Monthly Archives: March 2016

Global America

Today it was back to school after a week off. While some of my colleagues took fortunate students to India and China over the spring break, I stayed home with my family and read a number of excellent books by authors from around the world.

Each year, a group of teachers and I select a number of titles within a given theme for students to read during the months they are not in school.  Last year’s summer reading theme was Suspense and Problem Solving, and titles included All the Light We Cannot SeeIn Cold Blood and Murder on the Orient Express. We built an assembly around a mystery involving a beloved Chemistry teacher’s disappearance and put students into groups to collaborate together to solve the case.

This year’s theme of Global America feels both more challenging and also more important. The books we are considering, many of which I read over the vacation, show a very complex reality for immigrants to America.

Take Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, about a young man named Changez who leaves Pakistan to study at Princeton, finds success at a Wall Street firm and falls in love with a charismatic but ill young woman from New York. As the title suggests, he is a fundamentalist, if a reluctant one, by the end of his sojourn in America. His experience in the US somehow pushes him to extremism, something that he never anticipated or particularly wanted. It’s an unsettling book, particularly in light of current events.

Equally unsettling and engaging is Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, about a girl raised in Haiti by her grandmother and aunt who goes to live with her mother, a nurse who cares for the elderly, in New York. The reader doesn’t immediately know why Sophie’s mother left her for so many years in Haiti, but eventually we do learn and understand the terrible reason. The book addresses the very real challenges that women can face in both their home country and in ours, and shows an America that both restores and takes life.

After hearing for years of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, I finally sat down and read it cover to cover in a single day. It’s a beautiful book about Indian parents raising children in America, and it’s also a sad book about how difficult it can be to find one’s place in the world and in one’s own life. Gogol Ganguli, named in haste after his father’s favorite Russian author, never feels completely at ease in his own skin. He constantly wants to change his name and moves in and out of relationships seeking a sense of belonging, which he arguably never finds.

I also finally read Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a rollicking story about a Dominican boy with strong passions and unpopular habits living in New Jersey and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah, about a Nigerian woman living in the US who, like Changez and Gogol, never quite finds her place among Americans.

Like most good books, none of these works is entirely pleasant. It’s arguable that a litmus test for a good book is that it makes us uncomfortable, that it forces us to stop and think. If while reading, we find pity for others or for ourselves, or feel catalyzed to do something to make a difference for someone else, all the better. And if we can feel these things while on school vacation, as a result of going absolutely nowhere outside of a book, then I think it’s safe to say that literature still has a very important role in an increasingly complicated and complex world.

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When I Grow Up…

I recently went to the annual National Association of Independent Schools conference, where over 5000 administrators and teachers heard from speakers like Randi Zuckerberg, author of Dot.Complicated (and sister of Mark), and Jaime Casap , Google’s “education evangelist.”

Unsurprisingly, they emphasized the amazing potential of technology to help us do everything we do, including school, better. But amid all of the excitement about 21st century disruption and transformation, Casap captured my attention with a surprisingly simple statement.

He said that because the nature of work, communication, and community is changing so rapidly, we really don’t know what kinds of jobs or lives we are preparing our students for right now.

He said, rather than ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, ask them what problem(s) do they want to solve? 

Problem solving takes a lot of skill — for example, patience, creativity, an ability to conduct research and evaluate information, an ability communicate and collaborate. In many ways, these are the same competencies we needed twenty years ago to succeed in professions that we believed would exist. It’s just that today, as Casap suggests in his statement, we are fully aware that we are honing them for experiences that many of us can’t even imagine.

How do you prepare for the unknown? How do you train for a task that hasn’t yet been conceived? While these questions are challenging to answer, if schools work intentionally on behalf of and with students now, students will be ready for whatever comes their way.

Literacy & Numeracy

Mathemagician_bookAs a student, I was not the biggest fan of math. After learning about probability from playing epic rounds of Backgammon in 7th grade pre-algebra, I considered myself a pretty decent math student. But once I passed geometry and algebra and entered calculus, I was in a pretty constant state of treading water amid the infinite variations on the theme of parabola and the inscrutable formulas that indicated which way those curves opened up, and in which quadrant.

When I got to college and there was no math requirement, I piled my humanities courses high and never looked back. Immersed in reading narratives and writing analysis, I was confident I wouldn’t need to worry about what is now called numeracy. And I really didn’t — until I had to take the GRE in order to get into graduate school. Then, I deeply regretted never really mastering math. The GRE was, for me, a humbling experience of not being able to garner a halfway decent quantitative score despite the fact that the math concepts on the test are actually somewhat elementary.

I was thinking about my experience with math as I read Andrew Hacker’s “The Wrong Way to Teach Math” in a recent edition of The New York Times. It was such a relief to read his argument in favor of teaching math as just another kind of literacy. Hacker writes, “What’s needed is a different kind of proficiency, one that is hardly taught at all. The Mathematical Association of America calls it ‘quantitative literacy.’ I prefer the O.E.C.D.’s ‘numeracy,’ suggesting an affinity with reading and writing.”

For years, I felt that I had failed to learn math as a result of a deficiency in my capacity to understand the nature of numbers and what they represent. However after reading Hacker’s article, I now think that the deficiency may have been in how I, a reader and a lover of language, was taught to think about math. I am delighted with the idea that one can become proficient in math in part through proficiency in reading. I also agree with Hacker that we need to become proficient in math, and soon, because “ours has become a quantitative century, and we must master its language. Decimals and ratios are now as crucial as nouns and verbs.”

I remember the wisdom of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, a wonderful book published in 1961 in which a boy named Milo comes to consciousness as a student when he journeys through the Kingdom of Wisdom. There, a war is on between two brothers, King Azaz and the Mathemagician, over which is more important —  letters, the domain of Azaz, or numbers, the domain of his brother.

Rhyme and Reason, their adopted sisters, insist that letters and numbers are equally important, to which the brothers grudgingly agree by the story’s end. Little did they know that the two seemingly distinct domains would be so closely tied just over 50 years later.