Third Grade Homework

Last night, my nine year old was struggling with long division again. I knew he was tired, so I stayed close in case he got frustrated. Plus, there was the spelling test to study for, and although he was getting “bruise” consistently, he kept messing up “cruise”. And we weren’t getting anywhere with “reduce”.

The expected “UGH!” came.

He was able to translate the word problem into an equation, but couldn’t remember the process he needed to go through to find the answer.

He slid the paper over to me, and I could tell he was on the verge of exploding with rage. But as I started to talk him through the steps, he took a long, deep breath, then placed his hand on my arm ever so gently.

“Mom, I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” his voice was quiet and his big brown eyes filled with pity. “I know you’re trying to help, but you’re making it harder, and it’s driving me crazy.”

So, I slid the paper back and watched with a big smile on my face while he finished his math.

The Last Hours Before the Deadline

One night in high school, my Dad stayed up all night with me while I drafted a research paper for school. I do not remember which paper it was or why I was so late getting to it. I wrote in my barely legible longhand, passed him a finished page, and then he typed it for me on his IBM Selectric typewriter. We worked in the basement to make sure the typing didn’t wake up my mom or sisters. I am sure I cried at least once.

It was my first and only all-nighter. I felt so sick the next day that I pledged never to put off big projects again.

And today, I am paying the universe back for my father’s good deed and late night support about thirty years ago.

With my seventh grader sitting at the computer moaning about not having enough sources or ideas for how to expand 30 notecards to the required 40 – and making no progress for at least an hour – I couldn’t help myself. We spread out his 30 somewhat repetitive notecards on my bed and put them in order, looking for holes in the story.

Then, I asked questions.

“You always make things so much harder than they need to be!” he responded. Still, he Googled the answers, and turned them into more notecards. I reminded him of other sources he could use.

“You are stressing me out!”

Another notecard.

I told him to find a good quote in the book he is reading. Another card until he had 50. He renumbered them, still spread across the bed, then bound out the door after his brothers, already enjoying their snow day.

It banged shut on my “but you still have to do the outline!”

Just giving what I owe the universe, and hoping it’s done before midnight.

Most Likely to Succeed

Yesterday, I was fortunate to attend a screening of Most Likely to Succeed, hosted by the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI). The film is a thought-provoking documentary about our education system with a look at project-based, student-driven learning at a charter school in San Diego.

After the film, our CEI hosts asked the audience to think about where we stand on a one-to-ten scale for keeping the current teaching model or scaling the High Tech High model across the U.S. public school system.

As a parent, the film hit me emotionally, and my answer is conflicted. But as a human being, I wanted to transport myself to High Tech High and relive ninth grade.

I have a seventh grader. Next fall, we will be looking at high schools, helping him decide where he would be happiest, and then applying to a mix of private, public and parochial. In the back of my mind, I favor schools most like the one I went to. I know that there he will read plenty of Shakespeare, survive Calculus and have a strong grasp of History. All the teachers will know him by name. I will get to know most families.

But will that school – the school of my childhood – inspire him to engage wholeheartedly in learning?

What I do know is that I was happiest at school when I was connecting the dots between classes, working on projects, or deep in debate with my classmates. I remember what I learned in 8th grade Social Studies because I can still see the poster my friends and I created about the 1960s hanging on the classroom wall. I remember getting excited about our ideas, working together, and worrying that our teacher would be mad that we burned a flag. I will never forget our independent Senior Project, when six of us wrote and performed a musical. I still have the script in a ratty green folder.

At High Tech High, the ninth graders are tasked with creating a group engineering project that illustrates their views on why civilizations rise and fall. They built a floor-to-ceiling masterpiece on exhibit for the entire community after working in small groups for months. Imagine what they will remember 30 years from now.

What impressed me was that High Tech High is teaching a love for learning, igniting curiosity and creativity, and empowering students to collaborate and lead. I am not sure that the more traditional approach achieves that for most kids, but I still see it as necessary because it did for me.

On a philosophical level, Most Likely to Succeed asks us if the role of the classroom is to teach our children equations, trivia, maps and stories? Or is it to inspire them to think and give them the tools to pursue the life-long education that makes them want to keep on learning? Can you do that without a strong baseline of knowledge? Does the fact that answers to almost anything are on the Internet change what we have to hold in our brains? Can you take any kid, drop them into High Tech High and watch them take off?

As a former student successfully educated under the old model with dips into project-based and experiential learning, I am tied to that tradition. It is my comfort zone. It is what I expected to pass on to my children. But then, if I could go back to high school, I would go to High Tech High in a heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

 

How History Enters the Mind of a 13 Year Old Boy

This morning’s news celebrated the release of ten U.S. sailors held captive by Iran. So when my seventh grade son asked me if I remembered the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, when approximately 60 US citizens were held captive for 444 days, I was impressed.

He seems to teach himself things in a stream of consciousness approach to learning, his path twisting and turning randomly as bits of information catch his fancy. It’s a cool way to learn, even if it distracts from his homework.

“I do remember.”

“Well, do you remember that they broadcast the Super Bowl so the hostages got to watch it? I wonder how they did that.”

Of course! Football!

He actually had not yet read the news about the U.S. sailors. The question on this day was completely coincidental. As a football trivia junkie, his reading about the NFL connects him to a broader history. A few days ago, he wanted to know if Richard Nixon was a good President. I talked through his foreign policy skills, China and Watergate. The important fact, it turns out, was that he “was not a good play caller.”

In school, we often use the art or literature of an era as a way to help us understand the past. He uses sports. Reading about past Super Bowls, looking at old photos of athletes and teams and stadiums, and a close following of the NFL timeline all lead to non-football discoveries. He digs into what that event was, or if people liked that President, or why there were hostages, how long they were there, and what people like me remember.

And the next time the Super Bowl comes up with an unsuspecting friend, he will ask, “Did you know that during the Iran Hostage Crisis, they broadcast the Super Bowl so the hostages could watch? How cool is that?!”