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.
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.
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.
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!”
“… 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.”
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.