it can happen just like this. The juggling clown introduces it to you. Then you go off and try it, consulting books and friends, the internet, talking about it, practicing it, challenging yourself, and slowly getting better. You pick it up, you leave it, but you always know that you can juggle. What makes this kind of learning work is the idea that if you keep at it, you will improve, tied to the fact that you are doing something you like, getting better because you want to.

I’ve taught juggling several times, and though I’m not qualified to say so, I would guess that no one is juggling disabled. Surely some people come to it with a more developed sense of hand-eye coordination or spatial ability, but I’ve seen dramatic growth in every juggling student, no matter what struggles they have at school.

I can imagine if juggling were required at school, many students might lack engagement with the standard tricks being required for their yearly performance. Class might be so far from an aesthetic juggling experience that the students never feel that they can teach themselves. Yet in the students I’ve seen, the opposite is the case.

* * *

Expertise seems so critically vital today, in our huge and non-stop world where learning everything is ever more absurd and we rely on increasingly technical knowledge. It occurs to me that school would be a rave success if every student left it with a profound and fulfilling sense of expertise. They would transition confidently into adulthood, knowing they could rely on themselves to learn.

If I were designing a school around this idea, I don’t think it would look much like the schools we have now, perhaps not even my own. Here’s a blueprint – Intelligent and empathetic adults with something compelling to share; Far less requirements on student time; And a culture that celebrates their success, allows them to set their own goals and challenges, and improve on their own schedule.

I’m trying constantly to give my students a place to have this kind of experience with mathematics. School should be about them. It should be personal.