Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Letter from Huck Finn

Out in Left Field proudly presents the first in a series of letters by an aspiring math teacher formerly known as "John Dewey":

For those few of you who know me, you probably know me by John Dewey, a nom de plume that I used to write a series of letters about education school on a blog called Edspresso mostly in 2007. I am a working stiff who will be retiring this year after which I will pursue an apr├Ęs retirement career of teaching math in middle or high school. I have finished all my courses and only have to complete my student teaching in order to get my certificate.

I decided to resurrect my letters but the name John Dewey seemed to belong to a different era and didn’t feel quite right. I’m now in an in-between mode, reflecting on all that has come before, and what will come after, floating down a river on a raft, having a vague idea of where I’ll end up. I’ve decided therefore to call myself Huck Finn. I welcome any of you to either listen to my tales of woe or tell me of your own. For those of you who choose to climb aboard the raft to talk of your enslavement by the education establishment, I will call you by a name designed to not in any way invoke the ongoing controversy surrounding the famous novel by Mark Twain, nor to make my kind hostess Miss Katharine nervous. I will call you James.

As followers of the John Dewey letters know, this river goes through territory that is decidedly divided between conflicting theories of education. The divisiveness has not subsided any since I stopped writing the first round of letters and it doesn’t look like it will end any time soon. School districts, school boards and the administrations in their grasp remain smitten by the lure of the promise that math (or any subject for that matter) need not be taught in any kind of logical sequence, and that whatever mastery of facts or procedures is needed can be learned on an as-needed basis because process is more important than content.

Some say that the divisiveness in education has been around for quite a while but I have to say that free form pondering and group discussions were the exception and not the rule back in the 50’s and 60’s when I was in school. When open-ended discussions did occur they were short lived—like the time in my 8th grade science class when the teacher, Mrs. Cohen got off on a tangent of what came before the universe was created. I don’t recall how we got off on that particular tack. I think she sensed that a full exploration of the topic might take more time than she had, so she brought the discussion to a memorable close by announcing that such things were beyond the capability of the human mind and that there had so far been only one human being capable of understanding these origins. We all thought she was referring to Albert Einstein and were therefore surprised when she announced that this person was (wait for it): Rod Serling.

Being that it was 1963 and Twilight Zone was at the height of its success, we had no problem accepting that. With that business done, Mrs. Cohen got back on track and we didn’t have to write any essays comparing Einstein to Serling, or work in groups to construct shoebox dioramas of the creation of the universe. But now we are in an age of education by collaboration, by small groups, by a student-led and teacher-facilitated inquiry-based approach. My educational psychology professor at ed school was the personification of this practice. She bore an uncanny resemblance to Meg Ryan and had taught middle school science for 15 years. Her classes were chock full of group activities, designed to help us learn the material as well as to become conversant with the various group activity techniques. I never learned her stance on Rod Serling versus Albert Einstein (or even Stephen Hawking) but she was big on student engagement and “hands on” learning. The extent to which her “hands on” or inquiry-based or student-centered approach to learning was grounded in specific content that was explicitly taught remained a mystery. She left clues throughout the semester, however, that she leaned toward the ed school thoughtworld that students should construct their own knowledge.

She definitely believed in student engagement as a key to motivation. I found this out when she told us about a particular “back to school” night for parents on which she demonstrated how she taught her students about the difference between force and pressure: She lay on a bed of nails with a rock balanced on her stomach and had a fellow teacher smash it with a sledge hammer. All of us were suitably impressed. Yes, she built the bed of nails herself. And no, she didn’t demonstrate it during our class.

I don’t expect that I will use the bed of nails technique with my future students. Nor do I expect to do half of the engaging engagement activities that I learned about. For those who are curious, I got an A+ in the class. I think it was because I used the term “Piagetian disequilibrium” in one of the papers I had to write. I also learned that if you have to make it look like you believe in students constructing their own knowledge, you can talk about Vygotsky, and the Zone of Proximal Development, and scaffolding, and people will see what they want to see. I thank Meg Ryan for teaching me the art of camouflage.

Well, it’s getting late, and Miss Katharine is looking like she’s nervous so I’ll wrap this up. My application to student teach is due in a week and I have to write a goals statement that sounds like I won’t tell my students what they need to know. It has to sound like I mean it. This might take me a while.

Talk to you soon, James.

Your pal,

Links to the former letters of the former John Dewey are: Letter # 1, Letter # 2, Letter # 3, Letter # 4, Letter # 5, Letter # 6, Letter # 7, Letter # 8, Letter # 9, Letter # 10


LynnG said...

Welcome back, Huck! And good luck with the student teaching. When I read your story about the bed of nails and the rock, I wondered if your Meg Ryan had somehow confused "engagement" of the students with "entertainment" of the students.

delta_dc said...

I think we need to be careful about having an either or perspective. Instead of student-centered vs teacher-centered, I want to think about being learning-centered. Sometimes that means the teacher takes the lead, sometimes it's the content, and sometimes it is the learner. It depends.

Constructivism gone wild is certainly a problem. But going to the other extreme is not helpful either. I try to keep balance in mind.

As for engagement, I find Brian Cambourne to be an expert on this and use his Conditions of Learning framework with all the teachers I work with. You can read about it here: http://www.reading.org/Publish.aspx?page=RT-49-3-Cambourne.pdf&mode=retrieve&D=10.1598/RT.49.3.1&F=RT-49-3-Cambourne.pdf&key=FBA4A204-7CC4-4D4D-84BF-777F2B3050A1

And yes, I teach teachers. I teach teachers in a College of Education. I also teach teachers through the Mathematics Department. However, I do not value process over content. I also do not value content over process. They are BOTH important and both need to be addressed explicitly.

Good luck on this new journey. I like the metaphor because teaching is an adventure.

Anonymous said...

Zone of proximal development is actually a pretty handy concept. The problem comes when the "zones" of your students don't overlap at all, as in when you have children ranging from 2 grade levels behind to 2 or 3 grade levels ahead.

Widow Douglas said...

Well said, Huck! You're gonna be awesome!

I knew we were in trouble when the 1989 NCTM Standards were issued. We haven't seen an iota of improvement since.

What I see in my classes (I teach math to high school students) is too much calculator dependence, too little knowledge of basic facts and computation, and no structure in place to build the bridge from working with numbers to working with variables. Many of my students can't think because they don't have anything to think with!! Students with parents who are educated and recognize what their children need to know to be ready for college, are those who make it to the honors classes and to calculus. Their parents/relatives/friends teach them long division and standard algorithms so that they can carry them forward into the study of algebra and beyond. Those without such help at home are left behind by today's trendy curricula that are so fond of not teaching standard algorithms directly and not expecting students to master them. No surprise that there is an achievement gap. How long will it take for the education establishment to realize that we have to teach students to do mathematics, not cutesy substitutes. If you are not in the classroom today teaching algebra, you have absolutely no idea how ill-prepared most students are to learn it -- as a result of curricula with low expectations and teachers who are required to teach them.

I've been a part of this adventure for quite awhile now, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. I care deeply about my students and their learning, and so I spend my days filling gaping holes in their learning, as well as moving them forward. It's a pleasure to see so many students from my high school get admitted to top tier universities. They can get the math preparation they need in my high school. All students in the US should be so fortunate.

Huck, welcome to my world! We need you!

Anonymous said...

I think it’s ironic that you don’t recognize that you have done exactly what you mock your ed psych professor for proposing---you have constructed your own knowledge despite her teaching. Either that, or you already had your mind made up about what you “know”. I wonder what you are going to do when, as a teacher, you encounter students much like yourself, unengaged and already know it all? But then you’ll no longer have your college of ed to blame . . . you’ll probably blame the students or maybe your cooperating teacher (s/he doesn’t know how to teach), or maybe even their parents. I hope you’ll develop a growth mindset and take a look at your own thinking and teaching. Maybe you’ll find that college of ed wasn’t so far off the mark.

Katharine Beals said...

Huck responds to Anonymous:

Thank you for your honest response. There's much that doesn't come across in a column and I appreciate comments from all walks to flesh things out. Yes, we all construct our own knowledge ultimately, but how that is best facilitated is the issue that I confronted in the letters from John Dewey and now confront as Huck Finn. In so doing, people inevitably get angry. It's unfortunately, but discussions in education tend to get heated. I will make an effort to see your point of view.