09 January 2010

Little Steps: History Anywhere, Math Anywhere

Crisis happens quickly. Recovery takes much longer. We often fall in a split second. We climb back up in tiny steps which seem to take forever.

So today, Saturday, three weeks after my "annual" knee destroying fall, I finally got out to the living room, and the couch, on a sunny day. I could see the sky in three directions. I could hear and speak to that wondrous woman in my life as she not only took care of the house but baked me amazing cookies from her grandmother's recipe. I could watch football (the world kind) on the big screen. "Little steps" @aleaness and @karenjan said on Twitter, but world changing for me. That's something, I thought, that we, in education today, often forget. The tiny steps that don't get us "to grade level," or "to proficient," don't get counted very often, but they can be world changing nonetheless. And well deserving of celebration.

Anyway, the last football game ended and I started watching Tony Perkins in Fear Strikes Out. It's an old film based in the story of baseball player Jimmy Piersall, one of American sports all-time wackos.

Fear Strikes Out means a lot to me. As a kid a condensed version of this story of family dysfunction and childhood fears run amok was part of the very first non-picture book I tried to read Sport Sport Sport(Jackie Robinson was also in there), and the story of how fear passes between generations struck home.

Many years later I met Jimmy Piersall in the press box of the West Michigan Whitecaps. He was a cool, if still bizarre, character. But that's not my story here...

So I'm watching the movie and Piersall as a young high schooler is signed by the Boston Red Sox and sent from his home in Waterbury, Connecticut to the farm team in Scranton, Pennsylvania. We see him leave the Waterbury station on the New Haven Railroad. I wondered, "what was that trip like in the early 1950s?" Piersall, I imagined, would have taken the New Haven down to Grand Central Station (why is it always really "Grand Central Terminal"?). Then he would have had to get cross town to Pennsylvania Station. Then, I'm presuming, the Pennsylvania Railroad would have carried him to Scranton. Then I thought, that's a nearly unimaginable trip for most American kids today. How much might they learn about history if they could reconstruct it, if they could envision it - the sights, the grand stations, the dining cars, the sense of regional differences which existed back then (Howard Johnson's in common, but anything else?).

Then I thought of all the real world math that might come in. How long would his trip have taken? What would it have cost? What does that cost translate to today? How long would it take today?

And while you are spinning those questions out, of course you are teaching research skills as well. Could we find old timetables? Can we figure out how to track inflation? Can we find old pictures? Can we use Google Maps to track all this?

In other words, just one moment in one piece of literature gives us an interdisciplinary "in" to so many things, things which may touch so many different kinds of kids, in so many ways. But when we carve out specific "lessons" - if we were, for example, committed to teaching Fear Strikes Out as an autobiography about mental illness - we'd rush right past those moments because they're not "really part of what we're doing," and all those other openings for all those other students might disappear.

And when those openings disappear, so do the chances for all those "little steps." But without those "little steps" so many of us remain stuck, and so many of us give up.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Deven Black said...

It is often difficult to look at information holistically; to see the interconnections of all information and all people.

In school we are taught that information comes in discrete, easily isolated blocks called 'subjects. This is strongly reinforced in middle and high schools where we have different teachers for each subject.

Our entire pre-k to PhD educational system is designed to isolate and progressively restrict one's view. To know anything deeply one must focus more exclusively, narrowly, attention concentrated into a thin spotlight.

To read a story, view a film, regard a painting or sculpture, or attend a performance and see the multitude of teaching and learning opportunities that arise calls for a broader, perhaps more diffused, searchlight that illuminates the larger ecology of knowledge.

but in doing so we often lose sight of how that information, that topic, is part of a much larger ecology of learning.