Monday, December 26, 2011

Clam up, Arne

 Tomorrow I am going on an adventure!

Despite predictions of a 30 knot breeze with rain tossed in, I plan to grab my rake and wander out to a mudflat to grab a handful of clams for tomorrow's dinner, and when I'm done, I'll be glad I did.

I have yet to regret a single moment outdoors. I have yet to regret an adventure.

I won't be adding much to the nation's economy. The license only cost $10, which averages to less than a nickel a day. The money for the rake exchanged hands two generations ago, though I did spend about a buck on hardware to sturdy up the tines. My pail was headed for recycling anyway before I drilled a few holes in the bottom and called it a clam bucket.

Unless I manage to impale myself, have a heart attack, or drown, the only thing I'm contributing to the GDP tomorrow will be the 80 cents worth of gas I'll need to get there and back.

I dream of teaching my students how to clam. It's a local activity that will never be part of the national standards because it's a local activity. That may sound innocuous enough, but it gets to the heart of the sickness in education today, our love of the abstract.

We teach to what few love, the few with the money, the few with the power to dictate what matters.

McNuggets are abstractions, fresh-killed pheasant are not.
A dressed whole chicken falls in-between.
Our source of food has become abstract.
Electronic calculators are abstract, abacuses are not.
Slide rules fall in-between.
Our sense of quantities has become abstract.

Digital clocks are abstractions, sun dials are not.
Analog clocks fall in-between.
Our notion of time has become abstract.

There is no in-between on a late December mudflat.
There is no in-between watching a honeybee work her way among dandelions in your neighborhood.
There is no in-between when an elementary teacher takes her students to a local nursing home, to hear the particular and peculiar stories of their aged neighbors, stories that may have a universal theme, true, but stories that matter because of the particulars.

I want my children to grow up in a world they believe matters to them, the one in their neighborhood.I want my students to know the world, the one outside the door. I want my students to be happy, and to contribute to the American experiment, an experiment that starts at Town Hall.

Arne Duncan wants to use my children to better the economy, to improve our international economic competitiveness--he says so over and over again. He awards hundreds of millions of dollars to states who share his views.

Arne and I have a fundamental difference of opinion in what matters, why children matter, and what it means to live a good life.

Mr. Duncan's vision of the world is fundamentally flawed, as are his attempts to manipulate education away from serving the public good. I suppose he'd think the same about me if he had any idea I exist. Individual lives are an inconvenience to abstract views, and Arne Duncan does not tolerate inconveniences.

Still, if Arne happens to be in North Cape May tomorrow, he's welcome to stop by for the freshest batch of clams he'll ever taste, local ones scratched up and eaten before the next high tide rises. Nothing abstract, just good food and decent home brew.

I promise I won't talk shop, Arne--I'll let the clams do all the talking. Then you can go back to your more important business telling children what matters more than the grace of God right here under our noses. And I'll go back to teaching children about quahogs, democracy, and yes, the real American way.

Yep, I played the America and the God card--the America of local neighborhoods and the God of grace.
Last photo is of Dave Keeney's boots, a slide guitarist extraordinaire--but I have no idea who took the photo.

Dagnabit! Looking like an inch of rain in the newest forecast--which means runoff, which means closed beds. I use 1/2" as my guideline. *sigh*


David said...

It's probably worth noting that the symbols we use to denote numbers are just as much an abstraction as the slide rule, or even possibly the calculator. Many students do not really understand what 122 (or any other numeral) means. I agree that the abacus is much more concrete than the calculator, but I'd happily argue that the slide rule (having attempted to learn how to use one myself) is very nearly as abstract as a calculator.

Other than this small quibble, the rest of your post is spot on.

doyle said...

Dear David,

I wrestle with the number analogy--something concrete is missing with the kids I've had the last couple of years--but you're right, the slide rule itself is pretty abstract.

The difference may be that using a slide rule requires some feel for what numbers represent, and the scales that are visible do have some, um, heft. Wrong word again, I know.

(I have been accused of having a surreal feel for numbers, and I may have an odd synthesia going on.)

I suspect that slide rules would not work with a child who has no concept of 122, but I may give it a try anyway. I am tempted to run a class in base 7 some day without telling anyone what I'm doing, just to see if anyone even notices.

If nothing else, a slide rule shows that there is some concrete relationship between input, functions and the result, if that makes any sense. The functions ("operations"?)have become as magical as the numbers themselves, perhaps even more so.

Just started our break on Friday afternoon--tomorrow I hope to rake a few dozen clams, a number I can grasp.

I need to figure out why numbers themselves have become so abstract to our students--something has gone horribly wrong.

David said...

It's not so much that numbers are abstract to students, but our representations of those numbers (the numerals that make up 122) are abstract.

Base 10 is a much more complicated concept than we give credit to in our teaching of it.

How many people are fooled by the numbers thrown out on the news (example: 12 millions dollars over-budget, on a budget of 1.3 trillion)?

The scale on a slide rule is a logarithmic one, and so it breaks the intuitive linear sense of numbers that we are born with. Hence, I don't think it's necessarily the case that the scale helps us understand the operations any better. A slide rule is a calculator, it just uses slides instead of buttons, and the operations are just as mystifying to most people.

Similarly the operations on a calculator (or the standard algorithms we teach kids to use on pencil and paper) are just as mystifying. Regardless of which algorithm one uses, one should have an understanding first of what the expected outcome of the algorithm should be, which unfortunately, we spend almost no time teaching in our mathematics curriculums.

It has become more important to do operations quickly and accurately to demonstrate "computational fluency" and error checking, a MUCH more important skill, has fallen by the wayside. Being able to estimate or predict the outcome of an algorithm is not only a far more useful life-skill than accurately calculating it (when one wants accuracy, one should use the correct tool) and further, it requires actual understanding of the process.