What makes the pages turn?

To anyone who’s ever escaped into a book, it shouldn’t be surprising. Give kids the choice, and they’ll escape, too–into whatever worlds hold most appeal.

And if that means vampires or romance, sports or spies, there’s a book to satisfy that hunger piled in some brightly colored bin here in this NYC school where virtually every student is now an avid, and critical, reader.

The four in this video didn’t come into middle school as good readers. That’s pretty typical of the 550 very diverse students in grades 6 through 12 at East Side Community School, a completely unscreened public school in lower Manhattan.

But just listen to what these kids say about how their school changed all that. Mark Federman, its principal, decided early on that this school would be all about reading. And starting with the Principal’s Book Club (it’s packed with kids), every single adult in the school has found ways to make that happen.

Now students here are reading all the time–it’s just not cool if you don’t. And as they grow into young adults, they are poring over authors from Art Spiegelman and Louise Erdrich to James Baldwin and August Wilson.

It’s really too bad you can only hear a few minutes of what they say here, because they would talk about books into the night with you. But leave a comment after you listen . . . I promise, they’ll read what you say!

Just life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video “Case Study in Practice” talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

We learned a lot by eavesdropping on these middle schoolers, as they

• Look for math in real life
• Frame their experiences as word problems
• Try out ways to solve those problems, and
• Explain and share their thinking.

What does this suggest for what your math students are practicing? We’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you’ll share your thoughts and experiences with us in a reply.

Reach past knowing to imagining

“The technique is your base, and you build on that base and kind of grow up through it into creativity,” said Rosalie. At 16, she had already experienced that when she was performing in musical theater with the school drama club. That’s in fact how experts work–extending their competence by reaching beyond to something not previously imagined. So how can we move that into academics, organizing units and semesters so that students move from a base of fundamental techniques to reach the level of creativity?

Basic skills, in a new light

Anyone who cares about things done well—and what kind of practice goes into that—should take a look at Mike Rose’s call for “a sea-change in the way we think about instruction in basic skills” to under-prepared young adults.

His inspiring commentary, just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and on his blog, pushes back against the prevailing belief that remediation in math, reading, and writing academic is low-status teaching to low-status students. And he challenges the assumption that students must plow through the smallest units of learning before they work up to challenging thinking.

Rose knows better. A brilliant writer himself, he has also long taught remedial college writing. His many books (such as Possible Lives) reveal how alive he is to the intelligence evidenced in the actions and insights of people of every background, whether or not it comes from formal schooling.

Here he calls for a prestigious national institution—“The Smithsonian of Basic Skills”—that would devote itself to the theory and practice of how we develop and learn these critical skills. He asks:

If a young adult is having trouble with fractions, for example, how did his misunderstandings and flawed procedures develop? What formal or informal mathematical knowledge does he have that can be tapped? How does one access that cognitive history and lead the student to analyze and remedy it? How, then, does one proceed to teach in a way appropriate to an adult with that history?

I love these questions, and of course they also apply to teaching students at earlier ages. They are, in fact, fundamental to the purpose of our Practice Project at WKCD.

We start with conversations that draw forth what students already know and care about. Then we lead the student to analyze and remedy that cognitive history. With practice—at the important things, in the right way—students get better and better at the fundamental concepts that transcend academic disciplines and fields of work.

So what are the important things, and what’s the right way to practice them? For my part, I want to spend time in “The Smithsonian of Basic Skills” finding out! Meanwhile, how do you teach basic skills to your students, while keeping them deeply involved in interesting work? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best replies we receive.