TEACHING STORIES — October, 2014
Dear Parents,

The new school year has begun. In this post,  I describe seven moments from the first three weeks of teaching, taken from some of the sixteen classes I currently teach for grades K-6, in math, chess, programming, or design, across four after-school programs, homeschool and private classes.

1. During the first two lessons of computer programming in a language called Scratch, one of the students did no programming on her computer. Instead, she acted more like a consumer, a common  enough role in our culture. She spent time trying on different costumes available virtually in Scratch, then she fooled around for a while with different sound effects.  I never tell the students about those things because they aren’t relevant to the math, but they find them on their own soon enough. The third week, our task was to program the cat in Scratch to bounce off the edge of the screen, which can be accomplished with about five lines of code. She figured out how to do this, and when I came by to check in, her cat was  calmly bouncing from left to right, right to left.

Scatch cat bouncing left and right

Scatch cat bouncing left and right

But the girl’s face was anything but calm. She was clearly fascinated and terrified at the same time.  She had made this happen.  For perhaps the first time in her life she was controlling technology and not merely consuming it. She was full of awe, and perhaps she alone at that moment perceived both the awful fascination and terror inherent in technology.

2. Over the weekend I received an email from a boy borrowing his father’s account. He had beaten his father in chess and wanted me to know. I sympathize with the sentiment. My father taught me to play when I was five, but he didn’t believe in letting children win, so I didn’t beat him for the first nine years, until I was on the high school chess team, age 14. In his email, the boy included photos of the checkmate position. I still remember the exact board position when my father resigned.

3. We had our first Math Games class yesterday, and it ended with an odd moment I can’t quite figure out. I was telling the Kindergarteners that we would need to stop the story for today, when one asked, “When are we going to do MathGames?” and I replied, “This is MathGames. You have been doing it the whole hour.” Then they all burst into applause. I have no idea why. My best guess, from students in previous years, is that they have learned to be wary when an adult says ‘math’ and ‘game’ in the same sentence. Usually “the game” is in fact something more pedagogical and repetitive but isn’t all that fun to “play”. Last year, for example, a child presumed that “MathGames” implied that we would be doing math worksheets all the time. So perhaps the applause meant, “Thank God we’re not doing math worksheets.”

4. On our first day, I told the second grade SuperGirl Math class: “If this lesson is successful, in twenty minutes you will not know how to count to ten.” Each girl was given a Japanese abacus, the soroban. The soroban presents a beautiful exemplar of place value — the idea that we write numbers using the one’s place, ten’s place, hundred’s place etc.,  an idea not yet intuitive for the girls.


This soroban is showing 456.

Even without knowing the terminology, just about every adult understands place value; it’s a natural part of how we look at the world.  But the history of place value is amazing and not at all intuitive. Place value became common in Europe only 500 years ago, after a few centuries of resistance from people unwilling to let go of Roman numerals and the use of beads as counters. Even some early Colonial American math texts tried to explain to skeptical readers how a “cipher”, a zero, could have any meaningful value in a number — how could it be that 1000, which is just a 1 plus three zero’s, means something more than simply 1?  How could it be that when you ‘add’ zero to a number it gets ten times bigger?”  Although the girls’ thinking on place value is not fully modern, in our soroban lesson we don’t have 500 years, only twenty minutes, by which time they figured out how to represent 1 through 9, but they were flummoxed beyond that, so we let it go till the next lesson. At the end of this lesson they cheerfully chanted, “We don’t even know how to count to ten!”

5. This year there are again separate chess classes for boys and girls at Malcolm X, but boys’ and girls’ chess classes at Berkley Arts Magnet have been joined together, and the number of girls playing has plummeted.
MX Chess for Boys — 16
MX Chess for Girls — 14
BAM Chess
# of boys — 15
# of girls — 1
On the other hand, the BAM class is now in compliance with the “Welcoming Schools” program that BUSD adopted last year. From their guide:

“… to break down “naturally” occurring divisions in the class between boys and girls, it is best to avoid using the formulation “boys and girls” when referring to the class as a group, and to minimize instances when children are divided by gender or seated or grouped in gender-defined patterns.  For some children, identifying as a boy or girl in order to participate in an activity creates internal dissonance.  This is an example of a subtle change in language, and, later, in your thinking, that can be very liberating for some of the children, and can broaden the scope of experiences and expectations for all of the children.”

6. After the first day of a Building Imagination Class, a parent emailed to ask, “How did my child do in class?”  In truth I had no idea, but the next lesson I decided to observe the child for nearly ten minutes, and I came away with a page of notes.  The children are given a great deal of freedom in the class.  They are presented with over 1200 blocks, and though each lesson starts off with one project idea they might work on, the choice of what to build is ultimately theirs.  The structure of this class is analogous to that of the programming class; both present the children with freedom within a “playground of the mind.”  Some places we go to as adults have that same structure.  I find the weight room of the Y fascinating. There I might see that so-and-so has now chosen to lift heavier weights with poorer form, or I might notice of myself, “The pain is too great in my quads, so I choose to end this exercise …” Or again at a monastery I attended in August, where each of us had perfect freedom when to eat, read, pray, etc. We worked on our individual salvation while in the presence of others, just as the children do in class.

7. It is week 3 and no Kindergartener has yet asked, “Is that story real?” and no chess student has yet asked, “Why are you giving hints to him but not to me?” It isn’t always so. I think the absence of those questions is a good sign, implying that the students are going along with the ethos of the classes. I have spent some time reflecting on the moral foundation of each class and its consequences.  In chess, the overarching goal is playing a good game, and we study what does that mean and how to achieve it. This has consequences also for my behavior.  When a boy boasts, “I just beat so-and-so four times in a row!” my response is “That’s too bad. It sounds like you two didn’t really have good games.” I don’t refer to “John’s position” but more impersonally to “White or Black’s position.” Towards the end of a game, if a checkmate is in sight, I ask both players and even nearby students to work together to find a beautiful ending. In Kindergarten, my overarching goal of the stories is to convey various archetypes.  So when a Kindergartener asks, “Is that story real?” I  respond “Yes” without irony. The details of the stories are not very important, they will change over time, but yes, the archetypes in the stories are quite real, and you will encounter them again and again in your lives.

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