Tag Archives: Change.org

Simple Math

When it comes to learning the basics, I’ve long believed that if something’s truly basic to success, life will sooner or later present you with a situation where you’ll need it. Immersed in a scaled-down version of real life, Sudbury students have ample opportunity and incentive to master these basics. I originally posted the following to Change.org on June 23, 2009.

It’s legendary in the Sudbury literature: the five-month math class. As Sudbury Valley co-founder Daniel Greenberg reports in the above article, it took twenty weeks—a mere twenty contact hours—for a group of twelve kids ages 9 to 12 to cover all six years of elementary-school math.

A miracle? Hardly.

Greenberg’s friend Alan White, a longtime elementary school math specialist, wasn’t surprised. “Everyone knows,” he said, “that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard. What’s hard…is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only chance we have is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work…Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff—well, twenty hours or so makes sense.”

This squares with my experience as well. I once taught math to three students who consistently showed up on time. One day, however, I waited and waited…but they never appeared. A bit puzzled, I wandered back to the main room, only to find these students hard at work on their own. They’d gotten too busy and distracted working on math to think about math class.

Another time, a student asked me out of the blue—not in class, just in the course of a normal day—what I knew about counting in base 2 (a.k.a. binary numbers, the basis for digital computers). A spontaneous quasi-class ensued, as she and I looked things up, using a chalkboard to piece together the mysteries, treating it like a puzzle or a grand game: When do you add another digit? When is a 1 replaced with a 0? and so forth.

The way math is taught tells us much about how an educational system works…or why it doesn’t. Some of the most powerful arguments on this theme are made in a piece popularly known as “Lockhart’s Lament.” Paul Lockhart teaches at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. Written in 2002, “A Mathematician’s Lament”  is a scathing critique of math education that has circulated widely, despite having never been published. The remainder of this post offers an overview of this unusually insightful and frank work.

There is surely no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest in a subject than to make it a mandatory part of the school curriculum. Include it as a major component of standardized testing and you virtually guarantee that the education establishment will suck the life out of it.

Lockhart opens with nightmare scenarios of music education reduced to teaching notation, and art education that’s mostly worksheets, memorization, and paint-by-numbers. Beyond being absurd, this approach spells death for creativity. Continue reading

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Teaching Creativity

Of all my Change.org guest posts, this one is perhaps most relevant to Write Learning, as it probes the intersection of education and creativity. I originally posted it on July 19, 2009.

I suspect Mrs. Watts is rolling over in her grave these days.

My piano teacher for nine years growing up, Mrs. Watts wasn’t exactly strict, but she did insist on things being done a certain way: fingers curled just so, tempo faithfully followed, learning each hand separately and not playing a piece any faster than control would allow. I can still hear her blasted metronome, and the way she had us students stand up and announce “I shall play such-and-such, by so-and-so” at recitals and competitions.

I never imagined, though, that I would come to teach piano myself one day. Yet I played around enough at Alpine Valley School that occasionally students would ask me to help them. So I did my intuitive best to accommodate their requests, giving each the sort of instruction that best suited their interests.

I also taught creative writing at Alpine Valley for several years—although with the class set up as a workshop, I considered myself more an especially experienced participant than the gateway to writing excellence. As with piano instruction, when it comes to writing I’m first and foremost a practitioner sharing what he knows and does with other interested parties; more artist-in-residence than professional instructor.

Given these experiences, I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of teaching creativity. Granted, there’s a host of technical aspects to cover in both piano and writing; yet how, I wonder, can creativity be conveyed in a pedagogical scope and sequence? After all, the technical side of capital-A Art is not where its magic lies. As the great Artur Rubenstein once remarked: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.”

Just so, I have found that paying attention to the spaces within the structure is the most reliable path to genuine creativity. Working at a Sudbury school, I am happily reminded that people are inherently creative. There is something in each of us that must make art, and I am very lucky to be part of a school that acknowledges this. I watch students plunk out their own tunes on the piano; I see them spontaneously tell and write stories. Even those not especially predisposed or endowed eventually find their way to various art forms. It’s what we humans do. Continue reading

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Teachers Without Masks: a Sudbury Alternative

A few years ago, I wrote a dozen posts as an education blogger for Change.org. Since they’ve recently taken down much of their older content, I’ll be resurrecting some of those posts here, in lightly edited form. The following was originally uploaded on June 13, 2009.

Google Group discussion of Sudbury schooling recently featured an interesting article from Teacher Magazine. Written by Anthony Cody, the article responds to Suze Orman’s assertion that “students can’t learn empowerment from people who aren’t empowered.” Cody admits,  “We can only teach what we actually embody.”

One of the teachers I learned the most from…told me, “The subject your students are studying is you. They watch everything you do.” He helped me understand that when I taught my students, I was showing them the way a man could behave in the world, the way he respected women, the way he dealt with conflict. All these things were part of teaching—way beyond how many protons there are in the nucleus of a carbon atom…

So Suze Orman is right in suggesting that we cannot teach empowerment unless we are empowered. But this got me thinking a bit more. Are we actually even trying to teach our students to exert power over their own lives?

It seems as if students are being taught the exact opposite. Learn what is on the test, because it is on the test, and doing well on this test will prepare you for the next set of tests, and at some point you will finally finish all the tests and be ready—for what? Certainly not for acting in a powerful way in relationship to the world or those around you!

Those who have read my bio know that prior to my move to Sudbury schooling, I taught in public schools. Today I’d like to consider the differences between these two models from a teacher’s-eye view. I agree with Cody that our students study us, and that we teach them far more by example than we ever could in lessons. However, most of the time, in most schools, this sort of instruction is buried beneath an avalanche of mandates and an undemocratic power structure.

When I taught high school, I could never get past the feeling that it was all a performance. My character’s name was Mr. Smith, and the most prominent feature of his costume was the necktie. In the classroom, Mr. Smith was a figure of some power: he made the rules, evaluated everyone’s performance on tasks he set, and controlled students’ freedom of movement. Yet when it came to the conditions of his workplace, Mr. Smith had little to no power. His daily schedule, the curriculum, and the hiring of personnel at his school—these things and more were decided somewhere else, by unknown others, and simply imposed on him and his colleagues.

What’s more, genuine connections between teachers and students were rendered virtually impossible. After all, one must get through lessons and prepare for tests, and you only have 50 minutes a day, 180 days a year, to do so; then new combinations of students and teachers must go through the same routine. In such a setting, it seems to me what most students learn from their teachers is that it’s okay to accept situations where you’re disempowered, where you do things of questionable value and relevance because, well, that’s just the way things are done: do what you’re told, complain to the administration and school board if you want—and good luck with that.

With this kind of institutional dynamic, the need of students to learn who their teachers (and, I should add, their fellow students) really are is severely marginalized. There is little opportunity for teachers and students to know each other in any substantive way, no way for this deeper learning to occur. What’s really going on in the world, as well as each other’s lives, takes a back seat to an agenda dictated by people with no direct, personal stake in what’s learned. I think a lot of my public-school students liked me, and got something out of my classes; but in retrospect, I fear the demands of that system sharply curtailed their most valuable learning opportunities.

What’s the lesson here? Disempowerment diminishes learning. When teachers aren’t free to teach, and when curricula and testing are valued over students’ individual needs, everyone loses.

Fortunately, Sudbury schooling extends to its teachers, as well as its students, real empowerment. In fact, the one job title at Sudbury schools is “staff,” since the work involves so much more than simply teaching. All staff members combine conventional functions of instruction, administration, and counseling; more fundamentally, we serve as mentors and role models. Staff work together, with no one person in charge, to do whatever it takes to keep their schools running and growing, supporting students as they go about the business of learning life. In this kind of setting everyone’s strengths are maximized, their needs met in the most effective way possible, with maximal flexibility.

Because the power structure at Sudbury schools is democratic, there is no need to maintain an aura of separateness about the staff, no need to prop up their authority. Staff members are addressed by their first names, same as anyone. And because students can attend one school over several years—as many as twelve or more—they get to know their “teachers” remarkably well. In fact, our schools feel less like institutions than extended families in which children benefit from growing up with multiple aunts, uncles and grandparents, as well as siblings.

When teachers are fully respected and given the power they deserve, they are in turn more capable of respecting and empowering their students. Ellen Berg, one of Anthony Cody’s colleagues in the Teacher Leaders Network Forum, shared her view that

If our children leave school with anything, they should leave with the sense that they have choices, and that they are in control of their lives. As people, we can’t control what happens, but we can control how we react to situations and whether we learn from the horrible things in life.

I’ve sometimes described my Sudbury career as “everything I loved about teaching, with none of the b.s.” I still believe that, but it now occurs to me that the correlation between empowered teachers and effective education is what really matters. It’s past time we fully respect everyone involved in education, so that young people may enjoy lives where, as Ms. Berg says, “they have choices, and [know] they are in control.” 

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Principles, not Principals: the Judicial Committee

A few years ago, I wrote a dozen posts as a education blogger for Change.org. Since they’ve recently taken down much of their older content, I’ll be resurrecting some of those posts here, in lightly edited form. The following was originally uploaded on April 29, 2009. Please note that while the specifics of the process vary, the essence of the Judicial Committee (JC) is consistent across Sudbury schools.

Previously I’ve argued that the best learning occurs when students direct their own education. Today I want to go one step further and say that not only is learning better, but discipline as well.

At Sudbury schools, adults do not lay down the law; there is no principal to whom students are sent. Alleged rule violations are instead handled by groups in which students form the majority.

JC Clerk: Okay, our first case: Greg wrote up Barry for A3.1. This happened yesterday, in the Main Room, around 3pm. The brief description: “Barry called me a doofus. When I told Barry to stop, he asked, ‘What’s the matter, doofus? Can’t handle the truth, doofus?'” Is there any discussion on hearing this case? All in favor?
JC members: Aye.

The JC process goes something like this: when disagreements can’t be handled informally, or when the violator is unknown, anyone can fill out a written complaint—a simple form asking for such details as the time and place, the people involved, and a brief description of the incident.

An elected clerk—usually a student—files those forms and brings them to the daily meeting of a committee that they also chair. Comprising students of varying ages and one staff member, JC’s a lot like jury duty: when it’s your turn to serve, or when you’re called to testify, you’re required to do so (though people don’t have to testify against themselves). JC is one of the few aspects of Sudbury schools where participation is not optional.

JC Clerk: Barry, do you agree with Greg’s version of what happened?
Barry: Hmm…mostly. Okay, so I was in the Main Room, eating lunch, when Greg and Josh and Alex came over and sat near me. They were being all loud and stupid. I told them to pipe down, but Greg said, “I’ll pipe you down.” So then I said “doofus” kind of under my breath. Greg asked, “What did you say?” and, I don’t know, I just got pissed. So I said…you know, what I said.

Each JC questions the complainant, alleged violator, and witnesses. Weighing ‘he said’ versus ‘she said,’ they determine what happened and either drop the case or vote to charge one or more people with breaking a rule. Once charged, people enter a plea: ‘not guilty’ means a trial before a new set of jurors, while ‘guilty’ pleas lead to sentencing, also voted on by the committee.

JC member #1: I think we should charge both Greg and Barry.
JC member #2: Why?
JC member #1: Well, Barry’s obvious. But Greg was disrespectful when he said “I’ll pipe
you down.” Come to think of it, Greg, Josh, and Alex were all being loud.
JC member #3: But they stopped being loud right away. So I don’t think that’s part of the case. It’s about disrespect, and yeah, I agree: both Barry and Greg should be charged.

Staff can be written up as well as students: everyone is expected to abide by the same democratically-passed rules. More fascinating still is seeing people of all ages engaged in the sometimes painstaking work of fact-finding and judging whether a given action amounts to rule-breaking—and if so, how it should be handled. The creativity of even the youngest in cutting through the clutter of what happened and what ought to be done is often inspiring.

JC Clerk: Okay, sentencing…
JC member #4: How many priors do they have?
JC Clerk: Barry only has one A3.1; Greg has four.
JC member #1: I move that Barry and Greg can’t have verbal or physical contact with each other for the rest of the day and all of tomorrow, and that Greg has to do Barry’s chore today.
JC Clerk: Is there any more discussion? All in favor say ‘aye.’
JC members: Aye.
JC Clerk: Motion carries, 4-0. Greg, do you understand and accept your sentence?
Greg: It’s not fair! Why I do have to do his chore?
JC Clerk: Well, you have four priors. Do you want to appeal your sentence to School Meeting?
Greg: No.

Most of the rule violations that make it to JC are of the ‘everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten’ variety: messes, name-calling, noise, running indoors. Common sentences include staying out of a room or away from a person, doing someone’s cleaning chore, or paying a small fine. Sentencing sometimes involves  restitution and/or reducing the probability of the incident being repeated. Occasionally an individual case will be serious enough, or someone’s record long enough, to warrant referral to School Meeting for a more serious consequence, such as suspension.

But again, what has impressed me most over the past fifteen years has been students’ capacity for dispensing thoughtful, fair justice. They take this responsibility seriously, and they do an outstanding job. Rather than being given lectures and abstract exercises, these students grapple with things like ethics, problem-solving, and civics in a context that’s immediate and concrete.

Empowering and effective, the Judicial Committee reinforces the sense of responsibility that makes possible the tremendous freedom of Sudbury schools. I consider myself very fortunate indeed to work in a place where respect is the order of the day, and where order is ably enforced by the students themselves.

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