Monthly Archives: April 2013

Starting Up (Arrastía & Hoffman) – Almost a Review

I admit to having felt the stirrings to repair the traditional school.  In the epigraph of a new book edited by Lisa Arrastía and Marvin Hoffman, Maxine Greene writes,

Most of us realize that, only when we envisage a better social order, do we find the present one in many ways unendurable and stir ourselves to repair.  The sight and description of the new schools at the present time … make it uniquely possible to identify what is wrong with the traditional schools.”

I have asked for as long as I have been in education the main seminal question, “How could we do this better?” and so it was the title, first and foremost, that grabbed my attention when I saw the book,  Starting Up: Critical Lessons From 10 New Schools.

Truth be told, it was also the fact that the book was lying on Dennis Littky’s desk and he had just recommended it – sort of.  My colleagues and I were visiting the Met school in Providence, Rhode Island, and we had managed to finagle an hour of Littky’s time, something I knew going in was unlikely, but we offered doughnuts and an early start and Dennis agreed.  As a school leader and an innovator, Dennis Littky has been around the block a few times, and I have been inspired by his work and ideas for years.  Together with Elliot Washor, Dennis started the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The Met) and Big Picture Learning, which has nurtured a few dozen Met schools in this county and abroad.  Beyond his accomplishments in education, and they are many, Dennis is plain spoken and he is clear in what he believes about education.  These are qualities I find easy to admire.

So, in a conversation that turned to innovative educational models, I asked him, “What should we be reading?”  Dennis has just a few stacks of well-chosen books in his office, and many of them are duplicates, which suggested to me that he hands them out, keeping them for targeted distribution.  Maybe he would send us home with a gem.  Not so.

“I don’t know,” he said.  “How about this?  This looks good.”

He picked up a copy of Arrastía & Hoffman’s book that was on the table, eyeballed it briefly, and then flipped it toward me.

“I haven’t read it.  Someone just sent it to me.  Maybe there is something in there.”

And indeed there is.  It turns out that Littky and Washor have a chapter in the book, and it is one of the better.

Starting Up is interesting the way a war story is interesting.  I found myself engaging in other people’s experiences and feeling grateful they weren’t mine.  Not all of the chapters tell tales of failure or defeat, but they all convey the adversity and challenge of trying to start something new in an old system.  And they are all cautionary.  The authors, for the most part, tell their stories and try in earnest to provide helpful insight, presumably for those coming after – as if the same pitfalls and traps sprung by these explorers will still be waiting.  And this is the false assumption the book makes.

Tales of headache, bureaucracy, abandonment, and betrayal are just that.  They are universal experiences that never happen the same way twice.  Where the book fails is where it reads like a treasure map, labeling paths to take, places to go, and traps to avoid.  It does communicate the depth of pain and possibility in the endeavor to educate kids, and they are amazing stories, no doubt, but in the end, they are just 10 stories that, like all first person accounts, didn’t happen quite the way they are told.  The lessons are particular to the tellers, not universally communicable.

In preparation for the arrival of our first born child, my wife and I took a series of birthing classes.  Of particular interest to us was an evening toward the end in which several new parents were to visit our class to tell their stories.  My wife and I, both somewhat over-achieving, looked forward to this as a way to prepare for the eventualities that might befall us and thereby have the best birthing experience possible.  We took notes.

And then one new father said something that was true on a different level.  He said, in listening to all of the stories of childbirth, the only thing we could be sure of was that our experience would be different.  I wouldn’t happen the way we had heard it.  We stopped taking notes.

Starting Up reminded me of a child birthing class.  The subtitle, Critical Lessons from 10 New Schools, promises to prepare you for what might go wrong, but if you are starting a new school, like giving birth to child, the only thing you can be sure of is that your experience will be different.  It won’t happen the way you hear it.  And in talking to a host of innovators, initiators, and founders in the last year, I have not yet heard one say, “My experience was typical.  I heard it would happen this way.”

The only exception to the narcissism that plagues Starting Up is the chapter written by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor.  Written as a modified Q & A, it is even different in format from the others.  It reads like the transcription of Littky and Elliot simply talking, reminiscing about old times, the early days, what they were thinking way back when.  Their chapter avoids lessons learned and insights gained and opts instead to create an ambient tone of realism, hope, and encouragement, which is most of what is truly helpful in talking about starting a school.

So, with books stacked in his office and on his desk, some of them clearly for give away, why did Dennis refrain from recommending any of them to us?  Because in any pioneering effort, like starting a school, exploring Mars, or giving birth to a child, the experience of others is not what matters.  We make the path by walking.  And Washor says as much on page 62:

This leads to one of the other points, which is about starting before everything is completely and totally planned out.  We both feel it is a big mistake for a lot of people when they do so much planning that nothing ever gets off the drawing board.  They actually think they know what the playbook is going to look like before they have done the school.  Doing all of this work was a difficult decision because we didn’t even know if it was going to pass the state legislature, but we decided to go for it because the only way to figure it out was to do it. The commissioner said years later, “The most important thing you did was to start.”

And that is the most important line in the whole book.

  • Arrastia, Lisa, and Marvin Hoffman. Starting Up: Critical Lessons from 10 New Schools. New York: Teachers College, 2012. Print.

Is Math Relevant?

Math is coming under attack recently at education conferences, in the literature, and in conversations about school reform.  Fully half of the subject-specific workshops at a recent California Association of Independent Schools conference were about math.  Relevance, engagement, projects – all of the presentations in one way or another sought to justify the teaching of math at the high school level.  In question is whether high school students really need all the math they get in the typical high school curriculum.  Is trigonometry useful for the average high school student?  Maybe.  What about calculus?  That one is a little harder, testing even dyed-in-the-wool math teachers, most of whom concede eventually that calculus in high school is more about the challenge than its usefulness to life.

How much math is enough math and what is its value beyond a facility with numbers and quantities?  If you had the resources to offer either a calculus class or a statistics class but not both, how would you choose?  And just under the surface is a deeper question, is a subject’s connection to the real world, what we are calling real-world application, the highest value in school curriculum?

It seems it is.  Or is becoming so.  There are strong calls lately for a new three R’s – Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships.  There are high school programs emerging all over that incorporate job skills, internships, and real-world learning.  Linked Learning, which has its origins in what used to be known as Vocational Training (i.e.: shop class), is a wonderful and long overdue evolution of Career Technical Education.  Linked Learning is a comprehensive, pathways-based approach to learning in the world that creates a meaningful and mutually educative partnership between school and career by involving students in internships and working with schools to create programming that supports their experiences.  One of their mottos is, “Life comes to school.”

So relevance is playing a larger role in high school education.  And that makes math teachers nervous.

For many educators, many of whom are now in positions to affect high school curricula, math in high school was an interminable series of puzzles that neither had nor claimed to have relevance in the world outside of math class.  At best it was amusing.  At worst, dehumanizing.   But regardless of whether one liked it or not, it was unapologetically divested from the world outside.

“Solve for x,” we were told.

“X what?  What is x?” we all thought and some of us asked.

“No, no,” we were told.  “X isn’t something.  It isn’t anything.  Its a quantity of whatever.”

And I need to solve for it?  Even though it isn’t anything, doesn’t intend to be anything, has no basis in life or reality?  We aren’t talking about apples or oranges, not slices of pie or distances between stars.  We are not talking about anything identifiable or recognizable.  It is a pure abstraction.  Do I have that right?

For many that is a hard truth.  Add to that the fact that for most students the advanced topics in math will never be used and you can see the argument for math’s irrelevance in high school.

What do math teachers say?  I recently sat with a great group of inspired and inspiring colleagues, most of them math teachers, in a workshop that touched on these topics.  What is mathematics?  What is mathematical thinking?  What is the argument for math in high school?  The workshop put us into the shoes of students and walked us through a lesson designed to help us identify and recognize mathematical thinking in ourselves and our students.  The math challenge – or puzzle – was to figure out how many squares can be made with twelve straight lines.  And from there we went on to wonder and explore what we could understand about lines and squares.  Was there a relationship between the number of lines and the number of squares?  Could we generate an equation?

It was an engaging lesson, no question.  We enjoyed the challenge and it felt fun to do the math, work creatively in a small group of interested folks, and feel like we were figuring something out.  And when the question came up, “So, beyond the fun, what is the application for this in the world outside of math class?” things got a little dicey.

“Why isn’t fun enough of a justification?” was one response.

“Not everything in math has a real-world application,” came another.

“They are learning how to think.”

There was some genuine defensiveness in the room.  Also a great deal of compassion.  And I did feel some pity for the poor, recovering, misunderstanding English teacher for whom the deeper relevance of finding squares with lines remained elusive.  But we had been encouraged at this conference to “go hard on the content, easy on the people” so I persisted in spite of my better judgement and strong internal messaging that to back away slowly.

In the end, the workshop ended and I had the familiar feeling of being pitied for my ignorance.  As I began to scratch some feedback for the presenter on the back of a handout, I felt one of my table mates lean in.  I stopped writing and scanned my peripheral vision.  What was about to happen?  My eyes wandered up and met hers.  She was grinning at me.

What ensued was a wonderful and very helpful 45-minute conversation that went from real world utility of math to conferences to education to what we believe most about students and learning – and finally to three of the biggest concepts out there: truth, beauty, and goodness – three things that need no further justification.

The study of math, she proposed, has a grander relevance than simply utility.  We do math, she said, like we play piano.  Because it is beautiful.  Not because it is useful.  A simple, elegant solution to a problem is beautiful.  A relationship between numbers that proves true in all cases is beautiful.  Math, she said, is much more like art than tooth brushing.

And truly, for the first time, I got it.  Beauty, truth, and goodness – these are things I get and I look for them in all worthy endeavors.

So, what I understand now is that math does have a real-world relevance – it is beauty (and truth, maybe not goodness).  Beauty is relevant, in and of itself.  Like art.  And that, I think, is that much stronger argument in favor of math than the somethings-just-don’t-connect line.  Math teachers should stop saying that fun is enough of a justification for math.  It isn’t.  There is no other subject in high school or education at any level that is comfortable relying solely on fun as its reason for being.  Fun is wonderful – anyone who knows me knows that I go for fun at the expense of productivity too often.  But it is not enough to justify a high school curriculum.  And math teachers should stop saying that not all math needs a real world application.  It does.  To spend time doing it, it has to have relevance.  No question.

The challenge then is to recast math as relevant in grander and more subtle ways.  It is relevant not because you use it all the time.  Most people don’t.  Math is relevant because it is elegant truth.  Math is beautiful.