When I was a kid, I played school. I had a portable chalkboard with two sides– one green, one black — and I either played with my sister or my friend Deirdre or sometimes, I played by myself. I was the teacher and my stuffed animals, the students. When I played school, for some reason, I drew math problems on the board. Not sentences or words, not phrases, not maps or quotes — math problems. Math. The one subject that as I went through school, I did not like. I just didn’t get it.
Oh, I learned my multiplication tables without much problem. That was memorization. I learned the processes for addition, subtraction (remember “borrowing?”) and long and short division. But I never really understood what I was doing. When it came time to solve word problems, I had no idea what to do; I couldn’t understand what was being asked of me. I needed a formula, and then, I could plug in the numbers. When it came time to learn algebra, though, I was in familiar territory. Don’t know something? Call it X or Y. I liked that. A missing number could be a letter — such an idea gave me comfort. Fractions, on the other hand, alarmed me. Until I realized that I dealt with them all the time.
I liked to cook. From the time I was nine or so, my mother allowed me to make supper on Thursday nights (that is the topic of another post!). I pored through cookbooks and chose my recipe, planned the grocery list, helped with the shopping. Depending on the recipe I’d chosen, I often had to either cut recipes in half or double them. Imagine my surprise when I realized what I struggled to do in math class was the very same thing I did naturally in the kitchen. Fractions suddenly made perfect sense to me when I stopped thinking of them as “math” and started thinking of them as measurements, as real, as a real-life problem.
I see this kind of disconnect every day. Kids think of school as separate from “real life,” the subjects they study as just that, subjects to be mastered– but nothing that has anything to do with “real life.” We read Emerson and Thoreau, but do we consider the impact of those long-ago words on our lives today, what Emerson might think of our iPhones and Twitter and Facebook and all the various ways we are tied to technology? “Society never advances,” he writes in “Self-Reliance.” “It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts.” Thoreau muses in “Civil Disobedience” that “when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule, […] not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?” He warns us that “[e]ven voting for the right is doing nothing for it,” that voting remains on the level of expediency only.
How true these words are, even today, how relevant hundreds of years later. If we read Thoreau and Emerson, if we consider their truth and yet remain unmoved in our own lives to change, what is the good of that? We remain like the younger version of me, thinking of fractions as something to be mastered in math class alone, never going beyond the confines of those cinder blocked walls.
This is not an argument for the relevancy of school — not in the way I think most students talk about relevancy. Too many students think of school as job training, and that’s not what I mean here. But I’m arguing for a way to view school differently, for ways to help students see that school is also real life, that there isn’t a disconnect. What I’m arguing for is engagement and passion — with ideas and the very challenges that we are faced with when we read, look at and make art, discuss literature and history. No standardized test can measure that.