The Waring School, 1980′s, Part Two
Many of my idea cards during the 1980s came from my own reading, and in particular from my own "teach myself" biology readings. From the beginning I was probably the best biology student in our school, probably also one of the best math students ("best" meaning attentive), and along with the other teachers just one of the best students — our school, as the best schools everywhere, was most of all a place for our teachers to be the life long learners that we're always talking about for our students, but that our students, and students in general, rarely become.
I always came to school every day wanting to learn. As the years passed what I wanted to learn would change and evolve, but during the 80's, the time that I'm writing about, it was calculus (and I had visions of doing a Jaime Escalante with all our students, having them all take and pass the AP calculus test… but that never happened) and it was evolution and in particular the history of the earth that most got my attention. When I had a great day in school it was because I had succeeded in bringing the kids along with me in my own excitement and enthusiasm. And when I didn't I didn't.
Then, and well before then, and later, and now, I have always known that most of what is and was being taught, anatomy in my first year at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Greek that I taught while a tutor at St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, literature and Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, the subject of my Master's essay for the graduate English department at Columbia University, Darwin's theory descent with modification in the Waring School biology class, most of all that the students were mostly not ready to learn.
We teach important things because they are important, but we pay little or no attention to whether the students are learning them, or better, whether the students are growing in their own understanding of the subject matter. We know that only lifelong learners will ever learn the important things, yet we go on pretending that our students are doing so while in school. Of course they're not.
So in the 80's, in the Waring School, I was teaching, and learning. I'm still not sure what the students were doing, what role the school had in their lives. I am sure that if I were to talk about the school with them now they would have little, or nothing to say about the math, humanities, science, language and other classes that preoccupied the teachers.
They probably would have more to say about some of the things they actually did, play lacrosse, the choral singing, certainly the theatrical productions, maybe even the idea cards and journal pieces that they wrote and shared with their fellow students in tutorial. And they would have much to say about things of which I was probably not even aware at the time. Would that I could have them now, again, in class and ask them now what our school was all about then.
Perhaps because my own educational background and teaching experience was predominately language and literature I gave much more importance in our school to math and science, things that I didn't know as well myself. Somehow what I was less familiar with became most important and I spent most of my own preparation time with developing our math and science programs, perhaps not very successfully because of my own deficiencies in these areas.
Between the math and science programs math turned out to be the easiest of the two because right from the beginning I discovered and immediately adopted for our school a text, the School Mathematics Project, an original "new Math" program out of Cambridge University. And it was more than enough in our math classes to follow the text, for this was a great program. I still feel that way although probably for good reasons the Waring School has long since adopted a more traditional math program.
The SMP, as it was called, outlasted me in the school by some five years. At the present time it is no longer used, not only at our school, but in schools in England where it was first adopted. Things change and math educational ideas move on, not necessarily to something better. If I ever go back to teaching I'd look for the modern equivalent of the SMP that was first developed in the freedom of 60s. Are we less free today than we were then?
In any case, unlike in most every other subject matter class in our school, in math we had only to follow the text. In that sense what a relief it was to go to math class, open the book, and do the problems. And the texts A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H, (taking you all the way up to pre calculus) had neat stuff. At least I thought so anyway, from the day I discovered it, in the late 70s in Foyles Book Store in London.
There were the usual arithmetic, algebra, and geometry sections, but there were in abundance many other math topics, including probability and statistics, matrices, and my two favorites, applied mathematics mostly the mathematics of physics, and problem solving which included math games and puzzles that I never got tired of and turn to even today with my grandson.
We had always, even before the SMP, made much of word problems in our school. That might have been how we would start the day. The problems were always interesting and to some of us, at least, a delight, while probably a bane, and not a precious one at that, to others.
Word problems, probably better than anything else, will reveal the mathematically talented kids. And they will show others of us, just how much we are lacking in math thinking skills. I was one of the latter but I never lost my interest in the problems. Sort of like the game of chess that quickly separates those who can from those who cannot think several moves ahead. In math there seem to be those, the few, who can rapidly detect the connections among the variables, and those who cannot.
In our science classes we mostly didn't use text books. Science, and in particular biology, always seemed too vast to be encompassed in a text book, or because of this the textbook too big. For when the text books did do justice to the subject they became impossibly long and for that and other reasons totally unsuited to our school. Furthermore science subject matter, in contrast to math, is constantly being revised as new discoveries come in from countless researchers worldwide. Science news seemed to me at least as important as the science text book, and often more relevant and more interesting for the student. As a result I would try to make our students aware of what was at the moment, not only of what had been discovered in the past.
I'm not sure I feel any of these things as strongly today as I did then. Looking back now on our school, I think now I should have done many things differently. Certainly in regard to biology, and in particular the history of the earth and evolution, those subjects that have been ever since I began to study them in the 70s, the first years of our school, such a large part of my own intellectual life.
It was just the other day when I happened to read an article in the New York Times that I began thinking about all these things again. The article was about the teaching of evolution in a sophomore Biology classroom in Orange Park, Florida. The thrust of the article was mainly concerned with the stratagems employed by the teacher, David Campbell, to get his students, mostly from Christian fundamentalist families, to listen to his presentation of the evidence for the validity of Darwin's Origin of Species argument….Explore posts in the same categories: Uncategorized